Monday, December 10, 2012

Spiritual Poverty

This morning I came across a very interesting thought from Thomas Merton:

The life of Christ in the soul of the priest depends in large measure on the priest's attitude toward the "needy and the poor"- the materially poor, if he deals with them, or at heart, the spiritually underprivileged in the community where all are supposed to be materially poor together. ~December 12, 1952 (Journals, vol. 3, p. 7)

In my own ministry context I deal a lot with those that are materially poor, and most if the time it's fairly easy to have compassion and see how we're doing God's work by helping to meet their needs and hopefully empower them to come to a more stable place in their own lives.

I say "most of the time" because my compassion reserves are sometimes low on days when we get more requests for help than we have the resources to provide, or when I encounter people who are dishonest.

What I have a harder time with is seeing how we do the work of God amongst those who are "spiritually underprivileged", but aren't materially needy. I grew up in a very affluent community where people are actually cursed by their abundance. It's very easy to get angry at people's sense of entitlement and their materialistic outlook on life, especially at this time of year. My knee-jerk reaction is usually to think "yeah, you're the goat that's going to get the raw end of the deal one day".

But if Father Thomas is correct, and I believe he is, then the life of Christ is much more real inside of me if I am able to see those attitudes and behaviors as a sign of spiritual poverty. Even tougher than that is confronting my own spiritual poverty- I still live in Brentwood, after all, and even if I may not act on it as much as some of my neighbors, I covet things just as much as they do.

The challenge for me as a pastor, and for any Christian living in a consumer society, is to move past righteous indignation and speak loving truth to the spiritual poverty around us and in ourselves.

Friday, November 30, 2012

A Saint in the Shadows

I haven't posted lately on the blog because between normal sermon writing, preparations for Advent and Christmas (including Arlington's Advent Devotional, which will be online next week), and a couple of freelance writing projects, I've been producing so many words lately that the quality/quantity ratio is being severely strained, and the creative energy I would normally be putting into this forum has had to be shifted in other directions.

I do want to share my message from All Saints' Day, even though it has been a month since I preached it and several months since the events that I reference.

My uncle Wayne died very suddenly back in June. I haven't talked about it in this forum because it's been hard for our family, and I know several family members who read this blog weren't ready for it to be put out for the whole world to see.

I went out to Arizona to do Wayne's funeral service right after Annual Conference ended. The whole experience was a roller-coaster of emotions, because while we were very sad at the circumstances, we learned a lot of things about Wayne that we never knew that filled us with joy. It turned out that Wayne was a saint who bent over backward to help people in need, but none of us ever knew it because he never sought any attention or recognition.

Update: for some reason, the player doesn't want to imbed.

Sorry about that. You can go to the site and listen there, listen on Arlington's webpage, or subscribe to us on iTunes.

Friday, November 02, 2012

Shameless Self Promotion- Sacramental Podcast Edition

Earlier this week, Jessica and I recorded a podcast for Ministry Matters addressing the question of what is absolutely necessary in the liturgy of Holy Communion, and what is overkill and can make the sacrament stuffy and boring.

Jessica grew up in the Disciples of Christ church and became a Methodist when we got engaged, and is rather "low church" in her preferences. I am a cradle United Methodist and lean toward the Anglican side of our heritage, so I'm a "high church" guy. Gimme the smells and bells!

You can listen to the podcast here, and we'd love to hear any comments on that page or on this blog. What elements are necessary for the Lord's Supper to be a truly holy experience for you?

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Mental Illness Awareness Week

October 7-13 is National Mental Illness Awareness Week. It was created in 1990 by an act of Congress to raise awareness that mental illness is real, not just "an excuse for people who are too weak to take responsibility for their own problems", or any of the other countless dismissals we've all heard.

1 in 4 adults will experience some kind of mental health disorder in any given year. These can range from a single episode of depression to chronic conditions that can require medication and/or hospitalization.

The fact is, you know somebody with a mental illness. I know you do. Because if you read this blog, you likely know me, and I have a mental illness. I have dealt with chronic depression and anxiety my entire life, but I didn't acknowledge it or deal with it in a serious way until after I graduated college.

My hesitancy to do anything about a problem that I knew in the back of my mind that I had for a very long time came from a lack of awareness. I had been told that I could simply decide to get over my feelings and that psychiatric medication was something that doctors peddled to make money.

I'm a pretty stubborn and determined person. If I make up my mind to do something, I'm going to do it. For a long time I honestly believed that there was some kind of flaw in my character that prevented me from being able to "just get over it" and be a normal, happy person like everyone else seemed to be.

I only had the strength to seek help because of friends who gave me permission to admit that I couldn't deal with this on my own and assured me that it was not a sign of weakness.

I share this because I hope that, in some small way, I can fight back against the stigma that surrounds mental illness in our society. Some people view you with a suspicion if you have a mental illness in a way they would not if you have cancer, both of which are medical conditions completely outside of your control. Insurance companies do not cover mental health medications in the same way they do prescriptions for other chronic conditions.

You can be discriminated against when applying for a job if you disclose that you have a mental illness. If you had type 1 diabetes and were denied a job because of it, you would file a massive lawsuit. Even though mental illness is just as real and treatable as diabetes, it is treated differently. We have a long way to go as a society.

If you think that you or someone you know might be suffering from a mental illness, go to the National Alliance for Mental Illness' (NAMI) website. There is lots of great information and resources to help you decide how to proceed.

Please, please don't be afraid to ask for help. It's OK to admit you can't handle this on your own. I took that hard first step, and my life is immeasurably better for it. Yours will be, too.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Mentoring Matters- part of the "Ministers Matter" blog tour

Note- this piece was originally a chapter in Beyond the Burning Bush: Hearing and Answering God's Call, which was published by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry of the United Methodist Church in 2009. I am reposting it here as part of's "Ministers Matter" blog tour. The minster who matters in this piece is Will Penner, who is still a dear friend, colleague, a mentor fourteen years after the events I describe in this post.

“You’re not going to any church right now? Cool! You’re our newest member!”

I had known Will for all of ten minutes and he was already recruiting me to be part of his youth group. I didn’t protest. After spending ten minutes with this youth group and their youth director I knew there was something there I wanted to be a part of. Those ten minutes helped set the course for the next ten years of my life.

It was true. I hadn’t been going to any church for a while. I had drifted away from the church in which I had grown up near the end of my junior year in high school for a variety of reasons, but it basically came down to the fact that I didn’t feel at home there any more. So for a couple months I floated around not really knowing what to do. Sundays were especially depressing because church had been such a big part of my life ever since I had dedicated my life to serving God on a mission trip at thirteen. I wasn’t sure where God was leading me next, only that it was somewhere different from what I’d known before. So when a friend invited me to her church’s party after our school’s football game, I decided to go for the heck of it, and within ten minutes I discovered that this was where God wanted me to be.

After a few weeks as part of this new youth group, Will surprised me again. I was hanging out with him after youth one Sunday evening practicing some new worship songs on the guitar when he started asking me what I planned on doing with my future. I said I wasn’t really sure, so Will decided that since I was a senior, I would become his assistant and learn how to be a youth pastor. So for the rest of my senior year, I watched and learned as Will explained how he planned weekly youth meetings, led Bible studies, visited school campuses, and interacted with the Senior Pastor and other staff. I even filled in for him in his other role as Choir Director when he was absent one Sunday, despite having zero experience at conducting. I figured that this experience would help prepare me for a possible church job later on in life. What I didn’t know was that “later on” would be a few months down the road.

The summer after graduation I was working at a church camp when a church group from Indianapolis, where I would begin college in the fall, ended the camp week by offering me a job. I had grown close to the youth and adults from this church during the week, and since they were looking for a new youth director, they decided to offer me the job even though neither their pastor nor a single member of their Staff-Parish Committee was in camp that week. The fact that I was eighteen years old, straight out of high school, barely older than some of the kids, and had zero experience didn’t seem to matter (although my innumerable rookie mistakes may have made them question their choice later on).

The first thing I did as soon as I got home was to make a frantic phone call to Will. “What do I do?” I asked, freaking out about taking on an actual “adult” role. Will gave me a sideways puzzled look as if he couldn’t comprehend why I was so worried. “You’ve spent the past year watching what I do and practicing it yourself. You know what to do.”

Will was right, at least in part. I knew how to run a decent youth group meeting. I could plan and lead a Bible study. I could rehearse a praise band and organize mission trips and fundraisers. But at the same time, I didn’t know how to “be” a pastor to youth and their families. I didn’t know what to do when I got a frantic phone call or e-mail from a teenager in crisis. I knew how to do the nuts and bolts of ministry, but the more intangible aspects were a mystery to me.

Thankfully Will was there for me then, too. During my first year in youth ministry I probably called him at least once a week grilling him with questions on everything from how to deal with an agitated parent to how to delicately address girls being dressed inappropriately for church. What I began to learn is that while you can learn the basic functions of ministry by watching someone else do them and practicing a bit, the more intangible parts, the “being” of ministry, if you will, is a lot more complicated. You don’t learn how to handle most situations until you’re in them, so you figure it out as you go. If you handle them well, you figure out why and make sure to repeat those actions in the future. If you mess up (which you will more often than not), you process, regroup, learn from your mistakes, apologize if need be, and do better the next time.

I could have learned all about the “doing” of ministry from a book or a training seminar. There is no shortage of good ones out there. The “doing” is relatively easy. But I never could have learned about the “being” of ministry without a mentor who was willing to take me under his wing, allowing me to watch and learn from what he did, and having the patience and grace to endure my endless questioning and self doubt once I was out on my own. This mentoring relationship has given me valuable insights that the best book or class never could.

In the ten years since I walked into that youth group party, my life has changed dramatically. I have graduated from college and seminary. My own understanding of calling has led me to go from being a youth pastor, to an associate pastor, and eventually to pastoring my own congregation. Will is still active in youth ministry, and I still talk with him often and seek his advice. I’ve met and learned from other mentors along the way. But none of this would have happened had I not met a mentor who helped me begin discerning my calling by seeing potential in me that I didn’t see in myself.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Shameless Self Promotion- "Some People" Edition

I published a new piece on Ministry Matters today about dealing with unattributed comments or concerns that pastors receive second hand. I invented a character called Pastor Smith and put her in a situation that most pastors encounter at some point.

I've certainly had this conversation (not lately, thankfully!), and I've heard enough stories from other clergy all across the spectrum to believe that this experience is fairly universal, so I hope the thoughts I share are helpful.

Read "When 'Some People' Complain" and let me know what you think. Comments are always appreciated!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Romney and Obama on Poverty

I'm a bit late to the party on this one, but I finally watched the videos that President Obama and Governor Romney made addressing questions from the Circle of Protection on what they are/will be doing to help the poorest citizens of the United States.

I'll confess that I decided who I'm voting for a while back, and so I do watch these videos through something of a biased lens.

That being said, I wasn't terribly impressed with either of the candidates' responses. There was little more than the talking points of their respective campaigns, with a little more faith lingo and less attacking built in.

I can understand why both these men would choose to give such bland responses. They're in the midst of a very close race, and both are by nature cautious and eager to avoid any missteps that could be used against them.

The sad reality is that poverty is not an issue that gets a whole lot of traction in our political discourse. Even in a time when more and more people in our country are finding themselves in poverty, the issue does little to "move the needle" in opinion polls other than when it is used as a talking point about deficit reduction.

While I believe that government does have a role to play in alleviating poverty, since government is one avenue for us to express our values and commitments as a society, the church, nonprofit, and individuals also have an important role to play, because those avenues facilitate relationship building and not just the allocation of resources.

I won't be holding my breath for these or any presidential candidates in the near future to have much of substance to say on poverty, but I am glad that groups like Sojourners and Circle of Protection keep our elected officials feet "to the fire". Perhaps our collective efforts will one day truly sink in and meaningful, effective policy reform will happen.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Playing in "The Cooper"

Next week I'll be playing in the Mary Cooper Golf Challenge to raise money for Miriam's Promise.

I've barely picked up my golf clubs in the last year, and even before that my game wasn't too great, so my inevitable embarrassment on the course will be offset if I can raise over $1,000 to support this great ministry.

Take a moment to click on the link below, learn about Miriam's Promise, and if you feel so led, make a contribution. Thanks!

Personal Fundraising Page for Matthew L. Kelley

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

9/11, 11 Years Later

There are, of course, no shortage of words on the anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks, and I don't know how much of value I can add to the discourse, but I'll give it a shot by sharing two things.

One is a photo that's making the rounds on Facebook today. Pictures are, indeed, worth 1,000 words, and this painting challenges us with the radical love of Jesus on this day where remembrance and memories of grief might otherwise turn our thoughts to revenge.

The other is the sermon I preached last year on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. This also happened to be the sermon I videotaped  for my final ordination interviews. I made it through, so obviously it wasn't too bad.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Podcast Catch-up

After several weeks of slacking, we're finally caught up on the Arlington UMC Podcast, which is hosted for us by the good folks at

One recent sermon is about God's call for us to care for ourselves by honoring our need for sabbath rest. It's called "Come and Rest Awhile"

You can listen to all episodes on Arlington's website, on our page, or subscribe on iTunes.

As always, comments are greatly appreciated.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Embarrassing Christians

When I see stories in the news about a pastor or televangelist proclaiming that God sent a hurricane or earthquake to punish someone on their personal enemies list, or when whether one buys a chicken sandwich becomes the supreme statement of faith for a few days, I roll my eyes and wonder if I even practice the same religion as these people.

So when I saw this image today, I had a moment of satisfaction at the thought that Jesus gets as aggravated as I do with other Christians.

But just as quickly, I was reminded (I think it's the Holy Spirit smacking me upside the head) that when I have such moments of self-satisfaction and smug superiority, I'm doing the exact same thing that annoys me when I see other people doing it. I may not be claiming that God is sending a hurricane to punish groups I don't like, but in my heart I'm saying "raca" to my brother, and that's as bad in God's eyes as murdering them.

So if I'm going to think that this is how Jesus reacts to some of my fellow Christians, I have to be open the the possibility that Jesus also gets frustrated with me in my own moments of smug superiority. I make Jesus roll his eyes as much as anyone else. Probably more so, since preachers tend to be the "chiefs of sinners".

The good news, however, is that God seems to be able to use me even with my many, many flaws. So the things that drive me crazy about other people must be a bigger problem for me than they are for God. God works through all of us, and the more willing I am to see that in the people I don't particularly like, the more I get to experience just how amazing grace really is.

I guess that means I have to get off my own pedastal. Darn it...

Monday, August 13, 2012

Hurt People Hurt People

Thought for the day, courtesy of Thich Nhat Hanh

When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That's the message he is sending.

Thanks to the Emergent Village daily email blast for the quote.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Comparing Denominational Gatherings

Taylor Burton Edwards posted a really interesting piece over on emergingUMC contrasting the Episcopal Church's recently wrapped-up General Convention with the United Methodist Church's most recent General Conference. He has a unique perspective because his wife is an Episcopal priest and was a deputy (delegate) to the Convention, while as an employee of the General Board of Discipleship, he was deeply involved in General Conference.

I know the Presbyterian Church (USA) just had their General Assembly, and the tidbits I've heard seem like the tone was as negative as at our General Conference, and I know the Disciples of Christ will have their General Assembly next year, and I hear that their gatherings tend to have a generally positive tone.

I do wonder what it is that makes big denominational gatherings that are each dealing with similar issues such as structure, budget, and human sexuality, take such radically different tones. As Taylor points out in his piece, there were a number of factors over the last four years that fed into the contrasting demeanors of the Episcopal and United Methodist gatherings.

But I also wonder if there might be a more general issue of a sense of denominational identity that plays into the tone of these gatherings? Do the Disciples and Episcopalians get along better because knowing who they are creates a more collegial atmosphere? (Yes, I know the Episcopalians have been at war over sexuality and that many of the more conservative lay and clergy have split off, and will likely continue to do so after the GC)

I'm still sitting on some ideas that I think might make future UMC General Conferences easier, but I'm probably going to wait until after this week's Jurisdictional Conferences are over to share them. This time next week we'll all know who our Bishops will be for the next four years!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Higgs Boson Parable

On Sunday I preached a sermon about parables, expanding the idea beyond just the stories that Jesus told and saying that the Bible, and really all of life, are parables in that they point to a reality that is much greater than themselves. They're things that assist us in trying to wrap our minds around a Truth that is greater than anything we can possibly comprehend.

You can listen to the message here

An illustration I wanted to use, but had to cut for time and to keep the message from dragging was about the recent discovery of the until-now-theoretical Higgs-boson particle.

I don't pretend to understand physics on any level, so forgive me if any of the implications I draw here are in any way incorrect.

The particle in question was suggested to exist in 1964. The hard evidence of its existence seems to have come now, in 2012. That's 48 years between theory and proof.

Jesus talked about the coming reign of God, or baselia tou Theou, but the full realization thereof has not yet come to be. This is 2000ish years of history bet on this theory. Kind of a big gamble.

So Jesus is either wrong, crazy, or some sort of semi-dangerous guy who is more than deserving of public humiliation and execution on a Roman cross (a standard that was quite liberally applied)...

or what he was talking about was a "theory" awaiting "proof".

I use those terms loosely, because Truth and fact are two distinct, if interrelated, things. Indiana Jones says so, after all.

The inadequacies of the analogy aside, the physicists who thought the theory of the Higgs-boson to be of merit invested the time, energy, and finances to build the Large Hadron Collider to achieve proof of the particle's existence.

Likewise, the church has thought Jesus' assertion of the coming reign of God to be of such merit as to invest substantial time, energy, and finances to live out said reality in microcosm in anticipation of its full realization in the entire cosmos.

Yes, the church universal has also spent a lot of time and energy engaged in less-than-worthy pursuits, too. Granted. But...

Those that believed the Higgs-boson existed kept at it until its existence was proven. Those who believe in the reality of the baselia tou Thou keep at it until its truth is not proven by empirical evidence in the way science is able to provide, but the full indwelling of said Truth where the rules that we always thought applied are shown to be false, and the rules of the Kingdom of God are shown to be the ultimate Truth.

This is what Jesus is suggesting in the parable of the farmer sowing seeds. He does is part, but he "knows not how" the ultimate result comes to be. The harvest he reaps is the product of his effort combined with elements and forces far beyond his control.

This discovery of the existence of the Higgs-boson particle does not somehow empower its effect on particle physics. Likewise, the full realization of the reign of God does not somehow empower its effect on the cosmos. It's been there the whole time, we just finally came to realize it.

Sub-atomic particle or meta-Truth, it's not-yet-really-yet-kinda-sorta the same.

May we all stand in awe of that which we are learning and that which we can't possibly comprehend.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Desert of Compassion

Here's a word I needed today:

What is my new desert? The name of it is compassion. There is no wilderness so terrible, so beautiful, so arid and so fruitful as the wilderness of compassion. It is the only desert that shall truly flourish like the lilly. It shall become a pool, it shall bud forth and blossom and rejoice with joy. It is the desert of compassion that the thirsty land turns into springs of water, that the poor possess all things. There are no bounds to contain the inhabitants of this solitude in which I live alone, as isolated as the Host on the altar, the food of all men, belonging to all and belonging to none, for God is with me, and He sits in the ruins of my heart, preaching His Gospel to the poor.
~Thomas Merton, Nov. 29, 1951
from Merton's journals, vol 2- "Entering the Silence", p. 463

Merton wrote this six months in to his tenure as Master of Scholastics (supervising the education and spiritual formation of new monks), reflecting on how hard it was for him to be responsible for so many people and how he knows he frequently messes up.

I am a year into being the pastor of a church with a staff and a daycare center. This is a new role for me and I'm getting used to being responsible for so many people in the dual role of their supervisor and their pastor. I feel pretty good about how it's gone overall, but I know I've made mistakes and I will continue to, since I'm human.

The only way for me to have any kind of success in this role is to spend lots of time in the desert of compassion, letting it empty me of myself and filling me up with grace that is far beyond my ability to conjure up on my own.

So thanks for this word today, Father Merton. I needed it.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Shameless Self Promotion- Mission Trip Edition

My latest article, "Mission Trip High: Keeping it Going or Leaving it There" is up on Ministry Matters.

In it, I question the idea of "bringing it home" from a mission trip or conference experience and argue that pastors and youth leaders need to adjust the expectations we put on youth for when they come back  from these experiences.

Feel free to post comments on the article page itself or here on the blog.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Crackhouse Church?

Pete Rollins, as he often does, delivers a simultaneously scathing and inviting critique of church. I have an article that will be on Ministry Matters later this week making a similar critique of  or orientation toward mission trips and conferences.

Crack House Church from The Work Of The People on Vimeo.

Agree? Disagree? Share your thoughts.

Friday, July 06, 2012

The Most Interesting Pastor in the World

Lately I've been noticing more and more gray hair on my head and in my beard, and the rate at which they appear seems to be increasing.

On the one hand, this is encouraging, because receding hairlines run in my family. On the other, I'm only 31!

It occurred to me today that, if the current rate of exponential grayness continues, I will look less like Ricky Gervais

And more like "The Most Interesting Man in the World" from the Dos Equis commercials
(here is a current photo for comparison's sake)

So sooner or later I may make a video or two where I play "The Most Interesting Pastor in the World"

I posted this on my Facebook page earlier, and several friends have already suggested several attributes or quotes (Google it if you're not familiar with the commercials). Here are some of the better ones:

"I don't always serve communion, but when I do, I prefer Welch's"

"I don't always use online commentary, but when I do, I prefer Ministry Matters. Keep exegeting my friends."

He's so Wesleyan, he makes John Wesley look like John Calvin.

Mosquitos will not bite him during camp meetings out of sheer respect.

He wrote another 30 verses of "O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing"

The ushers come forward at his altar calls

He once preached by staring at the congregation with his piercing blue eyes

Let's see how creative the blogosphere is. Best "Interesting Pastor" line gets a shout out on this blog and the respect of your peers.

Friday, June 29, 2012

The UMC Speaks on Health Care

I have to admit I was quite surprised yesterday when I saw that the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act (what some call "Obamacare") in its entirety. During my lifetime, many of the landmark decisions handed down by our nation's highest court have appeared extremely partisan, with justices voting the position of the political party of the President who appointed them.

I don't really want to engage in the wars of words that are currently going on surrounding the decision. I'm not a legal scholar nor an expert in health policy, so were I to engage in the arguments for the side I find myself on, the best I could do would be to give slightly more thoughtful versions of the sound-bytes being thrown around, but I wouldn't have much of substance to contribute to the discussion.

Instead, I'd simply like to share the official stance of my church on the right to health care. This comes from paragraph 162 of the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, where the social principles of our denomination are detailed.

Health is a condition of physical, mental, social, and spiritual well-being, and we view it as a responsibility—public and private. Health care is a basic human right. Psalm 146 speaks of the God “who executes justice for the oppressed;/ who gives food to the hungry./ The LORD sets the prisoners free;/ the LORD opens the eyes of the blind.” The right to health care includes care for persons with brain diseases, neurological conditions or physical disabilities, who must be afforded the same access to health care as all other persons in our communities. It is unjust to construct or perpetuate barriers to physical or mental wholeness or full participation in community. We encourage individuals to pursue a healthy lifestyle and affirm the importance of preventive health care, health education, environmental and occupational safety, good nutrition, and secure affordable housing in achieving health. We also recognize the role of governments in ensuring that each individual has access to those elements necessary to good health. Countries facing a public health crisis such as HIV/AIDS must have access to generic medicines and to patented medicines without infringing on a pharmaceutical company's patent/licensing rights. We affirm the right of men and women to have access to comprehensive reproductive health/family planning information and services which will serve as a means to prevent unplanned pregnancies, reduce abortions and prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.
(emphasis mine)

You don't have to agree with the social principles to be part of the United Methodist Church, so if you happen to disagree with our official stance or the opinion of your preacher, don't leave your church. I have some strong disagreements with other parts of our discipline, but I'm not surrendering my credentials over them.

Agree? Great. Disagree? Great. Let's take some time to talk about why. Let's put away the sound-bytes for a few minutes and try to see the good in those with whom we disagree. We just might learn something, and we might even be transformed, ourselves, regardless of whether we end up agreeing.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Context, Context, Context

Yesterday at Arlington, we explored the last "episode" in the great narrative arc of the Bible by exploring the Book of Revelation in its historical context and pondering what it has to say to us as we are living out our own chapter in the great story of God and humanity.

You can listen to all nine episodes of the "Living the Story" series on our website, at our channel, or subscribe on iTunes. Below is audio of Sunday's message.

One of the main points we emphasized is that all the books of the Bible were written to people in a specific time and place, so that the original audience could understand what the author was trying to say. If we approach scripture with no knowledge of who the first hearers (not readers, per say, as these were largely pre-literate societies) were, we won't have a clue what the author is trying to say and we'll end up reading some things that were never meant to be taken from the text.

Of course, God can and often does speak through these texts in fresh ways- that's why we call the Bible the "living Word of God" after all- but very often reading an ancient text with no historical and cultural context does more harm than good.

I listened to a sermon today that illustrates this point beautifully. My colleague, Pastor Ed Zeiders of St. Paul's UMC in State College, PA, preached an amazingly pastoral and prophetic message yesterday, in the wake of recent events in their community.

Jerry Sandusky, a former football coach at Penn State and a member of St. Paul's, had been convinced just days before on a long list of charges relating to the intentional and systematic sexual abuse of young boys over many years. This situation has profoundly affected their church and their community, as well as getting the attention of the rest of the world.

The thing is, though, if we didn't know anything about what had happened with Mr. Sandusky and the Penn State football program, this sermon wouldn't make a whole lot of sense to us. Living in the same time as these events makes it easy to know what he's talking about, but people a century or a millennium for now might not know what we know. The absence of this knowledge would put them at a serious disadvantage, and their conclusions might be helpful, or the might very likely do more harm than good.

Take the time to listen to Pastor Ed's message, and bear in mind how you would be hearing this differently if you didn't know what was on everyone's mind that Sunday.

Knowing the context in which this sermon was preached is crucial to understanding what the pastor is trying to say. The same is true for all of us when we approach Holy Scripture. Let's have enough respect for the Bible to do a little homework and find out who these texts were written to. Let's take the time to see what was being proclaimed about God to the original audience, because that helps put us in a place where we are ready to hear what God wants to say to us through this text today.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Shameless Spouse Promotion

Jessica preached at church yesterday, both as a Fathers' Day present to me and, providentially, because I ended up having a very busy week and wouldn't have had time to properly put a sermon together.

Her message was titled "Stewards of Our Children", and she considers parenting in light of the story of Abraham's near sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22 and Jesus' parable of the talents in Matthew 25.

I'm biased, of course, but I think she preached an amazing message, and I continue to be amazed and grateful that this wonderful woman wants to be married to me!

Friday, June 08, 2012

Reflections on the Eve of Ordination

On Monday night I will be ordained as an Elder in Full Connection in the Tennessee Conference of the United Methodist Church.

And now I'm seriously considering the idea that I might be the pastor of a church for my whole career.

I know that sounds like a strange thing to say, especially since the ordination process in the United Methodist Church is one of the longest and most convoluted things ever created by humankind. I began the candidacy process in 2000, while I was in college, and I've been "in ministry" (that is, drawing a paycheck from a church) since I was eighteen years old.

It's not that I never wanted to be the pastor of a church. It's just that for a number of years I thought that my own path in ministry would take a somewhat different form. Since sometime around my senior year in college, when I was writing my honors thesis and getting a taste of in depth academic research and informally TA-ing a 100 level religion class with my advisor, I thought that I wanted to get a PhD and teach in a college or seminary.

That is how I thought for a number of years that I would be of greatest service to the church, particularly since I became a preaching and liturgy nerd in seminary.

But then two things happened. One was more gradual, and the other was fairly sudden.

The gradual realization was that doing a PhD is a long, expensive, frustrating process with a very high drop-out rate and very few tenure-track positions available. And from observing the chatter around theological education, there may be some huge shifts on the horizon that might make traditional seminary professor positions even more rare.

Pursuing a PhD would also require some big sacrifices that I'm not prepared to ask my wife and daughters to make, since they already sacrifice so much to support my vocation as a pastor.

The more sudden thing was that I found myself serving a church where I could actually see myself serving for a long time.

In saying that I mean no disrespect to the congregations I have previously served. In each of these places I had meaningful experiences and learned valuable lessons, to say nothing of a whole lot about who I am. It's just that I've never been in a place where I could see myself serving in that capacity for a long time.

But now I'm at Arlington- the place where my journey of faith began with my parents making promises on my behalf at my baptism- promises which they kept in every way. I've only been there a year, and there are lots of challenges, but there is a great chemistry with this congregation that makes me believe that this could be a place where my own gifts and graces can effectively serve the church, and, more importantly, the Kingdom of God.

For most of my life I've always been oriented towards the next thing. Graduating from high school, then college, getting married, graduating from seminary, having my own church, starting a family, and now getting ordained . That mindset made me think that I'd continue on for another degree, position, or whatever, but what if I have to shift my thinking and actually invest myself in where I am right now?

So, for probably the first time in my life, I'm OK with not knowing what the "next step" is. And it feels strangely good.

If you're in the Nashville area, I'd love for you to attend the ordination service at Annual Conference.

Friday, May 04, 2012

General Conference- Reflections in the Immediate Aftermath

Well that was... interesting...

No, I mean it. I was engaged in General Conference in a way that I never have been before. I watched a lot of the plenaries and worships on the live feed, often in a Google+ hangout with a few folks I knew before, and a few friends that I have now gotten to know.

It's very hard to recap all that's gone on in the last two weeks, and if you're reading this post at all, you're probably plugged in and know what all has happened. If not, let me recommend a couple good sources: Katie Z. Dawson, a reserve clergy delegate from Iowa; Melissa Meyers, a reserve clergy delegate from Illinois; GC2012 Conversations; Jay Voorhees over at Methoblog, and, of course, Ministry Matters.

I posted at the beginning of General Conference about what I hoped would happen. And, of course, it's a mixed bag.

The changes to guaranteed appointments for Elders are not quite what I'd hoped. No changes were made in the appointment system itself, but there are some good checks and balances on the Bishops' power, so I'm hopeful that this will help deal with ineffective clergy (the reason for this discussion) while offering protections to those who take the risk of offering themselves up for itinerant ministry.

I am disappointed, but not all together surprised, that we can't even officially acknowledge that we are not of one mind on sexual orientation. The fight for equality and full inclusion goes on.

The restructuring debates were the most interesting thing. No plan, even the heavily amended ones, made it out of committee. But there were enough votes to get "dead" legislation brought up in plenary, with a hybrid called "Plan UMC" passing, but then getting ruled unconstitutional by the Judicial Council. The boards and agencies voluntarily reduced their respective numbers of members somewhat, but that's about it. Check out some of the above sources for more details, and expect this conversation to continue.

After all of this, the biggest question on my mind is what it means for us to be a global connection, and if there aren't some ways we could alter what that looks like to maintain our connection and shared ministry, while taking some of the pressure off. I'm going to chew on this for a day or two, and then post some ideas I've got.

Even though many are feeling hurt and disappointed in the aftermath of this General Conference, let us all pray a prayer of thanks for the bishops, delegates, and staff who worked very hard under very tough conditions to do this work on our behalf. We may not agree with everything (or, for that matter, anything) they decided on, but they were willing to put in the time and effort to do the work. And for that, they deserve our gratitude.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Thoughts on the Beginning of General Conference

The United Methodist Church's quadrennial (every four years) General Conference begins today in Tampa, FL. Four years ago I did a daily blog recap, but that was before I had small children, so don't look for anything like that this time. I will probably do some intermittent commentary along the way, though.

My friend Jay Vorhees is coordinating social media coverage at GC, which you can check out over on the Metho-blog.

Before I give some opinions, let me say that I am so happy that our conference's clergy delegation is being led by Rev. Harriet Bryan, who I had the opportunity to get to know when I was serving in the Clarksville district. She has a peaceful and loving spirit that I hope will be shared by every delegate these next ten days. Were I a delegate, my passions on certain issues would not allow me to be terribly objective or as receptive to others' views as Harriet will be able to be.

There seem to be three major issues that will consume much of the time an energy of the delegates: the structure of the global church and the general agencies, the nature of the order of Elder, and, of course, human sexuality.

I don't have too many thoughts on the global structure, other than not wanting to see friends who work for General Agencies lose their jobs, but there is a need for our structures to be more efficient and effective, but I have no idea if any of the plans put forth will actually accomplish that.

Having just been admitted to the order of Elder, I do think there need to be some changes. Our current itinerant system is based on the idea of male clergy whose spouses to not work outside the home, and churches that all have parsonages for their pastor to live in. Neither of these things is the case anymore.

I lived in a parsonage in my last appointment, and my wife commuted 100 miles round-trip every day for four years. Modern, two career families cannot be expected to spend the time and money that requires and remain healthy families.

At issue is ending the appointment security for Elders, which doesn't personally bother me, but I'm a white heterosexual male. I won't be rejected by any church simply based on my race, gender, or sexual orientation. My age has given a few people reservations, but I'll be an old white guy soon enough. I have female and non-caucasian friends and colleagues who would be made much more vulnerable by ending appointment security, and I think we have to take that into serious consideration.

Ending appointment security also opens up the opportunity for a bishop to abuse the power of appointment as it is currently structured. Let's say Joe Pastor has been serving for 30 years, is the sole breadwinner for his family, and has lived in parsonages the entire time, and thus having built up no equity the way homeowners do. What happens if Joe gets on the wrong side of Bishop X and Joe is left without an appointment, effectively putting him and his family out on the street?

That's a worst case scenario, of course, but I don't think it's out of the question.

Something needs to be done to help ineffective Elders transition into a new career, but the one sided approach on the table right now doesn't seem like it will solve the issue, but simply consolidate more power in the office of the bishop without the protections that make for a mutually beneficial relationship between clergy and conference.

I don't, however, think we should go to a call system the way many other denominations do. Some kind of hybrid model needs to be developed that involves more consultation, and perhaps more open-ended appointments replacing the current year-to-year format.

Regarding human sexuality, I'm on the record saying that I do not believe that same-sex attraction is sinful, nor is acting on that attraction in a committed monogamous relationship. I am for full marriage equality in the eyes of both the church and the government.

With respect to colleagues whose convictions have led them to other conclusions, I do not feel that this injustice requires civil disobedience at this time. In other words, although I want to, I will not perform any same sex weddings at this time because of my covenant to uphold the Discipline. I want the Discipline to change.

Furthermore, I do not believe that being gay disqualifies people from ordained ministry.

(As a quick aside, this has not always been my take on these issues. If anyone is interested, I will happily share how my views have evolved over time)

My ideal scenario would have General Conference removing these barriers to begin to heal much of the harm we have done to our brothers and sisters of sexual orientations other than hetero.

But I know that's not going to happen all at once. So I do hope that, at the very least, the General Conference will add the acknowledgement to the Discipline that people of genuine faith come down on different sides of this question..

Four years ago, such a statement made it out of committee, but was narrowly voted down on the floor of General Conference after several individuals got up and started speaking in ways that came across as both hateful and hurtful. Whether they meant it to sound that way is not for any of us to judge. But I do hope that if similar things happen this time, there will be delegates brave enough to stand up and challenge harmful words spoken in the name of Christ.

For those who made it to the bottom of this post, thank you for listening to me get on my soapbox. If you have different opinions, please feel free to express them in a respectful manner. I believe the only way for us to move forward is to talk with one another, not at one another.

Above all, please pray for the General Conference, the delegates, and the United Methodist Church. We have a lot of big challenges facing us, and the events of the next ten days could help or harm our attempts to face them, or we could simply kick the can down the road four more years. Again.

Let's stay tuned to see what happens.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Here we go... again

Six years ago (and some change- it was the beginning of Lent) I started this blog, and the very first post was on the eve of the launch of a new worship experience at Crievewood UMC, called The Gathering.

Now I'm writing this post on the eve of the launch of a new worship experience at Arlington UMC, called The Road.

Back in 2006, I was still in seminary and serving as an associate pastor, I was 25, I was engaged to be married to Jessica that fall, and being part of creating The Gathering was the biggest thing I'd done in my very young career in the church.

Now I'm on my third appointment, and second stint as lead pastor. I'm married and have two kids, I'm 31, and my career in the church is still fairly young. While this service is a big deal, I've had enough experience to put this in perspective, and it won't keep me from sleeping tonight the way it did six years ago.

I still have the same haircut and facial hair, although it's got quite a bit more grey than it did then. The events of the last six years have had a bit to do with that...

I'm not sure that I really have a point in making this comparison, but it is interesting to see how I experience basically the same thing very differently at a different point in my life. Perhaps I'll have some profound observation by this time tomorrow.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Shameless Self Promotion: Audio Edition

Jessica and I are on the latest Ministry Matters podcast discussing why young people leave the church, why they come back. We focus quite a bit on theology, style, and intangibles.

Speaking of podcasts, Arlington UMC continues to podcast our weekly messages. Our Easter Sunday message, "Everything Changes" is the latest episode, which is embedded below.

 If you're so inclined, click on over to our page, (, and check out the series we did during Lent, "How I Saw It", which featured monologues from the perspective of people who encountered Jesus in his earthly ministry. Scott Myrick and Diane Bearden-Enright gave particularly good performances as The Centurion and the Woman Caught in Adultery, respectively.

While I've got your attention, Arlington's new worship experience, The Road, begins this Sunday at 5pm. Check out our Facebook and Twitter feeds for all the latest info, photos, etc.

As always, comments and discussion are highly encouraged.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Passing Over into Freedom

(Note- I'm using Lent and Easter Wisdom from Thomas Merton as my Lenten devotional this year, and the entries go through the first week of Easter. I'll be blogging the journaling prompts most days.)

Easter is not a day to be compared to the Fourth of July, although in truth it is a celebration of our Christian freedom. Each time we participate in the sacred mysteries, the Pascha Domini (The Passover of the Lord), we die with Christ, rise with him, and receive from him the Spirit of promise who transforms us and unites us to the Father in and through the Son. ~Seasons of Celebration, p. 144.

How is every day of your life an experience of Easter?

I tend to get way more anxious than I should, and so for much of my life I've woken up and immediately been consumed about all the tasks I have to do that day. I viewed these things as an obligation and drew a whole lot of my self-worth from if and how well I accomplished all those tasks.

Guess how often that came out positively at the end of the day? Not very often.

The problem with the attitude that says, "I have to do this. I have to do that" is that it assumes that I have not choice in the matter, that I'm somehow under the control of all these outside forces that care nothing for me and how I feel.

But what are the obligations I have each day? Largely, they are the obligations I have to my wife and children, to my congregation and my denomination, and to other projects or friendships I'm involved in. I have all of those things because I chose to enter into them. I may not have fully understood what it would require to make these relationships work when I first entered into them, but I wasn't naive enough to think that I would never need to do something I wouldn't otherwise do for the greater good.

I could, if I wanted to, walk away from these relationships at any moment because I don't want to do certain things to maintain them. But I choose to do so because I value them and the consequences of throwing those relationships away are so much worse than the annoyance or discomfort I may experience in doing the things I wouldn't otherwise do.

That may sound cynical, but I really do believe that everything we do is a choice, even when it's something we feel like we're obligated to do, or we have to do.

The freedom of Easter is like this. Every day I wake up knowing that I have the opportunity to be a disciple of Jesus. Yes, there was a point in time when I decided that this was going to be a major part of my life, and another point in time where I began to explore the possibility that my vocation would be in a religious institution. But I still make those choices every day.

I choose (most of the time) to deal graciously with people and situations that aggravate me when I might otherwise say a few choice words that I know would be hurtful.

I choose to spend long hours working on church programs and composing sermons, when I know I could phone it in and still produce something decent.

I choose (again, most of the time) not to yell at Kate when she asks for candy and ice cream without having touched her dinner even though she knows darn well she's not going to get it.

Easter shows us that God is willing to give us the ultimate gift: himself, even when we had done nothing to deserve it and didn't necessarily ask for it. God asks for us to do the same: give ourselves in return, but will not withdraw the gift if we don't respond in kind. There is nothing we can do to make God love us any more, and nothing we can do to make God love us any less. So every day we have is a day of freedom, a day full of choices as to how to respond to the gift of Easter.

At the end of the day, let's all try to look back over how we responded. What did we do well? How did we mess up? Let us choose to learn from the choices we made this day, and let it inform how we freely choose to respond to grace the next day.

That's what God really wants. God wants us to choose to give ourselves, and we can't genuinely make that choice without freedom.

So how will you use your God-given freedom today?

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Good News for Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday is the great pause between the dark, lonely, painful hours of crucifixion and death, and the first light of Easter morning where the stone has rolled away, the body is gone, and we see that the whole game just changed.

I'll leave it to Tony Campolo to help remind us what time it is.

May this Holy Saturday be restful for you, and may you experience the joy of Resurrection tomorrow and for all time.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Good Friday- Visiting the Scene

Instead of writing a post pontificating on the significance of Jesus' suffering and crucifixion (I'm trying to finish my Easter sermon today), I'm simply going to post some photos from Greek Orthodox Calvary Chapel in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem- the place that has been venerated as the sight of Jesus' crucifixion and Resurrection for at least seventeen centuries.

 However you choose to remember this day, I hope you have a blessed Easter experience.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The Time to Turn to God

(Note- I'm using Lent and Easter Wisdom from Thomas Merton as my Lenten devotional this year. I'll be blogging the journaling prompts most days.)

All the faithful should listen to the word as it is announced in the liturgy or in Bible services and respond according to their ability. In this way, for the whole church, Lent will not be merely a season simply of a few formalized penitential practices, half-understood and undertaken without interest, but a time of metanoia, the turning of all minds and hearts to God in preparation of the Paschal Mystery in which some will for the first time receive the light of Christ, others will be restored to the communion of the faithful, and all will renew their baptismal consecration of their lives to God in Christ. ~Seasons of Celebration, p. 114

What word or phrase- a mantra, like "Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me"- as you pass over these last days toward Easter?

I find it very meaningful to use the phrase, "Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner" as a breath prayer (repeated over and over in my mind while breathing in and out), because saying along with the rhythm of breathing reminds me that continually seeking God's grace and mercy is the rhythm of the life of a Christian.

But this question made me think of something else today. Forty four years ago today, in Memphis, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed while in town supporting a sanitation worker's strike. The night before, he preached an eerily prophetic final sermon.

So, to paraphrase Dr. King, the mantra that comes to my mind today is "we will get there". I get so easily discouraged when I turn on the news or talk to people who seem convinced that there are not enough resources for all people to have a full, healthy life, that destructive wars are inevitable, or that people will never change.

So as I am preparing to proclaim the good news of the Resurrection on Easter morning, I have to keep repeating "we will get there" so I can preach it with this kind of conviction.

Sunday, April 01, 2012


If every tongue was still, the noise would still continue.
The rocks and stones themselves would start to sing!

Happy Palm Sunday. Even in the midst of how somber most of Holy Week is, may you know the joy of Jesus coming and anticipate the Resurrection to come.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Who is Church to me?

(Note- I'm using Lent and Easter Wisdom from Thomas Merton as my Lenten devotional this year. I'll be blogging the journaling prompts most days.)

We must in all things seek God. But we do not seek Him the way we seek a lost object, a "thing". He is present to us in our heart, in our personal subjectivity, and to seek Him is to recognize this fact. Yet we cannot be aware of it as a reality unless He reveals His presence to us. He does not reveal Himself simply in our own heart. He reveals Himself to us in the Church, in the community of believers, the the koinonia of those who trust Him and love Him. ~Seasons of Celebration, p. 223

Who is "the Church" for you? In what ways do you experience God's revelation to you?

My home church's slogan is "We Are About Relationships". They're emphasizing that what's important about the church is not programs or buildings or anything else. It's the relationships we have with one another and with God that shape our faith journey, and things like buildings and programs have to be structured to contribute to the nurturing of those relationships.

While I love that slogan and absolutely agree with it theologically, I'm an introvert. So defining what "it's all about relationships" means for me is a bit more complicated than people I know who are extroverts, who've never met a stranger and draw strength from time spent with groups of people.

Furthermore, as a pastor, I spend a lot of my time helping others "do" church and "be" church for one another. And while I get a great sense of satisfaction out of this, most of the time I can't truly worship when I'm leading worship. This is the case for most pastors, at least the from what I've seen.

I have had some moments that are exceptions to that, and they are wonderful moments.

In theory, the Tennessee Annual Conference is my "church", because I am a member of the conference as opposed to being on the rolls of a congregation. And while I do find some great moments of deep soul-to-soul connection when I am with some of my colleagues, the gatherings of the whole conference are mostly about business, and even the times we worship together aren't always the most worshipful for me.

The people who are most fully "the Church" for me are my family. When I'm spending time with Jessica, Kate, and Claire, I feel the peace and love of God, even when the kids are acting crazy and trying our patience.

The most soul-edifying conversations I have are after the girls are in bed and Jessica and I are having a glass of wine and talking about whatever is on our minds, most of which ends up coming back to faith. Our relationship began as divinity students, and that's shaped how we've been ever since.

I hope that over time, particularly now that I've finished the ordination gauntlet and been welcomed as a peer with the other ordained elders and deacons, that I will develop some other relationships that constitute "Church" for me. But again, I'm an introvert, so developing and deepening those relationships is going to take a lot of intentionality on my part.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Communion in Forgiveness

(Note- I'm using Lent and Easter Wisdom from Thomas Merton as my Lenten devotional this year. I'll be blogging the journaling prompts most days.)

Christ will not be visible to the world in His Church except in proportion as Christians seek peace and unity with one another and with all men. But since conflict is inevitable, unity cannot be maintained except in great difficulty, with constantly renewed sacrifice, with lucid honesty, openness, humility, the readiness to ask forgiveness and to forgive. ~Seasons of Celebration, p. 217

If Lent is the Church's call to forgive and to be forgiven, how are you answering it?

I'll tell you a little secret about the church, which you may already know. People don't leave their junk at the door. We bring all of ourselves into the church: the good, the bad, and the ugly. People are still people, even in the church. Maybe especially in the church.

Most of the time this is a good and healthy thing, if we're honest about it. But we run into trouble when we put on the facade of having everything figured out, because after a while the junk we're pretending isn't there begins to surface, and we end up doing all kinds of mental gymnastics to justify it under the guise of having it all figured out.

I know I sound like I'm pointing my finger at other people, even when the question is about me. I promise I'm not trying to, so please hear me out.

I say this because I have an extremely hard time forgiving people who create chaos in the church to compensate for unresolved junk in other areas of their lives. Sometimes these folks are labeled clergy killers, and while the term has a lot of truth to it, it can quickly turn into a destructive label that just perpetuates the problem.

That's what I allow to happen to me, at least. Instead of allowing the understanding of the "clergy killer" phenomenon to give me compassion for those folks' places of deep brokenness, I let it become a label that excuses me from seeing them as anything other than a problem to be contained or eliminated.

(Sidenote- I don't currently find myself in the midst of any of this kind of conflict. If I did, I probably wouldn't blog about it, even in such a general way, as it would likely just make the problem worse)

I may have very good reasons to be angry at someone who bullies a pastor or other church staff, but I can have a very hard time letting go of that anger, and I don't ask God for help letting go of it nearly as much or as sincerely as I should. There's a part of me that somehow feels justified or empowered by holding on to it, even though the only one it harms is me.

Holding on to anger and not wanting to forgive makes it that much harder for me to receive forgiveness. If someone I considered to be a "clergy killer" called me up and offered their forgiveness for the things I had done wrong (real or perceived), I would probably have a difficult time believing they were sincere. And the chances of me calling them up to ask for forgiveness and offer my own are quite slim.

Lord, you call us to forgive just as we are forgiven by you, but I confess I often don't want to forgive. Help me have the desire to persist on the journey of forgiveness. Amen.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Time is the Medium of our Salvation

(Note- I'm using Lent and Easter Wisdom from Thomas Merton as my Lenten devotional this year. I'll be blogging the journaling prompts most days.)

To say that the redemption is an ever present spiritual reality is to say that Christ has laid hold upon time and sanctified it, giving it a sacramental character, making it an efficacious sign of our union with God in Him. So, "time" is a medium which makes the fact of redemption present to all men. ~Seasons of Celebration, p. 49

With whom do you most "share time"? With whom should you be sharing more time?

This seems like a leading question. I think the "right" answer is to say that I spend the most time with my family, friends, job, etc., and that I need to be sharing more time with God.

But that canned answer reinforces the bifurcated sacred/secular understanding that has more roots in Plato and gnosticism than in a genuinely Judeo-Christian understanding of the creation.

That last sentence is a mouthful of seminary speak. Let me explain.

If I assume that time that I spend with my family, friends, at my job, on hobbies, etc., is not "time shared with God", then I'm saying that God is only present in specific times and places- in church, when the pages of my Bible are open, or when I'm by myself having some quiet time. In essence, I'm having a very limited view of God.

But one of the running themes throughout the Bible is the un-limitedness of God. God gets upset with the worship of idols because people are giving something limited, therefore controllable, the adoration due to that which is ultimate. They're putting something far less than God in the place of God. So if I'm only "sharing time" with God in those unique moments, then the god I'm sharing time with isn't God, because that god is too small.

As Merton puts it, "Christ has laid hold upon time and sanctified it". I think he's talking primarily in the cosmic sense, but this is demonstrated in the incarnation of Jesus, as well.

Jesus lived the fullness of the human experience. He experienced joy and laughter, as well as pain, suffering, and death. The life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus claims that not only is God present in every single moment of our lives, but God also has the last word in what it all means.

So if I truly believe the claims made by the incarnation and the Resurrection, then all time is time shared with God. The only question is whether I am aware of that or not.

When I forget this, I treat everything like I own it, as if it exists solely for my benefit. But when I am aware that every thing and every moment is infused with God's presence, then I treat everything as a gift, over which I have a sacred trust and for which I am accountable to God for how I handle it.

So maybe a better question is, how aware am I of who is present in all the moments of my life, and what do I need to do to make myself aware of what's really going on?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

"Words" for our salvation

(Note- I'm using Lent and Easter Wisdom from Thomas Merton as my Lenten devotional this year. I'll be blogging the journaling prompts most days.)

If we cling to immature and limited notions of "privacy," we will never be able to free ourselves from the bonds of individualism. We will never realize that the Church delivers us from ourselves by public worship, the very public character of which tends to hide us "in the secret of God's face." ~ Seasons of Celebration, p. 27

Since Lent began, what "words have you heard for your salvation?

"It's not about you"

That's not a new "word" from God by any means, but it's one that I constantly need to hear. I've been feeling a little bit guilty that I didn't "give up" something for Lent other than the time to do this devotional practice. I guess giving up coffee or alcohol or meat has a more romantic feel to it, something I can wear as a badge of honor. But that, of course, is to miss the point of Lenten fasting entirely.

The reminder that I'm getting over and over is that as much as my limited vision and massive ego would have me believe it, I am not the center of the universe. I am God's beloved child, but my purpose is to serve others. None of this is about me.

This is probably the word I need right now, because I could quite easily get a big head about being ordained this summer. In the United Methodist Church, the path to ordination as an Elder is extremely long, complicated, and taxing. I've experienced setbacks and levels of frustration and despair that I had never known before. So I suppose I have some right to feel proud that I've completed all the requirements and been approved.

But just because I have that right doesn't mean it's the best thing for me to do, especially knowing how quickly I can get a big head and start to think that it's all about me. I've gotten lots of congratulations from people, and great affirmation from those that were present during my BOMEC interviews last week. Having to work so hard to get to this stage, it would be very easy to assume that ordination is something one earns.

The words that the bishop pronounces over the person being ordained are "take thou the authority of an Elder". The word "authority" implies responsibility and high expectations that one will use their authority in the proper way.

In all the time I've served as a pastor, I've been empowered to do certain things and granted access to very intimate moments in people's lives with the trust that I can play some role in heightening everyone's awareness of how grace is present in that moment. Just as my serving has been for the glory of God and for others to grow in love and grace, so is my ordination.

I may be the one being ordained at conference this year, but, praise God, it's not about me.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

The "Inmost Secret" of Our Being

(Note- I'm using Lent and Easter Wisdom from Thomas Merton as my Lenten devotional this year. I'll be blogging the journaling prompts most days.)

The great paradox of Christian personalism is this: it consists in something more than bringing to light the unique and irreplaceable element in the individual Christian. On the contrary, Christian personalism does not require that the inmost secret of our being become manifest or public to all. We do not even have to see it clearly ourselves! We are more truly "Christian persons" when our inmost secret remains a mystery shared by ourselves and God, and communicated to others. ~Seasons of Celebration, pp. 21-22

Consider the "inmost secret" at the core of yourself that is shared with God and remains a mystery.

Can something be known and still be a mystery? Aren't those conflicting terms? If we read a mystery novel, we find out who the killer is in the last couple chapters, and the mystery is over. Isn't that how it works?

In the modern world, yes. The fundamental assumption of modernity is that everything can be known, facts can be discerned, and that knowledge gives us power. But we've lost a deeper sense of mystery that the ancients understood. They knew that there was much that could not be known, and with a deep humility they participated in the mysteries that they knew they could never understand in a way that would give them control or resolution. They participated in them because these mysteries made them whole.

As much as we've overdone things in modernity, we still have mysteries that we get to participate in. Love is fundamentally a mystery. I can sit down and write a very long list of all of Jessica's wonderful qualities, but when I knew I wanted to marry her I did not make a list to see if the sum total of those qualities made us being together the logical conclusion.

The same thing goes for our daughters, Kate and Claire. We can tell you all the wonderful things about them (much of Jessica's blogging is devoted to that), but they don't have to achieve a certain score for me to be ecstatic about being their daddy. This isn't math. It's love. It's a mystery in which we participate, never fully understanding what it is in a cognitive sense, but knowing it on a deeper level than words ever could define.

That's the reason we have sacraments in the church. The waters of Baptism, the bread and wine of Holy Communion are physical, tactile things that point beyond themselves and participate in that divine mystery to which they point. We cognitively get to understand just enough to allow us to drop our guard and participate in these mysteries.

So what is the "inmost secret" at the core of myself? Quite simply, it's that I'm God's child, created in God's image, and called to proclaim that truth that I can barely even begin to wrap my mind around. But the good new is that I don't have to be able to wrap my mind around it! I get to participate in the mystery!

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Freedom and Responsibility

(Note- I'm using Lent and Easter Wisdom from Thomas Merton as my Lenten devotional this year. I'll be blogging the journaling prompts most days.)

Before we get to today's devotional thoughts, I want to say thanks for all the prayers and good wishes that went out for me and the other candidates interviewing at BOMEC these past few days. My interview was very challenging, but it went well. I'll find out if I'll be ordained this year on Thursday afternoon, so I'm going to try to keep myself busy over the next 48 hours!

That being said, let us hear from Fr. Thomas...

Our abdication of responsibility is at the same time an abdication of liberty. The resolution to let "someone else", the anonymous forces of society, assume responsibility for everything means that we abdicate from public responsibility, from mature concern, and even from spiritual life. ~Seasons of Celebration, p. 20

Have you turned over responsibility for your life to the influences of our culture? To whom and to what have you made yourself subservient?

Subservient? Hmmm... I'm not sure about that one. I prefer to think in terms of accountability. I have willingly entered into relationships where I am accountable to my wife, my children, my congregation, my Bishop and District Superintendent, the Annual Conference, etc. I have made covenants with each of these individuals/entities that I take seriously, and in times when I would prefer to do things that are in conflict with those covenants, I choose not to because of the promises I made, and because I would not want to deal with the consequences of breaking those promises, even if I was the only one who ever knew.

All that being said, though, Merton was profoundly concerned with Christians accepting their social responsibility. He did not anticipate, nor would he have supported, the rise of the Religious Right, but during his time, he was disturbed to see Christians, or any human beings for that matter, casually accept the inevitability of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, poverty, and racism, among other things.

I was born twelve years after Thomas Merton died, but in my own time, far too many of my Christian brothers and sisters casually accept, and even advocate war with Iran, just as they did war with Iraq.

We look the other way as our brothers and sisters suffer in generational poverty, and when someone dares question the morality of our economic system, we attack with words like "socialist" and worse.

We look the other way, and are sometimes even the aggressors against our dark skinned brothers and sisters who "look Muslim", regardless of whether they are or not.

So as a follower of the Prince of Peace, the one who proclaims God's favor to each and every single person, the one who "fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty" (Luke 1:53- a passage that should scare those of us with the time and resources to sit around and blog to death), I can't sit by silently as injustices occur. I can't throw up my hands and say that there's nothing I can do. Maybe there isn't but I won't know until I try. Not if I really want to call myself his disciple.

This is the freedom for which Christ has freed us. So let our voice be heard.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Imagining the 40 Days

No blog reflections on my Merton devotional today. Between the coming storms and rereading all my papers for my BOMEC interview on Tuesday, my energies are focused elsewhere.

I will, however, share a video I saw on Matthew Paul Turner's blog, imagining what Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness were like.

May you find peace and strength in the midst of whatever wilderness you may be in today.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

God's Goodness

(Note- I'm using Lent and Easter Wisdom from Thomas Merton as my Lenten devotional this year. I'll be blogging the journaling prompts most days.)

(The saint) is united to God by the depths of his own being. He sees and touches God in everything and everyone around him. Everywhere he goes, the world rings and resounds (though silently) with the deep harmonies of God's glory. ~Seasons of Celebration, p. 137

How has God been good to you?

God has been good to me in so many ways, but I find the most helpful way to understand God's goodness to me is by realizing how God is giving me opportunities to be good to others.

I've been very fortunate in life. More fortunate than most people.

I know I'm supposed to use the word "blessed" when I'm talking about the good things in my life, but I feel like that implies that others aren't blessed if their children aren't healthy like mine are, or they didn't have the opportunity to go to the kind of schools I did. Maybe that's just semantics, but since my call is to help people know who God is, I feel like I need to be very aware of how the things I say can affect people's perceptions of who God is.

I have to confess that I get more than a little agitated when I hear other white, relatively well off males brag about how their success in life is all their doing, that no one gave them anything along the way, that they are entirely "self-made", and therefore have no obligation to help others.

Whenever I hear that kind of talk, I want to sarcastically ask, "so you breastfed yourself when you were a baby?"

The truth about me and anyone else who considers themselves successful is that we're the beneficiaries of those who gave tremendous gifts to us. Whether its parents who raised us, teachers who gave us valuable life lessons, clergy who instilled us with values, or anyone else, no one gets to a place of success (in the world's eyes, at least) truly "on their own".

So one of the biggest ways I see God's goodness to me is in terms of how it gives me opportunities to be good to others.

I've had the opportunity to go to very good schools, so that gives me a responsibility to impart knowledge to others.

I have more than my share of financial resources, so I have the responsibility to share with others. I have the opportunity to consume far more than my share of the world's resources (and I routinely do), so I have the responsibility to cut back and conserve as much as I can so more is available for others who don't have the kind of ready access that I do.

Jessica and I are very fortunate to have a healthy, mutually beneficial relationship with one another, and loving supportive families. We have two children who are healthy and, from early indications, seem to have the potential to develop high abilities and aptitudes. That gives us the responsibility to freely share all the love we receive, and to raise our girls to be people who understand their tremendous responsibilities because of the good fortune that they have had.

God has been very good to me through others who have created the opportunities and advantages I've had in life. Therefore, I have the responsibility of passing on what I've been given and of making the world a better place for others, just as it was made a better place for me.

I believe that doing that is a deeper act of praise than any words or songs ever could be.