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.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Would Jesus really ask it of us?

While I was sitting in morning meditation, preparing for the Sunday busyness, I was struck by a thought. Was it God? I'll let you judge. But if it was God's voice speaking, let me caution you, dear reader: don't listen to it  - God will only get you into trouble.

The thought that came to me was a paraphrase of a familiar passage of Jesus dealing with someone.
16 And behold, a man came up to him, saying, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you would enter life, keep the commandments.” 18 He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, 19 Honor your father and mother, and, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20 The young man said to him, “All these I have kept. What do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. - Matthew 19:16-22 (ESV)
This passage arose in the midst of meditating on this thought: "God, let me represent the Kingdom of God." And then, "WHAMO!" this thought appeared in my little brain, "If you wish to be perfect, go and sell your guns and give to the poor..."

I will admit that I am a gun owner and respect and enjoy guns. But this wasn't for me. Or maybe it was. But the bigger thought that surrounded that flash of inspiration was, "How would the American Church deal with Jesus if that was what he said?"

Think for a moment about the context. What good deed must we do to have eternal life? Jesus didn't respond with, "Believe and that will be enough." No, he went right to the commandments. And he got them out of order. And he didn't name all ten. And he didn't even approach the God stuff. There is nothing about idols or Sabbath in what he said. Jesus says point blank that if you need to know about eternal life, look at your relationships with people around you. And which one did he choose to start with?

Do not murder.

Then the young man says, "Hey, I'm in good. I get all of that done." So Jesus responds to the young man, "If you really want to be perfect, then sell what you possess, give that away to the poor, and you will have heavenly treasure, then follow me." Those possessions were getting in the way of that young man truly grasping what God was about. And those possessions stood in the way of that young man following Jesus in a sincere way.

I'm not going to wade into a discussion of whether "real" Christians should sell all of their possessions and take up living among the poor. I will point out, though, that Jesus got right to the heart of the issue with this young man. He wanted to know perfection. He wanted to find the full life with God that he felt was possible. He admits (humbly?) that he did all of those other things. I wonder if he did them to the level Jesus had recommended in Matthew 5-7? But he admits that he has followed the rules. He has stuck to what God has said mattered. Then Jesus pulls the mask away from the young man's eyes and says, "Here is the thing that is really in the way."

In all of the discussion today about whether guns should be controlled or the right to own guns should be upheld, I wonder why the American Church isn't saying, "What would it take to be perfect? What would the Kingdom of God require of us?"

"If you wish to be perfect, go and sell all of your possessions and give to the poor."
"If you wish to know God's perfect love, sell your beloved guns and give to the cause of protecting children and vulnerable persons."

If Jesus is the Prince of Peace, the Bread of Life, the Lord of Creation, then how can we stand by and say that guns are our right? How can we, the Body of Christ and the Bride of Christ, continue to sustain a voice anywhere within us that says that guns are a God-given right?

Guns are a tool. I am the first to admit that. People wield guns for good and for evil. Guns are not inherently dangerous unless they are not respected. But the Kingdom of God is not built with guns. The Kingdom of God is built in loving God and others. The Kingdom of God is built in mercy and kindness. The Kingdom of God is built with God's justice in mind and not our justice, because our justice becomes tainted with vengeance and striking back, instead of turning the other cheek. The Kingdom of God is working toward peace while at the same time defending gun ownership.

If Jesus spoke into the American Church today and said, "You have followed the rules that are set out for you very well. The Constitution, you have guarded it well. The Declaration of Independence has been a defining statement for you. But one thing I require of you for you to really get it: sell your guns and look out for the last, the least, and the lost. Then follow me."

How would that sit with American, Bible believing churches?

Monday, March 19, 2018

Review: Baker Compact Dictionary of Biblical Studies

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Academic through the Baker Academic Bloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

I love Bible study. It is the favorite part of my Christian development and maturity. I always find new insights and revelations of something deep and meaningful. In seminary, I took multiple Bible study courses. So when I was presented with the opportunity to review a resource for Bible study, I jumped at the chance.

The Baker Compact Dictionary of Biblical Studies is edited by Tremper Longman III and Mark L. Strauss, two professors in the field of biblical studies at two different universities.

The Baker Publishing Group releases many resources for Bible study. This particular book should be considered an "entry level" book. It is a dictionary and its entries are helpful in pointing out many issues and topics related to the Bible, the study of the Bible through history, and approaches to the study of the Bible. It should be noted that Compact refers to the brevity of the book, and therefore any deep exploration in the entries.

I believe there to be a fair representation in all of the entries. It would be easy to target some subjects in a biased way to show strengths or weaknesses from the viewpoint of the editors. I didn't see any overt examples of bias toward any subject. I did feel that there were some items excluded from this 2018 edition that could have been helpful to contemporary readers. An example would be the lately famous "Gospel of Judas" that may still arise from time to time in conversation. Overall, the brief entries are easy to read and fair representations.

Any serious student of the Bible or biblical studies will find the brevity and exclusions lacking. Many who have been at the work of Bible study for years (or decades) will have been introduced the subject matter in this book, and may have developed a deeper understanding in their years of study. It was a great refresher, for me, as some of the entries represented ideas I had not approached in quite some time. Overall, the book is suited for beginning students and a reminder for more experienced students.

It is lightweight and easy to carry around. This is not a thick, hardbound dictionary. It is the size of a small, paperback novel. It will be easy to carry this in a briefcase or satchel with the Bible and other materials used for study. It is useful, even if it is not the most complete and comprehensive resource on the subject.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

An Attack on Traditional Christian Values

This is a reaction opinion to an opinion piece from the Liberal, Kansas Leader and Times. The author, Larry Phillips, has submitted many such writings. I have found very little that is agreeable with his content or approach. But this writing was clearly the wrong thing at the wrong time.

No matter what the movies say, gay is still gay

Mr. Phillips begins his opinion with the statement: "The bombardment from progressive Democrats attacking traditional Christian values is always overlooked by the Lame Stream Media." He has displayed, in his writings, a bias against progressives, Democrats, and traditional news and cultural media outlets. There have been many times I have been offended by his tone. There have been many cases where his characterizations are thrown out with no regard for the humanity of the persons they touch. This article, for example, begins with a heterosexual pedophile and is linked to LGBTQ persons, and finally relates that to bestiality.

Liberal, Kansas is not a central hub for progressive and counter-traditional values. It is very traditional. It is laid back. But it does have persons who identify as LGBTQIA. Those people are members of the society of Liberal. They shop and work and go to school in Liberal. They play athletics and take walks in the park. They lead quiet lives where they want the best for their lives. But this attack was a horrible character assassination on those people.

And it was done under the banner of "traditional Christian values".

And that was wrong!

Traditional Christian values do not allow room for character assassination. Traditional Christian values are not filled with hateful characterizations of unknown persons. Traditional Christian values will not make another person feel demoralized, angered, offended, or put into a position where they are depersonalized, dehumanized. Mr. Phillips tries to stir feelings of division and hatred against people who he characterizes as: despicable, dysfunctional, amoral, inhuman, mentally confused, emotionally ill, mentally ill, disgusting, behaviorally sick, and abnormal. Some of those are television characters used to portray the lifestyles he finds reprehensible. Some of those are consumers of media which support those lifestyles.

I am not wanting to address the subject of the content of the media Mr. Phillips is attacking. I want to address the attack on people who Mr. Phillips characterizes as less than human. This is not the first time he has made such a characterization. These are the words of Mr. Phillips from a column following the Parkland, Florida school shooting. He was addressing the students who were speaking up for gun reforms.
These kids sat in front of a TV camera and said they were just stating their reflections on the Florida school shooting and were just explaining their feelings. After all, they were there. And they blamed the NRA. 
Sheer stupidity – apes, taught to mimic. Gun control has never stopped shootings, February 23, 2018
 From the column that sparked this opinion, he had this to say regarding a television show:
We get a cable series that humanizes one of these mentally confused individuals – a transgender teenager. It follows the life of an emotionally twisted teenage girl who wants to become a sexual transgender. They try to portray her as a sweet and tormented, poor little thing.
The fact is she’s mentally ill, and her parents are disgustingly sick.
I understand that Mr. Phillips is calling out a character on a television show. They are not a real person. But that "emotionally twisted teenage" character represents hundreds of real people. That character is the opportunity to see that there are struggles by teenagers in every one of our schools. Every day there are neighbors kids or someone around the neighborhood or perhaps in the grocery store who feel they are sick or ill or less than human. And attacks on a character on television only perpetuates the lack of support that a teenager you may know desperately needs. They need to be heard. They need to be respected as a human being. They need to be loved.

And that is the real understanding of traditional Christian values.

Mr. Phillips doesn't understand "values". He doesn't seem to understand "Christian" either. Traditional Christian values are not grounded in the dehumanizing of people. No where does Jesus tell his disciples, "Find the flaw in another person and use it as a point of assassination on them." Jesus does not condone the dehumanizing or demoralizing of any human being, except for the religious leaders who made true holiness impossible to attain. The only people Jesus judged were the religious who had such a narrow view of faith and obedience that they could not see the persons they were damaging along the way.

Jesus held out one standard for behavior among the disciples. "Love God with all that your are (heart, soul, mind, body). Love your neighbor as yourself." But maybe that wasn't clear enough for those early disciples. So Jesus goes through this over and over.  Love one another (John 13:34), love your neighbor (Matthew 22:36-40), love the stranger (Luke 10:29-37), and love your enemies (Matthew 5:44, Luke 6:27 & 35). And this is something that I believe Mr. Phillips has overlooked in his lessons on traditional Christian values. He views his enemies with contempt. He has no compassion for them nor does he seem to want to do good for them.

Traditional Christian values built upon the New Testament do not call Christians to attack non-believers, immoral individuals, or sinful behaviors of persons outside of the fellowship of the saints. The accountability that we are called to hold others to only for those who are of the faith and the fellowship of the Body of Christ. Mr. Phillips, and others like him, feel they are justified in calling the rest of culture to follow his understanding of values and Christian teaching. But Mr. Phillips has much to learn about both before he should call upon anyone else.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Rainer on becoming a more welcoming church

Notes for future reference regarding a community welcoming church:
https://thomrainer.com/2018/03/seven-potentially-deadly-church-sicknesses/
  1. Attitudinal Angst: a church illness where church members are most focused on getting their own desires and preferences met, rather than being a serving member of the body of Christ. It is also called Church Country Club Membership.
  2. Slippage Syndrome: the church illness where a church stops focusing on its primary purposes. Evangelism slippage is the most common.
  3. Detail Distraction: a church illness where there is too much focus on minor issues to the detriment of major issues. For example, routine meetings can become more important than compelling missions.
  4. Institutional Idolatry: a church illness where the members have an unbiblical devotion to inconsequential matters such as facilities, order of worship, or styles of worship.
  5. Activity Acclimation: a church illness where the members see busyness to be the same as commitment and/or godliness. The church calendar becomes the guiding document for the congregation.
  6. Purposeless Prayer: the church illness where corporate prayer is non-existent or steeped in non-useful tradition. Such prayers can be perfunctory, showy, or gossipy.
  7. Detrimental Defensiveness: a church illness where the members and leadership are fearful to move forward because of memories of past conflicts and the presence of troublemakers and bullies.
https://thomrainer.com/2018/03/eight-questions-welcoming-churches-ask/
  1. Are our members inviting others?
  2. Does our website communicate to guests?
  3. Are our members friendly to guests or to members only?
  4. Is our facility clean, tidy, and safe?
  5. Are there barriers to worship?
  6. Are we speaking a foreign language?
  7. Do we follow up with guests in a timely manner?
  8. Do we have clear next steps?
 https://thomrainer.com/2018/03/understanding-impact-community-involvement-church-health-revitalize-replant-032/

  1. Understand the community has changed
  2. Understand the level to which they have been blessed
  3. Understand the community as an opportunity to display love
  4. Understand it is obedience
https://thomrainer.com/2018/03/develop-welcoming-worship-ministry-rainer-leadership-413/
  1. Avoid “Insider Trading”
  2. Nobody likes Worship Casserole
  3. Tick Tock, the Game is Locked
  4. To Thine Own Self Be true
https://thomrainer.com/2018/03/9-keys-church-members-guest-friendly-easter/
  1. Pray as you enter the property.
  2. Park at the most distant spot available.
  3. Greet people.
  4. Look for people to help.
  5. Sit as close as possible to the front of the worship center.
  6. Sit in the middle.
  7. Sit closely.
  8. Volunteer to serve.
  9. Pray as you leave.

A Glorious Death

I was reading the Lectionary passages for this week (Lent 5B). The Gospel reading is John 12:20-33. Jesus is approached by some Greek seekers. Jesus speaks of his impending death, according the writer/editor. But the theme that develops in that conversation led me to the thought of the death in the pericope.

A glorious death is something that we don't talk about as having happened to real people. We hear it in poetry. We read of it in literature. We watch it in movies. When we confront death in the lives of human beings, flesh and blood we may know or who are known by those we know, we don't speak of death as glorious. It can be tragic or sudden. We may feel that it was expected or understandable. It can be peaceful or horrible. But we never talk about a glorious death for people. Even people of faith experience a death that is less that glorified.

John 12:24: "unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies..."
John 12:32: "when I am lifted up from the ground..."

Jesus uses two references to the ground or earth in this proclamation of impending death. There is a weight on the words that he uses. The grain must die in the ground to bring forth fruit. And the hearers of that word understood that part of Jesus' little parable. They had seen the farmers sowing the wheat into the ground. And what goes into the ground must die. There is no light. There is no life in the ground. What was once alive returns to the earth. "Ashes to ashes, dust to dust...."

But how many grasped the bigger picture of what Jesus was saying? Did they know that he was speaking of himself? Did they think of his death as something that was near? Billy Graham died recently (as of this writing). How many people were ready for the news of his death? Even though he was "advanced in years", did people grasp that he would really die in their lifetime or awareness? Jesus was forecasting something, but did anyone put it together what that was?

Then, he makes an even more veiled reference to being lifted up. He just announced what happens to the wheat seed in the ground. Now he is announcing that he would be raised up from the same. The writer/editor inserts this clarification: He was saying this to indicated the kind of death by which he was to die. But raising up is not related to death. Death is laying down to die. Death is putting one into the tomb. Death is going down into Sheol. Being raised up is not dying. It is glorifying.

Jesus is bringing glory to dying.

John 12:23: "now is the time for the Son of man to be glorified."
John 12:28: "Father, glorify your name." "I have glorified it and I will glorify it again."

Jesus isn't just bringing death down to earth. Jesus is also raising it up to heaven. God is now involved in the dying. But in God is life. God's name was glorified in the Incarnation (and God took flesh and dwelt among humanity). God's name was glorified in the Baptism of Jesus (this is My son in whom I am well pleased). God's name was glorified in the obedience of Christ witnessed to in the Transfiguration (this is My son; listen to him). And the name of God would be glorified again before all was said and done.

In the death of Christ, we see not only God's name glorified, but we also see death glorified. Through the death of Christ, we see God transforming life (by his stripes we are healed). In the death of Christ, we see God transforming our nature (sin is forgiven). In the death of Christ we have a victory over that which has been humanity's curse from the garden (where, o death, is your sting).

The death of Jesus is not beautiful. It is not easy to digest. It is beyond our full mortal comprehension to understand at its deepest meanings. But it is glorious.

In its shame, his death is honorable.
In its brutality, his death is miraculous.
In its disgrace, his death is justifying.
In its injustice, his death is reconciling.
In its pain, his death is peaceful.
In its suffering, his death is gentle.
In its dying, his death is glorifying.


Tuesday, March 06, 2018

My answers to the frequently asked questions a pastor receives

For anyone who may end up reading this, wondering how to deal with me as a pastor, here are some of the answers you will be wanting to know.
What do we call you? Pastor, preacher, brother, Hey You?
What you call a pastor depends on your background and tradition. I don’t expect anyone to call me anything specific. But here are some helpful guidelines:
    • Reverend is a formal title best used for official address and invitations or business letters
    • Pastor is what I do and my relationship to the church. It is fine for people to call me Pastor Todd. Or even just Pastor.
    • I’ve had a few folks call me “Brother Todd”. I don’t have any problems with that. It doesn’t reflect a theological statement for me or an office.
    • Preacher is also what I do. I don’t mind people calling me Preacher.
    • “Hey, you” is perfectly fine until you get to know me.
    • Above all else, Todd works just as well. It’s the name my Momma gave me and I’m pretty attached to it.
Are you going to change things?
The simple answer is yes. My coming to be your pastor is about change. I am nothing like your leaving pastor. Your former pastor and I will do things differently. There will be unavoidable changes because of that. I will not, however, make any drastic changes in the beginning of my time of serving. The exception to this would be if there are MAJOR problems that must be dealt with. Until we get to know each other better I will not institute changes to things that are familiar for a church. We have plenty of time for something like that.
There is one thing that I like to change fairly quickly when I arrive at a new appointment. I like to get rid of meetings that waste time. My time is precious. Your time is precious. If I don’t think a meeting needs to happen, I won’t call it. I don’t mind spending a little time informally, but I like to start on time, end on time, and use the time efficiently. So if you like meetings that go on forever and never seem to get anything accomplished, I’m sorry that I may offend you.

What kind of preacher are you?
I was called into ministry through the campus ministry at East Central University. I was also called into ministry while studying History. Two people have shaped that calling: Rev. D.A. Bennett and Dr. Davis Joyce. Those two men have been such a great influence on my understanding of ministry that I could not consider being the man I am if it weren’t for them.
D.A. Bennett taught me about being passionate in my preaching. I get fired up when I preach sometimes. I shout a little, now and then. I preach the Bible from a scholarly point of view but at the lowest level so everyone can get something. I get animated. I get silly. I take preaching seriously.
Davis Joyce taught me that there are people in this world who don’t have a voice and I have privilege they do not. I use preaching to remind the Church that the world is not perfect, and neither is the Church. I use preaching to put before us the last, lost, and least because that is who Jesus sought out. I remind people that justice and mercy and societal changes are as much a part of the work of the Church as praying, singing, and fellowship dinners.
If you want to know what kind of preacher I am, I try to record them and post them to the internet.
I am also the kind of preacher that isn’t afraid to admit that sometimes I get it wrong. When something is pointed out to me, I will address it and correct it and seek repentance for it.
Are you going to visit people?
Growing up, my Momma always taught my sister and me that we should never invite ourselves over to people’s houses. That is a rule I still live by. I will be glad to visit with you. I would ask that if you desire a visit, please invite me to come and set up an appointment. I feel that coming to a person’s home is a privilege extended and should be something you control. It is not my right or within my responsibility to intrude upon your “safe place”. An appointment ensures that the time is protected from anything that may compete. I want to be able to visit without worrying that something else may compete for my time. You have to ask me to come visit you. I don’t operate from the understanding that people expect me to come into their homes. I operate from the understanding that your time and home are yours and I am invited into them. This way you can pick a time that is best for you. If my schedule allows it, I will be glad to visit.

When it comes to hospital visits, that is something else. I will gladly come and pray for you before a procedure, if that is what you want. If I come, I usually stay until the procedure is over and the attending doctor reports. But again, you have to let me know when and where. Hospitals are cracking down on information they will release. It is law that they cannot release certain information. If you are going in, and you want a visit, please inform me in advance. If you are in the hospital for an extended stay, I will pay a visit. In order to make it easier, please let me know what hospital, what floor, what room, and if there are any limitations (gowns and masks, special hours, etc.). I will try to make it to the emergency room in the case of a serious event as soon as I am able. But I will also respect the rules and boundaries of any hospital.

How can I get in touch with you?
You are welcome to contact me whenever you need to. I will acknowledge a message at my earliest convenience (usually fairly quickly). I may not be able to physically get to see you at the moment but at least contact me. The best way to reach me is in this order: text message, instant message through Facebook Messenger, cell phone, email, office phone, home phone.
I will try to post times when I am available in the office. I don’t mind people stopping for a visit. An appointment will ensure that I will be there when you wish to visit.

Will your wife be/do ___(fill in the blank)______?
I know that some churches have expectations of the preacher’s wife. My wife is her own person with her own gifts, talents, and interests. If you would like to ask her to do something, she should be allowed the opportunity to consider it. She is not appointed to the church, though, I am. Please don’t expect her to do something without sitting down and talking with her.

Will you be at various events?
Personal family time is very important to us. We like to spend time with one another and do things together as a family. If there are events that we can come to as a family, we will be there. We also like to enjoy quiet time together. So we most likely will not be every event.
If there is something special you would like me to be involved with, please come and talk to me. I don’t know what you want or expect. The things you consider to be important or community building may escape my notice. Some traditions and community bonding experiences are things I don’t have any history with. But if you come talk to me, then we will come to a better understanding of each other.

What do you like?
Favorite food: Bar-b-que ribs.
Favorite drink: Coffee with sugar and milk or a big glass of sweet tea.
Favorite music: I enjoy a lot of different styles of music and depending on my mood, I will listen to different things.
Favorite movie: Any Marvel or Disney movie, The Greatest Showman, Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, The Princess Bride, One Crazy Summer
Favorite television show: I like almost all science-fiction shows; I watch DC super hero shows with my youngest son, and action shows with my wife. My DVR gets really full.
Heroes: Walt Disney, Dave Ramsey, my mother, John Wesley, E. Stanley Jones
Favorite sport: I don’t care much for sports but I like hockey most of all
Favorite snack food: beef jerky and gummy bears (not together)

What do you dislike?
Water, heights, flying.

Where do you come from?
I was born into an Air Force family. I was born December 29, 1970 outside of San Bernardino, California. We moved to the Philippines and Wichita, Kansas. When I was about 10 we moved to a little town in southeastern Oklahoma. I have spent most of my ministry (and now a largest portion of my life) in northwestern Oklahoma or the Panhandle.
I attended college at East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma. I have a degree in History with special focus on Russian and Soviet studies and Sociology as my minor. I attended seminary at Asbury Theological in Wilmore, Kentucky.
I have served churches in Calvin, Stuart, Gerty, Alva, Leedey, Camargo, Hammon, Claremore, Turpin, and Baker. I have been in the ministry since May of 1998, but served for one year between 1993 and 1994.

Liberal/Conservative?
I am a moderate with conservative and liberal leanings. Theologically, I am grounded in the Church tradition that extends through all 1900 years of Christian history. I believe in the apostolic faith as declared in the creeds. I stand under a healthy umbrella of John Wesley’s influence. I believe the Bible has been inspired through the Holy Spirit, entrusted to human writing, preservation, and translation, and is open to understanding by all people while subject to the Tradition of the Church. I believe that faith is not the ideas that we hold about God, but the life that we lead because of Jesus Christ. I believe that the Kingdom of God is the pursuit and mission of the Church and churches. Christians have a responsibility to the teaching, serving, evangelism, and justice mission of the Kingdom of God.
Politically, I do not affiliate with any established party. I do so because I believe that issues of politics are bigger than a static platform pronounced by party officials. I believe that politics has become a business that holds its own livelihood above the interests of the common welfare. Therefore, I judge each issue and candidate separately and how they fit within the mission of the Kingdom of God. The Church has a duty to lead the world in many eras and to hold politics at arms length in relation to the Kingdom of God.

OU/OSU?
I bleed black and orange – the colors of East Central University Tigers. I don’t root for either against the other. If you want to talk sports, my oldest son Nick is the one to go to.

What do you do in your off time?
The Oklahoma Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church has established the following guidelines for clergy under full time appointment (source: 2017 Journal):
Vacations
4 weeks of paid vacation, which includes four Sundays. These days may be taken consecutively or on separate occasions. The dates should be coordinated with and approved by the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee. The pulpit funds should be provided by the church, but the minister is responsible for arrangements.
Days Off
We strongly recommend each pastor receive two days off per week and encourage a two-day schedule (equivalent of Saturday-Sunday weekends). We recognize, however, the demands of the ministry often make it difficult for a pastor to take off two days consecutively. It is, therefore, very important for the pastor and the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee to come to an understanding as to days off and compensatory time off.
Continuing Education
The United Methodist Church requires all pastors to receive three Continuing Education Units (3 CEUs = 30 classroom hours) per year. The Pastor-Parish Relations Committee must understand this is a requirement and allow the pastor to be absent in order to satisfy it (normally this will not involve a Sunday).
Edited to include:
The pastor and the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee should be familiar with ¶351 of the 2016 Book of Discipline, which outlines: 1) the importance of continuing formation and spiritual growth; 2) allowance for leaves of at least one week each year and at least one month during one year of each quadrennium; 3) that a clergy member may request a formational and spiritual growth leave of up to six months, while continuing to hold a pastoral appointment—if the clergy member has held full-time appointments for at least five years; 4) financial arrangements for such leave; 5) pastors shall be asked by the district superintendent in the charge conference to report on their programs of continuing education, formation, and spiritual growth for the past year and their plans for the coming year. The superintendent shall also ask the local church to describe its provision for time and financial support for the pastor’s program of continuing formation and spiritual growth; 6) clergy in appointments beyond the local church shall give evidence in the annual reports of their continuing formation and spiritual growth program and future plans.
Responsibilities within the United Methodist connection
Pastor-Parish Relations Committees should be aware that pastors are not only appointed to serve local churches, but also have responsibilities within the connection: in camps, in the district, in the annual conference, in the life of the orders, and occasionally in the general church. Time away from the charge for these purposes is not to be considered as vacation.
Now, what do I do with my time off? I’m not much of an outdoorsman, although I do like to go fishing now and then. I don’t play golf. I am not a sports fan.
My main source of recreation is computer centered. I play computer games. I surf the web. I blog and write. I work on computers.
I also like to read. I love role-playing, tabletop games. I like board games that are cooperative and interactive. I am currently exploring writing a few books. I play guitar. I read and collect comic books. I go to “comic cons”. I like astronomy. I have 2 boys who are my pride and joy and 2 dogs who are my babies. I like to cook and grill out. I am a bit of a foodie. I enjoy visiting museum and historical places. I want to get into metal detecting. I enjoy doing genealogy and family research. I watch movies and review them.
My favorite vacation destination is Walt Disney World in Florida. When I grow up, I want to work there. My bucket list of places I want to see in the world includes: Japan, Petra and Egypt, and Germany.

What do I do when you make me mad?
I will make this promise: I will make every effort to not intentionally hurt your feelings, offend you, or hurt you in any way. But realize this: I am human. I make mistakes. If you have gotten this far in this than I may have already made you mad or offended you. If that is the case, I want to do what I can to mend the relationship.
If I have said or done something that offended you, tell me about it. Call me, email me, come by the office or house. But tell me that I’ve hurt you. If you don’t feel comfortable coming alone, then bring a friend or two that you can draw strength from. If you can’t face me or speak directly to it, then ask a third person to come to me, in your name, and tell me about it. I will then come to you and try to find a way to restore the relationship.
I should also say that I do not honor anonymous information. If you send me a letter without a name, I will read it, but I cannot do anything to respond to it. If you come to me and say, “Some people…” or, “I can’t tell you who…”, I will listen to the complaint, but I will not respect this as honest communication.
I know no one likes conflict. But let me say that the pattern that I have stated above works. In fact, it is a modified version of the way Jesus recommends how to handle offense among Christians. I believe that the only holy and right solution to conflict among believers is speaking to one another in love about the things that hurt us. Offense can, and does, destroy churches. So if I have offended, I want to heal the wound in order to save the church.

What is something we must absolutely know about you?
I am an introvert. That means that I have to retreat into seclusion to recharge my mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual batteries. It does not mean that I am not a people person. I love to be around people. I love chatting and socializing. But in order to function in that way, I have to have some cave time. That means I have to hide in my cave until I’m recharged.
I am a thinker. I operate in a realm of ideas and possibilities. I see things in my mind and wish they could be reality. I like that I can dream dreams and see things that are yet to become reality. Theory and ideas are my playground. I work out problems in my head. I think in pictures and symbols and connections. Sometimes my brain works in the past, present, and future at the same time. I see connections and groupings naturally. Many times, I also count by 3’s.
I’m an analyzer. I sit back and take information in before I make a choice. I research and gather data before making a decision. I weigh the matter out in logical terms. If I’m not speaking, then I’m listening. I will speak when the opportunity is right or when I have something to say.
You may perceive me as being arrogant or anti-social. It may appear that I don’t have any emotions or that I’m overly critical. The truth is that my personality is such that, to many people, yes that is exactly what I am. But please understand that I am not being rude. I may have my head wrapped around something or I am on my way to an objective. It doesn’t mean I’m a snob or I don’t like you. I’m just focused. I may seem arrogant. But the self-awareness and confidence I possess helps me survive in the settings I find myself in. I do have emotions. I just don’t swing between emotions. I don’t get overly emotional in happy or sad ways.
I label myself as: weird, geeky, and nerdy. I define weird as not fitting within the social normal of the surrounding culture. A geek, to me, is someone who loves something very deeply and devotes time and resources to it. A nerd is someone who allows themselves to become consumed by something. I experience all three.
I do experience the mental illness of depression. It is normally a seasonal or situational experience. I recently had a more severe incident that resulted in panic and anxiety, a form of bulimia, and what used to be called a nervous breakdown. I reveal this information for two reasons.
The first is that, and I am not ashamed of this, it is part of who I am and who I am becoming. I have to be aware of my emotional and mental states at all time and provide for myself the care necessary to continue to function. The mental health crisis that I experienced occurred because I took too much into myself and could not cope with it. It compounded over time until I collapsed. I NEVER want to get to that point again. So if you wonder why I might be oversharing? It is because I need people around me to be aware and to watch over me in love and help me avoid ever reaching that failure point again.
The second reason I am transparent is because there are people in churches who suffer mental health problems but never feel anyone can understand. They feel alone. I am transparent because I want people to know YOU ARE NOT ALONE!
But that is me in a nutshell. Or I’m a nut without a shell. I’ll let you decide
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Where can I learn more about you?
Currently, my sermons are available for viewing at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCz1Qs4XdBfe2F3Ra4YbQCsQ

My Twitter is