Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Holding the Future in Our Lap

While visiting Mozambique in 2002, my group drove several miles into the rural bush country to visit some United Methodist brothers and sisters. After arriving in what appeared to be the middle-of-nowhere, we were greeted with songs and dancing from a large group of folks that had spent the day waiting for us.
                We gathered in a circle as our hosts sang to us. Within a few moments I realized that there was a little boy standing at my feet. I looked down at him, guessed him to be two or three years old and I held my hand out to him. He grabbed a finger and stayed by my side. When the singing ended, we were escorted to some seats for the rest of our conversation together. I picked up my new little friend and carried him to my place.  Then he sat in my lap, almost without moving, for several minutes.
                As we sat together, I noticed that he was dirty, as are most children that age who are outside. However, there was more. His eyes were muddy, his breathing labored, and it was clear that he had little energy for play. He was clearly a very sick little boy. Eventually, his mother came and took him from me and held him for the duration of our gathering. While she held him, I couldn’t help but wonder what was wrong with him. I also realized that there was no way for Mom to find out what was wrong, and there would be no medicine to make him better. Doctors were nowhere to be found in this area. There was no pharmacy standing at the street corner. In fact, there was no street, and no cars. The little boy would either get better, or he would die.
It may have been malaria, or it may have been some other disease. I will never know. The best and most likely guess, though, is that my little friend, whose name I never learned, was likely to be one of those children in Africa we hear about that does not live to the age of five. Yet, if it was malaria, his death was totally unnecessary. It tears at my heart.
A few days later, I became sick myself. We just happened to be staying at a guest home that is right next to one of the few village hospitals in rural Mozambique. The only doctor there came to my room late at night after a long day of seeing patients He took a blood sample and examined me. The next morning he came back and told me that he believed I had malaria. He gave me some pills that I was later told seldom work against the strain of malaria now present in that area. It was a life-changing diagnosis, and I was left to wonder how it would shape the rest of my life.
A few days passed, and our group made it back to Maputo, a large city in southern Mozambique. I was not really getting better, so I eventually went to a clinic that specializes in giving care to international guests to the country. There, they took more sophisticated tests than were available to the rural doctor.  They determined that I was not a malaria victim; rather, I was simply the victim of eating the wrong food at the wrong time.
For a brief moment in time, my little friend and I arrived at the same time and same place in history, and we both got sick at that intersection. Because of where I was born, I received excellent care and treatment. I have since lived another 11 years in good health and happiness. Because of where he was born, he received no formal care, and no treatment. I expect that he did not survive the summer.
Imagine, for a moment, a world in which the playing field is more even. Imagine that at least one of the diseases, malaria, could be wiped from the face of the earth. It is possible. After all, we removed it from the United States decades ago. All that is missing is our will and our commitment.
I can imagine it. That is why I am joining those who are acting to change imagination to reality. It is also why I was willing to go out on a limb and say that the good people of the Heartland North and Pony Express Districts would raise more than $180,000 in the next 12 months in order to buy mosquito nets, improve drinking water conditions, provide education, and more. In the past decade, the number of those who die from malaria has been cut in half. Imagine what we can do if more of us get involved.
This morning, I wrote a check for $1,804, an amount equal to 1% of the Heartland North/Pony Express goal. It is a gift beyond my tithes and other offerings. It will come from assets I have accumulated over the years. I wish I could have used it for the benefit of my little friend in the bush country of Mozambique, but it is still in time to save others. I wonder if there are others in our districts who have been blessed as I have, and who would match the gift that I am making.
Every once in a while we have an opportunity to do something significant. We don’t have to just sit in a chair with the dying on our lap. We can get up and change the world. It is time I got started. Want to join me?

Monday, December 17, 2012

Christmas: The Untold Story

There is a story in the birth narrative of Jesus that we seldom tell. It doesn't fit well with "Silent Night, Holy Night," nor does it tell well when our sugar-plummed neighbors are dreaming of presents under the tree. We have, after all, done everything we can to clean up the manger scene with angels and magi, and cute little children playing the roles of Joseph and Mary.

Still, this might be the year to tell the story that we find in Matthew 2.

Not long after Jesus was born, Joseph had a dream that Herod would come to kill the child. So, Joseph and Mary gathered up the new-born son and headed south into Egypt. They wanted to protect him from the dangers of this world.

Just as the dream had predicted, King Herod became angry that he had been tricked by the Magi, so he sent his troops into the area surrounding Bethlehem. They went house to house, we assume, and they killed every child who was less than two years of age. Then we are told that a voice was heard in Ramah. It was not the voice of angels. It was not the report of shepherds declaring glad tidings. Rather, it was wailing and loud weeping. Every household had been touched by the deaths of their children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces, or neighbors. Across the land, the people refused to be consoled because their children were no more.

The people of Newtown, Connecticut, know the words to this story this Christmas. They have been teaching it to us as we watch their pain and translate it to our own families. The Biblical story leaves many unanswered questions: Why did God save Jesus, but not the other children? Couldn't God have stopped the evil king from his wicked ways? Why didn't God come in a dream to all the other fathers in Bethlehem? Was it really necessary for all those children to die just to give life to Jesus? Similarly, there are many unanswered questions in Newtown today, and they have a familiar ring to them.

So, we are left to tell our people that "Good news of great joy for all the people" is not as simple as it first sounds. It gets messy when God seeks to enter into the world we claim as our own. Evil does not give up its position of power easily. Even those of us who are Christian prefer to think that the little lord Jesus lays down his sweet head without crying. We want to hear of the easily converted shepherds rather than the death-dealing king.

Yet, reality visited us this year. The story that is for everyone is not well-received by many. Our task, it seems, is to protect the story of the Messiah so that it is not slain by temporary acts of evil. Whether we carry it to Egypt to protect it, or we shout it from the mountain-tops so that everyone can hear it, we are the keepers of the story that finally is the hope of the world. We know it isn't simple or naïve. Not everyone will accept it, and some will rail against it. Still, we dare to say, Come, Lord Jesus, come.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Pike's Peak: The Story Continues

                In the summer of 1929, my grandfather gathered up his wife and daughter and headed out to Colorado so that he could climb Pike’s Peak with a friend. The two 27-year-olds picked out a sunny day and made their way up the path of the cog rail from Manitou Springs to the summit of Pike’s Peak.
I heard that story several times while growing up, and I was always impressed by his achievement. Though I didn’t plan it that way, I also discovered the Rocky Mountains in the summer of my 27th year, and, almost by accident, began to do some light hiking in the mountains that has continued every few years since. Somewhere along the line I began to tinker with the question of whether I could accomplish the same feat. It seemed like an idle dream since I had already passed the "age of athleticism."
At first it appears to be an unrelated story, but in the summer of 1976 (July 19), my father died very suddenly, and at the young age of 59. I was a young man at the time, but his early death caused me to think often about whether I would suffer the same fate. So, for many years I have lived with the dueling stories of being healthy enough to climb a 14,000 foot peak (a 14er as they call it in Colorado), or whether I was facing a death at an early age.
A few years ago, the two stories came together in my mind in a way similar to how dreams often can mix unrelated experiences and somehow make them feel logical—until we wake up. I decided that I should climb Pike’s Peak in the summer of my 59th year. Never mind that I was more than twice the age of my grandfather when he had done it, it just seemed like a way to dash the demons of irrational fears. I decided to climb Pike’s Peak on July 19, 2011. Unfortunately, my third grandchild came due on July 21 of that year, so I had to lay the plans aside. Over the winter, though, my son, son-in-law, and I began planning to try it again this year.
So, nearly a year late, July 15, 2012, the three of us gathered at a trailhead at about 10,000 feet in elevation and climbed a trail that took us all the way to the summit 4,000 feet above us. I had increased my walking in preparation for the hike, but there is nothing you can do at 1,000 feet above sea level and in an area that has rolling hills that can prepare you for similar distances up a mountain at much higher elevations.
The first three miles felt as if they were straight up along a rocky path with each step sucking a little more oxygen out of our bodies. I seriously considered stopping and turning around. If I could do no better than this in the first three miles, how would I ever complete what was supposed to be a more than 13 mile round-trip? Once over a ridge at about 12,500 feet, though, the path leveled out for a while as a tease to keep us on the hike. Soon I began trying to figure out a way to get to the top and hitch a ride down. After all, my son and son-in-law could finish it up and come pick me up later. Finally the trail headed up a more significant incline again until the last three-quarters mile was a rock-climbing adventure. The trail was only marked by rocks on top of other rocks. There was no path, just multiple ways to sprain an ankle or go for a major tumble, pin-balling from boulder to boulder.
I have to admit that many times on the way up I was taking steps so slowly that it was hard for anyone else to tell whether I was moving. I stopped for more breaks than a person committed to stopping at every Starbucks in the city. I am very grateful that there was no video rolling to capture the comedy of the old flatlander trying to scale the heights. Yet, by the grace of God, I made it to the top, and tried to act as if it was no big deal. Within minutes of our celebration however, I quickly realized that that only real option was to go down the way I came up.
Finally, after a full day of hiking, my son, my son-in-law, and I arrived back at our car with jelly legs, a few blisters, and a sense that we had just accomplished something that was at the extreme end of our capacity. On the one hand, I kept asking, “What was I thinking?” On the other hand, I realized that by sticking with it to the end, I had accomplished more than I thought possible. There we stood at our car, my grandfather’s story honored and passed to the next generation, and the demons of death vanquished. Coincidentally, we not only did it the week of my youngest granddaughter’s first birthday, but it was also the same week she took her first real steps (standing on her own, taking a few steps, and not falling down). Now she and her brother and sister will have to determine whether they will follow the footsteps of their father, grandfather, and great-great grandfather.
Interestingly, the morning we left for Colorado, I awakened to a song on the radio that concluded with a child reading a Scripture from Isaiah 40. The quoted words were, “He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint.” Apparently, it does not matter whether we are one, or 27, or 60. What matters is whether we walk with Almighty beside us.
May your path be blessed by the presence of the One who does not grow weary, the One who gives power to the faint, and strength to the powerless.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Pray for us, Lord

Do you ever pray
For us, Lord?
Not the “We’re praying for you”
But never get around to it prayers;
Not the “Here’s the laundry list of things I want you to do for me” prayers;
Not the “Please forgive me
For what I am going to keep doing” prayers;
Not the full of more words than thoughts,
Get it done quickly prayers.

We want to know if you ever offer
The down on your knees,
Blood sweating,
Tear producing,
Guttural uttering,
Too deep for words

In the midst of our
My kingdom come,
My will be done,
Give me more than my daily bread
Do you at least try
To get our attention
Away from ourselves?

When we Hollow your kingdom
By hallowing our freedom,
And we ask your forgiveness
For us,
And your vengeance
For others,
Do you enter into your
Quiet place to light a candle
With the hope that
We will see its light?

If only, Lord,
We trusted in your power,
And dreamed of your glory
More than our own,
Perhaps we would hear
You praying for us:

Just like when you prayed for Abraham
And the lamb appeared in the thicket,
Or when you prayed for Moses
And the burning bush refused to wilt,
Or when you prayed for Jesus
And the cross emptied,
The stone rolled,
The angels sang,
And the night was turned to day.

Pray for us, Lord.
Take the chance that we
Might somehow begin to listen.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Are we surviving? Even better!

    We have just completed year number one of the bi-district experiment. I have frequently been greeted in recent days by people wanting to know how it is going. Most often the questions begin with "are you surviving it?" While the supportive nature of the question is valuable, I think it heads us off in the wrong direction. It is, after all, not about me.

    I suspect the better question is "are the congregations and pastors surviving it?" Better yet, we might ask whether it is leading to stronger relationships among congregations and pastors as they seek to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

    To get some feedback about that, we handed out a survey during the just-ended session of annual conference. We asked whether people felt a stronger relationship with other congregations than one year ago, whether they felt more connected to their superintendent than one year ago, and whether they were more confident that these two districts could be served by one superintendent than they were a year ago. Sixty-three clergy, 70 lay persons, and 2 who didn't report which they were, responded to the survey (57 respondents were from Pony Express and 78 were from Heartland North).

    When asked whether they felt more connected with other congregations, the majority (77) of the 135 respondents said they felt about the same as a year ago. However, 51 felt more connected while only 4 felt less connected. All four who felt less connected were clergy.

    When asked whether they felt more connected to their superintendent, 66 were neutral, 53 felt more connected and 15 felt less connected. Most of those who felt less connected to their superintendent (12 of the 15) were in the Pony Express District. Still, even in the Pony Express District there were more (19) who felt a stronger connection with their superintendent than there were those who felt less.

    When asked whether they had more confidence that the experiment would be successful, the majority (72) said they had gained confidence. Forty-one were neutral, and only 17 were less confident. The most positive change occurred in the Heartland North District where 49 were more confident as compared to 7 who were less confident.

    What does all this mean? It suggests that the experiment was generally positive in its first year. We have reason to believe that we can continue to make progress, and there are signs that we still have progress to make.

    You may remember that our primary goal was to begin experimenting with models that increase the sense of connection between and among congregations and pastors, and that we wanted to enhance the sense of collaboration across district congregations. Our hope is to make the superintendent less of the focal point in our sense of connectedness while focusing on how folks relate across congregations. There is at least one indicator in the survey of the significance of this goal. The greatest predictor among clergy who feel less connected and less confident in the process was that they are less likely to have participated in groups such as Pastoral Leadership Development (PLD), Preaching Peers, etc. It almost seems obvious, but those who take advantage of collaborating with other pastors also feel more connected to them and to the United Methodist connection. Similarly, lay persons who participated in Lay Leadership Development (LLD), Lay Speaker training, or served as congregational visitors in our Fresh Eyes Ministry, were also more likely to have a positive/neutral sense of being connected and confident in the process.

    It may take a few years, but we may well prove what many have said: the strength of our connection is among us rather than in a hierarchical system. While we need an organization that includes superintendents to help us stay focused, the real fruit of our connection will occur when we recognize the need to strengthen and learn from our brothers and sisters just a few miles down the road from us. When we try to work in isolation, we eventually falter.

    In the year to come, we will continue to seek ways to bring congregations and pastors into relationship with each other. However, the connection will not become real until it becomes part of the DNA of every pastor and every congregation. We will truly see success when it is no longer the superintendent who strategizes to find ways to get folks together. In that day, working together will be the norm rather than the exception. Collaboration will not be an option, but an expectation.

    The survey may have taught us that people feel more connected to the system when they find ways to be connected with others in the system. Those who do not take advantage of connecting events are more likely to feel isolated, whether or not those events include the presence of the superintendent. Perhaps this is what Paul was describing when he talked about the Church as the Body of Christ. We were designed to require the gifts of one another.

    So, I invite you to begin the process of continuously asking the following questions: What is our congregation trying to do alone that it might better accomplish with other congregations? Who could we be teaching, and from whom could we be learning? How would I/we be more effective if a peer from outside the congregation was observing, evaluating, and/or holding me/us accountable? What are the unique connections available that could help my/our ministry blossom?

    In the long run, it will not matter whether we do the work as one district, two districts, or six districts. What will matter is whether we have pastors and congregations who sustain one another in the process of being healthy, vital, and fruitful. But, just for the record, the answer to the question as to whether I am surviving is: Yes, I am more than surviving because I am surrounded by a group of pastors and congregations who love God, love one another, and who are invested in transforming the world in which they live. What more could I ask?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

They Laughed

"They laughed at him. They knew she was dead." (Luke 8:53-The Message)

We were in the middle of a conversation about the difficulties of being the Church in today's society. I asked those who were gathered for this annual review of church life to discuss the barriers that stand in the way of effectively leading members to a deeper and richer relationship with Christ. As usual, their answers included lack of commitment, too many other priorities, too many things to do and too little time to do them, people whose lives are going so well that they don't feel they need God, and other similar ideas. I then invited them to think about what one spiritual practice (prayer and worship, fasting, study, participating in Holy Communion, generous giving, Christian service, etc.) would have the greatest power to transform their members if their congregation practiced it with great consistency and intentionality.

After some small group conversations, I asked who had chosen prayer. A few hands went up.

I asked who had chosen fasting. No hands…then laughter…then a few side comments about how ridiculous it would be for Methodists, lovers of the fellowship meal, to consider fasting.

Laughter? Have we truly become so undisciplined that the pursuit of a spiritual practice is laughable to us? It was as if I had asked a 300-pound person to run a marathon. I might as well have asked a 4 year-old to sit down at the piano and play one of the classics.

Now shift to the following story. In the last part of the eighth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is called to the home of Jarius to tend to Jarius's dying daughter. The daughter reportedly dies before Jesus can get to the house, but he insists on seeing her anyway. Jesus allows only his three closest disciples and the daughter's parents to enter the home with him. That makes sense. They were the ones most likely to believe in his power. Once inside the house, he tells them not to worry because the girl is just sleeping. They laughed at him. It was obvious that she was dead.

We know how the story turns out. Jesus takes the girl by the hand and suddenly she is breathing, eating, and full of life.

This all leaves me to wonder whether many of us have concluded that the Church is like the little girl. She has already died, so how could we expect her to have the discipline required to be in relationship with Christ? After all, few of us are comfortable being called on to pray in a public setting. Most church members give at a rate that approximates 2% of their income rather than 10%. Only perhaps 1/3 of those who are Christian in our area say they think that attending worship is important in their life, and more than half are absent from worship on any given Sunday. Few are willing to teach others the faith because they willingly admit that they do not have a sufficient knowledge of the Scriptures. If not dead, it sure appears that the breathing is very shallow.

Imagine for a second that we have Jesus to our house because our little girl, the Church, is dying. Once in the house, he breathes new life into her, raises her up, and tells us to give her something to eat so that her new life might be sustained. What would be it take for us to give the Church the nourishment she needs to be restored to health? I suspect it goes back to the basic essentials. Learn to pray again. Study the Scriptures together. Worship as if our life depends on it. Celebrate the Eucharist as if we really believe we are receiving Christ into our daily lives. Rediscover how fulfilling it can be to be self-emptying through habits of generous giving. Fast in order to learn the discipline of obedience and the art of knowing the difference between our wants and needs. Feed the Church with our daily spiritual practices.

"Then, Jesus, gripping her hand, called, "My dear child, get up." She was up in an instant, up and breathing again! He told them to give her something to eat." (Luke 8: 54-55—The Message)


P.S. During the Charge Conference season, I used a series of questions for leaders to ask about their church. Several have asked for a copy of the questions. I am pasting them here for you to use as you wish.

If every congregation…

  • Invited people to faith the way your congregation invites people to faith, would there be more Christians 20 years from now or fewer?
  • Taught those who have accepted Christ to pray in the same way that your congregation teaches its members to pray, would prayer be a stronger component of church life 20 years from now, or less?
  • Taught those who have accepted Christ to know the Bible and history of the Church in the same way that your congregation teaches the Bible, would Christians be more knowledgeable in 20 years, or less knowledgeable?
  • Taught those who have accepted Christ to give generously in the same manner that your congregation teaches generous giving, would the giving habits of Christians come closer to the Tithe in 20 years, or further from it?
  • Encouraged service in the community (beyond the walls of the Church) in the same manner that your congregation encourages service, would Christians have a better reputation for serving others in 20 years, or would the reputation be of a closed community?
  • Worshipped with the same passion, earnest desire, and sense of expectation as your congregation, would more people be seeking to worship 20 years from now, or fewer?


Based on the answers you gave above, and on a scale of 1 through 10, how would you rate your congregation on its capacity for leading its members to a deeper and richer relationship with Jesus Christ?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Make-Believe World of Reality TV

When I first received a call inviting me to perform a wedding on NBC’s Today Show, I wasn’t quite sure whether I was dreaming. As it turns out, that vague feeling of living in two worlds at the same time continued until the wedding was over.
During my first conversation with an NBC producer, I was assured that they intended to air the entire wedding live. I commented that I had expected they would need to have a commercial break within the normal time frame of a wedding. That was when the producer told me the rest of the story. The wedding did have to fit within their parameters. “How long is that,” I asked. “Five minutes,” she said.
“Five minutes? It takes three minutes to walk down the aisle. How in the world can we do a wedding in five minutes?” Having said that, I was already thinking I had been optimistic about the time it takes to get down the aisle.
“Well, it is five minutes from the time you start talking to the end,” the producer told me. “I will send you a link of a wedding from two years ago, so you can see.”
We continued to negotiate the length for the next couple of weeks. Finally, I was able to get the length all the way back up to five minutes, after a brief reduction to four and a half minutes. In the meantime, I learned that the event was the major story of the Today Show for about 2.5 hours of airtime. The day would include a toast by the stars, conversation about the honeymoon between the stars and the couple, descriptions by the stars of the food, drinks, reception site, cake and almost everything else related to the event. I finally began to understand that even though this was being advertised as a wedding, the world’s view was that the wedding is more about the stars and the party than the ceremony. I suppose I have spent a little too much time living comfortably in my little theological world.
NBC was interested in creating a day of fantasy while I thought we were trying to enter into a life-changing moment for two people. NBC wanted to explore the idea that expensive rings, clothing, and parties can bring happiness, while I wanted to caution against such ideas. NBC understood this as a simple commitment between two people that required little more than an “I do.” I understood that it was a commitment between two people and God, along with the support of the faith community. That takes a bit more time. The couple, fortunately, was in agreement with me, but over a month of percolating on the idea made me wonder if maybe we were truly the minority in our society.
NBC was producing a TV reality show in which its primary characters (Matt Lauer, Meredith Viera, Al Roker, and Natalie Morales) got to go to a wedding together. While there they would toast the couple that just happened to be living out a Cinderella fantasy. The storyline was helped by the fact that the groom had been off to war and was returning home to safety. It was a wonderful fairytale story, aside from the fact that Jeremy and Melissa really have lived with the separation and anxiety of war.
The fantasy experience was there for me as well. A limousine driver picked me up from the hotel and whisked me to the studio. I was escorted to the room where my make-up was done and my hair gelled so I wouldn’t be bothered by the real wind and rain. My robe and stole were sent to wardrobe for pressing. A keeper watched over me throughout the morning. One of the stars greeted me and asked me if I knew my “lines.” A person stood just beyond range of the cameras and pointed at me when it was time for me to start. He also stood ready to tell me whether to slow down or speed up, depending on whether we were behind or ahead of schedule.
I had to frequently ask myself whether I was “talent” in a show, or I was a minister performing a wedding ceremony and service of worship. I am sure that was also true for the bride and groom, and for the guests at the wedding. It didn’t get any easier for me after the show, I mean wedding. Almost immediately, I began to receive notes on my Facebook wall (This is a good thing because my Facebook wall has been mostly empty until now). Video links to the wedding showed up in many places, some of the text from the wedding was quoted in a news release posted on MSNBC, and my family began to claim that they know me. That hasn’t happened with any other weddings I have done.
As I think about all this, I am beginning to understand that I really was participating in two worlds at the same time. Yes, it was a show, and it was make-believe, and it placed the focus in the wrong places and the wrong values. At the same time, it was a real couple that was just as committed to their future life together as other couples I have married, and it was a service of worship, and this couple will live a life as complicated and as real as any of us. They will have future moments when their fantasies come true, and they will have days that feel like nightmares. God has still pledged to be beside them in all of those days, and they have pledged to seek God’s guidance along the way.
I can understand those who would condemn the whole thing as making a mockery of a solemn event, but that wasn’t my experience. What seems most important for me at this point is to be able to clearly understand the difference between the two.
During the wedding, I reminded the couple of their dreams and imaginings as they looked toward their marriage and then suggested that they had cast aside those dreams because the real thing was so much better. I pray that my statement will speak truth for the rest of their lives. The make-believe wedding seemed pretty good, but I pray it will feel empty when compared to life lived as one. The make-believe will fade, but the real will endure.
Now, back to real life.