Saturday, June 30, 2007

Still on vacation...

Everyone seems to be having a good time...except for Elliot...

Friday, June 22, 2007


Tonight, we head to Kill Devil Hills, NC for a week at the beach. Claire and Elliot have never seen the ocean, so this should be a great week. I hope to get to see Roanoke, the "Lost Colony", while we're there. God is good! Blog posting will likely be non-existent until we return. Our prayers are with all those pastoral families and congregations in transition in the next couple of weeks.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

JUMC: Year One (or "Lessons from Frank Miller's Batman")

In 1988, while attending Edinboro University (where I met both my future wife Robyn and my longtime friend Dayton), I went to Pittsburgh for a weekend to visit my friend Marie Waun (whose mother was, ironically enough given my current vocation, a United Methodist pastor) and to watch with Marie the premiere of the U2 concert film Rattle and Hum. Great movie for a U2 fan...good weekend overall.

Before catching the Greyhound bus for the trip back to Edinboro, I stopped at Eide's Entertainment to purchase something to read on the long trip back to school. I had heard a great deal about Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, and was glad to finally have a chance to read this "graphic novel", which had been turning the world of comic books on its ear. I devoured the book on the bus ride, finishing it just as the vehicle pulled into the university lot.

It is not overstating the truth to state that this book changed my life. There are a lot of reasons for this. DKR introduced me to postmodern thinking, to new ways of storytelling, to the idea of "metanarrative" (which has become so important in my theology), and, indirectly, to "film noir", to semiotics, and to host of other ideas. It has been hugely influential; I can hardly imagine American Psycho, Fight Club, or Quentin Tarantino without Miller's DKR (OK, that may be overstating a's likely, however, that all those creative people were drinking water from the same well as Frank Miller). Beyond all that, it's just a really good story, told exceptionally well.

I was interested, therefore, in Miller's "prequel", called Batman: Year One, which, obviously, told the story of how Batman came to be (as opposed to DKR, which deals with his final days).

In both DKR and Year One, Miller is a patient storyteller who writes about a very patient (though extremely passionate) man. Bruce Wayne doesn't simply decide to become a vigilante and immediately engage criminals in fisticuffs; he observes, prepares, learns "the lay of the land", determines the identities of the "power players", and makes proper connections, beginning to build the appropriate relationships he'll need to accomplish his crime-fighting mission.

Not a bad model. That's pretty much what I've been trying to do, and, now, my first year at JUMC is nearly complete. I've spent "year one" trying to observe, prepare, learn "the lay of the land", determine the identities of the "power players", and make proper connections, beginning to build the appropriate relationships I'll need to lead JUMC in accomplishing our disciple-making mission.

I've discovered a lot about the congregation, her history, the area in which God has placed us, and, surprisingly, myself.

Allow me to risk being a mite unorthodox for a moment. I've come to believe that perhaps the Church has it slightly wrong. Our Book of Discipline states that our mission is "to make disciples of Jesus Christ", but, properly speaking, it's the Spirit who makes disciples, not us. The best we can do is to faithfully allow ourselves to be used by the Spirit to do great things...large or small.

We shouldn't get too caught up in programs or programming. Programs can be good, and can indeed point us to larger truths. But it seems to me that "programming" is so yesterday, so Baby Boomer; it's like placing the Adam West TV "Batman" into a post-DKR universe...he may catch a few bad guys, but he'll be largely ineffective in the bigger picture.

Instead of programming (which is entirely supported by the somewhat dated idea of "making disciples"), relationship-building is a far more authentic approach in this 21st century, richly complex, post-postmodern world. In Frank Miller's world, for instance, there are all kinds of programs, for all kinds of purposes, but there are precious few meaningful relationships, which, in Miller's apocalyptic approach, results in the fall of western civilization.

This brings me back to a ministry theme to which I often return...the idea of incarnational ministry. We need to go where the people are, not simply invite them to our building with our latest neato program. We need to eat lunch with them in their homes or their favorite restaurants, not just invite them to our latest potluck supper or spaghetti dinner. We need to get to know the people in our communities by name, so we can give an authentic "hello" in the grocery store...and by vehicle, so that we can wave knowingly when they drive past. Just as important, they need to know us, so they can respond without having to question our motivations. We don't build relationships to make more church members, but simply out of love.

At any rate, with the "year one" business out of the way, it's time for me to look beyond now, and begin to really allow the Spirit to transform our life together and our approach to ministry. Same bat-time, same bat-channel...but hopefully with more bat-wisdom.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Father's Day

"Start with God - the first step in learning is bowing down to God; only fools thumb their noses at such wisdom and learning.

Pay close attention, friend, to what your father tells you; never forget what you learned at your mother's knee.

Wear their counsel like flowers in your hair, like rings on your fingers."
- Proverbs 1:7-9 (The Message)

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Saturday night

Just a quick note to express my excitement over our Saturday evening service. Our outdoor chapel is a lovely spot, one which I go to often for prayer (as did my predecessor). The entrance/exit to the chapel opens up on a yard between the church parking lot and the parsonage. The neat thing is that we are just a matter of yards away from the very busy Gill Hall Road, which has almost non-stop traffic. We are just a few miles away from Century III Mall and the busy-ness of PA Rt. 51, yet, here, amidst the green beauty of God's creation, we are apart from the technological noise of 21st century life. It's a great little place for which I thank God and those who have made the chapel into what it is.

Tonight, Kate will be playing her fiddle as I play guitar, leading God's people in hymns both old and new. I'm excited about what God is doing here, and thrilled that I am honored to be a part of it! God is good!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Other Annual Conference reflections...

I think that...

...the fact that the budget passed with no discussion and no controversy is a testament to the diligent faithfulness of the team that put it together, especially Howard Burrell, Larry Homitsky, Pat Morris, and Bob Zilhaver...

...Luella Krieger and Brad Lauster are doing great work, and it was good to see that validated with the Denman Awards...

....there were lots of "Believe Again!" reports at Annual Conference, but not a lot of action; I hope we see this tree bear some fruit soon...

...having a cross on the altar in addition to a larger cross elsewhere in the chancel area is redundant imagery, and only accentuates that the cross on the table is, relative to the room, tiny. It also obscures the Bishop while he's handling the bread and the cup while leading the Eucharistic Great Thanksgiving. Traditional worship done well can be a wonderful thing, but that seemed a mite sloppy to me. Next year, I hope we can focus on one cross somewhere in the chancel area and eliminate the smaller one on the table itself...

...going bald doesn't bother me at all, as it's simply one less thing to worry about, and I've already done the long-haired hippie bit; I'm rarely envious of someone's follicular gifts, but, I tell you, our friend Thomas Q. Strandburg has one fine head of hair, thick and red like a good Celt... was disheartening that the Conference rejected the opportunity to call for peace in Iraq while offering the military chaplains a standing ovation (though all three are good guys); the Bishop was right...we have plenty of work to do...

...Alyce Weaver Dunn, Eric Park, Thomas Q. Strandburg, and Bob Zilhaver would all make excellent candidates for the superintendency in the coming years, though they may not enjoy that...

...Randy Roda was largely responsible for the involvement of Renaye and Rich Hoffman in the life of the Church; the fact that one is now our Conference Youth Director and the other is a General Conference delegate is a real affirmation of Randy's ministry; that's some pretty public fruit, as both are having a significant impact on our Conference and in the life of the General Church...

...I noticed that the most quoted theologians at Annual Conference this year - primarily by Bishop Bickerton and Vance Ross - were Martin Luther King, John Ed Mathison, and Howard Thurman. Being a fan of all three, that was nice to hear; maybe next year, we'll hear some Hauerwas...

...I was happy when Dennis Lawton was transferred into our Conference, and even happier to see Jim Kimmel ordained an Elder, as Jim and I both hail from Indiana: Trinity UMC, having entered pastoral ministry (along with fine local pastor Bob Nagy) largely due to the faithful ministry of Deryl Larsen...

...we need to really prioritize in the next few years in terms of reaching out to the African-American population in western Pennsylvania; we are failing these people...

...we also need to focus on creating a culture in which our women clergy can see their leadership opportunities strengthened; 2 on our GC delegation and only 1 more on our JC delegation is a theological travesty...

...Larry Homitsky, Eric Park, and Bob Zilhaver all need to be taken seriously as Episcopal candidates next year; we should be praying for all three...

...the Bishop's "I am not anonymous" speech has gotten mixed reviews, but I really appreciated what he said near the end: "I love you. I love you when I like you, and when I don’t like you. I love you when I agree with you and when I don’t. I love you when you lift me up and when you make me hurt. This is at the center of my theology.” Good stuff. Add a Trinitarian spin, and you've got as solid a theological center as any in Christendom.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Catching Up

I'm very, very busy at JUMC right now, catching up after Annual Conference and getting ready for a youth mission trip next week and our family vacation the week after that, with Bible School upon my return. All of this is happening while continuing work with the local food pantry / social outreach team (though they've gotten the shaft recently, in terms of my time, I'm embarrassed to admit) and trying to get our ministerium off the ground (we're planning a back-to-school prayer service as our first "official" event together, but are having some logistical problems with the school district). Of course, the day-in, day-out ministry grind rolls on...thanks be to God!

On top of everything else, today is the sixth birthday of our son Elliot, so I have some family issues to which I need to attend as well. No time for a meaningful blog post!

One additional note: today is the fourth anniversary of my ordination as an Elder by The United Methodist Church. I'm giving thanks today for the ministry journey, and grateful for the friendship of those ordained alongside me on that special day.

Three things I wanted to quickly note...

...please pray for the Cox/Weigant family in the days ahead. Tracy and Greg Cox are pastors in Western PA Conference; Tracy's father passed away suddenly on the last day of our Conference session. The memorial service is Saturday; please lift them all up before the Lord...

...there is a neat new site on the web which is devoted to liturgy. Strong Center Open Doors is facilitated by Dan Benedict and looks to be a place where folks can think outside the box in terms of liturgical structures and resources. While it doesn't use the words "emergent" or "missional", at least as far as I can see, it does talk about post-modern, post-Christian, and post-denominational thinking. Lots of potential with this new site; I'd recommend a look... of the aspects of Annual Conference which astounded me was the number of people who approached me and said, "I love your blog." I really appreciate that, but am frankly surprised that anyone reads this thing, much less that they find it worthwhile. I am humbled and filled with gratitude. God is good...and surprising!

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Politics of Annual Conference 2007

The opening devotional time prior to our opening Annual Conference Session was very well done. Brett Probert had the Youth Choir pumped up, and I could feel the presence of the Spirit (which I typically do not feel in contemporary worship this was a good thing).

I also felt, however, that the politics began at that point.

Bishop Thomas Bickerton went to great lengths to "depoliticize" Annual Conference, but, in my opinion, in so doing, actually made for an extremely political gathering. Concerning people's fears about political fighting, our Bishop said during the devotional time, “It will be OK – if we put our trust in the hands of a living God and not in ourselves.”

He followed those words, however, by quoting a wonderful passage from Martin Luther King, whom I respect a great deal. But it seems that, from the "get go", the message was: "Be racially inclusive".

Now, please do not misunderstand my words. If we fail to be racially inclusive, we fail to be the Church. This is not a political matter; it is a spiritual and theological matter.

But, is inclusivity a greater concern than, say, doctrinal faithfulness, or effective leadership, or relational gifts? Inclusiveness is a part of orthopraxy; it surely does not comprise the totality of orthopraxy.

I wondered why our Bishop quoted a passage from Dr. King about racial unity, rather than something about Church unity. Was I feeling too cynical?

Rev. Vance Ross was brought in from the General Board of Discipleship to lead us in a discernment process. He had good words to share with us, even though the Biblical exegesis wasn't particularly in depth or insightful. Rev. Ross' words were inspirational and optimistic, and that is always to be appreciated.

BUT...the tone was set. We were to discern the Spirit's leading in a prayerful manner; this was presented as something diametrically opposed to "campaigning" or simply voting for those who agreed with your theological prespective or your views on sex.

At the same time, we were told, often in somewhat surreptitious ways, that we needed to be racially inclusive, and that this, more than any other orthopractic or doctrinal concern, was to be a primary value.

This was all done in seeming ignorance of the fact that the denominational news service had published a commentary several months earlier entitled, "How to become a General Conference delegate" (featuring pictures of our own Conference's 2004 delegation, ironically enough), which encouraged folks to organize and campaign.

At any rate, that's when all heaven broke loose. The Conference discerned.

I can't tell you how many people told me that they felt as if they were being manipulated by our institutional leaders. Their votes reflected that. While many have seen the results as theological in nature, I believe they were more anti-institutional in nature (perhaps I'm being naive, but I just can't believe that the anonymous letters of the past few months had any effect on the votes). The "institution" (Bishop, Cabinet, Conference staffers...wonderful people all) were inadvertently, in trying to "depoliticize" Conference, creating an intensely political atmosphere.

John Ciampa was the first clergy election, perhaps our most respected pastor, a true thinker with a compassionate heart. Next was Sharon Schwab, a prominent leader and advocate for rural ministry, smaller membership congregations and local pastors.

Third was Bob Zilhaver. In the interest of full disclosure, Bob is a good friend of mine and served as one of my ordination sponsors. No one loves Western PA Conference more than Bob loves it. No one in our Conference knows the Book of Discipline as well as Bob knows it. No one in our Conference has his passion for justice; no one even comes close.

Just hours after standing before Clergy Session and asking for a ruling of law regarding the complaint and discipline procedures practiced by our institutional leaders (esp. the BOOM and the Cabinet), which Bob viewed as clandestine, unjust, and perhaps out of compliance with the Discipline, Bob received more votes than all but two clergy members. Bob's integrity speaks for itself. But he is possibly our most contentious, controversial pastor in many ways. For him to be lifted up speaks volumes not only about Bob, but the mood of the Conference.

I have no first-hand knowledge of any direct campaigning by anyone. I received no lists of suggested delegates. But in many ways, the first six (of eight) lay delegates elected were "Zilhaver-friendly", in that they share many, though not all, of his theological concerns (even those such as Matt Johnson who were largely unaware of any support, and never sought it). Bob's daughter Laura will actually lead the lay delegation as the top overall choice.

This was no coup d'etat. But the message was clear. There was a shift in the heart of the Conference. Several prominent Conference leaders barely got elected, whereas in the past, they'd have led the way. The Cabinet, which has dominated our delegation in recent decades, was by comparison a non-issue.

There were some great elections. Eric Park is one of our finest leaders, and many of us hope he has an opportunity someday to lead while wearing Episcopal vestments. Matt Johnson will serve on his final laity delegation, and many of us look forward to the day when he can be an important part of our clergy delegation. Joan Reasinger will serve as our first Deacon to represent us at General Conference.

As the shift continued, there were several calls for racial inclusiveness. The problem is that our Conference hasn't really produced any great leaders of color, and that's to our detriment. We clearly have more work to do in this area. But it looked as if people were not going to vote for someone simply because of their race. In the years ahead, Western PA Conference needs to do more to raise up minority leaders; we've done a sinfully terrible job ministering to the African-American folks of western Pennsylvania. We have a lot of work to do in this area.

So, the Conference discerned. And the results were unexpected. For good or ill, we have our most conservative (or, better, "evangelical") delegation perhaps in a century. And the institutional leaders failed to make a big impression, receiving a message that requires much prayer and further discernment.

"Politics" is not a dirty word. Just as "liturgy" is "the work of the people", politics is "the work of government". The Annual Conference, as the governing Church body in our area, did its work. The representatives of the people spoke. The ordained clergy people spoke. There was a real shift. And, since we were told that this was all done through Spiritual discernment, those who are dismayed at the elections have little recourse but to either deny the Spirit's presence altogether or ignore how the Spirit moved.

There are concerns, of course. Our clergy delegation is hardly inclusive of younger pastors, even though excellent candidates such as Greg Cox, John Shaver, and Jim Walker were available. Despite the fact that United Methodism in western Pennsylvania is largely female, we have only two women on our GC clergy delegation (and three on our lay delegation), and only one more on our JC clergy delegation. Clearly, we need to do more work in the African-American community...not simply to raise up leaders, but to make disciples.

And, we need to find a way to discuss the issues of the day in the open, rather than ignoring them, or trying to focus on unity while important conversations are bubbling under the surface. There's no shame in loving debate and conversation. We just need to find a way to do it. Our Bishop and the other Conference leaders meant well by trying to depoliticize things, but as long as it is our responsibility to deal with real issues, there will be, must be, politics. As John Howard Yoder taught, there is nothing and no one more inherently and offensively political than Jesus Christ and his Cross.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Thoughts before Annual Conference

Tomorrow, I will leave for Western PA Annual Conference, held at beautiful Grove City College in Grove City, PA. I ask all readers of this blog to be in prayer for Bishop Thomas Bickerton and all Conference particpants from June 7-10. Always important theologically and connectionally, this year's Conference has the added importance of electing delegates to General and Jurisdictional Conferences in 2008. May the Spirit reign and bless.

I will probably not be posting until next week. You can follow the proceeedings here.

Some miscellaneous thoughts before leaving for Grove City...

* Inclusiveness is important. We need to be as inclusive as possible, and I pray that our elected delegation reflects our Conference's commitment to diversity. But...inclusiveness is not our primary value. My fear is that many view it as such.

In his response to Judicial Council Decision 1032, theologian William Abraham said, "Inclusivism can sometimes be a good servant, but it is a bad master." In other words, we need to take inclusion seriously, but ought not allow it to become the primary factor in determining our course of action as the Church.

In the May/June 2007 issue of Circuit Rider, Maxie Dunnam writes, "I believe the greatest theological barrier to mission and evangelism is a diminished belief in the uniqueness of Jesus. We have made idols of tolerance and inclusiveness. We speak and act as though diversity itself is redemptive." We need to remember that inclusiveness is a wonderful gospel calling, but that the love of God in Jesus Christ is alone redemptive.

While we need to be aware of inclusivity when it comes to electing delegates, we should be more concerned about missional and theological concerns.

* P22 seems more problematic each time I read it. It is written by well meaning folks who wish to halt the "armband protests" of several members of our Conference. The protests are surely in poor taste and do reflect some theological concerns, but I'm not sure this kind of thing can be (or should be) legislated. An American flag pin, for instance, is an intensely political statement, and could easily be seen as a protest against the Lordship of Christ or the radical calling of his Kingdom. Should these, too, be banned? And how does one enforce this piece of legislation? What are the consequences if one violates this piece, should it become part of our Conference Rules?

* I have been in prayer over my votes for members of our delegation. I think I know the bulk of the group I'll be voting for, but am remaining open to the Spirit's leading when I get to Grove City and we begin our Christian conferencing.

I do have a concern that our delegation might be dominated by District Superintendents. These are fine folks, sincere Christian disciples, but I'm not sure they make the best representatives of our Conference. The Cabinet is almost a constituency unto itself, and doesn't necessarily represent the wishes and desires of the members of Conference...yet they are among our most prominent Elders, due to the public nature of their current appointments. I do intend to vote for some members of the Cabinet, but I really hope that they end up as a minority on our delegation, rather than a dominating factor. (Forgive me if you think this is sharing too much, or is written in bad taste.)

Some interesting reads...

* Here is an excellent post by a member of our Conference, Bill Beatty, who serves First UMC in Warren, PA.

* Here is an excellent article in "Christianity Today" about the failings of "missional theology" from the perspective of Singaporean theologian Simon Chan.

* Here is a fascinating article in "The Christian Century" about Sen. Barack Obama's church, Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ.

* Here is a good commentary on poverty from the United Methodist News Service.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Worship in Summer

Last night, we began our new Saturday evening worship service at 5:30 PM. The service is held - weather permitting - in our outdoor chapel, surrounded by the lush, green beauty of God's creation.

The service itself is very casual, somewhat spontaneous, and a little less "churchy" than our Sunday morning practice. Acoustic guitar accompaniment (my first public venture of that type in well over a decade) led in a mix of songs from different genres, adding up to a pretty "folk music" sound. In the weeks to come, I hope to have my daughter Kate adding her fiddle to the mix, and I may play the harmonica now and then. A teen percussionist in our church will be joining us soon as well (once he's back from vacation). I preached in my typical, conversational, "folksy" style, which really matched the worship environment. Attendance was good but could get better.

All in all, a nice first service. We will hold these services throughout the summer. Our hope is to draw folks who don't normally "do" Sunday morning; there is no other Saturday service in the Pleasant Hills/Jefferson Hills area, other than one Roman Catholic mass (in which, as per official Roman doctrine, non-Roman Catholics are not permitted to participate). If the new service doesn't really work out, then we don't need to do it next summer; while I have high hopes, I don't want to commit the congregation to something that "doesn't work", and worship services can get entrenched fairly quickly.

Today, we also went to our summer Sunday schedule, with only one service at 9:30 AM. JUMC folks are big on traveling and vacations, and we tend to have a lot of folks "on the road" in the summer, which is great; one service suits our needs well during the hot months, at least for now (it was pretty full today, actually, so we'll have to see how things progress). This also means that, amazingly, I'm done by 10:30 or 11 AM, and free to be with Robyn and the kids. Good stuff.

We have a wonderful, growing church...last week we took in 5 new members and have 4 more "on deck". We live in a vital, vibrant growing area that is close enough to enjoy all the amenities of city life while still remaining a distinct suburban community, not too far from the beauty of the country. I have a knockout for a wife who exudes the grace of God, and four unbelievably loud but otherwise healthy children. I am blessed!

Friday, June 01, 2007

It was 40 years ago today...

On this date in 1967, EMI/Capitol Records released the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album. Without question, it is the most influential album of the rock and roll era, and arguably the most significant piece of Western music since Stravinsky's Rite of Spring.

If you've never listened to this masterwork by the twentieth century's most important musical artist, I urge you to do so posthaste.

The Beatles began recording the album near the end of 1966. Too tired from incessant touring to even think about hitting the road again, too burned out from controversies ranging from John Lennon's "bigger than Jesus" confusion to a disastrous stop in the Philippines which nearly cost the band their lives, and still by far the most popular musical act on the planet, the group decided to concentrate their efforts on recording an album of music which initially reflected their childhood memories from Liverpool, England.

The first fruits of these sessions were Lennon's achingly lovely "Strawberry Fields Forever" and Paul McCartney's "Penny Lane". Brilliant and far more complex than the pop music of the day, the songs were released as a 45 RPM single, quickly hitting #1 and still considered the greatest double-sided single in history.

Recording continued as the band felt free to experiment with new sounds and new approaches to pop songwriting (as well as popular drugs of the day, such as marijuana and LSD). While the Beatles toyed with their studio masterpiece, the Monkees took over the airwaves and Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys (with the aid of the brilliant session band known as the "Wrecking Crew") released the stunningly beautiful album Pet Sounds, which remains one of the true masterpieces of twentieth century music.

When Sgt. Pepper was released on June 1, 1967, it forever revolutionized popular culture, from the music to the artistic album cover to the thoughts, ideas, and freedom evident in the project. Music historians note that with Sgt. Pepper, popular music ceased to be music simply "to be danced to" and began to be music "to be listened to".

From the rocking intro of the title song (employing one of McCartney's all-time greatest "rock" vocals), to the brilliant simplicity of "With a Little Help from My Friends", to the psychedelic beauty of Lennon's "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds", to George Harrison's trip into Eastern mysticism "Within You Without You", to the dance hall memories of "When I'm 64", to the jaw-dropping experience of "A Day in the Life" (considered by many critics to be the greatest single recording of the twentieth century, and featuring perhaps the finest, most creative drumwork in rock and roll history, courtesy of Ringo Starr), and every song in between, the album is an adventure for the ears and the intellect.

If you're not a Beatles fan, you should be. If you've never listened to Sgt. Pepper, do your ears a favor and listen to it. If you've listened to it before, listen again and experience again God's great gift of music.