Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Pathway on the Web

As I sit this morning looking over the many web tools that I used to read the news, stay in touch with friends and generally stay connected, I am pondering the future of the Pathway to Discipleship and its relationship to the web.   We have already talked about online version of the classes but so far I have been dragging my feet.  The reason is that the courses in the pathway are not just about gaining information, they are about transformation and transformation tends to happen in the midst of other people.  However, I have two objections to my own resistance.  First of all, while that is great in theory, some people just can't commit to being in the classes.  It is not just a matter of motivation.  Some people travel throughout the week and some people work hours that just can't match up to when we offer stuff.  Second, social media is reaching the point of development that people might be able to learn online in community.  There are already a number of online learning communities.  (In fact there have been for some time, I remember learning web authoring at ZDNet University a decade ago.)  There are also already online church communities.  (Check out LifeChurch.TV)

So, I am still thinking.  Feel free to post your thoughts: pros, cons, ideas, etc. on bring the pathway to cyberspace.



Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Watch This Space

Sorry the blog has been a bit sparse.  Things are really rolling at The U and that hasn't left much time for writing, nor reading, nor resting.  I am working on that.  Every so often things need a little realignment so that my life actually reflects where I am trying to go and what I am trying to do.

Annual Conference is always a good time for me to reflect on priorities.  Three plus days of sitting gives me lots of times to think.  I hope to be able to blog or at least twitter on the action on the constitutional amendments and anything else fun that may come during the first session with our new Bishop.



Monday, May 11, 2009

The Trouble with Quibbles

I just read an essay by Hank Stuever from The Washington Post called "The Trouble With Quibbles With Films Like 'Star Trek,' Overzealous Fans Exert an Unhealthy Pressure on Moviemakers."  As you can tell from the title, the essay deals with the extreme pressure put on movie makers by fans.  When books are turned into movies, when sequels are made and when legacy series are continued, there is a level of expectation from the fans that the production be "done right" and a sense of betrayal when the film does not do justice to the original.

This pressure was especially apparent during the release of the new Star Trek movie.  Trekkies lined up, not just to enjoy the new movie, but to put their "Trek" stamp of approval on it and quibble over anything that had been done wrong.  Stuever points out that this is about more than  Star Trek, this seems now to be part of our culture.  "We criticize films even as they play before us, tweeting our observations from the theater. Many people watch "Lost" each week at a keyboard, hitting send at each commercial break."  Stuever continues,

Without holding a single document of copyright entitlement, you and thousands (millions!) like you nevertheless experience a chronic fear of violation: Your beloved boob-tube rerun is being made into a big-budget movie. The book you read eight times in fourth grade is getting adapted to the screen. The cartoon character that was on your favorite lunchbox is going to be revivified by sexy actors. They screwed up "Speed Racer." They got Spider-Man right and then ruined Daredevil. You brace yourself for the worst, because the worst happens so often.

When I got to that paragraph, I started thinking, "this sounds familiar."  The same critical ownership reaction happens every week in the life of the church.  Let me be very clear about one difference.  Christians do have a certain amount of ownership in the worship life of the church.  We are not disconnected consumers of religious entertainment.  However, the reaction can feel the same.  Over and over, at all three churches I have served, I have heard the phrase, "I can't believe you changed ___________."  The church had altered the script, strayed from the original and a major injustice had been done.  

"We used to read prayer concerns aloud."

"The sermon used to be at the end of the service."

"We always used to do the creed at the beginning of the service."

"We never used to sing music like this."

It is funny.  As I started to compare the church to the movie world, the author began to related the movie world to the church.

All the church words and metaphors people come up with to describe blockbusters and devoted fandom apply: Is it faithful? Will I feel betrayed? Is it canon? Will I still believe? Summertime filmmaking is church now. Pity the producers, directors, screenwriters and actors who take on a science-fiction or fantasy project and must first make an appearance at Comic-Con or some such convention-center cathedral gathering, so as to genuflect before fans of the older version, the classiccomic or the original TV show. 

Stuever thinks this bad for movies.   He believes that the pressure boxes writers, actors, directors and producers into a corner.  In that corner, greatness can be missed.  "Quibbling does not produce a Heath Ledger-style Joker; that is the result of an actor and a writer and a director coming unhinged from the original material."

I won't go that far for the life of worship in the church.  As I said, Christians do have some amount of ownership in the worship life of the church.  We worship together.  And we hold each other accountable that worship is real, sacred, and true to our faith.  We don't want to become "unhinged from the original material."  If by the original material, we are talking about the Gospel.  But I do wonder if our quibbling can keep it from being all that it can be - for God and for each other.  If we are designing our time in worship through the lens of not offending, if we are trying to keep people from quibbling, or we also creating something of lowest common denominator quality?  If we are focusing only on the past are we missing a chance for worship to be dynamic, life-changing and revolutionary?

"Quibblers would have kept "Star Trek" more like its old self. Quibblers inhibit revolution Quibblers would deny the basic law of forward motion in pop culture:  If you love something, they will remake it. But if you really love it, you will set it free, and let them."



Thursday, May 7, 2009

Thinking Constitutionally

This year's Southwest Texas Annual Conference will include some voting on the ratification of amendments made to our United Methodist Constitution during our last General Conference. You can read more about all the constitutional amendments on the United Methodist Church website:

Below is a position paper on one of the amendments. It was written by one of my clergy colleagues, Rev. John Wright, who serves as the pastor of Grace UMC in Corpus Christi, TX. John is one of the most gifted theologians in the conference and brings some critical reflection to this seemingly minor change in the way we order the church. There are lots of thoughts and comments stirring around regarding the amendments. It is good to take some time to read some different and theologically based perspectives.

A Reluctant No to Amendment XIX - Rev. John Wright

Digest of the Amendment: Presently, clergy delegates to General Conference are elected from and by ordained clergy in full connection with the annual conference. Proposed Amendment XIX would permit the following non-ordained clergy to vote for clergy delegates as well: associate members, provisional members who have completed all their educational require-ments, and local pastors who have completed the course of study or an M.Div. Degree and served a minimum of two consecutive years under appointment immediately preceding the election.

At first glance, what true blue American or United Methodist would oppose extension of voting rights to a class of people? It would be like voting against Mom and apple pie. Because of the gospel, we are disposed to include people, rather than to restrict people, from decision-making processes. On the one hand, extending the right to vote for General Conference clergy delegates to those clergy not in full connection would appear to be a matter of fairness. Those opposing this amendment run the risk of being tarred with the label of “clerical elitism.”

On the other hand, however, our adoption of this amendment will further confuse our already befuddled understanding of what constitutes “clergy,” “ordination,” and the “core functions” that constitute a church.

Thomas Edward Frank, renowned authority on Methodist constitutional history and professor at Candler School of Theology, makes this point cogently in an article entitled “Is United Method-ism a Church?” First he notes the increasing trend to treat non-ordained local pastors, associate members, and commissioned ministers as functionally equivalent to ordained clergy in “full connection” with the conference: “Every one of these persons has the authority to celebrate the sacraments in the charge to which he or she is appointed…Most recently, the UMC Constitution has been amended to make local pastors "clergy" members as a matter of constitutional church law.

Then Professor Frank asks: “What other Christian tradition terms nonordained persons "clergy" or makes persons not ordained as deacons or elders "clergy" of the church constitutionally—that is, an element that constitutes, makes, creates, or brings into being this church as a church? Is United Methodism a Church? [Or, to summarize Prof. Frank’s words, is it returning to its roots as an evangelical movement that values “functional” leadership without regard to traditional distinctions between clergy and laity?]

“This question has nothing to do with the abilities, integrity, or faithfulness of local pastors, nor the witness and mission of the local churches they serve. Many nonordained pastors do a terrific job and are much-loved by their people. But our practices make no sense ecclesiologically.. . What do we think we are doing? . . .Increasingly we are saying that ordination does not matter. The sacraments constitute the church by bringing people into the family of God through baptism and sustaining them through Christ's presence in Holy Communion. Increasingly we are saying that these constitutive practices, the sacraments, can be administered by people who are not ordained to the office that by tradition and Discipline has sacramental authority.

“As a consequence, the historic core function of annual conference as a meeting of elders who share the covenant of itinerant ministry, once called the "executive session," is less and less central to what annual conferences do. . . . Annual conference is becoming less a covenant community than an association of congregations who look to the conference for the resources to support local ministry and mission. . . .While bishops and cabinets still make the appointments, a substantial number of pastors do not itinerate (or at least are not in the connectional covenant of itinerancy of ordained elders— Methodism's signature ecclesiological tradition).

“One of the most formidable challenges that faces us is the tendency in Methodism — lately more than ever — to make stuff up ecclesiologically. We have taken to inventing terms and practices foreign to the church ecumenical and deeply confusing even to ourselves. Arguably in its American history, at least, Methodism has always done its share of improvising. But in recent decades we have invented even more:
• we have ended the centuries-long practice of ordaining elders first as deacons;
• we made up out of whole cloth something we call "commissioning" that no one can really explain;
• we replaced the ecumenical language of "representative" ministry as a way of describing ordination with corporate lingo of "servant leadership" that lacks any substantive definition in our Discipline;
• we have arbitrarily decided that the term "clergy" is not related to ordination or priesthood;
• we give nonordained persons sacramental authority without providing any theological rationale.”

Prof. Frank’s article leads me to this conclusion: One of the core functions of the ordained clergy in full connection is to elect from its midst those delegates to General Conference who will have the awesome responsibility of making decisions that govern other core constitutive functions of the denomination. Amendment XIX will further confuse what constitutes the core function of the ordained clergy in full connection in The United Methodist Church. Once this distinction is transgressed, it will be logical to argue that licensed local pastors, associate members and provisional members should be permitted to participate in other responsibilities that have traditionally been reserved to ordained clergy in full connection, such as voting on matters of ordination, ministerial character and conduct, etc. Before long, the concept of an “ordained member of the annual conference in full connection” will be left with no real coherent meaning at all.

Furthermore, because provisional members and local pastors must have completed educational requirements to be eligible to vote, there will be inevitable confusion at election times over who among the non-ordained clergy can vote and who among them cannot vote.

For these reasons, I reluctantly oppose ratification of Amendment XIX until such proposed changes can be considered in the context of a much further clarified understanding of what constitutes “the ministry” in The United Methodist Church.

Respectfully offered,

John Wright, Pastor
Grace United Methodist Church
Corpus Christi District

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Trying to Stop Losing Sheep

Luke 15:1-10

Every church I have been at has expressed a concern for the lost sheep of the congregation. Every congregation will have either formally or informally a list of people who have wandered completely away. As followers of Jesus, we are really interested in getting them back. God is interested in the one who has wandered away, so we should be to. So, I have heard over and over, “what are we doing to reach out to the lost sheep?” The question I have asked back is, “what are we doing to keep them from wandering away?”

I am convinced and statistics across churches nationwide back me up that an awful lot of the people who we consider lost sheep were never really here in the first place. Yeah maybe they showed up but they were never really engaged in the process of becoming a disciple or student of Jesus. They had never really begun their journey. It is the journey, according to John Wesley, that changes us. When someone doesn’t get involved in the journey, they begin to wonder why they are giving up a day of the week and some of their money to this institution they have joined. We used to talk about this just as “connections.” We thought, if we just got people connected to people or ministries that they would stick around. But connecting people to other people only really works long term works as a pathway to discipleship. Connecting people to other people or connecting other people to service opportunities only works if it ultimately connects them to Jesus. If it is connection for connections sake, it fails.

When we think about lost sheep, we at University are totally sold out to the idea that people who are on a pathway to becoming disciples are less likely to get lost. This is what The Pathway to Discipleship is all about. It is not just an educational program, it is a way of doing church that honors Christ love for everyone and special interest in those who have wandered away. If reflects that interest by helping them not to wander away in the first place and by giving them the tools to find their way back if they do get lost.



Monday, May 4, 2009

Coffeehouse Theology

I was really prepared not to like Ed Cyzewski’s Coffeehouse Theology, Reflecting on God in Everyday Life. I don’t even really know why. I guess I just wasn’t in the mood to read a theology book. Theology literally means “words about God.” Theology books come in two main types: books that tell you words about God and books that help you with a framework for your own words about God. This is the latter. I wasn’t expecting that and I have to say I was pretty impressed. The author has not broken any new ground in this book, but he does a pretty amazing job of introducing the concept of contextual theology in a way that I believe is understandable to the average lay person.

Contextual Theology makes some people nervous. They believe that it has to do with changing the message of the gospel and scripture to match the current context. Cyzewski clearly points out that we can’t help but contextualize our understanding of God. We all see God through some “cultural lens” and if we better understand that lens, we are better equipped to understanding how it shapes and/or distorts our image of God.

Many of us want to read and trust scripture as it is, but we fool ourselves if we don’t believe that our understanding of God and our reading of scripture is affected by the fact that we are Americans living in 2009. If we truly want to do justice to what God is trying to teach us; if we really want to do theology, we need to come to terms with what we bring to the table. We can’t just expect to leave who we are behind while we enter God’s presence and then pick it up on the way out. “Christians who claim to be separated from culture face the danger of not noticing its influence on their thinking.” (p.122)

I don’t know if the author would agree, but I see his methodology as very Wesleyan. As United Methodists, we believe that we bring three things to the table when we study scripture: tradition, experience and reason. Cyzewski speaks instead of a “web of beliefs.” (p 104.) He mostly focuses on the tradition part and experience and reason, in his model, become context. The main point of agreement here is that we never do theology or study scripture in a vacuum. Theology is a conversation with voices past and voices present.
There is a discussion guide available for the book. I think that would be a fantastic group study. Theology is a conversation. This would be a great conversation starter.


Friday, May 1, 2009

Great Book, Great Author, Great Timing!

I seem to be creating an Adam Hamilton’s theme but I am finally getting around to writing about his book Enough, Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity. I couldn’t write about it right away because I wanted my wife to read it first. We both loved the book. It is not that it was the first book ever written on the subject, it is just the Hamilton has a great way of speaking simply and clearly about complex issues. He also has a way, in his preaching and writing, of convicting without offending. The role of a prophetic preacher is often to point out where we have gone astray. The problem is that we, being human, shrink back and stop listening or reading when someone really hits the nail on the head. I think that part of Hamilton’s success is about his uncanny ability to speak the truth in love.

We are living in uncertain time economically. Uncertain times can cause us to reflect upon our focus and priorities and this is what the book is all about. Hamilton is too grounded to simplify this into saying “just give ten percent to the church and everything will be okay.” This is about changing our relationship with money by focusing on our relationship with God. This is about making changes in the way we live that better reflect who we are.

The text is full of scripture references and there is something different about how Hamilton references the Bible. These are not just “proof texts” that mention money. They are texts that point out our need to refocus on God, our need to see that our brokenness and emptiness will never be cured by buying, owning and possessing. We are led to find our peace and contentment in God and be free to live life in simplicity and to share generously. The book is spiritual based, but when you get right down to it, it is practical. If you want to begin to change your lifestyle and relationship with stuff and money, Hamilton gives you “Five Steps for Simplifying Your Life.”

I don’t usually even get close to unconditionally recommending a book but you really ought to read this book. Whether you are living with the fear of economic uncertainty and need some wisdom or even if you seem to have that all together and just need guidance about how you might help someone you love, give this book a read. It won’t take a whole lot of your time or your money. It is about 100 pages and you can pick it up for under 10 bucks.