Wednesday, May 31, 2006


At The Gathering I've experimented with a couple different benedictions to give when closing the time of worship. I've finally settled on one that I found in the March/April issue of The Upper Room. I think it captures what The Gathering (and in my opinion, the whole church should) seeks to be about:

"May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship and communion of the Holy Spirit be and abide with each of you, with all those whom you love, and especially with all those whom nobody loves save for God."

When we give the benediction we want people to feel good about the time they have just spent in worship and leave on an upnote. This benediction is good for doing that while still reminding us that not everyone experiences the love of God in their everyday lives, and subtly pushing us to spread that love.

Thanks to the author of this devotional for the gift of this benediction.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Confession Time

Recently I attended Vanderbilt Divinity School's graduation to see my lovely fiancee, Jessica, receive her MTS degree (side note, Jessica now has a blog, American Eavesdropper, which you should all check out) .

As they do at many graduations, the school gave awards to exemplary students. Some of them were for specific things like highest GPA, achievement in theology, church history, etc. But several of the awards were much more subjective for things like "the student who most embodies the Divinity School's concept of 'minister as theologian'", and things like that. These awards went to the people you would expect, and deservedly so.

During the ceremony I found myself pondering the fact that I will be graduating next year. I also found myself hoping that I would be receiving one or more of those awards, especially the very subjective ones like the 'minister as theologian' award.

On one hand I guess this isn't all that bad. Who doesn't like affirmation from their peers, especially for things at which they work very hard? But I have to admit that I found myself wanting to win an award for the sake of winning an award. Ideally I would want to live up to those qualities and truly embody what it means to be a minister as theologian. And I do want to embody those qualities, so I guess my motivation isn't all bad. But I have to be honest with myself and admit that a big reason that I covet such an award is that I want to win something. I want to be the best and have everyone else know it.

A year from now if I go to graduation and find out that I do not win one of those awards my day will not be ruined by any stretch. I will be proud of my achievement of earning a Master's Degree from Vanderbilt, which is not easy to do. But the prideful part of my self will be disappointed because I was not recognized as the best of the best that day. It might actually be good for me not to win one of those awards. If I do, I hope that I will take it as a sign of my responsibility to strive toward those ideals which others have recognized in me and to be an example to others and not merely add another trophy on my shelf of accolades.

If I was to win an award I would want it to be for the right reasons, even if there is a part of me that wouldn't care if the reasons were wrong. This part of me may never go away but I hope to do everything I can to keep its voice as quiet as possible.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Under Construction

I love church websites. They tell you so much about the real character of the congregation without even meaning to. The church I grew up at recently launched their own website, so naturally I took a look.

Like most churches, they have a "What We Believe" page where they lay out their theology in brief. I clicked over to this page only to find the words "Under Construction". I know that the phrase "under construction" is only there to say that the site is not fully finished, but they may have stumbled onto something without knowing it.

Most churches have a "What We Believe" manifesto of some sort. It usually includes what they believe about the Bible, who Jesus was and is, the exact meaning of salvation, and other doctrines they hold to. These statements of faith are like the blueprints to their house. Everything has already been put together, and all we have to do is follow the blueprints and everything will come together nicely.

This works fine if you're building an actual house. In fact, you'd be dumb not to have a blueprint before undertaking such a project. But constructing our faith is somewhat different. Unlike a regular architect, God does not choose to give us the blueprints up front and let us go at it. After the blueprints are completed, the architect's job is done and the foreman (foreperson?) takes over. God wants the project of our faith to be a relational process, so God chooses to reveal the plans little by little. Sometimes we find out we've worked too far ahead, and when God shows us a new portion of the plans we have to reconstruct something we've already built.

If we believe that the Christian faith is a living tradition, if we believe that God is still speaking to us, then we have to be open to the possibility that God will give us a new understanding that will make us rethink our previous understandings. We never know what God will do next.

So if we're really honest with ourselves, everyone's faith is still being constructed. God is always showing us a new portion of the blueprint and working right beside us to make it all come together. All we can do is trust that the architect knows what He's doing and that the house will stand when it's all said and done.

"What we believe" is under construction. We've got to build this thing together and rely on the architect to show us the way. So come pick up a hammer and let's get to work together. Working together is the only way we're going to make this thing happen.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

How Open Are We?

"Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors"

This is the slogan of the United Methodist Church.

Yet it is sadly something that is not always true of our denomination. Recently our highest court, the Judicial Council, issued a ruling where they declined to reconsider a decision they made six months ago that I and others believe to be in error. Decision 1041 explains the decline to reconsider Decision 1032 (click the links to read them).

The issue here is whether our church truly chooses to be inclusive or not. As it stands now, a pastor can decide whether or not someone can become a member of our local congregation based on whether or not we agree with their beliefs or practices. The case in question involves a pastor who refused to receive a homosexual man into his congregation.

Without getting into a tremendous legal diatribe, I believe that the decision is incorrect because, according to our Book of Discipline, no one may be denied membership based on race, gender, class, or status (Paragraph 4 Article 4; Paragraph 214). I believe that sexual orientation falls under status, but as of yet there is not an official interpretation on the question.

Furthermore, our Discipline contains statements on Inclusiveness, support of Equal Rights Regardless of Sexual Orientation, and the basic statement that our church is to live out "Jesus' command to love God and neighbor, thus seeking the fulfillment of God's reign and realm in the world." (see the full paragraph here).

Furthermore, the rules of the Judicial Council state that "Whenever a decision of the Judicial Council is shown clearly to be in error, or in order to prevent a manifest injustice resulting from the interpretation of a Judicial Council decision, the Judicial Council on its own motion, or on a petition filed by a party to the proceedings, may, by a majority vote, reconsider any ruling or action taken by it." (quoted in ruling 1041)

Denying people membership based upon an aspect of who they are that they cannot change is a "manifest injustice".

Sadly, this issue is not as cut and dry as I or anyone else would like. Our Discipline also says that "homosexuality is inconsistent with Christian teaching" (Paragraph 161G) and does not allow "self avowed practicing homosexuals" to be ordained because of that (Paragraph 304.3). You can easily argue that certain Bible verses say that homosexuality is a sin (I disagree, but it's a matter of scriptural interpretation, not a clear fact) and therefore homosexual persons have not repented of their sin and are not really making the commitment to join the church. That is a position many good, faithful people hold.

(Note: You may notice that I have not included links to reference a position I do not myself hold. This is only because I could not find adequate online access to them. If you know of places where these can be found please let me know so I can fix it, giving both sides a fair shake.)

For those unfamiliar with the issues in the UMC, more info can be found here and here.

To me the issue comes down to the fact that this is a very grey area where there is much disagreement, and in such cases I believe that we should err on the side of grace. In Matthew 25 Jesus does not say the sheep get in because they knew who to exclude. He says they get in because they loved and served everyone, even if they didn't recognize Jesus in those people. If I stand before God one day and God tells me I was too free with grace, I'd prefer that to being told I was too stingy with it. Grace is not my possession. It is something God gives to me and you, so we are called to proclaim it as freely and "irresponsibly" as Jesus did.

This is a sad day for the United Methodist Church but I still believe that there is hope for the future. Judicial Council members and protesters worshipped and celebrated communion together after the decisions were announced (read the story here). They showed that even when we disagree we can still come before the Lord in worship and praise together. I know that one day we will live up to "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors", but that day is a long time coming and there is much hard work to be done. Let us ask God to show us how to do this work together.

Monday, May 01, 2006


I am at a summit this week where leaders from all over the United Methodist Church have come together to discuss how to better attract young adult clergy. Currently the average age for clergy is in the high 50's and the percentage of those who are under 30, the demographic to which I belong, is in the single digits.

Even the concept of such a summit raises a number of issues I could talk about, and probably will over the next little while. I'll stick with one for the moment, though. The question for the moment is what can we really say definitively about "this" generation, of which I am ostensibly a part? What defines Gen Y/ Millennials/ whatever you want to call it?

Sure, there are some broad statements you can make that apply to a large number of people my age, but nothing applies to everyone. We don't all blog, for crying out loud! How far is too far? Do we do too much to pigeon hole young people? For that matter, who gets included? I was born in 1980 but sometimes I can't understand people 5 years younger than me.

On the other hand, it's probably dangerous to say nothing at all in an attempt to respect our individuality. Can we honestly say that none of us can really empirically know anything about another person, that it's all relative and we're completely blinded by the location from which we speak? That's a depressing thought. Young people fell alone and depressed enough as it is.

Ironically, maybe the only generalization we can make about "this" generation is that we want neither to fit into a preconstructed mold nor do we want to be so rabidly individualistic that we can't connect with anybody. We want to throw off the oppressive yoke of either/or dualisms and ask different kinds of questions all together as we attempt to define just who "we" are.

If there is such a thing as "this generation", and to some extent I think there is, then at the very least we have in common the fact that we are going to inherit this world previous generations have created for us. Hopefully we can do our part to make this world a little bit better than we found it. Of course we'll make our share of mistakes, and those will be the things the next generation will complain about.

When they write the history books on "this generation" I'm pretty sure I won't have even a footnote to my name. But hopefully I and all the other uncredited folks can have the satisfaction of doing our part so that future generations can have enough choices to have the luxury of agonizing over what will define who "they" are just like "we" are fortunate enough to be able to do now.