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Sunday, June 29, 2014

Advice to the Newly Ordained from a Lay Person

Every May I get to watch the Facebook updates of folks who are graduating from seminary, many – though definitely not all! – also becoming ordained and for some, beginning their full-time vocational ministry through an appointment to a church or ministry. Often times the first appointments are at a small country church off the beaten path. It is exciting to see the faces in the pictures, seeing both the excitement and the uncertainty of what lies ahead.

Though I have never been ordained, I have served churches in various capacities and, much more importantly, I have attended church for all of my life. I have worked under and attended church under some really, talented, amazing pastors. My current pastor is the most amazing pastor I know in fact. I have also worked for and attended church under some pastors who were either awful or abusive. I have seen the good and the bad and I feel deeply invested in the life and ministry of the Body of Christ.

So, I want to offer my unsolicited thoughts and hopefully, exhortations to all entering full-time vocational ministry – particularly those newly ordained and beginning their ministry in the coming weeks.

First, no matter what your theological or political leanings are, your call is essentially the same: love God entirely and love God’s people (meaning everyone!). One particular encouragement I want to make will sound strange coming from someone who works at GBCS, but here it is nonetheless. Don’t try to be prophetic. Just stick to what is essentially the same call for all of us – love God entirely and love God’s people (meaning everyone!).

Why don’t try and be prophetic? Here’s why. I am quite suspicious of people or organizations who wake up one day and “decide to speak prophetically” about some issue they feel passionate about. How are you, of your own volition, able to speak with God’s mind and God’s voice regarding something God is deeply passionate about? Certainly it is incumbent on us to speak and act on what God is passionate about, but we do not have the power to be prophetic. I believe the prophetic is more gift of the Holy Spirit than a result of our own decision-making, or especially the decision of some group or agency in the church.

I also strongly believe that you can think you are being prophetic and not be loving, but you cannot fully love without being prophetic. Try loving all of God’s people in your community (and remember Wesley said the world was his parish and not just the butts in the seats of our comfortably-located sanctuaries!) without ultimately speaking out for those who are marginalized or oppressed. If you can go 2 years – heck, if you can go for a single year – without speaking to the economic inequities, or the demonic nature of racism, or the warehousing of millions of people through the criminal justice system, or the objectification of women, or any number of other issues present in your community (and I don’t care where you live, they are there) then you really haven’t loved the people in your community. You likely do not even know your community. You are probably just doing church maintenance.

More importantly than speaking, if you are loving God’s people then you will not be able to go a year without finding ways to bridge any separations or detachments that exist between your congregation and your community so that all the people in your community and congregation may not only know your love – they might know the love of the Body of Christ and hence, the presence of God. Love God’s people, just love ‘em.

My second exhortation is this: after a few years (maybe shorter for some or longer for others), you will be tempted to think the problem with the Church is with the people. But let me tell you this: the problem ain’t the people, it’s the system; it’s the institution. I know there are problem folks in every congregation and unfortunately, some congregations have more than their fair share. The Church attracts problem people like white on rice. But who did you expect to be in the church? A church full of Oprah Winfrey’s – fully actualized, spiritually self-sufficient (though is one supposed to be spiritually self-sufficient?), and extremely wealthy so there is never any problem with the church budget? The healthy don’t need a physician, the sick do, and sadly, the church is swimming with needy, enmeshed, emotionally detached, angry, racist, classist, hurting people. Sometimes it feels like the church is drowning with them. Guess what you are supposed to do?

LOVE THEM. Yep, go back and see #1.

The problem ain’t the people, it’s the system. What kind of system anoints one person to head at least one, and sometimes, unbelievably up to 4 congregations? What kind of a system circulates people around geographically every 3-5 years touting that this sole person is the fount from which all of the vital ministry of the local congregation will emanate? What kind of a system is it that calls good behavior paying the bills and adding butts in seats (and let’s face it, you could have one butt in the seat if that one butt paid all of your apportionments and the system would only sit back and smile) and rewarding that “good behavior” through higher paychecks and bigger churches just as if you were working at IBM?

What kind of a system does all this? A corporation, not a Body.

So, when you are tempted to blame the people for their odd behavior, remember, they are behaving exactly as the system expects them to. I truly believe that for the Kingdom to break through in your local congregation you are going to have to resist the strong temptation of corporate relevancy and institutional conformity and you will just have to love God’s people. #1 really is a keeper. Don’t buy in to someone else’s definition of a good church “career.” Just love God’s people and let those who climb the institutional ladder get lost in the building of their own empires. Be true and love God’s people.

Thirdly, remember that as you are called to be ordained, as God has called you to lead the Church, as you have been set apart for the purpose of serving the Body of Christ; lay people are called to ministry as well. If we have received the transforming power of God’s grace and love, then we are called by God to participate in the building of God’s Kingdom. God has significant callings on the lives of lay people. Often, it is the lay people who will do mighty things more so than those who are ordained.

Just as you resist corporate relevancy and institutional conformity you will need to resist the false dichotomy that has developed separating the ordained from the non-ordained. As a lay person I do not mean to take anything away from those who have gone through ordination. It is a high and holy calling and one I celebrate for many of my friends though not for myself personally.

But those who are ordained are not loved by God any more than anyone else. You were not created more special than others. In fact, your calling is most difficult of all for you are called to empower and lift up others, often while standing unheralded behind the stage. That can be hard!

But as soon as you see your congregation as not just a bunch of random individuals waiting for you to pour your magical words into, and instead, see us as fellow members of the Body of Christ filled with the Spirit and called to do amazing and spectacular deeds for the building up of the Kingdom of God, the sooner you will see the Kingdom moving in your community. Our churches are vital not because we have a preacher who is the best in town. We have significant ministries in our local congregations because we have churches filled with people collaboratively living out missional dreams and visions given to us by God for the purpose of building the Kingdom; a Kingdom eradicating poverty, eliminating oppression, and celebrating diversity. As an ordained leader, lead us in the articulation and manifestation of those dreams and visions.

And in a letter already too long, lastly, have fun. Too much in the church is taken WAY too seriously. There are too many battles, too many fights and too many endless debates and “conversations.” Fighting oppression, lifting up those who are voiceless, welcoming the marginalized into our communities and so much more all is fun! Live into the excitement that is the Kingdom and make folks laugh along the way.

God has called you to the most important work on the face of the earth: leading the Body of Christ in building the Kingdom of God on earth. There is truly nothing greater to do. So, work hard, pray unceasingly, take care of yourself and your family, and laugh. It’s a good life. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Imagine, Pray, Act for Change: July 31 Let's Stop the Deportations

As we prepare for July 31 where people of faith, including United Methodists, will engage in civil disobedience in front of the White House to get President Obama to finally stop all deportations, I sent several messages to United Methodist leaders in the struggle to defend and support the rights of immigrants. Here are those messages: to imagine, to pray and to act. We will need all three to stop the state-sponsored reign of terror being inflicted on the immigrant community in the United States

Monday, June 23: Imagine Change
I encourage you to think about being in DC on July 31st. Imagine marching from the United Methodist Building, surrounded by people from all faiths, visibly illustrating the mantle of responsibility for alleviating the suffering immigrants are facing from the Congress to the White House. There is joy and hope, but it only thinly veils the hard determination felt by everyone who is marching. It is a long march. It is hot. But there is a powerful Spirit present and you can feel it. Imagine yourself in that long line as you arrive at the White House. There is prayer and singing and then everyone gathers in front of the White House holding the picture of the family you know who has been ripped apart by the out-of-control deportation policies. You have been thinking and praying for them the whole time you marched. But what you didn’t expect was how powerful it was to see the pictures of families of all who came and joined you. The weight of the suffering and injustice washes over you as you see the pictures of family after family and there is no other place you want to be. You are called to be here. You kneel down in front of the White House. You sing loudly with all of the others while the police ask you to leave and instruct that you will be arrested if you do not leave. There is no turning back. You are ready. You close your eyes and you pray for God’s Kingdom to come, God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. God’s Kingdom is coming. You can feel it.

Can you imagine this? Can you see yourself here?

On Monday we imagine….

Tuesday, June 24: Pray for Change
Once we have imagined ourselves there, as we did on Monday, we know that the power and effectiveness of the action will rise and fall not so much on all of the logistics – though they will be important. The power of our movement lies in our connectedness to our immigrant sisters and brothers who are directly impacted by this country’s failed immigration system as well as by state-sponsored terror through deportations, and our power lies in our connectedness to God. We must pray. We can’t start praying on July 30 when we arrive in DC. We must start praying yesterday. God has called you to follow the lead of Jesus and be incarnated among those whom the rest of society counts only as units of economic prosperity or as possible threats to a certain way of life. It is in prayer that we see the world as God sees the world, that we feel the pain as God feels it, that we celebrate the joys that God celebrates and that we dream the dreams that God dreams. Prayer empowers us and lifts us, allowing us to see a world created as God intended it. We pray for God’s Kingdom to come, for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. If we are to live it we must catch vision of it in prayer. If we are ever to show the President and the Congress a picture of a world where all people are recognized for their inherent dignity and respect as children of God then we must catch this vision and live it out. We catch it in prayer and we live it out in incarnational presence among our immigrant sisters and brothers.

We must pray for July 31 and that the power of God will be revealed and all who are part of the action and all who witness it are invited into holiness. Whether you come to DC or stay home, pray. We must pray for not just an end to deportations and an end to suffering, but we must pray for the presence of shalom. Pray. 

Wednesday, June 25: Act for Change
And so on Monday we imagined ourselves in DC, standing up for righteousness and justice. Tuesday we prayed for God’s grace to be at work even now changing the hearts of the President and the Congress to actually work to bring about an alleviation of suffering. On Wednesday, the day we will join together at 3 pm EST on a call, we act. I am tired and worn out if imagining and praying does not lead to action. I need action not only for the salvific impacts it will have on those to whom my message is focused. I need action for my own liberation. It is no coincidence that the book about the birth and growth of the Church was called Acts. When the United Methodist Church today is mired in church trials and debates and endless discussions – when we are worn out by constant re-imaginings and calls for prayer, we could use some action. We act because we serve a God who has not stopped acting. We act because if we don’t the injustice and oppression will swallow us alive. We act because no one else is – at least justly and rightly. We must act because there is no other way for the pain and suffering immigrant families are living can be stopped other than through acting.

But ours is not spastic, mindless action. We are strategic and we have purpose. Here is what you can act on today:
  • Join the call at 3 pm to discuss the July 31-August 1 event. The number to call is 605-475-4800 and the code is 540390.
  • Urge those on your congregational and conference-wide teams to call in as well.
  • Decide to come to DC on July 31-August 1
  • Invite others in your congregation and conference to join you
  • If you cannot come, find 2 people who will go in our place. Tell them you cannot go but you want them to go in your place. You can pray for them daily and you can help raise funds for them to go.  

Join the call today at 3. Our movement has imagination and we are bathed in prayer. The question before us is one simply rooted in faithfulness. Will we act?

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Being Faithful in the Midst of Pluralism

Due to yet another fake controversy stirred up by groups with some weird agendas I recently had the opportunity to have some interesting conversations with some good folks about the role Christians should play in the public sphere. This is one of those rare times when perhaps something good can come out of fake controversies.

Some of the questions I have heard seem to focus on whether church leaders should always and everywhere proclaim the name of Jesus, particularly when it comes to instances of public prayers in a pluralistic context? I have had conversations with folks who believe that we should utilize exclusivist prayers even when the listeners are not Christian. If I can paraphrase, I have mainly heard from folks that “we must not be embarrassed about the gospel we preach” and “how else will we win others to Christ if we don’t use specifically Judeo-Christian prayers?”

I personally think these are fair statements and deserve a reasonable response. So, away we go!

I think a good example for us in all of this is Paul. In Acts 17 Paul is in Athens and is “deeply disturbed to see that the city was full of idols.” (17:16) So, he went to the synagogue and debated “Jews and devout persons” there. I think it is interesting to note here that Paul does not go to the people who worship the idols to debate; he goes to fellow Jews and devout persons – people with whom he already shares much of his worldview since he himself was Jewish.

In contrast, when Paul is brought to the Aeropagus, which functioned for the people of Athens as a civil and criminal court, he no longer is trying to debate people and instead takes on a more conciliatory note. He begins his address,
Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. (17:24)

Paul goes on with a speech I won’t quote in full here, but I urge you to read it. It is Paul at his finest, moving from the general to the more specific, all the while tying the good news he is proclaiming with cultural examples they can identify with. At no time, however, does Paul mention the name of Jesus. It is more important for Paul for them to identify with God’s overarching story than to make sure he makes his favorite point. The focus is on the listener and not the speaker.

Also, note the contrast with how Paul relates with those whom he shares at least the basics of his faith with those who do not. In a pluralistic setting Paul does not slam the belief systems of others. We know from hearing Paul in other settings that he is most assuredly not embarrassed of the gospel nor is he timid. Paul is smart. He knows that it is far more important that he build bridges with those who are not yet Christians than it is for him to win theological or doctrinal debates. He begins by affirming their culture and their religious commitment. He starts with opening doors rather than slamming them shut with proclamations of God’s dominance over their idols.

The key is Paul starts with where people are and builds on what they believe to point them to God made known through Christ. Paul was inclusivist, meaning, he did not believe that we have to arm wrestle other beliefs or cultures to “win” people to Jesus. I am inclusivist because while I believe that all who want to know God intimately must know Jesus I do not believe that there is any culture that is without the evidence of God’s presence. To say that there are cultures without the presence of God is to deny God as Creator of the universe. Therefore, my task is not to walk into a pluralistic setting and start proclaiming “Jesus” at the top of my lungs while at the same time ignoring how God is already present.

If we start general, if we begin where people are we might end where Paul does after he is finished with his address to the Athenians. The text says that, “some scoffed, but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’” (17:32) What’s more, some became believers right then and there.

Too often, our sloganeering about proclaiming Jesus anywhere and everywhere is more about our own insecurity about our faith and our fear of being faithful in a pluralistic setting without insisting that our beliefs be dominant. Demanding that others who do not share our beliefs listen to them in a plural context is simply not effective evangelism. It reeks of religious triumphalism.

For those whose hope is truly in Christ, we have absolutely nothing to fear from pluralism. There is no reason why I need for my particular expression of faith to be sponsored by the government or blasted all over the place. I am not that insecure in what I believe that I have to have it maintained by the state, or that others cannot be given the kindness of being allowed to be faithful to their religious beliefs in that same context.

I am not timid, nor am I embarrassed of the gospel of Christ. In fact, it is because I believe that Jesus is the Savior of the world that I prefer that plural settings actually be pluralistic. I want to invite others into a relationship with Jesus not because I am afraid of what they believe, but because my life has been transformed by who I believe in.