Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Midwives & General Conference

O God, they begged you for help when they were in trouble,
   when your discipline was so heavy
   they could barely whisper a prayer.
Like a woman having a baby,
   writhing in distress, screaming her pain
   as the baby is being born,
That's how we were because of you, O God.
   We were pregnant full-term.
We writhed in labor but bore no baby.
   We gave birth to wind.
Nothing came of our labor.
   We produced nothing living.
   We couldn't save the world.
                    - Isaiah 26:16-18  The Message

It's probably just me...or maybe it's just here in Anchorage...but it seems as if we're in the midst of some kind of baby boom.  One of the churches I serve is blessed with several newborns with some still on the way.  It seems as if everywhere I go, I see pregnant women!  What's going on?

It might be a real boom - or, more precisely, a Boomer echo, since most of these pregnant women would be children of the Baby Boom generation.  Or, it might be that I am experiencing that psychological phenomena of a heightened optical awareness of certain things around me because they align with what I'm experiencing personally.  My wife and I once purchased a certain red auto because we were sure it was the only one like it for miles around.  We saw at least a dozen of them in the following week.  More to the point, perhaps the reason I seem to notice more pregnant women is because our older daughter is now carrying our first grandchild.  You see, all of that was just an excuse to tell you I'm going to be a grampa for the the first time.

However, there is a reason for the Isaiah 26 quote at the beginning of this blog.  Whether there really is a baby boom or my awareness is just a projection of my life on the world around me, I have been reflecting a lot on the birthing process in recent days.  Wait...I already know that any man foolish enough to opine too much about the birthing process deserves whatever grief he gets from spouses, mothers, sisters, daughters, female colleagues and co-workers, and pretty much any woman who has given birth or soon will.  I fully embrace the ancient notion that the reason God decided men could not give birth is because our pain threshold is entirely too low to endure it.  I have nothing but awe and respect for all women who have given birth and immeasurably more so for those who choose to do it a second time or more.

My reflection has more to do with my election to the 2012 General Conference of the United Methodist Church.  General Conference is a quadrennial meeting gathering laity and clergy from around the world to discern, discuss and enact the rules and structures that will shape the future of the church.  For most of the last 40 years, General Conference sessions have made news through their discerning and fussing over many of the socio-political hot topics of the day: abortion, homosexuality, capital punishment, war, economic justice, et al.

In contrast, the 2008 General Conference spent much time and energy around issues of structure and, by its action, ensured the conversation would continue in 2012.  That's not to say the topics that made headlines in previous years were totally ignored.  They weren't.  But, as an interested observer, it seemed to me that they were overshadowed by the institutional concerns for a sustainable structure for the future.

In one of the many pre-General Conference online articles/blogs I've read, one metaphor has caught my attention.  Of course, I'm never prescient enough to record who wrote what...but here's a rough estimate: We're living in a time when our denomination is experiencing the labor pains of birthing the church of the future, which will be much different than the church of the past.

If true, and I believe it is, one question emerges: What role will the 2012 General Conference play in the birthing process?  One choice is for the Conference to see itself as a collective midwife - coaching, coaxing, encouraging and comforting during this time of emerging new life.  Or, another choice is to continue the role most bureaucracies play when confronted with significant change and/or downsizing; that is as the stereotypical expectant father of the 50's and 60's - not in the birthing room but pacing nervously in the waiting room, nearly panicked by the immensity of the meaning and impact of new life.  Even more, all the energy spent by this father is so removed from the actual birthing process that it affects neither the pains of birth or the new life waiting to emerge.  This nervous pacing only reveals a combination of helplessness and fear concerning the ramifications of all changes new life brings to any family or institution.

So, to borrow Isaiah's metaphor, we will either engage the process by coaching, coaxing and encouraging or, by continued rhetorical pacing, we will give birth to the wind of our own words alone.  My continuing prayer for myself and all General Conference delegates: Give us the courage to be midwives.  Amen.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Of Destinations and Foolish Consistencies

Life is a journey, not a destination.
-          Ralph Waldo Emerson

The only teachings of Emerson that I remember from my American Literature studies years ago are the one quoted above and this gem from “Self Reliance.”
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,
adored by little statesmen, and philosophers and divines.

Earlier this year, I was laying out a sermon series for this fall.  The goal of the series was to encourage and equip folks to more deeply experience the means of grace by challenging folks to move beyond their regular routines in prayer, service, and study of scripture.

One evening, I was struggling to find a metaphor for the sermon series while walking my dog on Powerline Trail in Anchorage.  My usual turn-around point, Volunteer Bridge, was approaching.  Volunteer Bridge is about 2 ½ miles from the parking lot, making a 5-mile roundtrip hike; just right for my schedule.  As I neared the bridge I noticed a sign Scout (my hiking companion Lab/Great Pyrenees) I walked by a sign I’d walked by dozens of times before.  It read: Hidden Lake – 2 miles.

Hidden Lake…folks had been telling me for several years about this lake located in a cirque just 2 miles beyond my usual turn-around point.  Hmm…why hadn’t I gone up and discovered this little lake that can only be viewed when you’re nearly upon it?  I’d talked to plenty of folks who’d made the hike.  They had seen it…experienced it.  But, it meant more time…more energy…some planning.  There is a big difference between a 5-mile hike on a gentle slope verses a 9-mile hike, 4 miles of which are climbing/descending a steep mountain trail.  For me to actually experience what others had, I had to make some changes: allot more time and maybe, no definitely, get in better shape were the first to pop into mind.  But…seeing Hidden Lake became a sort of obsession.

And…a metaphor was born.  We hike these spiritual trails of prayer, worship, service, stewardship, scripture and others.  But, over time, we develop safe turn-around points.  To travel beyond these points means change…re-allotment of time and levels of commitment.

By the end of the summer I was ready to take the hike to Hidden Lake.  After waiting a week for a break in our August rains, I was blessed with a sunny morning to take the hike. 

I wish I could tell you that my first sight of Hidden Lake was life altering, inspiring and held meaning beyond words.  I wish I could tell you that.  I can’t.  After 4 ½ miles of hiking – 2 of which were quite steep and muddy – I arrived at the cloudy, rainy cirque containing Hidden Lake.  Alaska has some views which both take your breath away and leave you wordless.  This, in my opinion, was not one of them.  I was breathless only because of the climb and the words I came up with weren’t necessarily the ones you hear when someone views Denali for the first time.

So, I expressed my disappointment to Scout, took a few pictures and headed down the mountain.  Thinking that I’d not only wasted my time preparing for the hike, but I’d also blown my primary metaphor for the sermon series to pieces with only 3 weeks to spare, I was let down.  When I got home and started sharing the story with my wife I realized she was more interested in the journey than the destination.  I told her about the time we encountered a flooded bog where the trail disappeared and how Scout found the most efficient alternate route.  And, when he refused to cross a creek at a point I considered logical and ran a few hundred yards showing me a place where I could both stay dry and cross it.  In other words, I was so fixated on the destination, the real blessing of the journey had escaped me.

I’ve known people who have read the Bible focused on the destination: Revelation 22:21 – the last verse.  Those folks rarely, if ever, do it again.  I’ve known folks who have read the Bible focused on the journey – those with whom they read – how these stories parallel stories in our own lives – and, how these words seem to ‘come to life’ from time to time.  These spiritual hikers keep climbing. 

I’ve come to the conclusion that “bottom-line-the-meaning-is-in-the-destination” thinking is a foolish consistency.  It is a hobgoblin making trouble in our hearts and our churches by robbing us of the joy of lives woven together on spiritual paths of service, prayer and witness.  However, bottom line figures and destination-thinking make for easy statistical reporting.  Journeys and their meanings, on the other hand, are not easily quantifiable.  I fear that in the part of the Body of Christ I call home, the United Methodist Church, we may be sacrificing journey for destination for that very reason: it is quantifiable.  We seem obsessed with numbers while journey-stories and journey-questions arising from those with whom we hike are lost in the process.  A foolish consistency, indeed. 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Crunky Questions

October is a month for a “small group immersion” for the two churches I serve.  It is the second time this year we’ve had this kind of experience.  As many who read this already know too well, it is difficult to get folks to commit to the 30+ week studies that were more common in years past.  Today, it seems the magic number is 6 as the majority of small group studies and resources are published in 6-lesson units.  What this says about our society and collective attention span is for another day…

My caffeinated God-talk that I generally have with folks in small groups is going to need a few extra shots of espresso this month because I somehow managed to find myself facilitating 3 small groups over the next 5 weeks.  More challenging is the divergent  nature of the three studies: Christian Atheist by Craig Groeschel; The Reason for God by Timothy Keller; and, Revelation – Unraveling God’s Message of Hope by Ben Witherington.

I began my prep work on the studies in August…more than once asking how in the world I got myself into this.  The answer was simple: I love getting to know folks in small group settings and it is especially rewarding to see people’s lives changed – sometimes drastically – by the experience.

Over the past several weeks as I’ve read and re-read the materials, I realized the largest part of my prep work was preparing myself for the crunky questions that studies about nominal Christianity, doubts and objections to Christianity and the Book of the Revelation will always generate.  You know them…we’ve all asked them (though, maybe not out loud):
·         What does it mean to have a relationship with God or Jesus?  I’ve always thought knowing about them was enough.
·         If God is so good, why does God allow such bad things to happen?  Especially to the faithful?
·         Isn’t the Bible mostly myth?  Why should I pay attention to a piece of literature written by people who believed the heavens were a dome of fabric stretched  from horizon to horizon, holding back waters on the other side? [Genesis 1:6-7]
·         What does it mean when we say, “Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.”? 

There are many more crunky questions, but these give you an idea.  In the event you may not have ‘crunky’ in your lexicon, I like one of the definitions in the online Urban Dictionary.   According to that source, ‘crunky’ is a combination of grungy, clunky, and funky.

These questions are grungy in that there are rarely any nice, neat answers.  The answers tend to have sharp edges and rough surfaces.  They are clunky because they are also often oversized, awkward to explain, and difficult to transport from one person to another.  Finally, they are funky because they can do funky things to relationships, teachings received much earlier in life, and  all unquestioned assumptions regarding faith, life, death, scripture, etc.  Crunky.

In nearly 30 years of pastoral ministry, I’ve observed many mainline Christians (including pastors), given the choice, will avoid crunky questions at all costs.  Usually this is because their previous experience with such questions included inadequate and/or dysfunctional conversations and answers.  Sadly, when we avoid these crunky questions, we don’t allow ourselves to wander into the spiritual territory that is most likely to grow our faith and transform our lives assuring ourselves that faith need not grow and our lives need not change.

Here’s the problem…or, at least, my problem…I sometimes forget crunky questions have crunky answers.  I occasionally fall into the trap of thinking my job is to come up with a concise, comforting, non-abrasive, salve-like answer.  Experience has shown me, time and time again, that those kinds of answers only further crunk-ify the original question and, perhaps, my relationship with the questioner.   And so, as I prepped for these studies, I developed a new mantra: Embrace the crunk…lean into the crunk…become the crunk!  Never run away from the crunky…you only rob yourself and others of opportunities to grow and change into the likeness of Christ.

Your crunky prayers for me in the coming weeks, as always, are appreciated.