Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Perspective on the Health Care Debate from Someone Who Knows

My friend and colleague Nancy Speas-Hill, with whom I have been privileged to be friends since high school, has posted an article on her blog about the current health care debate. She knows that of which she speaks in a way that few others do.

A bit of background: Nancy's daughter, Becca, was born 13 months ago an was the tiniest premie ever born at Vanderbilt Hospital, only 13 ounces and 9.5 inches long. Her very existence is a miracle, and as you can imagine, Nancy and her husband, John (both United Methodist Pastors), have received quite an education in the American health care system over the last year.

Nancy has both the practical experience and the theological grounding to be able to speak with integrity about the larger issues at stake in the current debate over health care reform. If only more intelligent, informed people like her were guiding the debate, an not angry, misinformed, paranoid people who all too often betray the latent racism that is, sadly, still present in most white Americans.

May we all listen to our better angels and speak up in favor of the Beccas of the world.

Frustration with the Political Climate

This is a very sad video, but I'm posting it because it sums up very well the disdain I've been feeling toward the political environment of late.

I first became aware of Sen. McCain in the 2000 Presidential Primaries, and had he won the Republican nomination, I would have voted for him in the general election.

I did not vote for him in 2008 because I believe he came to represent things that he probably doesn't actually stand for, but I was worried his potential administration (symbolized by his unfortunate choice of Sarah Palin for Vice President) would have allowed those forces that ran the Bush administration to stay in power.

That being said, I have great admiration and respect for the man. His true character came through in campaign events where he vocally rejected trumped up lies about the character of President Obama, and was booed for doing so. This video shows him in a recent town hall meeting doing the same thing, and receiving the same reaction.

It's sad to see an honorable public servant be booed for refusing to participate in the outright lies, smear tactics, and fear mongering of the radical base that is ruining his party. More often than not I find myself aligned with the moderate political left, but I greatly value the positive contributions and balance that the voice of the moderate right (folks like George Will and Bill Kristol before he became a darling of Faux News) has to offer.

Sen. McCain, I don't agree with you much of the time, but I respect your integrity and honor your service to our country. Keep up the good work even if your base doesn't appreciate you.

Addendum- not an hour after this posted, I learned of Sen. Ted Kennedy's death. Kennedy represented the mixture of strong ideological belief and willingness to dialogue and compromise that is sadly lacking in our current political climate. This rare mixture often gets one labeled as "wishy-washy" or a "flip-flopper", but is more properly called "integrity". Sen. Kennedy, and the integrity he represented, will be sorely missed.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Reflections on Calling: Learn to Swim!

As promised, here it is. My reflections on discerning my calling.

In elementary school I was taught to restate the question in my answer. The questions (according to Jenny Smith of UMC Young Clergy) are: What are the struggles, joys, surprises and outcomes? Who helped you along? Where are you now? What do you wish someone told you at the beginning of discernment?

I’m somewhat envious of those who have a specific, precise experience of calling and/or conversion a la St. Augustine. For those who share this type of experience, their certainty of their status before God and what they are supposed to do with their lives is unshakeable.

However, I believe that I am like most people, in that I have not had a singular moment of epiphany, and that my sense of calling has been worked out “with great fear and trembling”, as it were, through a lot of trial and error.

Specifically, God has shown me my calling in life by throwing me in the deep end and forcing me to learn to swim.

According to the most recent theories on parenting (I have a six month old daughter, and I’m, for better or worse, quite well read on such things), many of the “old school” parenting techniques we and our parents grew up with are now anathema and tantamount to child abuse.

I had swimming lessons as a child, but I know a lot of people whose fathers would throw them in the deep end of the pool so they would learn to swim, trusting that there is a fundamental human survival instinct that would lead the child to learn to swim.

So while I am not so presumptuous as to call God an "abusive" parent, I so see God as an “old school” parent who has repeatedly thrown me in the deep end and shouted “Learn to swim!” over my loud and persistent screaming.

When I was 18 years old, God blessed me with a youth pastor named Will who had more faith in me than I did. Will was also the church’s choir director, and one week at choir practice he told us that he wouldn’t be present on the following Sunday. “Who’s going to direct us?” one member asked. Will took one look at me and said, “Matt, get down here. You’re the choir director this Sunday.” I had never directed a choir before, but he walked me through it, and I ended up doing a passable job.

(Splash! “Learn to swim!”)

A few months later I found myself in the summer between high school and college, working at a missions camp. A church from the town in which I would be attending college was at our camp one week, and decided I should come work with their youth. A few days later I got a call from the pastor, asking if I’d be willing not only to work with the youth, but direct the youth program. Remember, I’m only 18 years old.

(Splash! “Learn to swim!”)

Fast forward a few years, and I’m straight out of seminary in my first solo appointment. Three weeks after I’ve begun this appointment, I’m starting to feel comfortable, and I even think I know what I’m doing. Then I get a phone call from an older member: “Matt, (church member)’s daughter was murdered last night. It’s all over the cable news stations!” Long story short, the circumstances of her death were rather sensational, and it led to a lot of media attention. The funeral is that Saturday, and we have to keep the information about services out of the papers, for fear of CNN trucks being outside the church. The next day, Sunday, I’ve already scheduled an infant baptism, so I’ve got a third of the congregation overjoyed at the baptism of a new baby, one third grief stricken over the death of this woman, and another third in between, not sure what to think. And I’ve got to preach one sermon to speak to all of them!

(Splash! “Learn to swim!”)

Two years later, I’ve settled in to my role as a Senior Pastor quite nicely. I’m in Costa Rica on a mission trip, and very early one morning my wife calls me (on the cell phone of the one group member who brought it for emergencies) to tell me our church building was hit by a bolt of lightning and burned to the ground. I spend the entire day getting back into the United States, out of communication, with very little idea as to what’s going on. When I do get back, I have less than 48 hours to plan a worship service from scratch, having to rely on favors from a half dozen other churches for chairs, hymnals, a keyboard, etc. Not to mention, of course, the media attention this draws and the hundreds of people grieving the loss of this beloved, historic building, now looking to their 28 year old pastor for guidance.

(Splash! “Learn to swim!”)

To all the young adults reading this: please know that discerning your calling will likely not be an objective, completely certain thing. It will most likely be worked out through your experiences, with a lot of mistakes, and only having any kind of discernible form in hindsight.

I pray that God lets you wade in gradually, but don’t be surprised if you’re thrown into the deep end and told to learn how to swim. God is a good and loving parent who will let you struggle for your own good, but won’t let you drown.

My prayers are with each and every one of you on this journey. If I can ever be of any help whatsoever, don’t hesitate to contact me by email or through the blog.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Coming Thursday- Reflections on Calling

Jenny Smith over at UMC Young Clergy has issued a call for folks to post their reflections on discerning their calling on Thursday, August 20. I'll be doing this, and I encourage any other young adults in ministry (Methodist or otherwise) to do the same.

Jenny writes:

What are the struggles, joys, surprises and outcomes? Who helped you along? Where are you now? What do you wish someone told you at the beginning of discernment?

Write the post, send the link to and they'll all be posted at on the 20th.

We hope the outcome is two fold:
They'll be shared with young adults ages 18-24 considering a call into ministry
They'll also be helpful for young adults interested in attending Exploration 2009 this November 13-15

I'll be posting some reflections (including both joys and frustrations), which I hope will be beneficial to other young adults considering these issues. This is often a lonely road we travel, and one of the benefits of social networking sites and blogs is connecting with others who are on this journey who may not be physically close by, and knowing that we are not alone.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Health Care Creed

In the midst of the partisan screaming over health care reform, it seems like few people are taking the time to consider the larger theological and moral issues at hand.

As a Christian, I believe that each and every one of God's children is of sacred worth, and that access to quality, affordable health care is a fundamental right of all human beings, not just those who have the means to afford it.

Although I voted for President Obama and my theological and moral convictions generally cause me to lean toward the political left, I don't know enough yet about the specific proposals for health care reform to know whether I would be in favor of a specific bill or not.

What I do know is that in Matthew 25, when Jesus talks about the differences between the sheep and the goats (those who are participating in the life of the Kingdom of God, and those who are not, respectively), one of the identifying marks of the sheep is caring for the "least of these" when they are sick, because whatever one does to any of God's children, they do unto God.

With that in mind, I'd like to share something I received in an email the other day from Tony Garr, director of the Tennessee Health Care Campaign (THCC), which contained a "Health Care Creed" developed by People Improving Communities through Organizing (PICO), and Sojourners.

As one of God's children, I believe that protecting the health of each human being is a profoundly important personal and communal responsibility for people of faith.

I believe God created each person in the divine image to be spiritually and physically healthy. I feel the pain of sickness and disease in our broken world (Genesis 1:27, Romans 8:22).

I believe life and healing are core tenets of the Christian life. Christ's ministry included physical healing, and we are called to participate in God's new creation as instruments of healing and redemption (Matthew 4:23, Luke 9:1-6; Mark 7:32-35, Acts 10:38). Our nation should strive to ensure all people have access to life-giving treatments and care.

I believe, as taught by the Hebrew prophets and Jesus, that the measure of a society is seen in how it treats the most vulnerable. The current discussion about health-care reform is important for the United States to move toward a more just system of providing care to all people (Isaiah 1:16-17, Jeremiah 7:5-7, Matthew 25:31-45).

I believe that all people have a moral obligation to tell the truth. To serve the common good of our entire nation, all parties debating reform should tell the truth and refrain from distorting facts or using fear-based messaging (Leviticus 19:11; Ephesians 4:14-15, 25; Proverbs 6:16-19).

I believe that Christians should seek to bring health and well-being (shalom) to the society into which God has placed us, for a healthy society benefits all members (Jeremiah 29:7).

I believe in a time when all will live long and healthy lives, from infancy to old age (Isaiah 65:20), and "mourning and crying and pain will be no more" (Revelation 21:4). My heart breaks for my brothers and sisters who watch their loved ones suffer, or who suffer themselves, because they cannot afford a trip to the doctor. I stand with them in their suffering.

I believe health-care reform must rest on a foundation of values that affirm each and every life as a sacred gift from the Creator (Genesis 2:7).

If you share the conviction that health is a fundamental right of all God's children, regardless of your political leanings, I hope you will share this creed with others on your blog, Facebook page, or whatever other means you have of communicating your beliefs to others.

(Note: the biblical passages cited and linked above are not intended as "proof-texts" to argue that God is in favor of one political position over another. They're simply intended to point to some biblical passages that inform these convictions. If you read and interpret these and other biblical passages differently, I affirm and honor your convictions, just as I hope you will affirm and honor mine.)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Truth in "fake" news

Once again, the "fake" news has hit on a profound truth that the "real" news is too busy covering sensational stories to boost ratings and rake in ad revenue to notice.

I think I'm like most folks in that I'm not sure what to make of all the outrage on display over health care reform at these town hall meetings. Is it genuinely grassroots? Is it manufactured? Are that many people really in a blind rage? How can people get so angry when so few specifics have been proposed or discussed?

One of the strangest things these protesters and talking heads on Faux News are yelling about is the supposed "death panels" that will decide if someone is worthy of treatment, hence determining if they live or die. "The Daily Show" hilariously points out that insurance companies already make such decisions.

My favorite line: "the US government should not be running death panels. It's far too big and out of control to effectively run something that important. That responsibility should remain where it is now: with private insurance companies."

We'd all be better off if we stepped back for a second, laughed at how seriously we take ourselves, calmed down, and actually talked with each other instead of screaming sound-bytes so we could get on TV.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Further Shameless Self Pomotion

I just published an article on Youth Ministry Today. It's a piece I wrote a few years back for my Seminary Field Ed class, and we were asked to pick a guiding metaphor for the ministry context in which we were working.

I was a youth pastor, and I chose "shepherd", specifically a shepherd herding cats. Enjoy.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Contemplative Concrete

A few weeks ago I was in Costa Rica on a mission trip. Pretty much all I've written about the trip thus far was how it was abbreviated by the church fire. Initially I was upset that I was out of the country when this disaster occurred, preventing me from being on the scene right away. But in a way it was actually a good thing for me, in that it created a kind of liminal space between the type of everyday ministry I was used to and the new, chaotic reality I came back to.

I also found the trip to be a great opportunity to engage in some contemplative practices and focus completely on the moment I was in, which has been so crucial for me in these last few weeks.

In Costa Rica we were working on the orphanage in Coronado (a town in the mountains just outside San Jose) that the Methodist Church of Costa Rica hopes to open next year. The foundation had been dug, so we were doing concrete work all week. Here in the States we usually see one or more large concrete mixing trucks doing all the work, requiring only a few people and very little time. This was not the case at the orphanage.

The only power tool we had was a cement mixer with a loud diesel motor. Everything else was done by hand.

A massive pile of silt had been taken from a river bed, and we had to sift it, separating the gravel from the sand.

We then had to shovel the sand and gravel into buckets, so they could be poured into the cement mixer in the correct proportions along with water and cement to make mortar to lay block and concrete for the foundation.

Once the mixer had done its thing, we had to take the concrete one wheelbarrow-load at a time over to the foundation to pour over the re bar, which was being hand tied by some other members of our group.

Needless to say, the progress was very slow and the work was as physically strenuous as most of us had ever experienced. And some folks very quickly got frustrated by the slow progress and how much effort was required for the smallest result. "Let's pass the hat and rent us a cement truck!" was frequently overheard, not always jokingly.

I had the good fortune of having brought Thomas Merton's New Seeds of Contemplation along with me. The book is a series of essays where Merton is attempting to explain the contemplative life to people who aren't in a monastery. It's not a series of exercises, just reflections.

In one of the chapters, Merton talks about how much we let other things distract us from what is happening in the present moment. We worry about unpaid bills, what our neighbor thinks of us, etc. We let a million thoughts run through our heads and it becomes very hard to focus.

Being one of the younger, stronger guys on the team, I had the "privilege" of doing a lot of the heavy lifting, which often meant pushing heavy wheelbarrows full of concrete up and down the very steep hillside. I quickly became overwhelmed when I thought about how many more loads it would take to finish a certain task, how long it was until lunch, or how badly my back was going to hurt the next morning.

So I decided to try and follow Merton's advice and do everything I could to concentrate on what I was doing at that moment. I only thought about filling the bucket in front of me with sand or gravel, not about how many buckets I would fill the entire day. I concentrated just on the wheelbarrow I was pushing at the moment, not how many I would push all day. I concentrated on each breath I was taking.

A very strange thing happened as I did this. I became very aware of my body and how I was using it as I did this hard physical labor. I quickly realized that when I was pushing or lifting something heavy I wasn't breathing at all, or taking very shallow breaths. This, combined with the altitude, was why I was out of breath all the time.

I discovered that when I was pushing the wheelbarrows up the hill, I was keeping my arms tense unnecessarily, and that I was pushing my hips forward, putting all the pressure on my lower back, instead of letting my legs do the work. Because I was focusing on what I was doing at the moment, I was able to make small corrections and more effectively use my body to do the work.

At the end of each day I found myself exhausted, but not very sore at all. Even though I was burning more calories each day that I probably do in a normal week, I found myself very relaxed and refreshed. It took every ounce of mental discipline I have (which is, admittedly, not very much), but focusing solely on what I was doing in each moment enabled me to enjoy the whole experience more, quiet my soul, and draw closer to God.

In the three weeks since the church fire that forced me to cut the mission trip short, I've had no shortage of things to worry about. Whenever I consider the totality of the task before us, I get overwhelmed, scared, and depressed. But if I can quiet those voices in my head and focus solely on the task before me, it doesn't seem so daunting, and I'm actually able to get more done.

All because I was able to practice some contemplative concrete work! God works in mysterious ways, indeed!

Monday, August 03, 2009

The Gospel According to "Rachel Getting Married"

This weekend Jessica and I watched a film that had been on our Netflix que for quite a while, Jonathan Demme's "Rachel Getting Married". It was a pretty good movie, thanks mostly to Anne Hathaway's performance.

I was really surprised, though, to see a tremendous message of redemption and some (most likely unintended) gospel metaphors at the end of the movie.

Anne Hathaway's character, Kym, reminds me of a number of people I've encountered at various times in my life. She's just come home from another stint in rehab, and it becomes clear very quickly that Kym has constructed her entire identity around being messed up. She wants everyone to know all about her problems, and she always has to be the center of attention. It's most likely crippling insecurity masquerading as vapid narcissism, and it works. We find out that her whole family is oriented around her disease. Her father is the peacemaker who will do anything to keep things peaceful keep her from going off the deep end. Her sister, Rachel (who is getting married, hence the title), is getting a PhD in Psychology so she can give voice to all the dysfunctions in her family. This is a textbook case of what addiction does to individuals and families.

Disclaimer- spoilers ahead. If you haven't seen this movie and don't want to know what happens, stop reading!

The night before the wedding, Kym gets in a fight with her estranged mother that gets physical, leaving her with a black eye and a swollen lip. She runs from her mom's house in a very emotional state, drives off, and quickly totals her car. She then falls asleep in the car, only to be awoken by police in the morning. Kym arrives back at the house as everyone is getting ready for the wedding in terrible shape with her father worried sick. Even though this is her sister's wedding day, she is once again drawing all the attention to herself.

Here's where the fantastic gospel metaphor shows up. Kym knocks on the door of Rachel's room and just stands there saying nothing. Rachel is already in her dress, but she takes it off to help Kym get cleaned up, made up to cover her eye and lip, and dressed for the ceremony. Even though Rachel had gotten fed up with Kym's antics in an earlier scene, we see Kym broken and contrite and helpless, so Rachel's actions show her forgiveness in a way words never could.

Kym's silence is significant because she has had the vast majority of the dialogue throughout the film. But from the moment at Rachel's door, she barely has any lines at all. The director, Jonathan Demme, had made Kym the center of almost every shot, but all through the wedding day she is on the margins of the screen. Kym has finally gotten over herself and thought of somebody else for a change. She has accepted that life is not all about her and her problems, and that she truly needs others to help her make it through each day.

This isn't a "Christian film" by any stretch, and I doubt if any of the filmmakers have any particular religious inclinations, and yet we see the gospel shown in the brokenness and humility Kym shows after she crashes her car. She's finally hit rock bottom and has accepted her powerlessness in the face of her addictions and other problems. She understands and accepts that redemption is going to have to come from a force outside herself.

The movie may not have the requisite doctrinal presentation (the only mention of Jesus is when the characters frequently break the third commandment) for some Christians to consider this film as containing a legitimate gospel message, but I think the humility and redemption Kym displays speaks for itself.