Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Wesley's Twelve Rules for Preachers

I believe the Holy Spirit can use just about anything to get our attention...even the universe of blogs and internet sites.  I've been "led" by my mouse more than a few times recently to sites/blogs listing John Wesley's Twelve Rules for Preachers.  Perhaps the Holy Spirit is trying to get my attention...I'm not sure.  I know some who read this blog are clergy and some aren't.  But, these rules are interesting to ponder nonetheless.  Several of them have been incorporated into the ordination vows for Elders in the United Methodist Church, so they are more than just interesting historical trivia.  Some of them are still benchmarks for ordination.  The others.....well, not so much.  I'll list them below as Father John wrote them so excuse the sexist language.  Some of them  have me confused and I'm not sure what the rule is aiming at.  Here we go...  Let me know what you think.  Just for fun, I've added some commentary in brackets.

1. Be diligent. Never be unemployed. Never be triflingly employed. Never while away time, nor spend more time at any place than is strictly necessary.  [Can you say "Facebook"???  I wonder what Wesley would think of this new cyberworld in relation to ministry.]

2. Be serious. Let your motto be, "Holiness to the Lord."  Avoid all lightness, jesting and foolish talking.  [Wow, lighten up JW!  Even he broke this rule when one of his preachers asked him if it was permissible to bury a Baptist.  His reported response was, "By all means.  Bury as many as possible."  Our pastor evaluation forms this year had a category for "laughter."  I'm guessing that's not a category JW used in his evaluations.]

3. Converse sparingly and cautiously with women, particularly with young women.  ['Nuff said.]

4. Take no step towards marriage without solemn prayer to God and consulting with your brethren.  [He learned this one the hard way.]

5. Believe evil of no one unless fully proved; take heed how you credit it.  Put the best construction you can on everything.  You know the judge is always supposed to be on the prisoner's side.  [Great advice...not just for pastors.]

6. Speak evil of no one, else your word, especially, would eat as doth a canker; keep your thoughts within your own breast till you come to the person concerned.  [Had to look up canker...again, good advice.]

7. Tell every one what you think wrong in him, lovingly and plainly, and as soon as may be, else it will fester in your own heart.  Make all haste to cast the fire out of your bosom.  [Boy, this could be a career-ender!  I've actually done this a time or two.  Casting the fire out of one's bosom nearly always feels better to the one doing the casting than to the one receiving it.  I may stick this one in my back pocket for future reflection...]

8. Do not affect the gentleman.  A preacher of the Gospel is the servant of all.  [Is this a fancy way of saying, "Remember your place...don't go acting all high-falutin'?"  If so, I think JW was 'affecting the gentleman.'  Help me, friends, if I've totally missed this one.]

9. Be ashamed of nothing but sin; no, not of cleaning your own shoes when necessary.  [Huh?  I get the first part.  But, is "cleaning your own shoes" a euphemism for something they used to warn us about in junior high?  Again, help!]

10. Be punctual.  Do everything exactly at the time.  And do not mend our rules, but keep them, and that for conscience' sake.  [Is bending the same as mending?]

11. You have nothing to do but save souls.  Therefore spend and be spent in this work.  And go always, not only to those who want you, but to those who want you most.  [I thought the last sentence had a typo but several sources quote it that way.  Remembering this is written in the 18th century, I suspect 'want' is used in the way in which we would use 'need' today.  But, he's lost me on the first sentence.  Perhaps it should read something like....You have nothing to do but charge conference forms, statistical reports, committee meetings, task force meetings, district/conference meetings, meetings about meetings, and save souls...Or, am I the only one?]

12. Act in all things, not according to your own will, but as a son in the Gospel, and in union with your brethren.  As such, it is your part to employ your time as our rules direct: partly in preaching and visiting house to house, partly in reading, meditation, and prayer.  Above all, if you labour with us in our Lord's vineyard, it is needful you should do that part of the work the Conference shall advise, at those times and places which they shall judge most for his glory.  [As a bishop whose name I can't recall  told a bunch of us newly ordained pastors years ago: "You will never be appointed to the church you think you deserve.  And you will never be appointed to the church you truly deserve.  Be thankful for both."]

Happy New Year.


Monday, December 20, 2010

The Christmas Letter

We've all received them.  Some of us have written them.  I have produced nearly three dozen of them myself.  They arrive this time of year; sent by family and friends alike.  I am referring to the annual Christmas letter that many of us send out with the sure and certain knowledge that all those who read it will be just as interested in its contents as those who produced it.

I know many who malign this tradition.  I've even caught myself joining in such discussions knowing full-well a rough draft of the latest edition was on my computer's desktop at that very moment.  In some folks' minds, the Christmas letter is the postmodern version of a fruitcake...we're not sure exactly what's in it...it always arrives with a self-proclaimed sense of importance and purpose that not all appreciate...and it appears to have taken some effort to produce, though we're not always sure to what end.

But, what if....just once...someone used this opportunity to do something more significant than recount the litany of children's activities, trips and health challenges?  With permission from the author, here's a "fer instance" from a member of one of the churches I serve in Anchorage...

Hello dear family and friends,

I managed to weasel my way out of a shopping trip with my wife by promising to stay home and prepare a draft of this year's Christmas newsletter.

So far I have made myself a cup of hot cinnamon spice tea, chatted by cell phone with my son for a few minutes, plucked a few gray hairs from my right eyebrow, discarded a few old emails, gazed out the window at the hoar frost on the bare tree branches and generally just goofed off.

So how can I take the male-perfected skill of goofing off and relate that to something as wonderful as Christmas?  Please, allow me a few moments to think.

OK, who would be the opposite of a goofing-off male?  It would have to be some guy who had a rough start in life.  He might have been born on a cold bed of hay.  Even as a boy I'll bet he took his responsibilities very seriously. (No gazing at hoar frost for him.)  I would guess he had a lot of important work to do and very little time.  I would also bet he faced harsh critics...

I also wouldn't be surprised if this "opposite of the male goof off" guy had really important work to do - work that would impact not just the folks in his hometown for a few years, but work that would impact folks all over the world, for generation after generation.  But what message from this man, this non-slacker, could be so important that, thousands of years later, people all over the world would still be talking about it?

This man was none other than Jesus, the Son of God.  You know, THE one and only God...I know, I know, but we're among friends here, so it's OK to say 'God' and 'Jesus.'  You're not going to get in trouble, I promise.

And his message was, and is, this: God sent his only Son to suffer and die for all of us so that no matter how much wrong we do, no matter how much slacking off we do, we can, because of Jesus, ask for forgiveness and live forever in heaven with God.  Amen...

Hmm...I'm trying to remember when it was that I allowed myself to be vulnerable enough with my family and closest friends that I could share with them my faith in and love for this Jesus whose birth we soon celebrate.  It just seems easier - no, safer - to make lists of activities, accomplishments and the transformations in our lives and bodies created by the passage of time.  Through our silence and reluctance, we have established the example that it's not OK to mention "God" and "Jesus" - even with friends and family.

I think I remember hearing once that the New Testament word for "witness" is the same word from which we get the word "martyr."  I admire this member of our church who could die to his pride and reluctance enough to share his witness with family and friends.  Years ago, a pastor who was a few years away from retirement shared with a group of us who were newly ordained words to this effect: "If you're lucky and observant, you'll discover that the people you serve have more to teach you than you have to teach them."

I feel very lucky.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Thief Doesn't Scare Us Anymore

But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.  - Matt. 24:43 NRSV

For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.  - 1 Thess. 5:2 NRSV

The subject was Advent, the season comprised of the four Sundays before Christmas.  Some of us were discussing how "Advent isn't what it used to be."  Advent, meaning arrival or coming, wasn't originally intended as a four-week harangue on how materialism has swallowed the meaning of Christmas.  Advent was a time of preparation for the eschaton - the end of things.  Many of our lectionary passages for Advent still reflect this teaching of being prepared for the arrival of Christ at a moment's notice.  Depending on the tradition in which you grew up, this second advent for which we're preparing could be an understanding of a literal "second coming" or, perhaps, it could be death itself in which Jesus comes to us to take us to the place prepared for us (John 14:3).

However, over the past forty years, the beginning of the celebration of Christmas has moved from a few days before Christmas to the day after Halloween.  And, unlike the Christian calendar which stretches the Christmas celebration through Epiphany (January 6), our cultural celebration ends at midnight Christmas day.  Lost in this cultural shuffle is a profound opportunity to consider what it means to live in such a way that we are prepared for that day of the Lord which will come "like a thief in the night."

"The problem is," one colleague said, "that the thief just doesn't scare us anymore."  I think he's right.  Perhaps the reason the "thief in the night" no longer scares us ("us" meaning middle class and above, comfortable U.S. citizens) is because we have physical and spiritual alarm systems that ensure the "thief in the night" will not enter our abodes or our hearts.

We (meaning the category of folks I described above) don't generally live with a fear of a "thief" in the form of INS agents raiding and separating families of illegal immigrants brought here by meat packing companies like some Midwest states.  We have little fear of a "thief in the night" in the form of acts of outrageous violence attended with runaway disease and starvation as are found in several war-torn third-world nations.

Perhaps the reason the "thief in the night" doesn't concern us is because we haven't really taken time to do two things: 1) identify what really does scare us; and, 2) learn to identify with the millions who regularly experience a "thief in the night" who robs them of the life God intends for humanity.  Even more troubling: perhaps the reality and regularity of these events are themselves the thief in the night alarming us all to the dangers of a divided, violent world.  But, like the sirens I hear going by my well-secured home every night attending to the tragedies against which I'm comfortably separated, these alarms we've learned to largely ignore thinking they don't really concern us...yet.

If our Advent/Christmas spirituality never really progresses beyond a superficial, yet guilt-laden, call to remember "the reason for the season," we will have missed the opportunity to consider the profound meaning of a God whose unimaginable love for us could not prevent that same God from jumping into the messy reality of this world to become one of us.  And, perhaps more tragically, we will have totally ignored the depth of preparedness to which we're called as we await the "thief in the night."

Saturday, November 13, 2010

When Am I?

As I write this, I am in the midst of a 7 day tour of Iowa as I interpret my ministry as a pastor in the Alaska United Methodist Church.  I've got it down to a routine: 1) pull into town and take a picture of the church and courthouse (Iowa courthouses fascinate me); 2) unpack computer and make sure technology and handouts are ready to go; 3) consume too much good Iowa food; 4) present a slide show with accompanying observations, anecdotes and experiences concerning ministry in Alaska; 5) answer questions; 6) realize I have a small window to make the next appointment and pack everything up; 7) drive to next community and go back to step 1.

After several days of doing this two to three times per day I begin to forget what I've said to whom.  Even worse is when I forget where I am.  Referring to the church in which you're standing as 1st UMC of Chariton when it's actually 1st UMC of Clarinda is confusing to an audience and tends to call into question the verity of the rest of your presentation!

However the experience I had on Nov. 12 was even more disorienting.  When I walked into the United Church of Manilla, IA - the church my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and I attended (until I was 11) - I was greeted with words that called into question not where I was, but when  I was.  A woman who looked vaguely familiar came up to me and scanned me head to toe and said: "You're Gene and Marge Disburg's boy!"

It has been a long, long time since I've been described in terms of who my parents were.  I then looked around the fellowship room and sanctuary which, like many small town/rural churches, have not changed much at all in 40 years.  I saw the chancel where I had my first case of stage fright as I "recited my piece" for the Christmas pageant.  I could see faces of folks long since gone as I wandered the pews.  I sat in "Marge and Gene's" pew where my sister and I would kick and elbow each other until Mom separated us.

Being ushered back into the potluck where I relished recipes I hadn't experienced since I was a child, I sat down amidst a circle of cousins and my recently widowed uncle and listened to stories and experienced memories that transported me to different times in my life.   Time became a very relative thing at that moment.  When  was I?

 I was experiencing what Bible students learn is the difference between the two Greek words for "time" in the Bible: kairos and chronos.  Chronos is the sense of precise time (it's 11:30 am on Nov. 13 as I write this).  Kairos, often called "God's time," is not nearly as exact.  Kairos is a sense of a season or a 'right' time (when an expectant mother announces "It's time!!" she's not referring the fact that it's 1 in the afternoon).  In my life, it seems chronos always defeats kairos.  I am a slave to the clock and weekly deadlines at the expense of those kairos  moments in which I'm given over to the meaning of time in my life.

When the meal was over, it was time (chronos  and kairos) for "Gene and Marge Disburg's boy, Dave and Joanie's brother,  Grace and Leo's nephew" to be the guest speaker who's a "missionary preacher in Alaska."  Back to the real world.  But it was nice that, for a few moments, kairos defeated chronos and I was given the gift of a disorienting, yet meaningful, moment in which I asked myself, "When am I?"

Give yourself a gift: allow the kairos of your life to defeat chronos once in awhile.  Let me know if you've asked yourself when you were.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Write What You Know

I was co-pastor of a 3 church parish in rural Iowa for 6 years.  A member of one of the churches would often greet me saying, "Hey Preacher, whaddya know for sure?"  I never really had a good answer for that question.  I tried the answer, "Not much," for awhile but thought that was probably not a great confession to make just minutes before I started preaching.

It was the "for sure" part that always threw me.  I'm a perfectionist and felt compelled to answer as accurately as I could.  If the question was only "Whaddya know?" I could have provided a variety of answers.  But, what do I know for sure?  

Since then, I've discovered that knowing something "for sure" isn't as much fun and doesn't require nearly as much faith as knowing only in part.  This is all a way of saying that I will take the sage advice given to all inexperienced writers: write what you know.  But, it's also a way of saying that when I write what I know, I will probably not know it for sure. 

There are some things I know, however.  I know caffeine and consume it regularly in its various forms.  And, I know God-talk (but not for sure).  The working title for my blog is Caffeinated God-Talk because I think God-talk, done properly, should keep us up nights from time to time; maybe even make us jittery.  I also think/confess that I've often settled for both drinking and serving decaffeinated Got-talk; that is, God-talk that has the form but not the power of the caffeinated blend.

I hope you join me in the God-talk.  So, refill your cup and think of a time when the words of Jesus kept you from sleeping.