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.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

An Epic Review for an Epic Movie: Avengers Infinity War

Marvel Studios’ Avengers: Infinity War has been a movie 10 years in the making. From the release of Iron Man, comic book fans have been watching and waiting for the unveiling of the Marvel stable of heroes on the screen. As more individual heroes were announced, there was a mixed bag of emotions about getting more of those heroes on screen. The first Avengers movie was nearly perfect in mixing multiple stars and heroes into a fun and exciting story.

But more heroes have been added and the stories have gotten bigger. The first Avengers movie set long-time fans up for the newest movie. You can't tease Thanos and not expect there to be a HUGE story to contain that villain. Enter Avengers Infinity War.

The movie is based loosely on the original comic mega-event, Infinity Gauntlet. There are some other, ancillary events and stories that flow into and out of that mega-event. It is, however, the foundation for what we have on screen right now.

Infinity Gauntlet was an anchor point story. Thanos becomes a major figure. The Infinity Gems (or Soul Stones as they were called before the name change) become a Mcguffin to be used and abused from that point forward. And the concept of leading hero death becomes a concept to be played with for years to come. There had been "lesser" hero deaths prior to that series, but with Infinity Gauntlet, the door was opened to the idea that a major player in the Marvel franchise could be wiped out.

Infinity War has been laying stepping stones for us to approach this story. Thanos is introduced. Infinity Gems are toyed with and then revealed. Heroes are raised up and teams band together (and are torn asunder). Captain America: Civil War was the chance to see what Marvel Studios could do with a massive cast. They did a great job in that movie. With Infinity War, the cast is bigger. The story is grander. The stakes are universal.

This is a Marvel epic. There is no other term to define this movie. It carries weight. It isn't just the length of the movie, or the budget, or the cast list. This is a movie that will only receive its justice on the big screen. This movie is a stand alone piece (well, with its second part coming out next year) that sets the tone for all of the movies before and that will come after.

And it is my humble opinion that it is nearly perfect.

This movie took the concept of the Marvel mega-event and created a perfect representation for the movie screen. Marvel made the mega-event a staple of the comic book industry. It was a mechanism to sell toys with Secret Wars. It was such a huge success for comic book sales, though, that it began the tradition of introducing a single event that involved multiple issues, characters, and eventually titles. The age of the crossover was born in Marvel comics. Infinity War captures the pure essence of those events.

Each vignette of the separate stories represents a single issue of the main story. Consider it a crossover series. You have Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy Team-Up, Strange Tales of Iron Man and Doctor Strange, Team Captain America and (the remnants of) the Avengers. These are the individual stories. They are telling their own mini-narrative. They are then woven together tighter and tighter until they begin to bleed into one another. We are then left with a battle on two fronts composed of diverse non-team members now fighting together. That is pure Marvel story craft.

In the movie, it is pulled off perfectly. The dialogue is a little jammed at times. They don't have a lot of time to mesh teams together, so there is a need to expedite the conversations. That is handled with the flair that each of the characters has displayed in their own separate movies. We don't loose the character to force the story.

By the time we reach the climactic battles, we are not looking at a perfect team of heroes working together. We are looking at a perfect Marvel team of heroes because their imperfections and faults are on display as much as their powers. That leads to conflict among the ranks that raise the stakes. One of the faults of the DC television hero shows is forcing interpersonal conflict to build a false sense of drama. Infinity War puts its character conflicts into balance with the larger story. We are not forced to accept their inner struggles or rivalries as some trope to be checked off a list. We are drawn into that "awkward moment" to see how it will be resolved.

There were two individual hero stories that establish for us this need to see it resolved. Both involve deep emotional issues. We see the problem. We know the solution. But we have to watch as they sort their own story out. And neither of them do by the end of this movie. We didn't get the "happy ending" for either of these characters. Instead, we leave the movie with them in their own "awkward moment" unresolved.

I confess to be a story purist. I don't want someone playing around with the story I know, even if I may not love it. There are some things that are just sacred to me. Story is one of them. As I have mentioned already, Infinity War is built upon the story of Infinity Gauntlet. I don't feel that I am downplaying the importance of that original story. There have been some story tweaks that have been a little questionable.

Infinity War is the best Infinity/Soul Gem story written to date.

If this had been a comic book mega event, it would be one of the legendary stories. This would have fallen into line with Secret Wars, Crisis (in the DC verse), or any other mega event story line. This would have been a series that would have been referred back to for its impact. As a movie script, though, it loses its impact on the comic book universe. That is its greatest weakness.
There is a little crossover between screen and page right now. The impact that movies have on the books is undeniable. But this will not be seen as one of the great comic book stories. This will only be the movie that told a different story than what is known. Because it was based on the established Infinity Gauntlet story, it doesn't have enough leg to stand on its own. It will only be able to be compared to the original. That is sad because it far outshines the source material.
There is so much dead weight and dross in the original story. It gets tiring to read. I remember reading it when it originally came out. I was ready for the next book before I finished the newest one, just so the story would get somewhere. Infinity War loses a lot of that original dead weight. It streamlines the story telling. It brings the characters to the center of what is happening. It displays them prominently. I didn't want this movie to end. And I am cranky that I have to wait for next year to get the next one.

And because this movie is not a complete story, we have to wait to see the end. That is exciting, but also worrisome. This movie was done excellently. The chemistry and movement of the plot was carried off so that I cared about what was being told, not shown. I want to see how character stories are resolved. I want to see how they incorporate and adapt the ending of the Infinity Gauntlet story line. I want to see how they deal with characters that are dead and gone, and actors who are supposed to be gone after the next movie. But I am also afraid that they will lose the energy. I am worried that they will sell out the stories they have set up to get to a "grander" resolution. I am concerned that the need to tell one story will outweigh the need to tell all of the stories.

I don't catalog favorite movies anymore where Marvel and Disney movies are concerned. They all get logged together. Any Marvel movie will be in the category of favorites. But Infinity War stands out among the best Marvel movie made. And it stands out as Marvel's first epic film.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

God Said No, But the Church Said Go

God said no and the church said go.
Numbers 14

God unleashes a curse upon the Israelite’s because they allowed the fear of the 10 spies to influence them into turning back to Egypt. They gave up the land of promise for the hope of slavery. They selected a captain of the host to lead them back across the wilderness, around the sea, and into the welcoming arms of the ruler of Egypt. God doesn’t want them to get the chance. But Moses intercedes and God’s curse is moderated to prohibition. Only the spies who sparked fear will pay with their lives. The rest of those who were filled with fear and rejection will never see the land of promise.

The people respond with weeping and suffering, right? No. They grab their swords and spears and make way for the border. They will take the land by force. Wasn’t that what God intended? A holy war was to be proclaimed against these heathen and pagan inhabitants. God would make war, through the Israelite people. Victory was their promise. And God’s promise is certain. They had God on their side and would be triumphant in their war to purge the land.

The American Church has responded to the curse of God in this age in a very similar way. They have joined in battle against the inhabitants of the land to claim what they believe is the God-given promise. This land is our land. One nation under God. And that god is our God. All will have to recognize that one sovereign authority. In God we trust and believe that we are the righteous victors in whatever battle is placed before us. The Culture War. The Morality War. The Political War. The Christmas War. The War with Gays.

The American Church has turned its eye to the borders and seeks to unseat the inhabitants from what they believe is their ordained place of promise. The American Church is the seat of authority. It is the heart of morality. Culture and Politics have been co-opted and corrupted by liberal pagan influences. They don’t understand morality. They are heathens. They don’t have authority because only God and the Bible are the authority. As long as you read the Bible the same way the American Church does and worship God in the same spirit.

The American Church has picked up the swords of biblical inerrancy to claim that nothing in the Bible is wrong and that it is just as true today as it has always been. But ignore those things that don’t apply to us. They have picked up the spears of righteous indignant judmentalism to proclaim what is godly living and behavior. But don’t try to push the blunt end of the spear back at our own failings and unrighteousness. There is only one true judge, and the American Church gets to be the only proxy voice of what is good and what is evil.

The great mistake of the Israelite’s is that they forgot to take God with them into battle. Moses (the word of God), Aaron (the priest of God), Joshua (the war leader of God), and the Ark (the presence of God) all remained in camp. The mob moved against the inhabitants of the land of Canaan. And were repelled because of the power and authority of God was not theirs to draw upon.

As we survey the battlefronts that the American Church is fighting along, we see them losing ground. The power to influence their communities has weakened. Their power to sustain a moral example and witness is diminished. The authority to speak on behalf of God has resulted in an increasing number of Americans claiming to be atheist. Their authority to act on behalf of Jesus Christ has produced a general feeling that he is just another mythological creature; like a unicorn in a toga. But still they fight their battles

They don’t see the wounded piling up in their own congregations. They don’t see the broken people right outside their doors longing for someone to bandage them up, or even heal them as the mythological Jesus did. They don’t notice homes that are wrecked, schools that are shot up, neighbors being evicted, the hungry cry for food or the homeless longing for a shelter. They just see it as the fault of culture. Too much sex and violence in media. Not enough personal responsibility to get and keep a job to provide for themselves and their family. They just don’t come to church because if they had enough God in their life, God would fix their problems.

Well, God did do something to fix their problems. God said go and the church said no.

Now, the American Church wants to fight the evil that is growing in their world. They want to put gays back in the closets or cast those demons out of them because the God of the American Church needs them to be straightened out before they can worship. They want to put Mexicans and Middle Easterners and Asians back in their homelands because this is a land given to the American Church and those kinds (Catholics, Muslims, and Buddhists) don’t know how to live good lives and love their neighbors like we do. They want to arm teachers to kill those bad students to protect the good students, without killing anyone else in the process. They want to see Hollywood made pure and D.C. made godly. They want the power and authority they once heard was promised to them so they can make this nation a Great Christian Nation once again.

Only God said no but the American Church said. “Go.”