The Walking Dead?

I got addicted to the TV series The Walking Dead after visiting a friend. At first, I thought yuk! Then I started to get hooked on the story line. Here you have a world devastated by some kind of disease that turns dead people into zombies. What more would you want?

I’ll admit, I’ve always liked futuristic shows, after all I grew up with Star Trek. So for me this wasn’t too much different. A little more graphic perhaps, but still….

Last night I caught up on the latest episode – Season 5 Part 2. So much has happened to this group of folks who are fighting zombies (Walkers, as they call them). Most of their friends are dead. But the will to survive always kicks in and somehow they keep on going. Where? I’m not sure and I don’t think they are.

Last night’s episode was particularly sobering. Another friend has died as a result of the zombies, they discover a place that they thought might be zombie free had been run over with the creatures. Some of the survivors want to slow down a bit. The leader however, wants to keep on going because for him, survival is the name of the game.

zombiepreacherCall me crazy, but I cannot help but think that I’m living in The Walking Dead! As a pastor of a small denominational church, I often feel like the “Survivors” are just trying to survive. They want things to go back to the way they once were and yet change is an every day event. The “Walkers” come faithfully every Sunday, not wanting to make trouble. They don’t know that they are dead and they just do what walkers do – consume.

The “Survivors” just want to survive. The “Walkers” just want to consume. There are a few who want to try new things in the midst of the change that often seems overwhelming, but is it enough?

As I watch each season of The Walking Dead I wonder. They have been through so much and lost so much. And yet, survival just cannot be enough!

I’m sure that the church will not look the same way it does today in 20 years. There may be remnants of the institution. There WILL BE followers of Christ. These folks will become more than survivors and consumers. The Way of Jesus, the Way to follow, is enough just as it has been for centuries.

I don’t know what “church” will look like, but I do know that those who follow Jesus will find a way to get together to praise God. They will find a way to serve and love others. They will find a way to break bread together. They will continue to grow in Christ and in grace. They will continue to proclaim hope and exclaim the Good News as they tell the stories of Jesus. And that is enough.

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Can the Church be “Saved?”

chancel_windowCan the Church be Saved?

I’m really tired of being asked that question….along with these other questions: What is the future of the Church? What do we need to do to FIX the church? How can we get people to come to our church?

I’m also tired of the EXPERT coming to tell us what to do. If we just did this, we’d all be fine. If we read this book, follow this program, or do this in our community….then the church will be saved.

Lord, have mercy!

First, as my good friend John said, “The Church doesn’t need to be fixed!” The institution needs some work, but the Church, well, that belongs to Jesus. The Church of Jesus Christ has been around for a while now and I trust that our Lord will continue the will of the Father concerning all of creation. In other words, I do not believe it is up to ME to “fix” the Church.

Denominations and institutional systems however, are another matter.  We are in the midst of a huge cultural shift in Western civilization. I’m not talking about the kinds of worship music we sing or a small group model of “doing” church. I’m talking about the bigger picture of rising population, depleting resources, and social divisions. Humanity simply cannot continue with business as usual and not understand the signs of shift right in front of them and neither can the Church.

I do not have the answers! So if you are reading this and thought that you’d find answers, perhaps you should look elsewhere. I do however, have some suggestions for my own denomination – United Methodists.

  1. More Cooperative Ministries. Traditionally, Methodists have been a connectional group of people. We are taught from an early age that we are connected to other Methodists around the globe –all working together to continue ushering the Kingdom of God into the world. But we haven’t acted like it in a while.

I come from the South where there is a Methodist Church on every corner. They would tell me stories of how and when they split over something-or-another and they were still split! Even though they were neighbors and family, they attended two different United Methodist churches within 2 miles of one another. The culture had changed around them many times, and yet they were still “doing” church the same ways.

I have served now in the Northwest for a few years. Churches here are closing their doors faster than building new congregations of the faithful. Until recently, the West had the highest number of “nones” (those professing no religious affiliation). They lost that status to the Northeast but only by a small margin. Those in the Pacific Northwest are seeing the effects of “doing church like it was 1950” as aging congregations are shrinking quicker than they are growing.

What if the few larger churches that we have in the Northwest would stop downsizing, but instead start hiring more pastors and laity for service? What if they then worked with these smaller congregations to birth new ideas while sharing staff? Pastors may not be assigned just ONE congregation, but several, as they worked cooperatively with one another in small communities of faithful United Methodists who can no longer afford full time staff. The model that has been used is when a church can no longer afford full time pastoral staff, they are then yoked with another part-time church. That’s not what I’m talking about. The “circuit-rider” mentality once worked, but I propose it needs to be re-imagined.

  1. Re-imagine the Apportionment system. Anytime there is systemic change needed, one needs to ask, “What is it that we need to let go of in order to move forward?” I think we are struggling to let go of many things but one of those is the apportionment system. For you who are not UM’s, this is a system of gathering funds from local congregations that go to the General Church and are spent on many great and worthy causes. These funds do much good in our world and show our connectedness on a global scale. The funds also pay our Bishops and staff so that our conferences can run smoothly and have the pastoral leadership that we need. Can we afford to let go of some things in order to move into the future?

What if we apportioned each church 10% of their budget each year. I know that my church has about a $90,000 budget yearly, without adding in our apportioned funds. Thus our apportioned figures would be approximately $9,000 a year under a re-imagined system. That seems fair and comes from a biblical understanding of tithe – giving 10% of the first fruits. What would have to be let go of? Could we move forward with the deficit that these cuts might cause in the General Church budgets? Would worldwide ministry continue to be done?

As my small church pinches pennies and seeks to serve the least, the last, and the lost, we urge our leaders to ask these hard questions and to begin to re-imagine the systems in place that are hindering the work of small churches within their communities.

  1. Re-imagine ministry in all aspects of church life. My Bishop once told us clergy to go into the world without fear; dreaming and visioning for the future; boldly trying new things and letting go of systemic strong-holds. What exactly does this look like? In my small community of 5000 souls, it looks way different than in the next city of 30,000.

The “being in mission to” and “we welcome you” language has to change. We need more relationship building! We need collaboration! We need to truly know our neighbors and journey with them in life – whether they come to us or not. Churches (the space we gather) should be comparable to infusion centers where we are infused with God’s love, Christ’s grace, and the strength of the Holy Spirit to go OUT from the walls into our neighborhoods (thanks Pat for that metaphor).

Churches today don’t like to talk about blood. But I remember the old hymn, “There is Power in the Blood” and am reminded that while the blood theology may make some uncomfortable, once you get rid of the blood you have gotten rid of Jesus (thanks Leonard Sweet). Without blood loss, there would have been no death and then no resurrection. If we are truly resurrection people, then we cannot forget the blood that was lost so that humanity could move forward in loving radically and fearlessly as we follow the risen Christ into our world.

What would it look like if gathering spaces were flexible infusion centers? What does it look like for us to stop worrying about welcoming others and ask them to welcome us instead? What would it look like to have those infusion centers sustained, not only by the offering plate passed around, but by collaboration with small neighborhood businesses? What would it look like if we used the church building (the infusion center) as an ecumenical gathering space with cost sharing in place?

It is past time that we start to re-imagine the way things have always been done. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, set out to re-imagine the Anglican Church and look what happened! It isn’t the systems that are in place that will keep the church going, but it is the ability to creatively follow Jesus into an ever-changing world. We are all called. The ministry is before us. Will you re-imagine with me?

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Let it Shine!

man-sun-illuminationToday the sun is out full force at my Oregon home. Yes, we do get sunshine from time to time. I love to be out on days like this, absorbing the rays. Even if it is cold out, I find a way to put myself in the “shine.”

One thing I don’t like however, is that as the sun shines in through my dirty windows, it illuminates all my dust, and dog hair, and dirt on the floors. YUK. I’m gonna have to vacuum. I’m gonna have to dust and clean.

But today I was reminded that it is a GOOD thing that those unclean places are revealed. By illuminating them, the sun allows me time to work on the dirty places. After all, I’d hate to be caught by an unexpected guest with tufts dog hair floating in the air. And I don’t mean just an occasional tuft, I mean more than that.

I believe that we get comfortable with our dirty places. And that we are willing to let others glimpse some of the dirt, but not all of it. By allowing the illuminating light to shine in on it, we are reminded that we need to work on things!

Perhaps that is why Christians are reluctant to allow the light of Christ to fully shine into their hearts – the dirt will surely be illuminated. The human inclination is to hide our deepest dirt, our internal hurts, our failures, and more; but the Divine inclination is to light up all of that junk so that we can work on it!

I was talking to a friend the other day about our favorite scripture. We talked about the stories we loved. She said to me, “I also love John 3: 17 – because we always leave that part out. We remember John 3: 16, but then don’t put it with the rest of the story.” Wise words.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

The illuminating light of Christ did not come so that in shining the light on our dirty junk we would be condemned, but that we would be saved! NOT CONDEMNED! That we would, with the help of the Spirit, work on cleaning up, work on growing and allowing the love and light of Christ to transform us into who we are supposed to be in the world.

So today, I am thankful for the illuminating SON shining brightly to show all the junk I hide in my heart, so that I can, with the love and grace and guidance of the Divine, begin to clean it up. And while cleaning up is not an easy job, it is in that work that I’m being saved. So, I’m thankful for the sun shining on my dirty floors. Well, sort of…

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New and Exciting!!

Let me start by saying Blessed Advent and Merry Christmas!

What a wonderful time of the year! Right? Parties, gathering with friends, getting and giving gifts, singing the old Christmas songs, watching pageants performed at churches…..fun, fun, fun!

I have to be honest, for many this wonderful season is also a very stress filled season. For me it is. But it’s a good kind of stress (if that even exists) for me because I love being with people. I love planning services in which we gather to worship and praise God. I love the traditions of the season.

But as many pastors do, I’m always thinking of ways I can make the Advent and Christmas stories new and exciting. I begin to wonder if people are just tired of church because they’ve all heard the story before. And so I begin to believe that I need to step up my game.

(Tell me you other pastors out there feel the same way from time to time?)

But this morning as I was meditating over scripture, God said to me, “The story is enough.”

The story is enough. Really? But….they’ve heard it over and over again. If I don’t do something new and exciting it may not impact their lives in such a way that will bring true transformation and change. If I don’t offer new and exciting, they may not give generously. If I don’t offer new and exciting I may hear from my SPRC. If I don’t…….THE STORY IS ENOUGH!

I tried to make excuses but those words just stuck in my brain. And as I settled in, and continued to meditate on the scriptures before me, I realized that the story is indeed enough.

God sent the Son to earth, to become human – one of us, in all of our turmoil and messiness. Jesus’ birth story is in the midst of turmoil and messiness! What good news that is for humanity – that God would choose to enter the human race right where we were….in spite of our messiness and turmoil; in spite of our brokenness; even because of it.

Who needs new and exciting? The story is ever new and exciting as we tell it over and over again; as its retelling permeates our very beings and God’s Spirit works through the story to transform our lives.

I pray that this season, you’ll hear the old, old story again. The story that is worth sharing over and over. The story that is full of good news and love and grace. The story that is always new and exciting. The story of Jesus – because it is certainly enough.

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Today I heard an apple fall….

This morning, as I was close to finishing up my 2 mile walk, I heard an apple fall from a tree. I truly cannot say that I’ve ever really “heard” that. I’ve seen it. In the seeing, I must have forgotten the sound of it. But this time I didn’t see anything except the tree. But I heard the fall.

It made a soft ker-plunk as it hit the ground below. And then all was quiet again.

As I reflected on the hearing of this thing, I thought about all the things I must miss hearing because I’m so busy trying to see everything. I have to admit I’m a visual person and learn best this way. But I wonder what would happen if I began to listen more…

Could I hear the softness in the voice of the elderly who have lost their independence, rather than seeing the wheelchairs and walkers and tubes and special diets?

Could I hear the hope spoken by a congregation of passionate followers of Jesus, rather than seeing the numbers of dwindling resources?

Would I be able to hear the joy as people gather together and praise God, rather than just see the task before me to lead?

Would I be able to hear both the voices of reality AND those of future hope, rather than just seeing the disagreements?

Would I remember the sound of holiness? Could I recall the sound of God?

Today I heard an apple fall and the sound has awakened within me a yearning to listen more carefully. Perhaps it is in the sound of the falling that grace will be revealed. Lord, in your mercy, hear my prayer.apple-falling-from-tree

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Numbers

Our world is almost obsessed with numbers. We measure everything! Polling numbers, statistical numbers, financial numbers, health numbers, efficiency numbers….you get the picture. And yet, are numbers the real measure of who we are?

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Right now, most mainline denominations are stressing out about the numbers – or should I say the lack of numbers in some areas. Every church supported event I attend involves ways to “turn around the numbers” or “stop the decline of the numbers.” Religion has become one more of the many numbers games in the world.

This week I went to see my doctor. I was worried about some blood work that my conference insurance had analyzed as part of our Blueprint to Wellness program. My cholesterol was a bit up from last year. My weight as well. And sometimes my blood pressure is just at the edge of what “normal” range is. I’ll admit it, I’ve been programed to use numbers as a measurement tool all of my life. And yet, those numbers just don’t show the whole picture.

I have a rare primary immunodeficiency disease (CVID) and osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia. And I work full time, exercise daily, love my job, and am happier now in life than I’ve been in many years. Sure, there are bad days. But for the most part I’m doing well. My doctor affirmed this when she said, “You are doing great with all the stuff you have going on. Stop obsessing with the numbers and go live your life! Have fun! Listen to your body and rest when you need to. Eat properly and keep on exercising. You’ll be fine. I’ll see you in 6 or so months.”

I’ll admit when I left the office that day I thought, “Well that was a wasted visit! No new medications, no diet plan, nothing!” But over the past couple of days I’ve had time to soak in what she was saying to me. And because my life is so tied up in my vocation (which gives me joy most of the time!) I found so many similarities to the current state of the church.

“We are dying! Look at these numbers!” Matrixes measure our weekly attendance, giving, involvement in small groups and mission, and more. Church leadership touts the next new “pill” as the thing that will save our churches. I’ve learned the tough way that the next quick fix never works for much of anything worth doing.

I’m much more interested in longevity. Part of that however, means not becoming so obsessed and fearful of the numbers that you stop living. For example, if all I did every single day for the rest of my life was worry about how many calories I take in by counting each and every thing….what kind of a way is that to live? Or if I was so afraid of my fibromyalgia flaring that I never went for a walk or swimming? I don’t want to live in fear! I don’t want to live in obsession! Sure, I’m up for a good challenge as much as the next person, but when someone says, “Let’s go to the fair and have cotton candy and fried oreos,” I’m gonna be up for that as well. 

I read a book called “I Am a Follower” by Leonard Sweet awhile back and I cannot get the idea of “FOLLOWERSHIP” out of my head. I talk about following Jesus all the time in church. “Follow Christ into the world; Where he leads we will follow; take up your cross and follow Jesus….” Jesus is the LEADER, the head, the living stone of the church. I am a follower. I will always be a follower. No matter how many leadership conferences I attend; no matter how many statistics I am bombarded with; no matter if I serve in an “official” manner or as a volunteer, I have followed Jesus where HE led since I was 14 years old. 

So I’m gonna take my docs advice and live. Live true to the calling on my life as I follow Jesus. Live with excitement and compassion and love and grace. Live with balance and discernment and seeing God at work in the world. Live as Christ’s follower. That may not mean huge numbers of folks show up at my church on Sunday. That may not mean we get lots of money in the offering plates. But it may mean that folks are actively engaged in spiritual formation. It may mean that one person begins to share the stories of their faith. It may mean that brokenness is healed. And, I know that if I am faithful in FOLLOWING the living Christ rather than the numbers, I will truly live….and so will the Church. 

 

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Schism – Another Word for Divorce

I was married for almost 25 years. Sure, some of those years were rocky. There were good times and not-so-good times. But we tried. It was during those times that I believe we were modeling how to reconcile, accept, and love unconditionally. My children watched. My children learned.

And then in 2007, on a sunny Saturday morning, my husband announced that he was leaving. I truly thought he was just going to the store or something as I was totally clueless. That was the worst day of my life. When one party in a relationship refuses to continue to work through the issues at hand, there is only destruction. My children, although grown, continued to watch and to learn.

I’ve learned since that horrible time in my life that to work on the problem is probably the most difficult task you will ever be involved in. And some people just cannot handle it. Also, I think that some people grow from mistakes, some people learn how to move forward, and others, well, they just do not. But when a relationship ends, hurt is always the result. 

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I say all of this to point to the situation boiling within the United Methodist denomination. I personally do not believe that there can be an “Amicable Split.” Why? Just like every divorce that involves property, children, and assets (and this relationship in particular has LOTS of these things), one party will feel like they lost somewhere. And the hurt….I’m not sure that many of our congregants could survive the sheer pain. I’m wondering if I’m up to another divorce. 

Days after my husband left, I felt helpless and hopeless. My very soul was in such pain that I did not think I would survive or that I even wanted to. The so-called “amicable split” has not even occurred yet, and I’m already experiencing those feelings within the church that I have been a part of for 50 years. Sure, this talk of split or divorce has been brewing since before I became an ordained elder in 2009. That was partly why I felt so called to stay within the UMC – to help make things right. I believed that Christ’s followers would be able to put God first and work together for the least, the last, and the lost. I believed that by being faithful to the call on my life that maybe God would use me to make a difference. I believed and I prayed and my children watched and learned.

The struggle to remain “married” (in a covenant relationship) to the denomination has not been an easy one. I never thought that I would feel such brokenness and pain. I never thought that I’d see such abominable behaviors toward ‘the other” coming from those who proclaim Christ as Lord. I never thought that I’d be faced with divorce again. 

And all the while, my young adult children watch and learn. They hear such hatred and vile speech coming from “religious” folks. They see cultural differences of other humans being condemned. They see a failure of humanity, God’s children, to love as God loves. Perhaps that is why they have little to do with “church.”

There was no right side or wrong side in my divorce. We were both at fault. We had failed in our covenant toward one another to give 100% of ourselves to the other. We had failed in communication. We had failed in respect. We had failed. And 7 years later, the struggle to be civil toward one another when in the same room is full of tenseness. I truly think that we both would agree that we could have, and should have, done better. 

A divorce within the United Methodist Church will not be amicable or easy or without much, much pain. And know that all of God’s children are watching. What example are we setting if we, follower’s of the Christ, empowered with the love and gifts of the Spirit, cannot do better?

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