A Response to “Unsettled Christianity” and “with Bishops abandoning the Discipline, are we a church?”

Please read the above article here before reading my response. Thanks!!

Joel Watts, once more you have given us a well written, concise article. You have given me much to think about and I believe, with a lot of hope and prayer, that we share more common ground than we do disagreements.

I agree that we need discipline in order to truly be a church. However, I don’t think the action of our bishops – or inaction for that matter – destroys our standing under the headship of Christ. How many times historically would this have taken place, if not just in the UM tradition then the Church universal? If the efficacy of sacraments are not dependent upon the “holiness” of the presider then how could we possibly say that the entire existence of an ecclesiological body such as the United Methodist Church lays solely upon the actions of its episcopal leaders?

At the same time, we are at a crossroads in our church. There is danger in the disorder we are facing. The fact that we live in a 24/7 news cycle world and that people use that cycle to proclaim what they believe makes our four year system of affirming and changing our Discipline seem rather quaint, if not almost useless. Even our conversations in and among blogs shows how quickly things develop. Yet, if you are a United Methodist, you must wait four years for any “real” change to take place. It reminds me of the old joke, “How many United Methodists does it take to change a light bulb?” “Doesn’t matter how many but you can count on it taking a full quadrennium to happen.”

I am not excusing misbehavior by our bishops, elders or any other member of our denomination. I do, however, understand how frustration can lead to demonstration. It was quite possibly frustration, I believe, that led Rev. Wesley to send Asbury and Coke to these United States (ok, they weren’t that yet) to do everything a bishop would normally do, but not be a bishop. I know Rev. Wesley didn’t wink and nod when he did this but it sure didn’t Coke and Asbury long to really fix the problem.

So, I think we might both agree that our Discipline needs fixed in such a way that we can actually be church in the 21st Century. What would that look like? Is that even possible? I don’t know. I just know that the times between Councils and Conferences, etc. throughout church history has become shorter and shorter. It used to take much longer to do theology and even cause schisms and reformations. Now we can do these within days.

Secondly, I disagree with starting our theology with ecclesiology. You say, “Christ is head of the Church; the Spirit dwells in the Church; we (who) are saved (are) in the Church. Our ecclesiology will reflect our views of those other important doctrines.” I would say, “Christ is the head of the Church and the Host at Communion and every other part of our theology should flow from there.” Ecclesiology must be secondary to Christology simply because of the chicken/egg question. Can we say, “There is no Christ without the Church?” Maybe in some places, but certainly not in United Methodism. I believe we would say “There is no Church without Christ” instead.

You are welcome to disagree with the part of that statement concerning Christ presiding at the Table. I’m a practical kind of guy and it makes things easier for me to think about Jesus at the Table whenever I think theology. If it doesn’t fit there, well, maybe I am thinking something wrong.

Truly, I’m not the most theologically minded writer you will find with a blog. I’m a Christian pastor and an ordained Elder in the UMC and my theology grows out of that practice. I tend to forget a lot of the great history I have learned over the years or perhaps I package that history differently in my mind now after almost thirty years in pastoral ministry. I do appreciate how you are pushing us to take ourselves, what we stand for and the very way we encapsulate those doctrines and polity with more seriousness than it would appear we are doing. Please keep up that work!

Or maybe we should just join together and try to get everyone to accept the Nicene Creed and nothing else as what we need to share in order to be a church in this day and age. Perhaps the time of overabundance in information will is forcing us back to a time when a lack of information made us keep things simple.

Hmmm…is that a new thought?

A Prayer for Portland

“Dragon history is always oral history. The written word is so final, so set. Yes, people argue about it but in the end, their arguments are all about interpretation. The spoken word remains alive, writhing, and twisting forever.”

The Hazan
One of the Hazanim

 

gc prayerWhen my brothers and sisters in the faith (and a daughter by blood among them) come together in just a few weeks in Portland, there will be much that has been read and even more that will be said. I know that many prayers are being shared for this holy gathering of people who must worry about words. I only hope the one I add is read by a few, spoken by more, and heard by the only One that matters.

A Prayer for Portland 2016

Gathered from scattered gatherings of the very same clan
They flock and nest in one place for weeks.
To reproduce? To create? To be recreated?
To hold fast? To change? To paint a brighter future?
To hope.

No one knows what will really happen but my prayer is this:
Let your words, whatever words you share,
even the ones in the deepest, darkest corners,
of the unseen places of your heart, be words of life.

Speak those words to life and let all others die the death of the Accuser.

Leave as one, returning to places where clans gatherHope
To share One,
To reproduce,
To create,
To offer recreation,
To hold fast,
To change,
To speak a brighter future into existence
with words that cannot fail.

Leave as one…to hope.

“What Are We Fighting For?” A Book Review

WAWFF Tom BickertonHow many LGBTQ people are in the interesting photograph depicting the church on the cover of “What Are We Fighting For? Coming Together Around What Matters Most” by Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton? Seriously, I included an image of the cover. Take a look and count them.

Trick question. You can’t.

Because if they are there, they are people mixed in with the rest of the “motley crew” that makes up the church.

Then again, how many times does Bishop Bickerton (a Bishop in the United Methodist Church) mention the issues around LGBTQ people, facing his (and my) denomination?

Another trick question because unless I really, really missed it, these issues are not referenced in this book. The title alone was enough to make this reader think that these things would be mentioned. It seems to be one of the main issues our branch of Christianity is in conflict about these days. Like I said, I thought it would be mentioned. But it is not.

And truthfully, I’m glad. That is probably the most genuine and genius accomplishment of “What Are We Fighting For.” The author manages to talk about what lies behind or underneath the issues that are causing conflict rather than the specific issues. (Yes, he does bring up a few specifics, but I will let the reader get to those and make their own judgement about how it fits into the rest of his argument.) The author is then able to call us as United Methodist Christians to a higher place of talking about what threatens the unity of the church – our loss of the primary vision of being a people who can “restore order and focus in the church and throughout the world with a faith that many call naïve and out of touch.” (page 133)

In the days of Trump v. Cruz v. Kasich and Clinton v. Sanders (along with inevitable sequel); In the days of ISIS v. the western world; in the days of environmentalists v. coal industry; in the days of…well, I hope you get the picture. In these days of division and heated division, this Bishop calls us to take a journey that few want to travel. He calls us to a journey with one another as “Children of God” rather than any other label we would like to place on others or ourselves. Children of God…working together for Jesus’ Kingdom…that is the calling Bishop Bickerton brings to our memory.

Some will probably want to digitally or otherwise crucify the author for failing to speak boldly about their cause. I have a feeling that will be just fine – the One the author call us to follow on the journey had a similar problem.

I won’t spoil your journey with this book more than that by quoting or giving more examples. I do, however, encourage you to read it. (I even recommend it to other Children of God not of the branch of United Methodism.)

Bishop Bickerton’s ability to use scripture, story, history, theology and nuance of language so well, makes this a clever and enjoyable journey to a better place.

Perfect Wedding – An Excerpt

The following is an excerpt from a larger work of fiction that I have been pecking away at for quite some time. Alas, it still waits to be complete. The larger work is more from the science fiction genre, but like all those works, some reality slips in. I felt like sharing this excerpt now because, well, I wanted to share something light. I hope you enjoy…

 

Pastor Cary looked at the bride and groom in front of him, standing with family and friends, bridesmaids and groomsmen to rehearse the day they hoped would be a “perfect day” for both of them. He looked around at the ornate sanctuary they were standing in, fiddled a little with the microphone and said, “It is my tradition to ask the groom to keep looking at the front of the sanctuary until I let him know it is time to turn and see the bride walking down the aisle.”

“How nice,” the bride beamed.

“Perfect,” the groomed whispered.

“Yep,” said the pastor as he recalled the time he started this tradition at his very first wedding:

It was twenty years before and Cary stood at the front of the church and checked the stole hanging around his neck for the seventeenth time that afternoon. Just like it was sixteen times ago, the stole was straight. But unlike then, it was now soaked with perspiration from his neck. The heat from the August sun was warming up the little country church and the ceiling fans could do little more than stir the humidity that settled on everyone gathered for the wedding.

The groom stood off to Cary’s left looking cool and calm despite both the order and stickiness of the day. Perhaps his military training was helping him in this particular instance. His dress uniform helped Stephen look both at ease and at full attention at the same time. His shoes were so shined that Cary couldn’t help but notice them and in doing so, managed to steal a glance to make the eighteenth check of his stole. “Still straight,” he thought to himself.

He glanced over at Delia, the pianist, and thought for a moment how very old she was and how many weddings she had seen compared to him. “She’s quite possibly older than the trees that went into making that piano and probably played more weddings than there are keys on it,” he thought. Of course, Delia wasn’t actually playing the piano as much as strumming it. She was finding the first note of a chord and then letting the rest of her fingers fall not so gracefully into place giving the illusion of a song rising out of the instrument. She opened her eyes, which normally stayed closed during her playing, and looked at Cary as he gave a little nod to signal her to start the procession for the bride. She never even noticed but kept right on playing, no strumming, the old Gospel hymn she had decided to torture for the moment.

Cary waited a cautious minute and then hazarded a step to his right towards the piano. That got her attention. She stopped mid chord, leaving an already unresolved melody quite unfinished and said, “Now?” much louder than Cary had hoped.

“Yes. Please.” He responded with a calm smile settling on his face even as another bead of sweat found a home in his stole. He tugged at it again, this time not even caring if it was in place or not.

The old company building that had been used for generations as a gathering place for the Methodist people lacked almost as much architectural adornment as it did practicality. It was pretty, but in the quaint way pretty is used to describe something plain, like the side of a barn or an old Plymouth. Cary always thought of it as a worship space that provided the bare minimum anyone needed to know that there might be some creative force in the universe. Whether it spoke of an Almighty God or an employer that wanted those who gathered to remember who was really in charge was a really good question.

The front doors of the church were located at the top of maybe a dozen steps leading straight from the weeds that were only somewhat infested with gravel in the parking lot. Cary had seen earlier that the bride, Roberta, had arrived and was thankful she had the good sense to get prepared at home and make the trip to church. The little nook that served as a narthex inside the front doors left very little room for anyone to wait in the best of weather, let alone the  West Virginia August heat. Cary had greeted her in that narthex along with a few members of her family. Those kinfolk, with the exception of two cousins who had been serving as ushers, took their seats and Cary made his way through the basement of the church to lead the groom to their present location of sweating.

Just as Delia ended the silence that had settled over the congregation with her own question of timing, the interior doors of the narthex opened with an equally non-musical flourish. “Thing One” and “Thing Two,” what Cary had taken to thinking of the ushers after he failed to recall their names, opened those doors with great gusto. The door on the right, which swung quietly on its ancient hinge, was positioned so that it could never fully be opened, yet another tip to the impracticality of the building. Somewhere near the eighty degree mark of its swinging arc it made contact with the last pew on that side of the church. Thing One had no idea this was about to happen as he pushed the door open so it crashed loudly into the pew holding the entire Smith clan. Several of them started at the sound of wood on wood and all of them moved forward. Cary simply closed his eyes long enough for a trickle to go from brow to eyelid and then he reached up and wiped it dry.

Wishing the damned sweat had been some form of acid that would have temporarily blinded him, Cary opened his eyes to see Thing 2 standing against the back wall of the church trying to figure out what to do with the door on the left, which only barely reached a ninety degree point when it was completely against the wall. However, with a bride about to make her entrance, there was little room for both door and Thing 2. Cary watched as the usher extended his fingers and arms to an almost ridiculous length and then flattened himself against the wall preparing to be frisked by the nearest available officer of the law. “Door stops,” Cary thought. “What this place could use is a couple of good door stops.”

By this point Delia was well into the butchering of the wedding march and the bride, who seemed completely unaware of the commotion caused by her cousins was making her entrance. The groom, however, had missed it all and was looking at the pastor with both confidence and expectation.

On this first occasion of Cary’s master plan, the groom turned on cue after Cary invited the congregation to stand and he was greeted with more than half a dozen older members struggling at best to rise to their feet and turn towards the center to see the bride. One of them, a retired pastor, stumbled into the center aisle and appeared to be lurching towards the bride when his wife just managed to pull him back by his belt and keep him from falling. The groom also got to see Mr. Smith, who turned out to be a distant relative of the bride but a closer relative of the ushers, smack Thing One across the back of his head and shake a finger at him for opening the door so carelessly. And to place a perfect little topper on the layers of Pastor Cary’s master plan the groom also got to see bride framed by the image of Thing 2 still struggling to hold the door open and giving the appearance of making love to back wall of the church.

Delia kept up her slicing and dicing of The Wedding March until the exact instant that the Bride arrived at the front of the church and without even a hint of finishing the chord, let alone the phrase, she stopped. Pastor Cary grimaced, pulled at his stole and collar again, and asked the congregation to be seated. Between the creaking of old pew and sighs of people finding their seats, Cary was quite certain he heard someone, somewhere break wind. Still, he opened his little Book of Worship and said words he would say hundreds of time till today, “Brothers and sisters, just as Jesus graced a wedding in Cana of Galilee…”

Although he was looking down at the small print in his book, he knew without looking something else was happening. At the very extremes of his field of vision he saw the bride’s dress shaking and the groom nervously tapping his foot. He stopped after he said, “so may Jesus be present as Stephen and Roberta come this day to give themselves to one another,” looked up, and saw that both bride and groom were doing all in their power to fight back laughter. The dam burst when in the silence they looked up from the floor, caught each other’s eyes and they both burst out laughing bumping military shaved head into veiled head as they bent over in the pain that such a release of joy brings.

Pastor Cary almost attempted to say something to bring back the somberness of the moment but Delia’s “Oh my!” as she banged on at least a third of the piano keys sent the rest of the congregation, save Things One and Two, right into the throes of laughter themselves. The ushers appeared to busy nursing a sore noggin or creepily studying a section of the back wall to even notice what was happening around them.

Coming back from this blessed memory, Cary said, “Yes, I just want to make things perfect for you both.” Try as he might, he had not been able to recreate that perfection again.

 

8/6/14
Chautauqua Lake, NY

Shoes

I bent over and tied the strings of the shoes and took my first couple of tentative steps in these new dress shoes. Well, new is not right. They are used but they are new to me. A color that is somewhere between Oxford and brown. Soles that are made to last or shoesat the very least be replaced when they wear out.

The first step was a bit odd. There was some tightness on the top of my right foot and I wondered if this was going to be a permanent rubbing spot of if the shoes would mold their way over from their old owner to me. I knew before the day was done, the shoes were still pliable.

What I really wondered about was whether the new owner was pliable as well.

These original owner of these shoes was not a pastor, but I have to say that throughout my life I never met a man who was more an advocate for his pastor than the owner of these shoes. I recall a time that one of his pastors came under attack by anonymous letters and he stood from the pulpit and said, “I will be checking the mail from now on, folks. And any letters that come to this church without return addresses or signatures will go in the trash.” Far as I know, the original owner of the shoes made good on that promise, for the attacks died away and the pastor continued leading in peace.

I recall one time when I came under some criticism as the pastor of the owner of the shoes and this time, he set out to order a load of horse manure and have it dumped on the front yard of the leader of these antagonists. His wife talked him out of it but I found out he had the price and was ready to write the check to have it done.

The original owner of these shoes was no pastor, but he knew what it meant to care for a pastor, advocate for a pastor, and even be angry for that pastor when the pastor could not do it on his own.

The original owner of these shoes was no preacher but he knew a good sermon when he heard it and gave praise where praise was due. The only problem was, you needed to know his scale of praise.

One week, while this shoe owner was out fishing with his family, he caught a fairly impressive 12 inch trout. He was quite proud of that catch and had his picture made with it. A little later in the day, his wife managed to land a 15 inch monster of a trout. The owner of the shoes looked at the fish and said, “Well, that’s decent, I guess.”

Preachers needed to know this. A “good” sermon was just okay, but chances are, if you hit one out of the ballpark, the owner of the shoes would tell you, “That was decent.”

The owner of the shoes which I put on for the first time yesterday, was not a perfect man but he was a man that was after God’s own heart. I cannot count the number of times I saw him sitting in a chair, Bible open, coffee at his side, eyes closed in prayer. Sometimes the shoes would be on. Sometimes they would be off. But this owner of the shoes knew he needed to walk where Jesus walked.

I put the shoes on yesterday and I wear them again today knowing that these are my Dad’s shoes. He passed away in December and my mom cleaned out his closet and asked me if I wanted these shoes – if they fit okay, that is.

Well, they go on my feet just fine. They tie up nice and neat and have even garnered a compliment or two. But I have a feeling it will take me quite some time before they really fit. Maybe they will. Maybe they won’t. But at least I will have the reminder of what Dad was and what I can be.

Tomorrow, I think I will wear them again.