Thursday, November 26, 2009

What I'm Thankful for this Thanksgiving

Among the many blessings in my life:

I hope everyone out there has a very happy and enjoyable Thanksgiving. To all those who aren't able to be with loved ones today (service men and women overseas, police, firefighters, doctors, nurses, EMTs, and others who work to keep us safe and healthy), know you are loved and appreciated.

Between bites of turkey and pumpkin pie, remember to say a prayer (and maybe even donate a dollar or a can of food) to those who don't have the resources to have a huge Thanksgiving feast or the leisure time to sit around a read blogs ;)

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Hijacking the Bible

I guess I shouldn't be surprised anymore by the ways people use the Bible for their own purposes, even when they isolate certain verses or passages and twist them beyond the context in which they appear, and even when they go against the core message of the Bible.

(Yes, I'm making interpretive choices about what context and core message are. We all have to do that to arrive at any conclusions about the text.)

But I'm very saddened to see the latest hijacking of the Bible. Some group has started producing T-shirts and other products that say "Pray for Obama; Psalm 109:8"

The quoted verse (in the KJV) says "let his days be few and let another take his office". The following verse, Psalm 109:9 (again, in the KJV), says "let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow".

(sidenote- this is the best, most concise video on the subject I could find. Rachel Maddow and her guest, Frank Schaeffer, are very far to the left, but the interview is very thought provoking, regardless of your political affiliation.)

Laying aside for a moment how awful it is that someone would pray for a person in an opposing political party to be killed, this Psalm 109 fad shows just how dangerous indiscriminate proof-texting really is.

The Psalms are the prayer/hymn book of ancient Israel. They express the full range of human emotions, including anger and even rage against others, as we can see from Psalm 109. This particular Psalm is a prayer of a righteous man who is frustrated at those who are trying to bring him down.

Anger and frustration are certainly party of the human experience. But does the Psalm really tell us to pray for God to strike down the people we don't like? Absolutely not! The Psalm ends with the man having gotten out his feelings of anger and frustration and proclaiming his faith that God will carry him through any situation. It's an example of how we can work out our frustrations in prayer so we can be in a better place to deal with conflict.

Interpretive quarrels aside, this whole Psalm 109 fad is another example of how the decline of Christianity in America is our own fault. People are turning away from the church not because Satan is doing such a great job, but because we Christians are doing such a good job at twisting Jesus to fit the mold of our religious and political idols. And the problem is that everyone else can see it but us. People read the Bible and think Jesus is a pretty great guy, but they look at his followers and want nothing to do with us. When questioned about his faith, Ghandi said he would follow Christ if it were not for all the Christians he encountered.

What if the folks who were producing these T-shirts changed the verse to Matthew 5:44- "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (rightly or wrongly, some folks are feeling persecuted). It probably wouldn't get noticed on the cable "news" shows, and it might not even sell as many T-shirts, but it would more accurately reflect the true message of the Bible and the loving God to whom it points.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Coming Soon...

A new look for the The Truth As Best I Know It!

My lovely and talented wife, Jessica, made this lovely card for my birthday. As you can see, the card is made to look like my MacBook on the outside...

And on the inside (including a full keyboard)!

Jessica got me a blog redesign from
The Design Girl, who gave Jessica's blog a makeover (a prize she won in a contest).

So look for a new layout in a few weeks. Thanks, babe! I love you!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Response to Tennessean Article

In today (Saturday)'s issue of the Tennessean, there is an article that suggests that United Methodist pastors may no longer have guaranteed jobs.

While the article is correct on all of its basic facts, I can see Methodist lay persons (especially those currently attending Exploration 2009) and others reading it and getting the wrong idea. So I offer the following clarifications and responses:

First of all, not all United Methodist ministers have guaranteed jobs. Ordained Elders in Full Connection are the only clergy who itenerate, going where they are sent in exchange for a guaranteed appointment that includes a minimum salary and benefits. Ordained Deacons, Provisional Elders and Deacons, and Licensed Local Pastors do not itenerate are not guaranteed a job.

The first sentence in the article is just plain wrong: "too many ministers, not enough jobs". The UMC, like most other mainline denominations, has a tremendous shortage of ordained clergy. So we make up for the shortage of elders by appointing licensed local pastors to serve in the place of an elder. In the Tennessee Conference, licensed local pastors outnumber ordained clergy in every district except one: Nashville. This is not to demean the service of our local pastors, who serve faithfully and selflessly. It is simply to say that this is what is laid out in our Book of Discipline.

The conversations being referenced by the Tennessean article are part of the Study of Ministry Commission, which was created by the 2004 General Conference and extended for another four years by the 2008 General Conference (I published my thoughts on these least year, which you can read here and here). This Commission does not have authority to make any changes. It only makes recommendations to the General Conference, which is the only body that can change the Book of Discipline and does not meet again until 2012.

The article rightly points this fact out, but they bury it in the very last paragraph where, according to the "inverted triangle" theory I learned in Journalism 101, most people have stopped reading. This may not be "burying the lead" but it's buries the most important fact in the story (this would kill the hype, however, which seems to be the whole point)!

Barring some massive financial shortfalls in the next two years or some other large event that forces a massive change of opinion across our connection, the 2012 General Conference is unlikely to end the practice of guaranteed appointments for Elders. It will end up being disadvantageous to women and minorities in many parts of the USA (as the Tennessean rightly points out), and the denomination is unlikely to change this traditional practice that has so long been at the core of our Methodist identity.

Should the practice of guaranteed appointments for Ordained Elders (which I am in the process of becoming) end? Maybe, maybe not. I can see both sides of the issue.

Guaranteed appointments are good for inclusivity, but only if a Bishop is willing to take risks and appoint people who might not otherwise be accepted because of their gender or race. And it ensures that churches that might otherwise go for long stretches without a pastor are served.

On the other hand, ineffective clergy can keep getting moved around with little accountability once they are fully ordained. This fact has made our ordination process long and drawn out, overly burdensome, and often adversarial and graceless in the way it is practiced.

The Tennessean article is right about one thing. Our system as it is currently constructed is probably unsustainable and some changes need to be made before it collapses under its own weight. Exactly what those changes are should be decided on by smarter and more experienced people than I.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Birds Nests and Emergence

I took a break from sermon writing this afternoon and took Kate for a walk around the neighborhood. On the corner by our house, I saw something interesting, and thankfully I had my phone with me to record the moment:

It's a bird's nest that was either blown out of or physically removed from a nearby pine tree (about five feet away out of frame).

However it got there, it clearly went through quite a jostling, and despite being composed of very fragile pieces like pine needles and leaves, it is holding together perfectly because it's so well constructed.

A bird is a very simple animal, but in many ways it's far wiser than we humans. It takes simple, organic materials and weaves them together (without the aid of opposable thumbs!) and creates a dwelling to raise its children. The nest itself is nothing special, but what happens in it is. It cradles the eggs before the hatch and hold the chicks once they are born. It provides a place for the mother to nourish her young, and it protects them while she is gone.

It serves its purpose for a season, but then the chicks are pushed out of the nest and learn to fly. Once those chicks grow up, one or more of them may come back to this very same tree to have its own family, but it knows better than to try to use the exact same nest. Those organic materials that once sheltered it in infancy have become hard and brittle and wouldn't support the next generation.

So this bird, like its mother, gathers its own materials and constructs a nest that, while nothing special by itself, creates space for amazing things to happen. And so it goes, from generation to generation.

I wonder if our churches are kind of like this. We take organic materials from the world around us: artistic and musical styles, current trends in thinking, technological mediums, etc., and we weave them together to create space for something special to happen. What we construct isn't special in and of itself, but what happens there is. God inhabits these organic cultural forms and uses them to help us grow as disciples.

But like any organic materials, these cultural forms have a life cycle and eventually die. But humans, unlike birds, are often not wise enough to recognize this. We hold on to a dead, brittle bird's nest because it's been there for a very long time instead of looking for what is growing afresh around us.

This is not to say that the Holy Spirit quits using old cultural forms, of course (the Spirit is a bit more powerful than a mama bird), but that the most vibrant, fruitful things start happening outside the bounds of what we've already constructed and dwelt in long enough to get very comfortable.

Phylis Tickle talks about this idea in her book, The Great Emergence. She argues that every five hundred years, Christianity undergoes a "rummage sale" where it finds new cultural forms to bring the eternal gospel to new generations in fresh ways. Tickle says that these rummage sales were/are the first century time of Jesus, the sixth century liturgical reforms of Pope Gregory the Great, the eleventh century Great Schism, the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation, and the Emerging Church Conversation of today.

While I find Tickle's semi-millennial construct to be a bit too neat (and, dare I say, too modern?), the way she differentiates the work of the Holy Spirit and the cultural mediums by which we understand that work is very helpful in an age where congregations seem to be at war with one another and even with themselves over styles of worship and means of communicating and understanding the ways God is working in our midst.

If you're a member of a group that inhabits an older bird's nest, that's great. Do what works for you, as long as you're worshipping the God who is working in that nest and not the nest itself (the difference is subtle and not often obvious). But don't discourage those who are finding new materials to build their own nest, even if that nest is right next door to your own. Everything old was once new and was criticized for being different.

And if you're someone who is inclined to seek out new materials for building your own nest, go and do so with courage! But remember not to be too hard on those who are living in older nests. God is still working with them, and even your fresh, green nest will one day be brown, brittle, and sitting on the side of the road, fit only to be used as a quirky illustration on a blog post.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

TransFORM Network

It seems there's no shortage of social networking sites out there, every one trying to be the "Facebook of (fill in the blank)"

I have recently discovered one that I think is worth many of your (y'all's?) time, dear readers. It's called TransFORM, and it's a network for the involved in and/or interested in missional Christian communities. Check out the video below, and if you're so inclined, check out the site. Above all, please pray for those involved in these missional communities. They're doing some amazing Kingdom-work and it's not easy. I'm hopeful that TransFORM will help folks know they're not alone in their journey.

TransFORM: Missional Community Formation from TransFORM on Vimeo.

(Note, TransFORM is not affiliated with Emergent Village, although many of the faces will be familiar to those involved with EV.)