United Methodist General Conference 2019—Day One

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(photo by Mike DuBose, United Methodist News Service)

Soren Kierkegaard once wrote that “prayer does not change God, but it changes [the one] who prays.”

Today, the United Methodist 2019 General Conference began precisely where it needed to begin—in the transforming and often-mysterious rhythms of prayer. Led by the Bishops of our church and a gathering of beautifully-gifted musicians, we spent the entire day navigating important and complex spiritual territory through the ministries of prayer and fasting.

We prayed for the various global expressions of United Methodism, each of which has sent delegates to this conference.

We prayed for our denomination—for its witness, its healing, its faithfulness, and its mission.

We prayed for one another, naming our personal hurts, hopes, and needs, all the while offering them to the Divine Heart.

We prayed for the LGBTQ souls in our midst who, irrespective of the outcome of this General Conference, are often talked about and talked around in ways that are painful and dehumanizing.

We prayed for the volunteers who will minister to us throughout the conference with their hospitality and administrative efficiency.

We prayed for an anointing of the America’s Center where the conference is taking place, that God’s presence would be felt in every room, in every conversation, in every circumstance.

We prayed. And prayed. And prayed.

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(photo by Mike DuBose, United Methodist News Service)

I cannot tell you exactly how long it has been since I spent an entire day in the work of prayer, but it has certainly been a while.

Late in the afternoon, our prayer led us all the way to the Lord’s Table, where we found supernatural nourishment in the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation. It makes spiritual sense, I guess. After all, we had feasted on the presence of God in prayer all day long. How could we conclude the feast at any other place but the Holy Table, where spiritual food becomes mystically tangible.

Following Holy Communion, we ended our day together with a time of administrative orientation, including some parliamentary training. It was helpful and important, especially given the legislative work that we will begin tomorrow. But, to be honest, throughout the orientation, I kept losing myself in prayer—quick, spontaneous, quiet petitions. Perhaps it was a lingering reluctance to leave behind the sweet hours of prayer I had experienced all day long.

At one point in the day, I ran into some members of the prayer team from Western Pennsylvania who have made the trip to St. Louis simply to bless and deepen the General Conference with their focused ministry of prayer. They had nothing but words of gracious encouragement for me. Throughout the morning and afternoon, I received over twenty texts and e-mails from people in Western Pennsylvania letting me know that they are holding me (and us) in fervent prayer. I cannot even put into words how much it means to me that so many people are praying. It makes prayer feel less like an activity and more like a sanctified connection of manifold souls.

Were all people praying for exactly the same things today? No. We come to this place, after all, with different priorities, perspectives, and convictions. Even so, our communal prayer in the name of the Triune God felt like a unifying preparation for the vulnerability and diligence that our work will require in the days ahead. It was the kind of day that compelled me to believe even more deeply in what Scripture teaches—that “the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective” (James 5:16).

A few weeks back, I wrote a prayer to be used at one of our General Conference delegation meetings. I found the prayer on my iPhone this morning, and, during today’s lunchtime fast, I prayed the prayer over and over again in a quiet corner of the convention center, simply for the purpose of allowing my heart to be shaped by its petitions. I share that prayer now with you in the hope that it will deepen your spirit of intercession. Thank you for reading this post. And please, friends…

…keep praying.

Holy God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who both transcends time and occupies it; who is intimately present with us in both our solitude and our conferencing; who has built the church on the rock of a grace-shaped faith, and who will preserve the church so that not even the power of death will prevail against it:

 We have prayed and pondered for many months, and now we come together…

 Many voices;

 Many perspectives and temperaments;

 Many different hopes, fears, and longings;

 But with hearts joined in a common love for Jesus and the ministry of his beautiful church.

 We come with a spirit of repentance, desperate for a fresh encounter with your cleansing grace that is greater than our sinful rhythms and our distorted priorities.

 We come in a spirit of vulnerable availability, eager to hear and to be heard; to see and to be seen; to love and to be loved.

 Come, Lord Jesus.

 Come, be the center of our discernment and our deliberation.

 Come, be the thoughts that we think, the words that we speak, the air that we breathe.

 Come, Lord Jesus.

 Come, be the window through which we see one another differently; through which we recognize one another’s sacred worth; through which we glimpse what your church can be at its most vibrant.

 Come, Lord Jesus.

 Come be the Window, the Word, and the Way Forward.

 Come, Lord Jesus.

 Amen.

 

When Faith Is a Window Instead of a Wall

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Words are flowing freely and in many directions as we move into the 2019 General Conference.

Words of hope.

Words of anger.

Words of conviction.

Words of fear.

Words of unity and separation; of solidarity and schism; of galvanization and gracious exits.

Words.

I have no more words to offer, which is perhaps best. Even my prayers at this point have become wordless sighs of intercession for a church I dearly love.

So, in this blog post, instead of prosaic words, I offer something far less practical.

A song.

It is a song about faith, at its worst and best. Perhaps more descriptively, it is a song about the transformed perspective that Jesus makes possible.

I am singing the song quietly these days, in the hidden chambers of my soul, somewhere beneath all of my words. I hope that the song becomes something like breathing for me throughout the days of General Conference, so that I will be inclined to discern more windows than walls, more rebirths than tokens.

Here is the song, feebly offered. I pray that it is an encouragement to you.

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(Words and music by Eric Park; Performed by Tara and Eric Park)

Faith can be nothing but a means to an end
A ticket to heaven, a creed to defend
Faith can be curtains behind which we hide
A withering tree with no forest beside

Faith can be shallow when depth is required
A bed to crawl into when souls become tired
Faith can be awkward, an out-of-tune hum
A lifeless equation that leads to no sum

But when faith is a window instead of a wall
A lens to look through, not a speech to recall
If faith is the forest instead of the tree
Then nothing’s outside what the faithful can see
No, nothing’s outside what the faithful can see

Faith can be cloistered, an in-house debate
An object to study, a reason to hate
Faith can be closets with things put away
A good bit of talking with nothing to say

But when faith is a lifetime instead of a day
A constant rebirth, not a token to pay
If faith is the worldview beyond the decree
Then nothing’s outside what the faithful can see
No, nothing’s outside what the faithful can see

Faith is assurance of things we hope for
Faith is conviction of things we can’t see
Faith is the journey our ancestors died for
Faith is the pathway to wisdom

Faith can be nothing but a weapon to wield
A rope that is fraying, a very thin shield
Faith can be strident when love is desired
A license for judgment that’s long since expired

But when faith is a window instead of a wall
A lens to look through, not a speech to recall
If faith is the forest instead of the tree
Then nothing’s outside what the faithful can see

And when faith is a lifetime instead of a day
A constant rebirth, not a token to pay
If faith is the worldview beyond the decree
Then nothing’s outside what the faithful can see
No, nothing’s outside what the faithful can see

The Personal Values That I Hope Will Shape My Approach to General Conference 2019

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In a few days, if all goes according to plan, I will be in St. Louis as a delegate to the special called session of the United Methodist General Conference. The essential and practical purpose of this session of the General Conference is to determine the United Methodist Church’s teaching and practice related to matters of human sexuality.

For the last several months, I have been engaged in a rhythm of reading, writing, and prayer in preparation for this important time of conferencing. My preparation has led me to a clearer understanding of the personal values that I carry to General Conference. By “values,” I simply mean those convictions and priorities held so deeply that they shape and, in many ways, guide my worldview, my decision-making, and my understanding of the church.

Here are some of the values that are most important to me as I travel to General Conference. I share them for no other reason but to be transparent (and accountable) in my ministry as a delegate.

Personal Value #1: Ever-Deepening Love for God

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus identifies the greatest commandment in this fashion: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind…”

The heart (“kardia”) calls to mind the physical essence of our being, the organ that is closest to the center of our physical sustenance. To love God with all of one’s heart is to practice a God-honoring stewardship over one’s physical being, caring well for hearts and bodies in a way that honors the One who made them.

The soul (“psuche,” from which we derive the word “psychology”) is the place of our deepest thoughts, feelings, passions, and emotions. To love God with all of one’s soul is to nurture one’s inner being, caring for emotional health and spiritual growth in a way that honors the One who desires nothing less than an intimate communion with souls.

The mind (“dianoia”) is a reference to the realm of our cognitive reflection and our rational analysis. To love God with all of one’s mind is to engage in vibrant intellectual development through the disciplines of reading, learning, and dialogue, caring for the formation of our minds in a manner that honors the One who desires to be known, not only through feelings, but also through thoughts.

This is my prayer: Ever-present God, whose very nature is love, awaken within me and within the entire General Conference a deep desire to love you with heart, soul, and mind, so that every portion of our conferencing will become a doxological rendering to you of our heartfelt praise and adoration.

Personal Value #2: Commitment to Personal and Communal Integrity

The word “integrity” is a derivative of a Latin word meaning “intact” or “whole.” According to Scripture, “The integrity of the upright guides them, but the crookedness of the treacherous destroys them” (Proverbs 11:3). The Hebrew word here for “integrity” calls to mind holistic innocence and an unbroken character. People of integrity, therefore, commit themselves to authenticity, wholeness, truthfulness, and attentiveness in their relationships, their administration, their self-care, their communication, and their personal conduct.

This is my prayer: God of wholeness, whose character is always trustworthy and whose grace rejoins our broken pieces, let the integrity of your beautiful heart find dynamic expression in the rhythms and interactions of the General Conference.

Personal Value #3: Subordination to the Revelation and Authority of Scripture, Prayerfully Interpreted and Wisely Applied

When the Psalmist declares that God’s “word” is nothing less than “a lamp to [our] feet and a light to [our] path” (Psalm 119:105), and that “the word of the Lord is right and true” (Psalm 33:4), he is giving expression to the conviction that God has definitively communicated to humankind in a manner that is both trustworthy and illuminating.

In the Christian tradition in general, and in the United Methodist denomination in particular, the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments have been embraced and elevated as the narrative of God’s revealed Word and are believed by the church to contain all that is necessary for salvation. Some of the church’s most critical work is the ongoing task of interpreting Biblical revelation through the hermeneutical lenses of tradition, reason, and experience, so that the Word might leap off of the printed page and into the various contexts of the contemporary world for the purpose of bringing a timeless Gospel to the ever-changing dynamics of history.

My prayer: Allow your Word, O God, to find its authoritative place in the hearts and lives of your people. Let your Scripture be breathed afresh in our midst, that it might be received as a tangible expression of your vast and glorious heart.

Personal Value #4: Attentive Listening to All Voices and Patient Exploration of All Perspectives

Instead of being governed by skepticism or, worse, cynicism, I long to be the kind of Christ-follower who recognizes all voices as being worthy to be heard and all perspectives—even the ones with which I may strongly disagree—as being beneficial to the collective discernment. In order to honor this personal value, I have no choice but to be vigilant in the naming and surrendering of my own biases and prejudices, so that I might be far more driven by a hunger for comprehensive discernment than I am by the desire to protect and validate my preconceived conclusions.

This is my prayer: Deliver me, O God, from the kind of sharp-edged presuppositions and selective listening that so frequently prevent the viewpoints of my sisters and brothers from reaching my deepest contemplation. Grant that I might bear all things, believe the best about all things, hope all things, and endure all things. (1 Corinthians 13:7).

Personal Value #5: Compassion for Those Who Are Wounded by the Pace, the Demands, and the Dynamics of Our Conferencing

Given that delegates gather in the name of the One who “consoles us in all our affliction” (2 Corinthians 1:4), it may seem a bit ironic to suggest that General Conference can cause woundedness. The truth of the matter, however, is that General Conference’s aggressive debates and divisive outcomes regularly leave vulnerable souls feeling bruised and mistreated. This reality makes it nothing less than urgent for delegates to pray their way into a growing spirit of sensitivity and compassion that infuses their engagement with one another.

This is my prayer: Soften my heart, Always-Tender God, that it might hurt with the hearts of my sisters and brothers when they are wounded.

Personal Value #6: Commitment to Biblical Holiness, Biblical Justice, and Biblical Hospitality

When Jesus teaches us to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48), he is not setting us up for failure. Rather, I believe he is imparting to us the truth that it is possible to live a life that is so thoroughly subordinated to the transforming Lordship of Jesus that every part of that life—EVERY part—begins to reflect more deeply the sanctified condition into which the Holy Spirit is leading us. This is holiness—not a “try harder” kind of self-reliance, but a steady yielding to the new creation that Jesus is making out of our lives.

When the prophet Amos teaches us to “let justice roll down like waters” (Amos 5:24), he calls to mind a transformed world where marginalized souls are seen, heard, and valued and where shared priorities begin to reflect with greater vibrancy the things that God values most.

When the prophet Isaiah teaches us “to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood,” (Isaiah 58:7), he is envisioning a people who are governed by the impulse, not to reject and dismiss, but to welcome and engage, thereby incarnating the transformational ministry of Jesus.

This is my prayer: Usher me into a deeper journey of holiness, Most Holy One, that my presence will contribute to the collective holiness of our conferencing instead of diminishing it. Usher me into a more dynamic pursuit of justice, that my heart will be unsettled until all people are rightly treated and valued. Usher me into a more radical hospitality, that I will see your radiant visage in the countenance of every person I encounter at General Conference.

Personal Value #7: Prayer Without Ceasing

The teaching of Scripture is that “the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective” (James 5:16), meaning that prayer is God’s dynamic engagement with human hearts—an engagement through which God makes redemptive excursions into lives and circumstances. If I do not cling to prayer as a personal value, my contribution to General Conference will go only as far as my personal abilities, which is not very far.

This is my prayer: Let prayer become for me as natural as breathing, God, and every bit as urgent.

Personal Value #8: Willingness to Acknowledge the Possibility That My Personal Discernment Might Be Distorted and Significantly Misguided

Holding one’s convictions strongly produces a necessary confidence and commitment. Acknowledging that one’s convictions might be wrong, however, is what enables one to see those convictions as a window rather than a wall and an invitation rather than a weapon.

This is my prayer: Deepen and clarify my discernment, O God, and allow me to hold my convictions in a way that nurtures community instead of fracturing it. Make me ever mindful of the truth that your thoughts and ways are always higher than my thoughts and ways (Isaiah 55:8).

Personal Value #9: Agapic Love

The agapic love that 1 Corinthians 13 describes demands a relentless attentiveness to the personhood of another. It is the love that names and dismantles racism in all of its forms because it dares to see one’s race and ethnic heritage as gifts to be embraced rather than obstacles to be feared and manipulated. It is the love that purges the prejudices that would prevent us from being kind and respectful to the person who stands on the other side of a debate or who brings a contrasting viewpoint to a piece of legislation. It is the love that acknowledges the insufficiency of the glass through which we dimly see one another and yet foreshadows the realm where we will see one another with face-to-face completeness.

This is my prayer: God, whose heart is love: Let me love deeply, dynamically, and beautifully during my days at General Conference, so that your heart might find expression in the manner with which I relate to my sisters and brothers.

Personal Value #10: The Lordship of Jesus

I am much more abundantly prepared to approach the work of General Conference with hopefulness, encouragement, and right perspective when I hold in my heart this core conviction: that, irrespective of the actions of General Conference,

Jesus will always be Lord;

Jesus will not rest until all of creation’s threads are woven redemptively together into the beautiful tapestry that God is making out of human history; and,

Jesus will continue to call and equip his followers to be the kind of Church against which not even the gates of Hades shall prevail.

This is my prayer: Remind all of us in fresh and powerful ways, O God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that the Lordship of Jesus is wonderfully secure and that his justifying and sanctifying grace is sufficient to hold redemptive governance over all that transpires at General Conference and beyond.

Preparing for General Conference: A Reflection

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It is a challenging time for that portion of the Body of Christ called the United Methodist Church. The upcoming special session of the General Conference (held in St. Louis from February 23 through February 26 and called specifically for the purpose of making significant decisions about what our denomination’s way forward will be related to the matter of human sexuality) has generated a sense of anxiety throughout the district that I superintend and, I suspect, throughout the connection. For some, this anxiety is linked to the fear that the denomination will change its current teaching. For others, the fear is that it won’t. As both a District Superintendent and a delegate to the General Conference, my heart and mind are fully engaged in the work that is before us.

864 General Conference delegates from Africa, the Philippines, Europe, and the United States will travel to St. Louis for the event. We will be joined there by hundreds of other visitors, observers, volunteers, marshals, and pages (some from Western Pennsylvania), many of whom will be there on their own dime and time, simply because they believe that the work of the church in St. Louis demands their very best efforts and attention. Bishops will preside administratively over the General Conference’s plenary sessions, but will not have a vote (which is United Methodism’s way of ensuring the necessary separation of ecclesiastical powers and processes).

General Conference, which ordinarily meets every four years (but can be specially called between quadrennial sessions, as is the case this year), is United Methodism’s highest legislative body for all matters affecting the United Methodist connection. It is the only entity that has the authority to make decisions for the entire denomination. That may strike some of you as woefully impractical. What corporation, after all, would ever be able to survive and thrive if its primary governance body included over eight hundred people and met every four years?

And yet, for all of the practical and strategic questions that may be raised in any conversation about General Conference, I am deeply grateful to be part of a denomination whose authority is not centralized. No single leader, bishop, or committee has the authority to dictate the priorities and policies of our church. Rather, our portion of the Body of Christ finds its legislative governance in a praying, searching, occasionally quarrelling, sometimes divided, frequently doxological body called the General Conference. It is this historical priority of “governance by conferencing” that has enabled United Methodism to retain its emphasis on both communal discernment and connectional responsibility.

At various points, we will worship vibrantly at General Conference throughout the course of the upcoming session. I am convinced, in fact, that worship and prayer will be the grandest part of what we will experience together.

We will also turn our attention to weighty and controversial legislation concerning the denomination’s teaching on human sexuality (in general) and the practice of homosexuality (in particular).

For clarity, the denomination’s current position, expressed in the 2016 United Methodist Book of Discipline, is that, while all people are of sacred worth and created in the image of God, the practice of homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.” As a result of this institutionally-affirmed incompatibility, the United Methodist Church is not currently permitted to ordain self-avowed, practicing homosexuals. Likewise, United Methodist clergy and congregations are not currently permitted to conduct same-sex marriages on their church property.

A variety of proposed plans and modified plans for a way forward will come before the upcoming session of the General Conference. Some of those plans (Such as the One Church Plan, the Connectional Conference Plan, and the Simple Plan) would remove the restrictive language related to the practice of homosexuality from the United Methodist Book of Discipline, thereby making it possible for individual churches, Boards of Ordained ministry, and pastors to discern personally and contextually what their policies and practices will be concerning marriage and ordination. Many believe that the adoption of one of these plans is urgently necessary in order for United Methodism to become a more just, compassionate, and inclusive church.

Alternatively, there will be other plans coming before the General Conference (such as the Traditional Plan and the Modified Traditional Plan) that would protect and fortify the denomination’s current position on the practice of homosexuality. Many believe that these traditionalist plans are the only way for the church to sustain its Biblical theology of human sexuality.

There will also be legislation advocating for a gracious exit from the denomination for those churches and clergy who cannot in good conscience abide by whichever plan is adopted.

Not surprisingly, there is a great divergence of thought throughout United Methodism concerning which plan represents the healthiest and best way forward. Often, the differing viewpoints lead to a painful sense of division. I have experienced portions of that division up close and personally.

To generate much-needed perspective, however, it should be said that our challenges are probably no more severe or complicated than some of the other seasons the church has faced in its history. I seriously doubt, for example, that the first century church’s dramatic impasse over the practice of circumcision was any less divisive than our current conversations. Likewise, the denomination’s fracture over slavery in the 1800s illuminated just how divided the people of God can be. The challenge of ecclesiastical conflict is not new, but it never stops being hard.

Throughout the last several months, I facilitated many conversations about General Conference and “The Way Forward” in the churches across my district. Some of these conversations occurred in regularly-scheduled church conferences. Others occurred in meetings that were specially called. I tried my best to have an open heart in all of those conversations, listening as attentively as I could, responding as compassionately and engagingly as I could. I am sure that I did better in some of those conversations than others, and I certainly bring a spirit of heartfelt repentance to wherever it is that I failed.

I can still see the faces of people I encountered in those important and high energy conversations. Some asked probing questions, looking to expand their comprehension of the proposed plans. Others asked rhetorical questions, primarily to give expression to their own deeply-held convictions. Some wanted to get to know me personally and to hear about my personal perspective. Others, perhaps driven by a sense of unique urgency, simply wanted an opportunity to inform a delegate of how they wanted him to vote.

And now, here we are. The General Conference is less than two weeks away. My heart is…what?

Heavy?

Broken?

Hopeful?

Grateful?

Open?

Weary?

Desperately prayerful?

All of these, I suppose.

In my next post, I will share some of the personal values that I carry with me into General Conference. In the meantime, I will invite those of you who care deeply about these matters to engage in three specific disciplines.

First, stubbornly resist the temptation to become cynical or resentful about these matters, especially if people attempt to take you down a negative road. In my experience, a spirit of cynicism and resentment often leads to a heart that is cold, a temperament that is dismissive, and a discernment that is clouded by a distorted sense of absolute certainty. The United Methodist Church deserves better than that.

Second, be intentional about reminding yourself and others that our denomination’s difficult conversations about human sexuality are not debates between people who love Jesus and people who don’t, or between people who believe in the Bible and people who don’t. Rather, the current disagreement is between devoted Christ-followers who have come to significantly different conclusions about how parts of the Biblical narrative are to be interpreted, honored, and applied. Remembering this can help us avoid the temptation to demonize those who are on the other side of a debate.

Third, pray without ceasing. Dare to believe that prayer is a sacred and mystical conduit through which the redemptive activity of God makes its way into human circumstances, sometimes transforming the circumstances and other times reconfiguring human hearts so that the circumstances can be more creatively managed. I am inviting you to believe in the power of prayer with me and to pray urgently for the United Methodist Church and its General Conference. Pray for Western Pennsylvania’s delegation and all the delegations. Pray for the Bishops as they preside. Pray for the safe travels of all who will be making their way to St. Louis. Pray that people will treat one another with respect and patience, even when emotions run high. Pray for the protection of tender hearts and the nurturing of right priorities. Most of all, pray that the Holy Spirit will flow through the complicated rhythms of General Conference in order to help the United Methodist Church to bear witness more vibrantly and faithfully to the always-beautiful heart of God.

I am grateful to be part of a church that refuses to turn away from hard and important conversations. Likewise, I am humbled to be part of a church that believes that Jesus does good and redemptive work, even in the messy but necessary conferencing of his people.

‘Tis the Season: A Reflection and a Request for Prayer Concerning the United Methodist Appointive Process

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I ask for the prayers of those of you who pray.

I am honored to be part of a ministry team called the Appointive Cabinet. More specifically, it is the Appointive Cabinet of the Western Pennsylvania Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

This week, I will join my Cabinet colleagues at Olmsted Manor for a retreat. Part of our work at this retreat will be to clarify our vison and prepare our hearts for the upcoming appointment season—a yearly time of discernment in which we give focused attention to the deployment of our clergy and the making of strategic clergy appointments.

As all United Methodists know, our denomination’s unique system of appointment-making is far from perfect. At times, it groans for redemption along with the rest of creation. While engaged prayerfully and diligently by a Bishop and District Superintendents who pour nothing less than a whole heart into their work, the truth of the matter is that perspectives are sometimes limited. Discernment is sometimes distorted or incomplete. Agendas and priorities are sometimes unintentionally misplaced.

As a result, our appointment system has sometimes led to woundedness. Painful disruption. Skepticism and cynicism born from frustrations over decisions that are seen as imprudent. Frustration over what is sometimes perceived as an inequitable application or expectation of itineracy.

Some have even come to the conclusion that our appointment system is too outdated—or too broken—to be effective any longer.

I am not debating that matter here, nor am I inviting such a debate.

I will simply share with you a perspective that my wife Tara offered to me several years ago. (Tara, by the way, was raised in the Baptist tradition. She lived in the same house for her entire upbringing. She had no idea that she would one day be a United Methodist—and married to an itinerant United Methodist pastor no less!) At one point, when we were approached by the Cabinet unexpectedly about the possibility of a new pastoral appointment, Tara responded in this fashion:

I like that we do not get to select where we live and serve and that congregations don’t get to select their pastors…Strange as it might sound, it feels right for us not to have that choice. So, if I have to decide between relying solely on my own discernment about where to live and serve and relying on the discernment of a Bishop and Cabinet that have been entrusted by the church with the responsibility of determining where we are most needed, I’ll choose the Bishop and Cabinet…not because I believe that the Bishop and Cabinet are always right, but because, concerning our appointment, I am more willing to trust their shared perspective than I am my own preferences. My preferences are too often twisted.

At which point I said to Tara, “Wow. You really ARE a United Methodist, aren’t you?”

I am grateful for Tara’s leadership in that moment. I return to her words often, simply because they remind me of what the United Methodist appointment system can be at its best:

Meaningfully disruptive.

Refreshingly hopeful.

Dynamically creative.

Unsettlingly adventurous.

Heartwarmingly sacrificial.

Evangelically strategic.

Imperfect, but purposeful.

Flawed, but redemptive.

Awkward, but linked to a narrative grounded in a countercultural theology of going where sent for the sake of the Gospel.

And so, I return to my initial request:

I ask for the prayers of those of you who pray.

Pray for Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi, whose leadership I so deeply admire, whose integrity shapes me, and who holds the weight of appointment-making in her heart with consistent grace and wisdom.

Pray for the District Superintendents and the Assistant to the Bishop, that we might approach this appointment season with good priorities, clear vision, a right sense of our own fallenness, and a keen awareness of how deeply we are in over our heads.

Pray for those clergypersons who will be retiring this year and who are preparing for the next segment of their journey.

Pray for those clergypersons returning from seminary or licensing school, eager for what is perhaps their first full time or part time pastoral appointment.

Pray for those congregations that will experience transition in this appointment season, since such transitions often involve painful goodbyes and crucial hellos.

Pray for our appointive process, that it might become an instrument through which God equips the church to engage more comprehensively in its grand and glorious mission: To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Thank you in advance for your ministry of prayer.

Worship: Beyond Combat to Creativity

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(Artwork: “Free, Indeed” by Laura Gentry)

Someone said to me recently that the worship wars are over.

Do you know what I mean by “worship wars”?

I mean the struggle and tension generated by what are often constructed (unfairly and unhelpfully) as liturgical dichotomies:

  • “traditional” versus “contemporary” or “modern;”
  • “high church” versus “low church”
  • “choruses” versus “hymnody;”
  • “high tech” versus “high touch;”
  • “transcendent” verses “relevant.”

Evidence of the tension that I am describing has been plentiful for many years. We find it in divisive church committee meetings and in passionate pronouncements on social media. We find it in churches’ evaluations of their clergy leadership, in clergy’s evaluation of their churches, and in lay peoples’ evaluation of their congregational worship.

As a pastor who has spent the last thirty years of his vocational life planning worship and preparing sermons, I have experienced my own spiritual schizophrenia related to the variety of perspectives on worship. In the congregations that I have served, I have heard people describe the exact same sermon series as “just what I needed to hear” and “frustratingly irrelevant.” I have heard the “modern” worship experiences that I have overseen (and sometimes spearheaded) described as both “contextually attentive” and “shamefully consumerist.” I have heard my own liturgical leadership described as both “creatively evocative” and “out of touch with the common person.”

If these “worship wars” are indeed over, then thanks be to God. In fact, God help us if we persist in warring over a spiritual discipline that has, as its primary objective, the glorification and adoration of the One who formed our lungs and breathed life into them.

And yet…

…And yet, even if the “wars” are over, there remains the difficult work of clarifying and, in some cases, configuring a theology of worship that can inform and illuminate the current practice of worship in the 21stCentury church. While I do not have the wherewithal to say all that needs to be said about this important matter, I have forged two personal convictions that have become both the primary lenses through which I view the discipline of worship and the foundational priorities upon which my own approach to worship is built. I share these two convictions here, not because I am insistent upon their rightness, and not because I am looking for debate, but because the desire of my heart is to further the church’s contemplation and practice of worshiping God.

A Conviction About Worship’s Purpose:
The Governing Purpose Of Worship Is To offer To God The Only Response That God Deserves

I am prone to subordinating worship to my own narcissism, and perhaps I am not alone in this tendency. I have learned about myself that, if I am not intentional about the way I approach worship, worship can become for me merely another means by which to gratify my own personal preferences and proclivities—like watching television or going to a concert or eating at a favorite restaurant.

Did we sing the hymns or choruses that I wanted to sing? Were my favorite singers a part of worship? Did the flow and feel of worship appeal to my artistic sensibilities? Did the sermon inspire me sufficiently? Was the preacher articulate enough and funny enough and relevant enough? Were the people around me adequately friendly?

To be sure, there is nothing inherently evil about such questions. As I have learned in my own journey, however, when these questions become the sole mechanism by which I evaluate my experience of worship, I end up approaching worship with priorities that are shaped less by doxological impulses and more by my own egocentric consumerism. The glorification of God and the offering of self are subordinated to a checklist of personal preferences.

In one of my favorite biblical calls to worship, the Psalmist tells us that we are to “enter the Lord’s gates with thanksgiving and the Lord’s courts with praise” (Psalm 100:4). Every time I read those words, it strikes me that the Psalmist does not express any interest whatsoever in the mood, temperament, or preferences of the worshiper. “But wait! What if I don’t feel like being thankful?! What if I am not in the mood to offer praise?! What if the style of worship or the nature of the liturgy doesn’t speak my heart language?!” The Psalmist does not address such matters, not because the Psalmist is blind to the realities of human preferences, but because he understands that human preferences are secondary to the fact that “the Lord is good” and that “the Lord’s steadfast love endures forever” (Psalm 100:5). The Psalmist, in other words, writes under the conviction that the primary purpose of worship is not to gratify the worshiper but to glorify the Creator, so that the worshiper might “know that the Lord is God” (Psalm 100:3).

I frequently re-read Psalm 100 on days when I am headed into congregational worship. The Psalmist’s words are a powerful and important reminder to me that the most compelling and urgent question for me to ask during worship is never “What am I getting out of it?” or even “Am I being sufficiently fed?” but rather “How much more of my life am I subordinating to the transforming and trustworthy Lordship of Jesus?”

There is an objection to this conviction that I have frequently heard:

This is all very lofty. But what about the people we are trying to reach who don’t yet know that God deserves to be worshiped and who are drawn to a certain kind of presentation and experience of music? Your approach to worship seems to ignore their priorities.

Such an objection is not to be dismissed, especially since it forces us to take seriously the evangelical potential of the church’s worship. But I would offer this caution: The varied and unpredictable preferences of worshipers make a far better servant than they do a master. When worship is subordinated entirely to the personal preferences of a congregation—or to what we think a particular part of the population would find meaningful or engaging—the church runs the risk of losing the beautiful strangeness of its liturgical language. I choose to believe that it is possible to generate artistic freshness, creativity, and even relevance in worship without sacrificing a clear vision of worship’s grand and governing purpose.

A Conviction About Worship’s Content: 
The Worship Of God Demands A Mentality Of “Both/And” Rather Than “Either/Or”

I have heard an “either/or” mentality expressed many times in conversations about worship.

  • “If I were to see drums in the sanctuary, I would walk right out the door.”
  • “We don’t sing hymns in our worship because the language is too outdated.”
  • “We don’t have altar calls because that’s too ‘Baptist’”.
  • “We don’t want to hear personal testimonies in worship because they are too emotional.”
  • “We don’t sing praise choruses because they are too repetitive.”
  • “We don’t sing songs that are more than five years old because we want to be current.”
  • “We don’t need printed prayers or creeds because they are too ritualistic.”

The problem with an either/or mentality related to worship, however, is that it limits the creativity of worship to the perceived boundaries of a particular liturgical style. When the church makes the boundaries around liturgical style too rigid, it risks losing sight of of the expansiveness of a God whose grandness demands a rich diversity and flexibility in worship.

I am not suggesting that it is inappropriate to guard or honor a particular liturgical style. (After all, the acoustics of Westminster Abbey might not be conducive to the dynamics of rock and roll!) The point I am making is that perhaps too often the church has settled for a mentality of “either/or” in the worship of a God who deserves nothing less than a “both/and” creativity.

Personally, I want to be part of worship teams that are asking deeper and more creative questions. Not, “How can we create worship that stays within our particular stylistic boundaries?” but rather, “How can we create worship that best communicates the Gospel with the kind of creativity and expansiveness that God deserves?” Not, “How can we create worship that will resonate primarily with millenials and iGen?” but rather, “How can we generate the kind of creatively diverse worship in which multiple generations can find their voice?”

Am I being too naïve when I envision the theological richness of the church’s hymnody finding new musical expression in modern worship services? Am I being too unrealistic when I imagine traditional worship in which both Bach and Hillsong can be held together with both artistic and liturgical integrity? Am I being too idealistic when I picture a church where worship planning is less about what we aren’t permitted to do and more about what the themes of worship require to find their most creative treatment?

I hope not. Because that kind of worship constructs windows instead of walls, possibilities instead of rigid boundaries, and sacred bridges between that which is ancient and that which is modern. When I spend time engaging in this deeper worship, it helps me to remember that worship will always be more about obedience than it is about technique; more about a transformed heart than it is about a particular liturgical style; more about Jesus than it is about us.

Through a Mirror Dimly

Through-a-glassy-darkly

(Artwork: “Through a Glass Darkly” by Carolyn Pyfrom)

As I ponder both the brokenness reflected by the hearing on Capitol Hill and the pain illuminated by the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh, I find myself inwardly occupied by a spiritual aridity that is difficult to describe. I am trusting in the Holy Spirit to take hold of my anguish (and a country’s anguish) and carry it to the heart of God as an articulate prayer.

Never has the phrase “now we see through a mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12) spoken to my heart with such penetrating truth. Those words call to mind either a narcissism (that prevents us from looking beyond our own reflection) or a blurriness (that prevents us from seeing ourselves and anyone else with the kind of clarity that true love demands). In either case, the hearing in Washington and its aftermath leave me feeling like I am surrounded by dim mirrors and diminished humanity.

I pray, but my words feel empty. Perhaps I am being called to a prayer that is not spoken but lived—the incarnation of an intercession that leads to a stubborn refusal to accommodate dehumanizing relationships and malicious patterns of behavior.

Think about what the air would be like if political posturing were to give way to a heartfelt pursuit of truth or, if the truth becomes elusive, a willingness to accommodate fractured relationships with integrity and compassion.

Think about how relationships would change if the pathological ethos of “boys will be boys” were to give way to an unwavering commitment to raising up (and becoming) men (and women) whose hearts will not tolerate any form of sexual violence or malicious exploitation.

Think about how the national climate would evolve if the American people, irrespective of the direction of their vote, were to experience a grander and more compelling vision of what our country can be, beyond the manipulation, beyond the competing allegiances, beyond the sickening controversies, beyond the partisan distortions.

Think about how the church’s ministry would intensify if its people were to embrace more comprehensively the church’s beautiful and often-countercultural narrative:

A narrative in which greatness is measured by a person’s (or a country’s) commitment to servanthood;

In which truth is told without malice or agenda;

In which women and men honor one another with mutual respect instead of denigrating one another with reciprocated contempt;

In which manipulative rhetoric yields to vulnerable hearts, patiently protected and tenderly pursued.

In that case, perhaps our dim mirrors would at least begin to reflect a brighter light.