Monday, December 28, 2009

O What a Decade it's been!

As 2009 comes to a close there are the obligatory end of year and sense we are closing out a decade the end of decade lists and summaries. These are cool because they allow us to look back and reminisce and they are also annoying and cliche because there is a list about everything. But I thought if everyone else can do it why not I, especially since I am laid up with a bum leg. So without any further ado here are a few events in my life over the last decade.

I would be in a lot of trouble if I did not begin with getting married. But in truth I cannot think of any other even that has changed my life as drastically and happily. There is that corny line from Jerry Maguire "You complete me." Well not to get too mushy or corny myself, my wife makes me whole. She offers support, she challenges me in many ways, and she loves me unconditionally which believe me is not easy. I am not an easy person to live with, ask any of my former roommates. The great thing about our marriage is that we work together as a team. This is not to say we don't have our problems but we work through them. Communication is the key.

Another event that has forever altered who I am is serving as a pastor. I am still serving my in first appointment and I am entering in my 5th year at Liberty/Rehoboth UMC. I have learned so much about people, about myself, and about God at these churches. I think I have learned more from my parishioners than I have taught them. I also have met some great colleagues who offer support and friendship.

My time at Vanderbilt Divinity School also changed my life this decade. Before beginning my studies at VDS my idea of theological discourse was Rick Warren and the folks on TBN (don't laugh). The faculty and my fellow students taught me to see the world as a follower of Christ and all the complexities and difficulties that accompany that. I also learned a lot about my Methodist heritage and the more I learn the more I realized that I am an unabashed Methodist.

I made some great friends many of whom I met this decade. These are people who I can depend on and trust. Most importantly they accept me for who I am without pretension.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Psychic Pastors

One of the biggest frustrations I have found in ministry so far is staying in the loop when it comes to parishioners going to the hospital or being sick in general. I usually find out a few days later (usually on Sunday morning). I want to be there for my people when they need me, but I do not read minds. Another problem is with visitations. I always ask before I come over and I usually get some kind of excuse "I'm really busy this week" or "I'm not feeling well today" which tell me that they really don't want me to come. But then I hear complaints that I do not visit as much as I should. I am somewhat introverted and so I ere on the side of respecting personal space and privacy. I really wish that people could just be open and honest. "Hey I would love to have you over for coffee." or "Would you like to join us for lunch after church?" That hasn't happened yet, in four years.

Is this something I should encourage from the pulpit? Should I just tell them to be more open and blunt about wanting a visit? I really think that some people feel that the pastor should just know when to call or when to come and when they don't the parishioner gets mad. To all the church folks out there remember this, pastors have many gifts from God but one we do not have is psychic abilities, we can not read mind. I know that I would like a more open relationship with my parishioners where they feel comfortable asking for pastoral care instead of me having to guess and make assumptions.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Wicked and Decitful Mouths: Psalm 109

I must admit, the religious right in the US knows how to make a buck while spreading their pseudo-gospel. Now there are "Pray for Obama: Psalm 109" t-shirts, bumper stickers, hats, oven mitts, you name it. Psalm 109:8 reads "Let his days be few; and let another take his office." KJV So, facetious or not this is a prayer that Obama's presidency be short. Does it infer a violent end? The next verse reads "Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow." That sounds somewhat ominous to me. But I am sure you already know this. It has been blogged about and written about a lot lately.

However, I want to look at this situation from another angle. Read the Psalm 109 in its entirety. First, Psalm 109 is attributed to David and for argument sake let's make that assumption. David, a biblical hero and presumably a hero to the Christian right, is lamenting over the fact that his enemies are plotting against him. He is king over Israel and his enemies are hoping that his days in office are short. So, by using this particular Psalm in connection with Obama they are placing Obama in the position of King David, chosen and anointed by God. Obama is King David. OOPS! Not only this, the people who created this are those with "wicked and deceitful mouths are opened against me, speaking against me with lying tongues" Psalm 109:2 actually that sounds pretty accurate to me. Also, "Let my assailants be put to shame" v.28, again this is David/Obama writing. Again, "May my accusers be clothed with dishonor; may they be wrapped in their own shame as in a mantle" v.29 Here again, those who created these t-shirts are now the accursed and dishonored and should be put to shame. I really don't think this is the theme they were going for.

What lessons can those persons learn from this? First, proof-texting does not work and often makes you look like an idiot. You might want to read the ENTIRE psalm and understand the context before printing t-shirts and aprons. Second, if this is the best you can come up with give it a rest, really you are only making yourselves look dumb. Finally, if you really believe that the Bible is the inerrant and infallible word of God, don't you think God gets a little peeved when people misuse it.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Humans and Monsters

Two events in the last month have inspired me to write this blog. One is the shooting at Ft. Hood, Texas and the other is a local tragedy where a mother and her two sons were murdered when their house was set on fire in northern Giles County, TN. I am not going to get into details about these crimes. I do not know the details anyway. However, one aspect in the reaction to these crimes has me greatly disturbed. In this age of Facebook comments and Twitter tweets, many people, many of whom claim Christianity, wrote some pretty unchristian things on Twitter, Facebook, and the comments section of news websites. These include words of vengeance and anger, but not justice. There were words like, “he [the suspect in the arson case] deserves what happens to him”, “Forget 3 sentences, go ahead and crank up the chair. The GUILTY MUST SUFFER !!!”, “He needs to face what the victims had to face. But after all is said and done God will punish him trust me.” These are direct quotations from Facebook about the suspect arrested in the arson case in Giles County, TN, Although, there were several other comments that offers some remnants of grace, most where of this caliber.

Let me say first that I understand the thinking behind these comments. I understand the desire for vengeance and to take and eye for an eye and a life for a life. There are times, like after 9/11 when I felt this way and I don’t know how I would feel if the life of a loved one were taken from me. I did not know the mother or her sons nor did I know any person at Ft. Hood, Texas. I am coming from a purely objective position, but maybe it is the right position to shed some light on this situation.

When people make comments like these and TV commentators like Nancy Grace call perpetrators “monsters”, “animals”, and “demons” they are dehumanizing the criminal. This is a natural way of reacting to a horrid act of violence. I feel we do this for two reasons. First, dehumanizing violent criminals offers us comfort because we then believe that no decent human being could commit crimes like these. There is no way that a human being with a heart and a soul could commit such an act of violence so there must be something subhuman about them. This is just an isolated incident and I do not have anything to fear. We leave these monsters to the other monsters like Osama Bin Laden, Timothy McVeigh, Ted Bundy, and Jeffery Dahmer.

Secondly, we dehumanize them because if they are not human then we hold no bloodguilt for imagining all kinds of horrible and terrible punishments being laid upon them, including eternal torment in Hell. We can exterminate them like vermin. We can exact vigilante justice. We can see this mentality in the comments listed above and those like them.

Of course, these men who committed these crimes are not monsters or demons or animals; they are human. They are someone’s sons. This is even scarier because we all have the potential to do evil. We all have the potential to snap and with the right weapons or even our bare hands we have the potential to kill. Now let me be clear on something. Understanding that these men are human beings and not animals does not absolve them from facing justice for their crimes. They should be held accountable for their acts of violence.

However, there is a great deal of harm in dehumanizing the perpetrators of violent crimes. It harms those of us who are left behind and it does not bring justice to the victims. If we dismiss these people as monsters then we will never fully understand the motives behind their crimes. What drove them to commit such horrid crimes? We must seek the answer to the question of why? We must understand the warning signs of mental illness and not dismiss them. Only then can we begin to prevent tragedies like this from happening again. We see this in the shooting at Ft. Hood. Looking back there were all kinds of warning signs, but no one took them seriously.

Finally, when criminals are dehumanized victims and their families are never given a full measure of justice. They deserve to understand why their loved ones where taken from them. Most importantly they are never given a chance to forgive and begin to heal. One cannot forgive a monster, but a human can be forgiven. Forgiveness is a vital and the most difficult step in healing. There are no monsters only humans created in the image of God. They need a human who has a soul worth redeeming in order to forgive.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

iTunes Christianity

iTunes has revolutionized the music industry. The days of buying an entire album just to get a few songs are gone. Today consumers can pick and choose the only songs and shows they want and place them on their computers, iPods, and burn them to CDs. I doubt there will be any more concept albums like Dark Side of the Moon or Sgt. Peppers because music executives only want singles that they can market on iTunes for $.99 or $1.29 a pop. This is only one aspect of the consumer trend of customization. Today consumers have thousands of choices and thousands more choices within choices. We can build computers, cars, clothes, and other items to our exact specifications without any excess baggage we do not want.

This mentality is no longer limited to consumer products. eHarmony can provide us with a perfect mate scientifically selected to be compatible, doing away with all that nasty getting to know you stuff. This mentality, naturally, is now a part of our spiritual lives. Parade Magazine along with CBS Sunday Morning presented a snapshot of the American spiritual landscape with some very interesting results. Americans now pick and choose elements from one or several religious traditions and combine them in a customized package. I call this iTunes Christianity.

Americans are embracing the parts of the Christian faith that they want and ignoring the rest. Americans want churches to meet their increasingly high demands and if one church or denomination fails at this task they simply move on to another. This is indicative of the consumer nature of Christianity where spirituality or faith matters are commodities to be bought and sold, just look at the religion section at Barnes and Noble or turn on TBN.

The report on CBS Sunday morning included an interview with Randall Balmer, professor of Religion at Columbia University and Episcopal priest who said that Christians today have no problem being a member of a denomination while practicing Tai Chi in the park, consulting astrological tables, and doing yoga when they get home from work and see no problem with the mix. Another person interviewed was Garrett Sarley who was an Episcopal, then a Catholic, (do you see a pattern here) and now is a yoga instructor and CEO of a yoga center. He sums up the issue pretty well. “People start to look for how do I produce the experience that I want from my religion without having to adopt the beliefs that don’t seem to match or don’t seem relevant with how I’m living my life.” I will delve into this statement a little later.

This does not just include men and women doing yoga at the Y or checking their horoscope in the local newspaper. This also includes those using their Christianity to promote a certain political or ideological platform. These persons focus on the limited aspects of the Christian faith that match their social political agendas. These are both liberal and conservative. We must ask ourselves, are we using Scripture and our faith tradition to support our politics or are our political beliefs shaped by our faith? One example of this making its way around the Christian blogosphere is the new Conservative translation of the Bible. This translation will literally cut out those “liberal” verses from the Bible. You know the whole taking care of the least of these and love you neighbor business. Instead, it will look for Biblical support of capitalism and private property. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

In any case iTunes Christianity becomes more about personal fulfillment and happiness rather than worshiping and serving God. It becomes what does God and the church do for me? If the answer is not satisfactory then we move on to the next church or the next religion. Garrett Sarley makes it clear. People want the benefits of religion without any of the sacrifice. People want the grace and the good feelings without any of the discipleship and accountability.

The truth is that the real joy of practicing a religious faith is in the discipline. It is in the service. Jesus taught to seek the Kingdom of God first and all other things will come as well. The Hindu and Buddhist faiths teach that with discipline comes enlightenment, albeit in different ways. Being a Christian is not about self-help or self-service but the elimination of the focus on the self and a renewed focus upon God and neighbor.

I also think that religious faith; especially Christian faith should not make you feel good about yourself all the time. If the teachings of Christ do not make you cringe at yourself at least every now and then perhaps you are not being exposed to the fullness of the Christian faith. Discipline and discipleship lead us to be more Christlike and require us to respond to the love and grace of God by conforming to Christ. We have to take the whole thing or none at all. We cannot pick and choose those things we like and ignore the difficult or uncomfortable aspects of Christianity.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Eight years later...

It is hard t o believe that eight years have gone by since 9/11/2001. We all know where we were when those planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. We all still remember how our hearts broke when the towers fell. We knew that thousands had just lost their lives. Eight years later, where are we in our recovery? I do not speak about those individuals who lost family members and friends on 9/11, but instead I want to talk about the United States as a community. We are a community despite our rampant individualism. Unfortunately, if takes an event of great tragedy to remind us that we are a community.

Any book on grieving will tell you that it is a process and that each person grieves in different ways, but each person must move forward, however slowly, through the process. I do not believe that our country grieved over 9/11. Yes, there were countless TV specials, as I am sure there will be today, and we place our flags on our porches and we post our special 9/11 Facebook statuses. However, I believe that we never really dealt with our collective pain and the gaping wound we suffered as a community on 9/11. We were encouraged to shop after 9/11 and go to baseball and football games. We were told to go out and buy a house or buy a Ford or the terrorists will win. Our leaders, with the exception of some of our religious leaders, never told us to grieve and so our wound never healed. Perhaps, we tried to ignore our pain and now we only bring it our one day a year. Now our unhealed and ignore wound is festering. It festers with the infection of racism, bigotry, and profiling. It led us into two wars with suspicious, at best, connections to Al Qaeda and 9/11. Our grief and our unhealed wound lead us to create a false idol of Americana, where everything is alright as long as you wear a flag pin and put your hand over your heart. We remember 9/11 one day a year and for the other 364 days we will sweep our grief under the rug. However, we must remember that when there is not grieving there is not healing and there is no forgiveness.

To speak of forgiveness for those 19 men on those planes and the countless others who planned and funded the attacks is blasphemous in the United States. How could we, as a community, ever forgive anyone who inflicted such a tragic blow to us? Let me be clear, forgiveness does not mean that Osama Bin Laden and the other perpetrators should not be held accountable and brought to justice. However, forgiveness does mean that we begin to heal the wound of our community. The radical message of the cross is that the same forgiveness that washes over us as Americans washes over those 19 men.

What unity there was in the days and weeks following 9/11 has long since passed. We are divided and angry. Perhaps the fragility of our unity was due to it being based on anger and fear rather than grief and forgiveness. After eight years, I think it is time to begin.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

People of Wal-Mart: People of God

There is a website sweeping the Internet and social networking sites called People of Wal-Mart The premise of this site is people take pictures of people at Wal-Mart dressed in ridiculous or less than desirable clothes or with mullets or funny in some other way. People look and laugh at those who are dressed worse than we are and maybe we feel a little better about ourselves. I must admit that the first time I saw this site I rolled with laughter and I wondered where people’s heads and pride have gone. Perhaps this site is like “You might be a redneck…” where people make fun of themselves a little but because they know they are guilty of the same thing. However, in reading the RCL texts for this week (Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost Year B), I may have a change of heart. James 2:2-4 NSRV reads

For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

We all get a chuckle at the guy with the socks and sandals or the woman with the tube-top a few sizes too small, but what happens when we allow our chuckle to become a prejudice? Are we placing ourselves at a higher level or class when we look at these pictures? I confess that these thoughts cross my mind when I see people in dirty jeans or perhaps those who have not bathed in awhile. What if that person was not a Wal-Mart but at church? How would our attitudes change? Too many times we judge others and ourselves by the clothes that we wear and unfortunately this happens too often at church. The biggest controversy after worship music seems to be the dress code. Should suits and dresses still be the norm or is it anything goes? Does God not care about our dress or should be present our best before God? These seem like irrelevant questions in the scheme of church growth, but what happens when growth works and the people who come in are not what the people expected?

There is nothing wrong with a little humor, especially when we laugh at ourselves. However, we must always remember that the people of Wal-Mart are also the people of God created in the same Imago Dei as the rest of us. Let us not pass over those dressed poorly in favor for those dressed in the Rolex. Remember, Bernie Madoff probably wore a Rolex.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

The Health Care Debate Brings Out the Worst in Humanity

Well unless you have been living under a rock somewhere in the desert you know there is a health care reform debate going on in this country and it has gone out of control. This post will not engage in a “for or against” argument of the proposed bill and I will only say that reform is needed in some way. Instead, I want to look at the debate itself and how it continues to bring out the worst in people both as Americans and as humans. There is a laundry list of problems that I see with the debate.


The use of scare-tactics and fear mongering is sickening. The use of misleading and outright untrue advertising and political commentary has spread like wildfire and only grown in the depths of lunacy culminating in the threat of so-called “Obama death panels” to sit in judgment of the elderly in order to decide the value of a particular human life. This is not only untrue it is irresponsible for elected officials and so-called “news” people to propagate this as fact. This was seen during the election against Obama when McCain/Palin tried to throw everything they could and nothing stuck. It failed then and it will fail now.

The truth is that those “great Americans” on Fox News who scare you with such false accusations are not doing so in order to help you. They don’t care about you. They are using you. They are scaring you in order to use you to further their own agenda. It is as simple as that.

Anger, Hatred, and Racism

Yoda has a great line in a rather disappointing Star Wars Episode 1: A Phantom Menace. When speaking to young Anakin Skywalker he says: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” There is no better example of this than the health care reform debate. People get scared and then they get angry. We have seen this many times in these town hall meetings. People scream, make signs, and wear t-shirts expressing their anger over the false facts they were fed the night before on Glenn Beck.

This anger leads to hatred and the inevitable ad hominem attacks. Obama and the Democrats are liberals and socialists and un-American and un-Christian. If you support health care reform then you are automatically lumped into the depths of Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, and Fidel Castro. You not only become un-American, you become subhuman. I have heard as much from conservative talk show hosts. If a person is subhuman then his or her opinion is worthless and he or she can be shut up by force if needed. It really ticks me off when Americans are compared with Hitler. My grandfather and Obama’s grandfather both served in WWII fighting the Nazis and for anyone, Democrat or Republican, to accuse someone of being a Nazi is incorrigible.

Talking about hate leads to racism. We have our first African-American president. I wonder if a white president, even a liberal one, would face the same resistance and fear mongering. We have heard every racist comment one can imagine. Obama is a Muslim. Obama studied at a school for terrorists. This racism culminated with the so-called “birthers” who make the ludicrous accusation that Obama was born in Kenya, this again leads to fear and more and deeper racism. For anyone to make the claim that the election of a Black president somehow ended racism in the United States is foolish and misguided at best.


All of these heated feelings have led and will lead to violence. Scuffles and fights are breaking out in these town hall meetings. Congressmen are burned and lynched in effigy. Several people have been arrested for carrying or attempting to carry firearms into these meetings. I pray that it doesn’t happen, but I really think someone is going to be killed at one of these meetings. I also pray for the safety of our leaders, especially President Obama. I do not always agree with their politics, but they are still people with kids and families.

Selfishness and Greed

Another hateful aspect of humanity that this debate has brought out is selfishness and greed. People feel that money and health care will be taken away from them and given to some undeserving vagrant or worse still immigrant. It is in times of economic downturn when people recede into their shells like a scared turtle and refuse to help anyone but themselves and their immediate families. This selfishness is not limited to money, but I hear many people say that “My America” is gone and it is replaced by a socialist state. What is “My America”? First of all I thought it was “our” America. Secondly, if it is anyone’s American it is the Native peoples who had their land stolen by Europeans.

We cannot allow the debate to continue to deteriorate because at best nothing will be accomplished and at worst someone will die. We need to return to the things that united us rather than divide us. We are all Americans and we all need to work together and listen to one another rather than shout one another down. Remember the words of our greatest President Abraham Lincoln.

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Friday, August 7, 2009

Making and Learning From Mistakes

I made a mistake today. Without getting into too much detail I did not make a pastoral visit when I should have. Instead of listening to my gut, I listened to my head and to another person and I waited. I waited too long for some people's comfort. There were some hurt feelings both theirs and mine. Sometimes it takes mistakes to learn lessons. Unfortunately, they don't/can't teach this stuff in seminary one must learn it on her/his own. I think the best move is to admit you're wrong and learn a lesson from the mistake. Is there a line between one's gut and one's head? How do we know which one to listen to?

Monday, July 20, 2009

How Far Have We Come?

Forty years ago today Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin took small steps for men and giant leaps for humankind. Marking this tremendous accomplishment makes me wonder who far we have come? Technology has made gigantic leaps forward. Today's average cell phone has 5x the computing power of the entire Apollo 11 Command module. Computers are in millions of homes and astronauts are tweeting from orbit things that were only found in science-fiction in 1969. We continue to move forward technologically.

We have just elected our first African-American president, something else that was unheard of and even unimagined in 1969. The gap between whites and blacks have narrowed, but are still prominent. How far have we come socially? The KKK recently rallied in my hometown of Pulaski, TN, although to much less fanfare than in years past. Tonight HBO airs a documentary called Prom Night in Mississippi. This documentary details a small town in Mississippi where the white parents want to have a "whites only" prom and in response Morgan Freeman, a Mississippi native, pays for another prom but only if it is integrated. I have not seen the entire film, unfortunately I don't have HBO, but in the clips I have seen this is nothing more than vicious latent racism. "I don't want my white daughter dancing at the prom with a black boy." Although they have no problem with the same black boy running the football or shooting the three-pointer.

Could we go back to the moon? Sure, it wouldn't be that hard relatively speaking. We have come light-years forward in technology. Is there still segregation and blatent racism? Unfortunately we haven't come that far...yet.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Is this the death knell for the ECUSA?

Most of you have seen the remarks made by Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the 2009 ECUSA General Convention. Bishop Jefferts Schori stated that "the great Western heresy" is that "we can be saved as individuals, that any of us alone can be in right relationship with God." She goes on to say that "It’s caricatured in some quarters by insisting that salvation depends on reciting a specific verbal formula about Jesus. That individualist focus is a form of idolatry, for it puts me and my words in the place that only God can occupy, at the center of existence, as the ground of being."

She is referring to the "sinner's prayer" which is a staple at tent meetings, Billy Graham revivals, and other evangelical extravaganzas. Perhaps, there is a point in the midst of her comments, although we must dig and make assumptions in order to find it. There is a problem when salvation becomes "fire insurance" and is promoted and proclaimed as only an individual pursuit. There is a notion that "I got saved now I am going to go home." Salvation, as Wesley thought, is a life long pursuit that is done in a community of love, grace, and accountability. There is a distinction between this kind of individualistic salvation and establishing a true community of believers. She is calling for the latter as opposed to the former. This is the point that I think Bishop Jefferts Schori was trying to make.

However, her comments or rather her poor attempt to place them in context allows for other assumptions to be made. Is baptism not an individual pursuit? Is the baptism ritual not "reciting a specific verbal formula about Jesus?" Where does this heresy begin and end for her? She needed to be much more specific and clear when making a serous charge of heresy. She is calling out Evangelicals using the same tactics that they use. You faith is not genuine because it is not like mine.

There are many people, including Episcopalians, Methodists, and other mainline Protestant Christians, who began their faith with a "sinner's prayer" at camp or at a revival, etc. In calling this heresy, Bishop Jefferts Schori is cutting their faith at the knees. Some might feel that her comments insist that their faith is disingenuous or false. I don't know. Her comments leave a lot of room for interpretation and even misuse.

The ECUSA is already experiencing schism and possible exclusion from the Anglican communion because of its stance on gay and lesbian clergy. I can imagine that the ECUSA and its members are hurting and need words of healing and these were not words of healing. They were a ideological declaration of war on a large swath of Christian history. Her words cut at the heart of many people's faith. I think I understand her meaning, but it should have been done in a better way. I would be interested to hear the thoughts of Episcopalians.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Enough is Enough

I am so sick of all the negativity, anger, and hatred being spewed forth in this country, much of it from so-called Christians. There is nothing wrong about being passionate about issues, but we are to the point where dialog is pointless because it always degrades into a shouting match and an insult-fest. We have to be open to others ideas and *gasp* we have to be open to the notion that we might be wrong. It seems I cannot engage in a discussion without someone making snide, sarcastic comments or insinuating that I am stupid or a heretic or a stupid heretic. Maybe it is time for me to take a vacation from the blogosphere.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A Number's Game?

Somewhere on the blogosphere (forgive me for not giving full credit I could not find the original post) I came across this website for the North Alabama Conference of the UMC. This "dashboard" as they call it gives weekly updates for attendance, baptisms, professions of faith, total membership, and apportionments paid. Participating churches, I do not know if participation is mandatory, plug in number weekly and the corresponding measurement device responds accordingly. Also, if a church does particularly well or poorly they are placed on a kind of honor roll or delinquency list. I watched the instructional video on the website and the narrator claimed that this is a tool to measure the life of a church, district, and the conference as a whole.

My first question is this, can we judge the life of a church, district, or conference only by statistics, which is the only thing displayed on this website? My answer is an emphatic no. Larger churches in larger cities are by their very nature going to bring in more members, attendance, baptisms, etc, of course the inverse is also true. Numbers do not tell the whole story. Numbers do not tell of the love that is in a community. Numbers do not tell of the number of hours spent helping those in need. Numbers do not tell of the importance of a local church to a community.

That is not to say that numbers are not helpful and that a website like this does not provide some motivation for growth. However, the Church should not be just about numbers, but is seems more and more like numbers are all that count. At charge conferences and year-end reports the statistics are very important, maybe too important. We spend too much time treating the Church like a business where the only thing that counts is the bottom line. This is unhealthy and in a lot of ways unfair. The small churches will always be at a disadvantage. Growth is vital because a church that does not grow is dying, but judging a church strictly by the numbers does not tell the whole story.

All that being said, I am looking at this as an casual observer without any direct knowledge of why this system was implemented. I do not want to make absolute claims without all the facts. This is my opinion from my limited view.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Thoughts on the Tennessee Annual Conference

A few things struck me today during Annual Conference. One was the lack of understanding of UMC polity by laity and clergy alike. I think there are two reasons for this. One very few people, especially laity, take the time to learn the basic concepts of UMC polity. I am not saying that lay persons should be fluent in every aspect, but if you are going to make the commitment to be a delegate to AC then you should have a working knowledge of UMC polity. The lack of understanding leads at best to confusion and at worst to manipulation by those who DO understand the polity.

Secondly, I was pleased at the Christian manner of the debate and discussion on these amendments. There were passionate arguments for and against each one, but everyone was respectful. I don't know what the results were and think they may remain confident until all ACs have a chance to vote.

Finally, I am impressed that we are running, as of this afternoon, on schedule. (I might have just jinxed the whole thing.) Everyone has been on the ball with the reports and very concise and direct. If we could only do this every year.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Let's Get Serious About It

The Methodist Laity Reform Movement voted for the Iowa Annual Conference to support a Marriage Protection Amendment in the Iowa Constitution. This would revoke the rights for same-sex marriages passed in Iowa recently. Here is a excerpt from their statement "We are for one-man-one-woman marriage as an essential foundation for a strong, stable society. There are strong secular reasons to protect marriage as a union of one man and one woman." OK, fine. If we are going to protect marriage then let's get serious about it.

If we are going to protect marriage then the next logical step is to ban divorce. There is nothing more damaging to the sanctity of marriage than the dissolution of said marriage. In fact, Jesus makes an explicit statement against divorce. So, right after we pass an amendment to protect marriage by preventing same-sex marriages then the next amendment should ban divorce. The Church should defrock all ordained divorced clergy; after all they are examples held to a higher standard by the community. Let's take all divorced laity to church trial and have them removed from the rolls. It's for their own good. They need to learn that marriage is a "God-ordained lifelong covenant between one man and one woman." If it is lifelong, then let's get serious about it.

If we fight tooth and nail to prevent gays and lesbians from celebrating lifelong commitments to one another and we do nothing to ban divorce then we are nothing but hypocrites.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Church of Convenience?

On yesterday's CBS Sunday Morning there was a story about a church in Daytona, FL located in an old drive-in movie theater. I believe it is a Disciples of Christ church, not that denominational labels are relevant to this post. The congregants would drive up in their cars and listen to the service from a speaker. There was an usher who walked around collecting offerings and distributing the elements of Holy Communion. The people there seemed to like it because they didn't have to dress up. They could bring their dogs, snacks, etc, and they didn't have to leave the comfort of their car. It was convenient for them. The pastor even reached in the window and shook their hand as they drove away. They had community because they met for coffee in the snack shop before and after the service. Which makes no sense to me, why get out for coffee and donuts, but not for worship.

People gathered in their cars, isolated from the elements and also from one another. This was not a community; it was an amalgamation of individual bubbles. Community is about joining together without the separation of plastic, steel, and glass. How can the Church be the Church without the ability to touch, to join voices, and to be under one roof or at least in the same proximity to one another? This was a cute story, but I believe that this story is indicative of a deeper problem within the American Church and culture. We want our isolation and our privacy. We don't want the Church to knock on our doors or get involved in our lives. We want our hour of salvation and then go home without anyone talking to us or getting too personal. We don't want people to notice when we skip a Sunday and call to ask if we are OK. That is too personal, it is too nosy. How then can the Church be the Church? That is one reason why, I believe, the mega-churches are so popular. If you are in a congregation of 5,000 or more you can slip in and out without notice. In the small church of 100 or less anonymity is an impossibility.

Also, the Drive-In Church is another example of a gimmick driven Church. The Church in the United States, especially mainline Protestant Churches, have struggled to bring people back into the Church. We try contemporary worship music, causal dress code, and the obligatory Cappuccino and Christ. Churches have tried everything from the clever to the cliche and many attempts at increasing attendance seems more about gimmicks than gospel. In any case, it all seems to no avail. I have no problem with a causal dress code or contemporary music for that matter, but when the worship service becomes more about the gimmick than it does actual worship I think there is a problem.

Perhaps instead of changing the Church, we should work to change the American culture that creates these problems.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

My Thoughts on Amendment 1

I think that it is time for me to add my own voice to the Amendment 1 debate. Most United Methodists know the ends and outs of this amendment , for those who don’t here is a link The basic argument against Amendment 1 that I have encounter is that this Amendment takes away the pastor’s power to determine the readiness of a potential member because of the new language “All persons shall be eligible to attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments, and upon baptism be admitted as baptized members.” Some believe that the use of “all” and “shall” would require pastors to receive any person willing to recite the baptismal vows as a member. Some examples of the danger I have heard is, what if a KKK grand dragon wanted to become a member for purposes of recruitment, or what if a pedophile wanted to become a member, etc.

I refute this argument in two ways. First, I do not believe that the language of Amendment 1 strips the power of the pastor. The language states that all persons are “eligible” for membership. This is an important distinction. It does not require all persons to be accepted as members without preparation provide by the pastor, which is granted to the pastor in ¶216.3. It is the responsibility of the pastor to determine the readiness of a potential member and amendment 1 does not change this. In addition, once a person becomes a member the pastor also holds the power to keep that member accountable, a power that is rarely used, in ¶221. This includes the right to bring the offending member to church trial, that’s right laity can be brought to church trial too, see ¶2702.3. This prevents or remedies scenarios like the one’s state above.

Secondly, I ask, don’t we always take the professing member’s vows at face value? If someone takes the vows of membership, don’t we believe that she or he is serious in that commitment? Isn’t the argument against the amendment a slap in the face to all those who profess their faith in Christ? Don't we believe the? Shall we strap them to a lie detector before administering the questions of the profession of faith? No. We do as we have always done. We prepare the people for the profession and we accept their commitment at face value and we trust in the grace of God. Amendment 1 does not change this power.

Amendment 1 does prevent a pastor from denying someone willing to make the commitment because of some underlying issue. It does prevent racism, xenophobia, and yes, homophobia, which, unfortunately, are still rampant in the church. This amendment holds the United Methodist Church accountable to its slogan Open Minds, Open Hearts, Open Doors. A friend of mine from seminary, Will Campbell, stated it beautifully, “everyone should be welcomed into the church, and that we would be a stronger church if we focused more intently on accountable membership based on the "time, talents, gift... Read More, service, and witness" agreements. Gender, sexual persuasion, skin color, etc have nothing to do (and should have nothing to do) with accountable membership.” Amen to that.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Fear Factor: 2008 UMC Consitutional Amendments

Yesterday I attended our district's pre-annual conference briefing. One of the main agenda items was, of course, discussion on the upcoming constitutional amendment vote. We received rationales and perceived pros and cons on each amendments. Naturally, there were people on both sides of each issue and I expected that. What I did not expect was the blatant use of fear as a tactic of persuasion.

On the amendments changing "central" to "regional" conferences, there were those who expressed concern that allowing this change would create disunion within the Church. There was concern that each "regional" conference could form their own Discipline. The underlying fear expressed was that the conservative African Church vote would be taken away smoothing the way for a change of the homosexuality stance of the UMC. First of all central conferences already have the power to change the Discipline to suit their own cultural and governmental needs (2008 Discipline Para. 543.7). Secondly, the process for changing the Social Principles would remain the same, i.e. only the General Conference would have that power. The fear tactic was that this nominal change would destroy the connectionalism of the Church. This, I believe, is untrue.

Secondly, the proposed change the Article 4 also drew hot debate. The ear tactic used here was that this was somehow an end-around to circumvent the GC and change the status of LGBT persons, allow for LBGT clergy, and provide for same-sex marriage in the UMC. No of these things are addressed in the proposed change to Article 4. Another elder stood up and proclaimed that if this amendment were to pass he would be forced to receive a KKK member who would then recruit in the Church. The fear is that the power to decide readiness for membership would be stripped away from the clergy, although the Judicial Council recently affirmed it, and no preparation for membership would be required. This is not the case. The change to Article 4 would simply affirm the Church's commitment to ALL persons and to welcome ALL persons into the Church. This is what Jesus commanded us to do, to welcome people without stipulations. It would not force pastors to accept those whom they do not feel are ready for membership. The powers given to appointed pastors remain the same and one of those powers is to determine the readiness of a potential member (Para. 340).

I saw similar fear tactics in the 2008 Presidential Election. People spread false statements and irrational fears about Barack Obama. It did not work then and I pray that it does not work in this matter. Let us discuss these issues honestly, openly, and in a Christian manner. There are those on both sides who have earnest concerns about these amendments and we need to listen to both sides before making a prayerful decision. That is Christian Conferencing and that is our heritage as United Methodists.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Bloggers Unite for Hunger and Hope April 29, 2009

I am writing to you this morning as a part of a worldwide effort to bring awareness to world hunger. Statistics show us that 15 millions children die every year, not of war, not of cancer, not even of AIDS, but of hunger. The simple and preventable lack of food. That equates to one every three seconds. This is something that must change. If we are to call ourselves the Body of Christ then we MUST act. There is no excuse. There is no reasoning that alleviates our responsibility to take action.

However, the problem will never be solved by throwing money around irresponsibly. With great amounts of money comes great power and inevitably great corruption. I don't see the problem of world hunger solved by sweeping global measures unless those measures begin at the local level and involve those persons in need in their own sustainability. That is great thing about Heifer International. Heifer International provides livestock; chickens, cows, sheep, goats to provide families and communities with milk, eggs, and wool. HI does not just throw the animals at the people and leave. They teach the people how to use these animals in a sustainable way. Then the offspring of the animal is given to a new family or a new community and the cycle beings again. You can give a flock of chicks, a heifer, a goat, or you can give a general gift that goes where it is most needed. Go to and see for yourself.

All that being said, hunger is not limited to far off places like Africa or South America. There are people, especially children, who are going hungry in our own communities. We are in a time of economic turmoil. Food banks and other community resources are strapped because of lack of donations, but the demand from these organizations are higher than ever. If you have food in the fridge, the pantry, and in your belly, congratulations we are the lucky ones. It also means that we a responsibility to those without. We are called to those without.

Matthew 25:34-40
Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Church of Baseball aka The Church vs. Baseball

The weather is warming up, the flowers are blossoming, and the bugs are moving about that means that spring is in full bloom. It also means a new season of baseball both for the Big Leaguers and the little kids at the local park. Pulaski is a small town and one of the biggest things in this small town is little league baseball. I use the term little league to encompass a myriad of leagues with kids from 4 to 18. Little league baseball is king in this town. Every time the park is open, Saturdays, Monday nights, etc. the place is packed. Some teams practice seven days a week. These are little kids, I think even the MLB players get one day off every now and then. Now, before you think I am unbaseball and thereby unAmerican let me say that I love baseball from the pro teams (Go Red Sox!!), to the Minors, to the kiddies playing at the local park. There is a beauty and innocence to the game when it is played by children.

However, this innocence is soon lost when overzealous parents and coaches wear these kids down to the nub. Kids have no time to be kids because there is always some place to be, baseball, 4-H, Boy or Girl Scouts, drama, etc. They certainly do not have time for church. OOPS I guess I showed my hand on that one. I attended a workshop Monday night on how to bring more kids and teens into the church. While their methods were good I think they miss the reality of the situation. How can you share the love of Christ with kids if they do not come to church? When I was a youth director at my home church we were never able to schedule meetings, missions, fund-raisers, etc because of little league, 4-H, soccer, etc. It was frustrating beyond belief.

I think it is great when parents get involved, coaching the team, cheering from the stands. I think baseball is excellent for kids. It gets them outside, gives them exercise, and builds teamwork and leadership. However, the Church offers something greater than all of these things. I want to ask these parents, "When your kids are 18-24, in college and they are faced with the hard moral decisions, what will help them make good or the teachings of Jesus Christ?"

One of the leaders of the aforementioned workshop said that "it is great when kids bring their parents to church." I think that is sad. It is the parent's job to be parents to the child not vice versa. One of the most important things that a parent can do is build a foundation of faith for their kids. They have to want to go to church and then their kids will want go to church. If the kids do not want to go, then make them go. You are the parent. Once the kids get there it is up to us to make it worthwhile.

Friday, March 27, 2009

America's Pastime

Baseball has long been haled as America's Pastime. "It is our game" said someone whose name is long forgotten. As the Boys of Summer finish their Spring Training and prepare to begin another wonderful, beautiful season I argue that baseball is no longer the favorite pastime of Americans. It has been replaced, not by football, basketball, or even NASCAR. Instead, the blame game is now America's Pastime.

The recent economic downfall continues to breed a target rich environment for anyone wanted to blame their troubles on someone else. Millions of people have lost jobs, savings, 401ks, etc and they want vindication and vengeance. They want to lay their frustrations at the feet of someone or something in order to assuage their own anguish. The latest scapegoats are a group of employees of AIG who received contractually obligated bonuses for services rendered. The media have virtually tarred and feathered these people and now the politicians want their pound of flesh by retroactively placing heavy taxes on these bonuses, which is unconstitutional by any standard. Is it justice, or just another round of the blame game? This is nothing more than a lame attempt to shift the anger of the American people from Congress to someone...anyone else. It is smoke and mirrors, a cheap parlor trick. The Federal government sat idly by for decades and did nothing to prevent this crisis and allowed Wall Street to act unchallenged and unchecked and only now when the American people are at their doorstep with the proverbial torch and pitchfork do they act. Republicans blame President Obama "socialist" tendencies while their Democratic counterparts blame former President Bush. Both sides blame Wall Street while it is the people on Main Street who suffer.

It is high time that we put aside the blame game and seek real and honest solutions to our problems. Republicans do not have the answers and neither do the Democrats, but perhaps the solution lies in the middle of the aisle. One of the greatest aspects of this country has always been its ability and willingness to compromise. Compromise saw us through difficult times before and it is the only way to work through this problem. However, this mentality does not create good ratings for Fox News or MSNBC and this mentality does not win elections. Therefore I doubt it will ever happen. Great republics fall when they fail to compromise. We are teetering on the edge. Will we fall? God only knows.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Evangelistic Frustrations

I am the pastor of two very small United Methodist churches in Giles County. I work very hard to provide sound pastoral guidance, well thought out and delivered sermons, and to try and build up these fledgling congregations. In the three years I have been serving these churches there has been no professions of faith or adult baptisms. Our numbers continue to dwindle. I am not trying to toot my own horn here, but I think I am a good pastor. I provide an open, welcoming, and loving atmosphere, but no one takes up on the offer. I am not alone the other UM churches in this area are also dwindling in numbers. On the other hand the more conservative baptist, Assembly of God, and non-denominational churches in our area seem to be booming. The AoG pastor is in the newspaper writing articles and has a parking lot full on Sunday morning and evening. I would be willing to bet that you could go to any of these churches and hear the same theology of Jesus or Hell. One of these churches put on a "Judgment House" over Halloween that was a disgusting display of fear based evangelism. Why is it that these churches are booming and we are dwindling? I know that everyone in the community does not buy into the conservative mindset (although I am sure that there are some). What am I doing wrong and they are doing right? I am really frustrated at the whole thing. But I am going to keep on working.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Dear Mr. President,

Dear President Obama,

First, let me offer my congratulations to you on your election and inauguration. You have achieved your goal and your dream and because of your achievement many marginalized children who never dared dream to reach the highest office in our land can now do so. "I want to be President" is a dream no longer left only to the privileged few, but is now something for all to reach for. You demonstrate what education, intelligence, and integrity can lead to.

As you begin your Administration, you face challenges that few Presidents have contended with. The economy is failing, people are losing their jobs, the poor are getting poorer while the rich get richer, some by devious and outright deceptive means. There are two wars that continue to claim the lives of American fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers, sons and daughters, husbands and wives. These wars also continue to claim the lives of innocent civilians by the thousands. The threat of new terrorist attacks is always present. Our backs are bent, but not broken; our hearts hurt, but they still hope. I make this pledge to you Mr. President that I will pray for you everyday. I will pray that God gives you wisdom and strength to make the toughest of decisions. But more than this, I pledge to your my hands, my heart, and my mind to the task that is before us. I will work to be a part of the solution and not the problem.

You ran on a platform of hope and change. You have ignited a country with a renewed sense of hope. Your words are eloquent and filled with passion and determination. They inspire millions, they inspire me. However, I want you to understand this, and above all let me make this point abundantly clear, I will hold you accountable to promises you made and to the standards of faith that we both share as Christians. No person is perfect and I, and the rest of American, do not ask for perfection, but I, and the rest of America, have spent the last 8 eight years being hoodwinked, promised one thing and given another, and we will not stand for it any longer.

Today is the dawning of a new day and a new era for America. You have my support and my prayers. Let us all, Republicans, Democrats, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, agnostics, and atheists work together for a better America and better tomorrow.

Yours faithfully,

Reverend Brad Smith