When Flo (and Other Storms of Life) are Raging

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;

and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.

—Isaiah 43:2

As I write this, it looks like the Eastern Shore will be spared the worst of Hurricane Florence, (or Flo, as I’ve come to call her this week).  I’m praying for the people of the Carolinas who seem to be receiving that ‘worst.’  I’m expecting that the United Methodist disaster response efforts, through UMCOR (UM Committee on Relief) and UMVIM (UM Volunteers in Mission), which would have come here if Flo had turned our way, will now be headed south.  And I know that United Methodists here will be generous in their support of these efforts.  (Look for special giving opportunities in the next week.)

We did have an epic downpour on Sunday night here.  Roads in the Belle Haven area washed out.  Our camp director, Michael Henry, his wife, Alison, and son, Isaiah, had a harrowing, multi-hour trip back to Occohannock on the Bay that night through the pouring rain.  Also, high tides this week flooded Tangier, Wachapreague, and other low-lying areas.

IMG_7723Incidents like these remind us that we live on a small, strip of sand on the verge of a great, vast ocean.  Most days I don’t take the ground beneath my feet for granted, but when I see the power of the wind and water, I marvel that we can live so many days without thinking about whether the weather will threaten our lives and our homes.

There’s a measure of grace in each day.  There are things we can trust.  Most days we get to live without thinking about the dangers and we receive what we need.  God will provide and God does.

And when the hurricanes come, as they will…when the storms of life are raging…God will stand by us.  Islands may shift, property may be lost, but didn’t we get to discover again this week that we are bound together more in the face of such dangers?  And didn’t we lean into our prayers a little harder?

Whatever Flo may bring, I want to trust that the God who calmed the waters of Galilee and piled up the currents of the Jordan and the waves of the Red Sea is still present in the storm.  And I give thanks for the connection of United Methodists who answer the call when there is a need and remember the promise of Song of Songs: “Many waters cannot quench love, nor can floods drown it.” [8:7]

When Angels First Trod the Earth: A Review of Philip Jenkins’ Crucible of Faith

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A Cave at Qumran

It was 113 degrees when I was at Qumran a few weeks ago.  Set up on a ridge near the Dead Sea, the site is unforgiving—no escape from the sun, salt flats and barren wilderness in every direction, a claustrophobic gift shop and lunch room packed with tourists who never seem to make it to the ruins.  One hour and a chicken schnitzel later and I was ready to go.

The folks who built Qumran?  They stayed for 200 years.

If you know Qumran at all, you’ve probably heard of it in connection with the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were found in caves near this site beginning in 1947.  The scrolls revealed the presence of an ascetic, dissident sect of Jewish religious revolutionaries who made their home here during the volatile period from the mid-2nd century BCE to 68 CE.  A video at the visitor’s center suggests that John may have been a member here before becoming “the Baptist” and heading over to the Jordan River.  Whether he was or wasn’t, the scrolls show that the world in which John and Jesus operated was full of ferment and change and the ideas that we associate with later Christianity and Judaism were finding their first expression in places like Qumran.

Philip Jenkins, in his new book Crucible of Faith: The Ancient Revolution that Made our Modern  Religious World, makes a sweeping claim in the opening pages:

During the two tempestuous centuries from 250 through 50 BCE, the Jewish and Jewish-derived world was a fiery crucible of values, faiths, and ideas, from which emerged wholly new religious syntheses. Such a sweeping transformation of religious thought in such a relatively brief period makes this one of the most revolutionary times in human culture. These years in effect created Western consciousness.

Jenkins, a professor of history at Baylor University, has made a career out of helping us look at Christianity from new perspectives ever since he made a splash with his 2002 book, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity.  That book forced U.S. Christians who were mired in narratives of decline to grapple with the explosive growth of the faith that was taking place in the Southern hemisphere.  Maybe, Jenkins suggested, Christianity was just making one of its periodic, geographic shifts, this time from the West to the South.

In Crucible of Faith, Jenkins wants to lift up a period often neglected by biblical students—the so-called intertestamental period that is not reflected in most Protestant bibles.  For many Christians, the biblical story skips directly from the return of the exiles to Jerusalem in the 6th-century BCE to Jesus’s appearance in the city at the start of the Common Era.  Jenkins points out, however, that much of what we associate with the new Christian worldview, from angels to the role of Satan to apocalyptic expectations, was forming in this period, particularly the 200 year window that he calls the Crucible.

Jenkins doesn’t break a whole lot of new ground in this book. Scholars have been mining extrabiblical sources like 1 Enoch and Jubilees for many years now and have seen what Jenkins describes.  What Jenkins does effectively is to tell this story clearly and with an eye to a general readership.  The result is convincing, if a bit repetitious.  It also helps that figures like Judas Maccabees and Herod the Great make such great copy.

The kind of scholarship Jenkins does makes biblical literalists nervous. He dates biblical books long after the periods in which they are set, (such as Daniel, a putative narrative of the Babylonian Exile, which Jenkins (and many other scholars) date to the 2nd century BCE). He also finds major historical forces at work, influencing the development of religious thought, such as the cataclysmic entry of the Hellenistic world into the Middle East with the arrival of Alexander the Great.  For those who like their biblical inspiration unadulterated by current events, this can be distressing.

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Philip Jenkins

But Jenkins’ measured view and sturdy method are convincing and he forces the reader to look at old assumptions in new ways.  For instance, the story of early Christian church in the West is often told as an attempt to graft Greek philosophy onto Hebrew thought.  But Jenkins makes clear that that confrontation happened long before the Christian moment and the Judaism that Jesus’ disciples swam in was fully engaged with Greek ideas and a Greek cosmology and had been for some time.

Looking at the excavated ritual baths and scriptoriums of Qumran, it’s hard to imagine a revolution sprouting from this desert site.  But something big was happening that pushed this disaffected group out from Jerusalem.  They saw angels of light and darkness at work in the world.  The Roman legions may have eventually succeeded in reducing Qumran and Jerusalem to dust, but the religious dynamism unleashed in the Crucible years goes on.

Small Churches Can Plan for a Healthy Future

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Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

I like my doctor.  Even with all the needles and probes, I trust that she’s using the information she gleans through my brief discomforts to tell me something I need to hear. But I don’t always pay attention.

For several years we had a little ritual over one persistent health issue:

“Your cholesterol is high.”

“Still?”

She gives me a wry smile.  “Yes, still. I think we ought to look at a treatment plan.”

“Didn’t you suggest that last year?”

“Yes, and we decided you would try controlling it through diet.”

“Because you wanted to put me on pills and I don’t like the idea of taking pills every day.”

“Right. But maybe you’d like to try them to see if it makes a difference. This is a long-term condition for you and it could be dangerous if you don’t lower your bad cholesterol levels.”

“Thanks, Doc, but I think I’ll try diet again.”

One year (and frequent slips involving BBQ beef brisket) later, we’d have the same conversation.  Until finally I realized that my doctor was trying to tell me something important.  I started on the pills.

Kay Kotan and Phil Schroeder, both directors of Congregational Development for United Methodist annual conferences, know the interplay we have with our doctors.  The ways we appreciate their knowledge and yet resist making the changes they recommend.  The ways we often come around when they can get us to face the facts.  That’s why Kotan and Schroeder use a medical metaphor to diagnose options in their new book Small Church Checkup: Assessing Your Church’s Health and Creating a Treatment Plan [Discipleship Resources, 2018].

Sometimes your doctor needs to shock you into recognition that there is a problem, and that’s where the authors of this book start on the first page.  Quoting Charita Goshay, they say, “an estimated 80 percent of churches are flat or declining; 5,600 close every year.” (15)  That’s the future for churches that believe that they can just get by on the way they’ve always done it before (weaknesses for BBQ brisket be damned!).  But Kotan and Schroeder want to offer a way forward:

“We can choose our story.  We do not have to allow our story to unfold without our intervention, intentionality, faithfulness, and prayer.  We can choose.” (15)

What follows over the course of the next brisk ten chapters is a practical guide to diagnosing your congregation’s condition and choosing a course towards a different future.

Kotan and Schroeder believe that most small churches (fewer than 100 in attendance) fall into one of three types:

  1. Not Yet Big Churches that are vital and growing and may move to becoming medium-sized or large churches.
  2. Stable Small Churches that have found a way to stay vital and to serve the community despite not growing numerically.
  3. and Smaller Churches, which are declining in numbers and face serious questions about their ongoing viability.

The authors provide “Lab and Test Results,” encouraging small church leaders to look at a number of measures to determine their congregation’s health.  For instance, mapping the membership of the church can indicate how well the congregation is connecting to its surrounding community.  What’s the state of the church reserves compared to five years ago? How much of the building is being used and who’s using it?

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Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Along with this, the authors advise having some field trips to other churches and crucial conversations as a church to acknowledge that ‘business as usual’ is not an option.  After doing this work, congregations should be able to identify their condition and review the appropriate treatment plans available in three chapters related to the three types of small churches.

The treatment plans are not easy. Some involve major reorganization of a congregation to focus on priority items.  For instance, one recommendation for ‘Not Yet Big Churches’ is to develop a signature ministry and to empty the church’s calendar to plan for it.  Using ‘zero-based calendaring’ the congregation should ask: “If we were to do nothing that we have ever done before, what is the one thing we must put on the calendar?” (86-7)

For other churches, the hard part is emotional.  When a congregation has determined that it’s future is discontinuance, there can be a range of options from denial (and continuing until the resources run out) to a planned closure (with acknowledged grief work and a legacy gift to other ministry) to death and rebirth as a new congregation.

A book alone cannot make the difference for a small church.  Kotan and Schroeder seem to recognize this when they conclude by saying, “If you are struggling to choose a treatment plan, please reach out.  Sometimes this road is just too hard to journey alone.” (121) My own experience is that churches need the prompt and coaching of outside help to navigate a real examination of their mission.

admin-ajax-cfp-120x120On the Eastern Shore District, where I serve, we have developed a Church Transformation Team with the help of Plowpoint Ministries that initiates a “health assessment” in churches through a 2-hour Bible Study and crucial conversation, inviting teams of church leaders into a more extended study that incorporates much of what Small Church Checkup recommends.  Our team uses an excellent resource by Beth Crissman and Nancy Rankin, Choosing the Faithful Path: A Bible Study for Discerning a Faithful Future

The unusual period that began after World War II and extended until about the turn of the millennium, obscured the reality that refocusing on mission is a perennial task of the church.  When the culture was supporting church life and financial resources were plentiful, most of the mainline churches coasted on that wave.  We are in a new day now and there are still opportunities for growth in small churches.  But we will need to remember why we’re here and heed the advice of those who care for our health.

By the way, I went back to the doctor last month for my annual physical.  Two years in to my treatment plan, she called my cholesterol level ‘excellent.’ Now about this weight thing…

Rescuing Hope: And Other Lessons From the Cave

unnamedTuesday the news was filled with the spectacle of reporters crying. They weren’t alone. Maybe you shed a few tears yourself when you heard that 12 boys and their coach had made their way out of a cave in Thailand.  “We can take a breath now,” a Miami diving instructor said on CNN before choking up.

Why did we get riveted to a spectacle on the other side of the world?  Why did people who can’t seem to agree on much of anything share a common greeting—‘Have you heard how many boys are out’?

Maybe it’s because we all feel like we’ve been trapped in a cave with rising waters and a hard rain ready to fall.

It’s not that there aren’t plenty of rescues needed in every neighborhood. Go to the summer program at Agape Christian Children’s Community Center in Horntown here on the Eastern Shore and you’ll see how God’s love is drawing together volunteers and children.  Or the Una Familia summer program where children whose families are often living on the margins get a chance to grow and play.  Opportunities abound.

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Summer Program – Una Familia

But there was something about the way the whole world came together to bring the boys out that showed us a thing we crave more than rescue—hope.  A team of people with a common purpose used their skills, even to the point of self-sacrifice, to reunite children with their families.  And no one questioned if it mattered or if it was possible.  Everyone gave their best.

Ecclesiastes 9:10 says, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.”  There is much for our hands to do as the people of God and when we are in touch with the hope that is within us, we will find ourselves as motivated as the cave rescue team.  It’s a hope that found us when we were in darkness and despair and took on a treacherous journey through the waters to new life.

I’ll remember the faces of those boys for a long time.  And maybe I’ll also remember my baptism and be thankful, hopeful, and ready to put my hand to the work of the God who saves.

Who is This ‘We’?: Poetry for the ‘Families Belong Together’ Rally

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photo by FancyCrave via Unsplash

I’m not going to make the ‘Families Belong Together’ Rally in Onancock today (Saturday, June 30) from 11-12:30. And when asked for a statement, I couldn’t find the words.  So I contributed this poem to be read.  May we find the ‘we’ that is truly ‘us.’

Who is this ‘we’ into which I am enlisted?

What is this sweet land of liberty I invoke when I sing, “My country ’tis of Thee”?

What God do I invite to bless America?

Who are the ‘we’ who hear cries from the Valley of Texas

and wonder what ‘we’ we have become?

 

‘Our’ ancestor, we Christians say, was a wandering Aramean.

When we look to the Scriptures we hear Deuteronomy’s command

to look after ‘them’—the sojourners in our midst—

because ‘we’ were sojourners in other lands.

We are those who sing ‘Sometimes I feel like a motherless child’

while motherless children in scattered camps feel it more.

We are those who have beaten our breasts (insufficiently)

and sought repentance (insufficiently)

and proclaimed (insufficiently)

that we see and deplore the excesses and the evils

of native peoples separated from their lands and kin

of enslaved peoples separated from their lands and kin

of Japanese American families detained with their kin.

The injury is not only to ‘them’

but to us.

 

When we use the rationale of deterrence to excuse cruelty,

we injure ‘us.’

When we meet those who have left troubled lands seeking asylum here

and offer them instead more trouble, more trauma, no room at the inn,

we injure ‘us.’

When we allow our immigration policy, debate, and system

to devolve into division and expressions of helplessness

we injure ‘us.’

 

“When was it that we saw you homeless, naked, hungry, imprisoned

and did not respond with the love you showed us

but instead with the inhumanity we know too well?,”

the separated goats asked Jesus.

“When you did not see me crying for my father, my mother, 

my daughter, my son.

“When you did not see.

“When the injury came to me,

it came to you.”

It comes to us.

 

Who is this ‘we’ into which we are enlisted?

It is you and me and them and us.

We are one people.

 

To call for a humane and fair immigration system is not a call

for the end of borders or law enforcement or thoughtful policy.

It is a call for the end of injury

…to all of us.

—29 June 2018

Jeff Sessions and the Things Church Trials Can’t Do

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Photo by Hayne Palmour IV

Church trials don’t create community; they create tribes.  And that’s got me concerned for The United Methodist Church.

Some 640 United Methodists recently lodged a formal complaint against the Attorney General of the United States, Jeff Sessions, who is a United Methodist with membership in a Mobile, Alabama church.  Though it is almost so rare as to be unheard of, church trials for lay members  can happen for a range of offenses.  This complaint against Sessions alleges that his advocacy for and enforcement of the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy on immigration, which has led to family separations at the border, constitutes immorality, child abuse, racial discrimination, and “dissemination of doctrines contrary to the order and discipline” of the UMC [para. 2702.3, The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2016].

Those who brought the charges say they don’t really expect it to go to trial. The Book of Discipline outlines a process of just resolution that sees trials as a last resort. The Rev. David Wright, chaplain at the University of Puget Sound, told CNN:

“The goal is to hopefully get Attorney General Sessions to talk to his pastors and church leaders, bring his position in line with the church’s doctrines and social principles, and end the damage he is causing.”  

Church trials for lay members are extraordinary, but they have been used with increasing regularity for clergy members who have officiated at same-sex weddings, which is also a chargeable offense.  The trials have provided some level of accountability to The Book of Discipline, but they are expensive, divisive, and have had the effect of heightening tensions within the denomination over sexuality issues.

In Matthew 18:15-19, Jesus provides a model for restoring relationship when an offense has caused injury.  It begins with a conversation.  “Point out the fault when the two of you are alone,” Jesus says. “But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you.” [NRSV]  It is only after these attempts at resolution that you institute a kind of separation.  As if to emphasize the importance of maintaining the bonds of Christian community, this passage is followed by a lesson on forgiveness.

What Jesus assumes is that there is a community holding together all the persons involved in the resolution.  When we use the media to shout at one another, even when it has the aim of beginning a Matthew 18 reconciliation, we are substituting a deeply flawed national mouthpiece for a church process that is too often atrophied and broken.  When we do so, we begin in a place where our moral objections can too easily be entwined with our partisan commitments.  And we invite the same behavior by those with differing partisan loyalties.

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photo by Heather Mount via Unsplash

Don’t get me wrong.  I feel like shouting, too.  There is injustice and injury that we should lift up, decry, and put our hands to ending.  Separating families is such a thing.

But there is injury in our churches and our communities that needs attention, too.  To have a “catholic spirit,” the openness of heart to fellow Christians to which John Wesley called his Methodists, requires that we tend to the essentials of our connection, that we are in close enough community that you might “provoke me to love and to good works,” that we attend to the means of grace.

A few days ago, the combination of local and national events prompted me to write a Letter to my Haitian Neighbor.  I was outraged, but looking for a way to ground that outrage in a larger picture than the one offered by the echo chambers of social media and cable news.  It seemed right that we bear witness to what is happening—to offer our hearts and our neighbors to God.

I don’t want to be distracted from that task by taking the Attorney General to church court.

The Rev. Tracy McNeil Wines, a friend and colleague, is pastor of Clarendon UMC in northern Virginia where Jeff Sessions often attends.  Last Sunday, in the wake of this story, she preached to a congregation that included Sessions’ wife, Mary.  In her sermon she said:

”I do have strong beliefs…I will work to let our government know how I feel and I will preach the gospel of Jesus Christ every Sunday and pretty much every night at the dinner table, if you ask my family. But I will not dehumanize those who are not in harmony with my deeply, passionately held beliefs. I will not write them off as objects or obstacles, but I will remember that they are flesh-and-blood humans … and I am committed to listen to them.”

It’s hard to hold that space in these times, but Wines does it because she was formed by a United Methodist tradition that has taken this as a core value.  It is a tradition that believes in seeing people, all people, as distorted by sin, redeemed by grace, and capable of sanctification by the power of the Holy Spirit.  That’s an understanding best learned in Christian community—not on CNN.

A Quick Reminder of Why Wesley Still Matters

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John Wesley

John Wesley has been claimed by so many different heirs and used to so many and varied ends that it is refreshing to have someone like Hal Knight come along and point us back to the source.  John Wesley: Optimist of Grace, his new entry in the Cascade Companions series designed for nonspecialist readers, comes along just as the United Methodist Church is wrestling with what it means to be faithful to Wesleyan tradition in the 21st century.  Knight, who is a professor of Wesleyan Studies at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, is not going to take sides in that conversation, but he is going to point out why Wesley still matters.

In 10 brief chapters and a conclusion, Knight offers a biography of Wesley that is oriented toward his developing thought in relation to other movements of the 18th century, particularly Moravian and Calvinist strains.  Knight traces Wesley from his early (and lifelong) understanding of salvation as holiness of heart and life to his 1738 discovery of the knowledge of God’s love as gift and power, which became the engine of his later work.

We go with John and his brother, Charles, to Georgia.  We travel with him to Bavaria to learn from the Moravians.  And we glimpse his extraordinary ministry of preaching and writing throughout Britain.  But Knight keeps the focus on the controversies that fired him, the sermons and writings that revealed his deepening theology, and the Methodist apparatus he developed to support that theology.

The Wesley that emerges is not the rigorous obsessive we sometimes imagine from his journals, but a man truly fired by a notion of God’s love.  Wesley, in Knight’s telling, even has a warmth that keeps him in relationship with others, like George Whitfield, who could have been styled fierce opponents.

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Dr. Hal Knight

In the end, Knight chooses to highlight how Wesley could challenge Americans of our day.  In opposition to those who think that Christian salvation “is solely about our post-mortem destiny,” Wesley insists “it is about receiving a new life in the present, one that lasts through all eternity.” (141)  American spirituality, so prone to the belief that “there is a wonderful self inside of us waiting to be actualized,” could use a dose of Wesley’s realism about the human condition and the way “salvation comes from outside of ourselves, as a free gift of God, given through the cross of Jesus Christ and actualized in our lives by the Holy Spirit.” (142)  And Wesley’s focus on the need for accountable community and spiritual discipline could upend “the pervasive privatization of religion in American culture.” (143)

Talking about these things is a much better goal than trying to draw Wesley into the denominational anxieties of the largest Methodist body that traces back to him.  Wherever the UMC goes, it will need to come back to Wesley’s genius if it is once again to be about “spreading scriptural holiness throughout the land.”  That holiness is an appealing goal in Knight’s retelling.  And the book itself whets one’s appetite to know what has been and what will be.

Cascade Books provided me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  You can buy this book through Amazon and support this site:

Trusting God (or What To Do When You’re Just Not Feeling It)

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photo by Paulo Nicolello via Unsplash

There are mornings when I’m just not feeling it.  During my prayer time, as I review the plan for the day, I say to God, (out loud sometimes), “Remind me again, why me?”

Those are the days I write it out.

I turn to a fresh page in my journal and continue the conversation.  For instance, here’s a recent entry with my annotations in italics:

First I write a question I have for God: What good do I have to offer this day?

My fierce clarity.  (I know!)  I never have fierce clarity.

My deep wisdom.  (I know!) The ‘I knows’ are me turning to a friend and saying “Can you believe God is saying this?”

My dedication to Christ’s Church.  (I know!)  This sounds a little more earnest than I usually am.

My savvy and unwillingness to put up with stuff. ( I know!) Again, not my usual M.O.

My subversive intentions.  Now that’s more like it.

The effect of all this is to claim the gifts that seem beyond me but that God can give.  And often does.

“When they bring you to trial and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say; but say whatever is given you at that time, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit,” Jesus tells his followers in Mark 13:11 [NRSV].  Even when the one bringing you to trial is your own self-concern.

IMG_7791In a technology-driven world where there is always something for which there is an app and people are ever in search of a life hack to overcome a problem, it’s easy to see why God has become an after-thought.  If we don’t have the words, we’ve come to believe that it’s on us.  We just haven’t learned the right trick to get us through.

But Jesus knows the dangers of relying on our competence.  The words we need are not within us but given to us.  Our most effective practice is to trust that God will provide…that the Holy Spirit will speak.

When I visit churches I sometimes…no, often…get a whiff of anxious desperation in our worship and work.  Because the culture no longer credits the church with the prominence it once had, we have lost confidence in what we have to offer.  Is it really a killer product if nobody’s buying?  Maybe, we think, we should round off the rough edges and downplay the parts of the Christian message that don’t go down easy.  Maybe we should make Jesus more user-friendly.

Newspaper editors call it “burying the lede” when a writer tells an interesting story without highlighting the main point.  We’re in danger of burying the leader.  (BTW-It’s been tried before. #emptytomb)

What I pray for Sunday mornings and beyond is a warm and gracious invitation to a mystery that isn’t easy to understand or live into.  I pray for a community that isn’t worried about what it thinks it doesn’t have, but instead recognizes that it has all it needs in the gospel of Jesus.  God used Balaam’s donkey.  God can use our willing hands, too.

My other journal exercise on days when I’m not feeling it is to allow the negative voices in my head to have free reign.  I write down all the reasons why I don’t have any good to offer this day.  And then I write—all caps—LIES.  Because they are.  And I’m a savvy guy who has a God-given unwillingness not to put up with stuff like that.

Jarena Lee and the Day the Preacher Stumbled: Exhortation and the Methodist Future

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photo by rawpixel via Unsplash

The preacher was in trouble.  It’s hard to take the life out of the story of Jonah, but somehow he had. Struggling preachers are not unusual.  We’ve all had a Sunday.  Or several.  But in early 19th-century Methodism, including the AME branch of Methodism, (of which this preacher was a part), the official preachers had a back-up—exhorters—and Jarena Lee was just such a person.

Listening to that poor preacher, Jarena was convicted by “supernatural impulse” to stand and expound on the same text.  It was a daring act because it sure looked like preaching.  And women didn’t preach in those days, (although a number of Methodist women had taken the lead in what looked very much like preaching roles in Wesley’s movement, though they never had the title).  

Jarena certainly thought she had crossed a line:

“I now sat down, scarcely knowing what I had done, being frightened. I imagined, that for this indecorum, as I feared it might be called, I should be expelled from the church. But instead of this, the Bishop rose up in the assembly, and related that I had called upon him eight years before, asking to be permitted to preach, and that he had put me off; but that now he as much believed that I was called to that work, as any of the preachers present.”*

Jarena was a forerunner of all the women who now have their calls recognized in denominations like my own—the United Methodist Church.  But something else gets my attention in this exchange—the role of insiders and outsiders in a local church.

514UrBuBTgL._SX425_Early Methodism was on the move.  Its circuit-riding preachers traveled large circuits and they were frequently reassigned to new circuits on an annual basis.  They were not meant to become enmeshed in a particular church or community.  They had “nothing to do but save souls,” as John Wesley put it, and to organize small groups to continue the work of growing in holiness.  They couldn’t help but be considered outsiders, or in the lingo of the Eastern Shore where I live, ‘come heres.’

The exhorters were the insiders, the lay leaders who kept the Methodist societies going when the preachers weren’t around.  They were the ones who could encourage and inspire.  To use a modern word, they were the ones who could contextualize the message that the preachers proclaimed.  It was a role that men and women fulfilled.

Even when the preachers were leading the worship, the exhorters would supplement their sermons in the way that Jarena Lee did, sometimes offering fiery, charismatic, and evangelistic calls after the preacher did his best.  One Methodist exhorter, Thomas Saunders noted, “It is common with us for men and women to fall down as dead under an exhortation,” accompanied by numerous conversions.**

IMG_6635Methodism has changed since the days of Jarena Lee.  Our clergy now settle in and are encouraged to become real residents in the communities that they serve, even if they still retain their membership in the larger Annual Conference.  Lay servants, lay speakers, and certified lay ministers are the heirs of the exhorters.  Women and people of color now take on leadership in all these roles, hopefully without worry that their call from God might lead to their expulsion from the church.

The insight that early Methodism had, though, that ought to be retained is that a vital and healthy church depends on the interlocking wisdom of insiders and outsiders.  Outsiders bring new ideas and a broader vision of the Church.  People in the community bring a knowledge of the history and deep currents of a particular place.  Both have gifts to give.

So much of the tensions in rural America these days relate to how much agency local communities have in determining their future.  With declining populations, changing economies, and other challenges, small towns begin to doubt their capacity for building a vibrant community like they remember they once were.  

It’s the same for churches.  But the Methodist genius of connecting the native capacities of the local and the animating energy of the committed “traveler in the midst” still has the potential to renew the Church.  It’s how God moved Jarena Lee.

*David Henson, “Jarena Lee: The Pioneering Female Preacher You Never Hear About,” Patheos.
**Wigger, John. American Saint: Francis Asbury and the Methodists (p. 80). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition. 

Han Solo and the Myth of the Heroic Leader

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There’s no doubt that a charismatic leader can have a big impact on the size of a congregation.  It’s what most churches ask for when I go around doing consultations about the missional needs of the congregation as they prepare for a new pastoral appointment.  “If we had somebody who would knock on doors and preach dynamic sermons and inspire us with their boundless energy, things would change around here.”  Oh, and young with 30 years of experience, too.

But there’s a limit, and solo artists hit it sooner or later.

In this occasional series, I’ve been returning to a book by Jacob Armstrong, The New Adapters: Shaping Ideas to Fit Your Congregation, to see what lessons rural churches might learn about adaptation.  Armstrong points to the lies that emerge when congregations get fearful about the future, and one of the pressures they place on pastors is the untruth that “you have to do it on your own.”  Even Moses didn’t have to do that, Armstrong says.  God gave him elders within the people of Israel to help carry the load.  

“The example of Moses is that we need each other to effectively lead and live into God’s vision for our community,” Armstrong says.  “But, unfortunately, the example of Moses wore off a long time ago.” (65)

I’ve seen the effects of the myth of the solo, heroic leader. It takes its toll in an overinflated sense of capacity when things are going right and an even more destructive denigration of our capabilities when they aren’t.

So what’s a pastor to do?

Armstrong talks about the power of teams that are focused on the vision.  Teams that own a vision larger than the pastor’s skill set help congregations become living, breathing agents, open to the movement of the Holy Spirit.  They also energize the members of the team to discover and use their own gifts.  Effective teams, Armstrong says, “love, learn, and lead together.” (69)

For most small churches, the team cannot be built on a staff structure.  The team IS the congregation.  A wise pastor will not see the Church Council as a body of workers to whom assignments can be delegated nor as a demanding supervisor adding more tasks to an already overwhelming to-do list.  The Church Council is a gift—a group with the potential for loving, learning, and leading WITH the pastor.

Especially with so many churches experimenting with what a smaller council structure could look like, why not try some new experiments in how that structure could operate?  Couldn’t each gathering include a time of learning together? Worshipping together? Reconnecting with one another and the vision?

Instead of disconcerting obstacles, these ‘team gatherings’ could be the beginning of new life.  In fact, as in the early church, Armstrong notes, the future of our churches lies in “small groups of people who then start other small groups.” (71)

Recently, I saw the movie Solo: A Star Wars Story.  It featured a familiar American type—Han Solo likes to think of himself as a talented loner who gets by on his charisma and skills.  The movie celebrated his charms, but you can’t help but notice – Solo is rarely solo.  He’s at his best as part of a team.