Thursday, August 09, 2018

Children of Blood and Bone book review

Tomi Adeyemi drafts an amazing world where magic was crushed by an oppressive government. The gods responsible for magic have retreated from the people. And the king actively oppresses those who have the visible telltale marks that could possibly allow them to tap into magic once more. Adeyemi's hero is Zeile, a headstrong and impetuous girl who leaps into action without thinking through the consequences. She bears the marks of a magic user. And her actions lead her on a quest to restore magic with the help of her gladiator brother and a runaway princess.

This isn't a simple quest story. This is a story of personal struggle. The author admits that this story, its characters, the world it takes place in, are all a reflection of the climate of racial tension that is present around us. Adeyemi writes in such a way that the emotions of our real world difficulties are present. Those emotions do not demand the reader to replace elements with real world counterparts. Those emotions do ask you to consider if there are biases or prejudices that may be hiding.

Adeyemi writes in a smooth style that is appropriate for younger readers, but deep enough to hold the attention of adults. Her storytelling switches among the points of view of the leading characters, including the antagonists. That may sound confusing but I found it to be easy to keep the characters easily separated. The characters are all unique and fleshed out somewhat well by this books end. There is a second part planned for release next year.

One word about the cover art. The cover is designed by Rich Deas. The front cover has a very beautiful style. The hardback edition that I purchased (mass market, no special edition) has a wonderful front flap with a foil and glossy design. I found that little detail to add to the overall beauty of the dust jacket.

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

The Come Back Effect book review

I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review.

The Come Back Effect lays out the approach that North Point Ministries uses in connecting with guests in an effort to bring them into the ministry regularly. Jason Young and Jonathan Malm come from a guest services background. The approach they highlight is very practical for churches to put into place.

The basic theme is the subject of hospitality. The overall message is one of moving the focus of a church from providing a comfortable environment for the established church to providing an intentional comfortable and welcoming environment for guests. The practical suggestions are about taking your current collection of people, training them for maximum hospitality toward guests, and then empowering to live out their individual personality and gift or skill set in welcoming people who may have never had contact with the church.

The strongest chapters that Young and Malm bring to this book are chapters on Recover Quickly (doing what you can to improve upon a failure in hospitality), Reject Okay (moving toward doing things better and better), and Values Over Policies (reinforcing a culture directed toward a set of core values instead of writing a binding policy for every conceivable event). But, by far, the best chapter has to be Reach for Significance. This drives home that the person who serves in the church needs to feel valued in the work they do. They need to be treated as a valued individual. And they, in turn, need to do their work creating that same value for the contacts they make with others. These 4 chapters are a solid framework for the rest of the material.

The weakest areas that I found, personally, are not faults in the approach. They stem more from my own point of view regarding hospitality in the church. It also comes from my own readings, especially of the best practices of the Walt Disney Company.

  • There are many allusions to Disney's way of doing things. There is language borrowed (knowing the guest, scenes, referring to the "story" that is being told, "bumping the lamp") that is fairly narrow to the training that Disney does. That is not a problem. Disney trains many organizations in their style of doing things. I found it troubling that there are no references to Disney's books or training over those approaches.
  • There is a backwards view on hospitality. Hospitality is defined from the beginning as being dependent upon the guest. "If {service} doesn't connect with the emotions of the guest, it isn't hospitality. Hospitality is about the feeling. (p.18)" "Hospitality is about caring for the emotions of the guest.... (p.20)" I come at hospitality from a biblical perspective where it represents the openness of the host to receive whomever enters in and treating them all, equally, to the same standard of sharing life. Even the enemy of ones family could not be treated less in a biblical understanding of hospitality. Plus, there is the theological aspect that God's hospitality includes all. None of this depends on or even has reference to the guests feelings. It is truly the feeling of the host.
  • That brings me to my last weakness of this book. There is a lack of clear connection to biblical themes of any sort. There are no references to Scripture to undergird the concepts. There are no theological aspects regarding love or grace. 
Overall, the book is a great resource for a church to discuss the practical aspects of hospitality. I don't feel that it is the first step a church should take in establishing a ministry of hospitality. If there isn't a firm grounding in the abstract aspects of unconditional love, grace, and the welcoming nature of God, then all of the practical work will be hollow in true Christian witness.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

My political affiliation

It isn’t easy reading the news. It isn’t easy to sit down at a table with a mixed group of people. It isn’t easy to share things on social media. The reason? Because politics seasons all of these. And sometimes, the seasoning is off putting. Have you ever put salt in a dish when sugar was called for? That is how some conversations go these days.

I think it is time to make some declarations about my politics. One, so others can judge me by my own position. Two, so I can look back on this and see development and change. Three, just so I can get a few things off my chest.

I don’t affiliate with a single political party or platform. Republicans and Democrats can’t agree within their own party on what they think is important. The two party system has limited the true freedom of expression and a realistic representation of all people in this nation. We are convinced that these two parties are the only “real” way government can be run. Strangely, the two we have are not the two we have always had as a nation. And what these two represent has changed and morphed even in my lifetime.

I don’t recognize a single platform because that narrows choice to “either or”. When we look at the lives people in this country, “either or” isn’t good enough. We are dealing with complex matters. When we deal with the complexities of abortion, immigration, taxes, business, or conflict, “either or” leaves a rather nasty taste in my mouth. I can’t see an “either or” choice working for a family who is living on the edge. One platform takes, the other platform gives, and neither considers what will work for that family. Republican or Democrat doesn’t allow for a broad understanding of the human dynamic of real life.

I don’t give anyone too much respect when it comes to the truth. Facts have become tools to be pulled out to tweak public opinion. Facts are turned against the opposing side, but not to prove a point. They are turned to destroy a position. Facts are tools and all tools are designed to destroy on some level. The problem is that in our current political climate, facts are not used to destroy in order to build up. They are fully employed to tear down.

I don’t believe that any political entity represents a Godly perspective. I believe that the separation of church and state was a means to keep the two powers in check. The church is not meant to govern. The state is not meant to disrupt the freedom of religious pursuit. One can inform the other. One can learn from the other. Both should be working together to pursue those ends to produce the best for the people. But government officials should not be seen as religious leaders. And government choices should be held accountable to the good ends that they are supposed to achieve.

The last bit will be a bitter pill for some to swallow. But this is my statement of my position.

I don’t owe allegiance to the United States of America. I owe allegiance to the Kingdom of God. To stand up for the United States of America as a nation under God means to put it in its proper place. The Kingdom of God is not the nation of America. The Kingdom of God has no national boundary lines. It has not limit of sovereignty. It has no shared citizenship. Citizens of the Kingdom of God have bowed to one Lord – Jesus Christ. We are strangers and resident aliens in the nations in which we live. The welfare of the Kingdom of God rises to the top of all concern. The nation we live in is a field in which we work. The temple of God (your life, my life) is the embassy. When we go about our day to day lives, we are ambassadors to the Kingdom in which is our true allegiance and the Lord and King who is our only true authority.

Any time we begin to put the interest of a politician, political party, party platform, or personal politic before the Kingdom of God’s law, then we have committed treason. There is a law that every citizen of the Kingdom of God is required to fulfill to remain patriotic citizens: love God with all that you are and love others which includes those we are bound to by blood and bond, those who are like us, those who are different from us, and those who would do harm to us. This law governs our behavior and motivations. If we seek to diminish this law in any way, we betray our Lord and Kingdom. If we put the position of a politician, political party, party platform, or personal politic in place, and it is contrary in even the slightest degree to the Kingdom of God, then we risk the wrath and judgment of the King and Sovereign Lord we submitted to.

My allegiance is to Jesus Christ and to him am I accountable through the Holy Spirit. If I speak in contradiction to Jesus Christ, then it is to him I am accountable. If I speak in contradiction to the dominant political climate, then may my words be measured by the message and law of the Kingdom of God. If I am wrong, according to the Kingdom of God, then it is my duty to my King to repent and seek forgiveness. If I am within the message and law of the Kingdom, then the question becomes, why is there a problem?

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Annual Conference Reflections, part 2

We were in the first day of business when the Health and Pension reports came up for approval. In the course of discussing our retired clergy's health insurance, a change was proposed. It was proposed that the Annual Conference would reduce the contribution to retired clergy member's HSA (health saving accounts) by $1,200 annually. This move was to take a conservative position for possible future down turns. This led to debate that was quite involved. Questions of how much surplus was available, and the position of conservative versus providing adequate care now were tossed about.

I sat there wondering a couple of things. One of these will sound horrible. The other will be only slightly less so.

The first was: Should a retired clergy member be allowed to argue for this issue? The primary question of the proposed change was brought forward by a clergy member who retired this year. Now, before anyone jumps to the comments to play whack-a-mole with me on this, let me clarify a couple of things.

First, I know that if the retired clergy don't defend their well-being, there is a good chance no one will. That is true for every demographic. There is a practical aspect to this that needs to be dealt with and I understand that.

But second, many of our younger generations have been brought to a different view on this. Big business and politicians have been publicly railed upon for feathering their own nests. The corporate profiteering and the governmental security has been targeted as gaining for themselves treasures on earth at the expense of others. The younger generations have seen this and heard the denouncement of these practices. And we have been taught that those are wrong. When a retired clergy member stands up to argue that they deserve more money, there isn't that much of a step from self-interested politicians or CEO's to pastors no longer active in ministry.

That was the horrible thing that ran through my mind.

This is the slightly less so.

There is coming a day when we are going to have to make the harder choices. We are going to reach a point where we won't be able to afford the active clergy, much less the retired clergy. The United Methodist Church is charging toward division, facing financial cuts and hardships due to declines in giving. We see a larger number of retirements looming in the next decade. We are seeing fewer people ordained to replace those numbers retiring. And we are closing churches. None of those numbers are matching pace with one another. Go figure.

We are going to reach a point where we are going to have to say, "I'm sorry but there is nothing left to give." And we are arguing over the lesser issues now. This was not a proposal to eliminate contributions to retired clergy. It was a reduction. It wasn't a projected move to eliminate them in the future. It was a conservative action given the current state of affairs. And no one knows what the next two years will bring.

Friday, June 01, 2018

Annual Conference Reflections 2018, part 1

As May has rolled around and out, the tradition of venturing to Annual Conference was recently partaken of. In other words, I had to attend the annual meeting of Oklahoma United Methodists to set our course for the coming year.

And, as I have done in some past years, this year I took notes to reflect upon when I arrived home. You are now party to the ramblings of a narrow mind. Not narrow in the sense of I don't see other perspectives. I just mean narrow in that my ramblings are the only ones you will read.

Clergy Executive Session is where I begin Annual Conference. This is the session where the clergy gather to vote on issues that pertain only to the ecclesiastical office. This is where we vote on clergy candidates and ordinands. As part of our tradition, we examine each ordinand with the historic Wesleyan questions for pastors. These are a set of questions that have been in use, in one form or another, since John Wesley examined pastors and preachers.

  1. Have you faith in Christ?
  2. Are you going on to perfection?
  3. Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?
  4. Are you earnestly striving after it?
  5. Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly to God and his work?
  6. Do you know the General Rules of our Church?
  7. Will you keep them?
  8. Have you studied the doctrines of The United Methodist Church?
  9. After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures?
  10. Will you preach and maintain them?
  11. Have you studied our form of Church discipline and polity?
  12. Do you approve our Church government and polity?
  13. Will you support and maintain them?
  14. Will you diligently instruct the children in every place?
  15. Will you visit from house to house?
  16. Will you recommend fasting or abstinence, both by precept and example?
  17. Are you determined to employ all your time in the work of God?
  18. Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work?
  19. Will you observe the following directions? a) Be diligent. Never be unemployed. Never be triflingly employed. Never trifle away time; neither spend any more time at any one place than is strictly necessary. b) Be punctual. Do everything exactly at the time. And do not mend our rules, but keep them; not for wrath, but for conscience’ sake.

 When I was ordained in 2002, question #18 was the one question that elicited snickers. Personally, I feel that #19 is the more difficult one to grasp in my life.

But as this year's ordinands were answering these questions, I wondered how they approached questions 9, 10, 11, 12, and 13. I had to wonder if any of our ordinands has questions of conscience. I had to wonder if any of them were answering the question because it was expedient to the end they were seeking.

In 2002, when I answered question 18, I was 4 years out of seminary. We had accrued more debt than I had ever thought possible. We had sought debt counseling and made some bad choices. There was debt in my life that I was finding difficult to manage. But I didn't think it would embarrass me in the work. I didn't feel that it would be a problem because debt was normal. Almost everyone else in my ordindation class had debts. All of us had pursued the preferred method of becoming an Elder in the United Methodist Church: undergraduate and then Master's degrees. That meant all of us had achieved a heft of debt to become that which God seemed to be calling us. That wasn't embarrassing. That was the price of doing the becoming.

We are currently in an atmosphere of crisis in the United Methodist Church. We are at a point where Clergy, Laity, Bishops, Congregations, Annual Conferences, and Jurisdictions of the denomination question the validity of points of our polity, discipline, doctrines, and harmony with the Bible. And those questions, those challenges, are not just grumbling. There is active non-compliance at every level of the denomination. We have actions that are active non-compliance with regard to homosexuality. We have passive (yet active non-compliance) resistance to the itinerant system. We see diluted understanding within the local congregations of our unique and historic doctrinal positions and active non-compliance with regard to knowing and keeping those positions.

I felt that I justified my answers to question 18. I was left to wonder and reflect on this: were there Elders ordained this year who disagree with our polity and discipline, who feel that where we are as a church is not in harmony with Holy Scriptures and how they justified their responses.

Thursday, May 03, 2018

Confused New Pastors

In a little over one month, I will taking the appointment as pastor to the Mooreland United Methodist Church. And I'm confused.

It isn't about the location or the job. It is about the transition. This will be my fifth appointment to a new church. There are always expectations of the new pastor on the part of the receiving church. There are also imaginations and excitement to do things on my part. In other words, there is always a degree of change that takes place. But the confusion comes with trying to grasp how much, how soon, how deep, how wide.

There was a bit of wisdom that was shared with me early in ministry. "Don't make any real significant changes in your first year." That doesn't seem like a long time in our rapid paced world. The idea behind it is that you don't want to appear to be throwing away the established way of things. That first year was supposed to be a time of learning the context: the people, the community, the history, and the sacred of the church. That first year was the chance to "earn" the permission to make change.

We are in a time of increased pace of change. It doesn't take a year to totally reverse the course of a congregation. It doesn't take long to lose the permission to make change. It is easy to be seen as the custodian of "the way it's always been done". A year's time is more than enough to legitimize the perception that change isn't necessary.

I have been reading a lot about making a successful move. There is a lot of advise to use the "honeymoon" period to make some change. It is a time to take advantage of the expectations and anticipation that a new pastor is going to make changes. Thom Rainer says this about the honeymoon phase:
Year 1: Honeymoon. Both pastor and church have a blank slate and they enter the relationship hoping and believing the best about each other. Perhaps the pastor was weary of his previous pastorate, and perhaps the church was happy to replace their former pastor. For a season, neither can do wrong in the other’s eyes. That season does not usually last long.
The sad thing is that this was from an article on why it takes 7 YEARS to become a congregations pastor. The honeymoon is only one seventh of the time it takes to become a pastor to a people.

But, Eric Geiger responds with this:
The pastoral honeymoon was such a recognized occurrence that people debated what the leader should do during the honeymoon. Some advocated that the leader make as many necessary but difficult decisions as possible during that time because the honeymoon allowed some cover to do so. Others advocated not making decisions during the honeymoon but simply getting to know the church and the people, thus extending the honeymoon as long as possible. But both groups agreed there was a honeymoon. It was a real thing. It may not be so anymore. It is at least shrinking.
Geiger identifies 4 reasons why this period of adjustment to a new pastor is shrinking. Due to cultural influence, our PATIENCE IS SHORTER. Spiritually, we have to accept the reality that in churches, COMMITMENT TO CHURCH IS WEAKER.  As a society, PEOPLE ARE LESS CONNECTED. And as a practical reality CHANGE IS HARD. I would say that he as a point on some of these that could be argued. Commitment isn't weaker, prioritization of church is lower. People aren't less connected, they are just connected to fewer people in different ways. Change is natural; accepting change is hard. But whatever side of those arguments you land on, the payoff is the same. Pastors don't have as much time of unmerited grace in the church when they arrive.

When it comes to quantitatively defining the honeymoon period, it is a moving target right now. Six to eighteen months WAS the standard. Now, I'm hearing 100 days. According to Bill Wilson of the Center for Healthy Churches, a pastor has 100 days to define their trajectory for ministry. But Robert Kaylor in Your Best Move: Effective Leadership Transition for Local Churches, a pastor has LESS than 100 days "before early opinions are formed that can make or break a pastor's tenure." (Wilmore, KY: Seedbed Publishing, 2013. Kindle version, location 744.)

The pastoral honeymoon has effectively been diminished to a first impression.

That is not to say that pastors are doomed to failure from the beginning if they step off on the wrong foot. I have made plenty of first month, first week, first Sunday bad impressions. I was able to recover in most situations. There have been a couple of times when I did not recover the relationship. But as I examine those instances, they were not about me. It doesn't really change the fact, though, that as a pastor, I don't have much time to create a positive outlook in the hearts and minds of some.

So now I am confused. Not about the time I have to make a good impression. I am confused about how to make the best impression I can in the limited time I have. Relationship building is key. And very challenging for a barely functional introvert. Respecting local tradition is important. But many times those traditions are the very thing standing in the way of progress and growth. Proclaiming the Kingdom of God is the highest function of the preacher. But in so many cases, that task is re-prioritized under chaplaincy and fulfilling personal attention requests. Leading a people to maturity in Christ is my calling. Tending to the clerical administrative tasks is my schedule filler.

The confusion of becoming and being a pastor in a new appointment is deep and real. Be in prayer for all of those transitioning into new appointments that they may serve the Kingdom of God by being the embodiment of Christ among a new people.