Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

The Clumsiness of Categories

Today, I worry about  sounding downright ungenerous and small-souled.  Even more, I worry because the topic I’m about to join cuts a little too close to the bone for me personally.  I’m going to try to use parts of my life experience as a means of illustrating a problem in our church (United Methodist) that looms ever larger.  Doing so touches a nerve.

Having attended two annual conferences, as well as following tweets, blogs and news pieces on General Conference, I have noticed how much we talk about people by reference to the categories they fit – or don’t.  My category: a 57 year old, well-educated, white male, who enjoys a comfortable income.  White, male, 50s, middle class.  Privileged.  Too many of my type still holding power.

Race, gender, age: these are the categories of reference most often put to use in our opinion-making about how things go in the church.  (Notice how they come from social science and not from theology or the language of the church.  But that thought will have to wait for another time.)

I have long understood the subtleties of race bias even when overt racism has curtailed some.  I remember a former colleague – African-American woman, a professional in higher education with a Ph.D. from an Ivy League university – once telling me how she had been shadowed in the local iteration of a national discount store.  She had been working in the yard and was in her grubbies and looking a little scruffy.  African-American, a little dirty (it was a sweaty summer day) and voila, you just might be a shoplifter.  So an employee, pretending to be a shopper, hangs around and watches you.    When I think of her experience, I remember why we need to continue to pay attention to race.

Likewise with the category of age.  I work with university students.  I love talking to them, listening to them, hanging out with them, mentoring them, teaching them.  I am an advocate for young people in the church.  But I’m starting to worry and even, I admit, feel a little resentful.  During these recent conference sessions near and far, I have heard both old and young make repeated reference to how we don’t listen to young people, it’s time to listen to young people, it’s time for some of us old folk to get out of the way and make room for young people.  Older people are hogging the power and clogging the church’s vitality with worn-out, dull, irrelevant ideas and concerns.

I want to make clear, my problem is not with young people.  In fact, I have made my own criticisms of how we treat young people in the church.  The problem lies not with young people or old people.  The problem lies in the way we think and talk – in categories!  In the heat of trying to get things done and make things better, we United Methodists lapse into “category-think,” a version of “group-think.”

And so, by way of personal illustration, I want to show why I worry about over-using categories, why I don’t like categories so much.  Here is what the categories don’t tell you about me.

I’m well-educated and live comfortably now, but I grew up poor.  Not destitute poor, just always tight, going-without, worried-about-money poor.  We always had plenty to eat, but partly that depended on good church folks “pounding” the preacher (my dad), or a local farmer butchering a steer or hog and sharing some meat with us.  I also always had decent, clean clothes to wear, but from the bargain rack.  We didn’t buy if it wasn’t on sale.  No shame in that, but, as a kid, I lived with that constant feeling of financial tightness.  And of not being able to do what others were doing.  Of being different.  I know how it feels to be different.

After chasing one job after another, my father finally said yes to a call to preach that he had felt for a long time.  At age 50 and with only a high school diploma, he entered (then) Methodist pastoral ministry.  His first year in this role (1962), he made $2,700.  For the whole year.  The church provided housing, of course, so $2,700 could stretch a little further, but not much.  Median household income at that time approached $6,000.  According to 1962 standards, we lived right at the poverty level.

I also grew up a transient.  Back then, Dad would go off to annual conference in September (after the school year started) and we would not know till he came home whether we were moving or staying.  I remember the announcement, “We’re moving,” and in a matter of a couple of weeks, we’d be packed up and gone to the new appointment.  We moved 4 times in 4 years during the middle school phase of my childhood.  The longest I ever lived in one place – before going off to college – was 3 years.  I went to two high schools.  I was always “the new kid” where new kids stood out.  And I knew we’d be leaving soon.

Was my life as transient as some of the field workers picking cotton in Texas or vegetables on truck farms in Colorado?  Of course not.  But it was more like their life than you could ever imagine if you look at me only through the category I now fit.  And that’s the problem with categories.  Categories hide people.

I thus have two strong and offsetting opinions about the categories we use over-much in the United Methodist Church.  I am very sympathetic to people who find themselves disadvantaged, on the margins.  I have some sense of what it’s like to be in that condition.  But on the other hand, I feel more resentment than I’d like to admit when people stick me in a category and make easy, breezy generalizations about me.  And I’ve heard a few over the years.  (I once was called a “pretty little white boy” by a seminary classmate.)  They distort and hide as much as they reveal.

Some of the big troubles we are now facing in the United Methodist Church stem precisely from thinking too much in categories.  They work well when we are generalizing and they are far too clumsy when we need to pay attention to on-the-ground circumstances.  When we use them wrongly, we are like a surgeon wearing boxing gloves while trying to perform a delicate operation.

Categories tell us something we need to know, but, honestly, they don’t tell us much.  Especially in the church, we should be very careful how we use them.

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June 7, 2012 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, emerging adults, Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

General Conference (Slightly Proleptic) Postmortem

I’m not a fan of punditry, even of the ecclesial kind, but I guess I’ll set aside scruples and weigh in on the United Methodist General Conference as it presses toward the finish.  One question once again stands out: just how badly divided are we?  I think, pretty badly.

A Facebook friend posted the proposed Disciplinary amendment by Adam Hamilton and Michael Slaughter on our deep differences over homosexuality.  It was thoughtful, irenic, well-worded.  It holds to the church’s traditional stance on the matter.  I agree with its sentiment and I wish it had passed.

But I also read the reason for voting it down, that we don’t acknowledge our divisions on other issues, so we shouldn’t on this one.  That’s true.  We don’t.  But what if we did?  What would we actually have to face about our beloved denomination, if sprinkled all through our Book of Discipline we actually saw the numbers that represent our divided mind?

Let’s try a little thought experiment. What if every General Conference vote that changes the wording of the Book of Discipline also had to include (in the BofD) the split?  You know, 55% yea and 45% nay, etc.?  In other words, what if we actually had to see, in our Book of Discipline, how often and on which issues we get close to splitting 50-50?

What if we voted on doctrinal standards?  What if we went down each statement in the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith and asked delegates to say “yea” or “nay?”  Now, before we get trapped in cautions about metaphorical readings, etc., let’s keep in mind that those doctrinal statements are meant to be taken as actual propositions.  (I know that we cannot dispense with metaphor, nor do I want to.  Let’s just try the thought experiment.)

How about Article 2, which reads in part, “Christ did truly rise again from the dead, and took again his body, with all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s [sic] nature…”  Yea?  Nay?

Some of us might want to update the language of this claim, but, again, let’s focus on the main question: do we believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus?  What would a vote of General Conference delegates reveal?  And why does it matter?

My point here is not to go on a doctrinal witch hunt.  My point is to imagine just how divided we actually are.

Years ago – and I mean, like 20 – in the midst of the same controversy roiling us now, about ten of us UM clergy got together – all members of the same annual conference (remember the covenant?) to see if we could find any doctrinal statements that we could all agree on.  We intentionally made the group diverse.  After a couple of hours debate, we found near complete disagreement except on one slim point.  We could all say yes to the belief that something happened on the first Easter morning.  But we could not affirm as a group the proposition found in Article 2.  To be sure, some of us in the group did affirm it.  But some didn’t.  In other words, we were not “of the same mind.”

We could not find agreement on any other topic we discussed.

I believe this sort of disagreement has very practical implications.  Our theological convictions show us what we care about.  If we don’t care about at least some of the same things, we have no core, doctrinally or missionally, that holds us together.

I think this is what General Conference teaches us every four years.

May 4, 2012 Posted by | Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

What Greensburg Teaches Me

In this virtual world that is the Internet, physical location often seems increasingly irrelevant.  Today, however, on this day after Thanksgiving, 2011, my physical location is significant.  It offers a poignant context for my thoughts.

I’m sitting in a coffee shop, Green Bean Coffee Company, in Greensburg, Kansas. It’s at the corner of Main Street and Federal Highway 54 (http://www.notyourmommascoffee.com/).

Greensburg was all but completely destroyed by a massive tornado in May, 2007.  The entire business district was leveled.  Every tree was completely denuded, with only trunks and major branches still standing.  About 2/3 to 3/4 of the entire town of roughly 1200 people blew away.  Among the buildings destroyed was the United Methodist Church.

About a month after the tornado, I had the awesome (and I do mean awesome, literally) privilege and challenge of preaching on the site where the church building was.  We met in a tent, on a corner of the property, using hymnbooks salvaged from the wreckage.  There were about 50 people there, as I now recall it.  Many of the church members were living elsewhere, since nearly everyone’s home had been destroyed, so the congregation was some diminished from what they generally knew.

What would I have to say to people who had lost all their material possessions?  One of the amazing facts about the tornado’s destructiveness is that so few people were injured and only one or two (again, going on faulty memory) died.  Any death is tragic, but given the magnitude of this tornado, it’s truly a wonder that not more perished.  Still, these dear folk were devastated.

Yes, so, what would I have to say that might be of help?  I didn’t have to worry.  What I said was largely irrelevant.  The people gathered in that tent were so thankful just to be together,  just to have community intact though buildings were gone; thankful that so few had lost their lives; thankful that God’s presence was and is ever near and especially so now as they worked on cleaning up and rebuilding.  I will never forget listening to them pray that day.

Now, four years later, I am, for just a moment, back in Greensburg.  I haven’t been here, I think, since moving to Texas and I am amazed at the changes.  There is a new hospital, a new complex of school buildings, a new downtown (it looks like what suburban folk might think of as a smallish shopping area in their neighborhood), and lots of new houses.  One still sees plenty of empty lots and naked foundations left over from the storm.  I know this town has suffered many difficulties in rebuilding, including being scammed by dishonest “builders.”  I cannot imagine all the challenges they have faced and I am confident there are more to come.

But here I am, in a town that is rebuilding.  I cry fairly easily, anyway, and when I pulled into town, I started.  It is inspiring.

By the way, here’s a photo of the United Methodist Church that now stands on the same spot as before.

And now for what Greensburg teaches me.  I am deeply troubled by the gap between the biblical vision of the Christian life and the reality many of us (most?) experience.  I have recently published on this matter and I have much more to attempt. ( If you’re interested, go to (https://wipfandstock.com/store/Aiming_at_Maturity_The_Goal_of_the_Christian_Life).  I feel a parallel concern about church-related higher education, our UM colleges and universities.  I love the academy.  I love the church.  But I have some bones to pick and I’ve started picking them.  Stay tuned.

Today, though, sitting in Greensburg, KS, I ponder what this town teaches.  It does not matter how big the challenge is.  God’s grace is sufficient.  We can rebuild.  And we can rebuild better than what we were and had.  (Greensburg has received national attention because of its commitment to environmentally sustainable construction.)  We can change.

Yes, we can change.  And the world – at least those parts of it where we live and work – will be better for our trying.

November 25, 2011 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Ministry, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Worried about Sex, Again

They call it “gender neutral housing,” an ironic term, since it’s anything but gender neutral.   According to the news accounts I’ve read, Rutgers University is trying a pilot project the coming Fall semester in which students can choose roommates of either sex.  In this new arrangement, people will be able to live with their partners (gay or straight) or have roommates of the same or opposite sex based on any other consideration they choose.  As a guy, I could choose a female roommate who is not my girlfriend, or she could be my girlfriend.  As a guy, I could choose a guy who is my boyfriend, or not.  Any way is OK.

The appeal for this change came from the GLBT community and, from their perspective, it makes perfect sense.  It allows for the expression of the most equitable roommate arrangements with regard to as wide a range of sexual expressions as possible.  I see their point, but I’m worried about other consequences.

Mark Regnerus, a sociology professor at the University of Texas, has studied and written about emerging adult sexuality and, if you’re any kind of Christian (liberal or conservative; pick any label you wish) his findings should be a matter of concern.  (To get a sample of his work, go to www.changingsea.org/regnerus.php.)  One study shows that only 16% of adults between the ages of 18 and 23 have not had sexual intercourse.  In the same age group, among those who are romantically involved, only 6% are not having sex of some sort.

As Regnerus points out, this news is really not new news.  In fact, most of us who work with young adults are sick of hearing about it, because we feel 99% hopeless that we can change these statistics.  Aside from the occasional sex-and-dating stuff that some campus ministers still try to do, we have largely abdicated this field.

But the idea that there is not a cost for this approach to sex among college students (to limit my emerging adulthood reference to my work context) is false and dangerous.  And I’m not merely talking about the utilitarian consequences (e.g. STDs) of sexual activity.  I am talking about the emotional/spiritual wounds.

(At this point in the blog, I feel the need to say, “I’m not a prude.  This post is not about pining away for some purer, simpler time, nor is it a right-wing diatribe.”  There, I feel better.)

Another author has written of the “no regrets” mantra of young people (Christian Smith, Souls in Transition).  In interviews, young people, after describing some of the most painful, heartrending experiences, commonly say something like, “But I have no regrets.  It (the painful experience) has made me what I am today.”  Many of the “its” have to do with sexual activity leading to unhealthy relationships, unwanted pregnancies and a list of other collateral damages.  It starts with sex, but it does not end there.

Back to Regnerus: serial monogamy is the thing.  Students are generally not promiscuous.  The free love days are long gone.  They still want to get married (even though they’re marrying much later than earlier generations).  They have one partner at a time and they still have a sense of loyalty and boundaries while in that relationship.  But virtually all are having sex with that partner.  Sexual intercourse.  So, it turns out that sex still is more than just recreational.  It’s relational.  And when the relationship breaks up, it can be and usually is soul-searingly painful.

So, rather than just going with the democratic flow, like Rutgers has done, I think it’s high time for colleges and universities to re-examine our housing practices.  I know.  We are not in loco parentis, but I think this excuse is really a dodge.  We in higher education are held responsible in a million other ways for our young charges, even though we’re supposed to stay the heck out of their private lives.

I don’t have an answer, but I see the problem and we in higher education need to start talking about it.

April 9, 2011 Posted by | emerging adults, Higher and Theological Education, Ministry, Pop Culture | , , , , , | 5 Comments

What My “Crazy” Charismatic Friends Always Teach Me

Over the past weekend, I made a quick trip to Kentucky to spend some time with dear friends who work together in a mission organization.  For many years I worked with them until I felt like my new job at SMU necessitated resigning from the board of trustees.  But these friends and Gospel co-workers are truly like family, so I made the trip in order just to be with them, if only briefly.

As usual, I heard the amazing things God is doing through people whose hearts are broken for the suffering and the lost. I heard prophetic words from scripture, and visions.  As usual, this experience made me think of something I’ve been reading…in John Wesley’s journal.

A couple of examples:

October 13, 1749: “At the meeting of the [select] society such a flame broke out as was never there before.  We felt such a love to each other as we could not express: such a spirit of supplication, and such a glad acquiescence in all the providences of God, and confidence that he would withhold from us no good thing.”

(United Methodists, when was the last time you felt like this in a small group, a  prayer group, or a church meeting of any kind?)

December 11, 1749: “I read, to my no small amazement, the account given by Monsieur Montgeron both of his own conversion and of the other miracles wrought at the tomb of Abbe Paris.  I had always looked upon the whole affair as mere legend…but I see no possible way to deny these facts without invalidating all human testimony.”

(Miracles?)

I like to tease my “crazy” charismatic friends about some of their ways.  In truth, I am only teasing, because in so many respects, they live closer to the experience of a John Wesley than most modern United Methodists, including myself.  Just look at the comments from his Journal: both the miraculous and the sheer, undignified, emotion-filled basking in God’s love.

So, I’m paying attention to Wesley’s journal and thinking about these friends and pondering as well my experiences with other heirs of Wesley in our United Methodist denomination.  I feel like I’m visiting two different countries.  Actually, two different worlds.   One world is infused with the direct experience of God.  The other, having many reasons to commend it, nonetheless seems trapped in a different dimension.

I want both.  Can I have both?  Can I have the serious, careful, scholarly work of the academic and the honest, open-faced, unabashed love for a God who can do literally anything according to his own purposes?

Maybe this is a wanting to have my cake and to eat it, too.  I don’t think so and I hope not.  I don’t want to live in the eighteenth century.  I don’t want to be overly-credulous.  But when I look at Wesley’s life – as well as my friends in KY – I come again and again to the conclusion that I’d rather be like them than the kind of Christian who doubts more than he/she believes.  And in the denomination that I love, there’s far too much of the latter.

July 12, 2010 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Perhaps to Clear Some Confusion: Sanctification, Christian Perfection, Legalism and Perfectionism

I am having a blast teaching United Methodist Doctrine to a group of theology school students.  I’ve been out of the classroom for a year, so it feels good to get back in there.

Yesterday, we covered that part of United Methodist doctrine that John Wesley called “‘the grand depositum’ for which Methodists were chiefly raised up.”  He referred to it variously as, Christian perfection (uh oh), being made perfect in love, holiness of heart and life, and sanctification.  Ironically (as I mentioned to the class), this doctrine has almost completely disappeared from common United Methodist discourse.

Why?  Well, several historical reasons which I won’t indulge here, but a couple of contemporary prejudices help to quell much talk about sanctification or holiness.  Those two dread terms, “legalism” and “perfectionism” stand like Scylla and Charybdis, menacing any Christian who might venture too close.

Our conversation yesterday set me to thinking about how talk about and teaching on “legalism” and “perfectionism” thwart our growth in Christ.  I’m trying to write a book on spiritual maturity and I’m re-telling and contemporizing parts of Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection, believing that he has some deeply important things to say to us in 2010.  The mere vision of spiritual maturity as God’s intended goal for us sets some Christians to trembling and grumbling about the need not to be “legalistic” or become “perfectionists.”  Let me see if I can unpack this box of problems with a couple of observations.

Legalism: the heart of this problem is self-sufficiency, not sincerely trying to follow a rule or pattern.  If we follow Paul’s criticism of legalism (in Galatians, for example), then the basic problem lies in the assumption that we can, of our own native ability and strength, keep the law.  Worse, self-sufficient people of this ilk actually think they are keeping the law while we lesser sorts are not.  Legalism is self-sufficiency, not commitment to a high standard. We cannot use the term “legalism” to trump this aim.  The life of holiness demands accountability.

Perfectionism: at its core, perfectionism exudes the spirit of condemnation.  Contrary to common belief, the worst part about being a perfectionist is not trying and trying and never measuring up.  It is the judgment that one is therefore somehow unacceptable because one tried and failed.  Two problems (at least) arise here.  First, what standard of measure are we using when we conclude that we tried, but failed?  Some vague notion of what?  Flawlessness?  What does it look like, this flawlessness, in actual practice?  Second, we think the cure for “perfectionism” is not to get “too hung up” about trying very hard.  “It’s not about doing,” so the saying goes, but about “being.”  False dichotomy, if there ever was one.

I am certainly not interested in putting people on some sort of grinding spiritual treadmill.  Sanctification (being made holy), like justification, flows from God’s gracious action, so the ability to live a holy life comes from God.  But it does not happen automatically and if we don’t even have holiness as at least part of our vision for living a fully committed Christian life, then how do we know or care to reach for God’s vision of fully Christian discipleship?

July 1, 2010 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Doctrine/Theology, Ministry, Religion | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Has “Spiritual Maturity” Lost Its Meaning?

In research for a book project on spiritual maturity, I fear I am discovering that “spiritual maturity” as a term no longer has any currency in Christian talk.  I spent some time in a bookstore yesterday, talking with the manager about this matter and looking at books on the shelves.  “Spirituality” has become the generic term, which, of course, I knew, but the idea that people don’t recognize “spiritual maturity” is more than a little worrisome.

I think I’ve blogged before (I admit, I didn’t check my archives) about the Barna Group – now over a year ago – doing a phone survey on this very matter.  They discovered that neither church leaders nor rank-and-file Christians know how to define “spiritual maturity.”  In fact, the most commonly offered attempt at a definition was “following the rules” (See “Barna Update” for May 11, 2009, http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/12).  To say the least, we ought to be concerned about this shocking lack of awareness.

I don’t remember which Supreme Court justice said it, but, in hearing the challenges of obscenity laws back in the 1960s, said something like, “I don’t know how to define ‘obscenity,’ but I recognize it when I see it.”   I think the same could be said for spiritual maturity, or, at least, I’d like to be able to say it.  Can we recognize spiritual maturity when we see it even if we can’t define it?  Or do we really think that merely “following the rules” satisfies?  If this is the case, we have drifted a far, far distance from the mark.

Which brings me back to my question: does the term “spiritual maturity,” or “spiritually mature” mean nothing any more?  If so, what word goes in its stead?  “Spirituality” does not cut it for me.  I work in higher education and “spirituality” has crept into our discourse as a replacement for “religion.”  Generally, writings from this quadrant oppose the terms “spirituality” and “religion.”  “Religion,” it is said, has to do with external, institutional and legal matters.  “Spirituality,” on the other hand, refers to expanded consciousness, compassion, openness toward (the omnipresent) “other,” justice, and the like.  To be too blunt (I admit, I’ve become quite frustrated with this constant and ironic barrage about “bad religion,” “good spirituality”), most of the stuff I’ve read in this genre is incoherent and badly argued, filled with sweeping assumptions and redefinitions.  Maybe I’m just reading the wrong stuff.

So, I don’t like “spirituality” as a replacement for “spiritual maturity.”  And I’m worried that most Christians – if the Barna Update is accurate – don’t understand an absolutely fundamental aim of the Christian life.  Golly, if we don’t understand this point, what do we think being Christian is all about?

My question offered to anyone willing to respond: does “spiritual maturity” no longer have meaning for Christians?

June 19, 2010 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Higher and Theological Education, Ministry, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church | , , | 14 Comments

Jubilee Bridge Crossing

The T-shirt said, “Rosa sat so that Martin could walk.  Martin walked so that Barack could run.  Barack ran so that our children can fly.”  I’m almost never a fan of T-shirt slogans, but this one really hits home.

We stood in a crowd outside Brown’s Chapel AME Church waiting for the commemorative walk to begin.  This is where it had all started 45 years ago on March 7, 1965.  The first march didn’t make it very far.  The third march, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., did.  Today, when all the congresspersons and other famous people (Terence Howard) had made their way to their places, the walk began.  We left Brown’s Chapel, headed south a block, turned west to downtown and south on Broad Street.  The bridge over the Alabama River loomed in the distance.

It took awhile to get there, but we walked across the bridge, remembering how the marchers had eventually made that walk all the way to Montgomery to advocate for voting rights.  Life Magazine and the evening news caught the shocking images of people being beaten, even killed.  Bloody Sunday. 45 years ago, March 7, 1965.  Today, maybe some 10,000 or so walked across the bridge.  People from all over the place.  College groups like ours.

The day’s activities were part ongoing struggle for justice, part reunion, part state fair carnival.  After the walk across the bridge, people enjoyed foods and music at booths set up for the occasion: polish sausage, funnel cakes, chicken on a stick, lots and lots of CDs available for purchase.  One man offered a new documentary CD of Selma and the Civil Rights Movement.  But what caught my attention were the little clusters of senior citizens or near that age, white and black, talking like old friends.  Some of them had marched together in the original event.  They were reminiscing and catching up all at the same time.

Months after the march to Montgomery, the Voting Rights Acts did pass.  A Federal law guaranteed that black people, properly registered, would not only have the theoretical right to vote, but they actually could vote and did.  Forty five years later, we are into the fifteenth month of the presidency of the first African American president.  Considering where our country was in 1965, this is a staggering change.

Earlier in the day as I stood in front of the chapel, a man walked by me in bib overalls and a yellow vest.  I noticed the name hand written on the vest: John Rankin (my paternal grandfather’s name, by the way).  For the third time in my life, I had encountered an African American who shared my surname.  I couldn’t resist.  I spoke to John and asked him if he knew where his name came from.  He had done some checking, he said, and he thinks that his family had come from South Carolina originally (well, not originally).  Since Rankin is a Scottish name, I surmise (as I have done before) that some Rankins back in the day were slave owners.  This John Rankin had been on the original march to Montgomery.  He took off his hat, rubbed the top of his head and said, “And I’ve still got the knot on my head to prove it.”

March 8, 2010 Posted by | Ministry, Religion, The Church | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

On the Civil Rights Pilgrimage

Just time for a quick one.  I hope you friends and colleagues who attended the Wesleyan Theological Society meeting had a most edifying experience (Kevin, I hope your paper went well!).

I’m in Montgomery, AL, at the beginning of a Spring Break Civil Rights Pilgrimage.  SMU has been taking this trip each year for several years, so I’m playing catch-up.  The bus left Friday afternoon, but I could not leave until Saturday evening.  Flew into Montgomery last night.

As I prayed with the group Friday afternoon, I spoke about how this trip will challenge us in particular ways.  I had shared with the class earlier that, because I was a boy of 13 when Dr. King was murdered, I grew up watching the Civil Rights movement on television.  I lived in rural, racially homogenous Kansas.  Actually, not true.  Part of that time I lived in Texas and it was not racially homogenous.  Pete Chapa (Mexican) was one of my boyhood baseball teammates and friends.  Paul and Manuel (Mexican) were friends to me during a very lonely 5th grade year in a new town. Later, in junior high, it was Oscar Guerra the star running back and Leonard White (African American) the star on our basketball team.  Still, the Civil Rights movement was something psychologically remote for me.

It was not until years later, as a man with children of my own, that I read “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”  Dr. King wrote it in response to clergy in Alabama who wanted him not to engage in direct – even if peaceful – action.  His reply, written on anything that could be used (toilet paper, margins of newspapers), is nothing short of agonizingly eloquent.  He asked his clergy colleagues to consider how it felt to be the man who had to tell his young daughter that she could not go to the local amusement park because it was not open to black children; how if felt to watch the dark clouds of racial prejudice hang over his kids and to witness how it was shaping their young mental worlds.  That letter put a human face on the Civil Rights movement for me.

Over the years, of course, partly because of interest and partly because of my work, I’ve studied, at least in superficial ways, parts of the story.  This trip will be rough in some ways.  The church was on both sides of things (as it often is) back in the 50s and 60s.  Some of the story is just plain ugly.  But some of it is glorious.

I have a feeling I’ll learn a lot on this trip.  I’m going to try to blog each evening during the week, if you’re interested.

March 7, 2010 Posted by | Ministry, Religion, The Church | , , , , | Leave a comment

Ministry’s Paradox and Risk

It’s appointment season again in the United Methodist Church.  (Cabinet members and bishops likely think that appointment season never ends.)  UM pastors are appointed on a year-by-year basis and, though they can serve long, extended years in one location, they also know that every year a move is at least a theoretical possibility.

I probably should not write about this topic, since, as a university chaplain I’m not nearly as effected by appointment season as pastors of congregations, even though I am under appointment.  But I’m prompted to think about it for three reasons: (1) I requested to move my conference membership, “leaving” longtime relationships and beloved friends and colleagues in Kansas, (2) a friend spoke with me yesterday about the anxiety and powerlessness he feels in the appointment process and (3) reading Luke’s gospel in my morning prayer time.

Luke 9 is packed with significance (what passage isn’t?).  Jesus calls and sends out the Twelve to do the work he has been doing – preaching the good news of the Kingdom, healing the diseased and liberating the demon-possessed.  He feeds the five thousand.  He asks the disciples about how people identify him.  He tells them that he’s going to suffer and die (he tells them twice in the same chapter).  He is transfigured.  He heals a demon-possessed boy whom the disciples could not heal.  He listens to his disciples argue about who is the greatest in the Kingdom (showing decisively that they don’t understand Jesus’ destiny).  And we haven’t even covered the whole chapter.

Paradox: Luke indicates how deeply this sense of destiny, this calling to suffer and die, lies within Jesus.  There’s a Plan.  He’s going to live it.  It is set.  Is it determined?  Yet, the developing situation is filled with contingency.  Jesus is spiritually heading one way while his disciples think he’s heading another (they’re going to Jerusalem, Jesus to die, but the disciples think they’re going to take over and set up the Kingdom).  He warns his disciples, in effect, not to misunderstand his Messiahship, but they seem to do exactly that.  Jesus tries to control the “fame factor” that is working in Galilee all around him.  Lots of unpredictability and human agency.  Not determined?

Risk: It makes me reflect on my experiences “under appointment.”  I’m a preacher’s kid.  I spent my entire childhood waiting to learn if we were moving or staying.  We lived in some of the most remote places one can find in rural heartland America.  I was always “the new kid” in school.

As a UM pastor, I did the same, waiting for the call to come.  There has been, at times, deep confusion, worry and frustration, yes even out and out heartache and anger.  Yet, those experiences are not the ones that stand out.  Even in the most difficult of situations, God made himself (pardon the gender reference) known.  And in every case, God provided growth – in me – growth that I desperately needed.

Only hindsight works here and no other kind.  Every aspect of my life heretofore has prepared me for the ministry in which I am now engaged.  I can’t say in a brief blog entry how, but I’m not kidding, every part, every place, every segment of time…

I am praying for United Methodist pastors waiting by the phone – literally or figuratively – to find out where they will be sent.  May the Triune God who in Christ knows it all, who knows exactly the paradox and the risk of ministry, bless and keep your heart strong.

February 27, 2010 Posted by | Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment