Monday, December 12, 2011

Speaking of the Bishop

Check out this article written by him on the message of Christmas over and against some of the political and economic messages we are offered (especially this year with the GOP debates raging simultaneously with the Advent season). It serves as a prime example of his prophetic spirit. He and I actually had a conversation closely related to this topic during our time together (mentioned in my previous post). I'd like to think I inspired this article (probably not, but let me take what I can get). Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

24 Hours With The Bishop

Last week, I had the privilege of spending a day with the bishop of the North Alabama Annual Conference, Will Willimon. Willimon is a rather infamous character in the world of Methodism. On the one hand, he is known for being abrasive and unafraid of confrontation, all the while possessing the vocabulary of a disgruntled postal worker. Yet on the other hand, he is a role model for prophetic ministry, willing to take daring stands on issues of justice (including HB 56, Alabama's controversial immigration law), and a living archetype for the peculiarity of the life of a disciple of Jesus. Not to mention, he is often voted as one of the most influential and powerful preachers in the English-speaking world and referred to quite frequently as "the Pope of Methodism".

So when he sent me a message to see if I would join him for an overnight stay in Nashville, I jumped at the chance. I was to drive him to and from a meeting there, spend the night in a hotel, and accompany him on a visit to a district meeting in Athens, AL on our return trip. This is essentially what happened, so I won't bore you with the details of our itinerary.

What I will detail is the great respect I gained for him during our trip. I say this not to kiss his rear (he does not read this blog anyways; nor do more than about 3 people), but to counter both widespread attack of his character and the prevalent criticism that I often hear of the episcopacy in general.

Given his aforementioned reputation and my own mild-mannered nature as a people-pleaser, in conjunction with my greenness in ministry, I half expected him to criticize most of the things I said and leave me feeling like an intellectual and spiritual worm. Instead, I was not intimidated. Our conversations in the car were some of the most engaging I have ever had with anyone, let alone an authority figure. He has a deep concern for the thriving of the church and its ministers. He is especially concerned with the future of the church and the pastors who will lead it. Much of our conversation centered around generational differences between the world in which he grew up (the '60s) and the Sitz im Leben of us folks in our 20s and 30s, and how God might use those differences to raise up the Body of Christ. He seemed genuinely interested in my answers to his questions (which were very pointed and unguarded), and he offered up some wonderfully vulgar anecdotes (I have never heard so many four-letter words in my life, but somehow that rawness of the human condition he described in his stories was refreshing to hear) from his own experience- many of which you will probably hear in my future sermons (censored version, of course).

To my second point, I discovered that being bishop is a tough gig. As Bishop Ken Carder once said to a class of mine, "This is not a job to which you should aspire in ministry." I can see why. Throughout our discussions in the car, Willimon frequently had to check his e-mail and make phone calls in order to fulfill the administrative aspects of his job (fun fact: the Greek word for bishop, episkopos, literally means "overseer")- none of which was responding to pleasant requests, I'm sure. He somehow, while juggling all of these administrative tasks, managed to be a wonderful conversationalist and listener with someone whom he will likely not move to a new appointment (a primary duty of a UMC bishop) before he leaves this coming summer. Oh, and he had to prepare to give two lectures to a group of hundreds of clergy the next morning in Nashville, on top of preparing for a district meaning later on that afternoon.

Such is a day in the life of a bishop. I thought about how hectic that day was- speaking engagements, sleeping away from home, responding to complaints, etc. And then I thought about how he probably had to wake up the next day and do it all over again. And the day after that. And the day after that. Knowing what I know now about all that is on the plate of a bishop, along with the brief timetable they have to think through all of these matters, the unpredictability of job, and the tireless schedule, I will probably think twice before criticizing a bishop. In fact, I think I shall instead praise God for gifting such people with the rare abilities to oversee this messy, divine thing we call the church.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Enigma of Young Adult Ministry

United Methodists (and all mainline Protestants for that matter) everywhere lament the decline in church membership and attendance among young adults. Since "young adult ministry" is under my purview here at Trinity and since I am a young adult, this issue is especially near and dear to me. Over the last year, I have been a part of several young adult ministry workshops, read a few good books on the subject, and experimented (while failing quite often) with ministry to younger adults. So I thought I would provide some tips on young adult ministry based on what I have discovered. As usual, I welcome your input on things you've seen that have worked.

- Beliefs haven't changed much, but participation has. One of the best resources I have found in my reading on young adults and religion is Robert Wuthnow's After the Baby Boomers. Among Wuthnow's myriad of observations in this book is the notion that young adults have not changed their abstract religious beliefs much since their parents' generation. In fact, some more "fundamentalist" beliefs have even strengthened among young adults since the '60s. What has changed, however, is the young adult's willingness to participate in a religious community. Wuthnow says that young adults today are "tinkerers", experimenting with other forms of communal life (read: other religions, partying, etc.), before "settling down" once they get marred and have children (both milestones that Wuthnow reveals are happening later than they used to). For reading more specific to the ages 18-22, I recommend Souls in Transition by Christian Smith and Patricia Snell.

- So what defines a young adult? When I tell folks my responsibilities at Trinity, this is often one of the first questions they will ask me. And it is certainly a fair question. It's not as if one day one wakes up and is or is no longer a young adult. And further, what defines an activity that is specifically young adult? Again, another question for which there is no cut and dry answer. I have found that each church is different. At Trinity, we define a young adult as aged 22-35, setting age limits so as to prevent the "slippery slope principle" (I'm looking at you, dude in your forties with three kids who thinks he's still "hip"). Also, we try to focus on and celebrate specific life events, such as weddings and births, and stratify our ministry according to the life stages that correspond to these events. The natural drawback here is that not everyone falls in one of these stages at the same age, level of emotional maturity, and knowledge of faith. Last week, I attended the General Board of Discipleship's Young Adult Summit in Austin, Texas. One of my colleagues in Arizona told me that she organizes young adult activities by meeting time and not age, i.e., one group meets at 9PM and another meets at 5PM, thus separating those who have children from those who do not. I thought it was a pretty creative idea!

- "Feed them and they will come." This was the mantra of the director of young adult ministries at The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection. And it stands universally true- especially for young singles. Providing free food is not only an attractive way to bring in a person who may have a small budget and a big stomach, but it is simply the way of Christ, who was not afraid to share table fellowship with anyone.

- Don't depend on Sundays. Whatever ecclesiological or theological issue we may have with it, as a general principle, we cannot count on young adults to be present for any weekend activity, including Sunday worship. The truth is that young adults are more mobile now than they have ever been, so it is nothing for them to travel back home or to see friends over a weekend. And, as is often the case at Trinity, there is another god to rival- SEC football. But it's not that young adults don't care. They just want it all- personal time, work time, and worship time. So the most effective models of young adult ministry I have seen involve at least one weeknight meeting.

- Social media may be over-hyped. This is one old man's opinion (mine). While I have found Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, etc. to be helpful in getting the word out about events and programs, nothing beats good, old-fashioned face-to-face ministry. In fact, I think one of the responses of the church to young adults these days can be that God and the church do not want to love you at a digital arm's length. We want to meet you with love where you are most real and most vulnerable- in person.

-No one is doing young adult ministry well. This tip is both comforting and unsettling. One of my assignments when I first arrived at Trinity was to speak with those who were doing young adult ministry well and incorporate some of their ideas here. As it turns out, no minister to young adults is remotely satisfied with the job that he or she is doing. It is inherently a challenge to minister to young adults. In fact, the most encouraging thing I have heard (for my sake) was when someone told me that Church of the Resurrection, a congregation of 18,000 members compared to our 3,100, has slightly less young singles at its weekly gathering that we do. Yet, I still feel that there is so much we could be doing to minister to young adults. I have a very optimistic hope that the United Methodist Church has a strong future with my generation and the generations to follow. Even though the times may change, God's grace (the central theological tenet of our denomination) will always be the source of all good and hope in this world.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Hope in Failure

"Fail" has become a trendy word of late. We read it along with the adjective "epic" in the comment section underneath YouTube videos of stupid human tricks gone wrong (see this one for a good laugh). After a showing of Sports Center's "Not Top 10", a snarky sportscaster will likely use the word to describe #1. There is even a popular blog that brings gratification to those of us insecure enough to enjoy hearing stories of the missteps of others. "Fail" is a word that has simply taken on a life of its own in our culture.

A couple of my own recent "failures" in ministry have jostled my confidence, and they have prompted me to think theologically about the word. How does Scripture see failure? Can a Christian fail in God's eyes? Does it matter to God when we fail in our jobs or our relationships?

The Biblical sense of "fail" covers a spectrum of nuance. In the Old Testament, it generally refers to a food or some staple being used up before it can be replenished. For instance, in the story of Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath in 1 Kings 17, God promises that "the jug of oil will not fail" the famished woman and her household. This definition of "fail" strikes me in my own case, as I felt the quality of my efforts sufficient but the circumstances did not dictate "success" (another term that needs desperate definition in church leadership).

In the New Testament, the word we translate as "fail" is also the same word we translate as "sin". "Sin" is a term that simply means "missing the mark", an archery word. Notice that it does not entail evil intention (as we often want to color sin) necessarily, but rather that we do not reach an expected intention. For God's people, that intention is God's Kingdom. When we participate in evil ways, we miss the mark of that goal. Thankfully, we believe in a merciful God and a (hopefully) forgiving community who lets us keep on trying.

So, yes, I think we can fail in God's eyes. In the first sense, we can give all of the effort within us to one good task and still run out of steam. But the God in Jesus who poured himself out fully (Philippians 2:7) can re-fill us to no end. And in the second sense, we may stray from our mark no matter what our intentions. But we are called to try with all our heart (see Romans 14:5-7; I am also thinking here of the Lutheran exhortation to "sin boldly"), and God will keep handing us a new arrow from the quiver.

The truth is that we will fail in many aspects of our lives. We will even have epic fails. Our confidence may even be shattered in the process. But God will not fail and God will not fail us (in both senses of the word). In fact, I hope we can recognize this to the point that we can laugh about it (seriously, click on the links in the first paragraph).

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Narrative Theology

Since the day I began the ordination process, I have told my "faith story" a thousand times. I have broadcast it in commissioning papers, seminary spiritual formation groups, church meetings, and UMW circle programs. At first, I was excited to tell it- I wanted everyone to know the path that had led to my calling. But now, I admit, it has become routine, and I often do not enjoy feeling so narcissistic as I drone on about myself.

Despite that, I take comfort in two things: One, that our stories are important to God. Jesus' life was told the in the form of a story (four of them, actually). There are countless examples in Scripture and church history of spiritual autobiographies (my suggestion is to read Acts 6 and 7, and see how the story of Stephen is crafted to fit the passion story in Luke's gospel). It is simply important that we view our lives along a trajectory in which we "wrestle" with God (see Genesis 32), a trajectory in which we are confident that God will win us over in the end. This leads me to my second point. That is that God is not finished with my faith story. If God were, I would be a pathetic example of God's power, because I know that my potential of faithfulness has not yet been reached.

As such, forgive me if the following is narcissistic. I have posted below a version of my faith story which I recently wrote for another ordination assignment. It is brief because of page limits- I would add so much more otherwise. But nonetheless, I hope it encourages you to think of your story, how far you've come, and what God has left to do with you. Enjoy.

My spiritual pilgrimage began when I was baptized at Hickory Grove United Methodist Church in Charlotte, NC. Since that moment, I have experienced the love and grace of God in many ways. I grew up in Charlotte at another, larger United Methodist Church (Matthews UMC). As a child, I was always interested in the various facets of worship, especially the sermon. I joyfully participated in worship and children’s programs at that church throughout my childhood. My joy was so great that I remember, as early as age 7, considering pastoral ministry as my future vocation . Many of my role models were United Methodist pastors and I even remember engaging in theological debates with my father at a young age! As such, I have felt God’s call on my life to ministry for a very long time.

In my teenage years however, I began to distance myself from the church. I attended worship services regularly and read religious books on my own, but rarely attended youth group as I felt that it was too cliquish to be an authentic faith community. Looking back, I feel like this was one of the biggest mistakes in my life of faith. At this impressionable age, I had allowed my faith to become an individual affair based on my own feelings and knowledge. Although I had held to most of the tenets of the faith during this time, I had lost sight of one of the most crucial of those tenets- God’s call for us to live in faithful community with one another.

It wasn’t until my freshman year of college that I began to see the importance of the community of faith. During that year, I was immersed in a college ministry at a local United Methodist congregation. Within a matter of weeks of arriving on campus, I attended Sunday School for the first time in years, attended my first mission trip, and forged several key relationships with faithful Christians, all thanks to the ministry of that local church. It was there that I began to see the potential of God’s power at work through the local church. And it was there that I began to sense that I had certain gifts that would enable me to be a congregational leader.

Despite the wonderful experience I had in my undergraduate years, it was not long after graduation that my exuberance for God began to taper. A few months after graduation, I experienced an unexpected deviation in my life’s plan as my fiancĂ©e at the time called off our impending marriage. This caused me to move back home to North Carolina, where I did not have a job, friends, or a faith community. Furthermore, I began to experience depression. This confluence of events led to the lowest point in my spiritual journey. I did not question God, but I did deviate from the church. I had a hard time finding a young adult ministry where I belonged, and I also felt strong temptations to party and be influenced by an un-churched group of friends. Church became optional for me and my social life was informed more by the corporate culture of my new employer and by the social scene. Yet somehow, in the midst of my lack of participation in the church, I still felt that God was calling me into the ordained ministry. At that point, the image of that ministry in my mind was muddled, but I was sure that God was calling me to something greater than the life I was living.

What followed was certainly the single-most influential experience in God’s call on my life. In August of 2006, I attended a mission trip to Juarez, Mexico with my former college ministry group. In Juarez, I spent time with the poorest people I had ever encountered. Yet, their faith was so great amidst their circumstances in contrast to my own faith in the midst of my affluence, that I was convicted of how far God still had yet for me to go in my life of faith.

Over the next several months, I decided to test this newfound excitement to make sure that this was my calling from God. I took a leadership role in my church’s (Myers Park UMC in Charlotte) young adult ministry (where my relationship with my wife budded). I conversed with clergy, friends, and family about my future hopes. And after these experiences affirmed my calling, I finally applied to seminary. I soon found myself at Duke Divinity School in the fall of 2007.

What followed was three years of academic challenge and intense spiritual growth. I was even able to gain experience in leadership, preaching, and teaching in the local church setting through my two rural field education placements in the summers of 2008 and 2009 (at Palmyra UMC in Germanton, NC and Orange Chapel UMC in Chapel Hill, NC, respectively).

In the spring of 2010, after months of interviewing for associate positions in United Methodist Churches, I was offered and accepted the position of Minister of Evangelism and Young Adults at Trinity UMC in Homewood, AL
. Although this church was outside of my Annual Conference, I was confident that God called me to Trinity because of its need for an experienced minister to young adults (an area of ministry that had a profound influence on my call to ministry).

My experience at Trinity has been fantastic. I have made great strides as a church leader, preacher, and pastoral caregiver. I still have much to learn, but I am excited about my growth and the potential I have to grow in this particular ministry to which God has called me.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

On Divorce

Lately, I have had several conversations with folks about divorce. They want to know what the Christian response is, how we should act towards someone who is going through a divorce, and what the Bible teaches about it. So here are some of my reflections on the subject.

The first thing I will say is that divorce is always regrettable. I don't think anyone should be happy about divorce, no matter who may benefit from it. Sure, divorce may be inevitable should a marriage be irreconcilable, a child's happiness be at stake, etc. But it should not be a joyful occasion that God has "joined together" two persons only for them to be "rent asunder". Even though divorce may be the first step to healing, there was some initial rift that has lead to this brokenness, and that is worth lamenting. In our world today, it seems that divorce is routine. We go to the supermarket checkout every week and see that some 30-year-old starlet has divorced her third husband. 60% of marriages end in divorce (I am including here second marriages, in which that rate increases). I have even been to wedding receptions where groomsmen have set odds and taken bets on the success of a marriage. As a pastor, I despise the sin that has made the rupture of divorce so normal and expected in our world. And I wholeheartedly believe that Christianity has a response.

Scripture indeed takes a hard stance against divorce. Matthew 5 and 19, Mark 10, and Luke 16 all speak out against it (although Matthew adds the stipulation that divorce is acceptable in the case of unchastity). Other texts that speak to divorce include 1 Corinthians 7, Malachi 2, and Deuteronomy 24. Nowhere does the Bible insinuate that brokenness in a marriage is good and that God is OK with us reneging on the covenant vows we have made- mostly because, in parallel, God has not reneged on God's covenants with us. You will also often hear the valid exegetical point that a united marriage is a crucial tool for Christian discipleship and witness to God.

But since you've probably encountered all of that before, here is another crucial theological and pastoral point that I think is often overlooked: marriage is also the church's participation in sin. In our world, we are accustomed to thinking about divorce fundamentally as a rift between two persons. But I think we all know (when we really think about it) that marriage doesn't happen with a couple in a vacuum- it involves families, friends, children, exes, etc. And the New Testament speaks to that. It sees the church as pivotal to the formation and maturity of a marriage. The Gospel writers and Paul were all concerned to create a community in which sin could be combated by the power of the cross made manifest in the body of Christ. The church often stresses that the wedding ceremony as a three-part covenant between the couple, God, and the church. When a married couple joins a new congregation, implicit in that is that the church will help to bear their burdens. So there are important communal components to marriage that frequently go unnoticed. That is because the church is called to be the place where we recognize that and where the couple grows in its discipleship and in unity with God and one another. In today's church, this includes practices like premarital counseling and Sunday Schools and small groups geared towards mutual support in marriages.

And we have admittedly failed, myself included. We have allowed an environment in the church where couples do not feel like they can be open and vulnerable about the issues affecting their marriage- such as sex, money, and deep friendship. Discussing and being open about such things are signs of weakness on the part of the one sharing these things. And if you're like me, you are tempted to roll your eyes and cry "TMI" when someone opens up with such information.

But weakness is what we are all about in the church, because weakness is what the cross was all about. And the sin and brokenness that infects a marriage will easily break our own attempts to be strong. Instead, sin and brokenness in marriage cannot penetrate the weakness and vulnerability shown through the strength of a community shaped by the cross, the cross the overcame all sin and brokenness. It takes a community of disciples devoted to the shaping of not just themselves as followers of Jesus, but also their brothers and sisters in Christ.

I am aware that my perspective may be naive. I have a very healthy marriage, my parents never divorced, and I am thankfully wed to a committed disciple of Jesus, so what do I know? Admittedly and by the grace of God, I don't know much from my own experience. But I have stood by in the church for far too long and watched marriages of good people dissolve, while the folks in the pews gossip and go about their own lives. I do not mean to imply that all Christian communities of faith do a poor job of promoting environments for a healthy marriage- there are many that do a great job of it. But I will not be satisfied to continue to see divorce accepted blithely in the church. I just hope that my fellow Christians and I can work on fostering an environment where marriages can thrive and that, maybe, we can start to take the logs out of our own eyes.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Hold On, Wait Atonement!

Over the last few days, I have been researching atonement theories (i.e., the doctrine of what Christ did for us on the cross) for a lecture I will be giving in the fall. Sad to say, but I realized during my study how limited my knowledge of the various atonement theories is. I understand the basic differences between the approaches in Western Christianity and Eastern Christianity, but, over the last few days, I have been enlightened as to the subtle differences between atonement theories in the Western tradition (i.e., the tradition in which 90-some-percent of us in the U.S. lie).

Of the various theories, the one with which I was most familiar is the Penalty Satisfaction theory, championed by the Reformers. This theory basically says that Christ paid the penalty of sin due to God instead of us humans doing so. This gift of Christ then sets us free from owing anything to God for appeasing God's wrath. This theory is built upon prior theories by Anselm and Thomas Aquinas in terms of Christ fulfilling some kind of "satisfaction" to God that we could not fulfill, but focused more on how this justifies and saves individuals.

Another theory of which I had heard, but was largely unfamiliar was the Moral Influence theory, attributed to Peter Abelard. Abelard was troubled by Anselm's assumptions that God needed to be satisfied, so he claimed that the cross was an instrument to calm our fears about God, to know God's love, and to respond to others.

Similarly, I was somewhat familiar with the Ransom theory, but largely unlearned as to its nuances. Essentailly, this theory details how Christ on the cross dies, goes to Hell, tricks Satan, and frees humankind from the power of sin in the resurrection.

Although there are several other theories in Western Christianity, I note these because of their particular influence upon John Wesley, our Methodist theological godfather. Wesley certainly stood squarely within his 18th century Protestant context in explaining the abstract componenets of the atonement, but he also wanted to explain how it effects us today in the church and as a response to God's grace. As Wesley scholar Randy Maddox states in the greatest book about Wesleyan theology ever written, all three of these theories had a profound influence upon Wesley: "One is tempted to describe [Wesley's approach to atonement] as a Penalty Satisfaction explanation of the Atonement which has a Moral Influence purpose, and a Ransom effect." (109)

That said, I have two serious problems with Western explanations of the atonement. First, almost all of them seem to overlook both the incarnation and the resurrection. Western theologians have certainly emphasized Christ's two natures, but they have mostly done so in order to see Christ as a divine substitute for humanity and not as the God who sympathizes with our human condition. And the primary highlight of what God does with that humanity is not just to kill it and then all of a sudden, something magic happens to people who "believe". Instead, God resurrects that human nature, thus redeeming it. In essence, my beef here is that we have focused so much on Christ's death as an end in itself, not as a means to its overcoming for the benefit of all humanity.

The second point is this one I found during my study by the theologian Robert Jenson. Jenson reminds us that God does not need satisfaction from the human side. God does not try to be reconciled to us. God is not a long-lost parent who tries to rekindle a relationship with estranged children. Instead, God has been there all along. What Christ did on the cross was pure grace- in other words, free gift. We can take it or leave it. It was an attempt to reconcile us to Godself- to show us lost children the way back. It is us humans who then are able to participate in the divine life thanks to the God who also took on and knows quite painfully our human nature. (see William C. Placher, Essentials of Christian Theology, 191-205)

If that doesn't resonate with you or if it doesn't make sense, let me simply leave you with Paul's words from Romans 6. I think he says it much better than I:

"What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can he who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in the newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his."

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

First Year Reflections

Monday, June 20th marked my one-year anniversary of serving here at Trinity. I will state the usual cliche that I cannot believe that it has been a year already. I will also say that I feel like I have been super busy without feeling like I have accomplished a whole lot (I have heard that I share this sentiment with most pastors). But most importantly, I will say that God has been at work through my efforts here. And nothing could be more valuable to me as I assess my faithfulness as a pastor.

A few months back, one of our congregation's young adults asked me what I do all day. For a split second, I felt offended, because I thought that she was intimating that my daily work couldn't possibly be that worthwhile. But then, I realized that I used to ask the same questions about my pastors, and that most of the members of the church (who usually only see the fruits of my labors on Sunday morning or in church meetings) truly do not know what it is that we do all day, and want to know that we are being good stewards of their donated funds.

Well, in response to this question and in honor of my first anniversary at Trinity, I thought I would list some of the tasks that accompany a typical week for me. As an associate pastor who does not preach on a weekly basis and does not have a singular focus for ministry, I am tasked with scattered (but important!) responsibilities. So here is a tasting of the things that I regularly do around here:

- As the pastor of Evangelism, I and a team of two other great staff members (Lisa Elliott and Karen Smith) contact (via e-mail, phone, or note) visitors to our worship services in order to get to know them and to see if we can assist them in their walk of faith in any way. Also, this responsibility involves making sure that Trinity is a hospitable place.

- As the pastor for our Young Adult ministries, I am in charge of organizing events (like our YA Tailgate and Convergence), YA Sunday Schools, and other YA small groups. Did you know that Trinity has over 500 members who are between the ages of 22 and 35???

- I am also in charge of our Men's Ministry, which involves me helping to plan two dinners every year, along with men's small groups.

- I coordinate the Trinity Business Directory, an online yellow pages for Trinity's entrepreneurs and small business owners.

- I am the staff liaison for Trinity's Boy Scout troop, Troop 97.

- I am in charge of creating Trinity's annual church-wide survey.

- I am also charged with overseeing the Family Life Center (gym), where we host birthday parties and athletic events.

- In the fall and spring, I teach one short-term small group.

- Every Tuesday morning, I join the clergy and the entire church staff for meetings to discuss the prior Sunday, the upcoming Sunday, other events and ministries around the church, and also long-range planning for the future of the congregation. Most of the staff meets between these two meetings for a short, 30-minute chapel service.

- General pastoral duties include weekly hospital visitation, counseling (marriage and personal), preaching (which I have done about once per month on average), and other worship responsibilities.

- I have found that working on my own spiritual formation in the midst of all of this is crucial to my growth as a pastor. As such, I read a psalm and pray before I turn on my computer every day. I spend about 10-15 minutes translating one or two verses from my Hebrew Bible and my Greek New Testament. If I have enough free time at the office, I will also try to get some pertinent reading done (to see what I'm currently reading, friend me on Goodreads).

- In order to compensate for our work on Sunday and business "after hours" throughout the week, I am granted one day off in the middle of the week (which is usually errand day!).

- Occasionally, I find time to post a blog.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Hallowed Ground

Last week, I went on a wonderful and much-needed vacation with my wife and dogs. We spent the week on Tybee Island, GA, right outside of Savannah. Half of our rationale for planning this particular trip was relaxation, but the other half was to make a Methodist pilgrimage.

Back in 1736, our Methodist theological godfather, John Wesley, sailed to Savannah in order to assume a position as a missionary of the Church of England there, with support from the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. Wesley had very little success in Savannah- he was compelled to leave after barring a former love interest and her new husband from communion (for which the bailiff was ready to bring charges against him), most of the Methodist societies he started fizzled out, and he found the natives very unresponsive to his preaching. At best, it seems that the fruits of Wesley's journey were his conversations with the Moravians and reflections of his faith in the face of death on the passages over and back (which many have credited as contributing to his experience at Aldersgate Street), as well as his encounters with African slaves (for whom he had great sympathy).

Nonetheless, this was hallowed ground for me. I do not consider myself much of a history buff, with the exception of Methodist history. So this was a chance for me to walk around Savannah and let my mind imagine how that little, wiry, red-headed theologian genius lived when he was there and what his impressions of this strange land might have been. I visited the Anglican church, Christ Church (pictured above), that claims him as its rector from 1736-1737 (although the cornerstone for this church was not laid until the 1790s). I walked to Reynolds Square, where Wesley's statue stands. I walked along the riverfront and tried to picture it in a much cruder form as it would have been in 1736. And I held back my barbs as I thought about correcting my tour guide after he made several erroneous statements about Wesley (note: JW was not your grandfather's "hellfire and brimstone" preacher, because he primarily preached a theology of grace; and he did not start his own church, because he remained an Anglican until he died). In short, I was like a nerdy kid in a comic book store.

Oddly enough, I just finished reading a book about medieval English Catholicism, in which one of the primary emphases was the now-lost notion of the religious pilgrimage. I suppose that American Christians still dish out several thousands of dollars to visit the holy land, but I think we have lost our appreciation for visiting and paying homage to those places and people who have made our faith what it is today. Savannah is just one of these places. There is Charleston, SC, Jamestown, VA, the Delmarva Peninsula (OK, more Methodist sentiment), and just about anywhere in New England. The list goes on. But as I walked around Savannah, I certainly felt a profound sense of wonderment thinking about what would have happened had people like Wesley, Barbara Heck, and Francis Asbury never crossed over the Atlantic. What would I do? Where would I be? Would I still be a Christian? Would all Southerners be Baptists?

OK, denominational kidding aside, as I reflected on my own theological heritage, I thought about the importance of tradition. The truth is, there is no unmediated Jesus. Jesus never wrote anything himself. We have four gospels in our Christian cannon from four different perspectives. And beyond that, none of us reads that Scripture in a vacuum. We all have a tradition of some sort that informs our interpretation of Scripture and our lives of faith. After feeling my "heart strangely warmed" by this experience in Savannah, I encourage all Christians to dig a little bit into their traditions and to give thanks to God for those who have taught us about faith in Christ.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Origins of the KJV

Though not the first English translation of the Bible, the King James Version has been for hundreds of years the most well-known. Here is an interesting (and short) article about its history of composition, written by a leading scholar of the Reformation (and one of my professors at Duke!), David C. Steinmetz.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Hell Debate Continues

A few weeks ago, I commented on the current "hell debate" sparked by the evangelical Rob Bell. Around that time, a friend of mine from seminary, Chad Holtz, offered his opinion on the issue in his blog, essentially siding with Bell. At the time, he was finishing out his 4-year term as a student pastor (a seminary student who also serves a rural United Methodist congregation in a part-time capacity), when some of his parishioners read the blog and decided that his views were far too radical for their small country church. He was asked to leave just a few months before the end of his appointment. Apparently, they had been reading his blog posts for years without commenting (unbeknownst to him) until this post, when (forgive the pun) all hell broke loose. It was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. Since that time, he has received a lot of media interest- locally and nationally. Check out his thoughtful take on the hell debate, the fallout from losing his pulpit, and the current state of United Methodist polity.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Reflections on Easter

On this Easter Monday, I reflect on my first Holy Week experience as a pastor:

- He is risen!

- Trinity is a wonderful place to be in minsitry. Yesterday was the first time that Trinity has ever had three traditional services. Yet, somehow, they pulled it off beautifully! Although this is an established congregation, the people are so open and flexible to change- especially if it is the type of change that will improve the worship experience and its ability to reach out to visitors. The more I hear other pastors complain about the stubbornness of their congregation, and the more I see things like this happen, the more grateful I am to serve God in this place.

- No stripping of the altar. On Maundy Thursday, we did not strip the altars- a traditional Maundy Thursday ritual in many churches. In fact, I could not find anyone in this area who was familiar with the custom. This custom usually involves an elaborate (and to be honest, often slow and boring, but meaningful) act of worship where the liturgists remove all of the items on the altar, from the communion elements to candles to the cloth, and place them neatly elsewhere. But I was surprised to see that we did not incorporate that into Maundy Thursday worship at such a "traditional" place like Trinity. You can tell by my opinion of the service that I am not all that disappointed about it.

- Birmingham is well-churched. On Friday afternoon, I participated in "Way of the Cross". This is an event involving several churches in Homewood, where we process from Homewood Park to Edgewood Presbyterian (about a mile-long walk, I would guess). There are about a dozen stops during this procession, where one person leads a call-and-response liturgy with the group. Then someone else picks up a large wooden cross and carries it to the next stop while the "sojurners" either sing, walk in silence, or are led by a bagpiper. We had approximately twelve churches in attendance. It was covered in the newspaper and the local news (yes, I made it on camera!). The Birmingham area really cares about the church's role in public life, more so than any other place I've lived. Perhaps it has to do with its checkered past or the fact that I am living deeper in the Bible Belt than I have ever lived, but either way, I enjoy the challenge of serving in a place where faith seems so crucial to everyday life.

- "The cross is the sermon." Those were my senior pastor Andy Wolfe's words when I was making sure that there was not going to be sermon at the Good Friday service. Instead, after each of the 7 beautiful movements of Scripture reading and song that comprise the heart of this service, a candle around the cross was extinguished until the cross stood in complete darkness. Spoken words would not have been appropriate, indeed.

- North Carolina is a strange place. Today (the Monday following Easter) is historically considered a holiday in my home state. Not for any super-special relgious purpose. Instead, the state shuts down so that the legislature can get a day off in order to see NC State play Wake Forest in their annual matchup in Raleigh. I have no idea if this still goes on today, but now that I've grown up, this just seems like downright heresy. In the days following Easter, we ought to be inspired by God's power and go out in that power and try to change the world. But not in the Tar Heel state. We thank God on Sunday and watch college baseball on Monday. Not much world-transforming about that.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Fast I Choose

In Isaiah 58:6, the Prophet says, "Is this not the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of wickendess, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?"

And although Isaiah refers here to Israel's Babylonian exile, it nonetheless has significant meaning for Christians. This passage bespeaks a characteristic desire within God for our liberation and release from sin and oppression. And with every release from something, there is a tethering to something. Of course, our tethering as Christians is to the God Who reveals to us what true power and lordship is- that is, free from sin and oppression, as found quite acutely in the cross.

All of this is to leap into a hot topic in pulpits this time of year- Lent. Lent is traditionally a season of fasting in the church. And fasting typically involves giving something up for a while, such as food, dessert, or caffeine. So what am I giving up for Lent this year? Sadly, Facebook and Twitter.

Yes, you can tell that I am a product of the 21st century. I have become so heavily addicted to Facebook and Twitter that I feel it neccessary for me to give them up for Lent. I sincerely feel that these social networks have become so intrusive into my life of discipleship that I need to eschew them for 40 days. I have often found myself reaching over to turn on my phone just to check status updates, when I could have been doing something like conversing with my wife or reading Scripture. I have also found myself logging on to Facebook and Twitter at work, when I could have certainly done something far more productive. So in short, for the good of my soul, I needed a release from social networks (note: I do not include blogs in that definition!).

So what? How will I be any different by incorporating the practice of "giving up" something during Lent? In my opinion, I think that such a practice shifts our focus back to God at times when we might otherwise not. Whenever I am tempted to spend my time by mind-numbingly perusing status updates, I instead will take a moment to pause, read Scripture, and reflect on the goodness of God. Maybe it is a habit I will continue after Lent, or maybe not. But I hope that somehow during this time, I am able to leave room for God to work, to let God in, where I have otherwise filled my life with less important occupations.

Of course, if you heard my sermon this past Sunday, this is repetitive to you. But I, for one, am glad that Lent is here. That's because I can pause and realize how much I have been a captive to outside forces (even those as benign as Facebook and Twitter), and leave some space to taste- if just for 40 days- that liberation of God.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

For Us and For Our Salvation

Those are the words constituting the thirteenth line of the ancient Nicene Creed, which has been the most complete and widely-agreed upon confession of the catholic (with a lowercase "c", meaning "universal", not Roman Catholic) church from the fourth century onwards. This line initiates a litany of twelve other colas which list the actions of God in Christ that have been or will be accomplished for this thing called "salvation". The problem is, it does not tell us exactly what is meant by "salvation". And, for as timeless as the Creed is, its lack of definition has sparked raging debates about the nature of salvation for centuries.

Lately, the nature of salvation has been the center of a debate surrounding the popular Christian evangelist Rob Bell. Now Bell is not your grandmother's evangelist. Bell is closer to mainline Christianity and is very progressive, and I would go so far as to say that he strives for orthodoxy. In his latest book, Love Wins, he reopens the old can of worms about universalism. That is, generally speaking, the doctrine that all are saved. I have not read this book, so I cannot comment on the contents of it. But it has already caused a huge stir with evangelicals, because it appears that Rev. Bell is espousing a form of universalism (there are many variations on this doctrine). That is, of course, a big no-no in the world of those who preach "salvation through Christ alone". Regardless, the topic is likely to pervade the press and church coffee bars for a while.

As for my take on it, this has never been a huge issue for me. My tradition leans heavily on the theological prowess of Karl Barth, who emphasizes the inscrutability of God (a description of which as one might find in Romans 9-11). There is, for me (and Barth), an "infinite qualitative distinction" between God and humans, so to make a decision on "who's in and who's out" is not mine- or any human's for that matter. I am far more worried about the Kingdom of God on this earth as a foretaste of eternal salvation. In my beliefs about the incarnation and my own call to ministry, I hold that God has a larger role for my decision-making in this realm than in the next.

Further, I think we have a very vague notion of what salvation in the next realm really is. It's not about playing a round of golf with JC. It's not even about being reunited with my deceased relatives and friends. It's got to be bigger than that. It's got to be all about God and closeness with God. Now I can only see that through the lens of Jesus of Nazareth. But it's not my place to say who does or doesn't belong under the eternal care of God in the eschaton. And thank goodness for that- because my judgment stinks. I'm glad it's left up to the one who has no problem dining with sinners (Matt.9:10, Luke 5:27-32, Mark 2:13-17), changing the course of religious history at the hands of a zealous sociopath (Acts 9), and offering a liberation to all peoples- called in covenant or not (Amos 9:7).

But don't get me wrong. I still believe in conversion. I still believe in action. Because God has established a covenant with the church that, through us, the world may be blessed. We may get caught up in what happens after death. But last time I checked, God cares intensely about this world. After all, God made it and God redeemed it.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Reflections In the Face of Death

By far, the most humbling experiences I have had since starting my ministry at Trinity eight months ago have been hospital visitations. One day a week, I visit our members who are in area hospitals. Some folks are sick, some are having babies, some are dying, and some are healing. But all of them have one thing in common- the desire for God's peace in their lives.

Naturally, folks do want to feel better and move on with their lives- that's why hospitals exist and praise God for that gift. But hospitals can be scary places (and by that token, let me note that I have a newfound respect for medical personnel), and patients usually desire something that medicine cannot offer. When one is in the hospital, with doctors and nurses running around, machines beeping, and uncertainty everywhere, anything to take a bit of fear away is welcome. And it is my hope that God uses me on those visits to spread God's peace in places of darkness.

Of course, I would appreciate if he could save some of that peace for me. Sometimes hospital visits frighten me. Before entering seminary, I had been into a hospital room three times in my life- and one of those was when I was born. So I've been able to keep a comfortable distance from those places where death is only inches or minutes away. But since I have begun to visit folks in the hospital, I have had to, for the first time in my life, face questions that truly put my own life into perspective- questions about the relative brevity of my time on this earth and my true purpose. As I see persons in their 80s and 90s fight for every last breath, I begin realize that, yes- believe it or not in my young age, I will be in that spot one day (if I'm lucky). I suppose the thought had crossed my mind before, but standing beside someone experiencing that sort of suffering really brings home the reality of that part of my future.

In these moments my mind races to find meaning and the proper perspective in life. Lines from Ecclesiastes rush into my head: "to dust you shall return", "all is vanity", and "chasing after the wind"; my aspirations of climbing up the ecclesial ladder crash down; and dreams of title and respect fade to vapor. I begin to wonder about the grander metaphysical aspects to life and the soul: Is life just a blossoming and subsequent decay? Is there really an eternal soul? Come on, really?

While some of these thoughts sound morbid and contrary to what I will actually affirm about Christian doctine concerning the soul. But I think they are just the kind of ideas and questions that Christians- especially young folks like myself who turn a blind eye to the reality of death- need to consider. So what if I get a promotion and a little more respect? So what if I've got a fat bank account and a house in the Bahamas? Where is God really calling me to be? I think that if we can really wrestle with the reality of death and be present with those suffering and dying, we can start to view life as the act of grace that it is, and we can then begin to appreciate and be joyful over the claims of resurrection and new life. That, to me, is the start of true peace.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Getting Connected

In my former life as a banker, I had a coworker who talked about his church a lot, but rarely talked about his faith. When he discussed his church, the topic was either the church volleyball and softball teams or a fellow church member upon whom he could call for prospective business. "The church is a great place to make business connections," he always said. In my typical non-confrontational manner, I never told him how ridiculous that statement was. But I wanted to reply, "That's hardly why it exists."

So you can imagine my surprise when some of the staff here at Trinity proposed that we find a way to get Trinity members connected to one another professionally- and that I was appointed to head it up. At first, I was a little unsure about it-we don't want church members to treat the church like the Rotary Club. But, my colleague Dave Barnhart pointed me to the words of our Methodist godfather (I don't like to use the term "founder", because founding a new denomination was not his intent) John Wesley. In The General Rules, Wesley wrote that we ought to "[do] good, especially to them that are of the household of faith or groaning so to be; employing them preferably to others, buying one of another, helping each other in business, and so much the more because the world will love its own and them only." (For you UMC geeks, that's paragraph 103, page 73-74 of the 2008 Book of Discipline).

And I think Wesley was on to something here. If the church is supposed to be the visible manifestation of the body of Christ, why not extend our unity to our livelihoods? Of course, there is always the danger of treating the church solely for business purposes (as I think Wesley was aware), but I think that if the membership of the online community and the church itself are carefully monitored, this is a ministry that can truly produce some fruits for the community of faith.

The final product of these deliberations is the Trinity Business Directory- an online community where Trinity members can promote their businesses, post their resumes, and seek the employment of fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Feel free to peruse it and even offer some suggestions to the website administrator (yours truly). Who knows? Maybe you'll be able to find that babysitter you've been looking for, support a fellow disciple of Jesus in his or her profession, and get to connected a little deeper into the body of Christ.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Trinity Walks the Line

This past Sunday, Trinity's Contact worship service (our contemporary service at 11:15) launched a new sermon series entitled "Johnny Cash: Sin, Death, and Redemption". The series focuses on the life and music of the notorious Man in Black, how he wrestled with these three themes, and how the church deals with them. So far, the response has been outstanding. On the first Sunday, the attendance in Contact was over 220 (for a service that averages about a hundred less than that). The series has also received some attention in the press. As a fan of the rhythms and scriptural focus of traditional worship, I admit that I was apprehensive about this (as I am most) sermon series. However, in my six months at Trinity, I have been convinced of the effectiveness of sermon series. Those prior sentiments have been countered by the overwhelming response of the congregation to a well-planned and executed series- and this one has been no different thus far. At Trinity, we are so thankful to have our series carefully thought out by our wonderful preachers and worship planners (in this case, the incomparable Dr. Dave Barnhart), so I am excited and anxious to see over the next few weeks how the Man in Black can inform my faith! To check out the sermon audio, click here.