Category: Blogging
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‘Fight Club’ & The Art of Faithful Listening

As a preacher, I often lean on illustrations from movies to in order to further demonstrate truths of our faith.

Many might disagree with that approach.

Still more might disagree with how often I refer to the movie 'Fight Club' as an illustration of faithful community.

Let me explain.

For the most part, the movie is not a life-affirming or redeeming one. However, there is one scene between Marla Singer (played by Helena Bonham Carter) and one of the main characters (played by Edward Norton), where they share an encounter at a cancer support group.

I'm not sure if one must yell “Spoiler Alert!” before mentioning details from a movie that is 15 years old, but…Spoiler Alert!

Neither of these characters has cancer. However, they have inserted themselves into a series of support groups because – as you gather through the course of the movie – they lack basic and healthy connections to other human beings. This is certainly a problem for our culture – especially Christian culture – but I digress.

In an exchange which causes them to finish each other's sentence, Norton begins by saying, “When people think you're dying, they really, really listen to you, instead of just…”

To which Bonham Carter replies, “…instead of just waiting for their turn to speak.”

This raises an interesting – and possibly life-changing – question: Do you find yourself really listening to others, or just waiting for your turn to speak?

I would argue that the faithful life and existing in faithful community is more about listening, than it is about being able to say the right and faithful thing.

I'm preparing to be commissioned as a probationary elder in the United Methodist Church this May. As a part of that, I am taking a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education. Essentially, you serve as a chaplain in a group learning environment. I'm happen to be serving as a chaplain at Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Chaplains are called upon to minister into many different situations. You could be paged to a belligerent patient's room, you could be asked to pray for someone before they go into surgery, or you could be called to the bedside of someone who is being terminally weaned from life support.

In each of these situations, the faithful have obtained a list of platitudinous sayings or supposedly helpful scriptures that are meant to act as “silver bullets” to correct behavior or soothe the hurting soul. However, that shouldn't excuse the fact that, short of our platitudes, we have a way of finding a place to insert our thoughts and feelings – rather than allowing the other person to find a caring soul within us. My role as a chaplain is not necessarily to find the right words to say to someone, but to hear the other person as a creature of sacred worth. Only after I have listened, should I consider attempting to offer some type of spiritual intervention into their lives.

Should I tell the belligerent patient to ” be slow to anger?”

Should I tell the patient going into surgery that “God doesn't give us more than we can handle?”

Should I tell the family of the terminal patient that “God needed another angel?”

Think about the last time you spoke to someone who was pouring their heart out to you. Were you just waiting for your chance to tell them exactly what you think you should do, or waiting to share with them a particular scripture that speaks to them in times of trouble?

I hope not.

Am I saying that scripture is wholly unhelpful in our times of trouble? No.

Am I saying that each of our carefully or hastily shared platitudes is worthless? Possibly – but that's not a hill I'm willing to die on.

I am saying that maybe we should be more attuned to the inherent worth in others. If we understand the other person as a creature of sacred worth, maybe we should be willing to listen, empathize and validate, rather than just listening for opportunities to insert ourselves into their trials.

There is a difference between listening and “listening for your turn to speak.” As those seeking to live in faithful community with each other, the faithful thing to do would be to learn to tell the difference.

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Can #UMC-ers ‘Blog It Out’ in Preparation for General Conference?

Joel Watts is attempting to work out what it means to be a United Methodist blogger – as opposed to a United Methodist who blogs. His latest post gets the ball rolling on the subject.

In doing so, he raises an interesting question:

Can, or should we, use [the blogosphere] to settle disputes before the General Conference?

There are certainly questions of efficiency and polity to consider, but why couldn't we make the blogosphere help us make General Conference a better governing body? Anyone who has paid any attention to General Conferences over the past few quadrennia certainly knows how constipated a process it has become. Could our rhetoric and advocacy in the blogosphere lead to a more pleasurable or productive General Conference experience.

To be sure, UM bloggers would have to learn to abide by certain ground rules. That is, if our rhetoric remains deadlocked within the same left-right, ideological malaise, there would be no reason to attempt this type of feat. However, if we agreed to speak with each other and about differing subjects as if we are each creatures of sacred worth, we might be able to incorporate the blogosphere into our polity in this fashion.

Am I off base? What would you suggest?

Let's get talking! 2016 is not far away.

 

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How Soon Will the #UMC Split?

Annual Conference is just around the corner. I'm excited, mainly because I will be comissioned as a probationary elder this year – something that has been nearly 10 years in the making. I will also be taking a new appointment shortly thereafter. It's an exciting time.

Unfortunately, the upcoming Annual Conference season has caused many in the UMC blogosphere to turn their attention to the incipient rumblings of a schism.

Dr. David Watson – Academic Dean at United Theological – wrote this thought-provoking piece.

John Lomperis – IRD director of UMAction – wrote about a group who claims schism has already happened in theory.

Joel Watts questions – among other things – the witness of a church that would schism.

To be sure, there are other things over which a church split could be fought. However, the ideological extremes (isn't is telling that phrase is germane to the discussion?) appear willing to pull the church apart over the issue of LBGT inclusion into the life of the community of faith. Since the 1970's, this issue has been pulling at the edges of the denomination – fraying and tattering the fabric of the church.

In the meantime, the culture has not stopped it's slow-but-sure turn away from the church. We are all aware that the Western church as a whole – not to mention the UMC – has spent the last 5 decades in decline. Each of the ideologically opposed sides has spent considerable amounts of time blaming each other for it, or they will point to their own numeric success as proof that their side has the market on righteousness cornered.

The fact is that the church's multi-decade, numeric decline has much more to do with cultural shift and the church's refusal to respond in kind, than it does with how the church acts on this issue. Yes, the church's stance on issues of LBGT concern effect the church's witness in the world, but church renewal folk will tell you we have bigger fish to fry.

In my opinion – and the opinion of many others – schism would only further kill the church's witness.

I spoke about the frayed edges of the fabric of the denomination. However, there is a vast middle. In this vast middle lives the majority of the denomination. These people see the same disagreements everyone else does, and they probably have their own opinions on this and other issues – with varying degrees of passion ascribed to them. What they see, however, is their local congregation and the communities into which they must minister.

Those in this vast middle see the ministry that needs to be done, and not their pet ideological issues for which they need to doggedly advocate. They are congregations who tend to be more conservative, being led by pastors who tend to be more progressive – or vice versa – and they see opportunities for ministry. They are communities of faith, and they understand that our minor disagreements over pet issues should not overshadow the vital ministry they could do together.

How much more effective and vital could our ministry be if we learned to live and love together? Could our disagreements be used to enliven our community, instead of being used as a way to divide it? Could we make ministry about the love and grace of God, and not about how we've learned to deny it to each other?

Even with General Conference being a couple of years away, there are rumblings of a schism proposal (or two) being floated around. It won't pass this quadrennial or next, but there are plenty of us who hear these rumblings and think it could be sooner rather than later.

I prefer never.

What do you think?

 

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The Faith Healer at My Seminary Commencement

Mama Heidi

Note: I've been extremely busy recently, finishing my seminary education and beginning a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education. Thank you for being patient and I hope this post gets you back in the 'Notes From the Pastor's Office' mood!

I graduated from United Theological Seminary on December 20th, 2013. After 3 and a half years in seminary, immeadiately following 5 years at Ball State, I was ready. One UTS official mentioned to me that it was a commencement ceremony one won't soon forget.

#fact

Why won't it be soon forgotten?

Heidi Baker.

Let me explain.

Heidi Baker is a faith healer who has built a powerful ministry in Mozambique. On it's face, you cannot deny the good that has come from their work. They dig wells for drinking water. They care for orphans. They have also been clinically proven to improve the ailments of those suffering from deafness and blindness. Again, it's easy to see they do good in the name of Jesus.

Then, she gave the commencement address for a United Methodist seminary.

Four things stood out most prominently about her presence that day at Ginghamsburg Church. First, she told a story about how she ministered to a group of Muslims who were engaged in the practice of their faith. To be clear, these people were not engaging her. They were engaged in the practice of their own faith. When she engaged with them with her faith, they got violent. In an effort to save his mother, one of Dr. Baker's sons stepped in front of her and took the beating she was about to receive.

It's certainly a powerful story. However, had she let them continue in what they were peacefully doing, there might not have been a story to tell.

Second, Dr. Baker insisted that one doesn't need the doctoral bars to be in ministry. Again, Dr. Baker said she didn't need the doctoral bars to be in ministry. She wasn't the only Dr. Baker at Ginghamsburg that day. Her husband – Rolland – was graduating with his D.Min. At a ceremony meant to signify and celebrate the academic accomplishments of those who have been called to some type of ministry, Dr. Baker poo-pooed the idea.

It's small, but it stood out for me.

Third, Dr. Baker – on three seperate occasions – spoke in tongues.

I have mixed feelings about speaking in tongues. I cannot deny that God might choose to work in this fashion, but I believe it happens authentically much less often than many would believe.

On the day, I was mainly focused on myself and my family – and the fact that there were so many of them there to support me. However, when a commencement speaker begins to speak in tongues, it creates a moment to remember.

The reason I remain skeptical of “tongues” is that I've never heard someone speaking in tongues, and been able to understand them. There was no interpretation for those moments where she engaged this “gift of the Spirit.” Not for her, or others in the auidence who also spoke in tongues.

The other odd thing was that the auidence seemed to be full of people who were fans (I don't know whether to call them fans or followers, 'cause both seem inappropriate) who were there just to hear her. There was also much commotion in the narthex, after the service, where many were trying to get their picture taken with Dr. Baker.

I'm actually not even sure I'm ascribing a value judgement to these events, as much as I am reporting what happened.

Lastly, Dr. Baker shared a story about a baby that was brought back to life. In the interest of full disclosure, I've heard her and others tell stories about how her ministry has brought her into contact with people who have been brought back to life. Additionally, after having lost a son myself, this type of thing always gets my antennae working at full strength.

As she told the story, a child had died and a woman took the child in her arms – where she then sat with that dead child for three days. After sitting vigil with the child, the child was brought back to life. As a story, it was moving. If it is true, it's even more moving – and I cannot deny God can work in this way.

However, with stories like this, you get to thinking.

Those familiar with what happens to the human body, even just shortly after death, understand that stories like this are difficult to wrap one's head around. The human body is a relatively fragile thing, and once life leaves it – for no matter how long – evidence of the decomposition process appear shortly thereafter.

Was the child not completely dead? Was it unusually cold in that part of sub-Saharan Africa?

That's not even the biggest part of my reasoning for bringing up this particular part of Dr. Baker's commencement address.

My wife sat in the hospital with our son for days and days at a time. There was never a mother who loved their child more than my wife. She prayed and prayed…then prayed more. There were people from all over the world praying for our son. A child could not have been more loved and cared for – physically or spiritually – than our son.

The implication that is given when someone shares an incredible story like this is that there just wasn't enough Jesus in our little equation to help our son to defeat death. God must not love us enough. Somehow, we were spiritually deficient enough that God would not grant us the life of our son – no matter how badly we wanted it.

I do not believe this way. The God I've come to know doesn't distribute his love on a “biggest come, biggest served” basis. I believe the challenge of our faith is trying to live and understand life in the midst of the most trying of our experiences.

The problem is that there are plenty of people who do believe this way. They believe this way and are spiritually brutalized by thoughts that they might not have prayed hard enough or God did not love them enough to grant them whatever it is they were desiring. Life. Fame. Wealth. Those who have experienced the other side of this type of faith would call it spiritual abuse, and I would have a hard time disagreeing with them. In my seminary education, a very heavy focus was placed on church renewal and how the church can exist in a world that is largely leaving Christianity behind. This type of faith behavior – for better or worse – was seldom identified as part of the problem.

You can read more about spiritual brutality in my friend's – Joel Watts – book. Available here, by the way.

I waited this long to share my thoughts about this so I might be evenhanded and fair. I know very faithful and well-meaning people who believe this way and my desire is not to upset or offend them.

Additionally, I'm not even really complaining that UTS had her speak. If I would defend Columbia University's right to host the Iranian President, I certainly wouldn't deny UTS's right to host her.

Essentially, I had some thoughts about the proceedings, and I wanted to share them.

For better or worse.

 

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NFTPO 2013 in review – My 400th Post!

I have been out of the blogging loop for most of the last part of the year, but here’s a report for the entire year.  Thank you so much for reading, commenting, sharing and being all=around awesome people.

This is my 400th post!  Not that I need a party or anything, I just thought is was noteworthy.

I will be resuming regular blogging activity in the new year.  So, I’ll see you then.

Blessings to you and yours in the new year!

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 15,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 6 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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The @RMNNetwork is Wrong, #ShaeferTrial #MinistryonTrial #TheCommunion @TheIRD @ConfessingMovement

This post represents one of the only posts I will make in the coming weeks. However, I thought this topic was important enough to warrant a special comment.

 

My friends of all stripes,

 

In response to the trial and sentencing of Rev. Frank Shaefer, #ShaeferTrial & #MinistryonTrial, I must say that the consternation over his de facto defrocking is inappropriate.

 

While Rev. Shaefer did this for different reasons, his actions constitute civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is a form of protest where the one who is disobedient is willing to accept the consequences of their actions, whether or not they believe the consequences are just.

 

One is civilly disobedient in order to bring attention to injustice of bigotry, in hopes that the injustice will be remedied. You do not do this in order to avoid consequences.

 

While I initially disagreed with the sentence, I think it is the most grace-filled, and henceforth, Wesleyan. He has the opportunity to remain a pastor. However, his point will not be served by rolling over and capitulating.

 

I do realize that, as merely an ally, I don't necessarily have a dog in this fight. However, as a global church that has existed in many forms for centuries, we must remember that it's not all about us and our trials.

 

The gospel cannot be forsaken for politics. When we do that, we lose hope and the reason we are all here in the first place. Don't get me wrong. Other parachurch organizations, like The Institute on Religion & Democracy and The Confessing Movement within the UMC, do this, as well. In many ways, they are the most virulent offenders. That does not mean we have to beat them to the bottom.

 

I do not wish to hurt any of my good friends on either side. However, I think – every once in a while – we need to be shown a bit of tough love.

 

My Last Semester & Less ‘Notes’

I thought I should update those who follow and read my blog (all three of you) with what's going on in my life. IT'S MY LAST SEMESTER OF SEMINARY! I'm excited about this…really excited. I've been in school for 9 years now, and I'm ready for a bit of a break. Please keep me in

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Pope Francis, ‘Throw-Away Culture’, and The Real Problem

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Once again, I agree with Pope Francis – but not on what you think.

Francis says abortion is a symptom of our “throw-away culture.”

Yes!  I agree that the rampant abuse of the practice of abortion is a symptom of our “throw-away culture.”

Instead of using our smartphones until they have ceased to work for our needs, we give in and get a new phone every two years – or sooner (with wireless carriers advertising heavily this sort of program, and profiting in a major way).  Instead of driving a car to the point where it no longer runs without thousands of repairs, we get a loan or lease for a new one.  Whenever a small appliance has a hiccup, our first reaction is often to go pick up a brand new one.

Now, there are certain situations where the above scenarios are the common sense thing to do.  However, we are trained from our youth to believe that the newer thing is the better thing – and then we need that thing.  This has trained us to believe that our desires are the only thing that should dictate our actions.

This is no different for many Christians, though it should be.

With that said, I believe the Pope didn’t go far enough.  Follow me, here.

Our throw-away culture is a symptom of our consumer culture.

Our consumer culture is a symptom of our capitalistic system.

Our capitalistic system is what makes this country the economic force in the world that it is, it is yet a symptom of our sin condition.

Each of our sins is our responsibility.  However, we cannot deny there is something else at work here.

Pope Francis has spoken out against greed and the financial powers of the world.  He made his latest comments on abortion to satisfy the faithful who spend way too much time on the big 3 social issues.

I just thought this connection needed to be made.

Though, not many people will read it.

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White, Male Pastor Responds to @GOPBlackChick

Before today, I had never heard of Crystal Wright. That was until the Christian Post published an op-ed by her, entitled Unlike Dr. King, Obama is Not Black.

In case you are wondering, no, I'm not kidding.

The title of the article is what drew me in – which was the point. The article doesn't really live up to the über-inflammatory title, though it does go off the deep-end.

It is, of course, what you'd expect from a conservative person who has decided anything from this president must be – in the words of Kathy Bates in The Waterboy – “ub da debil.” However, more specifically, Wright takes aim at the themes of race and how the POTUS has “used” and/or responded to them. As you'd expect, there is nothing positive to be found.

Essentially, her editorial remarks come down to this:

Sadly, dignity is far removed from discussions on race today. After a jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin in cold blood, Obama blamed Martin's death on racial profiling…[r]ather than acknowledging black men are committing most of the killing in America, Obama continues to feed blacks the lies they want to hear to keep the support of his most loyal, blind constituents. After all when it comes to Obama and blacks, it's about the color of his skin not the content of his character.

Not only are these things inflammatory, almost none of them are true.

First, the only real conclusions that can be drawn from the verdict on Zimmerman is that Florida's gun laws are far too lax and George Zimmerman ignored police advice and followed an innocent, black teenager in the middle of the night. Oh, and there's some pretty damning tape of George Zimmerman's thoughts about how “they always get away.”

Second, Wright chooses to ignore the actual things POTUS has said on race, or what he's said when addressing the issues within the black community. Though this is a quote from yesterday's speech, it is indicative of the way Mr. Obama has addressed black Americans during his presidency (note the dignity in this particular quote):

 

 

Rather than placating blacks with reasons they should remain in a constant state of victimhood, the above quote speaks to the opposite effect.

In addition to that:

 
Again, rather than calling blacks to continued victimhood or to be permanent wards of the state, the implication is that one must actually do something in order to change their circumstances.

As I've said in previous social media engagements, the clever misuse of facts can make anybody's case – and that's what we're dealing with here.

Unfortunately, the issue of race – especially since the passage of the '64 CRA – has gotten more complicated. That is, finding broad swaths of racists or racism is difficult to do nowadays. As I told someone on Facebook yesterday, “It doesn't look like racism because it's done from afar and is based loosely on facts.”

Certainly, strides have been made on the issue of race. However, that does not mean racism has ended – nor does it mean that it doesn't still need to be identified and weeded out of the shadows.

Racists have become a savvy lot. The shining example remains when Regan identified “welfare queens in Cadillacs,” but code words and misused and misunderstood statistics have become the weapon of the racially biased.

What Wright does in her piece is to apply the GOP formula of “everything about Obama is bad,” and add in the digs on race. She added nothing new to the discussion, and nothing that we didn't hear from any number of black conservatives on August 28th, 2013 – disappointingly, I might add.

My belief isn't that you can't be black and conservative, but that you can't talk about events and twist them in a way that meets your ideological needs. This is the problem with Wright's article.

Now, I'm a white guy. I'm also a pastor. I'm a white, male pastor. Why do I choose to blog about this?

Having been a history major at Ball State University – and having taken classes specifically on the black experience in America – it has become far too easy to see when people are choosing to gloss-over the more painful and disgusting portions of our history.

Glenn Beck and his lackey, David Barton, are the best at it.

The trick is to appropriate all the “pick myself up by my bootstraps” and “rugged individualism,” while dismissing and ignoring important facts about the poor and marginalized. Unless it speaks to American Exceptionalism – which has become a dangerous and idolatrous religion for too many people – it has no place in our history, nor does it belong in our collective conscious, according to people like Beck and Barton.

Race is still a problem in this country. Not only in this country, but it still exists here. As a product of my faith, I believe it is the job of people like me – and people who are unlike me – to persist in the march for social justice.

I don't care if that phrase has come into disrepute in certain circles, I will always believe in the importance of social justice. The issue of race is still in need of attention, even when it comes to social justice.

Someone left me a wonderful and beautiful comment on Facebook yesterday. It is written by a friend and colleague in ministry. I treasure it. I wanted to share it with you, because it speaks in direct opposition to the unwise and misguided words of the aforementioned CP contributor:

Chris, I have appreciated your posts and support in regards to racism, (particularly towards black people) since we've become fb friends. I continue to appreciate it. It is so healing to have racism not only acknowledged (named) by a white person, but, understood (so to speak). The fact that you have educated yourself about the history of racism in this country speaks volumes during a time when everyone is suddenly, “color blind” and “so over it.” I pray that those who read your posts will understand, as you seem to, the deep wounds that racism has caused us as a people, and more, to the human race and that it will help some of us to work more closely and purposefully towards healing them. God bless you my friend and brother.

The wounds of racism are still real and raw for many. In part, that is the reality because racism is still alive and well in our country – despite people's desire to deny it.

The good news is you don't have to agree that something exists for it to actually exist (lucky for us Christians, huh?), so Wright's article isn't all that big a deal. However, in the wake of #MLKDream50, let's not faulter in continuing to seek out the dream.

We've made some strides, but let's not mistake that for a job well done.

 

Questions Answered: @utsdoc Talks @UnitedSeminary & @CopelandNetwork

My last post on the nature of the relationship between United Theological Seminary and Kenneth Copeland Ministries garnered a quick response from Dr. David Watson, Academic Dean at UTS. Here are a list of the facts I recounted in my blog: *UTS began it's academic partnership with KCM in 2010. *UTS hosted Kenneth Copeland to

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