upper room daily devotions

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Nothing But Nets Featured on "The Colbert Report" - But Not Methodists!

I'm excited that this got such great publicity! However when Rick gave props to Bill Gates and Jimmy Carter I wondered when the UMC would be mentioned. It wasn't! Hmmmm...I guess that's how the ball bounces (poor net-related pun).

For that rare United Methodist out there that somehow doesn't know yet, the UMC is a founding partner (along with the United Nations Foundation, Sports Illustrated, and the NBA) of the Nothing But Nets Campaign.

I hope lots of folks respond by going to www.nothingbutnets.net and give $10 for a net.

Abundance in an Economy of Scarcity - This Week's Lectionary

The US economy is in quite a bit of trouble with investment houses, insurance companies, and banks failing and teetering on the edge of failure. Even government bailouts seem to have had little positive effect in curbing the panic on Wall Street and around the globe. Today the market fell another 450 points, which, in real money, totals $700 billion. That's a lot of zeroes. That's a lot of money. That's a lot of scarcity. Our lectionary readings for this Sunday may have more important and direct relevance this week than on other Sundays.

If you are following the continuous reading, this week's scripture is Exodus 16:2-15 - the story of manna from heaven. This lesson instructs, tells, and reminds us that God's economy is not bound by the economies of our making, which are based on a zero-sum society - a place of scarcity. God is a different power that makes life abundant even in lean times, even when we are in the wilderness, even when the stock market tumbles. Our text this week is not about a Santa Claus God, but a God that calls people to structure their lives around a different economy that believes in abundance such that all are cared for during lean and difficult times. In God's economy we both receive a gift from God and we are required to share the plenty with others. God's economy reorders how we structure the world and it calls into question our reliance upon certain ways of believing and behaving.

When Christians read stories of our ancient mothers and fathers, we often pass them over too lightly. We miss the depth of life they offer us. Even the stories that make for good Sunday School get dumbed down and prettied up. Take the story about manna falling from heaven. This comes right after Miriam dances for joy after the people pass through the Red Sea and Pharaoh's army is swallowed by the water. The people move from a time of joy at their good fortune to despair at perceived scarcity. They say, "If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpot and ate our fill of bread..." (v2b). Pharaoh's economy makes sense. In his book "The Covenanted Self" Walter Brueggemann says,
"People in our tradition of faith have endlessly struggled with a departure from the myth of scarcity, a liturgical, imaginative, political, economic act of resolve to situate our lives outside this powerful ideological claim. Did you notice I used the word 'departure?' The Biblical word for departure is Exodus. Exodus is not just a geographical event. It is an economic act. It is an imaginative act, to begin to live without permitting the necessities of Pharaoh to dictate the circumstances of our life. Pharaoh, then and now, is endlessly powerful in his definitions of reality, and it is not easy to depart"(pp 113-114).
Brueggemann finds the answer to Pharaoh's strong grasp in a three-fold communal response of "counter-practice" that is a turning away from Pharaoh. In order to break from the economics of scarcity, Israel had to "leave" Egypt, they had to "believe" that "food will be given" to them during their time in the wilderness, and then they had to "share" (pp 114-115). He goes on to say, "Sharing in covenantal solidarity is what distinguishes Israel from the 'atheists of scarcity' who turn neighbors into competitors for bread and finally into enemies with whom there must be endless wars for control of the bread supply" (p 117).

It's no less difficult for us to believe in God's ability and agency today. We live in a world completely circumscribed by production and consumption. Furthermore, Americans have created a myth about ourselves that declares the unlimited potential and ability of each person to accomplish on his or her own whatever he or she would like, if only enough work, know-how, and good ol' moxie are employed. In many ways this is a wonderful characteristic, but it has its limitations. It also inscribes in our hearts a reluctance to believe in the agency of another, particularly God. The idea of receiving a free gift from God seems, somehow, wrong, unfair, ridiculous. People get what they work for. People receive what they make in life. While on many levels we know that people don't always receive what they deserve - for good or ill - on a deep and primal level we do believe this. We have structured our whole economy, our whole lives, even our churches on this premise.

Is it possible to live lives of counter-practice when certainty has transformed into uncertainty? Can we believe in God's agency, in God's abundance, in God's economy when our own economy is in shambles? I believe we must do just this and more. It's time for congregations to enact policies of abundance during this time of scarcity and to make real in people's lives the claim made in the Exodus story. It's time that we allowed God to move among us in unexpected ways, offering us wonderfully fragile bread for a journey to places unknown through territory that can be daunting and stark. In the end this is an invitation to a life of Sabbath and not just a weekly observance of it. Receiving from God the necessary bread for the journey as a free and unwarranted gift is a radical departure from the normal way of operating. It is counter-intuitive; it is counter-practice. Sabbath, if you want one word for it, is God's Economy.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

In Search of Adult Curriculum

I don't know about other clergy, but I struggle to find curricula for adults that engage, teach, and challenge. I can't seem to find very many curricula that do all three. Oddly, engaging people seems the be the most difficult thing to do. The readings are either too dry, too academic, too emotional and not academic enough, or they contain incorrect information and I won't buy them. There must be small group materials out there that invite people into the journey of spiritual and faith formation - materials that are substantive and real and wonderful. I want these materials. People need them. People deserve them.

Over the past few years I have been delighted to see an increasing number of books and curricula developed for questioning Christians. "Companions in Christ" and "Living the Questions" have tried to meet the needs of these kinds of folks. I've used both of these with mixed results. "Companions in Christ" has tried to speak into the spiritual vacuum left by many curricula that only address the mind. While being a Christian entails learning about the Bible, church history, tradition, and theology, there is more to one's identity as a follower of Christ. What about prayer? community? forgiveness? grace? and call? "Companions in Christ" has dealt directly with these and many other topics. However, I have only seen it be a partial success. Some men complain that it's a bit too feeling oriented; it feels too "girlie" for them. I know that men need spiritual formation; they need to delve into the mystery of God, too. I wonder what would work better for them. Additionally, like "Disciple Bible Study" and other similar curricula, "Companions in Christ" has homework for people to do. Most people don't want homework. There are too many people who just don't do it. However, I have seen this quite successful in small groups of women.

Another curriculum that I've used is "Living the Questions." This has, by and large, been more successful than "Companions in Christ" with the folks I teach. We've used this series extensively. We have tried almost all of the series in "Living the Questions." People like that it is video based, that it deals with relevant topics, and that it stretches their understandings of God. They also like no homework! More basic information and teaching aids would be helpful, though. In the newer series "Eclipsing Empire" they used maps and other teaching aids that assist the average person in more fully understanding the material. Because this curriculum deals with difficult to grasp concepts, basic introductory background information would really enhance the learning experience.

There are a number of good books to use in book clubs/discussion groups. Increasingly these books have discussion sections at the end of chapters or at the end of the book.

Last, the Teaching Company produces teaching videos that give excellent information. While they are dynamic as far as lectures go, they seem to fall a bit flat for the typical class. I have loaned videos the individuals who have found them very helpful, though.

What have you found? Do you have ideas that will promote a deeper commitment to discipleship, challenge the mind, engage the spirit, and allow room for big and wonderful questions to arise? I especially want to know if anyone has used "Journey Through the Bible" and if so, how successful was it?

Curricula I already know; some are worthwhile, some not:
*Adam Hamilton's various studies - doesn't work for the congregation I serve.
*Disciple Bible and its new shorter "Invitation" series: We're trying to get a group for "Invitation to Genesis" - we'll see how this goes. No one will make the all year commitment for the traditional studies.
20/30 Bible Study - Young Adults: Great topics but the form and some content are dumbed down for older young adults.
*NOOMA - good conversation starters.
*Living Faith with NT Wright - This was so promising. It is so boring (sorry to be blunt).
*"Beginnings" - reviewed it but never used it. Both format and content did not meet our needs.

Successful book studies that we've done:
*New Christianity for a New World by John Spong
*Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time by Marcus Borg
*Walking the Bible"
"John Wesley: Holiness of Heart and Mind"

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Cleaning the Wound

I remember the first time that I heard about unethical behavior by a professional staff person in a congregation. It was while I was in divinity school. A person at a prominent church had mishandled money...big money. This ethical breach resulted in deep congregational wounds as well as a huge financial mess. Up until this point,I had never come in contact with significant unethical behavior in the church. Unfortunately, this was not the last story that I have heard about actions by lay staff and clergy that create deep wounds for individuals and for congregations. Of course, the media picked up on the sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church, but abuse or actions that result in broken trust can happen in any congregation. Too often it does.

Since I've been an elder in The United Methodist Church, I have heard too many stories about the wounds left by clergy and lay staff. Sometimes the actions don't seem terribly bad even though they result in deep wounds. For example, there is the pastor who complains constantly about a packed schedule, but who really isn't busy at all. Who can trust this person? There is also the controller, the micro-manager, and the preacher who uses theology to further her or his own agenda. Who can trust these people? There are famous and infamous (as well as just ordinary ol') preachers who use the pulpit to deride, condescend, and patronize. We don't want people to trust this kind of leader, do we? And then, of course, there are the really big biggies: sex abuse, theft, and abandonment. Again, trust is broken and the church is wounded. It does the church as a whole an injustice when we don't deal openly and honestly with these realities. We, of course, don't want the public the believe all clergy are abusers (we're not), that all treasurers abscond with the money (they don't), or that all preachers belittle others and live as hypocrites (most don't, we're just human). However, our desire to say, "NO! We're not all like this" can result in acting as though these wounds don't happen at all. And, they do.

Covering up wounds does not help them heal. They fester under the surface, growing little green germs that will flourish in the most unhelpful times. Wounds need to be cleaned. Sometimes we even need to pick a scab (sorry to be gross), drain the wound, and add some medicine to it - even when the wound occurred long ago. Time doesn't heal all wounds. The church must come to a point where it can look at the hurts it has and perhaps even has inflicted and seek healing. The church must become able to seek forgiveness for the wounds it has inflicted, offer grace and healing to those who have been wounded the most in this world, and help those who have done the wounding to find accountability and accept God's grace for their actions. This may, and perhaps often will, be a painful process. But it is the healthy thing to do. It is my understanding of what Jesus did. He named the woundedness of the world and then he acted to heal it.

If your church hasn't dealt openly with issues of sexual boundaries, financial responsibility, appropriate care for the weak in your congregation, or sex education for the young, do so in times of relative health. Don't wait for a crisis to arise before talking about healthy ways to be in community. Once the crisis arises, people's individual wounds will be too raw to deal well with these issues.

If we begin to establish healthy boundaries, engage in difficult but healthy conversation about woundedness, and stay together during the messiness of this work, then we are doing real ministry. We are sorting through our sins and our shortcomings with grace and love. We are being church.

Does one group of people have too much power in your church?
Is there an uncomfortable silence about a former pastor?
Does your church have a past that includes sloppy bookkeeping?
Has your church had a series of short-term clergy appointments?
Does your church teach sex education to children that includes what good/bad are, healthy boundaries, safe touch, telling secrets?
How do you accomodate the special needs of people living with "disabilities" such as those who are wheelchair bound, hard of sight and hearing, and those who are in frail health?
Who receives your finance reports and how does the congregation gain access to this information?
Does your pastor know who pledges what?
If you call your pastor, does s/he return your call in a timely manner?
Have you experienced trauma in your past that makes you susceptible to boundary issues today?
Does woundedness in your past make you want to run away from difficulties, resist offering grace, or confuse you in knowing what is healthy and unhealthy in terms of limits and boundaries?
How does your church deal with GLBT people? If they are not welcome, how do you tell them? If they are welcome fully, how are they to know when so many congregations deride and demonize them?
Do you run background checks on people working with vulnerable people?

For more information on sexual abuse and the church, go to the Faith Trust Institute's website.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Worship and Sustainability

I am wondering how other congregations deal with sustainability issues in relation to worship. We are still a church that produces a bulletin to help people move through our service. In fact, we do not have integrated multi-media technology as a part of our sanctuary. From time to time I do use a projector, but it is cumbersome and ill-suited to the space. I am one of those folks who tends to believe that no high-tech is better than bad high-tech. But I digress...

On the one hand, I like the idea of bulletins - something for visitors to hold on to, to look at, to find security in. I feel lost when I attend a new church - as I did on vacation last week - and there is nothing to let me know what's going to happen and when it's going to happen.

On the other hand, producing tons of paper for a one time use seems very wasteful.

I have been to churches that don't use bulletins. They opt for a more media-oriented presentation of worship. Aside from whether or not this is a type of worship that speaks to me, I can't get in to those services because I don't know what's going to happen next. Therefore, our church most likely won't be dispensing with worship guides altogether. I did visit a church once that produced generic worship guides that included the general flow of worship without printing specific hymn titles and other details that change from week to week. These cards were gathered up and used again. This would require a fairly close adherence to the same order of service each week.

Paper, of course, is not the only sustainability issue that our churches need to face, but paper is the one thing that we waste more than any other material. It goes without saying that we recycle. However, we'd rather not use up trees in the first place. It's an issue of life stewardship, of living the care for creation that we preach.

Has your church begun to face the issue of sustainability, especially in relation to worship? If so, what have you tried? What do you find working? What have you found not to work?

As always, I welcome your replies.

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