Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Editorial: American Church Idol

No, this has nothing to do with a singing competition with only CCM or hymns being sung. This has to do with a very real practice of idolatry that is being practiced in the American Church today. I have been chewing on a hunk of philosophical and theological gristle for a while now. Today was the day I finally got it worked on enough to get it out.

By the way, for disclaimer sake:
Due to the nature of the inflammatory, political, and potentially destructive nature of this post, it will not be shared on my social media platforms. If you are someone who desires to avoid issues that may be troubling to sensibilities, I suggest stopping here and returning to the platforms of communication you feel more at home with. If you wish to share this message, just ask my permission first.

There, that's the formal stuff out of the way.

I have been watching the landscape of the churches I have served very carefully for the entire run of my ministry. Almost 22 years of serving United Methodist congregations in Oklahoma has given me a perspective and context to speak from. I have served in southeastern, northeastern, western, northwestern, and panhandle churches. I come from a background of observing from an historical and sociological training with an analytical personality. And here is what all of that has led me to.

There is an atmosphere of idolatry within the American Church today that is being completely ignored and sanctified by the people who call themselves Christian. It doesn't apply to all people. It applies to a very clear majority, though. This can be clearly discerned from looking at the ongoing public evidence.

The idolatry that is being performed has a very invasive and divisive nature. It strikes at the level of home, work, church, media, and relationships. It destroys community. It wreaks havoc in relationships that are years, if not decades, old. It undermines the very fabric of who we are as a people of companionship. Yet it is an idol of even less substance than the idols that Isaiah attacks in 40:19-20

The idol that the American Church worships at the feet of is political idolatry. With an idol, an object is raised up to the place of central importance. Serving it becomes the lens through which all things must be seen. Anything that seems to impugn the character or veracity of that focus is demeaned and defended against. Anything that challenges the power of that becomes the object of rejection and aggressive retaliation. It is worth any cost to protect the idol, and its worship, its priests, its offerings.

That may seem like an overreaction. Maybe it is. Perhaps I am being emotional, overly dramatic. Perhaps I am naive to the ways of churches and their personalities and I have a very narrow view. But I defend my position on clear evidence.

Evidence #1: "It is not right to talk about politics from the pulpit." "People hear enough of that every other day of the week. We don't want to hear it on Sunday." "People come to church to get away from that kind of news."

Politics is pulpit material. You can't say Jesus Christ is Lord without bringing politics into the pulpit. You can't mention the kingdom of God without bringing politics into the pulpit. To not talk about politics from the pulpit means the law of Moses is out. It means you can't open the prophetic books. The birth narrative of Matthew is no longer appropriate. The use of Luke becomes questionable because of his use of political markers. Paul is no longer the apostle of the Gentiles because he dabbles with political musings. And do NOT read the book of Revelation.

Politics are written into the fiber of the Bible. It is written into the very nature of the Bible because we are political people. Politics are not just the party affiliations and rights to vote. Politics are the organizational cells we develop. Politics grows from the ancient Greek polis. A polis was the city-state, or citizenship thereof, at the heart of the meaning. The word was not just associated with geography. It also represented the governmental and religious association of the people.

Anywhere the believers of the Bible set their feet down in their own time, they would have encountered politics. They would interact with people who were associated with a way of governing themselves and believing. And when the believers of the Bible began to take on the same worldviews and behaviors of the surrounding polis, the source of the material in the Bible was speaking directly about politics.This means that the entire Bible is a political treatise. It speaks directly to the worldviews and behaviors of anyone who is conceding to the surrounding culture. It speaks directly to anyone who is standing in opposition to the surrounding culture.

If the Bible has relevance in anything today, there is nothing more relevant than addressing the polis we find ourselves living within. The American Church is a polis that is struggling to quiet anyone who holds the word and light of the Bible up to their attitudes and behaviors. If a preacher claims something from the Bible, or bases a position from the Bible, that contradicts the polis, then that preacher has overstepped the permission granted. That preacher is being impolite by speaking about something that isn't appropriate to address.

Evidence #2: The line between conservative and liberal, progressive and traditional, is a wall that will not be crossed. If we are going to cross that wall, it is to either overwhelm the opposing side with "facts" and opinions to sway them or to prove how wrong they are.

If anyone has made me liberal, it is conservatives. If anyone has made me conservative, it is liberals. We live in a world where differences cannot exist, even among fellow church participants. If I disagree with someone, they go out of their way to prove how wrong I am. They level as much passion and knowledge as they have to bury my ill-conceived ideas. If I don't agree, then there is something wrong with me. Therefore, it is now the task of those who are right to evangelize me to their point of view.

You can't get good church folk to go out and share the gospel because that is just too uncomfortable. But share with someone an idea that runs counter to their viewpoint, and they will  pull out all of the information they have accumulated through every news source they absorb to show you the error of your ways and how lost you are. If you feign acquiescence, they will sit back with a slight smile knowing they have accomplished the will of their god - another unbeliever now on the path to truth. If you push back, then it is time for a crusade. All the gloves are off and the infidel must be put down.

If you think this sounds a bit melodramatic, it is. That is, until you get around a conversation of people who are on opposing sides of their particular issue of choice. Abortion. Immigration. Capital Punishment. Assisted Death. Gun ownership and limits. Political party testaments and saints.

Oops, I meant platforms and players.

And when the Bible is brought into the mix, then there will be a retreading of the same verses that have been handled over and over. Those incantations are used to ensure that there will be no counter-argument. It's the Bible. It is the inerrant and infallible word of God. It says so in the book and you can't defend against it. Never mind that the other side has just as many of those incantations.

The loser in the battle at that stage is the Bible. When we start whipping out the sword of the Spirit, then it is a battle worthy of cinematic portrayal. The clanging of sword on sword. The sparks that fly when a strikes lands solidly or reverberation as a defending posture deflects a well meaning blow. The only thing that is produced is a dulling of the verses that are drawn. They lose their power and meaning when they are only used to attack and defend in a political ideology battle.

And I am certain that some people will read this and think that I am talking about the "other" side. That will bring to mind someone that you think will learn a lot by reading this. It may open their eyes and hopefully bring them some enlightenment.

And my point is proven.

This is my rant and no one else's.

Evidence #3: We will accept anyone as long as they say the right words. And if someone else offers a more correct point of view but uses the wrong words, then we choose the former.

When did political pundits, radio commentators, and media whores become prophets and apostles? About the time that the American Church began to faithfully listen to them. Preachers who bring a full understanding of scripture have a harder time gaining an audience. If we preach a message of social justice for the poor, the disenfranchised, the immigrant and alien, then those who believe against welfare, racial inequality, and public safety will cry "LIBERALISM". If we preach a message of heart transformation, faithful tradition, or adherence to boundaries long established, then the outcry will be "FUNDAMENTALISM".

Those poles have become totems. Totems are spiritual objects. They serve as symbols of something that has no significant form. It can be a totem to gather around for strength and security. It can be a totem to defend against something. Either way, it is a way to defend the faithful in whatever circumstance. When a preacher starts dipping into waters that go against the political stream of a church, that preacher encounters a totem against them. That totem has been built outside of that preachers authority and teaching. I can't think of a preacher worth their weight in gold who teaches contrarily to themselves. So a totem being built against their message is gaining spiritual resources from another source.

I have dealt with television and radio preachers for longer than my ministry has existed. A couple of the preachers that my style is influenced by were television preachers. I don't model my theology after theirs, but how I preach is influenced by them. And I encountered them in my teens. Now, as a pastor, I don't have to contend with style of preaching. I have to contend with the differences of theology. And I have to deal with the contradictions on understanding. And I have to deal with the totems that are raised when I deal with something that the other preacher does not have the integrity to deal with honestly.

I have come to a place in my ministry when I have written my last sermon. My last sermon will be called - The Feather. Every bulletin will have a nice feather included. Everyone will have one. And I will preach on the text regarding people having their ears tickled (2 Timothy 4:3, if you want to do some finger work). The sermon will be just a few words. "This is my last sermon. Here is a feather to put into your Bibles, if you care enough to bring one to church. When you hear a sermon you don't like, tickle your ear before you leave the building so you can say you got something out of church that day. Amen! I'm out!"

Paul considered the roles of the officers of the church to be prophets, apostles, evangelists, and shepherd teachers. The reality is that today's church has its prophets. They usually have a radio show. The apostles hold a seat in a political party or office or lobbying group. The evangelists are other preachers who have sold out their integrity to some agenda or platform. The shepherd teachers are the ones who offer the most rhetoric with the least amount of effort.

Evidence #4: "We shouldn't have denominations", but by God we better have political parties.

I hear more and more people who say, "There's really no difference between us and the church down the street. We should get rid of the names and signs and just work together." I can't type that without laughing hysterically to myself.

Denominations represent significant shifts in understanding regarding God and how God relates to humanity. Denominations existed in the New Testament period. Denominations have formed in every location the church has gone. The desire to rid the world of denominationalism shows a clear ignorance on the part of people in understanding what a church believes, what they themselves believe, and what the preacher is saying. People don't care enough to know what their denomination represents in terms of how people relate to God.

But they know every plank in the religious party's platform. They know every nuance of it. They can tell you where it comes from. They can provide scripture verses to support each plank (whether it is a Bible verse or some writing from a Founding Father is irrelevant to the issue). They can point out the weaknesses of the opposing party's counter plank. And they will defend their party's platform with their dying breath.

Evidence #5: The flag and the cross share equal representation, but we can't worship the cross without the flag giving us that freedom.

Patriotism is fine. Honoring the history and sacrifice of individuals is an important part of our heritage. But when the nationalistic urge overrides the message of the kingdom of God, then there has been a betrayal. Any Christian who would wave a nation's flag before standing for the kingdom of God is a traitor. Any Christian who would restrict the practice of authentic faith in the face of nationalistic zeal is rebellious.

The American Church wants to produce a Christian nation. That is absurd. They vainly pray that God will make the kingdom of God into the American Church. That is what they want produced. They aren't interested in subjecting themselves to the kingdom of God because that would require relearning the Bible. It would mean giving up some sacred ideas and practices. It would mean accepting people that were deemed "unacceptable" before. It would mean repenting for things that were "the way we always have done them". It would mean seeking reconciliation with people who have been written off as irreconcilable.

The kingdom of God should be our first loyalty. No qualification. No shared claim. If the flag were taken away tomorrow, we should still be working for the kingdom of God. Jesus Christ is the same Lord for Americans as he is for the Jews and Gentiles of the New Testament, the Europeans and Africans and Eurasians and Middle Easterners of the early church. He is the same Lord in black communities, Hispanic communities, Asian communities, or any other group. The flag does not define Jesus Christ, nor the kingdom of God. Jesus Christ embodies the kingdom just as the kingdom defines Jesus Christ.

In other words:
If you cannot separate your faith from your politics enough to see where your politics falls short of the kingdom of God and Jesus Christ, then you are worshiping the wrong god.

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.