Friday, March 28, 2008

Should a Pastor's Salary be on Public Display?

The United Methodist Church had a great location on a main road near a mix of residential and light retail businesses. The facilities were well kept and fairly modern. They had a preschool and from all the bulletin boards and information sheets in the gathering area, the church has a active ministry.

On a table in a prominent place, surrounded by small stacks of flyers announcing events and ministries, was the "2008 General Budget." Begging to be read, the sheet began by listing the details of the pastor's salary and of the assistant pastor's salary.

That angered me. What right do the church leaders have to publicly display that information? None, believe me, none of the the members of the Staff Parish Relations Committee or the Church Council would want their salary information posted in public. In fact, in most businesses, revealing another's salary information is cause for dismissal. Shouldn't they afford the same respect to their pastors, and other staff for that matter?

Since a pastor's salary is a covenant matter between the pastor, the church and the Conference, it is voted on in a public meeting, the Charge Conference. And by the time it gets from the SPRC through the Finance Committee and the Church Council, the leaders of the church know what the salary is. That is enough.

Shouldn't churches combine the staff figures in public budget reports?

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Torn today

Today I am supposed to lead my covenant group with pastors in the Residency program, but I am driving to another state to attend the funeral for the mother of a close friend. Presence means so much, but there's just so much anyone can do. But I guess you can still feel torn over it. And you can hope those you aren't present for can accept and understand.

I told one of the group members yesterday that I had chosen to go to the funeral. I apologized for missing the group time. Attendance is mandatory for the Residency pastors and I stated I hated to set a bad example to them about not making the Residency meeting the hightest priority. She graced me with these words, "Maybe you're setting the right example, that we need to be there for one another." Still, I feel torn today.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Warning Signs of PETS

Many pastors this week are in danger of full-blown PETS - Post-Easter Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Be alert for the most common warning signs:

1. Delusions of glori-us's. Takes many forms, including a mistaken belief that the holiday Christians came to hear your sermon, or that the hightened energy on Easter is a sign of spiritual renewal in the church, or that no one minded the service going a little long with the extra music.
2. Halpewcinations. Imagining more people in the pews than were actually there on Easter day, especially when talking about the service at the pastors' coffee hour.
3. Ifinitus. (pronounced "if-n-i-tus") A persistent itching to tell the church members that every Sunday could be like Easter, if only....
4. Teary-eyed and wheezing. Basically over-exposure to pollen from left-over lilies.
5. Couldarash. Persistent skin-deep welts indicating systemic second-guessing, i.e, wanting to go back and tweak the service and message, to initiate a few more contacts, advertise better, and otherwise improve on a great day.
6. Homiletic fatigue. You gave it your best in your Easter sermon, but now all you can think about is that you have to come up with another one, at least as good or better.
7. Epression. General malaise and apathy resulting from an immersion in the tasks of Easter and missing its meaning.

If two of the indicators are present, the pastor should immediately take an extra day off. Three to four symptoms may require peer intervention. With five or more indicators, do not call 911. Make a reservation with the nearest moving van company.

Friday, March 21, 2008

A Plea for Vindication

What are usually considered the last words of Jesus from the cross are also words usually misunderstood. Our church used the seven utterances from the cross for services in the Lenten journey. The last one comes from Luke 23:44: “Into thy hands I commit my spirit.” The usual interpretation of these words depict them as a final resignation before dying.

Jesus is at the point of death. He then “lets go” and expresses his trust in God to care for his “spirit”, by quoting from Psalm 31:5. The psalmist in Psalm 31 is overwhelmed with trouble, calls on God to be his safe place, and to make it right. “In you, O God I seek refuge, let me never be put to shame, in your righteousness deliver me…into your hand I commit my spirit.”

Such an interpretation, however nice it is, misses the point being made in the gospel. These are not words of resignation. They are an appeal for justification. Like the psalmist in distress, Jesus is appealing to the highest authority to vindicate him – to correct the wrongful judgment.

This alternate interpretation of Jesus’ words is supported by Luke’s usage of Psalm 31, the concept of death from a Jewish perspective, and Luke’s emphasis on salvation history. A vindication view of Jesus’ death and resurrection hleps us to see the entire “Jesus event” as God’s work of salvation instead of just focusing on the cross.

Luke’s placement of the quote from Psalm 31 as the Jesus’ last words cross sets the stage for his understanding of the resurrection. God overturns the verdict of this world that condemned Jesus - at worse as a blasphemer and at least as an insignificant revolutionary. For Luke, the redemptive work of Christ was not just his death on the cross, but his whole life: his incarnation, his teachings, his miracles, and his passion.

Luke concludes his gospel with two resurrection appearances. In the road to Emmaus appearance, he “interpreted to them all the things about himself in all the scriptures” (Luke 24:27) and is revealed to them in the eucharistic breaking of the bread. When Jesus appears to his disciples, he tells them that all his words and everything written about him (in the law, the prophets and the psalms) must be fulfilled and that they are to be witnesses of these things. (Luke 24:44-49). For Luke, the resurrection demonstrates that God hears and honors Jesus’ appeal and thus sets him as an authority higher than all the authorities of the world. In that authority and power the church is created, whose story Luke will continue in the Acts of the Apostles.

(More...full article at Checked Luggage site.)

The Orthodox funeral practices reflect the belief that death is not just the cessation of life, but the beginning of dying. During the year of mourning the deceased undergoes the cancellation of their sins as their flesh decomposes. “One’s evil deeds were thought to be embedded in the flesh and to dissolve along with it.” Jewish thought at the time of Jesus was that the painful disintegration of the flesh left the bones (which contain the personality) as a framework for a new body on the day of resurrection.

But at Christ’s death, God interceded. God overturned the judgment of the world and through the resurrection, prevented the dying process from taking place. An expiation of sin in the dying was not needed, as God vindicated Jesus. “Taken in its cultural context, the claim of resurrection for Jesus asserts that his death was wrong and has been overturned by a higher judge. This cultural interpretation contrasts sharply with a theological one: that Jesus’ death was right and necessary and required by God ‘to take away the sins of the world.’”. (Quotes, Bruce Malina, see full article.)

From this perspective, our salvation was not in the suffering of Jesus prior to his death. That suffering, at the hands of cruel men, was evil and wrong. Our salvation is in placing our lives in Christ, heeding his words and following in his footsteps, being born anew from the kingdom of this age into the kingdom of God.

“Into thy hands I commit my spirit,” Jesus’ last words on the cross, are a call for vindication. He has been wrongly condemned to death and uses the words of the psalmist, who in a similar situation appealed to God for justice. In the resurrection, God intervenes, overturning the power of this world and asserting the righteousness of Christ.

We can almost hear in the resurrection the message of God at the Transfiguration (Luke 9:35) “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him.” For if we listen to and follow him, placing our lives in him, he who vindicated Jesus in the resurrection will also raise us up with him in the last day. Into your hands, Lord, we commit our spirits. Hear our plea, amen.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Into The Dark Night

We will not go into that dark night. That is certain. As it approaches, we will turn away, each at our own time and place. And Jesus will be left alone.

Preparing this morning to enter the dark night of betrayal tonight with our Tenebrae service. We do the service with the 13 candles and readings. After each reading (crowds turning against Jesus, disciples turning away, soldiers turning Jesus toward Golgatha, etc.) a candle is extinguished. When the candles, and sanctuary lights are all out, a loud harsh noise (done by a choir member hitting a sheet of metal with a hammer) signifies Jesus' death. No matter how often I sit though that service, or how well I'm prepared for it, that moment still constricts my heart.

Then a soloist sings as we sit in the dark, "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?" Truth is, we probably wouldn't have been. We'd have done the disappearing trick just like the disciples in the gospel passion narratives.

I was reminded in my study this morning how we easily excuse the disciples. They did not understand, the gospels say. They were afraid for their lives, we assert. They had too much to drink at the Passover meal, whatever. But he had told them repeatedly that he would go to Jerusalem to die. They may not have understood, or, they may have refused to listen.

We accept their humanity and failure to stand with Christ because we know our own weakness and failures. We easily excuse them because we know we need the favor in return.

I cannot promise, Lord, that my behavior will be any better than Peter, James or John. But you are the Lord, and I claim the gift you offer in your victory. You have mastered the darknest of nights, and you alone redeem the dark of our betrayals.

Monday, March 17, 2008

I Bind Myself to Thee Today

I bind unto myself today
The strong name of the Trinity
By invocation of the same
The Three in One and One in Three

- St. Patrick's Breastplate

And so, what is the day like, bound to God, as prisoners being transported are bound to one another? What is it like to maneuver through your appointments, your conversations and your decisions feeling another so close at hand? And what is it like to be so closely identified with the one to whom you're bound so that while you know you are still yourself, you also know you are not just yourself anymore? It is not so strange, the answer, for is it not like living the call of discipleship?

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger
- St. Patrick's Hymn


Saturday, March 15, 2008

A World Without Cool

Ever been enticed to keep up with the latest "cool" thing? Ever had a child worry about whether their clothes, or more critically, their presence at some event, would come across as "cool" or not? Of course you have. Ever had your church feel the pressure to imitate the latest "cool" event another church has? We live in an ever-changing world of "cool-ness," that keeps us unsettled, unsatisfied, unhappy, and always looking for what's out there. It's a climate perfect for those ready to market and sell us on the next best thing.

The other day I read Ariah Fine's blogpost This Is How It All Begins about Adbusters Magazine
and their "anti-cool" issue. His post shows an ad with the following quote:
“I want to live in a world where nothing is cool, where things actually are as they appear. That would be extraordinary. I want food and a living environment
that are not part of some suit’s strategic vision. Cool has betrayed all of us. I want reality.” - Jessica Masse, Maine, USA
I'm sure the reality Jessica wants is not the stuff of made-for-TV reality shows. But what is it? Is it the non-packaged, or marketed, authenticity of life? How can the church offer its authenticity in a commercialized world of "cool-ness?" And, more importantly, does the church remember how to offer the message of redemption in a world without cool?

The church was not designed for a “consumer” oriented world. Ever since we basically allowed ourselves to be defined as consumers, it has required an adaptation to make the relationships and nature of the church apply. Some churches have done well, finding ways to make trade-offs, and sometimes force-fitting the life of faith into the world of the market. They continually keep up with cool, and they have enjoyed acclaimed success for their efforts.

There's a large group of churches that are so turned-inward that they pay little heed to relating to the world. And then there are a few who circle up the wagons and see themselves as an alternative to the world. They define themselves by exclusiveness.

I think most, however, fall in between the extremes, not sure how much to adapt, or how much to compromise, and end up simply looking for something that “works.” They don't expect to lead the way in the church coolness factor, but they do like to show up at the party. So we try to relate to the world by keeping up with the latest jargon, incorporating the latest visuals and songs in worship, going for the trendiest materials from the publishing houses, and doing whatever else we can think of to show the world we're trying to reach that "we're players in the game (of coolness.)"

You think I jest? In just about any town you can find homes where the family chose to join a certain church because it's the coolest one in town. They like having the church's logo on their car and clothing, to show others they know how to be at the "right" place. Nothing wrong with them enjoying the cool events being offered, but you quickly get the feeling that church is just another piece in the family's/individual's "coolness" ensemble.

So, what would "church" look like in a world without "cool?" What would happen if we determined to relate to the world through service rather than trends? What if we put down the cool, and took up the cross?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

What's Happening at General Conference?

Took my daughter to get some medical tests today and took my Advance Daily Christian Advocate for inspiring reading while I waited. Wading through the petitions to General Conference is both a necessary evil and an encouraging exercise.

The difficulty comes in trying to understand what some petitions mean, and especially what the impact will be. The encouragement comes from realizing how many people have given thought and energy to try and and make our church more effecient, comprehensive, missional, or whatever. I may or may not agree what what they propose, but I delight to be in a church that opens the doors to hear anyone's petition.

For those not really familiar with what happens at General Conference, Richard Peck has an article posted at the UM Portal that does a great job explaining about the 1,560 petitions (legislative proposals) General Conference will consider. And if you want to know more, Peck also has an article called A General Conference Primer.

I will serve on the Higher Education and Ministry Legislative Committee which, according to Peck's article, won the honor of having the most petitions, 229. My daughter Kelsey will be on the Independent Commission Legislative Committee. I don't know how many petitions they have.

By the way, in an earlier post I asked prayer for Kelsey. As an update, the doctors believe she has Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritus. We still doing tests, and still learning about it, but the symptoms fit with what she's been going through. When I learn more I'll probably make a post about JRA. Of interest now is that with JRA she fatigues easily, which isn't ideal for school or for the long days of General Conference. Anyway, continued prayers for her would be appreciated.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Jay was right after all

A while back gavin wrote a post on the Methoblog on the General Conference rules restricting the use of computers and cell phones. I responded with a post of my own after Jay Voorhees suggested in a comment that the rules committee was in part attempting to prohibit "someone from controlling large blocks of votes electronically."

I stated I found it hard to believe that any group would attempt to do that, and was unsure even if it was possible, given the tight schedule of consent calendars and votes. Well, I must eat my words. Jay was right.

Today I opened my mail and here's a letter from James Heidinger of Good News and Tom Lambrecht Of Renewal and Reform Coalition. The letter asked me to send in my cell phone number because: " "We will have timely updates to share with you about legislation or information about special luncheons or other events."

They also ask for my email address, which I may send in, just to see how they plan on using it, and what the messages will be. Guess I'm not as prepared for this Gen. Conf. as I thought I was.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Unbelievable, Bush OK's Waterboarding

How can waterboarding not be called torture? And how can President Bush veto a bill that would prohibit it? The news yesterday evening surprised and angered me. You may say I am naive about our "war on terror," and you'd probably be right. But if you become like the enemy to defeat the enemy, then why fight the enemy? I read a couple of news reports, like CNN's, just to make sure I heard it right.

"The bill Congress sent me would take away one of the most valuable tools in the
war on terror," the president said in his weekly radio address taped for
broadcast Saturday. "So today I vetoed it." The bill provides guidelines for
intelligence activities for the year and includes the interrogation requirement.
It passed the House in December and the Senate last
month. -per the CBS News article, Bush Vetoes Bill Banning Torture

This past weekend we watched the movie Rendition, about a suspect sent secretly to Egypt for interrogation. The movie has a scene that depicts waterboarding. That will get your attention. On what moral grounds do we stand when we oppose terrorism and torture and yet condone this practice? I have no answers, just feeling to need to be another voice in the wilderness.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Holy Land Through Fresh Eyes

Our Bishop took several of our ministers who were ordained this past year, along with others who wanted to travel with them, on a basic Holy Land trip this past month. Our Board of Ministry helped with scholarships for those who were just ordained. I've always thought helping new pastors experience the land of the Bible is a great idea and am glad Bishop Taylor (and the Board) did this.

Somewhat as evidence of how such a trip can impact one's ministry is the blog put up by friends Brad and Megan Gray. Both were ordained last year and Brad once served as a pastor at Trinity with me. I don't know which one wrote the blog, of if both did, and I guess it really doesn't matter. But is it a good short capture of their trip that conveys excitement and emotion. I hope their blogging experience will inspire them to do more posts. Check their pilgrimage out here.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Team Methodist

At a meeting of the Clergy Orders for our Conference yesterday, the small group I was in talked about the many pressures that keep us from forming Covenant groups. We all admit such groups are helpful, even necessary, to living a life of ministry. Yet unending agendas, a need to be busy, distance and time factors, and personality and trust issues all conspire against making such groups a personal priority.

On reflection, I thought one way to describe the larger picture is that we don't have any sense of "Team Methodist." I realize the danger of using a sport's metaphor in a culture that basically worships sports of all types, but I think it works. We don't have a sense of being those "called out together" with a particular identity for a particular purpose.

A team is identified as a team. They wear the same uniform. We serve in a day when many churches, seeking to brand themselves in the church market, drop "United Methodist" from their signs, or bury it in the logo or text. Such churches see the success of community churches that have no denominational affiliation, and they read things like the recent Pew Institute report that shows interest/attendance in mainline churches still declining, so they take the uniform off.

A team works on developing a common strategy to achieve a shared goal. I played basketball. We drilled on particular plays and techniques to win basketball games. In the church, we find it hard to identify what our great variety of churches have in common. We acknowledge the overwhelming number of small membership churches we have, but what is the common strategy and goal of these churches. Honestly, in the communities here in the South, most UMC churches have little association with each other, hardly know each other, and would be hard pressed to identify goals they have in common. I wouldn't be surprised to find this"non-connectional" attitude true throughout the country.

Ministers are not the cause of this situation, but they are entwined in it. If the sense of "team" has disintegrated, why go to the trouble to know, pray with, support, or even built up other ministers? Too many feel as though they are in it for themselves, in their own "career path," responding to a personal call to ministry. No wonder District Superintendents get frustrated over the "optional" attitude many ministers take toward district gatherings - and no wonder the pastors are frustrated over district gatherings that achieve nothing. We are not a team when we gather, we are an aggregate of individual contractors.

At the risk of oversimplifying for an illustration, I look at the pastors who were in the prime of their ministries during the late 1960's (and the 1970's). Though many are now in retirement, they have always struck me as having a sense of cohesion with one another. Facing the social/political challenges of that period, such pastors formed a bond. They had a sense of "team" - identifying with one another as those called out to stand against structures of society. Those bonds continued through years of ministry.

The absence of a sense of "team Methodist," however, is caused by more factors than just whether the pastors cohere or not. And as long as we (churches and pastors alike) simply try to accommodate to the culture in which we live, we will find it nearly impossible to reclaim a shared sense of mission for which we give our lives.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

A Lenten Lament

We speak of preparation as though we intend to go somewhere.
We speak of journey as if we might move from where we are.
We know the language, and look for the signs, though
Not directional ones; only those comforting us with labels.

Cross-shapened ashes, luncheon meditations,
Dark night of rejection, and silent Saturday,
No longer point the way, or open the ways,
But nod in boredom to our customary presence.

Lent is what we do, for now (spirituality de jour);
Extra services to remember, and some denials, though few.
But the movement is hesitant, circular, and forgotten,
And we no more know ourselves, or God, than before.

Snatch from my breast the sequestered breath, and
Force me to rise up, gasping in the rarified air.
Make my movement both craving and delight.
Firm my resolve for hope to swallow my fear.

Take me into the bowels of lent, and release me,
To flounder against the cacophony of cares;
So I may crave your numinous grace
And rush headstrong to the crimson cross.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Saturday Photo Shoot

Saturday my two brothers came to Sumter for a photo excursion. They are much more experienced in the ways of photography than I am, but I grabbed my Luminex point and shoot and met them in the historic area of Statesburg, just outside Sumter.

We of course began with the Church of the Holy Cross, Episcopal, built in 1850 in the unusual pise de terre (rammed earth) method of contruction. It is closed right now, waiting on a law suit with a termite company to get settled so they can do repairs. Behind the church is the grave of Joel R. Poinsett. The historical marker identifies his grave, but doesn't mention he was ambassador to Mexico (1825-1829), and brought back a beautiful red flowered plant which later was named after him. What would Christmas be today without our poinsettia plants?
We stopped by an abandoned mine, that once extracted smooth stones for paving and landscaping. They left a lot of equipment behind to rust. Interesting but not so photogenic.

And so it was on to Horatio, SC to the store Tom wanted to visit, the oldest country store in S.C. Mrs. Carrie Lenoir is the 7th generation to operate the store (since 1808 the historical marker says). The present structure dates to 1878, is home to the Horatio Post Office, and basically sells RC colas and moon pies (as well as a few other snacks and vegetables). But the family has kept the shelves lined with old products which makes the place interesting.
Mrs. Lenior, in her 80's, is quite an active and engaging person. She kept my brother Houston intrigued with stories and pictures of famous persons visiting the store. And, of note, she used to drive the fire truck for the local volunteer fire department.

I took them to the small park that has the family grave site of Revolutionary War hero General Thomas Sumter, the "Gamecock," (who, it was said, wore a cock's feather in his uniform hat.) As you can see from the photo, the place looks pretty deserted and pitiful in my opinion. The marble memorial to Sumter is seen behind the little chapel, and his actual grave is hardly marked, immediately behind the chapel. The chapel houses the grave of the wife of Thomas Sumter, Jr., Nathalie Marie Louise Stephanie Beatrix de DeLage de Volude Sumter (1782-1841). As you can surmise from the name, she came from French nobility.

The final stop was at the High Hills of the Santee Baptist Church, organized in 1772. Aside from its early history, this church is famed as for ordaining in 1774 a young preacher named Richard Furman, for whom Furman University in Greenville, SC is named. Rev. Furman served the church for 13 years before accepting a call to a church in Charleston. Note in the interior shot, the slave balcony, which is accessed only by the door leading to separate stairs.
My brother Tom has a nice post about the trip on his Random Connections site, and much better photos. And except for Tom's cold slowing him down, it was a nice morning out with my brothers.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

In Like a Canine

Yesterday, this March came in like none other, at least for the Taylors. And it brought its own sermon: never make a critical decision in a weak moment, you will pay for it for a long, long time. In my weakened state from my daughter's illness, I said yes to a plea for a puppy from the SPCA. And so, to the chagrin of Pumpkin, our 13 year old miniature Dachshund we now add Cooper to our home.

Well, he is cute.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Vulnerable pro Deus

Watching your daughter spend a week lethargic and in pain, with no resolve in sight, brings dark thoughts to your mind. You think things you’d rather not think, and feel fears you’d deny in the light. And finally you admit, in anger, the vulnerability of life.

How much of our lives are lived either in the denial of our defenseless exposure, or in a strident attempt to diminish it? What safe-guards have been set in place to keep at bay the things that go bump in the night?

Consumer reports lead us to the best and safest brands, but someone forgot to report the lead coating the baby’s toy. Your “good hands” rating for safety on the road is no shield from the oncoming swerve of drunken hands. My good friend Carl, jogging for his health, died when a dead limb dealt a crushing blow upon his neck.

Larger barns are built to store the grain of a plentiful harvest. And the farmer’s wife says, “Soul, take your ease.” But will there be bread when the market downturns? A good resume and plenty of drive do not put food on the plate, when manufacturing crosses the seas. Successful salesman Ted showed me the court’s settlement check. Eighteen hundred dollars was what he got for his two hundred and sixty-two thousand, compounded by years of trust in the fraudulent fidelity.

All is vanity, says the preacher. God has turned a blind eye to fairness in life, and a deaf ear to cries for equity. The wealthy become wealthier on the backs of the poor, and those in the middle, believing they may one day break out of the cage, confound all calls for reform. There is no surety for the righteous, no reassurance for the steadfast, and no way to know whether the path leads up, or down, or ends, around the bend.

What is it we lack, better odds? Is it only a matter of time before the safety measures are safe? What is it we need? Better intelligence, or a boundary fence? High-tech armaments, or low-tech recycling? Maybe some business IOU’s, with a network of friends? Is it a compass, a purpose, or a meta-narrative that lures us in?

“The flu shot we advised you to take is un-effective against the new strain of influenza.” And in the fragile wait, who is surprised? “There’s no cause for the suspicious lump and yet it must be removed.” And amid the numbing pain, we still proclaim, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Only vulnerable before God will we fully admit, we really need a Savior.