The Challenge of Change: Moving

Since I have talked, taught and preached on the importance of change for growth in discipleship, growth in ministry, and therefore, growth of the church, it seems only fair to balance this with an acknowledgement of some of the negative aspects of change. After all, change describes my personal life in the last couple of months of 2018. Perhaps this is a testimony to the challenges of change that accompany the promises renewal, revival, and growth. I hope it will be helpful.

The blessing of living within the community and only a few miles from the church cannot be overstated. Making the move from the east side of Atlanta (Conyers) to Fayette County means that I no longer spend 2+ hours per day in the car. If (God forbid) there is an emergency, I can respond more quickly. No one needs to refrain from inviting me by for conversation, prayer, a chat, or all of the above. I can, as we say, “drop by.” Living within the city limits of Fayetteville, I can be involved in the events and activities of the community in ways not possible before. This is life-giving change for me and our ministry together. What a great change to make.

As with most important changes; however, it comes with other “stuff” as well. Something is left behind. There is a sense of loss and disruption that cast a cloud.

The Conyers house was home to me and my sons since 1996. Both of my boys grew up there, had triumphs and struggles, went on their first dates and to proms, got into trouble of one kind or another, and had their friends around our dinner table often. We painted and repaired and even laid hardwood floors. Our dogs, Lad Labner and Nicky Houdini, became part of the family and proved that dogs and cats can live together even if one of the cats is named Mr. Black Edward Wilkerson (Black E. to his friends; Mr. Wilkerson to everyone else.) Many, many memories were made …

Yes, the house – and especially the land – was simply too much to maintain at this stage of my life. Repairing and restoring the damage from years with tenants was daunting. Working on it for a year, and then being delayed another six months, I could not wait to finish and be gone. So, why not be totally and completely overjoyed? Why was there an undercurrent of anxiety, even a kind of gnawing fear?

There is sadness in letting go of something that has been a part of your life – both as a home and as a burden – for so long. There is a kind of grief. It is not simply nostalgia for memories made years ago. These sentiments do not account for the disturbance. I think it is the loss of the familiar and the disruptions of well-worn and completely internalized habits. It is going from the known to the unknown: from a set of known repairs and issues, to one that might have bad, unknown things wrong … no matter what the inspection report said.

Doesn’t sound like much to be upset about when I write it down now, but I these things are what make change hard. Change creates uncertainty.

In a move, your things are packed and then unpacked and put away; but not in the same place or same way as before. You have to figure out where to put everything inside cabinets and closets, and in plain sight. You have to remember where you put things that are “out of sight” in those cabinets and closets. Just finding things can be irritating.

Speaking of habits, for a month, I was still turning automatically in the direction that the microwave was located in the kitchen instead of where it is now. You can’t help but roll your eyes or laugh … but at other times, it is just one more unsettling irritation. I had to think about so many things that did not require that previously. Funny how many things we do on auto-pilot. We just know – without thinking about it.

Similar things happen when we change something at church. We have to do things differently: not automatically. Suddenly all the automatic things don’t work. We have to think about who, what, when and where; instead of just knowing that it is “handled.” We might not have known any or all the details before, just that we can count on things to be as they have always been. And it is comforting to have this sameness; this routine, even if the sameness means flat or declining results for mission and ministry, for disciple making.

With change, we have to think things through, decide about who does what, how it is done, when it is done … and most importantly why we do it. We cannot count on old habits, but must develop new ways of doing things that initially require more effort … more patience … a tolerance for initial frustration. I confess to a tendency to go into “blame mode,” including (and especially) blaming myself.

Embracing “what can be” means leaving behind “what was.” Doing something new often means giving up what we had and asking why we even had it … or did it. Change is being uncomfortable when we really want to be comfortable; to think instead of operate on automatic pilot. We are challenged to do something different … which in my personal case means that I continue to get rid of stuff that I have carried around out of habit rather than out of need or any real desire to keep. The long unused stuff we keep in closets “just in case,” become dead weights dragging us down. We only think they are anchors in the storm.

Which leads to questions like, what if I need that thing I threw out later, or bigger still … what if this move to this house doesn’t work out? What if there is a major repair? What if, I don’t like cluster home living? What if the HOA is a pain? What if housing prices bottom out? What if …

This past year we did something new as a church, something that made the statement that we cared about people driving by, something that reached out to passersby, something that said, “a church is here, and we care that you know it.” We did something that literally was as big as life.

We had a life-sized nativity on our front lawn that “moved” as the events in the birth of Jesus unfolded from Advent through Christmas to Epiphany. This year, the hundreds of cars traveling New Hope Road could not drive by without noticing that a body of believers was at 847. We transformed an empty lawn that most passersby did not even notice into a beautiful testimony to the miracle of the incarnation; and our witness to the joy of that event.

We did not know how to do this before we began. There was a learning curve on what to do and how to do it. (For one thing, we had a magi who had problems standing up straight, and lights that won’t behave.) At the start, we were anxious and mostly worried about what might not work; and then something wonderful happened as people were led to become involved. We worked together to learn, fix and adjust. It became a joyous thing. A team of people came together to do something that would touch others, and in the process I believe we were all blessed. Anxiety was replaced with ideas on how to do it better next year: from set-up, to movement, to how to manage the lights. And, I know I heard a lot of laughter along the way, including jokes about the “tipsy” magi

Before Advent, when I introduced myself as the pastor at North Fayette United Methodist Church to someone around here, they would ask where the church is located. Even after telling them the address, I would get a puzzled look. They would say that they know of “the big church,” or “the church with all the blood drives,” and a few even asked if I knew what Seventh Day Adventist’s believe because that was the church that popped into their mind.

Several times recently, I have had occasion to introduce myself as pastor of North Fayette United Methodist Church, and when I told them we are on New Hope Road, their eyes lit up and the response was, “That’s the church that had the nativity scene in front?” or “I love the nativity scene. You changed it around.”

We made a change. We did something new. Thanks to all the folks who helped give birth to this idea and those who worked on every step of bringing it to life. Thanks be to God for the blessings received and shared.

As for me, and my new digs? The car needs a fill-up twice a month instead of twice a week. I’m finding (most) things without it feeling like a scavenger hunt. Yes, the house is going to need some TLC, but what house doesn’t? Neighbors are friendly, and one of the HOA officers has a big heart. I am close to most everything, but the neighborhood is quiet.

It’s beginning to feel like home: a place for the future.

Volunteering

I recently completed a task for the LaGrange District relating to our End of Year (EOY) Reports. These reports provide information on membership (professing and baptized), income, expenses, assets, apportioned and other benevolent giving, and a pastor’s report (the state of the church plans for the future, and their personal plans for continuing education and the like). These reports are for the calendar year, and are compiled in January by the pastor with the assistance of paid and volunteer staff. This year my role is district statistician. Fortunately, there are five assistant statisticians in our district who help me verify the reports from the 95 churches in our district.

Having a view into the ups and downs of local churches in our area, has led me to think about a number of things about being part of a connectional church. So, here goes:

For someone who prefers to cast the vision and the big picture, and really does not enjoy spending time buried in the details, I have found it amusing that I am often asked to step up to a job that requires great attention to detail: District and Conference Boards of Ministry, District Leadership Team, Georgia Pastors’ School registrar and webmaster, training workshop planner, and now as District Statistician. The last, being extremely detail oriented. In popular slang, God’s sense of humor can be wicked, i.e. extremely excellent or awesome, meriting an LOL.

I know that it is good for me to answer these calls to service; that it helps me in my discipleship. I grow and learn with ever task: in knowledge, understanding, humility, and joy. True, sometimes I want to “snatch’m bald-headed,” as my mother would say. These moments of frustration – often with a fellow pastor who does not read much less follow directions or cannot meet a deadline – are opportunities to develop patience and empathy, and to extend grace. At other times, I have learned that grace can be toxic for individuals and the church. Accountability and consequences are part of being just. Mercy is not always what you think. Unconditional grace is a gift from God, but not always what we should do when we love unconditionally, as many (if not most) parents learn as they strive to raise their children.

Pastors are called to volunteer at the district and conference levels and beyond, just as church members are called to duties at the local church and beyond through participation in annual conference, lay servant ministry, volunteers in mission, District and Conference Boards of Ordained Ministry, Volunteers in Mission, disaster response, church and district mission bridges to other countries, to mention a few.

You might be surprised that the District and Conference Boards of Ordained Ministry are comprised of half clergy and half laity. This balanced perspective is very important as we examine and evaluate candidates for ordination. Perhaps one of the most important questions we must answer for each candidate for ordained ministry – whether elder or deacon – is one that lay members are uniquely qualified to answer, “Would you want him/her to be your pastor?”

The benefits and blessings for the individual volunteer and their church are awesome. I would argue that lay volunteers can be even more effective than their clergy counterparts when it comes to taking something home to their church from their training or service, and making things happen.

As a lay member of annual conference, you gain valuable information about how to do different kinds of ministry, learn about resources available to us, worship and pray together, and participate in decision making for the larger United Methodist connection. You see the missions and ministry of the church in action, in worship, in celebration, and in crisis at all levels: local to global. Clergy are taught much of this in seminary or during the ordination process, but many began to learn as a certified lay servant (a ministry open to all members in good standing) or a delegate to annual conference (each church gets one delegate and one alternate for each ordained pastor appointed to their church). Conference proceedings are particularly blessed when youth delegates participate in the debates and challenge everyone with their insightful and penetrating questions. (Each district selects its youth delegates from the nominees put forward by local churches.)

Participating in the good stuff has obvious blessings, but what is so great about seeing the church at a crisis point? First, not all crises are equal. Some are moments of choice that do not shake the foundations of the church, but do represent change, or stepping out on faith. Regardless of the portent, some of us thrive in such situations, and others don’t – at least not initially. Hence, choices and change are a crisis and stressful for some members of the body of Christ. Because we are each members of the one body, we give and receive care, when our corporate decisions are stressful. Paul taught this in his first letter to the church in Corinth beginning with chapter 12. (Not that the Corinthians got it, unfortunately.) Participating in the process isn’t always easy, but it is a learning experience that can transform our hearts as we learn to discern together.

Wesley referred to our corporate life – our connectional polity – as holy conferencing, because the Holy Spirit is at work when we gather together. Jesus said that when two or more are gathered, He is in our mist. So, think how much Holy Spirit work is happening when there are a couple of thousand of us at the North Georgia Annual Conference, much less when the world-wide church meets in General Conference.

The tough part is discernment: what God is leading us to do versus what we think or want to do. It can be difficult to agree to disagree, to love in spite of difference, and to remain united as children of God when we are of very different opinions. It is easy to pray that God will change the minds of those with whom we disagree, but much harder to ask that they be blessed, and that we all submit to God’s will and not our own.

In a denomination as diverse as the UMC, discerning God’s will and not our own is even more difficult, but perhaps that is why the Methodist Church is still alive and growing despite the many times we have gotten it wrong and had bad family-fights along the way.

The “conventional wisdom” (the worldly way) does not work this way. We are encouraged to love and care only for those with whom we agree. The way of God’s kingdom is considered upside down and even nonsense according to secular thinking. Jesus said not to think like the pagans: those who do not know God and God’s kingdom, worship other things; and give only to receive; love only those like themselves. Not conforming to the world, but to God’s kingdom is a tall order then and now. Jesus in John 17:11 – 13 introduces the idea that we as being in the world but not of the world. (The letters called 1 John & 2 John develop this idea as does Paul throughout his letters to the church in Corinth.)

Odd, how living in the details leads to thinking about the big picture and the big mission we have as members and leaders of local churches. Maybe it isn’t odd all, but a way to see the big picture lived out in the details of 95 different local churches.

Blessings and thanks be to God for the gift of the church.

 

Humility & Gratitude

At least 16 or so of you know about my moving trials and tribulations that began around Thanksgiving and came to an end on December 21st.  I wrote about how even the most positive change – moving into this community – was a good illustration of the challenges of change. I learned some other important things from the experience; namely humility and gratitude and the relationship between the two.

I am by nature and life experiences a very independent and self-reliant person.  I know that one of the important characteristics of the Christian life is that we recognize that we are the opposite: inter-dependent. Our life is supposed to be a life together, a shared experience that including bearing one another’s burdens. Understanding that we are children of God and part of God’s family is supposed to help us embrace and celebrate that we do not have to be self-reliant; that we are God-reliant. Christ’s teaching that we are to love God and neighbor is itself a statement about relationships: our relationship with God shapes our relationship with others; our relationship with others testifies to our relationship with God.

Wow! Did I ever learn that I had to walk that walk and not just talk it.

When first faced with what had to be done in the move, I thought I would just have to “suck it up” as they say, and do it.  There were some persistent voices – and I mean that literally – who kept telling me that I needed help and that there was plenty of it. I have to laugh at how difficult it was for me to accept that help initially, and to realize that I had to grow in humility to receive it.

Why? In this world, we are taught that there has to be reciprocity.  We have to balance the ledger regarding what we give and receive.  If we can give back as good as we get, we are comfortable.  If we cannot repay the debt, we are uncomfortable.  We have been taught that this is what self-respect is made of: pride based on the illusion of self-sufficiency.

I know that to be a true follower of Christ that we have to live “on the vine” connected to one another through Christ.  Dr. Philip P. Kenneson’s book, “Life on the Vine: Cultivating the Fruits of the Spirit” taught me a lot about this. We are to nurture one another. Being able to “pay back” isn’t the point. Most everyone who has done a mission project knows something about this.  We go to the MidWest Food Bank or to Honduras to help other people and find that we are the ones that come back blessed. The trick is to realize that this same principal applies to the folks we know right here at North Fayette UMC; not only for people who are “out there.”

I have often chided others to not take away another person’s blessing by refusing their help.  It was convicting (to say the least) that I was not practicing what I preached! I had my own pride getting in the way of admitting that I really did need help and accepting the help with joy.  I had to learn that humility is one of the first blessings of being a Christ follower.

Humility is not confirmation that you are less but rather that you are worthy, that you are loved; and that being blessed by others is part of being a blessing to others.  Humility allows us to recognize one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, children of God. It opens our hearts to receive, but also to give … not to balance the scales but to open the way to abundance for ourselves and others. It puts us in our place, so to speak, in a good way … where we belong, together with each other and God, Our Father.

I have learned that humility makes gratitude not only possible, but amplifies the blessings for ourselves and others.  We are able to receive and rejoice in the love and grace received because we are freed from the chains the world puts on our hearts because it teaches us to shun our better, God-given nature to live in community, in relationship. We are able to give freely because we are not constrained by the idea that there is only so much to go around, that we must be careful not to be “beholden” or endebted; but rather that there is abundance in the family of God. We are all indebted and beholden to God, and since we cannot repay God, we give to each other.

Which gives me the opportunity to provide a mini Bible study interlude to help us understand that Jesus was preaching a message of community and relationship that was intended from the beginning …

In Genesis 2:18 the Lord God says, “It is not good for man to be alone” and begins by forming wild beasts and birds as possible helpers. The Hebrew word adam does not mean a male person, but rather a human being.  Specifically, a human being made out of dust. Many English translations put the article “the” in front of man in this verse, but the original Hebrew does not.

Looking at Genesis 1:27, we read, “And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” The him in this sentence does not mean that the created man was a male as the following phrase clarifies by saying “male and female He created them.”  In this creation story, both male and female genders were created at the same time and they were human beings (adam). It is confusing to many English speakers because English common nouns do not have a gender as they do in Hebrew, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish among other languages.

For example, the Hebrew word for book (sefer) is feminine and the Hebrew word for door (delet) is masculine.  That means that articles such as “the” are different: a feminine article is used before sefer and masculine before delet.  Also, if a pronoun is used it is feminine (she, her, hers) or masculine (he, him, his), respectively.  The common noun adam using masculine articles and pronouns does not mean it is a man.

So, from the beginning human beings were not meant to be alone.  We were to be in relationship: mutual relationship.  We are to be helpers. Our fall was not about simple disobedience alone because we know that God has other ways of dealing with disobedience. This was disobedience that led to the breaking of relationships: between God and humans, between human and human, and between humans and the rest of creation. As followers of Christ, our commandment to love God and neighbor as self was a guide to fulfill of what God created us to be: in relationship with God and each other.

We can’t be self-reliant … as in, not needing anything or anybody … and be in relationship.

We can’t really love our neighbor as ourselves until we see our neighbor as ourself …which means being in relationship.

That we need each other, and that is a very good thing.

I am grateful for every loving heart that gave so freely to me. I am grateful that my independent, self-reliance did not deprive me or anyone else of the abundance that our life together gives us.

Thanks be to God for you!

A Way Forward

As you know, we will be holding a Special Called General Conference February 23 – 26 in St. Louis to find a way forward from the quagmire of the past decades regarding the sexual orientation and the United Methodist Church.  We are not the first denomination to tackle these issues and won’t be the last.  Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Lutherans have already made their decisions, had some rough times, and seem to be coming out on the other side. We know this is survivable, but we want it to be more.  We are striving to find the best witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ in our decision.  We want to maintain the diversity that has characterized this church.  We want to face a difficult situation that we have danced around and set a course to the future.

Last year had a special newsletter with information about the commission, the plans and the upcoming conference. I gave a presentation on these things during the Sunday School hour, and heard that a number of you wanted to hear more, ask questions, and talk. So, we will have opportunities for discussion on January 24th and 31st with sessions at 10:30 am and 7:00 pm.

There are a couple of things that I have in mind to share with the hope that we can ask questions and share our thoughts. You may have questions about the different plans and what they mean for us here at NFUMC.  We will cover this as needed.

You may want to talk about how to come to your own personal understanding of the issue, and if that is the case, I want to share the traditional Wesleyan approach that we call the quadrilateral. As mentioned during the Sunday School presentation, John Wesley never used the term quadrilateral. Albert Outler, a Weslyan scholar, coined the term as a short-hand for the method Wesley advocated. Basically, this approach affirms that scripture is paramount; and that we use three lenses to understand and apply scripture: tradition, reason and experience. I will attempt to bring tools from these three lenses so that you can use them in your thinking and praying about these issues.

I also have a sermon that Rev. Bert Gary preached to his Owl Rock UMC congregation.  Our DS, Rev. Susan Landry, shared this with the district.  Bert is Susan’s brother and an author of “Jesus Unplugged.” It contains some really good information that I thought you would appreciate.  Just click here to read.

Reviving Advent for the Twenty-first Century

For as long as I can remember, Advent has been crowded out by the secular season of Christmas.  These days, you no longer have to wait until Thanksgiving is over, but can go “Christmas” shopping even before the turkey is cold. Never mind Black Friday,” Christmas” is everywhere the day after Halloween, and Cyber Monday is THE day to shop.

The secular season starts so early that the tree – which goes up Thanksgiving weekend – has to come down the day after Christmas Day, just when the actual season of Christmas begins. Originally, this was necessary because live trees become big dry bundles of kindling in a few weeks. Never mind that church tradition had been to decorate the tree as part of the Christmas Eve service, and that it would remain the entire twelve days of Christmas, being taken down after Epiphany on January 6th. Somewhere, someone came up with the excuse (aka superstition) that it was “bad luck” to keep the tree up past December 31st … go figure.

The larger issue is that this season of the church that we call Advent has pretty much lost its meaning for us church people.  Oddly enough, this may be truer in the Bible Belt than anywhere.  Some protestant denominations were and remain so anti-Catholic, that many of the ancient traditions of the church were discarded along with the positive changes brought about by the Reformation. You might say that the baby was thrown out with the bathwater.  It was not until 1985 that the United Methodist Church began to revive many of the long standing traditions of the church as part of what became known as “liturgical renewal.” A new hymnal and Book of Worship came out of that movement as did a reclaiming of other spiritual practices.

That does not mean that there was a ground swell of support for recovering our discarded traditions such as defining the “Christian Year” as beginning with the Frist Sunday of Advent, keeping a holy Lent and Advent, recovering the Christmas Season (those 12 days from Christmas Day to Epiphany), or returning to the practice of communion every Sunday. It has taken quite a few years for some of these things to begin to take hold. We even struggle to get some of our pastors to surrender their old Book of Worship, so the process has been slow. The publicity surrounding the release of Mel Gibson’s  Passion of the Christ on Ash Wednesday is responsible for the rediscovery of Ash Wednesday and Lent than anything we had tried.

 I have tried a number of approaches over the years to reclaim the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany season for the church from ignoring the secular as if it were not everywhere, to going head-to-head with it. Neither are particularly constructive strategies being either too “out of touch” or too shrill and bitter. So, after much thought and prayer, I have a notion that (perhaps) we can live alongside the secular.

That’s why we started Advent two Sundays early, and increased it from four to six Sundays.  Lest you think that I am introducing something new, in my study of the season, I learned that Advent was a six Sunday season for orthodox (aka the oldest) churches. This made it more like the 40 day period of Lent, and therefore an equivalent period of preparation for the two most important events for the Christian church: the birth and the death/resurrection of Christ.  Six weeks give us time to read the preparatory texts that call us to make the path straight, straight from the manger to our hearts. This leaves us with two Sundays to sing all the Christmas Carols we can. Two Sundays to gather around the manger before we move on to the temple, the magi, and the second temple trip when Jesus drives his parents crazy.

More than ever, I think we need manger time. We need time to journey with Mary & Joseph, time to kneel with the shepherds, time to sing Christmas Carols. We need time to rekindle hope, peace and joy in a world that seems short on all three.

We are gradually decorating the nave and sanctuary this year. The season of anticipation seems to call for this gradual unfolding.  The characters in this story will move toward the stable each week – and soon the life-size nativity will be a dynamic picture as well. By Christmas Eve all the Advent candles will be lit and all the decorations in place, and we will have sung Christmas Carols and walked the long road again to kneel in Bethlehem.

Even with the expanded Advent, we are still able to use the lectionary texts because the texts continue to work well for the first four Sundays when the emphasis is on preparation (especially for the return of Christ).  The standard lectionary gives a year each to Matthew (Year A), Mark (Year B), and Luke (Year C, so as we move through the three year cycle, the last two Sundays can naturally follow along with Matthew’s emphasis on Joseph (Year A) and Luke’s emphasis on Mary (Year C).  You might say that Years A & C allow us to look at the story of Christ’s birth from the perspective of men and women, respectively.  Since this is Luke’s year, the women in the story will be emphasized.

Now, some of you (I hope) will be wondering what to do with Mark’s year.  If you aren’t wondering, take out your Bible and have a look at the beginning of Mark. So, what do we do during year B, Mark’s year?

During year B, we will take a look at the genealogies found in Matthew and Luke as a way to further delve into an understanding of the two audiences for Jesus’s message: Jews and Gentiles. Each genealogy provides insights into the message of Christ as presented to and understood by Jews and Gentiles of the time. The great variety of Bible characters included in one or both of these genealogies should provide fertile ground for our spiritual imaginations. This will be a third way to view the advent of Christ into the world.

Will this help us engage with the season? Could it be an antidote to all the shopping? Will it draw us closer to the manger, to the baby Jesus?

What we do in worship is less than half of what is required for us to engage, spiritually prepare, and draw closer.  The larger portion is whether or not each of us is willing to pay attend and prepare, to anticipate and approach the manger with hope and the knowledge that there we will find what makes for peace and good will toward all humankind.

Blessings,