Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Trinity Sunday / Peace with Justice Sunday

This Sunday is Trinity Sunday, the one Sunday in the Christian year devoted to a doctrine, rather than an event. This makes sense, for the Doctrine of the Trinity is the most important doctrine in Christianity.

The Doctrine of the Trinity is important for many reasons; it helps define, for example, other crucial doctrines, such as Incarnation and Atonement. Christians are, technically speaking, not monotheists as much as they are Trinitarians.

I am amazed, nevertheless, at the number of pastors who never preach on the Trinity. I relate to Roger Olson's words in his wonderful 2002 book The Mosaic of Christian Belief (pages 133-134):

...some Christians have become so exasperated by the seeming confusion surrounding belief in the Trinity...that they have functionally given up on it. They may be members of a church with the word 'Trinity' in its name; they may pay lip service to belief in something called Trinity if asked; they may sing a hymn about God's triunity now and then in worship. But fewer and fewer Christians seem actually to embrace the belief known throughout Christian history as 'Trinity'. As one modern Catholic thinker has said, modern Christians tend to be functionally unitarian.

This is too bad; it's scandalous, in fact, given that our spiritual ancestors sometimes died for their devotion to the Holy Trinity.

One of the reasons this doctrine is so important is because of what it teaches us about God. From the Doctrine of the Trinity, we learn that God is social by his very nature; God exists in community.

We, therefore, as those devoted to the God who has revealed himself as triune, should also exist in community. We need the Church in order to faithfully incarnate Trinitarian doctrine...an important realization on the eve of Annual Conference.

But Sunday is not only Trinity Sunday, for in her wisdom, the Church has declared the day to also serve as Peace with Justice Sunday. Peace is more than simply the absence of conflict; it is a way of life in which each person has the essentials such as food, water, and shelter, in which sins such as sexism and racism don't exist, in which love is the crucial factor in human relations. In order to faithfully live in community, the Church must prayerfully support the elimination of poverty, war, racism, sexism, hate, and the like. True peace is intimately married to real justice.

And so, we are called to live as faithful Trinitarians, modeling the One God who exists in community, and doing the work of Christ by loving our sisters and brothers in the human family by prayer and sacrifice.

"The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ
and the love of God
and the communion of the Holy Spirit
be with you all."
- 2 Corinthians 13:14

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Burning Down The House

"When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them..."
- Acts 2:1-4 (TNIV)

As we celebrate Pentecost 2007, the famous image of Jesus knocking at the door springs to mind. A reproduction of this famous painting can be found in many churches and in many devotional books. Christians, perhaps evangelical Wesleyans more than others, love the idea of Jesus knocking on the door of a person's heart, asking to be permitted entrance. With a theology based on Revelation 3:20, it is indeed a lovely image, a testament to prevenient grace.

But, on Pentecost, this image spurs other thoughts. For one thing, as Bishop William Willimon has noted, there is no doorknob on the outside; the people inside must open the door in order to answer the call of Jesus (that is certainly a very Wesleyan idea!).

More than that, it just could be that inside that door is not a sinner in need of salvation, but a Church in need of refocusing on her mission. Maybe...just maybe, mind you...it is the Day of Pentecost, and the fires of the Holy Spirit are filling the house. Fire can be warm and pretty, but can also be awfully destructive. Forest fires, which we typically dread, are actually a very normal part of nature's cycle of renewal; you need to burn away the old in order to get new growth.

It could be that Jesus is saying, "Hey, Church; the house is on fire! You'd better get out of there and come out here, with me!"

It could be that Jesus is imploring the Church to get out of the building and into the street, where the mission field can be found.

And so, we have another Pentecost to struggle with Jesus' call to allow the Holy Spirit to set us ablaze with the burning of renewal, and to open the doors of our hearts and our church buildings in order that we embark on the greatest, most important journey we know...the mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

May you be blessed with the Spirit of God on this Pentecost.

Friday, May 25, 2007

It was 30 years ago today...

God bless Elliot! My son had to take a picture to his kindergarten class today of something that begins with "J" (the letter of the day). He wanted to take a picture of a "Jedi"! Sometimes, you get reassurance that you're raising your children properly...

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Pre-Conference Journal

I've received our pre-Conference Journal, and have only looked through it briefly. A few things (seven) have hit me right away.

First, I am shocked that Steve Cordle, pastor of Crossroads Church, was not nominated by the Washington District. He has had tremendous ministry success in the last decade or so, and Crossroads has surely become one of our most vital congregations. In fact, he may be the most effective pastor in our Conference right now. It seems to me that Church growth and professions of faith ought to count for something, even as I recognize that other factors should be a part of the decision-making process. This may be completely inappropriate, but his assigned number is 223, and I intend to vote for him.

Actually, given that as a partial voting guide, several other pastors ought to be seriously considered. David Eversdyke...Eric Park...Rodney Smith...Bob Zilhaver...each of these seem to have been very effective leaders in terms of ministry growth in the past several years...there are surely others...these are just kind of "off the cuff". Any other names that stand out in this regard - not necessarily as candidates for election, but for church growth?

Second, let's face it: while there are many pressing issues facing the Church, sex is going to be a major factor, both in June at Grove City and next spring in Texas. This is too bad, because issues such as mission, poverty, and war ought to be at the forefront, but will be brushed aside by "the elephant in the room". Sex is an important issue, to be sure, but shouldn't be #1 on the list.

With that realization, I glanced (albeit briefly) at the information provided by the nominees. I am a little disheartened that so few mention the issue of sex. There are "code words" used by both sides. "Scriptural authority" and "personal holiness" are used by many on "the Right", despite the fact that most folks on "the Left" would strongly affirm those phrases. "Welcoming all" is a phrase used by "the Left", despite the fact that most folks on "the Right" would strongly affirm that as well.

The reason I am disheartened that few mention the issue is that, again, while sex isn't the main issue confronting the Church, it's a big issue right now, important to many United Methodists, and I think it's a little disingenuous to dance around it. Say what you feel, support it, and move on. I hate all of this "cloak and dagger" stuff (do I sound too cynical?).

Third, RS 804, proposed by Greg Cox and Michelle Wobrak (et al), seems to be a good start at expanding the voices around the Conference Council table, but I'm a mite perplexed. We are giving spots on the Council to Pensions, Trustees, and Equitable Compensation, which isn't necessarily bad. What about New Church Starts? Is that the "Congregational Development" representative? If not, could we add a rep. from the New Church Starts group, to further emphasize the importance of this ministry?

Fourth, I like RS 602, which could and should promote more effective ministry to "the least of these", something many of our congregations aren't doing very well.

Fifth, do we really need five General Evangelists?

Sixth, P 71 and P 72...I know they basically had to put forth these pieces, but do they really stand a chance of passing in June? I'd be surprised if either made it out of legislative section 7.

Seventh, P 22...this is the only really new or unusual piece that I have found. My guess is it will be ruled out of order somehow. While I don't really like the protests during worship, and agree with the spirit of the legislation, I'm not sure this kind of thing can (or should) be legislated. Additionally, what would be the consequence of violating this Rule, were it to pass?

Just some quick thoughts for those in Western PA Conference.

Monday, May 21, 2007

My Family: May 2007

Update: I was forced to change Kate's picture by forces more powerful than I.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Farewell Jerry Falwell

God bless the Rev. Jerry Falwell (1933-2007)

Fundamentalist Baptist Jerry Falwell has, in my lifetime, been one of America's most controversial Christians. His achievements are impressive: the founding of a church which now has over 24,000 members...founder of Liberty University, now a major institution with almost 20,000 students...important regional ministries for women in crisis pregnancies and people addicted to drugs and alcohol. For good or for ill, Falwell is also largely responsible for organizing the "Religious Right" in America, by starting the so-called "Moral Majority" in 1979.

I'm not sure I completely understood Jerry Falwell. In addition to his more positive achievements, he opposed the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s (a position for which he later apologized), he supported the apartheid regime in South Africa, and he blamed abortionists, feminists, and gays for 9/11 (a claim concerning which he later apologized). I believe it to be astronomically silly to waste time on, say, the color of the Teletubbies or whether or not we should have organized prayer in schools, yet these are also part of Jerry Falwell's legacy.

In short, I believe Jerry Falwell to be one of the last of a particular generation of politically-minded Christian leaders who dominated the American Church in the last decades of the twentieth century (I'd include Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King, Pat Robertson, and Billy Graham on that list). Those leaders have largely been replaced by leaders who are generally far less political, such as Bill Hybels, T.D. Jakes, Max Lucado, Brian McLaren, and Rick Warren (McLaren and Jim Wallis are exceptions to the "less political" observation).

I believe that Jerry Falwell loved Jesus and had a sincere faith journey, and tried to do the correct thing (as he saw it) to improve the United States. At times too harsh in his approach and often a seeming caricature of himself, I nevertheless find myself today thanking God for the ministry of Jerry Falwell. He was far from perfect, his legacy problematic, but he endeavored to be faithful and very traditional, and tried to do good. We should all thank God for that.

Real Christians of Genius

"Mr. Christian-ese speaking person"

Thanks to Gavin Richardson

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Ascension of Jesus

"He said to them, 'This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.' Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.

"He told them, 'This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.'

"When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God."
- Luke 24:44-53 (TNIV)

I think that the Ascension of Our Lord might be the final act in God's narrative of the redemption of humankind (with Pentecost and the parousia being a glorious epilogue). I truly wish that we made a bigger deal out of this almost-forgotten holy day.

Luke's account of the Ascension (often forgotten in favor of the account in Acts 1) is a tremendously powerful passage. It presents a summary of the Passion and Easter, going on to commission the disciples for ministry, giving the promise of the Spirit's power. The skeleton of the gospel is encapsulated in a few verses!

Finally, after blessing his disciples, Jesus is "taken up into heaven". To be honest, this sounds very antiquated to me. After all, while the Biblical writers operated out of a pre-modern "three-tiered universe" understanding, we know that if one goes up, up, up into the sky, they'll arrive not in the Throne Room of Heaven, but in orbit and, eventually, deep space.

But we ought not allow ourselves to become too sidetracked with physics, which most pastors don't understand anyway (myself included). Instead, I'm intrigued by the language the Gospel writer used to describe this bizarre event. To describe the idea that Jesus was "taken up", Luke used the Greek word anaphero, which certainly does mean "to be taken up or lifted up to a higher place".

It's an interesting word, wonderfully rich in depth of meaning. Anaphero, as it happens, was also used to mean "to offer a sacrifice on the altar".

Look at these other New Testament usages of the word:

"Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself." - Hebrews 7:27

"...Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him." - Hebrews 9:28

"Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar?" - James 2:21

In fact, one of the primary themes of the book of Hebrews concerns the motif that Jesus had to ascend to Heaven after his suffering, death, and Resurrection in order to take his place in the Throne Room, where he serves as the Great High Priest and mediates on our behalf...

"Christ did not enter a sanctuary made with human hands that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God's presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. Otherwise Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But he has appeared once for all at the culmination of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself." - Hebrews 9:24-26
Symbolic, metaphorical language? Perhaps. But it is powerful language, filled with an astoundingly imperative truth...Jesus' priestly role. I'm not sure evangelicals deal with this particular role of Our Lord particularly well. We love to talk about the Prophet who challenged (and still threatens) the status quo; we are quite fond of the King whose sovereignty we proclaim as absolute in a relativistic world.

But the Priest? That's a mite too Roman for many of us. What's next...Mary? Many evangelical pastors aren't even clear as to what this priestly role is all about.

But the Ascension gives us an opportunity to ponder this aspect of Our Lord's continuing ministry. Jesus, who was the perfect, unblemished sacrifice, ascended to become the Great High Priest who proclaims absolution from the Throne Room of Heaven, seated at the right hand of the Father (a position of honor and authority). This makes the Ascension a crucial part of the redemption story, and something we need to address and celebrate in the Church.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Leadership Vacuum

I found a recent new story from the United Methodist News Service to be both amusing and troubling. The story refers to a recent meeting of the Council of Bishops in which the episcopal leaders debated a possible piece of legislation concerning the issue of homosexuality.

Our Book of Discipline defines our position, saying that the Church "...does not condone the practice of homosexuality and consider(s) this practice incompatible with Christian teaching."

According to the UMNS article:

"A council subcommittee had recommended replacing that proscription with language that the church does not condone sexual relationships between people of heterosexual or homosexual orientation 'outside the bonds of a faithful, loving and committed relationship between two persons; marriage, where legally possible.'"
Now, the homosexuality is not a major issue for me. I have taken homosexuals into Church membership, and would consider doing so again. I have friends who are practicing homosexuals. I also believe, however, that all sides need to respect and practice Church teaching, and I have been disappointed when parties seek loopholes in an effort to, in my view, be disingenuous. The Bishops have the right, I suppose, to suggest any change in policy they see fit to suggest, providing that they, too, abide by canon law, regardless of their personal feelings. If they cannot do that in good conscience, then there is no shame in resignation.

What bothers me about the entire affair isn't that the Bishops talked about the issue, nor that they considered a proposal to change the position of the Church. What bothers me is that the issue was tabled. Not defeated, amended, or passed...tabled.

Retired Bishop Jack Tuell said that the Council of Bishops is, "...somewhat immobilized these days on some of these issues that are really facing our church...", making public his hope that, "...we will find the ways more intentionally to be about the business of giving leadership in this area."

The article says of Bishop Tuell, "While acknowledging that he did not have suggestions on the 'right way to give leadership', Tuell said he believes 'that almost any thoughtful plan of leadership would be superior to prudent silence.'"

Amen, Brother!

Why was the proposal tabled?

"Oklahoma Bishop Robert Hayes, who is secretary of the administrative committee, said advancing the recommendation on homosexuality would have 'proven to be divisive and counterproductive to the unity that currently exists in the Council of Bishops and to the church today.'"

Unity is a wonderful thing, and it is worth pursuing. I believe, for example, that it is every pastor's obligation to seek and to nurture ecumenical cooperation in their respective ministry setting, and also feel that failure to do so is completely irresponsible and unfaithful. Unity is important, and leading it is crucial.

But leadership sometimes requires risking disunity. There's nothing wrong with upsetting soomeone to do what you feel is the right thing. If the Bishops feel that the Church needs to accept homosexual behavior as a viable Christian practice, they should say so. Yes, this might lead to real problems (and likely schism), but if they feel strongly enough, say it.

The Church has suffered from a lack of episcopal leadership on this issue (and other issues as well). The Council of Bishops has seemed more intent on preserving their own unity than in leading the Church, one way or the other. They have seemed afraid of leadership; not what we want to see in our episcopal leaders! The Church and her mission deserve better.

Several years ago, for example, when the Iraq War began, the Bishops were silent. Two years later, when much of the public had turned against the war, many our Bishops released a statement saying, essentially, "Oops; we should have spoken up two years ago...we don't think this war is a good idea." That, to me, was cowardice, not leadership, and it was too little, too late.

I have considered the possibility of leadership by silence. But at some point, I believe, that needs to transform into words and/or actions.

Leadership is a risk-taking venture. Sometimes, it means fighting for unity. In times of uncertainty, to lead means to risk anger, disunity, and failure. I pray that our Bishops decide at some point to lead, rather than to remain silent.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Does Size Matter?

I've been very busy lately...not much time for any "meaningful" posting (or even meaningful comments on other blogs). Busy can be good...my hope is that I don't overwhelm myself with a busy-ness that isn't fruitful (which I've done in the past).

At any rate, one of the blogs I try to read at least weekly (and don't always succeed) is Out of Ur by the Leadership Journal and Christianity Today.

A recent post called "Good Things Come in Small Congregations" made me really think. In terms of stereotypical suburban ministry, JUMC is a "small congregation", especially when compared to neighboring communities such as Baldwin: Community UMC, Bethel Park: Christ UMC, and Pleasant Hills Community Presbyterian Church. We are significantly larger than the stereotypical small rural congregation, of course, but much of this is relative.

As we continue to grow, we will soon transition to another phase of ministry. In doing so, we run the risk of losing some of the good qualities of a smaller congregation. Certainly, the challenges I face as pastor will evolve into new challenges, which is healthy and wonderful. But I wonder if there's a way to straddle the fence, keeping the best of both worlds?

At any rate, I'm off to the hospital, with questions to ponder and an exciting but uncertain future about which to pray.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Spiritual Living & Significance

I read this quote over the weekend (quoted in Death by Suburb: How to Keep the Suburbs from Killing Your Soul by Dave Goetz), and it's been running around in my mind ever since. Heschel was a twentieth century Jewish process theologian who wrote, among other things, a highly regarded commentary on The Prophets (which I received in seminary as a gift from classmate Bob Zilhaver).

"The higher goal of spiritual living is not to amass a wealth of information, but to face sacred moments...it is not a thing that lends significance to a moment; it is a moment that lends significance to things."
- Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

You know it's a General Conference election year when...

Recently, an letter was mailed to many lay people in Western PA Conference, talking about some Conference issues and some specific problems the writer(s) of the letter have with several of our Conference leaders, primarily the fact that these leaders have seemed to support the ordination of openly homosexual persons (I will not mention any of them by name). What made this letter so troublesome is that it was sent anonymously.

Our Bishop responded with a letter sent to lay people and clergy in which he announced his disapproval of the letter and his concerns with its anonymity, as well as offering a defense of the Conference leaders who were mentioned in the letter (I note that the Bishop's response has not yet been posted on the Conference website).

Why is this all so troublesome?

* To send a letter of this type anonymously is an act of cowardice. I wish the writer(s) of the letter would have approached the Bishop and the Conference leaders in question personally with these concerns. If the letter was sent by a pastor (or pastors), afraid that voicing their concerns would get them crushed by the ecclesiastical machine, then I would suggest that if they believe in these issues strongly, and believe them to be theologically important for our Conference, then attach your name to it. If you upset the Bishop and get sent to the Gobi Desert, then so be it; if it's important, then it's worth that risk (I don't mean to suggest that our Bishop would make punitive appointments of that type, but the fear may exist).

* The anonymity of the letter forced our Bishop to respond and affirm the leaders mentioned in the letter. The initial anonymous letter thus backfired in that there is now a very powerful, influential voice strongly supporting the leaders.

* I don't believe this letter qualifies as "hate mail", and I really hope that our Bishop doesn't dismiss it as such. Though anonymous, the letter represents real concerns of many lay people and clergy in our Conference. Also, while the positions and actions of the Conference leaders were questioned, I don't believe their personal integrity was attacked. To dismiss this letter as "hate mail" would be a mistake.

* In our Conference, several people have worn armbands during the ordination service, presumably to demonstrate solidarity with those who are unable to be ordained because of their sexual behavior. I don't know all of the people who have worn these armbands; many whom I do know are excellent pastors, faithful Christians, and all around good eggs. I personally think that the ordination service - an extremely sacred, almost sacramental moment - is not the time or place for that kind of political demonstration, and wish they wouldn't wear them. That said, there's nothing in the Bible or our Book of Discipline which prevents them from doing so.

But one of those mentioned in the anonymous letter is now a member of our Bishop's Cabinet. As such, he now represents, in a way other pastors do not, our Bishop, the Discipline, our connectional covenant, and the Church. I pose a question: Is it appropriate for a District Superintendent to wear an armband in protest of Church policy and teaching, at a moment when he or she is representing our Bishop, the Discipline, our connectional covenant, and the Church? Or is the possibility of that sort of protest surrendered during one's tenure on the Cabinet?

The anonymous letter demonstrates that there are many issues festering in our Conference.

Folks are unclear and unsure about our "Believe Again" strategic plan, which hasn't shown (at least publicly) a great deal of progress since last year...

...they are anxious about appointments which, to some, don't seem to make sense...

...they are apprehensive (as always) about budgetary concerns and apportionments...

...they are spooked about the sex issues which pervade Church and culture, and our Bishop's recent attempts to quell anxieties among those on every side of the issue...

...they continue to be concerned about the decline of our churches in western Pennsylvania, which, surprisingly, has increased in rapidity in the last two years.

On top of that, everything in Grove City this June will be politicized, given that we'll be electing delegates to General and Jurisdictional Conference.

It's never too early to start praying!