Monday, June 20, 2016

Robert's Rules, General Conference, and How to Start a Movement

     One afternoon during my denomination’s recent General Conference, legislative action was getting bogged down. Points of order, substitute motions, speeches for and against, questions called, more points of order, and then votes in which weary delegates weren’t entirely sure what they were voting on or why. After a query about Robert’s Rules of Order, somebody behind me harrumphed, “Who is this Robert guy anyway? Is he in the Bible?”

     At about this time, to slake the boredom, I sneaked a peek at my email box, stealthily, of course. A friend had sent me a YouTube link with the comment, “Check this out.” As I was wearing a headset so I could listen in on the translations of speeches being made at the conference, it was easy to watch and listen to the YouTube – stealthily again. It was a TED talk featuring Derek Sivers talking about “How to Start a Movement.”

     Sivers showed a video of a bunch of people lounging on a hillside, when one guy stood up and started dancing, flailing about kookily. Gradually people began to look up and notice. Some ignored him, others were maybe a little amused by his lunacy. But after a bit, another guy decided, what the heck, I’ll join him. Similar silly dance moves, just having fun.  The two went on for maybe a minute – and then a third guy ambled over and joined them. Within seconds, there were two more, then five more, then everybody on that hillside swarmed together, dancing, laughing, having a ball.
     Sivers’s point is that this is how movements begin. The first dancer had to have some guts, a willingness to look ridiculous, not caring if anybody actually followed or not. The second guy is hugely important, for if he never joined in, the leader would get weary and sit down. The real key is the next guy, since “three’s a crowd.” With him there’s momentum. A tipping point is achieved. After three, there’s no reason not to join in.
     Musing over this, as the motions and points of order continued, I had three thoughts. (1) The movements in history I’ve admired were just like this. Clarence Jordan had a vision of community and started Koinonia Farm.  Millard Fuller came, and Koinonia sparked the idea of Habitat.  Jimmy Carter, from nearby Plains, Ga. joined - and Habitat is all over the world now.  Vernon Johns preached at Dexter Avenue Baptist in Montgomery about civil rights, and was ridiculed by his own people. Then Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke up. Then Rosa Parks didn’t stand up. Ralph Abernathy, Mother Pollard, John Lewis, and a host of people made it a movement. In the Middle Ages, John Wyclif spoke up and met harsh resistance. But then Martin Luther nailed his theses, and before you knew it, Melanchthon, Calvin, Zwingli, and thousands created the Protestant Reformation.

     (2) This is no brilliant insight – but the United Methodist Church, over whose barely alive body we were presiding at that very moment, is in desperate need of a movement. (And I'd add that I think it's unlikely this kind of movement is entirely in either of the directions that are currently pulling us apart.) And not just a movement to resolve sexuality issues. We need a movement, movements actually, which bring life and holiness to our churches and the world.

     Then, (3) we were trying to do triage on this church using the rules least likely to allow a movement to happen - or we were seeking renewal and revival utilizing something so cumbersome it could only squash anything fresh. Robert’s Rules of Order actually were designed to keep order (as in the name!) and prevent outbreaks of anything at all. Who was Robert? He was a preacher’s kid who became an engineer: Henry Martyn Robert. At his Baptist church in Massachusetts, they had just suffered an awful meeting in which conflict erupted over abolition. He set his mind to learn all he could about rules for meetings, and published his in 1876. 

     Robert’s Rules most often do prevent conflict breaking out. Although, perhaps in the way guerilla warfare breaks out when minorities won’t back down to the massed armed forces of nations, minorities eventually chafe under the brunt of losing vote after vote and eruptions happen anyhow. But healthy movements that embody the Kingdom never happen.

     I'm not thinking of trivial tweaks to our process, like the much ballyhooed Rule 44.  I am thinking of serious, non-conference transformation. Rewind the date to the 1940's.  There's a motion to have an interracial farm in rural Georgia. Speeches for? Speeches against? Let’s vote. The nays would win easily.  Jesus himself could have convened all the religious leaders of his day and put forward a motion that the Kingdom of God might dawn. By Robert’s Rules, the vote most assuredly would have been No, let’s not have a dawning of the Kingdom of God. Let's go back to fishing.

     At General Conference, we do a lot of praying for God’s Spirit to move. But if history tells us anything, it’s that the movement of the Holy Spirit is like the movement of the dancers on that hillside. Just one prophet speaks with great courage, which is met with scoffing and thumbs down votes. But someone else hears the truth and stands up, then a third, and finally others. Robert’s Rules will foil that first guy every time: Shall we dance? The nays win.
     Open conflict isn’t the worst of all evils anyhow. Jean Vanier’s lovely book, Community and Growth, contains a wise chapter on church meetings. He says we should be glad when there is an explosion, for that means church is a safe place, and we welcome buried, unheard feelings. The conflict helps us grow; the Spirit uses the tension to lead us. He reminds us there is a “little tyrant” in each of us, who insists on his own way. In the Body of Christ, it is the small, the extreme minority, the weakest member who matters the most (1 Corinthians 12:22).

I wonder if, some day, we might dispense with Robert’s Rules, which must be the worst possible way to try to carry on a holy conversation. When the faithful disagree, the advantage goes – always – to the one who is the master of the rules, to the one who is swift to the microphone, not to the lone voice that might have the fresh wisdom we need. Robert’s rules feed unholiness, like maneuvering, influencing voters, and worst of all, the notion of “sides.” Which “side” are you on? We vote then to see which side “wins,” and it’s winner-take-all. The vote might be 51%-49%, but the “official” outcome is just one unhedged thing. Winner takes all – and then we have losers. A political democracy works this way. But we are the Body of Christ, where we don’t have sides, and we don’t have winners and losers, but members. Priority goes to the weakest, the most anguished, the one who can’t marshal many votes, even to the one we’ve never heard from due to the shouting of sides at one another.

     Quakers don’t vote. They “discern,” quietly listening for the movement of the Spirit, which always comes from surprising corners. We need a movement, and we’ll never have one until we usher poor Robert out of the building. There must be a better, holier way to conduct church business in a big room, for the faithful to discern and respond to the movement God is inviting us into.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Orlando: We Begin Today

Sunday. The Lord’s day. On the way to church, or right after, we were mortified by the news out of Orlando. Another mass killing. How many? We’ve lost count. The ache, the revulsion. Even though numbed by the sheer repetitiveness of this news story, you shudder, and can’t turn off the TV coverage. I’ve seen rants on Facebook and Twitter. But the noise seems muffled somehow. A hush, a massive shudder has fallen over the world. I sit quietly, prepared for tears, but just numb.

I want names. To say 50 were killed, and it’s a record for the U.S. seems wrongheaded. Give me one name, then another. Each one has a mother, a brother, a coworker, a neighbor, a teammate. A person with a name is a life, a story, God’s lovely creation, a beautiful story. Because of the identity of those killed, we will rightly hear a cry on behalf of LGBTQ people. The point to be made really is that people are just people. Luis, who ran the “Harry Potter” ride. Kimberly who greeted people at the cellphone store. Juan, who’d just come out to his family.

In the first hours after every mass killing, when little is known, news agencies have to fill time. Much of the talk is speculation: Who was the killer? What was his motive? What were his thoughts? The important truth is, we do not know. We only infer, and guess. We have no idea what was in his head. Maybe this killer was drawn to radical Islam, but felt same gender sexual stirrings — and this was his way out. We cannot know what is in someone else’s heart — which is crucial here. If Omar Mateen hated LGBTQ people, he did not know them. He made a thicket of false assumptions about them.

Which is precisely what goes wrong in our culture which is so very terrified by anyone who is ‘other.’ As followers of Jesus, we never begin by prejudging anybody, ever. We go to the trouble to listen, to learn, never to assume. I live in North Carolina, where we’ve had a long-running controversy over LGBTQ people and bathroom usage. I have a friend who believes that, somewhere beneath the bluster opposing such rights, there’s a desire many Christian people have — that LGBTQ people just didn’t exist. I hope he is wrong. As Jesus’ people, we never wish some ‘other’ person would just go away or not exist. The only ‘other’ we want to get rid of is hate. Jesus anticipated we’d feel harshly toward ‘others,’ so he pretty clearly told us to love our enemies.

Pastors should say something, or do something. But what? When national catastrophe struck, the Israelites gathered fasted, and prayed Psalms like 44, 74 and 80. These corporate prayers were not for swift justice, or changed laws even. They cried out How long? They shook God, assuming God had to be slumbering. They repented instead of blaming. I suspect we should open our churches for special services, read the names of the deceased, read these Psalms.

And fast. Who can eat, anyway? Martin Luther King famously pushed back quite a few meals after reading newspaper reports about the killing in Vietnam. Or do we return too swiftly to our routines, our diversions? We are all of us deeply enmeshed in the very gangland culture that upsets us so. We good Christians have not just tolerated but created and funded a culture obsessed with guns, violence and depravity of all kinds. We have propped up politicians who pander to fear and talk tough. We have a lot of repenting to do. Was what Mateen did terror or hate? Our category for killing is Sin, but Sin is the condition of the entire fallen world. So in days like this, old wounds reopen; it’s time for all of us to talk with God, to get a lot of things straight. When these moments descend, we realize the work we should have been doing, and had better get busy with before the next tragedy. Our primary task as Christians is reconciliation. Sometimes when we debate the LGBTQ ‘issue,’ we forget there are always names, just one person, somebody’s son, somebody’s sister. I always wonder if hard-fisted judgment in church might actually foster a culture in which hatred is not just acceptable but actually holy? Can our tone be mercy? Can we Methodists reconcile, know names and stories, and love, and change communities where we live?

There will be pressure in the coming days to denounce Islam. Clergy can up their popularity in many places by castigating Muslims and wishing we were rid of them. It is just as easy for more enlightened clergy to clarify that what we see on the world stage is an aberrant perversion of Islam. It is up to clergy to stand in the breach at such times, and to say "My Muslim friends are horrified and sorrowful too." You can do so only if you’ve made friends with Muslims, and phoned them up in the hours after such a tragedy.

There will be a lot of talk about gun control. Quite predictably, Christians will demand it as the fix to this mess, while other Christians will explain how background checks won’t help, or that guns make us secure, or that this or that strategy won’t fix things. Isn’t it time to do something, even if it only makes the tiniest dent or doesn’t accomplish much? If someone you love has been shot, you do something, even if you don’t have a medical degree, even if it doesn’t really help. You can’t just do nothing.

Our country is hemorrhaging, literally, and drastic triage is required. Don’t Christians, whose Lord said “Put your sword away; he who lives by the sword will die by the sword,” have some holy obligation to labor tirelessly to do something, anything? If the prophets of Israel and Jesus himself provide us any clues, we must ask Can clergy speak respectfully but firmly to our people to rally them to be part of a movement not easily frightened off by the powers that be? Ours is not to secure safety for ourselves, but to stand with and for those who are hated, in Orlando, Charleston, in any and all places where precious children of God are despised and mercilessly slaughtered.

Beyond question, our problems are too massive for us to fix this week, or in a lifetime. But we begin today. Quite rightly, we pray, and fervently, not merely for God to soothe the grief of victims’ families, but to turn the whole world on its axis, to change a nation, to convert hearts, to temper a culture bent on distrust. We need and dare to expect a miracle; and we ask God what we can do as individuals and as God’s church — and then we do it with courage and mercy. We indeed are “prisoners of hope” (Zechariah 9:12), even while we grieve, repent and look for God’s waking dawn, and to each of God’s children, one by one, each with a name. 

Monday, May 16, 2016

I Thank God General Conference is Not the Church

     I thank God that General Conference is not the church.  Yes, General Conference makes high level decisions about official policy.  General Conference controls a lot of money, although the pie is shrinking.  General Conference gets a lot of press coverage and makes people wring their hands, shudder, shout, rejoice, weep, or pump a fist or two.  But General Conference is not the church.
First, imagine if all the delegates, bishops, staff and observers were in fact a local congregation.  Good worship – but if you were a visitor you would quickly detect a few problems that would make you shy away from joining.  Factions, tension, little whispering campaigns, constant dickering over how to proceed, gridlock on actually doing anything, no clear leadership…  Everything that bedevils the dysfunctional congregation we have in frighteningly acute degrees.  Such a congregation would repel visitors, members would drift or bolt away, mission and learning would fracture, and the church would shrink and then fold.

     Also, the people who wind up as delegates, even though they are asked to be representatives of their conferences or even of the broader church, are not in fact representative.  I told my bishop once that the delegates to annual conference, generally speaking, are not actually representative of their churches.  When my congregation elects their delegates, they don’t choose the most centrist, “average” members.  We pick the people who are willing to take days off to sit through fairly dull business, people who are ultra-Methodist, lovers of conference doings.  The people who are at the very heart of my church aren’t interested or can’t go.

     Who gets elected to General Conference?  We elect activist people, big names, people with razor sharp agendas, folks who fit various diversity slots, individuals who’ve not given much offense – and people who are willing and able to lose two weeks of their lives, can endure the intensity of the proceedings, and not be so disgusted as to exit the church when the conference has ended.  These are not normal United Methodists.

     At one level, the weirdness, or perhaps we should say the loveliness of those at General Conference should disturb us, and it sobers us up a little about the decisions made.  But for me, this idea that General Conference is not the church is a relief, and cause for hope.  I love being back at church the Sunday after General Conference.  I hug a little more than usual, and feel so very grateful to be part of a church family that is utterly unlike General Conference.  There really is so much life, and joy in our Church.

     This distinction between General Conference and the Church also enables me, with all due respect for our connectedness and our accountability to the Book of Discipline and other denominational decisions, to give comfort to people wounded by votes taken.  A few always want to exit our church because of a vote; a few exit because we even bother voting on something so obvious.  I can assure them General Conference is not our church.

     A woman emailed me the other day to say I pray that one day my church will love my son.  I could confidently respond, I love you and him, our church family loves you, both and there are actually millions of United Methodists who love you.

     I can also try to undermine any smugness among the victors.  Once in a while, some big vote changes or clings to things – and there are those who, like fans at a championship game, declare We won!  But in the Body of Christ we don’t have winners and losers; we don’t even have any we and them.  We are we, we love, we are the Body.

     We might be wise to dream of a day when we come to General Conference and remember the hearts of those at home, and more importantly, the dispositions required back home to make church work.  Back home we have the advantage of time and familiarity.  So at General Conference, where you might know a few dozen people, but most are strangers, you have to fast track the relationships, and remember what is true about all of us:  we really are one family in Christ Jesus, and we bring with us the ability to listen and care and even compromise a little to keep the family together and more importantly in sync with the holy head of our family, Jesus our Lord.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Noise of Worship at General Conference

     Nearly every day at General Conference, when lay and clergy delegates from all over the world meet to renew and reset our direction as the United Methodist Church, we are treated to magnificent, creative, high quality worship services.  We sing, marvel, listen, stand, bow our heads and even applaud, opening the day in the most fitting way possible, in worship of the God whose Church we truly are.

     I for one have harbored a little resentment though.  On quite a few days I’ve wanted to skip.  I’ve even wished (only in my own mind, not out loud) that we wouldn’t do it at all.  My reason?  In the worship, we sound so God-focused.  We smile and sing how we are one in God, that we are filled with grace and love, that we seek nothing but the movement of the Holy Spirit.  But then worship ends, and the rancor begins.  The power plays that commenced in backroom breakfasts resume.  The love, unity, and openness to the Spirit rush right out the door. 

     It’s the dissonance, the hypocrisy, the hollowness of our gestures.  The Lord must be up there reciting the words of the prophets:  “I take no delight in your solemn assemblies… Take away from me the noise of your songs” (Amos 5:21); “These people draw near and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13).

     There are prayer vigils leading up to General Conference.  And there is a lot of praying going on at General Conference.  Delegates are led in prayer, and pray on their own.  The observers in the gallery close their eyes and lift their hands in intense supplication.  But we know what they (and we) are praying for:  that my side, my take on this issue will win.  We most certainly want the Holy Spirit to move – on them.

     The children in my congrega- tion have cut out construction paper and colored little prayer cards for General Conference.  I’m glad we shelter them from what the meeting really is like.  I am entirely sure that the praying they have in mind is of a different sort – and it might help us actually to ask them.  I’d guess they would offer something simple, like that we would be safe, that we would love, and that God’s will would be done.

     Any prayer for God’s will to be done latches us on to Jesus, who taught us to pray this way.  What is intriguing is that right before Jesus, in agony, said “Not my will, but your will be done,” he’d said “Let this cup pass from me.”  Jesus had his druthers on the outcome – and he is the holiest person ever to pray.  But his preference, his wish for what should happen, had to yield.  Jesus offers God the Father a yielding, a willingness to be surprised, however unpleasantly.  This is the very nature of love, which “does not insist on its own way” (1 Corinthians 13:5).  My theology professor at Duke, Dr. Bob Cushman, defined faith as “the conversion of the will through the crumpling of pride.”  And my friend, the evangelist Leighton Ford, says that in John 17 “Jesus didn’t tell us to pray that our party would win; he prayed that our oneness in him might be seen, so that the world may believe.”

     What if General Conference delegates actually engaged in what our children, and even so many of our grownup United Methodists around the world earnestly assume we are doing – praying, in the sense of being willing and even eager to yield our preferred way, to have pride crumpled, and our wills converted?  Not to win, or to grieve losing, or to finagle things so the vote turns out right, but a profound emptying, a suspension of judgment, a deep waiting on what God might stunningly do.

     Yes, you are snickering by now.  But really:  if you are praying anything else, or if you just aren’t bothering to pray, then let’s be clear that God takes no delight in us, and we will never be swept up in the miraculous New Creation God has promised to the Church. 

     Since we can’t (or shouldn’t want to) continue the hypocrisy of sunny worship as a prelude to ugly business at General Conference, it seems to me we’re left with only two options.  We could pray as Jesus prayed, and expect and engage in genuinely transformative ways of doing business.  Or, we could simply worship and pray, and not do any business at all, renewing the old idea of the Moravian Pentecost.  Zinzendorf summoned all the quarrelling, divided delegates together in 1727 for a conference, and conducted no business whatsoever.  They just worshipped, fasted, sang, washed each other’s feet, shared in love feasts, and Zinzendorf didn’t let them leave until they learned to love one another.  They found themselves moved by the Spirit; then they went back home, and set their communities on fire. 

     We can be very sure this is God’s will, this New Creation, which isn’t my way or your way, but God’s way.  God’s even big enough, and humble enough, to move genuinely open hearts during a conference where we worship and vote. 

Monday, April 11, 2016

Our United Methodist Book of Discipline

     Big, sprawling organizations, like our United Methodist denomination, need a book, a constitution if you will, our ideals and way of doing what we do, all bound together.  Ours is The Book of Discipline.  We all know people who’ve mastered its contents, and can quote chapter and verse from memory.  Then others have a more casual, maybe ambivalent relationship to the book.  Portions of it are useful to prop up your agenda; other portions you find to be embarrassing, or just plain dull.  It is our book, and it is every bit as lovely and messy as our lives and churches.  We uphold it with some fear and trembling, and some pride too.
     Now, if you had never laid eyes on The Book of Discipline, but only heard Methodists talking about it, you might assume it was (1) a law code, and (2) an exceedingly short one.  Yes, you might overhear other unhappy United Methodists yearning for that very short law book to be changed, although in gritty but defeated resignation.  Either way, you’d think it was very brief, and focused on one law.
    A common question asked of episcopal candidates is “Will you enforce the Discipline?”  This is code language.  Although the Discipline is far from a short book, bulging at more than 800 pages, the Discipline to be “enforced” is no more than a page, three paragraphs really, the only portions we vest any emotion in.  The little sliver of the Discipline that commands our attention, the insistence on enforcement, and also the craving that it might one day be changed, is about homosexuality in general, and marriage and ordination in particular.
     I wish we wouldn’t speak in code.  Or if we are so deadly earnest about the Discipline, press for the full 800+ pages to be enforced.  But the whole idea of “enforcement” should trouble us all.  Something feeling like “enforcement” is required when we have illegality, evil run amok – and it sounds punitive.  Bishops then are asked to function as a robed police force.
     But Jesus established a different kind of community, that trades not in force and punishment, but in love and reconciliation.  If you actually read the Discipline, the bishops are charged with theologically robust tasks, like vision, pastoral care, renewal, and prophetic transformation.  Maybe we can expect them to “uphold” (rather than “enforce”) the Discipline and all its lofty dreams.
     Besides, when we have rules, and a genuine need for order, what are theologically meaningful processes to restore order?  Punishing, like public censure, the loss of income, or permanent removal from ministry, seems so very secular.  Should church authorities dispense punishment? Or offer something better?  Aren’t there wise ways to uphold the Discipline and honor our covenantal relationships forged through it?
     St. Francis established rules for the life and ministry of the early friars.  One rule was you had to live in the room you were assigned, and you had to care for the leper you were assigned.  One friar complained bitterly that he had the worst room in the house, and he refused to feed or bathe the leper in his charge.  When this was reported, Francis decided he himself would move into the worst room, and care for this most difficult of the lepers.  Order was restored, and the mercy shown to the friar didn’t ruin him or the order, but brought him to a humble passion to improve.
     Aren’t there creative, humble, healing ways to uphold the order established by the Discipline – as it must be upheld?  If a pastor re-baptizes, for instance.  Yes, we could eradicate his income or fire him from ministry.  But perhaps, we could send him to the Jordan River with a veteran pastor who would befriend him and help him understand the overwhelming power of God’s mercy and grace.  Or if that is crazy impractical, then maybe something equally as imaginative, and restorative.  Of course, there are egregious infractions that harm others (like child abuse) or break the law (like embezzlement), and the Discipline rightly deals firmly with those, although even with a criminal action we would, as Jesus’ people, still pray and yearn for redemption.
     Reflecting a little further on rule-breaking:  we have in our country and in the long history of the Church a tradition of civil disobedience.  Once in a while you see disobedience with malevolent intent.  But most rebels I know who break rules with some real theological gusto are noble in intent.  They show considerable courage, and risk-taking, and quite often are zealously advocating for somebody who's been marginalized.  We don't suffer from an excess of courage in ministry - so are there ways to uphold the Discipline and yet in some fashion uphold the holy boldness and willingness to bear the cost in a pastor who with some agony feels it is God's hard will for her or him to choose covenant with God over covenant with fellow clergy?

     Let’s be candid about what the Book of Discipline is, and what it isn’t.  I recently decided to read the thing, cover to cover.  It is in quite a few places surprisingly profound, theologically rich, downright compelling, and it is everywhere very much obsessed with our common mission to be the Body of Christ in a lost world.  As best I can tell, Wesley and the early geniuses of Methodism fixed our need for such a book so we could get organized for mission, so we would never forget how connected we are in our labors for Jesus.  But who notices, or alludes to the dominant content of the Discipline nowadays?
     And all of us, both those who confidently wave the Discipline, and those who cringe and wish it were very different:  let’s acknowledge the Discipline is not divinely inspired Scripture.  Who is the author of this book?  Several hundred people, clergy and laity, working through translators in nine different languages, meet every four years, and after considerable rancor, debate that involves no listening whatsoever, and backroom manipulation, and in an exhausted, cranky mood, we finally take a vote, and the winner, maybe with nothing more than 50% plus one of those votes, becomes the Discipline.
     Something I’ve always loved about the way the Discipline comes to be, and something I’ve bragged about to inquirers, is that after the majority vote, we don’t excommunicate or murder the losers.  We are the Body, with different members.  We disagree, and then we get this book that I will never for a moment believe enfleshes God’s will in any perfect way.  God must look down on our General Conference proceedings and shudder, or chuckle, or weep.  Then God begins rooting for us to love, to remember there aren’t winners and losers in the Body of Christ, even if the “winners” do get their words into the Discipline.
     And have we even understood the Discipline’s own humble claims for itself?  The preface to the Social Principles, that chunk of the Discipline that contains the few paragraphs we treat as if it’s the whole book, plainly and rather invitingly declares “The Social Principles, while not to be considered church law, are a prayerful and thoughtful effort to speak to human issues from a sound biblical and theological foundation...  They are a call to faithfulness and are intended to be instructive… a call to a prayerful, studied dialogue of faith and practice.”  This doesn’t sound like an ironclad decree to be enforced.  It sounds like a holy conversation starter.
     If I could wave a magic wand and change our relationship to the Book of Discipline, I’d say Let’s actually read the whole thing; it is profound and highly motivational.  Let’s be humble about it; its composition happens during our denomination’s most embarrassing moments.  Let’s treat it as a covenant between us all – and if a marriage is any model of a covenant, then when there is any veering off, we don’t start with punishment, but with creative, and even sacrificial reconciliation.  Let’s not speak in code.  Let’s befriend the Discipline, and zealously pursue its deepest purpose of organized and passionate ministry, and redemption.  Let’s find ways for this book to be a joyful liberation to launch us into exciting and transformative ministry in today’s hurting world.  The Discipline truly can be a book of good news and great joy.



Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Strong & Weak

     Sometimes I've used this blog to summarize, review or comment on a book - and I'd like to do that now, having just finished Andy Crouch's little book, Strong and Weak: Embracing a Life of Love, Risk & True Flourishing.  Picking up on those perennial questions we all ask, What are we meant to be?  and Why are we so far from what we’re meant to be? he speaks of "the paradox of flourishing.  We are meant to flourish, not just to survive, but to thrive, not just to exist, but to explore and expand." 
     So what is the way be what we are meant to be?  "Flourishing comes from being both strong and weak.  Flourishing requires us to embrace both authority and vulnerability, both capacity and frailty, both life and death."  He goes on to demonstrate how, when we succumb to false choices and have one or the other, there is corruption and distortion.  Plus we can get tripped up by society's portrayal of a false kind of flourishing; "if you define flourishing carelessly, you'll miss the real thing."     Crouch handles all this well, although it's far from new.  The embrace of vulnerability has gotten a lot of press from rising stars like Brene Brown and Pete Scazzero, whose "Emotionally Healthy Spirituality" underscores this same balance, and the importance of going with where you are weak and limited.
     What is intriguing to me is the way Crouch applies all this to leadership, which "isn't about titles or power; leadership begins the moment you are concerned more about others’ flourishing than you are about your own.  Personal growth now serves a different end – not our own satisfaction but becoming the kind of people who could actually help others flourish." 
     Leaders need to embrace their vulnerability in order to be whole, much less effective - but wisely Crouch explains how "some of this vulnerability, for leaders, is invisible.  They bear vulnerability no one else can see."  I mean, I assume he assumes you show it to somebody, a confidant or spouse or mentor.  But this living into vulnerability without that dominating everybody else's agenda is pivotal, and not well-understood, it seems to me.  Crouch clarifies:  "The leader’s personal exposure to risk must often remain unspoken, unseen and indeed unimagined by others.  The leader must bear the shared vulnerabilities that the community does not currently have the authority to address.  The leader thus helps the community bear the community’s vulnerability  When leaders take risks, including the risks of personal disclosure, they do so for the sake of others’ authority and proper vulnerability."
     Crouch has a track record for producing significant stuff, especially Culture Making.  His newest is well worth pondering and talking about.  A nice book, a quick read, thoughtful and accessible.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Spotlight on Christianity, and an Apology

    When we finished watching the marvelous film, “Spotlight,” I felt the clear urge to apologize on behalf of all Christians everywhere, although they’ve not authorized me to do so.  No need for a spoiler alert with “Spotlight.”  This film recounts the Boston Globe’s exposure of the wicked behavior of abusive priests, and the institutional church’s arrogant, evil coverup.  Characters in the film share personal testimony that they just refuse to go any more to a church that could act so cruelly.

     Part of me wanted to stand up and declare to my fellow moviegoers that you can come to church and trust us, that real Christianity is nothing like this, that we are all about compassion, holiness, and serving humbly.  But no.  We are eager to listen.  Tell us you are mad at us, tell us we’ve disappointed you, tell us you want nothing to do with us.  Instead of rushing to defend, we hear you.

     And we are sorry.  I’m Methodist, not Catholic, and our founder John Wesley’s first simple rule is key:  “First do no harm.”  We Christians have harmed.  If you have ever felt harmed by the church, whether it is something as horrible as abuse, but maybe a failure to support you in your hour of need, or hurtful remarks directed at you or those you love, or however we have wounded you or driven a wedge between you and God, then on behalf of all of Christianity let me say We are so very sorry.

     I wonder if we can help each other back toward what we’ve lost.  On the morning of Martin Luther King day, I thumbed through some of Dr. King’s speeches, and I shuddered when I noticed again how often he spoke of love.  And he wasn’t talking about private love, as in romance or family.  He was talking about the big public, political issues of the day.  In the face of violence, he spoke of love as the way out.  Today, when there is controversy or frustration, all the talk is about rights, crushing our foes, blaming everybody else, with much fist waving.  As Christians, love is supposed to be right in our wheelhouse, but we’ve failed to talk about love in the real world, and we haven’t loved out there ourselves very well.



My Muslim friend Rose Hamid made national news when she showed up at a political rally with the sole purpose of stirring up some love.  When asked how she feels about “those people,” she said she doesn’t want them to be “those people,” but for all of us to be our people.  Once again, a non-Christian shows Christians how to be Christian better than many Christians can.  Church has labored long and hard to earn the reputation that we are a hard, judgmental people.  For this, we are sorry.
    We believe some beautiful, energizing, healing things about God, but sometimes we come off as dogmatic, wielding a Bible as if it were a weapon instead of a window into the heart of a good God.  Or sometimes we are just plain boring.  For this we are sorry.  I should add that we also believe you are beautiful, a thing of wonder, and we really do wonder what you think and how you feel.  We are learning to be better listeners.
     I hope you have fallen in love with Pope Francis as I have.  He was handed the reins of a church with much to apologize for:  priestly abuse, financial scandal, and an unfitting, conspicuous opulence in the face of poverty.  This pope delighted us by riding in a Ford Focus instead of a limousine, and sleeping in a modest hostel instead of the papal palace.  He offered the Swiss guard outside his office a chair.  He washed the feet of a Muslim woman, and tenderly embraced a man suffering from neurofibromatosis.  Instead of asserting papal infallibility, he everywhere asks people to pray for him.  His humility and immense compassion are palpable.

     Photographs of this pope are telling.  It is hard to find a photo in which he is not smiling, whereas it is hard to find a photo of his predecessors who are smiling.  Pope Francis reminds us that there is joy at the heart of life with God, and in our own selves.  That joy springs out of a mindset of mercy.  The pope loves mercy, enacts mercy everywhere, and has even proclaimed 2016 to be The Year of Mercy.
     I like that, and I’d begin this Year of Mercy by asking you out there for mercy.  We all need it desperately, and need to show it too, I believe.  When we in the church ask for mercy, we simultaneously commit to do better.  And we do. There still is a good, beautiful God.  As the Washington Post headline of Dec. 11, 2013 put it, “Like Pope Francis?  You’ll love Jesus.”