Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Editorial: American Church Idol

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oops, I meant platforms and players.

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

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

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

And my point is proven.

This is my rant and no one else's.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Children of Blood and Bone book review

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

The Come Back Effect book review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

My political affiliation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Annual Conference Reflections, part 2

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

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

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

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

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

That was the horrible thing that ran through my mind.

This is the slightly less so.

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

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

Friday, June 01, 2018

Annual Conference Reflections 2018, part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

God Said Go, And the Church Said No

When God says go and the church said no
Numbers 13

Moses receives a message from God. “Send out spies to recon the land I am giving you.” Moses calls 12 men from each tribe and sends them into Canaan to gauge the power and strength of those who live there. After 40 days, the spies return and report on their findings. It is a land flowing with milk and honey. The fruit is plentiful and abundant. But the inhabitants are strong and well defended. The only voice that stands opposed is Caleb, the representative of Judah.

The people are now filled with hesitation. They have wandered from Egypt, through the sea, to the Mt. Sinai, and now to the borders of the land promised. But they look back and consider where they have come from better than what lies before. The enemy is greater. The land can’t be that good. What seems to be the better choice is returning to slavery.

God has told them to “Go”. They were told to go from there houses in Goshen. They were told to go through the dry passage between the walls of the sea. They were told to go to Mt. Sinai to meet God. They were told to move toward the land promised. Go gave them the Go-ahead. Whatever stood before them could not counter God’s permission and God’s directive: Go!

The Church has been told to go. Nothing has ever overruled the commission that Jesus Christ gave the disciples of the early church. Go into all the world. Go and teach my words. Go and witness to me. Go and baptize in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Jesus says “Go” and the Church was born.

But going requires a willingness to go. It is no exaggeration to claim that the American Church experience of the last 100 years has been one of “come”. Come and hear the music. Come and hear the preacher. Come and join the fellowship. Come and find a family atmosphere. The American Church stopped going beyond its walls and began to call out to the community, “Come and find us.”

God’s response to the Israelite people was to heap curses upon them. The generation that left Egypt would never see the land promised to them. Their children would walk into the land and receive the promise that had been their parents and grandparents. And the voices of fear, the spies who said the people didn’t have a chance, would disappear then and there.

This part is the hard part to hear.

What if those curses are still active?

The American Church has been looking at its declining numbers. It is seeing most of its churches growing old with little influence of younger generations. We are watching those churches of older folks close with increasing numbers every year. God’s curse is coming upon us. The statistic demise of the American Church is a consequence of a “come and find us” mentality. God said to go out into the world, the community, and declare the good news of the Kingdom of God present among the citizens. That was not a message to drop leaflets with the address of the church and the times of worship or the vacation Bible school or the Christmas program with the kiddies. The message was one of “how can we help you live into a better, more abundant, life.”

The American Church is dying off because it sits in fear of the inhabitants of the land. It worries that they will be persecuted. It is filled with anxiety that there is no hope for this “sinful” generation that gets worse year by year. It has become convinced that culture has turned against Christianity and has rejected them. It has judged that culture has nothing holy within and deserves to lead itself to its own ruin.

But that isn’t what God said to the Israelite's. God said, “I have given you this land.” God has said to the disciples, “Go and make more disciples.” God has said to the American Church, “Go!” and the American Church has said, “No.”

Friday, April 06, 2018

Is the United Methodist Itinerant System Broken?

This is my opinion and reflection on something that I made a commitment to. In May of 2002, I stood before the Bishop of the Oklahoma Annual Conference and the gathered members and family. In that particular worship service, I made a vow to uphold the itinerant system. As part of our polity and discipline, I understood that being an Elder in the United Methodist Church meant I would make myself available to the system of providing pastoral leadership and support to local churches. That came with the understanding that I would move throughout my career at the call of the Bishop through the District Superintendent. It also meant that my life and choice were somewhat limited to the desires of others.

16 years later (my 20th year of ministry), I am reflecting upon my current position within that system I vowed to uphold. It has been a bumpy ride from a personal point of view. I have had circumstances that were directly related to my appointments that have changed my feelings and opinion about the itinerant system.

When I began, the itinerant system was something that I supported without question. I put my life, and that of my family, in the hands of District Superintendents that I felt had my and the churches best interests at heart. I believed in the system and trusted that the “will of God” worked through the decisions that led to appointments.

20 years has changed a lot of that.

Now I feel that the system of how appointments are made has more of humanity about it than the will of God. I have been comforted/consoled by friends and colleagues that I should trust God to make the best of the appointments where I am sent. My opinion of the itinerant system is that it is broken and my feelings are not all positive about its impact on my life as a pastor.

Here, I wish to express my viewpoint on where I see it is broken. This will not be fair. I have a limited, small point of view. I can only develop my viewpoint from the narrow window of my experience. This is not the experience of everyone in the United Methodist Church. It is not the experience of every pastor under appointment. My comments are not directed at all District Superintendents or Bishops. And I do not name any clergy by name, but only highlight examples of MY narrow experience.

First, the biggest issue I have encountered is that the needs and gifts and experience of a clergy person, or the needs of their family, don’t really amount to much in the math of determining where an appointment will take someone. The needs I have expressed at times over my career, the passions that I have had for ministry, the gifts that I have displayed, or the personality that drives me were, in my opinion, never really regarded. If they were taken into account, they were taken into account as only the bare necessity of function.

I have expressed a disconnect with rural settings that began in my teenage years, yet my appointments have led me to 15 years of rural setting. My ability to teach has never put me into a setting where that could be highlighted or used for anything beyond teaching a Sunday School class, small Bible study, or youth group. My involvement in campus ministry as the beginning of my call and the emphasis I placed on it in my seminary studies resulted in 1 year of campus ministry.

My family has also experienced a serious lack of acknowledgment in appointment. When I requested a move to be near Lisa’s family, the outcome was that we were moved almost as far away from her family as we could be in Oklahoma. When her dad died in the first year after that move, it rattled us. When her mom died that next year, it shook us badly. I began to question how 3 District Superintendents could not hear the need in my request to be closer to Lisa’s family. Those events brought back the betrayal and hurt from the experience of being moved in the first place. I lost all of the progress I had made on moving past what I felt was having our needs ignored.

As I look back on my time of ministry, there have been 5 times when my requests for what I felt were reasonable consideration in an appointment were disregarded with no explanation for why it couldn’t realized. There have been 3 of those times when the exact opposite of what I requested became my appointment. In one of those, I was told an outright lie regarding the request (more on that instance in a bit). In all, those 5 times represent all but once when I expressed a need or desire for a ministry. In every other case, I stated that I would make myself available to whatever appointment was given to me. Or to re-frame the point I’m making, in 21 years of serving as a pastor, 6 times I asked to be considered for a particular type of appointment. In 21 years of serving as a pastor, I received the thing I asked to be considered for 1 time. That request: to allow my family to remain so my oldest son could graduate. So the one time I received what I asked for it was a request to make no change whatsoever.

My next biggest issue comes from being in a position where the people who are directly responsible for determining my gifts, skills, talents, and resources have never been a position to personally evaluate me in those areas. Our appointments are, ideally, supposed to take the gifts and skills and experience of a pastor into consideration to match to the needs of the a local congregation/appointment. The person who, ideally, is supposed to have that knowledge is the District Superintendent. In 21 years of ministry I have been under the supervision of 10 District Superintendents. Of those 10, only 2 have taken an extra amount of effort to get to know me outside of the annual consultation. And it is in those annual consultations where I expressed my desires and interests in appointments.

I have expressed that I enjoyed campus ministry and working with college age students. I have expressed being considered for a multicultural setting. I expressed a desire to serve in a less conservative appointment. I feel drawn to fringe cultures. I would like to try to serve in a non-traditional setting. I am moderate and mission minded with classic Wesleyan beliefs and influenced by modern social justice viewpoints. But those desires and interests were taken with the grain of salt they were worth. I have served in mostly near super conservative traditional settings with little college or multicultural connection in churches who took pride in being “not very Methodist” and interested in chaplain or maintenance roles of the pastor.

And part of the problem is that District Superintendents do not know the churches under their supervision, either. There is little time for those in the role of “pastor to the pastors” to learn who they are as individuals. There is an impossible task of knowing the churches whom those pastors serve. As we continue to find ways to move into a future with declining resources, the number of districts is at the top of the list of cost cutting measures. That means fewer District Superintendents to shepherd more pastors and more churches in their service area.

It is nearly impossible to know every church in a district. It is impossible to know what their needs, gifts, history, and ministry setting is. It is impossible to know what their ministry potential could be. The role of the District Superintendent in this capacity is so overwhelming that it is ridiculous to assume that they can be effective in fulfilling the task. Yet that is exactly what the expectation is.

That brings me to the third frustration I see: little accountability for District Superintendents for errors in matching pastors and churches. Whether it is a failure to hear the pastors needs, gifts, and skills or it is the lack of understanding of a church’s needs or ministry potential, if a “bad” appointment is made, it is not the fault of the District Superintendent or the Cabinet. The fault of the a failed appointment rests in the pastor not being available enough or the church being more destructive. Or it just wasn’t a good “fit”. But if pastors and churches were known at a deeper level than what is on a very biased evaluation form, those types of “fits” wouldn’t happen as often. There is no accountability to change the approach. There is no accountability to fix the system when it fails.

In my own “greatest failure” of the system, I approached 3 District Superintendents about my expressed need to be closer to Lisa’s family. At no time, that I am aware of, was that need made known in the Cabinet conversation. When we moved to the opposite end of the state, whose fault was it? Regardless of the outcome of my ministry in that appointment, the need that was expressed (and that was what it was expressed as) was ignored by my own District Superintendent and two others with whom I expressed that need. Those two were appointed to areas closer to where we needed to be. It would have been in their service area that I could have been appointed to meet that need. Whose fault does it rest upon that the need of my family was not met?

I can say that not one of those District Superintendents ever apologized. Not one ever acknowledged that nothing could have been done. Not one recognized the pain of my family when Lisa’s parents died. But I have been counseled to keep my opinions about the system on the down low. I can express my hurt, but making those hurts public would not be a good thing. Well, if we don’t make things like this public, how can we improve the system? How do we make change if we just accept the failures and the errors to continue with out accountability?

Perhaps the frustration I have struggled with the most is that I have been lied to by District Superintendents. In asking to be considered for a campus ministry position, I had a District Superintendent tell me a bold face lie. How did I know it was a lie? Because I knew campus ministries that were opening when I expressed an interest in being considered for the position. And my District Superintendent told me with a straight face that there were no campus ministry positions coming open that appointment year. I had a District Superintendent tell me that if I didn’t accept the appointment that I was being offered, that there were no other appointments available except for appointments at a lower salary level.

In an Annual Conference of 400+ churches, there were no other appointments other than the one I was being offered or something that should be served by a local pastor or student pastor. There are around 100 moves every year toward moving season. Not all of them are at Annual Conference. But somewhere in the vast wisdom of the system, it has become easier to lie to a pastor about an appointment that isn’t available than it is to be honest and express what is really in the way of that appointment. This has led to a theory and frustration.

The theory I have developed is that there is a caste system within the itinerancy. The caste system that is in place has various levels. It is easy for a pastor to move within their caste, if there is an available church. It is somewhat easy for a pastor to move down in caste, but the higher one is in caste, that downward movement is scalable. The higher one is, the less significant the move down. The lower one is, the lower the caste you can be moved into. It is very difficult to move up in caste. Breaking into a caste requires some significant presence or associations.

The frustration comes from not knowing where the lines of the castes are. I thought originally that there were three castes: the noticed, the notorious, and the supply. The noticed were pastors and churches who were in high profile positions. They were recognized and known broadly. The notorious were pastors or churches that were known to cause problems. The supply were the pastors who don’t draw attention or recognition and churches who just maintain themselves.

I think the castes may be more defined. I think there may be regional castes. I think there may be political castes. There may age-based castes. And there are “fruitfulness” castes – whoever fits into the current definition of fruitful as determined by the Bishop and authorities guiding the Annual Conference.

I consider myself a supply caste. I haven’t drawn attention to myself. I haven’t served churches that go beyond maintaining their local presence. I seem to be considered a rural caste pastor (due to the types of appointments that I have served). I am a non-entity in political castes because I have been seen as “the other” by both political extremes. And, if there is an age-based caste, I am in the Generation X group. I am too young to be part of the current powers-that-be and too old to be of vital age.

The caste that does not seem to be present is experience. Years of service and experience don’t seem to have any weight in determining where you rest in the system. I could retire soon. I could find another career and fill my days of life with another field of interest. And honestly, I don’t feel like my years of experience will be missed.

I am coming to the end of my frustrations. I have one left that seems to be a recurring beast of burden. It has to do with where I mentioned the leveraging of an appointment. It seems that there are some pastors who can refuse an appointment with no negative consequence. I’ll be honest. If it weren’t for my family, I would accept an entry level appointment. The reduction of pay wouldn’t bother me. And if we were in a better place financially, Lisa wouldn’t have a problem with it, either. I would be willing to serve an entry level appointment because it seems that my experience and current age would be a gift to an appointment that is used to breaking someone in or getting someone on their way out. I would take an entry level appointment just to refuse being leveraged into accepting “the only appointment available”. I would take an entry level appointment with 20+ years of experience just to tell the system, “You are broken.”

But some pastors can say, “No” to an appointment and be offered another chance at something that is “right” for them. There isn’t a negative consequence if they refuse to take it. It used to be a threat that if you refused an appointment, they would send you to the Panhandle or somewhere just as bad. I can tell you that the Panhandle has great churches filled with godly people. They care for their pastors and love the willingness of pastors to serve them in the love of Christ. Yet, it is challenging to get a pastor to serve in the Panhandle. It is challenging to get a pastor to accept an appointment in the “far reaches” of the state of Oklahoma. And if someone says, “No”, what will they do?

Yet the threats are still present. The leveraging of appointments is still a practice. The idea that there will be a negative consequence seems to be idle bluster. Well, I have served the Panhandle. For 10 years, I have been faithful to my appointment. I served in good times. I served in bad times personally, professionally, and congregationally. I have tried to love the people and they have tried to love me. It hasn’t always been easy for us to get along. It has always been rewarding for me to be in that appointment. And for 15 years, I have served the “far reaches”. I have been in Northwest Oklahoma longer than anywhere else in my lifetime. There are only a few regions I would like to serve in this state. But I am glad I am in Northwest Oklahoma.

This may seem like a manifesto leading to a resignation. It is, in fact, the very opposite. This is a manifesto declaring that in spite of all of these frustrations, I am remaining. I get cross with the system. I get envious of younger pastors getting bigger or more prestigious appointments than me. I let my pride get the better of me sometimes and wonder, “When is it my turn?” But God has not released me from the United Methodist Church. More importantly, God has not released me from the vow I made to the UMC.

24 years ago, I made another vow. Lisa and I stood before God and a gathering of family and friends to make a vow to stay with one another. There have been some difficult times. There have been times both of us have wanted to quit, give up, find a better way of moving forward. But we take that commitment to our vows seriously. I take my vow to the United Methodist Church and Oklahoma Annual Conference very seriously. It seems that the system has betrayed me at times. I have let it down at times. But I am not giving up on my vow and God has not released me from it. I am here to stay for some time. When God may let me know that I am free, well it may never come. It may happen should something occur in the union of the UMC. But until that day, I am appointed under the authority of the Bishop, submitted to the supervision of a District Superintendent, and sent to serve the church of Jesus Christ under the banner of the United Methodist Church.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Ready, Player One?

Ready Player One movie review

Ready Player One is one of my favorite novels for entertainment factor. When the movie was announced, I was only vaguely interested. The book was going to be challenging to interpret into a movie form. The book depicts a future reality where virtual reality has replaced the education, entertainment, and consumer real world counterparts. People become so engrossed in the virtual world of The Oasis that they don’t log off except for food, sleep, and biological necessities. Anything possible or impossible becomes real in The Oasis. That meant this was going to require a heavy CGI budget.

The other thing about Ready Player One (the book) is that it is a constant stream of nostalgia for a certain type of people. The book connects with the age of persons who were babysat by an Atari 2600. They remember Alex P. Keaton’s counterculture battles with his parents. They have a secret hankering for a car that talks and has a flashing red light bar on the front. The age that those things appeal to were the target group. And I am proudly in the bullseye of that target.

The main character, Wade Watts, is the narrator of the book. The story comes from his point of view. It really becomes the power of the story because his successes and failures are the only emotional filter. That means when something happens to Wade, the reader is part of the reaction. When Wade discovers something, the reader is part of the discovery. And as the primary plot of the book is a puzzle game, discovery is a central part of advancement.

Then the movie came out. And all I can say is that the movie lost its heart.

The movie gets away from Wade’s point of view. The story draws the 4 other members of the hunting “group” Wade is a part of and the main villain into the perspective. This removes some of the punch in the emotional points of the movie. It also reveals some things without trying to bring the viewer along the road of discovery.

The emotional points of the book are life changing for Wade, but in the movie they are more distractions. Which, if you read the book you understand, are more meaningful as distractions. In translating them to film they are insignificant events. The emotional high points of the book become moderated. It is almost like Spielberg didn’t want the viewer to feel during this movie.

I am most frustrated that the movie did not remain true to the book. It didn’t keep me from enjoying the movie or respecting it on its own merits. It does, however, stand in the way giving this full credit as an adaptation. The game, the Hunt for the Egg, is totally re-written for the movie. The point of view switch includes making someone else the focus of the crucial false ending. And they move the opening act from Oklahoma City.

The greatest issue of not remaining true to the book is the level of respect for the viewer. The book is a book for readers. The vignettes and name drops are on practically every page. And it only requires a mention and the reader “sees” it. The movie, though, is a movie for non-readers. It is for video game players. It is for people who were nurtured on late forms of video games or movies. The puzzles in the book are linked to “ancient” movies and games (movies and games I feel comfortable with). The puzzles in the movie are linked to events that are depicted in the movie and very much oriented to video games of the last 10 years. The underlying ribbon that tied the puzzles together was Dungeons and Dragons. Outside of a couple of images taken from the world of D&D, there was no mention of the greatest game in history.

The movie is not a bad movie. It is okay. I wouldn’t go back to a theater and watch it. I will wait for it to hit the Black Friday movie deal. It is entertaining. It is exceptionally well done as a CGI driven film. It is internally coherent to its own story, even while it is not faithful to its source material. And the music is an ‘80’s music dream. But it just doesn’t have the heart to be good movie.

There is a lot of video game type violence. There is 1 scene that is sexually suggestive. There is no nudity except for a scene where all intimate parts are obscured. There is one foot to a groin. The language seemed to be relatively tame. I would suggest 13 and up for this movie.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Ministry diagram for focus

As I was rebuilding my understanding of calling after my breakdown, I had to take it piece by piece. I returned to my original passage of scripture that I feel is my calling.
Ephesians 4:11-13
11 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. 

It took a few weeks to come back to this verse and hear what I believe is my calling. I was called to equip believers, disciples, saints, and Christians to become mature in their faith. 

But as I explored that, I had to break it down into components to understand how I felt I was called to equip them. As I focused and meditated and pondered, 5 aspects of calling. Those 5 aspects are: drives, special callings, work areas, discipleship areas, and outcomes. What began as introspection on those aspects became an image that I have been refining. Images help me focus and this is what I have come up with:

This image is a composite of images that I used to focus on the 5 aspects. It isn't a perfect image for understanding completely what a calling upon one's life is about. This is just the clarity I have come to in my calling. 

At the top is the TRIANGLE making up the 1st Aspect: Drives in the Christian Life. Everyone has three drives as a believer, disciple, saint, and Christian. The first is Faith; that gift of grace that enables and empowers us to believe and live according to the likeness of Jesus Christ. The second is Passion. Passion is different from one person to the next. It ebbs and flows. It increases and decreases over time. Third is Calling. Every person who calls upon Jesus Christ as Lord is called. Faith is matter of accepting that call and passion is a matter of living that call out.

Next is the CORNERS in the center square highlighting the 4 Special Callings of Ephesians 4. This is the 2nd Aspect. Paul says that God has given the body of Christ 4 special called groups. These persons are a gift to the church who will enable the body of Christ to become more mature. The 4 Special Callings are Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, and Shepherd Teachers. Some interpretations separate the last calling into two. According to my (limited) skill in translating Greek, the text puts the greater weight of interpretation on the calling of shepherd and teacher being a combined calling. 

What about pastor-teacher? I came to a realization while studying this passage and the words used for these callings. The word used for "pastor" in this verse is the only instance of its use. In every other use of that word, it represents one of two things: shepherds who work with sheep and Jesus Christ. There is no other use in the New Testament (or the Old for that matter) where this word represents the meaning of pastor. I settled upon shepherd-teacher because I felt Jesus Christ couldn't be replaced.

The next image is the DIAMOND that represents the 3rd Aspect: The Work Areas of Ministry. I confess to coming to this image from Wayne Cordeiro's Leading On Empty. This book was recommended by my counselor. It helped me come to grips with some of the struggles I was experiencing in ministry. But the chapter on Solitary Refinement included a focus on "The Most Important Five Percent". This led me to examining the work areas that are represented in the life of one called to ministry. There were 4 work areas I identified: the work of specific Call, Gifts, Skills, and Tasks. 

Cordeiro emphasizes that 5% of what we do in ministry only we as an individual can do. God has put us in a place, individually, where there are certain things that can only be accomplished by us. I broadened this thought out to consider the entirety of what specifically we are called to do. There is a unique aspect to our calling. There is something inherent in  being a unique individual created in the image of God and filled with the Holy Spirit that makes our individual callings unique. Cordeiro puts personal discipleship, relationships, heath and wellness of body and soul. While I believe that those are responsibilities within a person's individual call, I prefer to focus on the ministry angle in this image. This represents the thing(s) we as an individual is God using us for in the work of the Kingdom of God.

Cordeiro then speaks to the 10% of what we do that someone who is trained adequately can accomplish. I consider the more important questions of what gifts and skills do we have that are ours but are also possessed among the body of Christ. Gifts are imparted to the body of Christ through the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:7) but are not necessarily unique to one person within a local congregation. Skills are things that can be trained and developed, but typically require a bit of aptitude that may not be available to all persons. 

Cordeiro says that 85% of what we do, anyone can do it. I took that to mean, what are the tasks that we have to do that someone else can do. Those things may be things that someone else can do better because they are skilled or gifted, but are somehow within the responsibility of the one in ministry at that moment. These may be things that require no skill or training, but represent that which must be done for the ongoing work of ministry. They might just be things that we are bad at, but still have to be accomplished.

I don't rank these by percentage. I also don't put any particular thing in any one area. They are ranked by priority, though. That unique thing we are called to do, that is our highest priority. The gifts and skills that we have are in place to support that thing we are called to do. The tasks that we have to accomplish are lower in priority. Unfortunately, they take a lot of our time. In a perfect work of ministry, these would be delegated out among the body of Christ so that one person does not have to carry the overwhelming load of them. But that is not always the case.

Our fourth Aspect is marked by 3 RECTANGLES highlighting the Areas of Discipleship that are mentioned in Ephesians 4:11-13: Unity of Faith, Knowledge of the Son, and Maturity. These three seems to represent what marks the churches development. Multiple times in Paul's writing we see him encourage the church addressed in a letter to strive toward unity and one-mindedness. The Unity of Faith ensures that we are all moving in the same direction as the body of Christ and as disciples. Knowledge of the Son is the intentional study, mentoring, and meditation on who Jesus Christ is as the center of our faith. More importantly, it is the directed focus of living into the likeness of Jesus Christ in our whole life as we grow in knowledge and understanding and the love of Christ (Eph 3:19). Finally, the Maturity that Paul emphasizes is the realization of the predestined end of our being: holiness and righteousness (1:4, 5:27). Maturity is not a state of perfected action, but the movement toward realized perfection. God has already predestined us toward this state (1:4-5) and prepared to be accomplished in this state (2:10). It takes the work of maturing to finally step into this state of Maturity.The 3 Areas of Discipleship encompass the work of the body of Christ in building one another up. There is room in all three of these areas to cover the essentials of learning, serving, and renewing one another. 

The last Aspect are the outward directed Outcomes of the life of the body of Christ. It is represented in 4 PARALLELOGRAMS. The four areas of outwardly directed work of the body of Christ are Teaching, Witness, Serving, and Justice. These 4 areas represent the major areas of outcome of Jesus' ministry. Jesus spent years going about the countryside teaching through parables and direct engagement with the crowds and with the disciples. Jesus witnessed to the power of God through the healing ministry. The entire ministry of Jesus was one of serving the people as a means of bringing God's love to their reality. And the Kingdom of God message of Jesus was one that started turning the tables of power upside down. The last, least, and lost were the first. The voiceless had a champion. The outcasts were included. 

This diagram is only a small representation of how I see ministry in my life. I feel called to the church through what is portrayed here. It isn't perfect or adequate for everyone. And it is not fully fleshed out. It was the step in the right direction that I needed to bring myself back to ministry. It also frames how I will step in the coming years. It may develop and change. For now, this is how I see my life in ministry.