Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Reflections on Annual Conference 2017 - The Changing Needs of Churches

Reflections of Annual Conference 2017 - The Changing Needs of Churches

Yesterday I commented on the life cycles that churches go through. There is birth, life, and death. All three are part of the experience of being a community. I also made the implication that death is the outcome for a church that cannot change to adapt to the change in community around it. One of the statistics that was brought up during Annual Conference this year was the positive growth that we have seen in our Annual Conference in the area of hands on mission. Everything else in our work as churches has declined. Our attendance and Sunday School/Christian education has declined. Our membership has declined. Our financial giving has declined. But the time and effort people gave to DO something has increased significantly.

This is a change that churches need to adapt to or die.

If a church believes that showing up to sing archaic or peppy songs is drawing new people in (or even connecting with long enduring people already in the church), then it is wrong. If a church believes that the preacher or Sunday School teacher or the evangelism committee is going to convince new people (or even long enduring people already in the church) to invest in the life of the church, then it is wrong.

People are active. People want to know that what they do makes a difference. People are doers. The days of passive church are waning. There are some hold-outs. There are plenty of churches that believe that the work of the kingdom involves hymnals and quiet time for 45 minutes. But the statistics seem to point that those churches are missing the change of the community around them. Active churches are seeing engagement. They are connecting with people. If a church makes the effort to DO something, they are going to attract new people (and long enduring people who have been wanting to DO something).

Missions is a loaded term. It conjures up trips to some far off place, staying in uncomfortable lodging, getting dirty and stinky, and being generally in a unfamiliar environment. Or it springs the old stereotype of going to Africa to bring the gospel to primitive people. Missions were replaced with missional giving to help people feel better about not going "out there" and to give the false impression that they were doing something. But that isn't what mission is about.

The Kingdom of God is about making lives better for people. And that begins right where you are. There are people around us that need to experience the Kingdom. It doesn't take building a cement block house in Mexico or running a clinic in Central America, or teaching English in China. There are hungry children in our neighborhoods. There are people whose houses are not safe to live in. There are people who feel that no one loves them, cares about them, or remembers them. Those are people in the field ripe for the harvest of experiencing the Kingdom of God. And it doesn't take traveling to a foreign country. It doesn't take getting dirty. It may be a little uncomfortable. It may require a little effort. But it is what makes a difference in people's lives.

Churches can change and do this. It doesn't require a startup fund to do some of these things. You don't have to be trained (but it may help prevent doing something stupid). It only takes a desire to see the church as a community that can DO something.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Reflections of Annual Conference 2017 - Life Cycles

Reflections on Annual Conference 2017 - Life Cycles of Churches

Every year at Annual Conference, we vote on the discontinuance of churches within the boundary of the AC. It is never a cheery moment. It is a reminder of the nature of life and death. This year, Bishop Nunn commented on that cycle of life and death of churches. I believe that churches need to be aware of their life AND death.

We don't have a long history in the USA when we talk about churches. I have been in church buildings in Russia that are hundreds of years old. Many Oklahoma churches are celebrating their century + anniversary lately. And 100 years is a nice number to mark. But when we think about all of the churches that have come and gone in 100 years, 200 years, or even the last 1900 years, then the number of churches that have been birthed, lived, and died, we have to be honest about a cycle that happens with churches.

Now, I know that no church wants to think about dying. A church is a place of memories, powerful moments of sacred life, life transitions, and people who we love. As followers of Christ we concentrate on life, new birth, and resurrection. Death makes us a little uncomfortable at times (most times). When we talk about the death of a church, it seems as painful as losing a friend or family member. It is necessary, though, to look at the probability of our church's death.

Death is not always a bad thing, though.

A church is born out of the community that surrounds it. A community is then born within the church. There is a pattern that we can see in churches. Eventually a change happens and the community inside the church loses connection to the community outside the church. It is possible for a church to reconnect with the surrounding community. Maybe the community surrounding the church has changed nature. People move or demographics change and the community is no longer what it was when the church was birthed. A church has to "die" to what they were in order to stay in contact with the new community.

It is prideful and ego-filled to assume that the community surrounding the church should change to meet the community identity within the church. The reality is people from the community will seek out a place to belong that identifies with them or is willing to adapt to who they are. If a church refuses to change (die to self), they will not be able to connect with the community among whom they reside. And as long as a church will not adapt to the surrounding community, it will have to honestly accept that its death (closing its doors) is imminent.

Dying to self is not a bad thing. It is what all Christians must do in order to be in connection with Christ. Dying to self is the only way to receive Christ as Lord. Getting ourselves out of the way makes it possible to follow Christ along the Way. That isn't a bad thing.

And adapting to the community does not mean forsaking fundamental Christian identity. It means slaying sacred cows that stand in the way of being a welcoming community. It means killing behaviors that exclude new people, strange people, different people. It means letting go of "that is how we have always done it" to be able to connect with newer innovations that may actually be better. It means allowing the attitude of "our way is the right way" to die its full and final death.

But death is still sad.

It is possible to experience a "good death" and it will still be sorrowful. It may be necessary for something to die. It doesn't wipe out the life transitions or sacred moments. Those were days of life and new birth and resurrection. The death, as good or inevitable as it may have been, is still a time of grief. It deserves to be recognized and grieved over.

That happened for me at Annual Conference this year. One of the first churches that I served as a Local Licensed Pastor was discontinued. The Stuart UMC was one of three churches that I served in the year between college and seminary. It was a wonderful church of good people. It was one of the places I felt the affirmation to continue in ministry. Lisa and I were showered with love and gifts before our wedding. I learned to preach through distractions (like preaching with a child on my hip who wandered to the front of the church).

This was the third church that was discontinued that I have served. It was a sorrowful and painful time of grief. I had to face the futility of ministry in knowing I gave of my life and it wasn't enough to continue the church. I poured myself out, but death was still inevitable.

But ours is a faith of new birth and resurrection. My prayer is that somehow a new community will give birth to a community within a church that can share life and sacred moments in Stuart, Alva, and Camargo.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Reflections on Annual Conference 2017 - What is the UMC? part 5

Reflections of Annual Conference 2017 - after the fact

Where does the UMC exist?

I think this question has been at the center of our exploration of mission and purpose for a number of years. It has been central to our Annual Conference through structural change, leadership change, and focus of vision. It has been, and still is, a center of our current struggles as a denomination. The issue of existence relates to identity, structures, priorities, and connection to one another as United Methodists.

Four things come to mind:
  • Does the UMC exist as local congregations that are resourced by a structure and system?
  • Does the UMC exist as a structure that is resourced by local congregations?
  • Is it regional entities that are connected to a global fellowship?
  • Is it a global system that is made up of diverse (and disparate, contrary) units?
These are not questions that should answered with yes or no, and then be done. These questions are meant to focus our attention on what they mean for our life together as United Methodists. The answer is yes to all of them. At various levels of our identity, each of these are true and applicable statements. But the burden that each question puts upon our identity and existence needs to be duly and heavily considered.

I have been pastor to congregations that did not see themselves as United Methodist. Yet they received pastors appointed to them by the Bishop. They contributed to ministries that were important to them that were possible only through the Annual Conference. They occupied property that was not theirs (even though they chafed at this). They represented a desire to be more congregational in operation, yet they could not stand without the support of the structure and system they were part of.

I have been a member of the Annual Conference and have had to remind structural representatives that what works for some churches doesn't fit every church. Representatives of Annual Conference agencies have shown expectation of every local church to react the same way. But sometimes there are not the resources. The expectations we have on a local church for ministry or outreach or full connectional giving are unrealistic when there are 4 people who attend regularly. The expectations that are laid on a congregation to use technology or media resources to do the administrative work when there isn't a computer, technological resource center, or even reliable technological infrastructure ignores the fact that Oklahoma is behind the times and that parts of Oklahoma are barely into the 1980's when it comes to technology and communication media. The conceit that we have in saying that every church should shoulder its fair share of the ministry, while not paying adequate attention to the deficits of the local congregation in financial resource is to be blind to our current reality.

I have been part of a history and tradition that has said that we have boundaries that unite us. There is a Discipline and order to how we work. But there has been a lot of talk of doing things differently because we think differently. We in the USofA do things much differently (and I have heard some ego saying "better")  than other parts of our fellowship around the world. I have heard plenty of voices saying, "Hey, if they want to act that way, then they should leave and find their own way instead of disrupting our way."

And I have spoken in multiple places of the division that exists within the UMC. It is contrarian at its extremes. All 4 sides are pulling against one another. They all want a UMC that is defined by their own definition, their own view of identity. I don't think that I'm too far off base when I say that those who lie closer to the middle are being broken as much as the denomination is being stress. And by middle I mean people like myself who are related to persons in all 4 camps. There are some of us who know what each side is saying and are empathetic to what they are wanting to accomplish.

Until we determine what the UMC is, and all agree that is what the UMC is, it may all be a series of running debates.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Reflections on Annual Conference 2017 - The Hard Question. Part 4.

Reflections of Annual Conference 2017. This was written after returning home from Annual Conference.

The Circle of Care represents our ministry to children in the state of Oklahoma. We operate homes and foster care programs to give children a safe place to belong and a nurturing environment to help them grow healthy. Circle of Care does great work. They announced that they want to build new houses where there aren’t houses to grow this ministry. There is a need for ministry like this happen in the state. Oklahoma has a terrible foster care and child welfare record. There are more children who need a place to belong than there are places for them to go. And we have a strong ministry history doing this work through Circle of Care.

As we move into a reality that asks “what is vital?”, how could we say no to this work? Our overarching mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. And there is transformation that happens through children ministered to through Circle of Care. But does that directly impact our declining state? Does the work that they do alter our future course?

Business models are horrible ways to approach ministry. But when we start talking about building homes and increasing support, there is a need to consider returns on investments. What is a life worth? I don’t know that we can weigh what the future potential of a child is over their lifetime. But I know that we have to ask the hard questions going forward. This is one of those subjects. This will present an overwhelming task for our future. I don’t know how we could possibly say, “No, we can’t pay for this ministry to continue.” But as we continue to decline, it may come to that decision and declaration.

Vital ministry isn’t easy to tack down. It is no easier to define than effective ministry. For every child that is a success, that would be a vital ministry. But there is no question that a lot of resource will be paid out to make that child successful. And it will happen in the context of churches continuing to dwindle down in attendance and financial resource.

Reflections on Annual Conference 2017 - The mission. Part 3.

Reflections of Annual Conference 2017. This was begun during Annual Conference last week.

In the Conference Lay Leader report, we heard that we have been desiring the exact same thing for 55 years: to make disciples. In 55 years, we have not found an effective way to do what we claim is our purpose and what we have been entrusted with as our legacy by Christ. And 55 years ago, there was a respect and honoring of what the church represents. Today, that respect is gone and the church does not hold the honor it once did because it is deemed to represent something completely different in the hearts and minds of many. Even within our congregations, there is no wide scale interest in increasing the discipleship of members. Neither is there a sense of urgency in seeking out persons who may be marginally or non-religious. The prevailing attitude remains where it was 55 years ago: people who are seeking something will come to church. That is no longer a viable perspective.

The greatest revelation I have had this year at Annual Conference is the honesty I have heard about the division we are experiencing. I believe that there is some honest declaration of division that exists. And it is causing fear and denial to a greater degree. While we are clearly stating that there is division, there is also a louder cry “we must be united”.

I am completely torn. I have commented in writing and conversation that there are 4 sides in the current dividing atmosphere of the United Methodist Church. The sides are represented by the general description: traditional/conservative, progressive/liberal, united without reference to our differences, and united with respect to our differences. These last two refer to a simpler generalization of “we must be united in spite of our differences” versus “we can be united and maintain our differences”. I argue that we cannot sustain our way forward in this type of environment. I argue that we cannot currently find a common ground because the sides are distancing themselves from one another. I argue that in this environment, we will not be able to continue to work together in ministry. And our witness is only going to continue to decline among the general population.

I do not desire the division and/or dissolution of the United Methodist Church. I dislike the divisions that exist. I believe that we are limping along, and will continue to limp along, in anything that we attempt until there is some clear decision made on how we will move forward into the future.

Reflections on Annual Conference 2017 - The Budget. Part 2

Reflections of Annual Conference 2017. This was written last week during Annual Conference.

During our pre-conference budget session, we heard that the budget is being cut by less than 2%. That number is a very conservative response to the deficit we experienced. And it will not be adequate for the continued decline we will experience. Please understand that I am not being pessimistic. I am stating projections that are based on trends that cannot be reversed swiftly. We are declining in people and financial support. We are losing ground in the effort to draw people into our churches. These declines are going to continue for some time. We may see some relief with a rebound of oil and natural gas industry. That cannot be guaranteed, though. And it will only address the financial shortfalls many of our congregations are experiencing. What we can be certain of is that for the next few years, the numbers will slide below the previous year’s. The budget will not be sustainable for too much longer by making minor adjustments. There will come a point when we have to ask the hard questions of what will we cease to do.

But that question of doing does not have to interfere with our being. We are fully capable of continuing in ministry as United Methodists. It may just mean that we do smaller things together and center more things within regional partnerships of churches. Even the district model may be too bulky. There is no effective way to have our southeast, southwest, and northwest districts in ministry together in their respective areas. I believe that we will be required to draw 3, 4, 5, or 6 churches together to make an impact in their region.

I believe one area that will be necessary in the near future (before my retirement) will be returning to a model of ministry that resembled the early circuit riding ministry of frontier “churches”. I put that in quotes because the concept of church will need to undergo a transformation. Ministry will have to be relocated in the members who make up the church. There will not be a pastor available to the congregation full time. It isn’t that we won’t have pastors. Churches will not be able to support a pastor by themselves. It will require that multiple churches together support a single pastor. 3, 4, and possibly 5 churches will need to partner together to support a clergy person.

But if the congregations will become the center of mission, then we have to face the reality that the Annual Conference will not be able to do as much. Some ministries will cease to function. There will need to be a discernment of what is absolutely necessary as a structure. Will that mean that our favorite ministry will be discontinued? It may. And I am not the one to answer the follow up question: which ones? I am more convinced that starting at zero may be the most effective way. By starting at 0 ministry, we swiftly discover the necessities. I realize this is not practical. But neither is continuing to meet the realistic decline with unrealistic adjustments.

Reflection on Annual Conference 2017 part 1

Reflection of Annual Conference 2017. This was written a week ago during Annual Conference.

Each year at Memorial Day, United Methodists from across Oklahoma gather to discuss ministry and functions of administering the life of the people called United Methodists in Oklahoma. Each year we hear reports of what has been happening and looking forward to future efforts.

I am writing this as I sit in session. Contrary to my reputation, I do attend. There are years when it is more difficult to do so. I struggle with my role and my effectiveness (or perceived lack thereof). I struggle with identifying with colleagues. I struggle with being inferior and not worthy of the calling to which I live into every day. This year I am more positive than some years. But I am still struggling.

As I listen to colleagues in United Methodist mission, I think there is a sense of struggle as an Annual Conference. There is an air of unease among the gathered people. There are questions about the future of how we will go forward. There are questions of how we can afford the ministry we desire to do. There are questions of expanding ministry in a period of declining resources. And there are questions of how does a church with significant differences and mounting divisions continue to work together under a single banner of United Methodism.

As we move through the business of Annual Conference, I am making observations. There are things that rise to the surface of my thinking. Things to which there are no easy answers for or solutions to achieve.  I will share some of these observations here and post my understanding and own reflections as I am able.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Who is feeding the church?

Working through the sermon for this week, I ran into a question that really needs to be processed in the larger arena of a church. Who is responsible for a disciple's spiritual "feeding"?

The impetus for this thought really grows out of the complaint I have heard too often: I am just not being "fed" at this church/by this pastor?

I have my suspicions on what is meant by this. It isn't a reference to potluck dinners, either. It has to do with the subjective sense of having desires or expectations met. When the desires or expectations are not being met, it would seem to make emotional sense to seek those desires or expectations out somewhere else. There are two questions that need to be asked, and a really hard illustration to prove this wrong.

First the questions we need to ask:
  1. Is the church not fulfilling its purpose to help one another grow and mature?
  2. Is the person participating fully in the effort to become mature and to grow?
The answers to these questions will bring us to action points. If the church is not fulfilling its purpose to help each other develop into the maturity of Christ, that is evident from New Testament expectations, then a local church needs to change its operation. There are plenty of churches who are falling short in this arena. We notice these churches by the decrease in mission and the increase in social gatherings. We can get a hint that a church may be the reason when the use of energy is about meeting the wants of the present congregation instead of the congregation seeking out the needs of the community around them to do something about them. We know that a church is moving in this direction when Bible study and accountability are exchanged for "political" rallies and parties.

There are churches than need to tighten up on the purpose that they are mandated with: make disciples for Jesus Christ. That is stated by Christ when he tells the disciples to go into all the world and baptize and teach. That is the purpose made clear through Paul's teaching on the body of Christ. Churches can fall down on "feeding" the people who make up its members. If the answer to the first question is no, then a church needs to refocus on why they are there.

If the first question seems to be a fair "yes" then we move to the second question. Participation is mandatory on the part of individuals. When a person is baptized, their connection to a body of believers carries a responsibility to active participate in the life and ministry and work of that church. We do not join churches for the membership privileges. We join a church to participate in the body of Christ. We become a part of the ongoing work of Christ's mission in the world. It is a never-ending effort to bring the kingdom of God to the world. We are part of the mission to transform lives and bring release, restore the broken, heal the wounded, and bring hope to the hopeless. The kingdom mission cannot continue in a given area unless churches in that area are filled with active, participating disciples. If the answer is no to the second question, then the person is individually accountable to failing in their promise as a follower of Christ. They need to repent, step in, and do something different.

If the answer to both questions is no, then I believe we are seeing a vacuum of Christian witness. If the church is not building people and individuals are not participating at any level, then no one is doing the work of Christ in that area. And if neither want to change, then it is best to close the door, wipe your feet, and move on to using your time in for more productive things (according to your own needs). Christ can bring life back to the dead. If there is no desire to become something new and different, though, Christ won't do anything. To bring more of the same life to a church will only produce more death of spirit.

Now for the hard illustration.

Leaving something wherein a commitment was made just because desires or expectations are not being met is not the answer. The illustration to look toward is a marriage. When a couple get married, there are desires and expectations that each carry into that marriage. If there is no communication of those, then fulfillment of those are only going to be accidental. If there is communication regarding desires and expectations, and they continue to be unfulfilled, then that requires intervention and accountability or transformation of those desires and expectations. If neither party is willing to change, then it is likely moving toward divorce. But I would ask if they were ever truly married to begin with. If they were only interested in serving their own desires and moving for the fulfillment of their own expectations, they were never married in a true sense. They were only seeking after a servant to meet their needs.

The church is made up of people who are supposed to sacrifice their own needs, their own way, to serve the Master and Lord. The Lord has made it clear that serving him requires serving others, sacrificially. If we are not joining churches to serve others, then we are going to be disappointed and disillusioned. If we are joining a church for our needs to be met, we will go very hungry.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

The Latest on the United Methodist Church

On Friday evening, the 28th of April, the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church released their decision regarding some very challenging issues that are at the top of our life together as United Methodists. There were various topics of law and Discipline within the denomination. The dominant case that so many were waiting for was the case of a bishop who was in consecrated and appointed while also being in a same-sex marriage. The declaratory decision that was requested of the Judicial Council was - is this allowed within the church law?

There are plenty of statements regarding the official word is about the UMC's Discipline. The situation that we currently work under revolves around those statements of homosexuality and incorporation of LGBTQI persons into the full life of the UMC. I don't have anything to contribute to the ongoing conversation which I have already commented upon. I want to focus on the decision of Judicial Council regarding our bishops.

The most obvious thing to deal with is that the decision does not make anyone completely happy. The bishop had her lifestyle declared as "self-avowed homosexual". Her same-sex marriage was declared to be avowing a lifestyle of homosexuality. And lets be honest about our current state of definitions: homosexuality is about sexual activity and not attraction to or relational status with people of the same gender. This declaration broadens the definition of same-sex marriage to include same-sex sexual activity. And it should.

The normalization of same-sex marriage should receive the same level of expectation regarding sexual activity. There is a lot of statistical data that would support that marriage does not necessarily mean that sexual activity is required, but the commonly held standard of healthy marriage includes regular sexual activity. If we are to assume that same-sex marriages are to be accepted as normal, then the normal definition of a healthy marriage (including sexual activity) would be applicable to those marriages.

I feel this was a common sense ruling. Even if we don't deal with it enough or sufficiently enough to address it as part of our lives, sexual activity in marriage is part of the expectation. If those who desire to see the status of same-sex marriage as normal, then sexual activity is not out of bounds. Especially when we talk about fidelity of marriage as an expectation of clergy within the UMC.

But does this open all clergy up to an examination of their sexual practices? Maybe it should.

This leads us into another decision of the Judicial Council. Another decision gave direction that Boards of Ordained Ministry (the group in a local Annual Conference {the boundaries and organization of a collection of UMC churches and clergy} who handles examination and approval of clergy candidates) to include examination of "all provisions relevant to pastoral ministry, including issues of sexuality". This puts the Board of Ordained Ministries on task to ask "what is your sexual activity like" of any prospective clergy member. And it could open the door to examining the clergy of all standing within the Annual Conference. It is not outside of the consequences of this decision.

But back to the bishop.

The bishop in question, Bishop Karen Oliveto, was declared as being outside of the boundaries of church law due to her marriage. But the Judicial Council also decided that they are not in a position to interact with her consecration or appointment as a bishop. The Judicial Council declared that she is "good standing" and was at the point of time when she was consecrated and appointed. This sounds like they are waffling or being wishy-washy. The reality is that they are standing by the rule of law of the  United Methodist Church.

Bishop Oliveto was elected to become a bishop with no outstanding question to her qualities or qualification to become bishop. That is a historical fact. The issue of her being in a same-sex marriage is not at issue here. If there is an issue of law, it is that persons within her Annual Conference did not bring charges against her. But since that did not happen, she was brought forward as a bishop candidate. Her election was clear of question. And the Judicial Council does not have the authority to undo nor remove her from her position as bishop. This is fair.

Her appointment as bishop was challenged because some believe she was in violation of the church law. The Judicial Council agreed with that position. But to remove her through action of the Judicial Council would violate the same church law. Judicial Council has authority to rule on the legality of actions. They do not have the action to undo what another United Methodist body has authority to do. The Judicial Council put the issue back upon the jurisdiction and the bishops of that jurisdiction to take action. This is the appropriate thing to do so that the order of the UMC can be maintained.

This does not immediately change anything. It does put in place a course of action that someone needs to begin in the northwest region of the US UMC. It also puts more weight upon the outcome of the commission that has been challenged to examine where we are as a united church. When the called special session of General Conference (the organizing authority of the Unite Methodist Church) happens in 2019, there is supposed to be a "way forward" for the people called United Methodist. Until that time, there are a lot things that can happen.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Why Dungeons and Dragons?

There is a revival of role-playing games happening right now. In particular, the progenitor of most role-playing games is seeing a surge in popularity and publicity. Dungeons and Dragons is becoming a media license unlike it has ever been. And I love it!

Dungeons and Dragons is a game that is played among of group of people. In past incarnations, it involved little more than some notes in a notebook, some dice, and maybe a hand drawn map on graph paper. And pizza. Today it can involve hand painted miniature figurines on a digitally projected map that was drawn by a professional artist. It can be played without the other players in the room, but virtually present on a computer/tablet screen or even in a virtual reality setting (in limited ways). D&D, as it is affectionately known, is in its 5th edition since being originally released in 1974. This newest edition has probably sparked the greatest public interest in the game, and the larger genre, than at any point in history.

That includes the period of hysteria surrounding D&D in the mid 1980's. There was a cultural backlash mounted against the game. It was accused of teaching players how to do magic or practice satanic rites. It was blamed for mental and emotional and spiritual woes that players experienced. There were even some largely circulated stories of players who got "too involved" in the game that they couldn't tell fiction and reality apart. That hysteria was in some part the responsibility of conservative Christian groups.

Cooler heads have prevailed in the recent surge of popularity. We aren't seeing the outcry against D&D (yet?) that we saw in the past. We are seeing the opposite, in fact. Dungeons and Dragons is becoming the center of attention in media. Thanks to online streaming outlets such as Twitch and media producer Geek and Sundry, Dungeons and Dragons is being consumed by 10s of thousands each week as a spectator "sport". Viewer tune in to watch a group of people playing a session of Dungeons and Dragons, and other role-playing games, that can last up to 5 hours. And they are tuning in regularly.

Some may ask why? Why is it so popular? Why does it have such an attraction?

I don't know that there is an easy answer. I wonder the same thing about football. But that is because I am not a fan. I don't understand sitting in the cold watching people run up and down a field for hours. I don't understand watching vicariously as two teams push, shove, manhandle, and smash into each other. I don't understand the need to critique every choice that a coach, player, or referee makes. I don't understand being so impolite as the yell rudely at the person who it was felt made a poor choice. I don't understand any of this. But I do understand that the same NEED to experience these things is what brings people like me to the D&D table.

When I sit down at the table, dice and character sheet at the ready, I am jazzed. I feel my blood racing just a little more. I am just a little more on edge, waiting to see what the next turn will reveal. I am leave those sessions with a refreshed energy and tiny adrenaline rush that I don't get from any other source. It is not a game to be won or lost. It is a time to be experienced.

Dungeons and Dragons and other role-playing games are about cooperative story telling. As a player, you are not passively watching the story unfold. You get to interact with it. As a Dungeon or Game Master, you craft elements of the story based upon setting and circumstances which the players guide. The story becomes unique and individual to the table of people there in that moment. It is an act of creation or crafting. The story that emerges has never been told that way and never will be told that way again. And everyone at the table has some part to play in that. It may be the dynamic speaker who is grandiose in their role-playing who commands the narrative through word or deed. It may be the quiet individual whose attack on their turn demolishes the signature villain. It may be the interaction of a player or two that create tension. Everyone at the table in that moment brings something to the story and creates a tale to be told.

That may be why D&D and RPG's are seeing the resurgence - people want to see heroic people doing heroic deeds. Even if they are fictional characters in a fictional world doing impossible things, when someone plays a D&D character, they get to the be the hero. And the world hungers for heroes. Somewhere in our subconscious, we need heroes to be our champions. We want someone to beat the bad guy. We want someone to rescue the endangered. We are looking for those who can overcome the odds and rise triumphantly.

Playing offers the same thing. Rolling up a character (the act of creating the character through the process rolling dice for statistics) is usually partnered with the creation of a backstory of how this person is above the average. You don't roll up a farmer or merchant who sits in a shop all day. You create a champion, a defender, a power-fueled warrior, who will go into the dark and scary places to eradicate the evil that is swarming the land.

My history with RPG's goes back to my early teens. Dungeons and Dragons wasn't played where I lived. Or if it was, I never heard about it. The earliest exposure I had to getting into gaming was when I purchased the Marvel Super Heroes starter box. As a huge comic book fan, and someone very interested in the whole Dungeons and Dragon thing happening in the early '80's, when I found that in a store on a trip to Buffalo, New York, I had to have it. Sadly, I never got to play it. I was the only one of my kind I was aware of at home. I was also too sheltered within myself to ever seek out people who might want to try it. So it sat in my collection of comics until it disappeared in one of the tragic purges of items.

The next encounter was during a summer college preparation experience. I had graduated from high school and was living in the dorms at the college over the summer. A group of folks on our hall said that someone was going to lead a game of AD&D (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons - the second edition of the game) and I was invited to participate. Finally, I had a chance to see what it was like to play a game I had only dreamed of participating in for years. And it was only a so-so experience. It was difficult to understand. I didn't know some of the people playing. I didn't get the mechanics down very well. But I finally got to play.

Fast forward a couple of years. I am halfway through college and a couple of the guys from that game of AD&D invited me to play in a group that was doing their own thing. It wasn't D&D. It was based on another game system: Generic Universal Role Play System (GURPS). They invited me to meet up with the group and play. I accepted. And that formed my love and passion for RPGs to this day. We played for hours. We hopped from one kind of world to another. We played sci-fi, fantasy, cyberpunk, superheroes, Vietnam combat teams. We played it all. And every chance I got to play was one more reason to love that experience.

Today, I am playing with a group of people I didn't know 8 years ago. I met one person through working at EMS and he invited me to meet a group of folks wanting to play 4th edition. Through that meeting, I met another person. That initial group didn't work. But it gave way to what we have now. A table full of people. Around that table, we take on personas and names that don't exist anywhere else. We have adventures that would be ridiculous to people who don't understand. We laugh and joke and build a tiny community around this one thing we all enjoy.

It really is a great time to be a Dungeons and Dragons fan.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Random Monday

Some random musings to get me back in the habit.

Random musing #1
I love jelly beans. It is one of four foods that if they are in my life, I can't stop eating them. Luckily, jelly beans come around once a year for me. I know that there are "gourmet" jelly beans available all year round. The jelly beans that I eat uncontrollably are the non-gourmet. And usually, the cheap ones. They are the ones that have been popular fodder for Easter baskets going back to my childhood. They are gelled sugar coated in a harder sugar shell with some flavoring added. I love those the best.

Don't get me wrong about gourmet jelly beans. I enjoy those. But for the old standard Easter jelly bean, I can't control myself when eating them. And Lisa bought me two bags of them. They sit on my desk, taunting and tempting me. One bag has been opened. But I have shown restraint. I only allow myself a few.

It is driving me crazy.

Random musing #2
We enrolled Nick in college Friday. He is started Oklahoma City University in the Fall semester. I was really filled with anxiety at the thought of him going to college. I still worry about it some. But I feel more comfortable after Friday. I am not worried about him succeeding nearly as much as I was at the beginning of last week. There is something comforting in knowing that he will have friends to look after him. There is something relaxing in it being a smaller school without the large, easy to get lost in, lecture classes. I really want him to succeed there. I think he could take the education he receives there and launch himself into the world. For the first time I see him becoming what he wants to be.

Random musing #3
This is the week that the  United Methodist Judicial Council will approach the subject of Bishop Oliveto's appointment. There are a lot of emotions and opinions about what this week represents. In my mind and heart, it represents the unknown future I face as a pastor within the UMC. It also represents the division that exists within my emotions and opinions about where I stand. I am afraid that there will be no answers through this. I am afraid this will cause a split within the denomination. I am afraid that it will cause people in the churches I serve to leave, putting their local ministry at risk. I am afraid I won't have a job soon. All of these emotions are running through my life. It doesn't make getting up to do the work easy.

Random musing #4
I really miss having a weekly game of Dungeons and Dragons or any other RPG. I wish I had a group that could game frequently. The games do a lot of good for my peace of mind and well-being. It gives me an outlet for creative energy. It helps me build a community of similarly minded people. It gets me out of the stress of all that I'm facing. It allows me to lay aside the pastor for a little while and tackle fictitious problems in a safe environment.

In college, and right after, I had a group that played almost every Sunday. We would sit for hours and adventure. We didn't use D&D. We used a system that allowed us to play in multiple types of settings. That meant we might play fantasy one week and science fiction the next then superheroes the week after that. That really was a happy time. It was getting me out of the stress of studies. It was a group of guys that I grew to trust and enjoy. Those Sunday's were long and tiring. I haven't found anything yet that replaced how good those times were.

That is why I keep searching for something like it.

Random musing #5
I am thankful for Spring because my seasonal depression is going into its dormant phase. This cycle has been the worst since college. There are too many personal factors that went into it to share publicly. I realize that much of it has been accompanied by health factors and panic/anxiety. And it has probably been detrimental to my effectiveness in ministry during the cycle. I realize that I lost a lot of the ability I have had in the past to shield the congregation and my family from things. I was more sensitive to events. I was less patient with circumstances. I didn't preach with the same impartiality that I typically have used. I don't say this as justification or excuse. I recognize that I am responsible for how I approach the work that I do. But I also recognize that heart, mind, body, and soul are intertwined. Whatever I do is a reflection of the interaction of the parts of who I am. This year, I was less than who I am normally.

Random musing #6 (to end on a brighter note)
Free Comic Book Day is two weeks away!

Monday, March 06, 2017

An unlikeable sermon

One week ago, I got some strong affirmations for a sermon I preached on Christians and Protest. In that sermon, I stressed that there are times when Christians need to raise their voice in protest against or for certain subjects. There were very strong affirmations about that sermon. Stronger than I typically receive. It was nice. It also told me that it was a likeable sermon.

Yesterday I preached an unlikeable sermon.

I decided to narrow in on one subject that the Bible consistency tells the people of God they should be attentive of. It is a subject that God protests about. It is a subject that is highlighted in the commandments and statutes of the Covenant. It is a subject that the prophets hold the people of God accountable for. It is something Jesus refers to in his ministry. It is something that the letter writing apostles bring to the attention of Christians.

The subject that God protests and expects Christians to protest about is how the poor are treated.

Due to an electronic malfunction, there is no video of that sermon. I want to share the main points here.

The wrong protests
I have watched churches, congregations, and Christians protest many things in my 20+ years of ministry. They have protested against abortion, gay marriage, and the Walt Disney Company. They have protested when they lost influence in schools over school prayer, against stores that acknowledge diversity with “Happy Holidays”, and the inclusion of diverse religions in the public square. They have protested against these things but there is minimal evidence that God calls us to protest any of them from the Bible.

But there is something the God clearly calls believers to protest throughout Scripture, yet many congregation or Christians do little to raise their voice to it. It is something that affects 1/6th of the world’s population. It is something that is responsible for the death of 22,000 children every day. It is something that touches this nation and the communities we live in. The thing that God calls us to protest is how the poor are treated.

The godly protest
The theme of protest for Christians should come around to this at some point. I am not saying the Christans, congregations, or churches should or should not protest about the previous things listed. I am saying that at some point Christians should raise their voices about the subject of the poor and the excluded.

God explicitly commands followers on how the poor and excluded are to be treated. In Deuteronomy 10, the relationship between the people of God (Israel) is summarized. In the midst of the summary of the covenant, the only commands about how the people were to relate with other people. Out of the 6 commandments that deal with relationship in community, Moses highlights the poor.

Through the Law, Prophets, and Gospels, we find God directly addressing the needs of these specific people: the poor and needy, widows, orphans, and strangers. This theme of how the faithful treat the poor is dealt with all the way through the Bible and never does it deviate from this message: God cares about the poor. And God wants the people who follow God to care about the poor also.

The poor and excluded are always put in front of the biblical people of God. Before the people of God enters the land of promise, Moses brings the covenant of commandments and statutes to the people. Exodus 20-23; Leviticus 19, 25; Deuteronomy 24, 25 are all commands regarding how the poor and excluded are to be treated. After the land has been established, the prophets call the people to accountability for how the poor have been treated since the land has been settled. Isaiah 58:6-12; Jeremiah 22:3-5,13-17; and Amos 5:10-15 are all examples of prophetic declarations about the failure to care for the needs of the poor and excluded. In the Gospel, Jesus puts the needs of the poor upfront with those who follow him in Luke 4:18-19 and Mark 14:7. And the first epistle of John offers this expansion upon the "laying down of our lives" in 1 John 3:17-18. The Bible stresses that whoever wishes to know and do what pleases God will at least stand up for justice and righteousness with regard to the poor and the excluded.

Justice and righteousness are themes that run parallel in the Old Testament with the poor and excluded. Micah 6:8; Isaiah 1:16-17; Jeremiah 22: Amos 5 all refer to the justice that is required of God's people. Justice does not just represent punishment for crimes, though. Justice is the treatment that all deserve equally. It is the lifting up of the poor and excluded out of forgottenness and into community. It is providing the generous sufficiency so that the poor and forgotten can live and produce what is needed to live as dignified people. It is caring for those who cannot care for themselves in generous way. The widowed, fatherless, foreigner, disabled, aged, homeless, hungry are all people that the God’s followers are called to be concerned about, as highlighted in Luke 14:12-14; Matthew 5; James 1:27,2:5.

God has an expectation that we will be standing up for the poor and forgotten.

When laws further demean people of certain status - we should protest.
When drug and insurance companies and the government remove needed medical care from the sick and disabled - we should protest
When nursing homes are filled with forgotten people and mental health facilities turn out the mentally ill because they can’t find room - we should protest
When we see foreigners being shunned in communities because they are different in some way - we should protest
When we are afforded certain rights that others are not because we fit into a certain class - we should protest
When we receive the benefit of a better life because we are a certain race or social status and others are turned away because they are not - we should protest

This is what God calls us to by command and prophetic word and applied to our setting. It is what Jesus Christ calls us to in determining our fitness for the kingdom. Matthew 25: 34-46 highlights the end of days and the judgment of the Christ. In that judgment, those who have responded to the needs of the poor and excluded will benefit from the kingdom. Those who have overlooked the needs of the poor and excluded will be rejected from the kingdom. We are called to protest for the poor, the widow, the fatherless, and the stranger.

This sermon received no affirmations or accolades. It wasn't liked very much. It wasn't received as warmly. And with reason. It is an uncomfortable sermon. It is a sermon that was designed to hold the congregations accountable for a portion of scripture that is not frequently highlighted. It is a sermon that puts something we are responsible for right in front of us. To ignore the way the poor and excluded are treated is to ignore a significant portion of the Bible. And it demands a response.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

My Lenten Sacrifice

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday and so begins the Lenten Season. Lent is the season that leads us into Easter. For more Traditional faith pursuers, Lent is a season of penitence, self-denial, and preparation for the Easter event. Historically, this was the period of intense focus for initiates into the Christian faith. For non-Traditional pursuers, this is a time when we "give something up".

This year, I am in a place I have not been before. I am facing a period of health issues that have not ever been a problem before. Specifically, I am facing my second surgery in 6 months. All signs point to the need that I have back surgery and soon.

I am not afraid of the surgery. That may be because I am too stupid to be afraid. There are complications pre-/mid-/post-surgery that could impact my life. That is not far from my thinking. But of these things, I fear not.

What I am afraid of is the dependence that this surgery will require.

I view myself as a "do-it-myself" type. I don't like asking people to do what I can do myself. If something needs to happen to a certain level of quality, I prefer to do it myself. Rather than asking for a helping hand, I prefer to get it done.

This surgery will require me to let others do for me what I can't do for myself. My mobility will be slowed. I will not be able to do the jobs around the house that are mine to do. I will have to rely on someone else to prepare supper, fix my coffee, and do the little things that I do because normally I can.

Worse still, I will have to step out of active leadership of my churches for a few weeks. I have stepped out of active leadership for one week, or maybe a little more, because of vacations. It is possible that I will lose up to a month of active capacity. And that bothers me.

It isn't that my folks aren't capable. Turpin has a great team of leaders and a strong core of passionate and capable people who have always shown themselves willing and able to step up and do what needs to be done. Baker is a tight knit community church that already works together to keep the church operating in the face of difficulties. It isn't that I am afraid the churches will fail because I am not there.

I don't like the feeling of not doing what I do, what I'm called to do. I have always understood the calling that God placed upon my life as leading the church into maturity and personal growth. I want to equip people to continue to develop a deeper and more meaningful life with God. I see my gifts and tempers being suited to being a mentor to assist people in discovering how good and strong and powerful they can be in relationship with God.

My sacrifice this Lenten season is letting my people fill in where I will not be able to.

It doesn't sound like much. But it will challenge me. It will push me to do what I can in the absence of being there for them as leader, pastor, and mentor. It will push me to pray more deeply about their growth. It will push me to pray more deeply for my own humility (because I am weak and think they need me to be there).

I know this sounds horribly fatalistic. It will only be one month. It will only be a few weeks. But it will be a few weeks of knowing that I am not doing what I am called and appointed to do. It will be like letting my child leave and make his way in the world. Which is also happening, but that is a whole different set of emotions.

This isn't a test; it is a season. This isn't about God putting me in a "wilderness" or giving me a "thorn in my flesh". This is about the natural ebbs and flows of guiding people in a church. I have to learn to rest in their ability, strengths, and gifts. I have to believe in them and in the God who is within them. I have to put faith in the vision we share for the churches and the communities.

So, in this Lenten season, may God show me the grace that I need to step back, allow God's people to be the ministers I know that they can be. They will be able to do this. I just pray that I can.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Sorry for the lag in writing.

For the major portion of this week, I have been either flat on my back or seeking correction for what put me on my back.

Monday, I experienced a severe pain in my lower back. It forced me to remain very still or I would experience sharp pains. I have since learned that it is two bulging discs in my lower lumbar region. This was discovered after a trip to the emergency room, a 6 hour round trip to get an MRI, and a lot of sitting, waiting, and stewing over the pace at which modern medicine progresses.

I am considerably better now. I can sit up, walk around, bend down (over is still not a good idea), and do the same things I was before, only slower.

Part of the slowing was being on pain medications and muscle relaxers to ease the stress on my back. That led to some very fuzzy thinking processes.

But I am on the mend. And will resume writing next week. If all goes well this weekend.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Where do I draw the line

Am I a Conservative or Liberal?
Am I a Republican or a Democrat?
Am I Pro-Life or Pro-Choice?

With all of the latest posts that are hitting the internet, some people may wonder where I draw the line that defines my stance. Well, I want to point out where my line is drawn.

The easy answer to the questions above is YES.

Let me give you some background. I was born to a family to moved due to my dad's Air Force stations. I was born in California. My sister was born in the Philippines. The first home I remember was in Wichita, Kansas. I grew up in southeastern Oklahoma. I saw a lot of the world early in life. I don't remember much about it. My memories don't kick in until we lived in Wichita. But I was exposed at an early age to different places and cultures and races.

In Wichita, my parents divorced. My dad disappeared from my life. My mom worked hard to make a living for us. We weren't rich by any stretch of imagination. We always had a roof over our head and supper on our plate. We were clothed and comfortable and had some of the things that kids desired (my mom indulged my geek love in its infancy by getting me Star Wars figures). I saw that life could be lived with the necessities met and a few little things added along.

When my grandmother died, we picked up our life and moved to southeastern Oklahoma. We visited my grandparents often and spent extended time with them at different points. It was not a new place, but it was a new life. Moving from the city where everything was within a short drive was totally different than needing to make a special trip to get groceries or clothes. Mom started working at home but eventually had to seek a job away from the house. My sister and I learned that we had chores that needed to be done and we had a part to play in keeping the house in order.

My grandfather was in declining in health. He had emphysema. He progressed downward in strength and ability to do things. But he was a great man who showed me some important things in life. It is because of him that I love to cook. It is because of him that I have a tinkerer nature about me. It is because of him that I extend a lot of grace to people.

Living in southeastern Oklahoma, I grew up in a very theologically conservative church. Through the course of my growing up, my mother renewed her faith and began to move to more charismatic Christian experience. Growing up Methodist, clapping your hands in worship would be considered charismatic by some. But I received a firm grounding in traditional American Christianity and a basic Wesleyan worldview. I also began to be connected with people in other United Methodists churches and began to see the bigger church at work.

When I went to college, I was exposed to a different worldview. I enrolled in the history department and met one of the greatest influences on my life. Dr. Davis Joyce was my advisor. He taught with passion about history and historians. What I learned from him, though, had less to do with historical events and persons. I learned to see the world as a place where people have different points of view. I learned from him that just because people have a different point of view does not mean we have nothing in common. I learned from him that there are people in the world who are overlooked, forgotten, and intentionally rejected. I learned from him that someone needs to come alongside those people and tell their stories, be a comforting arm, or stand with them against injustice. He reads this blog and I want you to know Davis that you have have had a huge influence in my life. I thank you and love you as a friend and mentor.

It was also in college that I knew I was to fill the role of pastor. I bounced around a little in ideas of what I would do after college and with my life. It was the example and leading of one person who opened my ears to hear God's calling into ministry. D.A. Bennett was the campus minister at the United Campus Ministry. He was a pastor in a model I had never seen. He showed me that pastors bring their gifts into the setting to which they are appointed. He showed me that in order to minister to people, you need to know what their life is about. He showed me that there is room to explore and discover and fail. He showed me grace when I did the last one. He reads this blog at times, also. D.A., if it wasn't for you, I would be floating along trying to find my place. It was your example and walk that made it possible for me to come to this place in ministry.

Graduating college, I knew that I was to go to seminary. The one I chose was Asbury Theological Seminary. It was built upon classical Wesleyan theology. I had begun to identify as Wesleyan in my theology (thanks again to D.A.'s influence). I felt this was the place to broaden that part of my life. At Asbury, I was able to bring all of the influences in my life to bear on becoming a minister. What I learned of Wesley and his process of developing the theology that would influence the United Methodist Church made me more convinced that I was called into this life. I was shaped as I was to become a minister in this church. All of the things that had risen and fallen, all of the people who had crossed my path, had brought me to the right place.

And then I began ministry. And I found that people didn't believe the same way. And people didn't think that there were forgotten, overlooked, and rejected persons around them. I found people who were content to be comfortable. And some wanted to be more. From that point at the beginning of ministry, I felt that my place was to move my lines.

When I was in a group of people who were very conservative, I had to represent a more liberal position. If I was around people who were very liberal, I needed to represent the conservative point of view. I chose to be identified as Independent politically. It isn't to say I don't have an opinion. It was to represent the side that needed to be represented in any appointment or setting. I have to move my lines because all too often I have encountered people who won't look past their own lines to see the bigger picture.

I could be conservative all the time because I hold some very conservative ideas.
I could be liberal all the time because I hold some very liberal ideas.
I could identify with a political party because I support platform items in many different parties.
I could identify with a social position because I can understand where they are coming from.

But I choose to move my lines so I can be a voice for people who aren't being heard. I choose to move my lines to speak a counterpoint for an under represented position. I choose to move my lines so that I can bring some sense of community and belonging for the different sides of a position.

I move my lines because I think Jesus moved his lines. He ate with sinners and spoke to them about living a more disciplined life. He attended the parties of the powerful and reminded them of the hungry and homeless outside his door. He walked with Jews to tell them their Kingdom had come to them. He touched the lives of Gentiles to tell them they were welcome to the Kingdom. He created and reigned from the heavenly throne and he moved into earth. He walked among the men and women, powerful and poor, of this world and moved the line of heaven toward them.

I don't draw a line on where I am because I have to move them too often.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Funerals for the loved, alone, and despised

I had a funeral today. It was a celebration for a 96 year old woman who was loved by her family. I like doing services like those. I had never met the woman. She had not lived in this region of the world since I have moved here. But it was easy to do her service because her family loved her so deeply. They made it easy to find a life worthy of celebration. Since I didn't know her, I could tell you what her personality was or what she believed or how she lived. But her family took her life and painted a picture of who she was. And it was beautiful. It was so easy to see the Gospel through her life and proclaim the hope through faith of the Good News.

I had a conversation with one of the funeral home employees about "difficult funerals". It reminded me of the hardest funeral I ever had to conduct. It was for a person who had no family who lived near. The closest family member was half the country away and was too feeble to make the trip. They couldn't afford to bring their loved one to them, either. The people who knew her were few. And even those weren't super close. When it came time to address the gathered few in that service, there were no memories shared or expressions of love for her. It made it nearly impossible to know who I was proclaiming Good New over.

The beginning of the week, I listened to the reading of an article from Smithsonian magazine. It concerned one of the darkest chapters in modern U.S. history - the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The article was about the mother of Lee Harvey Oswald, and it described his funeral. Oswald was buried in Fort Worth. The only mourners who were at the graveside where Oswald's mother, wife, and two children. There were no pall bearers; reporters who had been tasked with reporting on the event were asked to serve. Those who opened the grave had not been told who it was for in fear that they would not be willing to do the work. Two pastors turned down the task of conducting the graveside service out of fear that a sniper would attack anyone participating.

I can only imagine how difficult it would have been to fill the role of being the proclaimer of Good News over the grave of one who was despised by so many. I can only hope that my belief in God, as I hold those beliefs, would overcome the overwhelming sense of what that moment represented to the nation and the world. I can only hope that I would be worthy of the grace that must fill that place and moment that every graveside, no matter whose, represent.

It doesn't matter who is to be laid to rest in the grave. It doesn't matter how they lived or died. It doesn't matter what they believed or if they believed. The grave is an equalizer. We all face its maw. We may no know when we will approach it. It is the last moment any of us has to have a word of grace spoken over us.

For me, I approach a funeral from two directions. The first is to celebrate the life of the one who has passed. I consider every life to be of sacred worth. I feel that everyone is given life as a gift. Some people make the most of the gift. Some people are faced with circumstances that limit their acceptance of the gift. Others have that gift taken from them through choice, consequence, or tragedy. But every life is one that should be celebrated for the very fact that they lived for some length of time. The most emotional funeral I was part of involved the life of a child who never had the chance to see the sunrise or sunset of a day. He never had the chance to draw a breath outside of the womb. But we celebrated his life. Everyone should have their life celebrated.

The other direction I take is to approach it from the other end. I work back to the funeral from the eternalness of life that God offers. There is a lot of mystery (in my theological perspective) on what eternity is or how we pass from this life to the immortal existence. For persons who have no faith or it is unknown what faith they have, I still think there is Good News that should be proclaimed. God's grace is encompassing. I believe that the fullness of eternity is limited. I believe that there is a people God selects who will receive a more complete experience of the eternal life. But I believe that there is a general experience of eternal life that all will know. And for those who do not have the complete experience of eternity, there is still a ministry of God's presence that comes to them.

This isn't Universalism. This is Revelation chapter 20 and 21. The nations stand outside the recreated city of God and are ministered to from the leaves of the tree of life. I am not sure how that is to transpire. I just see it in that book as the only image of eternity. But if this is the case, then there is a chance that no matter who is laying at the opening of the grave will experience God's eternal presence.

I don't preach hell at funerals. I don't need to. There are plenty of opportunities to give up on hope in life. There are plenty of experiences in life where people don't get to hear Good News spoken over them. For the pastor who was conducting the service over Lee Harvey Oswald, there was enough hell surrounding that grave. No more needed to be proclaimed.

It would not be easy. It sometimes isn't easy to speak that Good News over people who haven't killed a world leader and much-loved President. It is sometimes difficult to speak a word celebrating someone's life or declaring the Gospel when you have no one who remembers them, no one honors them. But they are still worthy of having that grace spoken.

So I hope that if the day ever comes, I will be able to proclaim the Gospel over anyone who rests at the mouth of the grave. I ask that I can lead people in the celebration of a life of sacred worth and into the hope of a god whose presence is eternal and will be big enough to touch anyone.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

What right does a man have on a woman's life?

This morning, I was apprised of an article of legislation that has come before the Oklahoma House of Representatives Public Health Committee. HB1441 was tabled previously, but now comes up for consideration in committee. The substance of this bill would make it a law in Oklahoma that a woman must seek permission from the possible father of an unborn child to be aborted. This bill would also allow a man who was named as the father of such an unborn child to require a paternity test be performed to prove his sirehood.

Here are the points of HB1441:
A. No abortion shall be performed in this state without the written informed consent of the father of the fetus.
B. A pregnant woman seeking to abort her pregnancy shall be required to provide, in writing, the identity of the father of the fetus to the physician who is to perform or induce the abortion. If the person identified as the father of the fetus challenges the fact that he is the father, such individual may demand that a paternity test be performed.
C. This section shall not apply if the father of the fetus is deceased and the woman upon whom the abortion is to be performed or induced signs a notarized affidavit attesting to that fact.
D. This section shall not apply in cases in which a woman upon whom the abortion is to be performed or induced was the victim of rape or incest and the pregnancy resulted from the rape or incest, or in cases where the physician determines that the carrying of the fetus places the woman's life is in danger.

(emphasis is mine)
Let me clear something up front. I am not a fan of abortion as a method of pregnancy control or birth control. I believe that every individual human being is to be respected as a person of sacred worth and identity. And as a member of the society under the Constitution of the United States of America, they are afforded certain rights that are theirs by right of their personhood.

That being said, this bill is not about abortion. This about diminishing personhood.

I know "pro-life" arguments say that this stands in the gap of the unborn child, who has no voice in this decision. I would not take away the due consideration that an unborn child's personhood should be considered when contemplating abortion. But I don't want to lose sight of what matters in this legislation.

First, a woman is required to obtain the written consent of a man to undergo this procedure. This should be recognized as an insult to women in this nation or anywhere. A woman does not require permission to have any healthcare procedure performed. There are some dangerous precedents being established here. It isn't too far away from this to say that any woman in a significant relationship with a man would need his written consent for any life altering procedure. And in our nut-job litigation nation, can you imagine the damage that would be done if a rapist sued a woman because she aborted unborn child he sired and aborted? If you don't think that is possible remember this: rape is about power and control, not sex.

Second, a man has the right under this law to require a paternity test. This is humiliation of a woman. It is putting her word into question. We are not ever going to settle the "he said, she said" arguments of intimate encounters in a legal way. So let us say for argument sake that a couple has an intimate encounter, a fling, a hook-up. It has no lasting meaning when it happened. It was that moment lived out for the moment it was. Then she becomes pregnant. That wild powerful intimate moment now becomes a battle over the value of a woman's word because she is required by law to bring the "father" to the point of giving his permission. If he challenges her word, her value as a person is destroyed exponentially. Sex is not something that is to be taken lightly. It is something that should produce honor in both parties. In any case where sex results in dishonor, then the gift that God intended for sex has been turned into the sin that Satan can use to destroy and deceive.

Third, go back and read C. It is good to know that a woman has freedom to seek a procedure if the sire of her unborn child is dead. But to have a notarized affidavit signed as a testimony of this is ludicrous. Honestly, why don't we just have her father sign it and get back to an Old Testament authority over women's lives. She can't claim authority over her own life, so she has to have a legal binding document that gives her authority.

Can you see where the idea of abortion is now lost? Can you see that this is not about a woman's body or an unborn child's fate?

This is about dignity and human rights. This is about the subjecting of women to another authority, higher authority, wiser authority - a man or a man's authority.

I do not want anyone to think I am arguing for abortion. I am arguing that this is a demolishing of women's respect and independence. It would rankle me to the core if I thought that my wife had to have my written permission to do anything with her body. She is on my health insurance plan. My children are on my health insurance. I MUST be informed of anything that my minor children, who are in my care and custody, have done to their body. My wife is a free and independent woman who is intelligent and wise in her own ways. She does not need my authority to accomplish anything in her own health care. But I trust her enough to believe that any decision she would want to make about her body would be discussed, as her life and mine are intertwined. What is good for her is good for us. What is bad for her health is bad for us. But she would not need my permission to have something done.

Here is my great fear - this is going to walk back the rights of women to independent. I see that this could be used to argue for any health care decision that may impact a husband's perceived rights on his wife's body. THOSE DO NOT EXIST! A husband and wife have a mutual partnership in caring for one another but that is not a right to her life in any way.

If this makes it out of committee and into the House for a vote, this will be a dangerous declaration for the people of Oklahoma to allow. Every person is imbued with certain rights as a member of the society of this nation. The greatest is to be an individual person.

Monday, February 13, 2017

A New American Tale

They stumbled through the cold night. The trees of the forest did little to stop the snowfall. The journey had been difficult because they could not keep the cold from their finger and toes. The suitcases they carried held the few belongings they were able to gather when they left their home. That was months ago. That was hundreds, thousands, of miles away. 

It couldn't be helped. To live in their home would mean death. To escape into an unknown land offered more hope than the certainty they faced if they remained. Their suitcases held all that was left of their home and their life before.

"Before" wasn't just a time. It was a way of life. It was a way of life without fear. It was a way of life with some measure of hope. In that time, they were not worried about who hated them. They had plenty of food. They even had jobs that supplied their needs. They had friends and family who could be called upon to laugh or cry together. 

Now it was just this little family. The baby was wrapped in extra clothing to keep her warm. They took turns pushing the stroller so that their fingers would not freeze around the handle. It was 5 degrees. But they didn't own heavy winter coats. They didn't have thick, ski worthy gloves. Their shoes were more suitable for the Fall temperatures they were leaving. 

But they had to keep moving forward. They knew that there was a chance at life, hope, freedom if they could only make it a little farther.

But the headlights of a vehicle stopped them in their tracks. They would have tried to hide. They were too cold to move quickly. And there was no way to run with the stroller. They knew they had been caught.

But would it be the guards who would drag them back to the land they were trying to flee? Or could it be they had made it far enough to be in this new land of hope?

It would not be hard to believe that this could have been a story of a family from 19th Century Russia or Germany. It would be easy to understand if this was the story of a family from 1930's Germany or Poland. But this is the story of a family from the weekend newspapers.

Their story is one that is being told to bring attention to the tragedy of refugees in our world. They represent the people who are moving from home and homelands in search of better life in order to escape the cruelty of a change of regimes and power.

In another time, this could very well be the middle of a story about an emigrant family finding their way to the United States in hopes of beginning that new, better life. In fact, for many of us, that is how our American tale began. Our families left home and homeland to seek out the shores of these united states to rebuild from the meager belongings they were able to bring with them. Some had arduous journeys. Some faced overwhelming physical difficulties like weather or sickness or injury. And we are the living testament to the "...and they lived..." story of our ancestors.

But that is not the story of this family.

This is the story of a family who left Syria to escape the conflict that has sent thousands seeking safety. The family of three had escaped from that land and did find their way to the United States. Perhaps they felt that there was hope for them here. Maybe they saw the possibility of a new life. But instead of building that new life, they were afraid to stay here.

I don't know this family. I heard about them and many like them. This family, in particular, was fleeing from the United States north to Canada. They were trying to make it to Quebec.

So, how do I know that they were afraid? Ask yourself what would make you pack your three year old child, and all of your belongings, then face a winter storm with temperatures in the single digits and 18 inches of snow? What would cause  you to avoid a staffed border crossing to make your way through a forest? What would cause you to leave the land of "freedom" and risk your child's life?

I can only think that they were so afraid of living here that they were willing to risk their child's life, their own physical health to go somewhere they felt they would be safer or welcomed.

We have fallen as a nation. Where once our nation was the highest hope of freedom and acceptance, now people feel they must flee from our borders. They are fleeing, I believe, because they are afraid of what may come for being different. Or to just be blunt - because they are Muslim.

Some of this is to be laid at the feet of our President. He has degraded the safety of immigrants and refugees by declaring that Muslims are to blame for terrorist acts. He has empowered raids across the nation to round up persons without proper documentation. Those persons, who are deemed a threat to safety, include mothers of children and young men and women who have lived most of their youth out as "typical teenagers" and typically are not Muslim. He has pointed to immigrants and refugees and made them suspects of being insurgents hiding in bedraggled clothing.Yes, some of the fault lies with the man who has assumed the voice of power.

But a lot of the fear is to be laid at the feet of the American people. We have created this climate of xenophobia - fear of the stranger. We have created this climate of rejection of Muslims out of ignorance. We have engineered the downfall of the American dream by declaring that America is for Americans. And for many, this climate has been nurtured under the banner of American Christendom.

I would like to hope that Americans and Christians in America would wake up to the damage that has been done and demand, "ENOUGH!" I would like to believe that we could rise above the political divisions and join together in seeing that there are greater issues to be dealt with. I would love to see all churches in this nation put the flag down and pick up the Kingdom. I would be foolish enough to hope that we could hear the commands of Jesus Christ clearly enough to love all people - Muslims included - and build a place for all people to be welcomed. I would hope that we, mostly all descendants of immigrants who sought a new life on these shores, would put down our walls and join with people to build new lives.