Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Worship Just Might Save the UMC [Real Food 03]

Today we finish our series on moving together into the future as the United Methodist Church. We've looked at what won't help us, discussed the problems we're facing, de-bunked the idea of "saving" the Church, and now we look forward. Two weeks ago, we focused outward in mission. Last week, we focused inward on spiritual formation. This week, we focus "upward", so to speak: on God. First, let me begin by reminding us that God really isn't "up" in the sense that God is not always far above us, far removed from our lives. God is with us always, wherever we are, and in the person of the Holy Spirit, dwells within us. But I say we are focusing upward because in worship, we become aware of a transcendent Reality that is greater than ourselves.

There are lots of reasons to worship, but one that is important for the purpose of this discussion is that worship is usually the first environment in which new folks encounter our church. It's likely all that others will experience of who we are. Different churches do worship in different ways. And we have noted that using a particular worship style is not a silver bullet for our problems. So what are the traits that our worship services can embody that might help us as we open ourselves to the future? I propose three:

Excellent worship is invitational. Worship that is invitational easily welcomes folks who come in and draws them into the life of the church.  Newcomers find a clear blueprint of the service and easy access to hymnals and Bibles to follow along (or a professionally done, well-executed PowerPoint) to lead them through the service. But being invitational doesn't just mean being user-friendly. Regular attenders are invited to become more committed in their spiritual lives and church involvement. And everyone who comes is drawn into the presence of God.

Another element of excellent worship is that it's done genuinely and from the heart. The service is not contrived and participants don't seem like they're putting on a show. The church represents itself as itself, and folks are genuinely friendly and welcoming. Members neither tackle newcomers with enthusiasm not put them on the spot or in a situation in which they feel scrutinized or pressured. At Harvard-Epworth, we ask those who are present for the first time to introduce themselves, but we do not require it, and we use language that makes it a low-pressure exercise.

One reason why I think this trait is so important as we move into the future is that members of my generation can smell fake a mile away, as this blogger illustrates well in her Letter the The Church From My Generation. We can tell when folks are putting on a show or trying to show us a certain persona in hopes we will accept them. Let me reassure you that people my age are not coming to church so we can judge you; actually, we're hoping you won't judge us! We're not looking for perfect. We're just looking for who you really are. When I discussed the Church's credibility problem, I noticed the differences between what the Church teaches and what its leaders do. Friends, you don't help matters if you act differently just to try to impress people! After all the trainings borrowed from mega-churches in which we are told do to this or that in order to attract people and get them to come back, this can be hard to believe. But seriously, be yourself.

The last attribute of excellent worship is the it is beautiful. Beauty naturally draws people into God's presence because it emulates God's perfect beauty. Beautiful worship is a small foretaste of the Divine on what would otherwise be an ordinary day. And it doesn't have to be a big production: beauty is often found in simplicity. Worship, when done well, can be beautiful regardless of the worship style used.

This guy makes a case that traditional churches should stick to traditional worship. His argument is that it takes a lot of resources and talent to do contemporary worship well, and half-baked, poorly executed attempts at it distract worshipers. Rather than transport worshipers into God's presence, services of any type that are not done well actually make folks so uncomfortable that they can't worship. I've been in many a service like this, and I have to say I agree. Think of how awkward it would be if a pastor of a laid-back, contemporary service attempted a traditional service without the gravitas and liturgical background to execute it well. Whatever the worship style used, it should be done well. Even if I go to a church that has a different worship style than what I prefer, if worship is done well, I can appreciate it.

Whether worship is casual or formal, traditional or contemporary, simple or ornate, it can be done well with a little forethought and attention to detail. Notice the deportment of those who are in front of the congregation. Do they stand up straight and move with purpose and intention? If they are reading something, are they using good vocal inflection and pace? Do the parts of worship flow together well, or do the transition moments seem disjointed? A little attention to how the parts of the service are introduced and carried out can make a lot of difference in the quality of a worship service.

Whatever the qualities of the service and faith community, worship can be excellent in any congregation. If it's invitational, genuine, and beautiful, your church's worship service will attract new folks. And it will help you to keep your own Christian life in perspective as you go out to do God's mission in the world.

So there you have it: how to save the UMC (well, not really). In case you haven't noticed, my prescription for fixing the Church is BEING the Church. As long as we do what we're here to do, and try our best to thoughtfully grapple with the issues of being the Church in this new society, we will survive. Better than that, we will survive- eventually. There may be a difficult road ahead of us, but we know that Christ is on that road with us every step of the way, and we are on this road together as a people of God. Church, it's gonna be OK. 

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Focusing on Spritiual Formation Just Might Save the UMC [Real Food 02]

Last week, we looked at mission as one thing we can do to "save" the UMC: that is, to help us weather the cultural storm in which we find ourselves and come out on the other side having been Christ for the world. But while mission is life-giving by invigorating our Christian life and imparting it with meaning, it can also be physically or emotionally tiring. Each month before I help lead our sandwich ministry among my homeless neighbors, I "charge up" emotionally and spiritually. I prepare my heart to meet whomever I will met, however I will meet them, and wherever they are in life. This usually involves reflection, an inner re-orientation toward others, and an awareness of things in the environment that might be affecting my street-dwelling neighbors on that particular day. Often I do something quiet and reflective before I go out. Likewise, folks who go on work trips must prepare themselves mentally and physically, and take care not to strain themselves at the beginning of the trip so that they can complete the work they went to do.

The types of preparation for ministry I just described are more specific to a certain situation or event. What about weekly mission participation? How does one prepare for that? One way to prepare, or charge up, to be in mission is to practice regular spiritual formation. 

 Everybody raised in the church knows that if you "read your Bible, pray every day, then you'll grow, grow, grow" but if you don't, you'll "shrink, shrink, shrink". But many of us did not grow up reading the Bible each day or even (gasp!) each week, even in Sunday School. How does one establish a spiritual practice or set of spiritual practices? Well, first we can look at some different types of spiritual practices. There are diverse ways to connect with God in our everyday lives. I would say that anything that helps you re-center, reflect, and pray counts as a spiritual practice. All spiritual practices employ mindfulness, which is being aware of your surroundings and focusing only on what you are doing right then (not writing a mental grocery list or planning your errands). Mindfulness helps you to slow down, focus on the present, and reflect. Here are some spiritual practices you might want to try:
  • Walking in nature: many people feel closer to God when they take walks or spend time in nature. You can find a guide to being mindful on using nature walks here, which can help you use thm as a spiritual practice.
  • Yoga, Zumba, or whatever physical activity helps you center and clear your mind
  • Prayer: practicing silence, using breath prayers, walking a labyrinth, or using prayer beads
  • Fasting: this practice is not for everyone, especially when it comes to fasting from food. You may need a fast from online media or even social networks if you realize they are taking up too much time and energy in your life or if disturbing news is upsetting you.
  • Lectio Divina: this is the practice of praying the Bible and is a very useful way of listening to the Holy Spirit. You can find an online Lectio Divina guide here.
  • Devotional reading: try to pick reading that is deep rather than wide, and is time-tested. Here are some suggestions:
  • Singing: this practice requires mindful breathing and focus on the text being sung. If this practice works for you, try going to CUMC's Taize service or joining the Chancel Choir.
The more you know yourself, the better able you will be to select spiritual practices that work for you. For instance, I'm not a huge fan of the woods, and I have trouble sitting still, so nature walks and sitting in silence might be things that would frustrate me rather than help me. My good friend, Joy, loves to hike, so nature walks would be a good practice for her.  I also don't do well when I haven't eaten, so fasting from food is a bad idea for me. Labyrinths and singing do help me focus, though, and fasting from social media can be helpful if I'm feeling a sensory overload. Which practices you choose to use depend on your temperament and interests. If you're a young person who's still getting to know yourself, you might try many different practices to see what works for you. If it helps you re-connect with God, great. If not, don't feel guilty about letting it go.

Lectio Divina and devotional reading can work for lots of different folks, and I highly recommend both practices. If you are interested in them, you might want to have a conversation with Pastor Jane, who specializes in prayer. She has extensive knowledge of Christian devotional literature and can help you find a book that works for you.

Two more spiritual practices used by Protestants are Fellowship and Learning. As Methodists, we come from a heritage of people who love to learn, and who love to get together and have a good meal! While we can't have a potluck every week, Sunday School combines fellowship and learning for many people. If you aren't involved in a Sunday School class, I encourage you to try it. If your Sunday School class could be diving deeper into the Bible or devotional literature, suggest it. The more you engage in learning our Good Book and spiritual tradition, the more your faith will be transformed. Sometimes it can take a lot of effort, but it's worth the time and energy because ultimately it feed our souls and results in a beautiful new creation inside us.

Spiritual practices are, in my opinion, the counter-balance to mission in the Christian life. One is focused outward and one is focused inward. Both are necessary for a balanced and healthy spiritual life. When you include both in your life of faith, and you strike the right balance between the two, I think you'll find the peace that passes understanding.

Moreover, Churches full of spiritually healthy people will transform the UMC. When folks get to know us, they will be able to sense a deep spirituality within us. That trait is attractive to a lot of people, especially in our time of manic busyness and competition for achievement. There's a lot of empty striving in our culture now, and many people feel anxious and even alienated. When they meet someone with deep spirituality, they can sense groundedness and peace, which is the antidote to today's malaise. Part of transforming the world as Christians can be showing folks a new way of being that is Spirit-centered instead of achievement-centered.

So we've looked at focusing out and in, but what about up? To focus upward, toward the Divine, we go to worship. In worship, we focus on God for the sake of focusing on God. That is the element of "saving" the Church that we will examine next week. Come back next time for the last installment in our series: worship!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Focusing on Mission Might Just Save the UMC [Real Food 01]

In the first part of this series, I used diet pseudo-food to represent food that isn't real food- it's full of chemicals and doesn't satisfy us. What should I use for real food? I found this image by doing an image search for "Catholic Worker Farm". I think it fits. :) In case you are wondering about the Catholic Worker Movement and what a Catholic Worker Farm is, you can read an interesting article, "Taking Root", about the movement's history and what the farms are doing today.

I begin with this image because Catholic Workers devote their lives to mission. Last week we talked about things we can do to adapt to changes in our society and attitudes in our culture that are reducing the number of people who come to worship and participate in our ministries. I have argued that we need to stop talking and start doing. Where do we start? Mission!

The UMC has never really stopped doing mission. Our United Methodist Women and the General Board of Global Ministries have steadfastly been in mission for a long time- UMW members have been doing mission since 1869! But in recent years, movements that focus on spiritual formation and church growth (which sometimes have been less about mission and more about marketing) have shifted the emphasis in the way ordinary Christians practice their faith on a day-to-day basis. Now is the time to re-commit to practicing mission. I say "practicing mission" because I believe mission is a spiritual practice and it's a part of what it means to be Christian- to "practice" our faith.

What is mission, anyway? As Christians, we have been sent into the world to do Christ's mission in it: "Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ " (John 20:21). I think it's no mistake that Jesus sent us into mission right after he said, "Peace be with you". Mission is the work of bringing about God's peaceable reign on earth: the Kingdom of God. When the angels announced the birth of Jesus, they proclaimed "Peace on earth and goodwill to all people". That initial Gospel proclamation is what we continue today when we do mission. The Greek word for Gospel is euangelion, which you may recognize as the root of evangelism. Euangelion means "Good News". When the New Testament uses euangelion as a verb, it is directly translated as "be Good Newsing". When Jesus traveled through the countryside doing acts of mercy, with his disciples in tow, he was Good Newsing. Thus mission is the doing of Christ-likeness in the world, and the Christians are a people who are sent in mission. "As a fire is meant for burning, so the Church is meant for mission", writes Ruth Duck (The Faith We Sing 2237). If we are not in mission, we are missing the point of the Christian life!

As Jesus Christ was Good Newsing, so we also must be Good Newsing. What does that look like? According to Dr. Dana Robert, our church missiologist, there are five different models of mission in the United Methodist Church. Every local church employs each of these models at different times. Which one we should use at any given time depends on the context and the needs of individuals in the present situation. They are:

1. Hospitality: not just coffee hour and offering a bulletin- this is a radical welcome to those who are different from us (the "Other").
2. Christian Presence: simply being present with others without necessarily speaking the name of Christ. Stephen Ministers are a good example of this model of mission.
3. Evangelism: speaking the Gospel of Christ*
4. Ecumenism: building relationships with Christians outside our denomination and with people who practice different religions*
5. Serving with the poor: volunteering at food banks, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, ect.

*In the last 50 or 60 years or so, the manner in which Christians have used the evangelism model has been "hard sell"- in other words, rather loud and pushy and sometimes insensitive. Lots of folks in the general population have stories of times they felt Christianity was shoved down their throats. Certain Christian denominations have also been intolerant of other Christians with different theologies and of non-Christians, and have said very exclusionary things to them. Local church members should bear these things in mind when selecting models of mission and how to go about using them. 

That said, I believe local UM churches can regain trust and respect in their small corners of the world by concentrating more of their time, effort, and money in the area of mission. The more church members are out in the world showing compassion, the more people will get to know them and see what we're really about. And the more time we spend practicing acts of compassion, the more we will be transformed into the likeness of Christ. Compassion is a common thread throughout the Gospels, and it is present in every model of mission.

Hospitality, Christian Presence, and Service are the models that are most readily visible to those who are not already part of our local churches. For instance, my church here in Cambridge houses a shelter for homeless youth ages 14-24 in our basement. This is a radical act of hospitality that often stretches our resources and our patience, but people outside the church who hear about the shelter instantly know what kind of people we are.

Serving with the poor can often be a powerful witness to others in our communities. I say "serving with" because those who are poor should not be disempowered (and sometimes objectified) by having ministry done to them. Christians ought to engage in ministry with them, as this UM website illustrates so well. Friends and fellow blogger Jeremy explains that doing ministry with others- whoever they are- is not about us. It's about encountering Christ in the Other: the person at the shelter, the person in the breadline, the person at the abortion clinic. We are not here to judge them or to give them something from our high and lofty place of privilege. We are here to acknowledge our privilege, do what we can, and be open to meeting Christ in that encounter. I meet Christ each month on the street in Cambridge when I take part in the Outdoor Church's sandwich ministry. As Jeremy said so well: an Incarnational ministry allows other people to be Jesus to us.

The more we focus on being compassionate people in the lives of those around us, the more we will become compassionate and the less we will focus on the minutae of day-to-day management of the church. My friend Tom, who is the Director of the Outdoor Church, walked into our church one day and said to me, "I love gritty urban churches! A gritty building means the money is being spent on mission." In that sense, I'm proud to be part of a gritty urban church, and I think more churches should be gritty. We need to invent the Gritty Rural Church and the Gritty Suburban Church. The less churches focus on trappings like the building, committee meetings ad nauseum, and intra-church drama, the more their members can focus on doing ministry in the community. Of course, committee meetings and building stewardship are important (not so sure about the drama...), but it should not absorb the whole of the church's energies.

Churches that are struggling may find a mission inventory helpful. Take a look at the ways your church is using its building and its funds. What percent is being spent on maintaining the church building and intra-church fellowship vs. outreach and spiritual formation? Another Pastor Jeremy over at Dirty Ministry offers a really interesting model for evaluating one's church building use here, and it even includes a ready-to-use Excel spreadsheet (my inner Type-A just made a squee)! The way your building and funds are used can tell you a lot about where your church's time and energy is being spent. Once you have a good idea of that, you can think about ways to give more in the area of mission and less in the area of maintenance. Start with what's simple and intuitive and build your mission activities from there. If your church isn't ready to do this as a whole yet, you can start doing more mission on your own.

So to re-cap:
  • Being in mission is what the Church is here to do!
  • Doing mission makes us more Christ-like and increases our faith; it ultimately gives us life.
  • When others see us in mission, they can better understand who we are as persons/ as a People.
  • Evaluating how your church can do more mission can be a straightforward, intuitive process.
  • You can start any time- just do it!
Of course, doing mission takes a certain amount of emotional and physical energy. We're already busy people with full lives and not enough sleep. How are we going to add mission to the mix? The logistics of making time for mission vary for each person, but I can tell you how to gain the energy necessary: spiritual formation and inspired worship. In the ideal Christian life, all three of these things should be balanced so that one is not lopsided, majoring in one or two and not doing anything in the other area(s). How do we go about participating more fully in spiritual formation? The discussion continues next week!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Interlude, Part 2: Whither the Local Church?

In our series so far, we've been examining some of the perceptions throughout the Methodist Connexion (John Wesley's spelling) that the UMC is dying, and some of the things some people think will "save" it. Some people follow church fads and think that the newest thing to come down the pike, whatever it is, will save the Church. Others think that if we can just change our worship style or get everyone in the Church to change a certain attitude or ideology, that will save the Church. In the past three posts, I have argued that these things will not save the Church. They are actually false proxies: something we choose to measure or focus on instead of the things that are actually ailing the Church. I have argued that we have a credibility problem in the Church, and it's something we in the UMC have had some control over, but a lot of it is out of our control.

The other thing that is ailing the UMC today is something also out of our control: a demographics shift. Even in 2013, unfortunately, 11:00 on Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour of the week. Folks tend to go to church with people who are most like them. The United Methodist Church has been a middle-class church, which was great for us in eras in which the middle class grew and flourished. But in the last 40 years, the middle class has shrunk dramatically and its earning power has diminished. For a summary of this trend, watch this YouTube video of a TED talk on the issue (it's 6:30 min. but worth it):

Lots of folks have blamed the UMC's own members for its decline in membership, citing a "failure of discipleship", and its next-of-kin, failure of evangelism. Those on the conservative end of the ideology/ theology spectrum blame it on failure to be faithful to our Wesleyan roots and orthodox Christian beliefs. Those on liberal end of the spectrum blame it on failure to be welcoming to others. Whatever the reason, the rhetoric has been one of failure: "We haven't done X, therefore this bad thing has happened to us." One day in seminary, my Hebrew Bible professor pointed out that this is the same thing that the Israelites did when they were taken prisoner by the Babylonians: "We haven't worshiped Yahweh exclusively, we have sinned, and that is why we have to live in exile." I was so used to this rhetoric that I was very surprised when my professor named this line of thought as blaming the victim! There's another term for it, which is my parents' phrase of choice when ecclesiastical higher-ups blame church folk for problems they did not create: "beating the sheep".

But this is not necessarily a problem with us (though we not-yet-perfected Christians, we can always use a little perfecting). These problems have happened in our society. There are no longer very many middle class people left to come to our churches. Our young people are giving up religion altogether because of our credibility problem. What can we do about our demographic problem and about our credibility problem? I think we can do two things:

1. Let compassionate actions speak louder than our words. This should be our response to the credibility problem. In order to convince people that we are good folk who love Jesus and love others, and not merely wolves in sheep's clothing, we must show them rather than tell them. This means, as I mentioned last time, we need to shut our mouths on certain topics. At the same time, we must open our arms and roll up our sleeves. 

2. Build ministries that cross social borders. What do we do when we are a church of mainly older, white, middle class people who suddenly find that folks like us are becoming fewer and fewer? We must reach out to those who are not middle class, white, and our own age! To build our church again, we must do inter-generational ministry, cross-cultural/ interracial ministry, and ministry with those who are poor and homeless.

Friends, it's time to stop blaming ourselves and start doing ministry. Our Church is not dying. I think the rhetoric of death is an alarmist tone used by some to force through a particular change or result. What is happening to our Church is that it is changing rapidly, which is bound to happen, because our society is changing rapidly. The Church has always been a conservative organization in that it seeks to continue what has been done in the past. This is not necessarily a bad thing in itself, but it does mean that our organizational culture is one that does not adapt to change well. This puts us in a precarious position, because our environment demands change, but we do not change quickly or easily. The two things that I have named as a way forward will not be easy to do. They will be scary. But they are necessary to do in order to adapt to our surroundings.

The Church only needs to be saved in the sense that we all need salvation through Jesus Christ. Whatever happens in the future, the Church will survive. God will see to that. It is not our responsibility to "save" the Church; leave that to God. But how will we survive? Who will we be when the dust settles? Will we serve anyone in the process, and will their lives be transformed because of meeting us?

Hard conversations will be the bread and butter of our denomination in the coming years. If we can have the courage to face the hard questions and difficult decisions together, I believe that we can come through this crisis and we can be better for it. What the local church can do during this time is act compassionately and build ministries across social borders: in other words, simply BE the Church. How can we go about this? Tune in next week for the rest of our series!

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Getting Back On the Horse

I'm sorry I've mostly disappeared from this blog, friends. It's been a difficult spring for me. And then Marathon Monday happened. It's been a painful, anxious, and bewildering couple of weeks here in Boston. My first job out of seminary is right around the corner from the Tsarnaevs' house in Cambridge. My current office is .7 miles from the now-infamous Watertown boat. My choir rehearsal was moved to a new place because our old place is at the marathon finish line. Seeing the neighborhoods where I live, work, and make music on CNN has been surreal. My husband would have worked the marathon that day if he had not been too sick to go in. The BU student who died is a friend of my former seminary classmate. My friends and neighbors work at the Rindge and Latin school, and the kids I teach in Sunday School attend there. Today one of my kids said, "This doesn't hit close to home; this IS home." He's right.

Krystle Campbell was one year older than I am; Tamerlan Tsarnaev was one year younger than I am. Reading the stories of the dead have left me wondering what people will say about me when I die. If I don't like what I think they'll say, what are the behavior and attitude changes I need to make now? If I died today, would my friends and family know how much I love them? Who would miss my ministry if I died now? These are the things I have been thinking in the past couple of weeks as I try to process all that has happened.

This time, I really have finished our blog series. Seriously. I wrote scheduled all the rest of the posts through May, starting this Wednesday night. Third time's the charm?

In the meantime, here is an article from Slate that reflects on the bombings and the nature of evil:

“The Insane Root That Takes the Reason Prisoner”: Macbeth, Boston, and the two paradoxes of Evil

I've been thinking about it a lot, and about the idea that we harbor both noble intentions and evil urges within ourselves. Dzokhar definitely was under the influence of a brother who abused his wife and believed a perversion of Islam, and in a sense he "knew not what he did". On the other hand, he dropped a bomb in a group of children and walked away- a very conscious act. A professor I once had preached a sermon once and he touched on Harry Potter. He admires Harry's character because Harry acknowledged both sides of himself and he chose to do the right thing again and again. I think it's easier to label people as evil and vilify them than it is to acknowledge the evil impulse within us and to wrestle with it (and master it). What do we do with all this? I don't know yet, other than to hold dear God's compassion and justice both.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Kyrie Eleison

Oh goodness. Yesterday. There are no words. Thank goodness for the Sojo blog and their prayer here.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

What Should We Have Been Doing This Easter?

I don't have much time to post- I'm exhausted from today's Easter celebrations. But I've been reading some really interesting things I thought I'd share from the blog of my colleague, Ben, at Covered In the Master's Dust:

Meeting People Where They Are on Easter

Rethink Easter: Chreaster Hunting Season

Both of these articles are challenging and clarifying. I hope you'll find them enlightening too. Back to our regularly scheduled programming soon!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Interlude: Whither Methodism? Whither Christianity?

It’s a bonus post everybody! When it rains, it pours, right? I’ve been thinking about the last few posts recently, while reading about all of the recent news in the Roman Catholic Church. As you probably know, the RCC just gave birth to a new thing: the papal conclave elected a new pope, Francis I. It’s kind of a big deal because this is the first time there has been a pope from the Western Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere (heck, he’s the first non-European pope, though he is of Italian descent), and he is the first Jesuit pope. I’ve also been reading on my friend Brother Anthony’s blog about more indiscretions made by priests in California and the subsequent cover-up by the Catholic hierarchy there.

The studies we’ve been discussing in the last couple posts show that more and more people are leaving the Church, or never affiliating with it in the first place. They also show that young people overwhelmingly believe that the Church is a place of judgment and legalism, not a place of grace and mercy. I believe that these recent survey results are not documenting coincidental fluxuations in church participation or fleeting opinions. The attitudes and choices of the Millenials did come out of nowhere; they did not arise in a vacuum. They are connected to Christians’ actual behavior in recent times.

There is a doctrine in the study of the sacraments known as ex opere operato, which means "from the work done" in Latin. It means that the efficacy of the sacraments does not derive from the holiness of the person performing the sacrament, but instead from the action of the sacrament itself. In other words, if I give communion in church, that time and space is sacred, but not because I am Just That Holy. It’s because God is there and meets us in the sacrament, despite the fact that I’m a sinner just like you. This is an important doctrine in every orthodox Christian tradition because it prevents the clergy from becoming a separate, spiritually superior class, and from making membership in such a class a requirement for eligibility for holy orders. It also prevents clergy from becoming prideful and self-important (at least, it should). 

Unfortunately, while we know about this doctrine in our minds, our hearts often forget it, and I’m not quite sure why that happens. The RCC has some rigid social teachings, including prohibiting all birthcontrol other than the rhythm method. I bring up that one in particular because it’s a teaching that has little to no relevance in the everyday lives of Catholics in most Western countries. And it significantly impacts the lives of Catholics in the 2/3 world, whose families are already struggling to make do without having to worry about large numbers of unplanned children on top of it all. Some 89% of American Catholics ignore this teaching and use other types of birth control. That is a tough pill to swallow (no pun intended), not to mention very stringent views and (in my opinion) sometimes graceless language on issues of abortion, homosexuality, and women’s ordination. How can priests, bishops, and cardinals hope to enforce such prohibitions in a world that is modernizing much more quickly than the Church? I think that it was originally accomplished with an approach the priests took that was somewhere along the lines of, “I am a set-apart minister of God and I am chaste and obedient. If I can do it, you can do it.” When communicated in a spirit of compassion, equity, and solidarity as fellow sinners, I think this approach could have worked, and it did for awhile.

But then the pedophilia scandals broke. Parishioners could no longer count on priest to be moral examples. They realized that priests could be predators. They can betray our trust, harm their flock, and then cover it all up and expect to continue receiving the respect and honor of the community. What kind of sheep follows a bad shepherd (Is. 56:10-12; Ez. 34:4; Jn. 10:10-14)?  And so, slowly but steadily, the people have stopped participating in a religious institution that appears to be corrupt, hypocritical, and more concerned with protecting clergy cronies than their own welfare. Frank Brunni at the New York Times says it well:
It’s time for the church to stop talking so much about sex. It’s the perfect time, in fact. It’s on matters of sexual morality that the church has lost much of its authority. And it’s on matters of sexual morality that it largely wastes its breath. By insisting on mandatory celibacy for a priesthood winnowed and sometimes warped by that, by opposing the use of contraceptives for birth control, by casting judgment on homosexuals and by decrying divorce while running something of an annulment mill, the church’s leaders have enraged and alienated Catholics whose common sense and whose experience of the real world tell them that none of that is wise, kind or necessary. The church’s leaders have also set themselves up to be dismissed as hypocrites, unable to uphold the very virtues they promulgate.
While we Protestants have learned from the scandals in the RCC and have taken measures like Safe Sanctuaries policies to make sure that kind of thing does not happen in our churches, we are still learning the hard lessons that come from broken trust in the Church universal. Some have said that what the church has is an image problem. But the bigger problem is that people's perceptions of us are correct; they do not misunderstand us. What we really have is a "credibility gap": a gap between what the Church says on certain issues and the lived reality of ordinary people.

As I pointed out in last week's post, ideology wars are not the answer. Even an ideology war is won in a way that brings the church's teachings closer to public opinion, it would be irrelevant because we have already lost. We've lost members and money, yes, but even worse, we've lost something we might never get back: trust. 

How can we gain it back? 

Well, Brunni offers an idea: "To many Catholics, active and lapsed, the beauty of the faith and the essence of Jesus Christ reside in a big-hearted compassion that has been eclipsed and often contradicted by church leaders’ excursions into the culture wars."

Indeed. It's time to stop fretting about life issues and whether the earth is 8,000 year old or 4.5 billion years old. Who cares how old the earth is when its climate is out of whack and its creatures are scraping for survival? It's time to stop arguing over the earth's age and start doing something to protect it. If we really care about children, then it's time to stop arguing over the abortion and start doing something about the 22,000 children who die due to poverty each day (about 15 million each year). And we can start at home, with small acts of compassion and mercy. When we do as Jesus did, we can start to show to world what we're really about- and we'll be transformed in the process.

But all this good work- from small acts of mercy to social action- takes energy. Where do we get that energy and find the gumption to do it? In the next few posts about what will save Methodism, I will argue that worship and spiritual formation are essential foundations that allow us to do mission- the things Jesus sent us into the world to do. Whither Methodism? Tune in next week for the first installment!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Winning an Ideology War Won't Save the UMC [Lo-Cal Snacks 03]

Oh my goodness, I can't believe it's been an entire month since I last posted in this series. Mea Culpa. I probably should not have planned such a long series with so many crazy weeks in the middle, but what's done is done. In the interim, I interviewed with the Board of Ordained Ministry to be considered as a candidate for commissioning as an Elder in the UMC- and I passed! *Kermit the Frog voice* Yaaaayyyyy! Today, I just finished a concert cycle with Chorus Pro Musica that included very difficult music, including quite a bit of Bach. I came back from the BOM and almost immediately went into concert week. Whew! It was tiring but more than worthwhile.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand. In our series so far, we have talked about things that folks sometimes think will "save" the UMC, but which will actually do the opposite. Last week month (groan), we looked at the Worship Wars in the church. This installment is on something similar, but more insidious and harder to stamp out: Ideology Wars.

The media are fond of phrases like "culture wars" and "class warfare". The global UMC encompasses so many cultures and social stratifications throughout the world that we are always working to bridge these gaps in order to do God's work in the world. But unfortunately, we have been caught in battles over ideology almost since our inception in 1968. The 1984 General Conference resolved a fight over the Wesleyan Quadrilateral that had been raging since 1972 when we passed the Our Theological Task portion of the Book of Discipline. Also since 1972, we have been in disagreement over homosexuality (and, to a lesser extent, abortion). It seems as if almost every conversation had at General Conference, and Annual Conferences as well, falls into the ideology ruts of American political parties. Given that we are a global church, that's bad news. And given the recent polarization of American political rhetoric, that's terrible news.

The UMC is not the only church with this problem, however! Certain groups and leaders that are part of America's religious right have been major players in national conversations over life issues (particularly abortion), evolution, and homosexuality in the last 50 years or so, and have allowed polarities to arise. We expect people to be either pro-life or pro-choice; anyone who tries to articulate care for both mother and baby is hard-pressed to succinctly and clearly explain such a position (though the UMC Social Principles do a darn good job of it). Likewise, we are expected to either believe in creationism or evolution; though many people believe in both, they are often afraid to say so. The highly polemical discussions taking place in the media and in the church today tend to place people in ideological "camps" without really giving them the time or space to thoroughly explore the issue. We start to make assumptions about people based on the way their views align with political party platforms. For example: a person who is pro-life is, ironically, likely to oppose gun control. In other words, we pre-judge them.

Evolutionary psychologists have found that this is just how the brain works. We make categories, and then when we encounter a new person or thing, we attempt to place them into the correct category. This is a survival mechanism. If we know that large animals with sharp teeth can hurt us, we realize that it's a good idea to avoid large animals with sharp teeth. Our ancestors survived because they were able to predict when certain actions were advantageous or certain situations were dangerous. Today, in a society that is highly socially developed (and in which we go into the supermarket for food rather than into the jungle), this tendency doesn't serve us so well.  

Lately (as in, within the last 60 years), it seems as if the Church has majored in judgment. When I was home in Ashland recently, I recalled a local church's policy of prohibiting women who have engaged in premarital sexual relations from wearing a white dress or being married in the sanctuary (they are relegated to the basement). This is just one example of some of the judgments rendered in churches yesterday and today. And recent research in partnership with the Barna group has shown that young people are receiving a message of judgment. People ages 16-29 believe Christians are: antihomosexual (91%), judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), too political (75%), out of touch with reality (72%), and insensitive to others (70%). These people, who are largely outside the Church by now, "firmly... reject-- and feel rejected by-- Christians". Ouch.

This research is borne out in experience of real UMC ministers. A friend of mine, the Dean of the Chapel at Syracuse University, read the following statements her students' papers a few weeks ago (I obtained permission to quote them from her):

"I can't be Christian because I had a child out of wedlock."
"I am not Christian because I believe in evolution."
"I am not a Christian because I don't believe a loving God would send people to hell."
"I am not a Christian because I don't think gay people are sinners."
"I can't be a Christian because I am divorced."
"I am not a Christian because I don't believe people of other faiths are damned."

And while I'm thinking of Syracuse University, I also read an article about a student there who identifies as Pagan and Christian. She describes her participation in campus groups of both faiths, and she calls the Pagan group “the most accepting community I’ve ever been a part of". She's part of a Christian group and a non-Christian group, and it's the non-Christian group that is the most accepting! We are a tradition built on the example of a man who touched lepers and hung around with prostitutes and tax collectors. Jesus taught us that faith is not about following a bunch of rules to the letter. And yet here we are, judging as the Pharisees did, based upon our own rules which we follow inconsistently.

Now there are plenty of good people in the Church and it's easy to think, "Well, outsiders just don't know us. If they got to know us better, they would see we're not that bad." It's true that getting to know diverse people helps dispel misjudgements. But, as one author recently wrote of good people who have racist views, "I knew that I was tired of good people, that I had had all the good people I could take." Church, the rising generation has had all the Good Church People it can take.

Some folks try to make the case that winning an ideology war over a specific issue will bring young people back to the church. Both liberals and conservatives made this case about homosexuality in their floor speeches at General Conference 2012. They have a point. In Seattle, our current stance on this issue is ruining the Christian witness of our sisters and brothers there. Likewise, to change our official stance would ruin the Christian witness of our sisters and brothers in the Congo. We need to find a way to coexist as Christians who have different opinions and different ministry contexts without ruining each others' witnesses, but that's a discussion for another day. This is an evangelism problem in specific cultural contexts, and coming to a forced resolution on the issue of homosexuality will not be a panacea that "cures" the UMC of its ills. Either way, someone would leave, and those someones are valuable parts of our denominational body.

No, focusing on one social issue or another- and "winning" in official Church policy over that issue- will not save the UMC. It will further divide us and perhaps cause a schism. Like the Worship Wars, winning an Ideology War will not "save" the UMC. So... what will? We begin to find out the answer to that next week (I promise)!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Worship Wars Won't Save the UMC [Low-Cal Snacks 02]

Welcome back to GT's series on what's going on in the UMC right now- and what will and won't help us moving forward. Last week, we talked about the idea of a false proxy. When we have a tough problem to solve, or something that's difficult to measure, sometimes we select a proxy: something to solve instead of our actual problem, or something that's easy to measure that stands in for what we actually need to measure. I compared this to choosing a low-calorie snack over real food. It promises convenience and "results" in the short run, but choosing the low-cal snack actually sabotages us in the long run. Likewise, focusing on a proxy instead of the real problem or metric sabotages our efforts to meet the challenges before us by distracting us and directing our energy toward something else.

One of the things that has absorbed a lot of energy in the Church, especially c. 1995-2005, is the Worship Wars. You know what I'm talking about. One faction within the church starts to tell everyone else that it's time to introduce a new worship style: "praise band" or "contemporary" music (never mind that this is the Christian equivalent of Muzak and its heyday was sometime in the 1980's). The worship style previously used, regardless of whether it can be considered High Church or Low Church, is inevitably labeled "traditional" and out-of-date. Certain others within the congregation respond that there are valid reasons to continue worshiping in the "traditional" style, and lo! Another skirmish in the Worship Wars is begun.

Christians have slung a lot of mud at one another over worship styles in the last few decades. The things we say to each other are often pertinent observations that have been exaggerated into outright insults. Charges leveled at traditional worship often include:

1. This worship isn't "passionate" (read: overtly emotional).
2. Traditionalists don't consider the needs and desires of the younger generation(s). Often this accusation includes phrases like "stuck in the past", "afraid of change", or "not missional".
3. Traditionalists place tradition above people and god, therefore engaging in idolatry.
4. This worship style isn't very portable, i.e., it's hard to worship anywhere that doesn't have a bulky keyboard instrument.

Complaints about contemporary worship usually include:

1. The lyrics are often theologically vapid and human-centered rather than God-centered.
2. It's musically unsophisticated. If you don't know what I mean by this check out this parody video, "How to Write a Worship Song (In Five Minutes or Less)":

3. The nature of the production of such music borders on becoming a performance for those attending worshipers, thus turning the congregation into a passive audience.
4. Buying all new instruments and electronic equipment is a considerable burden on already strained church budgets.
5. Installing screens into older sanctuaries is often a physical and architectural challenge.

While many of these charges contain kernels of truth, most of them are mostly untrue. Here's an example: I have worshiped at Harvard-Epworth UMC, a church that prefers traditional worship, for several years. While I would say most folks behave in a way that is not emotionally demonstrative, I have heard great emotion in their voices as they speak in prayer time and coffee hour. When the choir sings a song they find uplifting, they express their joy in their body language and by responding, "Amen!" after the final cutoff. While this is a self-proclaimed progressive congregation, H-EUMC members value tradition, creeds, and liturgy. They deeply feel their confessional prayers and pray them earnestly. While reason and intellectual knowledge are valuable to them, their faith is certainly not "all in their heads." Their faith is in their hearts as well, and they show it in their loving actions toward others inside and outside of the church. This is one of the most missional churches I have ever met for many reasons, including donating some of our space to a shelter for homeless youth. Our Young Adult Group boasts upwards of 30 members, and while that is partly because of our location near Harvard, MIT, and Bard College, it's also a testament to the congregation's concerted efforts to keep those who visit coming back regularly. To describe H-EUMC as not missional, does not consider the needs of young people, is idolatrous, or "emotionally or spiritually dead" would be to gravely mischaracterize this church.

Likewise, to say that all contemporary worship music is theologically shallow and musically simplistic, while all traditional music is the opposite, is also incorrect. For instance, "Everlasting God" by Chris Tomlin uses syncopated rhythm:

And tons of the new Catholic folk music uses complex melodies, the verses of which are often through-composed (non-repetitive) rather than strophic music like hymns. In fact, a lot of contemporary Christian music can be difficult to learn because it's through-composed. Likewise, there are plenty of "traditional" hymns that are not very theologically rich. "In The Garden", "I'll Fly Away", and "Onward Christian Solders" are all examples of traditional songs that don't have a lot of theology, are people-centered, and/or have bad theology in them (specifically "Onward"). While it is true that new instruments and sound equipment are expensive and sometimes unnecessary, it also takes a lot of money to maintain organs and old equipment that is outdated; sometimes it is more cost-efficient to buy a new sound system than try to work with the old one.

As you can see, it's very easy to become caught up in a lot of these theological and practical arguments. But arguing one's point in the Worship Wars doesn't help to alleviate the problem. The problem that churches are trying to articulate is a drop in attendance among young people, and a fear that the way we do things doesn't speak to them. Our core desire is to speak the spiritual language of our young people, and we are afraid that we aren't doing that. Instead of addressing our fears, we argue about things that are mainly matters of taste, as one author puts it, "preferences [that] are almost entirely cultural and nostalgic." Worship Wars are really a proxy for our problem of absent young people. It's important to stop spiritual mud-slinging in Worship Wars and start addressing the problem directly.

In our traditional worship at H-EUMC, we enjoy the presence of many young adults each weeks and often our Brunch Bunch groups are parties of 12 or more. Members of our group like both traditional and contemporary worship. So why is our group full and other churches have no one between the ages of 18 and 45? I think there are a few factors that contribute to the loss of young people in our churches:
1. Lack of spiritual formation. Our Sunday School curricula have been too shallow and have not encouraged really digging into the Bible or learning to pray. Both of these skills should be taught from a young age. If you aren't sure kids can handle these things, just talk to our resident spiritual formation expert at Christ UMC, Pastor Jane! She'll tell you all about spiritual formation of children. If we fail to engage our kids in these vital spiritual practices, they will not form a relationship with God that will keep them coming back to church.

2. Lack of engagement in mission. Mission is the natural result of living a balanced Christian life. Justice issues are important to young adults, and they have been important to God through the ages. The 9th century prophets and Jesus Christ are excellent examples of people who brought God's Good News to those who live on the edges of society. A church that focuses only on personal spiritual renewal and not at all on mission will miss out on engaging young people in an important way.

3. Polemic rhetoric regarding divisive social issues and science. In my first post, I mentioned the recent study by Pew Research showing young adults are less engaged in the church overall. Two of the reasons cited were that young adults feel the church is judgmental regarding these issues, and that they are weary of the same old arguments. It's time for the church to stop talking about moral problems that divide us and start talking about what unites us.
As you can see, I have several ideas for a way forward in the UMC, including an approach to worship that avoids the Worship Wars and lets us do what we do best as a church. It's time to uncouple our tastes and preferences for worship from our desire to help engage young people. We ought to address excellence in worship separately from ways to engage young folks in our life as a church. Both are important things that deserve our complete attention separately. If we do our worship well and beautifully, we can educate our young people regarding the forms and expressions in worship so that they will not be intimidated or turned off. [Because news flash: the "contemporary" style of worship is not music that is native to Milennials or even Gen-Xers; it's a distinctively Boomer form of music, and as such, must be learned to be appreciated just like "traditional" music.] Rather, many young people are drawn to more ancient forms of worship, like Taize. The important thing is that our worship is an expression of our best efforts as a congregation- that it truly is an offering to our holy God. When we have beautiful worship, regardless of the style, our young people will engage in worship with us.

But first, next week, we'll examine the last thing that won't save the UMC: Ideology Wars. This will tie into my 3rd point above and unpack it some more. I hope to see you back in a week!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Christian Fads Won't Save the UMC [Low-Cal Snacks 01]

This post is rather late, but I had a hard time sitting down to write it because I just kept on finding new things to consider about this topic in a United Methodist Facebook group! I guess it's back to Sunday posts, at least for now. In the end, I'm sticking with my original outline.

Blogger friend and colleague Jeremy Smith pointed me to a post by Seth Godin on the topic of the false proxy, and explained how it relates to the UMC. Here's the entirety of Seth's short post:
"Sometimes, we can't measure what we need, so we invent a proxy, something that's much easier to measure and stands in as an approximation.

TV advertisers, for example, could never tell which viewers would be impacted by an ad, so instead, they measured how many people saw it. Or a model might not be able to measure beauty, but a bathroom scale was a handy stand in.

A business person might choose cash in the bank as a measure of his success at his craft, and a book publisher, unable to easily figure out if the right people are engaging with a book, might rely instead on a rank on a single bestseller list. One last example: the non-profit that uses money raised as a proxy for difference made.

You've already guessed the problem. Once you find the simple proxy and decide to make it go up, there are lots of available tactics that have nothing at all to do with improving the very thing you set out to achieve in the first place. When we fall in love with a proxy, we spend our time improving the proxy instead of focusing on our original (more important) goal instead.

Gaming the system is never the goal. The goal is the goal."
One concrete way to understand the concept of a false proxy is an idea I introduced last week: the Low-Calorie Snack. Nabisco's Snack Well's products are the poster child for low-cal snacks. They are, quite literally, knock-offs of treats that we all know and love, like Oreos and candy bars. They aren't really Oreos, though. Theses low-cal versions are actually pseudo-foods that are stripped of most of their nutritional value. The only reason they taste good decent is that Nabisco pumps them full of flavor-enhancing chemicals that fool your tongue into thinking they're yummy. 

Dieters, particularly women, can get sucked in by the Snack Well's claim that you can still treat yourself even when dieting. What people who need to lose weight need to know is that it's more important to eat normal portions of good, healthy food and get enough exercise than to severely restrict calories. Some diets may work for some people, but they don't work for most people, hence the overwhelming success of the Weight Watchers Points System. It works by letting you choose to eat normal foods, but it helps you control your portions. Using so-called diet foods, on the other hand, doesn't work well because these pseudo-foods actually make you hungrier! By choosing the Snack Well's to ward off temptation to eat more, dieters are actually sabotaging their efforts to lost weight and be healthy!

Likewise, using false proxies in response to challenges in our Church can sabotage our efforts to improve ourselves as a denomination and to adapt to the changing culture in which we live. Jeremy has some suggestions as to ways in which that is taking place right now (hey, he even referenced one of my past posts here at the GodTalk blog!):
  • "Instead of doing the hard work of defining effectiveness (as Carolyn outlines here), we defined the punishment for ineffectiveness in eliminating guaranteed appointments, patted ourselves on the back, and were shocked when the Judicial Council struck it down.
  • Instead of doing the hard work of defining cooperation between governance and fiscal responsibility, we conflated governance and fiscal responsibility in PlanUMC, patted ourselves on the back, and were shocked when the Judicial Council struck it down.
  • Instead of doing the hard work of consulting judicial counsel for our reforms, the reformers now want to defund the Judicial Council (see Andy Langford’s comment at the end of the article), convinced that the guardians of our polity are the problem instead of bad legislation.
  • Instead of doing the hard work of defining unity in diversity, we are stuck in a cycle of seeking schism and ignoring new ways forward, with caucus groups widening the chasm by their own self-interest."
Yikes! We're doing a lot of ignoring the real work, and we're doing a lot of work on... everything else except what we should be working on. Jeremy's list indicts our recent legislative failures and the latest Christian fad, which had been dubbed Church Metrics, after the metrics fad currently running its course in the business world. (And I can tell you, as a tiny cog in a corporate machine, that metrics isn't saving any businesses either.) There are a host of other church fads we've been through that aren't going to save the UMC:

  • "Servant" Leadership: the newest business literature on leadership applied to church leadership
  • Megachurches/ Church Growth: large church = large numbers of converts = large income stream (too bad the people who came weren't actually converts)
  • The Prayer of Jabez: basically, the Prosperity Gospel watered down and combined with "biblical teaching", which was actually a complete contradiction of the biblical story Jabez fans had prooftexted
  • Worship fads: this includes a host of things like lighting effects/ light shows,"multi-sensory" worship (how is worship not multi-sensory now?), praise music hits, and praise bands achieving star status, e.g., the David Crowder Band
Side note: are you sensing a theme here? I am: MONEY. Servant leadership and megachurch emulation were all about "church growth", also known as butts in pews and bucks in plates. Numerical decline (and therefore revenue decline) is, I suspect, the reason behind our recent foray into constitution-changing legislation and our current obsession with metrics.  

Anyway. When all of these fads came down the pike, they promised to reverse the trend of numerical decline, bring back the bucks, and "fix things" or "save" what we saw as an ailing church. But every last one of them have failed to do that. We have turned to these fads, sold to us by slick-looking and smooth-sounding pastors and worship leaders, for a quick fix to our "numbers problem"(ahem, our money problem). But they didn't help us!

There are a couple more false proxies that we need to examine in more depth, which we'll do in the next couple of weeks: Worship Wars (this is a distinct topic from worship fads!) and Ideology Wars. Instead of coming together as a people of God and problem-solving, we've spent the last several decades infighting. In certain cases, especially with ideology, this can affect our witness, and thus our ability to attract new members, or at least, keep old ones from leaving. But most of the time, we've wasted a lot of time and energy on them. Many of us are very invested in our "side" of both of these wars, and it's important to unpack them so as to disentangle them from the real issue, which is how to cope with change in the UMC. We need to look at why winning the war won't help the UMC in order to understand what will.

Once we've done that, we'll dig into what will help the Church, and what are our next steps forward. Stay tuned for next week, folks!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

What Won't Save the United Methodist Church- And What Will

United Methodists of all ages throughout the Methoblogosphere are conversing about what is happening to our church and what we should do about it.
And some people think the church is merely changing.
  • Taylor thinks the rhetoric of dying is merely a function of how we feel about the church, and that we need leadership to help us adapt to change. 
  • Jeremy thinks that we are a church pregnant with possibilities and what we need is a midwife
Meanwhile, the Christian blogosphere in general is trying to process the most recent Pew Forum American Religious Identification study that shows that people in the US who claim no religious affiliation is rising. People whose religious affiliation is Agnostic, Atheist, and "None" (No Affiliation) now number 1 in 5 people in the US, which is a dramatic increase. People everywhere (Christian and non-Christian alike) are trying to figure out what this means for the future of the Church.
  • PBS did a video miniseries on it.
  • The New York Times covered it.
  • Newsweek wondered if this is The End of Christian America.
  • NPR also did a series on it called Losing Our Religion.
  • Sojourners has covered it extensively, including their profile of a None, and this article on skepticism. 
  • Some wondered if it has anything to do with the polarizing social issues debates the Church continues.
  • Matthew Myer Bolton analyzed the study and showed that perhaps it's not as alarming as we might think, and that we are still a very religious nation in Much Ado About Nones.
Where do we go from here? Is this survey simply announcing the most recent nail in the coffin for the UMC? Are we in trouble? Or are we facing a painful but important opportunity? I can tell you right now that I believe it's the latter. If you want to read another blog proclaiming gloom and doom for the UMC, you'd better come back halfway through Lent, because we are about to embark on a series on this topic here at the God Talk blog.
The main idea for our series, which has to do with food (hey, I'm Methodist, what did you expect?). We have choices to make in the coming years, and they're somewhat like nutritional choices. We can choose healthful, real food, which sometimes means we eat things we don't care for or think are boring. Or we can choose foods like low-calorie snacks, which are often marketed as delicious, diet-friendly ways to satisfy our cravings, but they have almost no nutritional value and they actually make us crave more food!

These "diet foods" are insidious because they trick us into thinking we are doing the right thing, but we are actually hurting ourselves in the long run. Likewise, certain ideas are circulating in the UMC today that sound good and healthy, but they are not. They are actually false proxies (more about that later) that take up our time and energy, and prevent us from having the conversation we really need to be having about the future of our church.

In the series that follows, we will look at things that are false proxies (low-cal snacks that take the place of real food) versus actual solutions (real food). I hope you'll come along with us as we take a look at:

Christian Fads [Low-Cal Snacks 01]
Worship Wars [Low-Cal Snacks 02]
Ideology Wars [Low-Cal Snacks 03]

Mission [Real Food 01]
Spiritual Formation [Real Food 02]
Worship [Real Food 03]

Each week, I'll examine what will not "save the church" (if we must call it that- also more on that later) and what has the potential to help us become the Church that God dreams we can be. I'll try to get my posts up on Thursday evenings, so you can enjoy them with your Friday morning coffee. See you next week!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Pre-Series Potpurri

I've got a series brewing, folks, but I'm not ready to start it yet. We'll begin it next week. I hope you'll come along for the ride! In the meantime, here's a bunch of random stuff I've been reading recently:

A Heart for Peace via Sojourners
- Evangelicals reflect on the first Evangelical peacemaking conference
Recognizing the Importance of Good Health Throughout a Clergy Career by Susan Keaton
- a reflection on differences in health concerns between female and male pastors in the UMC
Big Beasts and Little Prophets: Activists Cooling Down the War Machine With Holy Water by Shane Claiborne
More Young People Are Moving Away From Religion, But Why? @ NPR
- a series of interviews with young people of various faiths regarding why religion no longer works for them
Grace for the Privileged Too? by Rachel Held Evans
- a meditation on confronting our privilege
Gandalf, Gollum, and the Death Penalty by Tobias Winwright
- Gandalf theologically illuminates a hot-button issue

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

An Epiphany Gift for You!

Thanks to #chsocm, I have just discovered how to create a playlist for my friends on YouTube. I made one with an Epiphany theme in honor of this new liturgical season. Enjoy!

Here's what's on it:
CeCe Winans - Do You Hear What I Hear?
CeeLo Green - Mary Did You Know
The Blenders - We Three Kings
Chanticleer - Everywhere I Go, Somebody Talkin' 'Bout Jesus

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Wesley, Covenants, and Making All Things New

Last Sunday at CUMC, we said goodbye to 2012 and looked toward 2013 by praying John Wesley's covenant prayer. Each year at Harvard-Epworth, we do the same, and devote the entire first church service of the year to the Methodist tradition of the Wesleyan covenant service. Since I have traveled between Ashland and Cambridge this week, I will be praying Wesley's covenant prayer twice this year. It's a challenging prayer:

I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine.

So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.

This is a difficult prayer to pray! A friend of mine doesn't like the Wesleyan covenant service and usually skips church on that Sunday. She feels that it's too difficult to genuinely pray it. The language certainly challenges the individualistic sensibilities of America today. We are so used to making our own choices in life; our self-determination gives us the illusion of being in control. It's disconcerting to think that we may not be completely in control of our own lives. We tend to push the notion out of our minds. Wesley's prayer, however, asks us to give God complete control. Some, like my friend, can't pray that prayer right now because they recognize that they will not, realistically, relinquish control to God. I'll admit that when I was a temporary worker in January 2011, I could not say the line, "Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee" because I needed a permanent job so badly. That's honest, and I respect my friend for choosing not to participate. She's doing it in good conscience.

But for those who are in a place that allows them to pray this prayer right now, I think it's an appropriate challenge. Can we really "yield all things" to God? To pray this is to step out in faith. The good news about this prayer is that it's a covenant. A covenant is a promise that goes two ways, which is why marriage is a covenant: it's a mutual promise. We commit our lives to God, and God covenants to be with us always.

Although we don't know what 2013 will bring, we know that God will see us through it all. That's why this prayer is an expression of faith as we look to the new year. How are you looking forward to spending 2013 with God?