Kindles

A few days ago I got a box out of the closet in the corner of my office. The faded markings on a address on the box, covered by several layers of packing tape indicated I received the contents while serving in Kincaid, WV as a student pastor in the United Methodist Church. I lived near the church in Kincaid, served a second church in Mossy and attended what was then called West Virginia Institute of Technology. That school, like a couple other of my alma maters, has since either closed or been relocated. It’s hard to tell which from their name and new location. If anyone asks, I tell them I graduated from WV Tech which is a little ironic for a guy who knew his next step in life would be a theological education. Then again it would explain why I justify writing my devotions, studies, blogs and even sermons on electronic paper when creating my “SFD”. (Writers and fans of Ann Lamont will get that. Others won’t want to know.)

That box at some point in time held a hot air popcorn popper but I don’t remember having one of those so I reckon the contents that are currently there were shipped to me in this container. The label says it was delivered to a post office box in Kincaid. Yes. I had one of those but the number meant nothing to me even after seeing it in writing. The postmark is dim that I can’t make out the date but I’m guessing the late 80’s or early 90’s. I’m not so dim as to forget when I went to whatever the name of that school was.

The box isn’t all that important. Nor the mailing label for that matter. But they were interesting to me. In a way they remind me that the contents and I relocate from time to time. We’ve traveled quite a few miles this box and I.

IMG_20171205_124748.jpgInside it are ceramic figures of a sheep, a donkey, an ox (not to any kind of scale, mind you, because I’ve seen an ox and they are scary big) as well as a camel that has been glued together more than once. An angel is in there too as well as three suspiciously Anglo looking “Wise Men from the East” and equally White looking shepherd, Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus. Don’t ever tell me that we don’t allow culture to influence our “pure biblical religion.” I will just ask you to show me your nativity set or a copy of the latest Christmas card you bought with a scene of Jesus’ birth on it.

We all make Jesus fit into our culture at times. It’s what we do as humans. Actually, it’s what the Son of God had to do to become one of us as well.

I carefully placed this suspect nativity set on the credenza in my office using some plants left over from my Dad’s funeral a couple of years ago as a back drop. I didn’t think much about the racial and theological implications of the pieces while I was placing them. I handled each one with care because I didn’t want to get the glue out again and because each one kindles in me a love for the group of people who got together decades ago and hand painted each one of these figurines.

I attended United Methodist Temple in Beckley, WV as a youth and young adult. They had a tradition of giving one piece of this set to each child as they grew up among them. When the occasion arose that they had some outlier like me who came late to the party, then they would send them an entire set when they went off to college or left home for whatever reason. The thing is that I knew that these pieces were labors of love. The people who painted and sent them to me were my last true church “home.” I have loved and have been loved by every congregation I’ve served but the fact is that I came out of Temple.

These were my people.

These were my people giving me a gift.

These were my people giving me a gift to remind me of the Incarnate nature of Jesus.

Every year I put them out and remember. Every year I put them away in the same box, with the same styrofoam popcorn – just caught that irony there of the box and the packing popcorn – and I remember the care taken to make sure I got them.

And I take them with me. Always.

Peace!

#ReThinkAdvent
#UnwrapChristmas

Twenty Five Years too Late

Greenville, NC was booming in the early 1990’s. A growing college campus, a regional hospital and pharmaceutical companies were making the area of Pitt County NC a destination for many new people.

The United Methodist Church saw the growth and new that a new congregation would be the best way to tap into the new people coming into the area. After several months of ground work by a planting team, Easter 1992, they launched their new service of Covenant UMC in a local Boy’s and Girls Club.

By the summer of 1992, the attendance at Covenant had hit 800 and was climbing. The pastor reached out to Duke Divinity School for a summer intern and somehow I ended up going there for the summer before I started my first year of seminary. It was a dream placement. I got to see the church at its most exciting. New people were coming to faith every week. Folks who had fallen away from “Church” finding their way back. The pastor was dynamic. Their music was phenomenal. And the felling around the gathering of this new congregation was one that was filled with hope – there was nothing God couldn’t do.

I was given the opportunity to preach a couple of times at Covenant that summer. On the first occasion, I had slipped into my white alb prior to arriving at the Boys and Girls Club and was just out mingling with the folks showing up for worship. I felt a tap on my shoulder and then a voice in my ear said quite clearly, “Hey, where’s your hood?” And then they laughed and walked off.

I didn’t get it at first. I wondered why anyone would need a hood in the humidity of Greenville. After a couple of steps and watching the end of my white alb sway as I walked, I froze at the realization of what this man meant. I couldn’t believe this came from one of our wonderful new congregation members. How could they possibly think that this sacred outfit was “that kind of robe.”

But they did. That is exactly what they saw.

I never wore it again in Greenville but I was quite comfortable wearing it once I returned to West Virginia. Had I been given the chance, I would have worn it to my ordination. But alas, in those days, we had to wear black robes.

This week, I saw the alb hanging in my office closest and thought I might bring it out for this week’s worship service in Princeton. It had been a while since I had worn it.

And then Friday night happened in Charlottesville. And then Saturday’s horrors.

I took the alb to the sanctuary Sunday morning but I was not wearing it. I simply hung it up where it could be seen.

The text I preached on that morning was Matthew 11:22-33. You may know it as the one where Jesus walks on water. And the one where Peter sinks. The disciples all get called people of “weak faith.” What had struck me that week was the fact that Jesus used people of weak or little faith to build the Kingdom. As I thought about the weekend’s event and my holding onto that symbol that could be so easily misunderstood, I realized that I too was a man of weak faith.

I told the story of that morning in Greenville and my inability to say anything in return. I told my congregation that I was a man of little faith. Then I picked up the alb and ripped it in half and placed it on the chancel rail of the church. Here is a picture of the destruction for now. Here is a link to the video…It is silent, but I think it speaks louder that way – you already know the story!  https://vimeo.com/229491973

Torn Alb

I know that not every white person in our churches see albs and think immediately of the Klan. But some of them do. Some of them do. I did not want anything of my already white privileged life to become a confusing symbol to anyone. Anyone. We have allowed symbols to lead to hate. Hate lead to speech. Speech lead to the disaster that hit a beautiful college town in Virginia. I will no longer wear a symbol even closely resembled to white hate in any way. I hope to find somewhere, some way that I can send the pieces of this alb to be refashioned into something of peace. Don’t know if that’s possible but I’m open to ideas.

I also offer a challenge to my fellow white clergy anywhere.

Ditch the albs.

Sure, I know they have other meanings. I know that they symbolize so much. But I also know that our actions here could speak much louder than anything else. Ditch the alb…Take up the preaching robe with love, justice, and peace. Let’s make a change that no one can miss. It took me twenty five years to gain the little bit of faith I needed to make a statement with this piece of white clothing. I pray it takes you less.

Thanks for reading. Thanks even more for joining me if you wish.

To see the entire sermon…go here.

 

A Needed Pause – Round 2

PauseRecently, I wrote a post about the General Conference decision to take a “pause” on decisions regarding the language in our Discipline concerning human sexuality. I know that there are many that are pained in one way or another about this pause. However, I for one am able to breathe again, for two reasons.

First, a parishioner passed this little tidbit on to me yesterday concerning the idea of taking a pause.

 

Practice the pause.
When in doubt, pause.
When angry, pause.
When tired, pause.
When stressed, pause.
And whenever you pause – Pray!

Great words of advice for any of us but especially for the “group thinks” that make up my beloved UMC right now. Pause. Pray. Pray some more while we pause.

The second reason that I like this period of pause is that it will allow us to become very intentional about the conversations that we have with one another. Already, I have been disappointed to see some unusually smug words about “victories” at General Conference. However, I don’t see how talking about the decline of the United Methodist Women could ever be considered a “victory.”  Still others are talking about the schism of the United Methodist Church as if it is a done deal and we are just waiting for the pieces to fall into place. And yet still others are posturing in such a way as to try and force our episcopal leaders into a particular path that they see as absolutely necessary. And of course, we have those who are in hired positions of authority telling us that we should ignore the duly elected and consecrated authorities we have in our denomination and come join them for a gathering that is not a new church (wink, wink) just a gathering of good Wesleyan believers. (Granted Rev. Tennant wrote an apology for this post, the apology is limited to those bishops Tennant finds “faithful”.  I also did not see him take away the invitation to join that event which isn’t an attempt to start a new denomination. That phrase is just, oh, so Wesleyan, you must love it!) There is plenty of blame to go around. Plenty.

I am not one who typically thinks of himself as a scholar on John Wesley. I am not even absolutely sure that there should be anything known as Wesleyan Theology especially given the fact that Wesley himself wasn’t to fond of describing the people of the Methodist Societies as anything other than Christians. Furthermore, I think it is absolute laziness on our part to back up 200+ years and stop at a theologian for our current understandings. He never did that. He learned from early Christians, the tradition as it developed and what he was experiencing around him while he read Scripture and tested all things with God’s Word. It’s pure laziness to think that Rev. John Wesley was any more holy than we should strive to be or any more intelligent in matters of theology for that matter. Lazy.

However, I have got to admit, I get lazy at times too and lean upon and learn from this great leader in the Anglican Church. (Nah, he never became a Methodist. He left that up to Asbury and Coke, but that’s another story and another line of thought that is just going to upset a few people.) I also enjoy learning from Rev. Wesley. Especially in these days of heated debate about religion and the practice thereof.

According to Richard Heitzenrater (be warned, he’s a more modern historian than Wesley) and Albert C. Outler (God forgive me, I’m pulling out all the stops here) Rev. Wesley wrote a sermon on Mark 9:38-39 that is especially timely for our day. In their introduction to said sermon they write, “Part of the price of peace in eighteenth-century Britain, after the bitter quarrels of Civil War and Restoration, was a general lessening of partisan zeal and bigotry. The main concern of all, in both church and civil state, was surcease from religious turmoil. It was, therefore, inevitable that the Methodist Revival should revive fear of new religious disruptions;” Heitzenrater and Outler go on to say, “In much the same way that the Methodists had come by the lable ‘enthusiasts’, they also had come to be regarded as ‘bigots’ in the current general sense of ‘excessive or irrational zealots’…In this sermon (‘A Caution Against Bigotry’) Wesley studiously avoids an apologetic stance…In effect, he gives a positive, if also indirect, plea for a carefully considered religious pluralism both in theology and praxis.” (Heitzenrater and Outler, John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology, page 287, emphasis addded.)

I’m not asking you to bow to Wesley or rip your robes in repentance as you read some of what he wrote here, but I do hope you hear some prophetic utterances for our day and time. Look at these excerpts from “A Caution Against Bigotry” as we take this time to pause within our own denomination and see if they have anything to say to us during this pause. You may read the whole sermon, here. Below is what I found especially interesting.

3. Perhaps more nearly than is commonly imagined; the case proposed being no uncommon case. That we may reap our full advantage from it, I design to show, first, in what sense men may, and do, now cast out devils: secondly, what we may understand by, “He followeth not us.” I shall, thirdly, explain our Lord’s direction, “Forbid him not;” and conclude with an inference from the whole…

3. It is, therefore, an unquestionable truth, that the god and prince of this world still possesses all who know not God. Only the manner wherein he possesses them now differs from that wherein he did it of old time. Then he frequently tormented their bodies as well as souls, and that openly, without any disguise: now he torments their souls only (unless in some rare cases), and that as covertly as possible. The reason of this difference is plain: it was then his aim to drive mankind into superstition; therefore, he wrought as openly as he could. But it is his aim to drive us into infidelity; therefore, he works as privately as he can: for the more secret he is, the more he prevails.

It would appear to me that in Wesley’s analysis of demon possession in the Bible and in his time, he allowed for a difference not just explained by science or critical analysis of the Scripture, but also allowing for what “evil” wished to accomplish in our world. This has powerful implications if we think about evil at work to destroy many Protestant denominations, including our own, by allowing “bigotry on both sides of theological debates” to tear us apart.

I could go on with other powerful sections of this sermon and I once again encourage you to grab both the coffee and courage needed to read it all and do so.

Eventually, Rev. Wesley turns to what makes this man casting out demons “different” than “the disciples.”

3. That expression may mean, Thirdly, –he differs from us in our religious opinions. There was a time when all Christians were of one mind, as well as of one heart, so great grace was upon them all, when they were first filled with the Holy Ghost! But how short a space did this blessing continue! How soon was that unanimity lost! and difference of opinion sprang up again, even in the church of Christ, –and that not in nominal but in real Christians; nay, in the very chief of them, the Apostles themselves! Nor does it appear that the difference which then began was ever entirely removed. We do not find that even those pillars in the temple of God, so long as they remained upon the earth, were ever brought to think alike, to be of one mind, particularly with regard to the ceremonial law. It is therefore no way surprising, that infinite varieties of opinion should now be found in the Christian church. A very probable consequence of this is, that whenever we see any “casting out devils,” he will be one that, in this sense, “followeth not us” –that is not of our opinion. It is scarce to be imagined he will be of our mind in all points, even of religion. He may very probably think in a different manner from us, even on several subjects of importance; such as the nature and use of the moral law, the eternal decrees of God, the sufficiency and efficacy of his grace, and the perseverance of his children.

4. He may differ from us, Fourthly, not only in opinion, but likewise in some point of practice. He may not approve of that manner of worshipping God which is practised in our congregation; and may judge that to be more profitable for his soul which took its rise from Calvin or Martin Luther. He may have many objections to that Liturgy which we approve of beyond all others; many doubts concerning that form of church government which we esteem both apostolical and scriptural. Perhaps he may go farther from us yet: he may, from a principle of conscience, refrain from several of those which we believe to be the ordinances of Christ. Or, if we both agree that they are ordained of God, there may still remain a difference between us, either as to the manner of administering those ordinances, or the persons to whom they should be administered. Now the unavoidable consequence of any of these differences will be, that he who thus differs from us must separate himself, with regard to those points, from our society. In this respect, therefore, “he followeth not us”: he is not (as we phrase it) “of our Church.”

5. But in a far stronger sense “he followeth not us,” who is not only of a different Church, but of such a Church as we account to be in many respects anti-scriptural and anti-Christian, –a Church which we believe to be utterly false and erroneous in her doctrines, as well as very dangerously wrong in her practice; guilty of gross superstition as well as idolatry, –a Church that has added many articles to the faith which was once delivered to the saints; that has dropped one whole commandment of God, and made void several of the rest by her traditions; and that, pretending the highest veneration for, and strictest conformity to, the ancient Church, has nevertheless brought in numberless innovations, without any warrant either from antiquity or Scripture. Now, most certainly, “he followeth not us,” who stands at so great a distance from us.

6. And yet there may be a still wider difference than this. He who differs from us in judgement or practice, may possibly stand at a greater distance from us in affection than in judgement. And this indeed is a very natural and a very common effect of the other. The differences which begin in points of opinion seldom terminate there. They generally spread into the affections, and then separate chief friends. Nor are any animosities so deep and irreconcilable as those that spring from disagreement in religion. For this cause the bitterest enemies of a man are those of his own household. For this the father rises against his own children, and the children against the father; and perhaps persecute each other even to the death, thinking all the time they are doing God service. It is therefore nothing more than we may expect, if those who differ from us, either in religious opinions or practice, soon contract a sharpness, yea, bitterness towards us; if they are more and more prejudiced against us, till they conceive as ill an opinion of our persons as of our principles. An almost necessary consequence of this will be, they will speak in the same manner as they think of us. They will set themselves in opposition to us, and, as far as they are able, hinder our work; seeing it does not appear to them to be the work of God, but either of man or of the devil. He that thinks, speaks, and acts in such a manner as this, in the highest sense, “followeth not us.”

There’s a lot there. I know. Read it and let it sink in. Rev. Wesley knew that Christians could disagree to the point that they might not even see each other as Christians. Wow. And he had to warn the early Methodist Societies of this? I would have figured it would take a hundred years or so for that kind of certain thinking to take root, but alas, these words were not originally for us.

How does Wesley say we should treat those who have obvious fruits of the Spirit working in them but are so different from us in either theology or praxis?

IV. 1. If we willingly fail in any of these points, if we either directly or indirectly forbid him, “because he followeth not us,” then we are bigots. This is the inference I draw from what has been said. But the term “bigotry,” I fear, as frequently as it is used, is almost as little understood as “enthusiasm.” It is too strong an attachment to, or fondness for, our own party. opinion, church, and religion. Therefore he is a bigot who is so fond of any of these, so strongly attached to them, as to forbid any who casts out devils because he differs from himself in any or all these particulars.

2. Do you beware of this. Take care (1) That you do not convict yourself of bigotry, by your unreadiness to believe that any man does cast out devils, who differs from you. And if you are clear thus far, if you acknowledge the fact, then examine yourself, (2) Am I not convicted of bigotry in this, in forbidding him directly or indirectly Do I not directly forbid him on this ground, because he is not of my party, because he does not fall in with my opinions, or because he does not worship God according to that scheme of religion which I have received from my fathers

3. Examine yourself, Do I not indirectly at least forbid him, on any of these grounds Am I not sorry that God should thus own and bless a man that holds such erroneous opinions Do I not discourage him, because he is not of my Church, by disputing with him concerning it, by raising objections, and by perplexing his mind with distant consequences Do I show no anger, contempt, or unkindness of any sort, either in my words or actions Do I not mention behind his back, his (real or supposed) faults –his defects or infirmities Do not I hinder sinners from hearing his word If you do any of these things, you are a bigot to this day.

4. “Search me, O Lord, and prove me. Try out my reins and my heart! Look well if there be any way of” bigotry “in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” In order to examine ourselves thoroughly, let the case be proposed in the strongest manner. What, if I were to see a Papist, an Arian, a Socinian casting out devils If I did, I could not forbid even him, without convicting myself of bigotry. Yea, if it could be supposed that I should see a Jew, a Deist, or a Turk, doing the same, were I to forbid him either directly or indirectly, I should be no better than a bigot still.

5. O stand clear of this! But be not content with not forbidding any that casts out devils. It is well to go thus far; but do not stop here. If you will avoid all bigotry, go on. In every instance of this kind, whatever the instrument be, acknowledge the finger of God. And not only acknowledge, but rejoice in his work, and praise his name with thanksgiving. Encourage whomsoever God is pleased to employ, to give himself wholly up thereto. Speak well of him wheresoever you are; defend his character and his mission. Enlarge, as far as you can, his sphere of action; show him all kindness in word and deed; and cease not to cry to God in his behalf, that he may save both himself and them that hear him.

6. I need add but one caution: Think not the bigotry of another is any excuse for your own. It is not impossible, that one who casts out devils himself, may yet forbid you so to do. You may observe, this is the very case mentioned in the text. The Apostles forbade another to do what they did themselves. But beware of retorting. It is not your part to return evil for evil. Another’s not observing the direction of our Lord, is no reason why you should neglect it. Nay, but let him have all the bigotry to himself. If he forbid you, do not you forbid him. Rather labour, and watch, and pray the more, to confirm your love toward him. If he speak all manner of evil of you, speak all manner of good (that is true) of him. Imitate herein that glorious saying of a great man (O that he had always breathed the same spirit!), “Let Luther call me a hundred devils; I will still reverence him as a messenger of God.”

Edited anonymously at the Memorial University of Newfoundland with corrections by Ryan Danker and George Lyons of Northwest Nazarene University (Nampa, Idaho) for the Wesley Center for Applied Theology.

Copyright 1999 by the Wesley Center for Applied Theology. Text may be freely used for personal or scholarly purposes or mirrored on other web sites, provided this notice is left intact. Any use of this material for commercial purposes of any kind is strictly forbidden without the express permission of the Wesley Center at Northwest Nazarene University, Nampa, ID 83686. Contact the webmaster for permission.

I think I will just leave it there. Right there for us to think about as we enter this pause provided by our General Conference. And during this Pausepause, I for one will be praying that none of us would continue or start any new bigotry in the name of Jesus.

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.