Monday, June 26, 2006

One church, four generations

Right now I am reading One Church, Four Generations by Gary McIntosh. While some of his generational research is right on, there are some thoughts that seems to miss the boat. Anyhow, it got me a thinkin’ about the church I serve. It is a small, rural, “family/fellowshipping” church in the cornfields of Indiana. Yet, for a church it’s size and with such a history, in my experience it seems rare in its diversity of age.

If all of our "regulars" showed up on a given Sunday then we would have 94 people. We are only averaging about 75 on a given Sunday. A few of our regulars throw off the annual stats by not being quite as regular by going to Florida for several months or being sick for extended periods of time. But if we count everyone who would usually show up at least 3 Sundays a month then we have 94. Out of that 94, according to my own guesses at the ages:

  • 24 are 65 and older
  • 26 are between 40 and 65
  • 17 are 19-40
  • 27 are under 18 (with 23 of our regular kids being 3rd grade and below)

Not too bad in a conference in which the average age is 69.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Sometimes I wish it were a lie

I heard on the radio a discussion about marriage. The “expert” was talking about dissatisfaction in marriages. It was suggested that many married individuals wished they could get out of their relationship. In fact, a Gallup Poll conducted in the United States found that 40 percent of married individuals had considered leaving their partners, and 20 percent said they were dissatisfied with their marriage about half the time. Stated another way, nearly half the couples in the United States currently divorce, and another 20 percent have seriously considered it. What would be the appeal of getting out of one’s marriage? Freedom, perhaps. A fresh start.

On some days, I wish it weren’t true. I do wonder what life may be like if it were all a lie. Perhaps, I too could taste the high life. Perhaps, I too could settle down. Maybe I would be a better husband and father if it weren’t true. Maybe I would live in the burbs, drive a new luxury SUV, golf on the weekends, have season tickets to my favorite sports teams, buy my wife expensive jewelry for holidays, and take my family on vacation cruises. I might even attend one of those classy mega churches with plasma TVs in the vestibule that tells the week's activities. If I am being honest I sometimes wonder what life would be like if it were a lie.

What if Jesus wasn’t God? What if God were just a creation of my imagination? What if all that stuff about death and resurrection, Holy Spirit and transformation was a myth? Would life be better if the Gospel of Jesus Christ was false? Would my life be better off if I wasn’t called into ministry? There are some days I wish it were not true.

But it is true. Jesus Christ is the son of God who came to this earth to die for the sins of all humanity. It is true that I am a sinner and I deserve nothing but death and damnation yet I am liberated by a cross and an empty grave. The fact of the matter is God calls us and the Spirit guides us into a life of discipleship. Jesus demands my all. I can’t have split allegiances. I can’t sleep in or play golf on Sunday mornings. I wouldn’t feel right driving a luxury SUV while people in my own community don’t have a home or health insurance or a job. I am a Christian. God has called me to be a pastor. So I have to live a life of self-sacrifice. And yes, there are days I am dissatisfied in my “marriage” to this calling. Recently, I have doubted my calling about every other day. Yet I am bound to go where God sends me in spite of the difficulty. My children may not understand. The congregation may make my life miserable.

There are days of depression. Today while making lunch for my family I just started to cry. Jesus said it will be like sheep among wolves. But Jesus also said that if we are to be his disciples we must deny ourselves, take up his cross, and follow after him. Follow him I must. I will follow him to the cross. I will speak the Truth even if it costs me everything. My conscience is bound. My life is not my own. I am committed to Jesus Christ. I don’t want to be a martyr, I want to be faithful; faithful to the Truth without selling out.

I tell myself that I am not in a popularity contest and that I should expect that people will not like me. After all I know that I can’t please everyone all of the time. People I thought I could trust turn on me. Sure some say they are behind me all the way – about 10 feet behind me when push comes to shove. And no matter what church I get appointed there will be some who dislike me. But it still hurts. The parking lots meetings give me concern. The petitions to try and force my hand cause me distress. Personal attacks made against me and my family cut deep. And those wounds are long to heal.

So in the midst of my tears I cry out to God, “I wish you were a lie. I wish Jesus Christ was just a crazy man who had grand illusions about himself and a flock of loyal followers who made a man into a deity.” If it weren’t true it would be like being in a difficult marriage only to find out one day that I am free to start over and live however I wanted. But it is true and that’s good news. So when I get past my stress I find joy. When I think past those few in the church who hate me, I can remember the few who love me and count on me. When I remember my calling and the support of my colleagues, when I think of those who have gone before me to speak the Truth, I am reminded that this journey with Jesus is no cake walk. Through the tears and hardships there is hope. I am free. My life is abundant. I am a child of the God of the universe. I am blessed with a wonderful family and much to be grateful for. And I have it all becase it is True.

When I get down these words bring me comfort:
As servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: in great endurance; in troubles, hardships and distresses; in beatings, imprisonments and riots; in hard work, sleepless nights and hunger; 6in purity, understanding, patience and kindness; in the Holy Spirit and in sincere love; in truthful speech and in the power of God; with weapons of righteousness in the right hand and in the left; through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report; genuine, yet regarded as impostors; known, yet regarded as unknown; dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything. (2 Corinthians 6)

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. (Philippians 4)

Friday, June 23, 2006

To be a Christian you have to be a little bit crazy

If it seems were crazy, it is to bring glory to God. And if we are not in our right minds, it is for your benefit. Whatever we do, it is because Christ’ love controls us. – 2 Corinthians 5:13-14

Author John Updike in his essay Incarnation observes that the entire Gospel narratives about Jesus are where “two worlds collide and Jesus overthrows common sense.” I think Updike nailed it. The Gospel’s of Jesus common sense is overthrown. Jesus said the last comes first, the meek and lowly overthrow the rich and powerful. Jesus said we are to hate our mothers and brothers, our spouse, our children and even ourselves. He says that his family are those who do God’s will. Everything about the Christian faith goes against the grain. In this world, everything that seems right is probably wrong, and everything that is prescribed by social wisdom really misses the point. It is all craziness. It is all foolishness from cover to cover. From Genesis 1 to Revelation 22. But that’s what makes it so special. That’s why I love being a Christian. This stuff isn’t the stuff of just any craziness. All these people they were not just any old lunatics. These people were crazy for God and in return God was crazy for them. Sure enough it is all foolishness, but as Paul says it is all God’s foolishness! To be a Christian you have to be a little bit crazy.

At least that is what Jesus’ own mother had to say about it. In Mark 3, we are told that Jesus’ ministry had been very successful. Jesus was drawing in the crowds. He was teaching this upside-down faith, healing, driving out demons, and all that great stuff that God does when God walks the earth. Yet, when his family comes to him early on in his ministry this is what we are told in verse 21. “When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind!”

He is out of his mind; he is crazy! And if we are going to follow after him, from time to time it might be good to be reminded that we are a little out of our mind. It might be good to be reminded that what we believe goes against the grain. And because we believe what we believe some people might just think we are crazy.

Bonhoeffer once said, “Salvation is free, but discipleship will cost you your life.” If I gave you the key to the lion’s cage down at the local zoo, and told you that you could sleep there tonight. Would you do it? No, you would be crazy to do it. It would probably cost you you life. You see, the same is true for Christianity. Because Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose form the grave for our sins, you have been given the key to unlock the riches of a life abundant. But it is risky. It may be just as crazy as going to live with the lions. Because when you give your life to Christ, you put your life on the line.

This is the crazy life called discipleship. Jesus no longer wants us to hold onto conventional wisdom. When we give our lives to Jesus everything will be transformed. No longer will we conform to the patterns of this world. When the two worlds collide of our old ways and Jesus’ new ways then Jesus’ ways will prove to overthrow common sense. So c’mon I invite you, with Jesus Christ, to get a little bit crazy.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

I am a human and I am a sinner

We tend to think we are pretty good people. I am not sure why we believe such a thing. It may be that we quantify our “goodness” based on a scale of what appears “normal.” We are good as long as we think, act, sound, and smell like those who we consider to be good. If we are good people we will listen to the right music, vote for the right politician, hug our children, kiss our wives, and call our parents; maybe then God will be pleased.

Of course, it is all a lie. We are not as good as we may want others to believe. We are sinners. I am not pointing fingers at the people “out there.” All of us, believers and unbelievers, struggle with the sinful, rotten-to-the-core self. “For all have sinned and fallen short…” Paul writes in Romans. According to both Scripture and our United Methodist doctrine, all humanity is fallen, totally depraved, tainted by something called “original sin.” Considering what we are taught in Genesis, I prefer to say that none of us are anything but “dirt-bags.” Further, none of us deserve anything but the punishment of an eternity in Hell.

Now, I am aware that preachers in the 21st-Century are not supposed to talk about such nasty rumors. People do not want to get up early on Sunday morning, forego the golf course, yard work, Meet the Press, and small crowds at Wal-Mart, to hear the pastor tell them that they are “dirt-bags.” But, that is what I do. Perhaps, I am not always so blunt. Like Paul shows in his epistles, there are lots of ways to remind the congregation that we are still sinners.

I tend to think that part of the problem of commitment to Christ and His Body, the Church, both in the world and in the membership, is that we tend to think too highly of ourselves. We think we are good enough… good enough for God and certainly good enough to enter the Heavenly Gates. Why bother with God and The Bible and all of those commands? Why do we need the Church and all that talk about discipleship, tithes, evangelism, fellowship, and transformation? If acts of piety and/or charity, being a “good person,” acting “normal,” or simply holding to a list of certain beliefs is good enough, then we simply need God to notice how good and right we are.

Wesley wanted us, Methodists, to understand our status as “dirt bags” when he gave us Article VII of The Articles of Religion:

Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelegians do vainly talk), but in the corruption of the nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and of his own nature inclined to evil, and that continually. (Italics mine)

And so, humanity sorely needs divine grace. In my own life, I cannot begin to praise myself for being such a good father, loyal husband, superb preacher, compassionate pastor, and devoted Christian. In the life of the Church, we Christians should not begin to think too much about all the great works we do. It is dangerous to get swept away by such false ideas. What we need to remember is that we can do no good on our own.

Sure, we do good, all the good we can, as Wesley directs. We manage to do lots of great things. Christians, particularly United Methodists, are nothing if not mission-minded with a heart for loving the least, last, little, and lost. We help the poor, feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, care for the abused, share the good news all around the world. Yet, any good we do is the work of God in our lives. It is only by God’s grace, that we accomplish any good work. God uses us in our poor, sorry, sinful states to work out the master plan of salvation.If being a pastor has taught me anything, it is the need for divine grace. We can never be good or “normal” enough.

We cannot earn God’s grace. Grace is an “indescribable gift” given to believers and unbelievers alike. God loves us just as we are. This is great news. Though the world is fallen, good can be done; though we are sinners, we can do good. We can be good spouses, children, neighbors, employees, and fellow committee members and pew-sitters. More importantly, the world can still be redeemed (2 Peter 3:8-15a). All of this can be done only by God’s amazing grace through the blood of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit in God’s Holy Church.

Friday, June 16, 2006

North Indiana and South Indiana to study merger

courtesy of Indiana Area Office
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – The North Indiana and South Indiana United Methodist Annual Conferences came one step closer to uniting into one conference following an affirmative vote tallied from both conferences during the Friday afternoon session of South Annual Conference meeting at Indiana University and announced Saturday morning, June 10.

The affirmative vote asks Indiana Area Bishop Michael Coyner to appoint a task force to develop a plan for uniting the two conferences for a recommendation to the 2007 Indiana annual conferences. The plan will be developed with input from all constituencies, both laity and clergy, of Hoosier United Methodists as well as all United Methodist-related institutions and agencies in Indiana. Information and plans from other conferences and denominations also will be sought.

The South Conference totals were 544 in favor, 138 opposed and 1 abstention.
The North Conference totals were 708 in favor, 167 opposed and 5 abstentions.
Eighty percent of both conferences favored to continue talking about a new conference.

If a plan of unity is approved by both annual conferences next year, the conferences would seek approval for a plan of unity from the United Methodist North Central Jurisdiction. The jurisdiction oversees nine-state region of the United States. The new conference would come into being following the jurisdiction’s blessings probably in May or June of 2009 or 2010, according to Coyner.

Friday, June 09, 2006

An apology

I’m sorry.

For all of you reading this who have been hurt – emotionally, spiritually, or even physically – by the Church, I apologize. I wish I knew your pain. I wish I could feel your anguish. If only I could take it away from you and put it on myself, but I can’t. Perhaps, it is even ridiculous for me to think I can apologize for what others have done to you.

I can’t know what your life has been like since that pastor betrayed you. There is no way for me to know what it was like when “The Holy Huddle” made you the local punching-bag. I will never comprehend what it must feel like for you to hear those stories from your children about being made fun of by the “church kids.” The best I can muster through a blog is a sincere apology. I am truly sorry.

You must understand that the church has always been unfaithful. God’s people have always been two-faced. The prophets called us prostitutes and hypocrites. They were right. We who have been called out by God to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ have used our resources unfaithfully. We who have been called to be God’s mouth-piece have said some nasty things. We have gossiped, lied, slandered, murdered, warred, and abused our God-given authority in ways that are beyond my understanding. Honestly, the Church is itself the greatest objection to the truthfulness of Christianity. What the church has done throughout the ages and even today justifies atheism. We can be ugly, mean-spirited, and petty. It is tragic. The Church should be the greatest proof for the truthfulness of Jesus Christ. Yet, we often don’t look like Jesus at all.

What is worse is that in our attempt to reach out to the lost we sell-out once again. We surrender The Truth of Jesus for some vague “truth” without context. In our attempts to make up for the decline of new converts and members, the Church has tried every new idea and joined every movement. We want to be relevant to you. We so badly want you to come to our church rather than worship God we will entertain you and offer self-help classes. We will cut staff, missions, and outreach efforts in order to build bigger buildings with the latest technology. We will sing songs that warm our hearts instead of challenge our living. Some pastors want to be in the “inner circle” of the latest spiritual trends.

It seems that every few weeks there’s a new book outlining the newest spiritual formula by which we can get all that God has to offer us, be it “victorious” Christian living or spiritual blessings of all kinds. We can’t wait to get on the bandwagon hoping that maybe this will be the missing piece that we’ve been looking for. The Church and Her leaders don’t attempt to be counter-cultural anymore; we have simply become a sub-culture of the dominant, market-driven, pop-psychology culture. Our goal is no longer to “make disciples,” instead we desire to “make you feel good.” This is part of the reason we have been so unfaithful. We are so distracted and that we overlook the wounds we have caused.

It is time we repent. It is time we admit that we are wrong. An apology is long overdue. And it is time that we do something about it. It is past time that we trade in our intellectual, apologetic answers for the plain Truth. Our hope in other institutions and ideologies must be swapped for The Gospel of Jesus Christ. To be faithful, the Church must now be The Body of Christ. This is our confession and we plea for your pardon. I don’t blame you for being upset. And I will pray everyday that you will find it in your heart to forgive us, to come back to us, to hold us accountable, and to help us be more faithful and loving.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Summary of North Indiana Conference actions

This is just a quick and brief “newsflash” on some of the actions of the North Indiana Conference Annual Conference held June 1-3, 2006 at Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN.

Merger - Regarding the recommendation to continue conversation about a possible merger with the South Indiana Conference the vote was done with a written ballot and it was announced the ballots would be sealed until after the South Indiana Conference has a similar discussion and vote at its Annual Conference on June 8-10. Thus, at this time the result of the vote by the NIC is unknown.

Capital Campaign for Camps – The following were approved: (1) No camp properties will be sold at this time, (2) The immediate need is for 16 million dollars to upgrade facilities, (3) A study will be conducted to determine the campaign goal based on the feasibility of what the Conference can raise, (4) Following the feasibility study and endorsement by CF&A a Capital Funds Campaign will be launched, and (6) Projects will not be undertaken unless either 100% of the funds are in hand or 50% is in hand and CF&A has given approval to move forward based on pledge amounts.

Per Diem – CFA had recommended there be no per diem for lay delegates and others beginning in 2007. However, this was successfully amended to continue paying per diem in 2007 including for lay delegates.

Conference Budget – The Conference Total Budget for 2007 was approved at $10,063,732 plus the addition of the per diem that is a $40,000 item in the 2006 Budget.

Thanks to my friend Russ Phillips at Now Let's See blog and the Laity NICUMC web site for this great summary. 20 years from now, more or less, most clergy in our conference will be thanful for Russ and his watchdog approach to conference action. Thank you Russ for your ministry. You have my support!
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