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.