Lay Minister Expels Ghosts, Sees Two Rural Churches Turnaround

IMG_5424“I look around my church and all I see are ghosts.”  It was time for a pastoral change and I was meeting with the Pastor-Parish Relations Committee in my role as the District Superintendent, preparing the church and myself as we looked toward the appointment of a new pastor.  The woman speaking was a longtime member and she was having a hard time being hopeful about the future.  Too many good memories in the past.  Too many people she had known lost to death and moves.  Too many ghosts.

The small churches of Calhoun and Drake’s Chapel in rural Missouri were feeling haunted, too, when their District Superintendent (DS) asked a lay speaker named Margie Briggs to step in for a time.  The beloved pastor of the church, facing who knows what demons in his own life, had committed suicide at his home on a Sunday morning.  Margie stepped in for a few months to serve the two small churches, whose average combined worship attendance was about 14.

When another local pastor was assigned, he served a few months but then left under a cloud after absconding with the Salvation Army kettle and a consequent visit from the local police.  The DS called Margie again.  “Can you just get them through until Christmas?” he asked.  Over ten years later, she’s still there.

51pCNACoaPL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Given the sad history of her predecessors and the sparse numbers in the pews, the revival of these two rural churches under Margie’s leadership seems miraculous.  But as Briggs describes it in her new book, Can You Just Get Them Through Until Christmas?: The Turnaround Story of One Lay Minister and Two Small, Rural Churches [Cass Community Publishing House, 2017], the building blocks to recovery were simple and fairly traditional—an openness to God, outreach to the needs of the community, and leadership that was determined “to greet new and different people.”(x)

Lay ministers like Margie Briggs have always been a part of the Methodist leadership pool, but they are taking on a growing role in rural areas where churches are struggling to support credentialed clergy.  Many of them are part-time and bi-vocational, but most are extremely dedicated to the churches they serve, offering them a chance to create new chapters in ministry.  Some lay ministers are seeing growth and new relevance for congregations that thought their best times were in the past.

“Small churches don’t need to create a system of small groups to help people fit in,” Briggs says in her introduction, “they are natural places of intimacy.”(x)  They can use this natural gift to make a difference in their communities in making disciples.

Over the course of 23 short chapters, Briggs tells episodes in the story of the Calhoun & Drake’s Chapel turnaround.  She describes physical improvements to make the church spaces lighter and more welcoming.  But the churches not only upgraded the inside of the church, they moved outside for ice cream socials in the parking lot and put floats in the Calhoun Colt Show parade.  When they planned a one-day Vacation Bible School and only one child showed up, they jumped in the car, drove around the neighborhood, and collected children.  They exchanged youth mission teams with a church in downtown Detroit, did luncheons for public school teachers, and began a prison outreach ministry.


Margie Briggs

“It is so easy to be consumed by what a small-membership church cannot do,” Briggs says (75).  But she describes how each of these ministries began with a small, manageable step and grew on the enthusiasm and compassion of those who participated.  It also helped that Briggs herself seems to have a contagious spirit and a commitment to excellence.

“Unless we are going to give up on every town or village across the country with under 2,500 people,” Bishop Robert Farr says in an epilogue to the book, “we need to figure out how to create, encourage and renew compelling and competent small churches, engaged in ministry that is dedicated to reaching new people and doing whatever it takes.” (100)  He notes two key components in this renewal—lay leaders “who are in love with Jesus, people and their mission field” and a willingness on the part of the congregation to change. (100)

Briggs encouraging book, (which includes a study guide), makes the daunting task of helping small, rural churches thrive seem possible and even, dare I say, fun.  At the very least she makes it clear that we don’t have to live with the ghosts of what’s gone before.  We can trust that God will do a new thing even in old places.

Teenager Abuses Hand Sanitizer, Finds Self: The Beauty in John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down


photo by Mark Adriane via Unsplash

Aza has a hard time getting out of her head.  Worse yet, she’s beginning to wonder if she’s really here at all.  For all the choice she feels she has, she might as well be fictional.  “Your life is a story told about you,” she muses at the beginning of John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down, “not one that you tell.” (1)

Of course, sixteen-year-old Aza is fictional, but the invasive thoughts she experiences are the plight of many a person with obsessive compulsive disorder–thoughts that make Aza think that she is destined to be overrun by Clostridium difficile, a sometimes fatal collection of bacteria.  To stave off this dread possibility Aza has developed a regular routine of opening a small wound on her finger, letting it bleed, surveying the surrounding skin for infection, and slathering the spot with anti-bacterial hand sanitizer.  Which she will also drink sometimes to get at the bacteria in her mouth and gut.  None of which will keep her from going back to the C. diff. article on Wikipedia that feeds her anxiety.  And all of which leaves her feeling like she’s not in control of herself and not really here.

51j8ClOJzoL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_You might think a book about such things would be exhausting to read.  But John Green, who has dealt with “invasives” his whole life has pulled off the trick of making Aza fascinating even though she is exhausted herself.  As Green described the condition in a recent NPR interview, “It starts out with one little thought, and then slowly that becomes the only thought that you’re able to have…It’s like there’s an invasive weed that just spreads out of control.”

When Aza is able to be present to her world, she has a lot of interesting relationships to nurture her.  Aza’s father has died, but her mother is interested and supportive, if a little overprotective and anxious for her daughter.  Aza’s best friend Daisy is artsy and vibrant but also occasionally annoyed with what she perceives as Aza’s self-obsession.  Daisy’s passion is writing inter-species romance fan fiction in the Star Wars universe and she works out some of her frustrations with Aza there.

Then there’s Davis, eldest son of the billionaire Russell Pickett.  When the father disappears in the midst of growing clouds of scandal, Aza renews a relationship with the teenaged Davis that had begun in ‘Sad Camp,’ a program for children whose have lost a parent.  Their relationship includes art, friendship, astronomy, poetry, and potential romance, despite the terror that kissing presents for Aza.  And overarching everything is the mystery of where Pickett has gone, a mystery that Daisy and Aza are sleuthing in their spare time.

Well, perhaps that’s not true.  What’s really overarching everything is life, the universe, and everything.  There’s the question of what there really is and who we really are.  Like every young person, Aza is trying to find herself but with the added anxiety that there may be no self to find.  “When I look into myself,” she confesses to Daisy, “there’s no actual me—just a bunch of thoughts and behaviors and circumstances.  And a lot of them don’t feel like they’re mine…when I look for the, like, Real Me, I never find it.” (244)

Like every young person, Aza is trying to find herself but with the added anxiety that there may be no self to find.


John Green

There’s no real happy ending here, (though it is a very satisfying ending), because these big questions are not easy to answer and conditions like OCD don’t just evaporate because you come to a big revelation.  But there is growth and reconciliation and acceptance and the promise of a frame within which to live a good and rich life.

This is a book that many people will read and believe that John Green knows them because he has written something recognizably human.  Young adults will see themselves in the language, the settings, and the cultural references, but also in the stressed relationships of the characters.  Older readers will nod their heads at the things that have not and do not change about coming of age.  And we can all hope to find even some of the beauty illuminated by this excellent book.

How to Get Out of the Inner Circle: Ministry with the Poor


photo by Tom Parsons via Unsplash

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” [Philippians 2:5-6, NRSV]  This, I believe, is one of the greatest biblical expressions of what ministry with the poor means.  In this passage, Paul gives us an image of God’s identification with humanity in all its limitations and also how God took on that humanity to restore it.

So if our ministry as Christians is to model Jesus’s, (“Let the same mind be in you…”), what does it say that we have so much difficulty getting beyond mere charity to really being with people in poverty?

41yErQDxaLL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_“In so many churches, what they call missions or working with the poor is simply donating,” United Methodist pastor Mike Slaughter says in the book The New Adapters: Shaping Ideas to Fit Your Congregation [Abingdon, 2015]. (23)  If the measure of our ministry were clothes, kits, and shoeboxes, we’d have to say we’d arrived.  But most of us know what we really long for is relationship.

We are, as United Methodists say in their most ubiquitous confessional prayer, “a church that has not loved its neighbors and has not heard the cry of the needy.”  But Jacob Armstrong, the principal author of The New Adapters, feels this is “our greatest opportunity, because when we connect to the stated vision of Jesus, the church is unleashed…To do this we must move from inward-focused ministries and simply having ‘missions’ and ‘outreach’ as subsections to a church that sees all of its ministries as focusing on the poor, which includes everyone.” (15)

This is not a matter of glossing over the differences and affirming that “all lives matter.”  It’s a way of seeing with the eyes of God and knowing that God not only doesn’t shun our poverty, but enters into it because our poverty is the best we have to offer.  God sees us as we are and loves us all the more.

So Armstrong encourages churches to grasp the reality that “the gospel is not good news unless it is good news to the poor.” (15)  So how can we see the poor around us—in our neighborhood, in our community, in the world beyond?

rawpixel-com-384899In small churches, we often pride ourselves on the ‘family feel’ of our congregations.  Even churches despairing about declining attendance will often list their welcoming hospitality as one of their greatest strengths.  But how far does that perceived welcome extend beyond the doors.  When we are encountering people who find churches to be intimidating, are we able to see through their eyes?

Here’s an experiment: Find someone who doesn’t attend church and ask that person to talk about her/his experience of church.  No need to try to convince them to change in the moment.  Just listen and see if you can hear in their stories the deep desires of their hearts.  What would it take to touch those needs?  How are they the same as yours?

At the end of the experiment, you may have a glimpse of what church looks like through their eyes and that will be useful.  More useful may be the relationship you have started to build with someone who is, like you, looking for a place to belong.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.  Beyond donation, find connection.

A Rose Still Blooms Post-Brexit: A Review of Ali Smith’s Autumn


photo by Simone Dalmeri via Unsplash

Autumn is the season for reflection.  A cold wind blows and you wonder how many more winters you have in you.  Golden leaves burnished by a golden sunset rustle in the limbs above and you remember how they used to thrill you.

“The trees are revealing their structures.  There’s the catch of fire in the air.  All the souls are out marauding.  But there are roses, there are still roses.  In the damp and the cold, on a bush that looks done, there’s a wide-open rose, still.

“Look at the colour of it.” (259-60)

Sure the opening lines of Ali Smith’s Autumn declare “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.  Again.  That’s the thing about things.  They fall apart, always have, always will, it’s in their nature.” (3)  And yet young Elisabeth will read to Daniel the centenarian A Tale of Two Cities as he lies sleeping in the elder care facility.  So the best of times must be hidden somewhere within.

caught me up short.  It has such a deceptively gentle and playful spirit.  It chronicles, in broken time, the relationship between Elisabeth and Daniel from the time when she was a lonely 8-year-old in a single parent home wondering about the elderly man next door.  Her mother is troubled by the stranger (and many other things) and we do think its odd that the two should take an interest in each other.  But there’s nothing unusual about the relationship for them.

“Very pleased to meet you,” the old man says on their first meeting.  “Finally.”

“How do you mean, finally? Elisabeth said.  We only moved here six weeks ago.”

“The lifelong friends, he said.  We sometimes wait a lifetime for them.” (52)

“A fine friendship,” is what her mother’s late-in-life lover calls it.  But Elisabeth corrects her.  “I love him,” she says.  (216)

51PcAU4NAEL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_It’s not that kind of love, whatever you’re thinking.  It’s born of art and reading.  It’s the playfulness with words that young children and old people share as the letters slip on the tongue and in the hearing and certain meanings dissolve into new possibilities.  They read together and tell stories together.

“The whole point of Bagatelle [their storytelling game] is that you trifle with the stories that people think are set in stone.  And no, not that kind of trifle—“ Daniel says. (117)  And their love grows deeper and Elisabeth sees the possibilities of life and thrives on the space that Daniel gives her.

Of course, Britain is going to hell as this happens.  It’s 2016 and the Brexit vote has just happened.

“All across the country, there was was misery and rejoicing.  All across the country, what had happened whipped about by itself as if a live electric wire had snapped off a pylon in a storm and was whipping about in the air above the trees, the roofs, the traffic.  All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing.  All across the country, people felt it was the right thing.” (59)

Yes, it’s A Tale of Two Countries.  We have our own American version.  A house of an immigrant family is spray painted with the words, “GO HOME,” and just below a retort is written, “WE ARE ALREADY HOME, THANK YOU.”  Elisabeth must endure a bureaucratic nightmare at the post office just to get a passport.  Her mother throws an antique barometer at a new electrified fence around an ominous government facility and plans daily assaults with archaic weapons.


Ali Smith

But calling Autumn the first great post-Brexit novel is doing the reader a disservice.  Because as bad as things are there is a vivacious undercurrent, one that is symbolized by the third great character in the book—the 1960s British artist Pauline Boty.  Boty is a real historical figure whose star shone brilliantly as the lone female in the British pop art scene and then flared out as she died tragically early and her art was lost.

Daniel’s stories are suffused with Boty’s memory and Elisabeth picks up on the theme.  She grows up to study Boty’s work.  And then (it is not a spoiler to reveal) at the end of the book Boty herself has a chapter, speaking from the peak of her career.  The alchemy Smith performs in bringing the woman to life with the full-throated dreams of that era, empowered by the possibilities for women, art, and relationship, gave me a mild and welcome dose of euphoria.

“To take the moment before something had actually happened, and you didn’t know if it was going to be terrible or if it might be very funny, something extraordinary actually happening and yet everybody around it not taking any notice at all.” (252)  This is Boty’s view of the artist’s work.

And this is Autumn.  A time when an old man barely breathing on a bed at The Maltings Care Providers plc looks like death itself.  Like England itself.  But look again.  “There’s a wide-open rose, still.  Look at the colour of it.”

The Power Asks Us to Consider #WeToo: A Review


photo by Nathan McBride via Unsplash

Naomi Alderman’s provocative new book, The Power, is more simply described without the definite article.  Power, and how it infuses human relationships, particularly gender relationships, hums though this book like an electric current.  And just like that current, it can turn fearsome and deadly in an instant.

The Power is an acknowledged heir to Margaret Atwood’s recently-rediscovered The Handmaid’s Tale, right down to its bright red cover.  Atwood’s dystopian feminist novel imagines a world where a neo-Puritan patriarchy has descended on America.  Alderman reverses the dynamic, depicting a future where young women have suddenly developed a new muscle, called a skein, that allows them to deliver an electric charge through their bodies.  Suddenly women have the kind of physical dominance that men have historically presumed and the effects ripple through .

51wVJN7Bu1L._SX314_BO1,204,203,200_Four characters provide different windows on the world created by the newly electrified women (and rattled men).  Roxy is the daughter of a London crime boss who avenges her mother’s death and powers her way to become the head of the family business, now as the leader of a cartel smuggling Glitter, a drug that enhances the electrical capacity of women.  Tunde is a Nigerian man who chronicles the rising tide of empowered women and the male resistance.  Margot is a US politician who uses the power like a sheathed knife, rising to the top circles of the government.

Allie, an orphaned Southern girl, takes, for my money, the most interesting journey.  Gifted with healing abilities and guided by an ambivalent mystical voice, Allie develops an alter ego as Mother Eve, a charismatic religious figure who reinterprets Christian theology from a female perspective.

This Eve speaks in the language of the Bible but it is a Scripture that turns old patriarchal readings inside out.  For this Eve, the tree is not an Edenic image of women’s downfall, but the symbol of The Power itself, branching upward, “the outline of a living thing straining outward, sending its fine tendrils a little further, and a little further yet.” (3)  When Allie is installed as an advisor to the queen of a woman-dominated breakaway state in Moldova, she occupies a chapel filled with enameled paintings of female saints and Eve herself “receiving the message from the Heavens and extending her hand filled with lightning.” (252)

Eve knows the old stories about kings taking daughters to slave in the palace.  (Samuel’s warning to Israel about the dangers of a king from 1 Samuel 8 serve as a preface to the book.)  But Eve uses the stories to praise female leadership.  But then Eve/Allie struggles with dark temptations as she assumes ever more exalted status.

Like Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, this book has a frame that adds another dimension to the read.  The Power begins and ends with an exchange of letters between a male author seeking the advice of more connected and experienced writer named Naomi.  Neil Adam Armon (an anagram of Naomi Alderman) has written a fictionalized history of the period right before The Cataclysm, a event in the distant path that led to the world of female dominance.  This history constitutes the bulk of The Power and it is fascinating to see the woman writer push back agains a history that challenges her preferred narrative.


Naomi Alderman

Alderman develops this thought experiment with great thoroughness.  The Power is not a fantasy of wish fulfillment nor does she describe a utopia.  The ripple effects in religion, in politics, in relationships, and in culture are varied and unpredictable.  Women struggle to understand how to use this new power, how to reveal it, how to control it, how to hide it.  Men conform, submit, resist, and curdle.  It’s not a pretty sight.

But in the end the book does what all good science fiction does—it puts our own time in sharp relief and forces us to grapple with the unsaid and the un-dealt-with.  The effect of The Power is to ask its reading audience, men and women, to consider what is essential and what is merely a distortion caused by power relationships.  In an era when the nakedness of power and retrograde gender relationships are both celebrated and resisted in novel ways, this book, with all its brutality, gets your attention.  It warns that if we don’t find ways to see one another, in all our potency and vulnerability, we will always be playing with the third rail—the one that has the power to kill.

As a pastor, I am also brought back to the role that feminist biblical interpretation has played in my own traning.  Much of Mother Eve’s reimagining of religion finds its roots in work done in the 70s and 80s in Christian seminaries.  Like the feminist scholars who helped form me, Eve challenges what counts as orthodoxy and questions whether the male language and imagery of the tradition is essential or merely patriarchal accretion.

FOOTNOTE – Alderman is also behind the popular fitness app “Zombies, Run!”  I’ve been using this for the past couple of years to get me motivated.  She’s a great storyteller in that format, too, and there’s even an episode that includes Margaret Atwood checking in from post-Zombie apocalypse Toronto.  The story, and the sound of hungry zoms breathing down your neck, will keep you moving!

Love Stinks (But it Also Wins): A Delayed Review of Rob Bell


photo by Javier Ramos via Unsplash

The problem with love is it’s easy to sentimentalize.  O heck, there are many problems with love, sentimentalizing being the least of them.  Love distorts our vision.  Love lets us down.  Love keeps us in relationships we should have left.  Love is a knife to the heart and a passionate madness.  Yes, love is a many splendored thing, but let’s be honest: Sometimes, to quote the J. Geils Band, love stinks.

The problem with Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived by Rob Bell is not that the title is wrong.  Christian theology is all about love winning.  I high-fived Bishop James Swanson mid-sermon on the floor of the Virginia Annual Conference last summer right after he said roughly that.

The thing is: we’re not the best judges of love.

41SJcK3PlDLI’m a little late to the game on Love Wins.  It has been seven years since Bell made a splash with this book which challenges the idea that sinners will suffer consciously and eternally in a literal hell unless they find Jesus.  This was the book that led to infamous John Piper tweet which said simply, “Farewell, Rob Bell.”  And the following year Rob Bell had said farewell—to the large Mars Hill Church he had pastored in Michigan, in part because of the fallout from his flirtation with universalism.

Bell landed on his feet under the wing of Oprah, who was enamored with Rob’s follow-up book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God.  Becoming a celebrity spiritual guide only confirmed the suspicions of those who see Bell as a theological lightweight.  But it’s unfair to measure a man by his Nielsen ratings.

Let’s measure by the book.  And Love Wins does speak to an honest hunger among us to know a God of love.  Bell wants to give a lot of windows on that question.  He uses biblical examples like the parable of the prodigal son and the plight of the rich young ruler.  He pokes holes in the otherworldly theology behind an old, evangelical picture of a cross straddling a chasm between the darkened ‘here’ and the gleaming ‘there.’  He celebrates the kitchen floor conversion of a man who found God in the midst of smoking pot.  There are many ways Jesus can meet us, he concludes.

What Bell doesn’t do is to spend a lot of time describing who this Jesus is and how the Christian tradition has talked about the work of atonement.  “Not his job or his point,” you might say.  He obviously wants to talk about how Jesus’s story is the story of love.  “The love of God for every single one of us,” Bell says on the first page.  “It is a stunning, beautiful, expansive love, and it is for everybody, everywhere.” (vii)

True, that.  But it’s also a stunning, beautiful, specific love that finds its expression in the Christian story centered on a crucified Jesus.  That’s the story that lights up all those other stories that Bell brings to the table.

Arguing about hell is like judging a car by one ball bearing.  Whether you like it or not doesn’t help understand how the thing works.  And you’ll never understand the piece without comprehending the whole.


Rob Bell, Religion News Service

Which is not to say that Bell is wrong about hell.  In his afterword he points the way to C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce which is pretty great read and which offers a plausible rendering of what hell is within the tradition.  But the tradition holds the key, tends the light, and marvels at God’s love, which is unlike any of those loves we celebrate in our culture.

And to get a little lyrical about it: We see it as compassion—this willingness of God to go to the far country, to restore the divine image in the works of clay.  We call it love—the greatest love—but it has a character altogether different from any kind of love we know.  Our pale reflections are tinged by fear and grief and pain, sentimentality and need and failure.

But what is this love which is just doing its work—not out of necessity but out of some grand unicity—its beauty of a piece with its eternal wholeness?  It is love because God is reconciling all things to Godself in Jesus Christ.  Of course, we experience this as love—of the unmerited kind that so captivates us and makes for tender parables of prodigal sons restored and dead children brought back to life.  But Christ is just doing his job.  ‘Today and tomorrow I am with you and on the third day I’m in Jerusalem.’

This is the mundane job of the divine—to knit together what is wounded and to blaze a trail where there is no way.  But it comes with purely superfluous flourishes—touches that are in no way required.  A tear at the tomb of a friend.  The sensual pleasure of bathing in nard.  The intimacy of a mother and child.  Bread passed around a table and a shared cup.

Is it any wonder we reduce it all to love winning?  Rob Bell has the same instincts.

Crossing into Mythical Mexico with Cormac McCarthy: A Review of The Crossing


Cormac McCarthy doesn’t need any more accolades from the likes of me.  His reputation as a great American writer seems pretty secure.  But as a recent convert to the ranks of his fans, I have to say of The Crossing – wow.

That’s probably sufficient.  I’m not going to be an equal to his prose and the writer in me just wants to lay down the pen and acknowledge the master.  But perhaps just a few more words.

The Crossing is the middle volume in McCarthy’s Border Trilogy.  Throughout I was wondering what direct connection there was between this book and its predecessor, All the Pretty Horses.  The indirect connections are certainly there.  ATPH has a pair of teenaged protagonists in mid-20th century America discovering the world and themselves in cross-border expeditions with horses into northern Mexico.  The Crossing has the same, and you might be tempted to think that McCarthy is just writing the same book twice.

But the storylines don’t intersect, (though I understand that Billy Parham, the main protagonist in The Crossing, will meet up with John Grady Cole from the first book in Cities of the Plain).  And if there was high-spirited adventure and romance in ATPH, there is much more bleakness and scattered pieces of a narrative in The Crossing.

51UeFuwmXaL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_You can see some old ancestors in The Crossing—Don Quixote, The Odyssey, Flannery O’Conner, Faulkner—but what McCarthy does with them is absolutely unique to him.  There is a pregnant wolf who makes the first crossing from Mexico into New Mexico and becomes the focus of Billy Parham’s unexplained quest to return her to the mountains from which she has come.  There is Billy’s long sojourn in those mountains following the violent end of that quest in which he is immersed into a Mexico still scarred by the terrors of the Revolution, now some two decades in the past.

There is Billy’s return to New Mexico to discover his parents slaughtered and the family horses stolen.  Billy’s reunion with his brother Boyd and their journey back to Mexico to try and retrieve what has been lost.  A 14-year-old girl who becomes an unlikely companion.  Adventures with ruthless horse thieves.  A grievous injury.  Encounters with a blind veteran and a circus diva.  And in the end Billy is left on his own to return back home.

After failed attempts to enlist as World War II is beginning, Billy knocks around ranches picking up jobs before making one last crossing.  This time, his brother and the girl have entered the realm of legend.  Billy digs up Boyd from a desolate grave and carries his bones back to the States, but not without one more encounter with deadly thieves and one more metaphysical conversation with gypsies carting around an airplane fuselage.

What this summary doesn’t capture is the beauty of McCarthy’s writing and his supernatural gift with description.  You will get lost in the particulars, but you will know the terrain with intimacy.  And it is that deeper knowing that this trilogy keeps pointing to.  To know in a place the story of earth, heaven, and humanity itself.

How to Know Your Mission Field: Adapting with Jacob Armstrong


photo by Justin Luebke via Unsplash

Jacob Armstrong, founding pastor of Providence Church in Mt. Joliet, Tennessee, offered a provocative and helpful workshop on evangelism during the 5 Talent Academy in Virginia last October.  Provocative enough that I bought his book, The New Adapters: Shaping Ideas to Fit Your Congregation [Abingdon, 2015].  In an occasional series, I’m going to take a look at how some of the ideas in his book might apply in small towns and small congregations.

The title of Armstrong’s book encapsulates his basic belief that churches need to  adapt in order to thrive.  But what that adaptation looks like will vary with context.  So the first chapter in the book deals with finding a vision that matches the mission field.


Jacob Armstrong

Armstrong went back to a community he grew up in to start his new church, but he didn’t assume that he knew that community.  He and his leadership team began their ministry by listening and praying.  He describes driving through town on a Sunday morning at 10 AM when church people were in church and getting to know those who weren’t.  The team rolled down their windows at stoplights to hear what was on car radios.  They observed what people were doing.

What they discovered is that the community didn’t need a hip church with a pastor in skinny jeans.  They needed a church that could connect with soccer moms and suburban struggles.  “As we began to pray for and over our community,” Armstrong says, “our hearts were turned to who they were, not what we wanted to do.” (5)

Armstrong goes on to outline other steps in developing a vision for your place:

  • use demographic studies of your community
  • spend time in the coffee shops and other ‘third places’ where people gather
  • identify & meet with people of peace
  • learn from other churches

As I think about Armstrong’s analysis I realize that one problem that established churches have is their unintentional insularity.  We spend so much time in our buildings that we lose the ability to see why they may be limiting our outreach to new people.  WE feel comfortable there, so why don’t others?

41yErQDxaLL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_But most of the small churches I attend have tired buildings that have not been updated in many years.  They serve the existing congregation well, but they do little to recognize the barriers they present to new people.

In a similar way, our mindsets, especially as clergy, have been shaped by the environment we are in.  Getting our bodies and our minds out of the building has got to help us learn about the people we are not seeing in the church.

In small towns, the number of ‘third places’ is shrinking.  Coffee shops may not exist. Old civic groups like the Ruritans and Rotary are disappearing and those that hang on do not attract young people.  But there is the local diner or restaurant where everybody goes.  There are soccer fields and school events.  There is the local community college.  There are the aisles of the grocery store.  We can put ourselves in those places to listen and learn.

This summer, during my month-long sojourn in Archer City, Texas, I got to know Ben Rigsby, pastor of the local United Methodist Church.  Ben knew everybody in Murn’s Cafe.  He ate lunch with the police chief.  His church was organizing a neighborhood party at the community pool on a Friday night.

This kind of work doesn’t show up on many pastoral evaluation forms, but it makes a big difference in getting to know your mission field.  And it can make for a vibrant church.

Considering Our Hearts (& the Future of the UMC): A Review of The Anatomy of Peace


photo by Gerome Viavant via Unsplash

Let’s get this out of the way first: If Dan Brown wrote a book about conflict resolution it would come out looking something like The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict.  If that sounds like an endorsement to you, you’ll love this book.  If, like me, you threw The DaVinci Code across the room sometimes out of sheer frustration with its cardboard characters, forced allusions, wooden writing style, and overall smugness, well, you’re not going to have a good time getting through this book.  The author is listed as the faceless Arbinger Institute but I suspect a member of the Institute is, in fact, Dan Brown.

Whew.  That said: I came to the book at the recommendation of the Rev. Tom Berlin, one of the most gifted (and un-Dan Brown-like) communicators in our United Methodist connection. Berlin, pastor of Floris UMC in northern Virginia, is a member of the Commission on A Way Forward, the 32-member group appointed by the Council of Bishops to craft proposals for maintaining the unity of the denomination in the face of divisions around questions of human sexuality.  The Anatomy of Peace is being used by the Commission to help them grow closer to one another as they confront their own differences.


Tom Berlin

Berlin has led the Virginia clergy delegation at the most recent sessions of the General Conference, the global gathering of United Methodism held every four years to rewrite The Book of Discipline, the denominational rule book.  In that role he has seen the sad way that such gatherings devolve into the same rancor that plagues our national political dialogue.  “When these topics [e.g. ordination of LGBTQ clergy] are discussed,” he told the Virginia Annual Conference last summer, “the hearts of many delegates are at war rather than at peace.”

Berlin chose that phrasing purposefully.  It comes right out of The Anatomy of Peace and its unusual choice to use the Era of the Crusaders as an analogy for developing a ‘heart of peace.’  The conquest of Jerusalem by Christian crusaders in the Middle Ages was bloody, a character tells a group of parents who have been united by a desire to help their troubled teenaged children.  He goes on to describe how the Crusaders plundered and murdered in the wake of their victory, seeing their foes merely as objects to be eliminated.

By contrast, the Muslim sultan Saladin’s reconquest of the city was marked by acts of mercy towards the defeated Christians.  “The secret of Saladin’s success in war,” one of the leaders of the parent group says, “was that his heart was at peace.” (28)  Thus, he concludes, “there are two ways to take Jerusalem: from people or from objects.” (33)

If you can accept your history flat and unambiguous, this analogy might work for you.  Similarly, if you can accept the repeated interpretations of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as offered by the pair of leaders (one of each nationality) at face value, you may be able to see through to the point of the book more easily than I could.  I found these attempts to use one of the most complex international situations of our day as a simplifying and clarifying tool misguided at best.  I’ll chalk that up to Mr. Brown again.  But I digress.

41XwiBMyjRL._SX302_BO1,204,203,200_The point of the book is very simple.  The heart of conflict is seeing people either as people or objects.  When we see our opponents as people we can have hearts at peace.  When we see them as obstacles or objects, our hearts are at war.

The book goes on to show how that plays out in any number of situations, from dealing with family conflict to business relationships to international relations.  The journey towards peace, as in most journeys with a spiritual dimension, is first an internal one.  When we address our own “way of being” it begins to have an impact on those around us.  “As important as behavior is…most problems at home, at work, and in the world are not failures of strategy but failures of way of being.” (39)

There are some good psychological insights here.  The book addresses how we collude with those we oppose in producing the very things we say we’re fighting against.  There is a long section on self-justification and how our own preferred methods for doing it serve to perpetuate conflicts.  And there is a pyramid of actions that emphasizes personal work and building relationships before attempting anything like correction.

There is no doubt that our relationships and institutions would be better if we approached one another with hearts of peace.  Given our tendency toward anxiety and the belief that we can only lose in conflict, we need some practice in the art of engaging with those we regard as enemies.  That’s just what Rev. Berlin suggested to the Virginia Annual Conference last summer.  Noting his own congregation’s attempt to start some conversations on human sexuality, Tom said, “The church hasn’t fallen in.”


photo by Ian Schneider via Unsplash

I’m grateful for Tom’s encouragement to keep trying.  We all know the deadly taste of cynicism and despair in our mouths.  We are thirsting for something more.

Whether this book, beyond its flaws, holds out hope for United Methodists is an open question.  I know that others are reading it as well and earnestly seeking a new day.  The hope Berlin talked about as a result of reading it seemed to be that we Methodists, by “walking together loosely” instead of seeking to come to conformity or agreement, might be able to concentrate on the mission objectives of the church rather than its divisions.  In the year to come, as we see the Commission’s work come to the form of proposals, we’ll all have a chance to sound our hearts to see what’s there.  I’m praying we find hearts of peace.

Heartlands Best Reads of 2017:#1 Lincoln in the Bardo (& a recap)

LincolnintheBardoThere are certain things you know you’re going to find when you sit down to read a George Saunders story.  It will be weird, funny, engaging, and surprisingly deep.  I expected no less from Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders’ first novel and I was not disappointed.

The book, which won the Man Booker Prize this year, uses a little-known but poignant episode from Abraham Lincoln’s life as a center around which to turn: Lincoln’s late night visit to a DC cemetery in the early part of the Civil War to visit the mausoleum where his young son, Willie, died.  From that point of connection with history, Saunders creates a universe of characters – ghosts who are watching and lamenting their own unresolved lives.

Lincoln is interesting, but it’s the ghosts who take center stage.  They are the ones who, like the dead in C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, carry, in exaggerated form, the distortions of their lives, waiting until they can accept the peace that awaits them.  They cling to their past–not wanting to acknowledge their deaths, not wanting to let go of the ones they love, and not believing that the angels who visit can mean them anything but harm.

It’s haunting and beautiful and it’s my best read of 2017.  Click the link on the title above for my full review.

lysander-yuen-288916And now, to recap the Best Reads of 2017:

1. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

2. Work Like Any Other by Virginia Reeves

3. Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders & the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

4. Wolf Whistle by Lewis Nordan

5. The Crucifixion:Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge

6. Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

7. All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

8. American Fire: Love and Arson in a Vanishing Land by Monica Hesse

9. Can You See Anything Now? by Katherine James

10. Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right by Arlie Russell Hochschild

Other great reads:

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Cancer is Funny: Keeping Faith in Stage-Serious Cancer by Jason Micheli

All True Not a Lie in It by Alix Hawley

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

Duane’s Depressed by Larry McMurtry

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Perhaps you’ll see in this Top Ten list the preoccupations of my reading life–what it means to inhabit a place, how it is that we live together and grow apart, and how a richer world inhabits this one.  Here’s to your good reading in 2018!