Tuesday, January 31, 2006

heartbreaking news

Today about 3:30pm I got back from a two-day retreat/conference for United Methodist pastors in Collinsville, Illinois. It was really good. I got to see a lot of pastor friends and the speaker, Leonard Sweet, was really good. During the day Monday, I was keeping my eyes open for a pastor friend of mine who was my district superintendent when I was first starting the process of becoming a pastor. I usually see him and get coffee with him when we have these United Methodist get togethers. Anyway, didn't see him Monday.

This morning, someone else told me that my friend had announced that he would be retiring this year. This doesn't sound strange until you know that he's only 57-years-old and the minimum retirement age is 65 in order to retire with full benefits (70 is the age of mandatory retirement). I was shocked and in a state of unbelief. I tracked down his associate pastor a little later and asked if it was true. It was.

This friend is a third generation Methodist pastor, who is one of the most positive, pro-United Methodist, talented, loving, creative, energetic pastors I know. And he is also a dear, dear friend of mine, a role model and hero, and a mentor in the faith and the ministry. I know he has had a rough few years in ministry of late, but my heart is broken that he is leaving the ministry in his prime and 13 years before he would have to.

I spent a couple of days in a small group discipleship session with United Methodist megachurch pastor, Mark Slaughter (www.ginghamsburg.org). He was telling our group of 15 pastors that the average retirement age of United Methodist pastors is 63, while the average retirement age of independent church pastors is 73. He was making a point that UM pastors are ready to be done long before they have to. Ugghh! He even said that it's illegal to set require people to retire at age 70 but that no UM pastor has ever contested it.

I'm happy for my pastor friend that he's financially able to retire while he's still young and can enjoy it. But my heart is breaking that he felt the need to "get out" and that we're losing him as a partner in ministry.

Just to get a sense of perspective though I do need to remember that I just had dinner with another pastor mentor friend of mine who is 50 who happily says that he'll never retire.

Anyway, systems can be brutal.

P.S. I recognize the painful irony of this blog entry as a follow-up to the last one. You can get a good taste of my ambivalence (I think this is the proper use of the word 'ambivalence.' I've been trying to figure out the proper usage of that word for a few years and I'm excited about the chance to throw it in!).

Sunday, January 29, 2006

your pastor is moving!

One of the most common complaints I hear about the United Methodist denomination is that the pastors get moved around. Every bureacratic region (conference) is headed by a bishop, who works with a cabinet made of superintendents who head smaller portions of the bureacratic region which are known as districts. The bishop and the cabinet continually assess the needs of all the churches in the conference (there's approximately 944 in the my conference), and the gifts and abilities of all the pastors who are available (there's 600 and some in my conference), and they prayerfully mix and match the pastors with the churches. Then they appoint pastors to churches to live and to equip the members of the church for ministry. This approach to church government is known as the itinerant system.

For various reasons, many people despise the itinerant system. It seems unfair that someone else decides for them who their pastor will be and how long the pastor will stay. The reasons people don't like it are heartfelt and honest reasons that I sympathize with and experience myself at times. While I often hear this voiced as the main complaint people have with the United Methodist denomination, I seldom hear anyone clearly articulate the benefits of this system. I hope to present some of those for your consideration at this time.

Benefits of the itinerant system.
1) It keeps people from becoming overly attached to charismatic personalities. We live in a culture that is obsessed with icons or celebrities. We live vicariously through these people. These are movie stars, rock stars, American Idol competitors, sports stars, etc. The Christian church has always struggled with this problem as well (read I Corinthians 1-4). There are many of these icons in Christianity today. A couple examples are Joel Osteen and Rick Warren (by the way, both of these guys seem to be wonderful Christian people). Idol worship is bad, bad, bad. We don't like it when our idols are taken away from us, but they need to be. The itinerant system helps do this.
2) It gives the opportunity for the members of the church to grow in their own leadership within the church. In the earliest forms of the Methodist Church which existed in America, a preacher would travel around from town to town, preach a sermon or two and then go to the next town. This meant that if any church was going to exist the members had to take responsibility and use their gifts and abilities to make it go. And guess what? They had the gifts for it to work beautifully. All Christians have gifts and abilities that God wants them to use, and the itinerant system forces (harsh word) them to use them if the church is going to make a go of it.
3) Its a more biblical model than the independent church model. Independent churches which vote on their pastor and interview and hire pastors that impress them represent the American ideal of democracy, but they don't represent the biblical model. What is democracy though? Its rule by the people for the people. The people decide what they want and who they want? Isn't that what got Israel in trouble in the Old Testament? They didn't want God to be their King. They wanted a king like the kings that all the other nations had. The Kingdom of God is a way of life that acknowledges "What I wanted did not work." Look at what we see in the New Testament church. In Titus 1:5, Paul writes to Titus, "I left you behind in Crete for this reason, so that you could set in order what remained to me done, and should appoint elders in every town." It looks like Paul is deciding who will be the "superintendent" in Crete, and that the superindendent (Titus) will decide who the pastors will be.

I have more to share on this, but I don't want this to get too long. I'll do it at a later time. Note also that I'm very back and forth on this issue. But when I get discouraged by the lack of control United Methodist churches seem to have over who their pastor will be, God often reminds me that their are many redeeming qualities of the denomination that I have been called to.

(I'm not moving by the way, that's just the title of this post.)

Saturday, January 28, 2006

its not about the pancakes!

This morning my 2-year-old son and I made "delicious whole wheat pancakes" for breakfast. This is something we do about once every week or two. We started doing it about 9 months ago, as a way for us to have fun and do something together. I started noticing though that when he made pancakes with me, sometimes they turned out funny. He'd spill ingredients, put too many of one ingredient in, or something else. Sometimes I find myself getting really anxious that he's going to mess up the pancakes.

This morning when we were making our pancakes, I started to get anxious because he was getting pretty wild with that plastic knife he was stirring the flour with, and it was spilling a little bit. Then it hit me. How stupid for me to get anxious with my son about how some stupid pancakes turn out. The whole reason we're doing this is to build awesome memories and a fun, encouraging life-long relationship - the importance is not the quality of any given batch of pancakes, its the relationship I'm building with my son.

It hit me how this is the exact same way it is in our relationship with God. The point is not a perfect sermon, a perfect achievement at work, a perfect title, a certain degree of recognition. The point is the way we live and walk with God, bringing him into everything we do. The measuring stick of a successful day then becomes not "What did I accomplish today?" but "Whatever I accomplished today, did I do it with God and did I do it God's way."

Friday, January 27, 2006

RE: a friend in pain

My friend in pain, Tommy P., is in the process of trying to make a fresh start in his struggles with faith, life, and substance abuse. He dropped off his contact info today before he moved out of town. He asked me to pass it on if anyone wanted to get ahold of him. I know encouragement is always appreciated. Email me if you would like his contact info.

Thanks for your compassion.

what will happen to denominations then?

My prophecy (in a very loose sense of the word) is that the Roman Catholic Church will always remain in some form. Independent churches and house churches will always remain. But the denominations will all eventually merge. Just like the Methodist Episcopal Church merged with the Evangelical United Brethren Church in 1969. Who was the Evangelical United Brethren Church? I don't have a clear grasp on who they were I'm sorry to say. So, the biggest, denomination will merge or buy out the smaller denominations, and it will have a name such as the United Methodist Presbyterian Lutheran Anglican Church, or UMPLAC for short, and will eventually fade out itself.

This shouldn't be discouraging, because my premise is that United Methodists are not even Methodists in the original sense of the word. We are post-methodists. Our first allegiance and loyalty should always be to the ever-expanding Kingdom of God, not the ever-declining systems of this world. It was John the Baptizer who said "He must increase and I must decrease." Will I leave the UMC? Not likely! They're no place to go that provides a perfect answer, other than the Kingdom of God itself. Remember who you are - a disciple of Christ who happens to be temporarily serving God in a particular community of faith that emerged during some movement in the present or the past. The only movement that will not disappear is the Kingdom of God.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

the future of denominations and everything else

In the book I just finished, Brian McLaren lifted up something I never thought about. He was saying something to the effect of, "What if the world doesn't end in the next few years or hundred years like the Left Behind folks suggest? What if it goes on for 10,000 or 100,000 more years? In that case, we will be thought of as the early church."

I never considered that the world might last that long, though it definitely could. Every generation of Christians has always thought itself to be the last one. I think that the New Testament even wants us to live as if we were.

Then I was thinking about the future of denominations, specifically my own, the United Methodist Church. Every year in our conference (bureaucratic region) alone, we lose between 2,000 and 4,000 people. Every major denomination is dying slowly. We're not alone. So, what are the chances we'd be around if the world is still around in 22,206 A.D. Not very high! I doubt we'll be around in 3006, if the world lasts that long. I've often gotten discouraged/depressed by the fact that I'm ministering in a slowly dying denomination.

If our denomination does die eventually, I really hope this prayer that was very important to John Wesley (founder of the early Methodist movement) survives. It gives me great peace when I meditate on it and pray it.

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
Thou are mine, and I am thine. So be it.

There's no human system which is not passing away, and we have no choice but to live in and participate in dying systems while we live here. This prayer of resignation to God reminds me that no matter where I am, I can be in God's will, whether I'm effective or look like a failure, whether I'm working with idiots or wise friends, whether I'm happy or miserable.

This is a much better prayer than something like The Prayer of Jabez. God might not want to "bless us by enlarging our territory." He might want to bless us by taking away every false thing that we thought gave us joy, so that we can realize that he is our real source of joy, and that he'll never take himself away.

Sabbath

Today (Thursday) is my weekly version of Sabbath, which basically means my day to juggle children until I pass out. I'm going to try to avoid getting back on the computer all day, which may or may not happen, depending on how well I can handle my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I hope you have a good day, living in the awareness of God's continual presence.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Book of Daniel cancelled?

I just got news that this new show The Book of Daniel got shut down. Is this true? I know for sure that many NBC affiliates quit showing it.

I'm wrestling with this. If you go to http://www.nbc.com/boards/BookofDaniel/ you will find the comments of many Christians who hated the show and many non-Christians who enjoyed it and were hurt by the reasons the Christians hated it.

So, Focus on the Family seems to have rallied the troups again for another Crusade for the Kingdom of God. My questions are:
1) Are we trying to establish Christianity as the state religion like it was under Emperor Constantine of Rome? If we read church history, or any history for that matter, we can see that reestablishing a state religion led to large-scale curruption of the Gospel and the state. Killing those who won't convert - that was truly taking the Lord's name in vain!
2) Did Christians hate the show because it was unrealistic? If so, I don't think it was. I think there are probably many liberal Episcapalean (sp?) pastors with similar lifestyles. They do, after all, have an openly gay bishop!
3) Were we offended because it made a mockery of Christ or because it made a mockery of the church? They aren't inseperable you know! We deserve to be made a mockery of. We're often a huge embarrassment to Christ and his cause.
4) Are we happy to have further alienated those who felt hated and rejected by us? Are we closer to converting them to Christ now?

I don't want my church to look like the church in The Book of Daniel, but I do want the Church to behave like the Christ we are to represent. What do you think?

the healing power of community

Every so often I get "worked up," meaning that I go through 1-3 day periods when something happens that moves be from a peaceful spiritual center in Christ to a place of anxious obession about how messed up things are. When this happens, the only thing that gets me back to a faith-based inner peace is community. I have regularly scheduled meetings with others that I rely heavily on. I meet once a month for and hour and a half with my mentor/hero Dennis Powers. He's another Methodist Pastor, who represents the non-anxious Christ-centered life that I want for myself. I meet every Tuesday for breakfast with my buddy, Lon Alderman. I meet weekly with two different bible study groups from the church. I meet twice a month for an hour with a covenant group with other Methodist pastors. I meet on an as-needed basis for therapeutic lunches with my buddy, Pastor Jeff Williams, from Pontiac Bible Church. I meet daily with my work colleagues Phil and Cheryl in the office for comic relief.

I value this community more when I remember my life before I walked with Christ. I lived in a one-room apartment in Austin, Texas. After work everyday I would come home and play guitar, write songs, and watch movies on American Movie Classics. I may have been putting some chemical in my body to help me feel more like Jim Morrison. One Saturday, I watched 8 black and white movies in a row, sitting on my futon with my guitar. Without exaggerating, life without community is nearly unliveable.

Last Sunday night, I was worked up and couldn't sleep. I got on the Internet and went to my friend Shane Raynor's blog, www.wesleyblog.com. Shane is someone I know in Austin, Texas. He's my blogging hero. He has created community by linking Christians all over the world in a new way. I began reading the blogs of other Methodist pastors like me. I went to bed after about a half and hour and slept well. What happened? I communed with others who were walking the same journey as me. I breathed with them. I exhaled my despair with them, and breathed in God's promise and God's hope. I would encourage others (you), to grab a free blog at www.blogspot.com and experiment with this new kind of community. Its so easy that I can do it!

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

a friend in pain

A friend of mine is going through a very turbulent time in his life right now. He is waiting to get into alcohol rehab (it takes a long time to get admitted!), is suffering from mild insomnia, and has been suffering from various relational tragedies. He's been writing poetry to let his pain breath into God. I asked him if I could post one of his poems. He gave me this one to post. You could pause after reading it and pray for him and for others who are going through similar storms.

SHOW YOUR PRESENCE by Tom P.
My soul is tired, and my heart is aching
Constantly in my hands is nervous shaking

For another man lies in bed with my wife
And a very loved friend has left from my life

Though I'm putting this marriage to an end
It wasn't fast enough for my beloved friend

She could not bear the guilt or deal with the shame
That there is still another who shares my last name

I feel the guilt and pain of going astray
Instead of asking you, Father, to show me the way

I pray for your perfect guidance in my life
And help dry these lonely tears that I cry

more about dunking babies

Here's why I'm in continuity with the practice of infant baptism:
1) We as non-Jewish believers in the Jewish Messiah have been grafted into the spiritual family of Abraham. We are the offspring of Abraham. We are part of the true Israel of God. Paul says in Romans "one is not a Jew who is one outwardly" but who is one inwardly with the circumcision of the heart. See Romans 2:28-29.
2) Circumcision is no longer required in the New Testament by Jewish or non-Jewish believers, but baptism is required. Paul says what matters is not circumcision nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.
3) Baptism symbolizes the new creation, the washing of regeneration or new birth, the inpouring of the Holy Spirit, the sprinkling of the blood that saves from death.
4) Neither baptism nor "will of the flesh or of the will of man" create new creation, God does. See John 1:13. We see this in the family of Cornelius, and others where the Holy Spirit falls on and fills people when they hear the word of God. Later they are baptized. We also see some baptized, and receive the Holy Spirit a little later. See Acts 19.
5) The act of baptism is a sacrament that marks entry into a community of people who are of the new creation.
6) God always included the children born into the covenant community as members of it. Circumcision took place on the 8th day of a child's life. This gives the message, "As soon as possible, the child's identity should be that of a blessed member of my special chosen people."
7) God has given us the promise in Proverbs 22:6, "Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray." Someone told my 2-year-old son about Santa Claus this year. He'll believe in him firmly for at least a few years. Children do have faith. One doesn't have to have developed reasoning skills to have faith. Doubt usually comes later in life. Christ honored the faith of children, not invalidated it. The weight of responsibility for this training falls on the community of faith and the parents to "train children in the right way."

Further,
1. Baptism by unfaithful parents or an uncommitted congregation is very unhelpful to a child whom Christ died for.
2. The profession of faith by an individual as described in Romans 10 need not necessarily
occur at baptism. This understanding is imposed on the text. The profession of faith as described in Romans 10 is not necessarily referring to a one time event done in front of a congregation (though this is a good thing), but possibly to an ongoing confession which would flow out of ongoing heart belief.
3. Baptism as an adult doesn't insure that it marks true conversion. It may be for the sake of peer or parent acceptance or tradition. Baptized adults/young adults leave the faith sometimes too!
4. Infant baptism makes it more difficult to figure out who is "in" and who is "out." It makes things stickier, not simpler. But in my understanding of Jesus, that's what he does with all of life! He challenges us to remove the "us and them" categories that the Pharisees loved and to encourage all people toward true faith in our God and Savior, Jesus Christ.

P.S. Infant baptism until the last couple 100 years was by immersion, not sprinkling. See Martin Luther's Babylonian Captivity of the Church.

Monday, January 23, 2006

continuity and discontinuity - take 1 - infant baptism

Like every member of a denomination, I tend to go through seasons where I daydream, "If'n I could just take what a like about my denomination and start afresh, what would I take and what would I leave behind?" Ever daydream like that? When I do, its often because the points of discontinuity with the reality of the denomination are shouting loudly and drowning out the many points of continuity that I feel akin to.

In the next few days, I want to accent the points of continuity that I feel with the United Methodist Church (being a post-UMC member of the UMC), and then to speak to the points that I feel discontinuity with.

The first point of continuity is INFANT BAPTISM. The Church (big C- all who follow Jesus all around the world) began baptizing babies somewhere between the first and the third centuries. I've read differing accounts of how it began. Some claim it always occurred when parents were converted that their children were baptized as well (i.e. cornelius in Acts 10). Others trace it to the conversion of Rome under Emporer Constantine, who forced everyone to be baptized.

Infant baptism continued to be practiced by all Christians until the 15th century. In Martin Luther's break off from the Roman Catholic church in 1517, he always continued baptizing babies, believing that baptism was in its purest and most uncorrupted form in baptizing little children. At that time, there was a group called the Radical Reformers who didn't think Martin Luther broke off far enough from the RCC, and that the Bible didn't specifically prescribe infant baptism, so it shouldn't be continued anymore. Most newer denominations, who were formed in the last 200 years have agreed with the Radical Reformers. I do not. And I think I'll wait to share why until tomorrow, so that I don't wear anyone out.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

the UMC is post-methodist, come to think of it...

I was rethinking this idea of being post-methodist according to McLaren's explanation of what the prefix Post means ("Post... doesn't mean 'anti' or 'non.' It means coming from, emerging from, growing from, and emphasizes both continuity and discontinuity.").

It occurred to me that the United Methodist Church itself is actually post-methodist. It emerged from, evolved from, grew out of the Methodist movement, but it would be difficult to identify it as the Methodist movement which began in the 1750's in England.

So, while I'm post-Methodist, my feelings would be more accurately identified as post-UMC. But I still like the phrase post-Methodist, so I'm going to keep it. Because, just like the UMC, I have come from, emerged from, the Methodist movement began by the Wesleys as well.

It might be more accurate and truthful for the entire UMC denomination to say that we are a post-Methodist denomination. We're really much closer to being Anglican than we are to being Methodist in the original sense of the word. In fact, we may even be closer to being Roman Catholic than we are to being Methodist in the original sense of the word.

All of these thoughts have passionate tension behind them, but I offer them not as a criticism, but more as an observation.

In the next few days, I will be blogging about what part of the UMC I am in continuity with and what part I am in discontinuity with. It feels good to think out loud. I've learned through friends and relatives that work in the realm of psychotherapy that the "don't talk" rule is one of the characteristics of most disfunctional families. It feels good to break it.