Monday, January 30, 2012

living in the mountains of western north carolina

Over the last fourteen years I lived in two metropolitan cities, serving two large (2000+ member) churches as senior pastor. Then I was asked by my Bishop to serve as a District Superintendent and assigned to a geographical area that includes the seven westernmost counties of our state. There are sixty-nine congregations in our district, and these range in size from very small family chapels to large regional churches.

My district also includes the Wesley Foundation at Western Carolina University, The Hinton Rural Life Center in Hayesville, the Lake Junaluska Assembly, the River of Life Ministry on the Nantahala, a house church (the Filling Station) in Hayesville, a campus of the Children's Home in Franklin, two (UMAR) homes for the developmentally disabled in Hayesville, a Wilderness Trail Ministry headquartered in Waynesville, a Circles of Poverty ministry in Canton, and an emerging missional church network in partnership with the Asheville District.

Our area includes the Cherokee Reservation, many miles of the Appalachian Trail and the Blue Ridge Parkway, a substantial portion of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the Nantahala Outdoor Center. It is dotted by small towns that are stable, welcoming and inhabited by year-round residents and seasonal pilgrims.

Our family had purchased a small cabin here about ten years ago, and we would visit on long weekends and in the summer. So we knew a little bit about the area, but it is different when you live here. I loved Charlotte and Winston-Salem, but the following are some observations about our new home: the western mountains of North Carolina.

1. Many creative and interesting people rearrange their lives to live in the mountains. Last Sunday I worshiped in a small church, and during the passing of the peace met a man and his father. The older gentleman was a graduate of Harvard and his son and his wife had an adopted daughter from China. I have met retired professors, politicians, ministers and athletes; I have also come across interesting couples in middle adulthood seeking to make a life here, and I have met young adults who are creative, environmentally conscious and seeking a spiritual life of one sort or another.

2. Mountain people as a rule are not anti-government. Appalachia (in which all of my district is located) was ravaged by northeast industrialists, who raided the resources (such as timber and coal) and departed. The government intervened afterward in a variety of ways, and largely through the New Deal, to seek to lift the economic status of the mountain people who were left behind. So the anti-government rhetoric of recent times largely falls on deaf ears among the mountain people (this is not true of transplants, many of who are actually antagonistic toward government programs). The people of these seven counties were kept alive by projects like the parkway, the interstate, the national park, the university, the public schools and the hospitals, all initiated by visionary political leaders.

3. A few personal preferences: there is an excellent public radio station, WNCW, that for the most part airs indigeneous music----blues, bluegrass, folk, rock, jazz. For example, WNCW airs Grateful Dead music for several hours every Wednesday. There are several fine coffee shops, including Mountain Perks in Bryson City, Panacea in Waynesville, and Coffee and Clay in Robbinsville. There are a few remarkable restaurants, among them Cafe REL in Franklin and Frog Leap Public House in Waynesville, and LuLu's in Sylva; the Smoky Mountains News is a really fine (and free) weekly newspaper; and City Lights in Sylva is a great independent bookstore. And the shopping in downtown Waynesville, especially Mast General Store and the Waynesville Fly Shop (fly fishing) is nice.

4. The pace is slower. Mountain people take the time to ask questions, to notice that you are a newcomer, to strike up a conversation. They also appreciate it when you take an interest in them.

5. I live within a half an hour from Asheville. In Charlotte I often drove thirty minutes to a destination...from south Charlotte to uptown, for example or to the Central Avenue area or NoDa where some of the more interesting restaurants could be found. It is an easy drive to West Asheville, which includes a number of hangouts. As an aside, I appreciated the convenience of the Charlotte Airport, but I also love the Asheville Airport---it is small, friendly, and has a twenty minute flight to either Charlotte or Atlanta.

6. I live at Lake Junaluska, and my favorite spot is the lake itself. There is a 2.5 mile loop around the lake, and I generally walk around it every day that I am home. Since I have a short commute (I live within five minutes of my office), I find that the walk replaces the drive time. What else do I love about Junaluska? My short list includes the SoulFeast (in the summer), the Peace Conference (in the fall) and the Caring for Creation Conference (in the spring). I am also constantly amazed by the people who flow through this place: missionaries, bishops, seminary presidents, musicians, authors, preachers. It is also significant for me that my wife and I were ordained in Stuart Auditorium, and our older daughter was baptized in Memorial Chapel

7. The poverty is real. Rural poverty is often more hidden than urban poverty, because it exists at a greater distance from media centers. But the poverty in our area is real and palpable. At the same time, I am amazed by the ways our churches are responding to basic needs: hunger, education, health. The people are heroic in their perseverance and the response of congregations is inspiring, and yet nothing they see as extraordinary. It is a way of life.

8. The multicultural challenge in the mountains is less about race and more about geographical origins; in particular, the relations between the natives and the transplants. Some churches (and pastors) navigate these relationships very well, and others do not. In time many of the transplants do become natives; and yet it is also true that some multigenerational families can be closed to outsiders, while some newcomers are ignorant of cultural patterns and practices. In the best of times and in the healthiest of places, it comes together, to the benefit of all.

9. Cool mornings and evenings, watching a fire, and warm days, when the sun comes out.

10. An opportunity to learn new habits or to renew old ones. I have been fly-fishing once in the past year; this is an embarrassing confession, since I live in one of the prime locations for this in our nation. I have also taken a couple of challenging hikes, one in Deep Creek and one to the peak of Standing Indian (5499 feet). I would love to combine some ongoing rhythm of fly fishing and hiking; this might help if I got engaged with observance of Sabbath. That is on my list for this new year.

So it is about learning to appreciate where you are, developing new skills and living into the responsibilities of a new job, meeting new people and fitting into their histories. It is a beautiful part of the world, and a great place to live and be in ministry.

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Monday, January 23, 2012

the church i am seeking

1. Grounded in Scripture. The church I am seeking reads scripture every day, and expects to hear a fresh word from God, one that corrects and comforts, one that guides and heals.

2. An Evangelical Heart. The church I am seeking understands the importance of transformation of life, a change that happens at the cross, where sins are forgiven and new life begins.

3. Non-Judgmental. The church I am seeking restrains itself from judging the flaws and imperfections of others, knowing that only God is in a position to condemn. We have our own problems to work on anyway.

4. More communal than individual. The church I am seeking remembers that the Old Testament is the story of a people, not an individual, and the New Testament is written to churches. Salvation is incorporation into the body.

5. A passion for justice. The church I am seeking remembers that God hears the cries of the oppressed, and that God is always on the side of the poor, the marginalized and the forgotten. God's people pursue this passion in a way that crosses politically partisan lines.

6. A movement into the world. The church I am seeking exists not for itself, but for the mission of God in the world. We discover our lives as we lose them, and we have the promise that Jesus will be with us as we get outside the walls of his church.

7. The glory and beauty of the Lord. The church I am seeking often finds itself lost in wonder, love and praise, standing amazed in the presence of an awesome God who is both infinitely powerful and gloriously near in the present moment.

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Monday, January 16, 2012

christian formation and discipleship for methodist pastors

I had the honor of teaching earlier this month in an intensive (thirty hours, in twenty 90 minute sessions) course at the Russia United Methodist Seminary in Moscow. The following is the syllabus:

1. A Theology of Grace
Prevenient, Justifying, Sanctifying
Romans 5, Matthew 5
Albert Outler, Theology and Evangelism in the Wesleyan Spirit

2. The Means of Grace: Theology as a Way of Life
Ken Carter, A Way of Life in The World

3. Means of Grace: Searching The Scriptures
Walter Brueggeman, The Creative Word
John Wesley, "The Scripture Way of Salvation"
Luke 8 (parable of the soils)

4. Means of Grace: Generosity With The Poor
Luke 16 (rich man and Lazarus); Matthew 25 (parables of the talents and the great judgment)
John Wesley, "The Use of Money"
Introduction to Microcredit

5. The Works of Piety and The Works of Mercy
Action and Contemplation, Being and Doing
Luke 10 (Good Samaritan, Martha and Mary)

6. Means of Grace: Testimony
The Conversion of Paul (Acts 9) and Timothy (2 Timothy 1)
Wesley's Aldersgate Experience and its Interpretations
The practice of testimony in small group conversations

7. The Report of the Study of Ministry Commission to General Conference 2012

8. Means of Grace: Singing
The Hymns of Charles Wesley
Singing in the Context of Worship
The Liturgical Year

9. Means of Grace: Holy Communion
Sacrament, Hospitality, Sacrifice
Charles Wesley, "Come, Sinners to the Gospel Feast"
John Wesley, "The Duty of Constant Communion"
Lectio Divina: Matthew 14; Mark 14; Luke 24 (communion texts)

10. Means of Grace: Small Groups
The Class Meetings; Covenant Discipleship, Emmaus Reunion Groups, Disciple Bible Study
Acts 2. 42ff. ("the life together", The Message)
An Introduction to Small Group Theory: Inclusion, Shared Experience, Trust, Task

11. Life Together In The Christian Tradition: Bonhoeffer's Witness
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

12. The General Rules in the Methodist Tradition
Rueben Job, Three Simple Rules

13. Practical Models of Discipleship
Dave Ferguson, A Movement Begins With You (coaching)
Robert Schnase, Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations (vitality)
Elaine Heath and Scott Kisker, Longing For Spring (missional communities)

14. The Call to Action Report to the General Conference 2012

15. Bible Study: John 14 and 15 (Lectio Divina)
Growth, Connection, Bearing Fruit

16. The Sermon as an Instrument in Making Disciples
Good News, Invitation, Clarity, Authenticity

17. Mission, Evangelism and Justice
Mortimer Arias, Announcing The Reign of God

18. Discipleship in the Wilderness
Sufficiency, Sabbath, Trust
Exodus 16; Matthew 6; 2 Corinthians 12

19. Identification of Spiritual Gifts
Ken Carter, The Gifted Pastor

20. Planning For Christian Discipleship (final exam)
Description of Act of Ministry
Identification of Human Need
Reflection on Spiritual Gifts
Articulation of the "Why" question (scripture and tradition)
Needed Resources
Projected Outcomes

Monday, January 09, 2012

the adaptive challenge and the call to action: a simple suggestion

In reflecting on the Call to Action and its impending journey through the next General Conference of the United Methodist Church, I have wrestled with its use of the "adaptive challenge" language of Ronald Heifetz. I resonate with much of the CTA's documents, thus far, but I find the weakness to be here: not in the use of the language of adaptive challenge, but in the struggle to clarify the adaptive challenge itself. As I have written, the Interim Report is stronger in its offering of technical solutions (and largely ones that I also support) than adaptive ones.

So, a simple suggestion: what if the adaptive challenge, inspired by the Call to Action, is that nothing happens at the district, annual conference or general church level that is not in partnership with some local church or small network of local churches? There are evidences of strong partnerships already (note the Ginghamsburg Church's mission work in the Sudan with UMCOR), but the idea would be that this becomes normative, and a key measure in how funds are allocated (and perhaps matched).

This, it strikes me, is "giving the work back to the people". The General Conference speaks for the whole church. The Bishops guard the faith of the whole church and seek her unity. All other work would be planned and executed with local churches as full partners in the equations. This would potentially create the following benefits: local churches would become more connectional; in an age of scarce resources, crucial and life-giving work would be sustained; the distances between boards and agencies and local churches would be lessened; and smaller boards and agencies could draw upon the gifts and talents of the laity who remain in their local contexts.

I am aware that on one level this is not a novel idea; this is the way we function now, at our best. I am suggesting that the flow of resources should be to the mission of God that happens as local churches use their own resources and those within the connection. Indeed the mission of God, in its United Methodist expression, calls for a strong and vital partnership between local churches, where disciples are formed, and institutions whose history and expertise are essential.

This simple suggestion will call for congregations to be more connectional (and thus healthier), and for boards and agencies (in whatever form they exist) to be more local. This will require us to change our behaviors and it will lead us to collaborate in sharing our strengths. All work done beyond the local church will be for the sake of the local church, but on the way to a larger purpose: the mission of God and the transformation of the world.

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Tuesday, January 03, 2012

an epiphany hymn

You draw us toward your light, O God;
we rise and journey on the way
to meet our King, to offer gifts,
let by the star into the Day.
God is with us, God is with us,
promise of Emmanuel.

You call us into waters deep,
the winds of risk around us move,
the pain of radical rebirth,
the healing presence of the Dove.
God is with us, God is with us,
promise of Emmanuel.

We celebrate the feast, O Lord,
the old is transformed into new,
with water, wine and spoken word
the promise is fulfilled in You.
God is with us, God is with us,
promise of Emmanuel.