Monday, December 24, 2007

Musings on Christmas Eve Day

Christmas Eve day. For most of my adult life it included frantic (okay sometimes it wasn’t frantic) preparation for multiple worship services, for Christmas day travels or meals, and all the last minute preparations I’d left till…well the last minute. There was the late night communion meditation to prepare. What do you say at 11:30 on Christmas Eve that will add meaning to the already wonderfully mysterious service? I love the late night communion service, where we are all mellowed by the activities of the day. Tired out, our defenses which keep the holy at bay, break down. God’s mystery and wonder slips in unannounced and unexpected to grace our gathering.

Since becoming a district superintendent I no longer have worship leadership responsibilities on Christmas Eve (or most other times). For the first time in my adult life I am free to travel and be with family or friends. Also for the first time I do not have a church home. As I reflect on those holy Christmas moments I recognize that most happen in the context of a community of faith where I know others and am known by others intimately. God breaks in most fully in my life through others. So while I attend services of worship celebrating the birth of our Savior, something will be missing for me. I will enjoy the time worshiping with my family. But I will miss the connection that comes from sharing tears, struggles, laughter and celebrations in a community of faith.

Tonight, folks will show up at your church who have not been there in a year. Some will come simply seeking a connection with their past or because it is a tradition. Some will come out of a longing for an experience of the holy, of God breaking into their midst and their lives. Still others will come because somewhere deep inside they long for the type of loving community the idea of church offers, even if it doesn’t always live it out.

I hope in the midst of this holy day you will find time to invite someone into the fellowship of your congregation. And I pray you will experience the holy moments which come with this day. Even if you read this after Christmas Eve (all three of you who read this blog) it isn’t too late to welcome the stranger, the guest, the visitor into your community of faith. For you have something mysterious, wonderful and holy to offer.

Blessed Christmas to you all.

Mike

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Tis the Season

Well the orgy of shopping, eating and spending has begun. Let me confess that I struggle with this time of year. It is not that I am a grinch (at least I don’t think so). I feel the tug toward indulgent spending (more like a push) coming from stores and institutions. Heck, one of my traditions is to go out with one of my sons on Black Friday to grab great deals (usually the computer type deals).

But where does it all end? When is enough stuff, enough stuff? Is there more to this “season” than shopping?

What if we in the church were willing to use this season to set us apart, counter to the prevailing culture (actually the prevailing religion of consumerism)? First, it would take brave souls to tackle Santa and gift giving. I know from personal experience that in many churches Santa is sacred. I think Santa is actually the perfect representation of a ‘god’ for our culture. Santa is one who encourages us to ask for “things”, particularly things for ourselves. We protect the belief that Santa is real by lying to our children. Movies show us miracles of caring and getting that Santa performs. (Those who know me, know I could go on and on and on about this…)

What if we gave up the presents and gave away the money we would have spent? If an entire church fellowship did this, think about the mission possibilities! How many mosquito nets would that buy for Africa? How many heifers would it purchase to feed hungry families for years to come? How many micro loans would it provide to help families work their way out of poverty? (For the answers look up : Nothing But Nets, Heifer Project, Kiva.org)

I wonder if we are willing to make these kind of changes. To use this season teach our children and grandchildren that Advent and Christmas is a time to share our wealth to improve the lives of others. Would we dare to show the world how followers of Jesus seek to live as disciples?

Now I know some will find these ideas disturbing, even insulting. Yet it seems to me it is time for the church to be different, to show our neighbors and communities our true values. To walk the walk of Jesus.

A couple of decades ago a campaign started by asking, “Who’s birthday is it anyway?” Well that is still a great question and a good place to start. In answering it are we willing to do something bold for Jesus.

Mike

Monday, November 12, 2007

Will We Get It? Part 2


847

847 leaders of the United Methodist Church (UMC) gathered last weekend for 2½ days of meeting together. (see prior posts for more about this.) Will it make a difference for the future of the UMC?

That is one of the questions. But first and foremost, will it make a difference in me? That is the fundamental question. Will I do my work differently? Will I view my superintending with different goals in mind? Will I live my discipleship in a more focused manner?

Why is my own response the first issue? There are several reasons. First, ultimately there is only one person I can change, me. I have the ability to adapt, grow, adjust, mature, and grow into the person God made me to be. This is my first responsibility.

Secondly, as I have learned about human systems, I’ve learned that when one person changes it affects the entire system. What I do truly makes a difference. So my changing will help change everything. (This is not unique to me, it is just as true for you!)

So maybe I am beginning to get it. I will in the next days and weeks seriously contemplate and strategize the ways I wish to change myself and my leadership. I will look for ways to empower the pastors and churches I serve. I will seek greater openness to God’s Spirit at work in our midst. When doubt and fear arrive, I will not run away, but turn to the one who has conquered the worst the world can throw at us.

So let me invite you to begin a conversation. (The “you” are the two or so people who read this blog.) What do you imagine as ways superintendents could better support, equip, and nurture change in your setting? If you could design the role of DS what would it look like? Would you do away with superintendents? Would you remake the role?

And if you have suggestion for this specific superintendent, lets hear them as well.

Help me, help all of us, to “get it!”

Mike

Blessings at 35,000 Feet

I am writing this from seat 28F on a 737 zipping through the airspace between Cincinnati and Boston. It is a beautiful day at 35,000 feet. Of course I expected to be traveling this route last night instead of this morning. We (my traveling companions and I) enjoyed a stay a the Marriot last night, complements of Delta Airlines.

Air travel helps me practice letting go of the illusion of control. It is almost always an adventure. I have no control over when a flight leaves, a computer crashes, or air traffic backs up. I can’t guarantee my arrival or departure time.

But I continue to learn from my traveling companions how to practice graciousness and friendliness. I’m learning to find a kind word for those who are serving me and my traveling needs. (Amazing how far a kind word can go.)

This morning I realize what I have that so many do not. I had a place to sleep last night, a meal (even if a 10:30 supper is not a normal part of my schedule) and knowledge that I would eventually get home. While Delta provided some of those things, if push came to shove, I could have provided them for myself. How many people do not know where they will sleep each night, or when they will get another meal? I am truly blessed.

There is a little ditty which goes; Count your blessing, count them one by one, Count your blessings, see what God has done…

When I remember to count my blessings, I cultivate gratitude in my heart. Gratitude for the blessings in my life and the One who blesses me.

Gratitude leads me to compassion for others who are not as blessed. Compassion leads me to acts of mercy. All lead me to God.

So here I am, 35,000 feet above the ground, saying thanks to my Maker for the blessings of this day.

I pray you find blessings in your day.

Mike

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Signs of Hope!

I’m at the gathering of extended cabinets from around the world. There are 847 church leaders meeting this weekend to worship, learn, share, and pray together. I’ve heard excellent speakers from around the world challenge us to reclaim our center and to embrace the United Methodist Way. Today we were challenged to begin change with ourselves.

The United Methodist Way is summarized by three general rules:

  1. Do no harm.
  2. Do good.
  3. Stay in love with God
I’ll unpack these later, but they are simple rules from our heritage which center and ground us as disciples of Jesus Christ.

I haven’t decided if we in leadership “get it.” But I hear more people asking good questions and willing to at least begin to change. There is much for me to think about. I hope to share more and reflect more later on.

I’ve enjoyed worship. Incredible singing and great preaching can do a lot for my soul.

Watch for more reflections in the coming days.

Grace & peace,

Mike

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Will We Get It?

Will We Get It?

This weekend United Methodist Cabinets will be gathered at Lake Junaluska, NC for a meeting titled: The United Methodist Way: A Convocation of Extended Cabinets. As I understand it the reason we are meeting is “To strengthen our diverse congregations through connectional leadership and to learn to adapt conference leadership roles to the 21st century.” (Here is a link to the resources we’ve used to prepare for the meeting; http://www.gbod.org/extendedcabinet)

I am interested to listen and learn from my colleagues from other conferences. How do they view the present situation of the UMC? What changes do they see necessary for the future of the church? What innovative ideas and approaches will be generated by this gathering? Ultimately will it make any difference.

During these two years of superintending I’ve spent a lot of time reading and listening to present day thinkers about best management practices, new ways to approach our changing situations, leadership, ministry etc. Out of this has come a growing conviction that change is not only necessary but possible.

Here are some of my thoughts about the needs and future directions of the UMC. They carry no official weight. They are not policy or polity. They are not even complete developed ideas. I reserve the right to change them at any time, as new information arises. So with all those disclaimers let me share:

  1. Everything begins at the local church level. Any significant change will happen one congregation at a time. Ministry and mission begins between two people in relationship with each other. So the appropriate focus for change is the local church.

  1. It is time to reconsider guaranteed appointments. I surprise myself with this idea. Guaranteed appointments have opened doors for persons who might have been pushed aside in ministry. I know this to be true for women in ministry. But the guarantee of employment has taken the drive out of some of our pastoral leaders. Once in the club (ordination and full membership) then the incentive to continue to learn, grow, adapt and change is diminished. Few pastors were trained to provide the type of innovative leadership churches need today. Almost all pastors need to be retrained and retooled. Guaranteed appointments is a disincentive to do this hard work.

I believe it is time for a change. For persons unwilling or unable to make the necessary changes to become effective pastors we need to offer a graceful way to help them discover new ways to live out their discipleship outside of pastoral leadership.

  1. I grieve our failure to continue nurturing our church members in their discipleship. We seem to believe that once confirmed or out of high school the work of disciple building is over. The result is a lot of church folk with arrested development as followers of Jesus. Disciple building is a life long process. It never ends. Remember we are the folks who believe that we are “going on to Christian perfection!”

I’ll share my rant about how we treat youth in the church in another blog, but let me just say, it is another area that needs significant change.

  1. We have to find ways to streamline the administration of the church at all levels so it can be nimble and able to respond rapidly to changing needs as well as new opportunities. This includes finding new ways to use information technology to share information and to reduce time spent on paper work.
  1. I would love to see the work of the district superintendent move away from a focus on administrative paperwork /report gathering and responding to complaints. I’d like to see more time and focus on assisting churches who want to grow and change.

Well, I invite you to comment, to add to the list.

I will try to blog next week about the gathering. Please keep the meeting and the extended cabinet in your prayers.

Grace & peace,

Mike

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

What Does the Church Have to Offer Patriot Fans?

For at least 40 years I have been a football fan. I am a one-team-at-a-time fan. During my formative years I followed the Pittsburgh Steelers (during the 1970’s). Those were great years to be a Steelers fan. I watched as the team grew into a powerhouse. During my Pittsburgh time I celebrated four Super Bowl wins. When I moved to Maine, in 1982 I transferred my loyalties to the New England Patriots. It took a little while, but once more I was able to follow this exciting team as they won three Super Bowls.

Why do I follow football (and baseball and basketball)? I’ve wondered about that. I spend hours watching different players as they play hard, improve and sometimes even mature into superstars. I’ve always admired those who give it their all. I especially like those who have to try harder because they are too short, too small, too slow or just do not fit the ideal model of a professional athlete. (It could be because I’ve always been most of those “toos” in my sporting activities.) I give my allegiance to a team. I try to stick with them through the joy of victory and the pain of defeat, through the ups and downs which come to every team.

So this last week I found myself hurt and disappointed when I learned my football team was cheating. Now before we go into all the rationalization about “everyone does whatever it takes” and “pro sports are about winning at all cost,” let me say I’m hurt. People I have admired have fallen in my eyes. They have cast doubt on a remarkable team and on the validity of my loyalty. So I am hurt.

What does my faith and my church have to say to all of this?

First, we all fall short. No one lives a perfect life. No one is immune to the pressures of fame and the fear of failure.

Secondly, what we do affects other. This cheating scandal does not merely affect the head coach. It splatters all the coaches, players and employees of the New England Patriots. We fans wear a bit of it as well. I am reminded that we are interconnected, one to the other. We do not live isolated lives. So when we sin others are hurt by our sin.

Thirdly, there is a place for repentance and forgiveness. This does not mean forgive and forget. Rather forgive and care enough to help see it does not happen again. To repent is to change, to turn around, to go a different way. Only time will tell if true repentance takes place. But, at its best the church is a place which offers both forgiveness and the possibility to change. True Christian community doesn’t simply let it go, but encourages and supports persons on the hard road to change.

Finally, trust is something which is earned. Following a betrayal it has to be re-earned. This takes time. Christian community is a place where we take the time to be committed to each other through the long process of forgiveness, repentance, change and renewal of trust.

On the grand scale of things, this incident in the life of a football team is not that important. After all it is only a game. But it reminds us of the importance of honesty, of maintaining trust, the power of sin to hurt far beyond the individual and the possibility for new life.

What does the church have to offer the Patriot fans? Certainly not a place where everyone is perfect and no one sins. But just maybe a place where we can heal together. At its best it offers a community who sticks by each other, honestly, lovingly helping each to grow into the person God has made them to be.

This week I am hurt and angry that the team I’ve given my loyalty has betrayed my trust. But I’m going to hang in and watch for signs of change. I bet many fans will do the same.

If a church or someone in the church has failed you, betrayed a trust, fallen short, I hope you will give it another chance. Seek out a community of faith which seeks to be faithful and loving to each other. It will be marked by truth telling, mutual accountability all shaped by compassion and love. They are out there. Such communities of faith are a gift from God. They are a gift for you.

Grace & peace,

Mike

Thursday, August 30, 2007

To Screen or Not to Screen: That is NOT the Question!

The United Methodist General Board of Discipleship maintains a worship resource page , http://www.gbod.org/worship with many wonderful and thought provoking resources. Recently in their “music” section, Dean McIntyre released a music musings titled: “To Screen or Not to Screen.” His article has sparked this rant, I mean these thoughts. The article is about the pros and cons of using projection screens in worship. Unfortunately, from the beginning the article seems destined to come down on the cons side. I invite you to read the article and decide for yourself. (You can find the article at www.gbod.org/worship/default.asp?act=reader&item_id=45224&loc_id=17,823).

I have serious problems with the article which I could address point by point, but will refrain in this blog. ( I invite both of you who read my blog to read the article and post what you think.). You see for me the question is not whether or not to use video projection but rather a deeper question; Are we willing to step out of the 1950s and create worship which speaks to most people today? That is the real question.

We live in a visual, video age. In 1950 only 9% of U.S. households owned TVs. Today over 98% own TVs. On average households watch over 8 hours of TV a day. It does not matter whether we think this is good or bad (that is a topic for another blog). Rather this is simply our reality. To ignore the use of projection, video and other forms of communication is to be irrelevant for a significant portion of our population.

For me the issue of projection or not projection is only the symptom of a greater problem; our failure to adapt to these changing times and to find ways to creatively use these new resources in worship and ministry. Adding projection to our worship only brings us up to the technology and reality of the 1980s (which is an improvement over our current 1950s practices). To completely ignore the use of this technology is to write off at least two generations of potential worshipers.

All of this illustrates the need for us to wrap our heads and hearts around change. We can no longer afford to pretend the changes in our world do not exist or will simply go away. They keep on happening and leave us farther behind.

I am not suggesting video projection is a fix for lousy worship. It is not. Done poorly it is a distraction and detriment to worship. But done well it enhances and enriches the worship experience.

By the way, in my experience projection does not simply appeal to youth and young adults. I hear older adults, particularly those with vision difficulties talk about how they can now see the words. I’ve seen adults who can not read music begin singing because they can follow the words. Persons new to the church can sing the songs and prayers “everybody knows” because the words are in front of them. (Remember we are rapidly approaching a time, if we are not already there, when the majority of people do not even know the Lord’s Prayer.)

I hope you will think about creative ways to respond to the changes in our world including the use of current technology to enhance the worship and ministry of the church.

Grace & peace,

Mike

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Homesick-- Camp—Community

I spent last week with 8,9 and 10 year old boys and girls at Camp Mechuwana as a counselor. It was a great time, though I am still recovering from my sleep deficit. This group of campers were much easier than prior years.

Each night I read to my cabin of boys “The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe” by C.S. Lewis. They enjoyed the story. Each day one of them would ask if I’d read to them again that night. Reading out loud is a powerful experience. In this age of video games, DVDs and television there is still room for a story read to a group of kids. I read by flashlight in a dark room so they were free to let their minds picture the entire story. It took me back to days when I read to my sons, perched on my lap, soaking in each word. We spent hours together like this. Time well spent.

I was privileged to walk the journey of homesickness with some of my campers. You may remember those days. The strangeness of a new place and the longing for the familiar which strikes in waves of sadness and tears. As I listened to my campers, I shared my own stories of being away from home and the techniques I used to combat my own homesickness. I was reminded of the intensity of feelings and how an understanding ear would make such a difference.

I wonder about our own homesickness. Do you ever feel that longing to be in a familiar place, a place where you are loved, a place where you are simply you? I feel it from time to time. Even though I am now two years in my new town and new home, I find myself longing for what was but is no longer my home.

Sometimes, I find myself wondering if there is any place of home for me? Sometimes it is as if there is no place I truly fit in.

I’ve read authors who suggest this is a part of our longing for the Kingdom yet to come, the new heaven and new earth. That could be, I don’t know. What I do know is it raises a longing in me for community. I think lost of folks long for true community, where others care for us, where we are accepted as we are, where there is commitment to love and sacrifice for one another. I’ve experienced that once in a church. I believe it is what the church is meant to be. It is one thing the church can offer our world. And perhaps that is why it is so disappointing when a church community is characterized by bitterness, prejudice, anger, selfishness, mistrust and strife. The loss of potential community feels so much greater then.

Maybe this is why the camp experience is so powerful and transformative. For a week we get to live in community as we hoped it would be. Even if it is short lived, it changes us.

So I’m a little tired this week. But it is a comforting tired, because for a week I was privileged to be a member of a camp community. I’m better for it. So are the kids.

Grace & peace,

Mike

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Car Dealers Do a Better Job!

Jan and I bought a car this Saturday. The purchase was the culmination of over a month of research, email conversations and planning. It has been a while since we purchased a car and much has changed since then. The biggest change is the internet. All of our research was done on the net. No more visiting lot after lot. No more subjecting ourselves to multiple salespersons playing the car purchase game. Instead, I reviewed the available cars from dealers in a 30 mile radius of our home without ever leaving my study. I entered my desired make, model, price, and mileage parameters and out came my selection. I read reviews of different dealerships from customers. All in all it was a good experience (not something I’ve often said about car buying.)

On Saturday night I tried to decide which church to attend for worship on Sunday. I selected a congregation and sought the most basic information, the time of the service. First, I searched the internet for a webpage and found a page which was two years out of date (even had the wrong pastor listed) which told me summer worship was at 9 AM. I called the church and the answering machine told me 10:30 AM. I checked the conference website which confirmed 9 AM. I looked up a listing in the local paper which offered 10 AM as the option of the week. It took a phone call to the church on Sunday morning to find the correct worship time.

If this was a unique experience I’d would not even mention it. But this is a common experience for me. As a district superintendent I have incentive to be persistent and stubborn. Usually I find out the correct information. Of course I have also arrived at a church to find out I am a half hour too late or an hour early.

But what if I were a visitor coming to your church for the first time? Well frankly, I probably would not even come. I’d chose some place with a current website and a clear time for worship.

At the dealership where we purchased our car one salesperson told me they are required to answer all emails within 3 business hours. This was my experience. Even emails sent late in the business day were almost always responded to within an hour. The information on their web pages were up to date and included times for business, contact information and directions.

Frankly, compared to most of our churches the dealerships do it better. They really want visitors to come to their showrooms. They try to make the showrooms hospitable with refreshments, play rooms for kids and more. Someone greeted us at the door and more than one person inquired if we were being helped.

Car dealers know that they exist for those outside their business. If no one new came to their business they would go out of business. When someone new walks through the door, they try to do everything in their power to make a sale. They are passionate about selling cars.

Golly-gee couldn’t we in the church have at least this much passion about the Good News of Jesus? Don’t we have something far more satisfying than cars to offer people? We have the life changing, transforming power of Christ which can make any life new, heal any hurt, give meaning to any life. We have a community of grace and love to offer them. Yet we won’t even bother to make sure they can easily find the time we worship together! (I won’t even go into how we welcome them.)

Some churches are doing a good job, a small few are doing an excellent job at this simple task of basic hospitality and welcome. Most are doing a poor job.

Right now car dealerships beat us, hands down at this very simple and basic task. Good for them, not so good for us.

By the way, when people ask, I will tell them about the good experience we had with this dealership. Visitors do the same thing with your church. This old adage is true. “If a customer has a bad experience they tell 20 people. If they have a good experience they will tell 2.

So what are visitors telling others about your church? How many never even make it to your doors?

Grace & peace,

Mike

Friday, June 22, 2007

It is Not Small versus Big

Every year, since I have been attending sessions of Annual Conferences (over 30 years now) I have heard some speech regarding how the small churches are not being treated fairly and the big churches have it so much better. Usually the topic has something to do with the cost of keeping a full time pastor. This year it struck me, perhaps for the first time (which shows how slow I am) that the very framing of the question misses the real issue.

Somehow most of us in the church have come to believe that the goal of smaller congregations is to have their “own” full time pastor. The sign of success and health became supporting a full time pastor. Tied to this belief is a second belief that if the church has a full time pastor then she or he will grow the church and take care of the ministry needs of the congregation.

Now as a district superintendent I have witnessed what happens when a church tries to support far more pastoral ministry than they can afford. The church ends up spending most of its time struggling to raise the needed dollars and less time on ministry, fellowship, evangelism and mission. When the pastor, sustained by these heroic efforts, does not provide the desired growth and stability, the congregation becomes disheartened, frustrated and angry. Often there is a sense of failure on the part of the congregation and the pastor. Sometimes it feels like we cast around for the perfect match of pastor and congregation which will make this formula work. This rarely happens because the formula is flawed.

I believe we need to look at this from a different angle. Our problem isn’t that the cost of supporting a pastor is too high. The truth is, at the current levels of financial support, a congregation needs a minimum of 120 persons in worship to support a full time pastor. We do not have enough people in most of our churches to support full time pastoral ministry. Our answer to the problem is not simply to shift ministry costs to other congregations. It is to change our understanding of what success means for a local church.

The model of the pastor as the person who does the ministry of the church simply does not work in most of our churches. In fact, I think it is harmful to the growth of disciples for Jesus Christ within our congregations. Rather than the church empowering one person to do its ministry, let the church, with the help of its pastoral leadership empower its members to be in ministry to the community, the world and each other.

This is a dramatic shift in our thought processes and our values. It recognizes our goal as making disciples for the transformation of the world, not growing congregations large enough to support full time pastors. It honors the ministry of all believers. It measures the health and vitality of a church by the lives changed not simply the pastors supported. It calls for a different focus by pastors as they become the leaders responsible to help equip, nurture and send out new and renewed disciples.

I hope to live long enough to witness the session of annual conference when small versus big is not even mentioned. I dream for a time when we wrestle how to deploy in ministry to the world an over abundance of enthusiastic, committed disciples of Jesus. I imagine at the same time we will struggle to figure out the best ways to use all the extra money we’ve receive as well.

Maybe I’m a dreamer. I do dream of that new heaven and new earth, the Kingdom of God Christ invites us to participate in now and into eternity.

Won’t you dream the dreams of God with me?

Mike

Do we get it yet?

I am finally getting around to some more reflections on the recent session of annual conference. There was much to celebrate, some of which I mentioned in the last blog. This time I want to share my unease. I was disturbed by our voting for delegates to General Conference, in particular the clergy votes. I guess I am na├»ve, but I really long for a voting process which is open to the movement of the Holy Spirit and not one dominated by lobbying groups. I do not intend to make disparaging remarks about any of the elected persons. After all, I was elected an alternate to the Jurisdictional conference. My concern is the way we went about it. I long for a day when voting is done free from the lobbying and organizing I witnessed this year. I wonder what our methods for insuring “our” candidates are chosen says about our trust in God.

Yes I was endorsed by an lobbying organization. No I was not consulted before the endorsement. It is not that I am opposed to the organization, but that I do not wish to be label as anything more than one who seeks to follow Christ and to be a faithful member of Christ’s body. More and more I find our labels like liberal, progressive, conservative, evangelical, pro-… to be of little value. I don’t fit into any one of those categories very well. I fit in most of them somewhat.

The elections are over. And so is this little rant. What I invite persons from every stripe to do is pray. Pray for each other. Pray for the church. Pray for those different than us. Seems to me the church needs it. I know we need it.

Will you join me in prayer for the church?

Mike

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Bleary Eyed at Conference

I’m not a marathon runner, but conference often feels that way. Fatigue sets in. But it is not a weariness of spirit. It is from a lack of sleep and long days.

I’m reminded of the community of which I am a part. A community which is diverse, compassionate, and generous. The singing is incredible. The laughter is contagious.

I’ve been surprised by times of tears. Must be getting older. I watch the ordination service, knowing the journey some of those new pastors have traveled and my eyes filled with tears. They are filled with such joy, such enthusiasm, such hope. I pray they hold onto it and build upon it.

I listened to the names called in the memorial service and recognized far to many. Lives lived so well. Friends who have gone on. Churches which are no more.

The preachers have moved me to hold onto hope, broaden my perspective, listen for new life coming to dry bones.

Most of all, I am reminded of this community of faith. Long time friendships renewed. New one formed. Acts of compassion. Words of welcome. Hugs of hope. This is what it is finally all about for me. To be in community, relationship with others. Even though we do not agree on many things, we are community. Community communing with the one God.

The mystery of the Trinity reminds me that the very nature of God is community. I have come to believe that community is an essential component of being a Christian.

So where do you find community? Where can you create Christian community?

More reflections later.

Bleary eyed but still awake,

Mike

Thursday, June 07, 2007

News from AC or I Should be Paying Attention

I'm at Annual Conference the rest of this week. For those of you who might be unfamiliar with our system, this is the annual gathering of New England United Methodists, with lay and clergy delegates. We worship, pray, discuss, report, learn, network, shoot the breeze during the next 3 days. This year we also elect delegates to national and regional quadrennial gatherings.

I come to conference with mixed feelings. It can be an interesting, exciting, inspiring time. It can also be numbingly boring. Most likely there we will have some of both.

During the week, I will try to blog, with some thoughts and reflections. For both of you who read my blog, I hope it offers something worth reading, or at least a way to waste 10 minutes of your day.

More to come.
Mike

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

We Just...

Lately I’ve been thinking about the phrase, often used in prayer. It goes; “God, we just ask…” “We just.” What does this phrase say about how we think of God or about prayer? “We just” sounds like it is something insignificant… But Mom, we just went down the street for a minute.” “I’ll just whip up something for supper.”

So what does it imply when we address the Supreme Being of the all existence, the Source of all life, the Holy One, and say; “We just…” It suggests a lack of seriousness, of respect. Seems to me prayer is a little more significant than “just” would imply. a

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not a big fan of long, elaborate prayers using language I barely understand. ( Maybe I’m not a fan of such prayers because I can’t create prayers like that or because they bore me.)

I like the idea that prayer is conversation with God, spending time with God. (I don’t believe we have to say anything to pray.) But this is not an insignificant activity! Spending time with the Creator of the universe seems pretty significant to me.

Or if I pray to Jesus, my friend, my brother, I still think it is deserving of the same respect I’d give to any other friend or family member. (“Gee I had nothing better to do so I thought I just spend a little time with you.” Somehow that just doesn’t do it for me.)

If I am praying for the healing of someone who is sick, do I want to say, ‘I just ask you to bring healing to ____” as if it really isn’t a big deal or that important. If I long for God to intervene then my prayer ought to reflect it. I can’t recall any of the Psalms saying “we just”. They speak with passion, energy and conviction.

Ok, I don’t want to make too much of this. But you get my drift. Don’t “just “ pray. Pray from the heart. Don’t “just” come into God’s presence, really be present with God.

Does it bother God? Some how I doubt it. But it says something about me when I “just” God. So I’m going to try to be conscious of what I say when I pray.

Just think about it, okay?

Grace & peace,

Mike

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Panera Ponderings

Panera Bread in South Portland is my office away from the office. They offer me coffee, free internet, a lively spot to meet folks and do work between meetings and meals. The place is set up to encourage folks to sit and visit (and of course eat.) The food is good, the coffee hot.

Now I don’t receive a kick back from them, but I must say I like their model. I am impressed by the folks who end up here. There are always lots of young adults. Some on computers, some studying, lots just talking with friends. There is a far representation of middle aged folks as well. Almost every time I am here I see people conducting business meetings and interviews.

I don’t know much about their business model, but they have found a niche for a successful business. According to their website there are now more than 1020 Panera Bread bakery-cafes in 38 states.

So what can we learn from Panera:

1. Atmosphere matters. The atmosphere we create makes a difference. It is true for restaurants, meeting places and for churches. What is the atmosphere in your church? If I came into your church would I feel welcomed or excluded? Would my first impression be of a place long past its prime or a place hopping with life, energy and vibrancy?

2. Know your niche. What is your niche in the community? Who is it that you wish to reach? Does the atmosphere of your church appeal to the folks you wish to reach? For instance if you want to reach people with young children is your nursery the nicest room in the building?

3. Offer something others do not. I eat and work at Panera because of the free wireless internet and the no hassle attitude. What does your church offer that others do not. It might be a program, class, service, unique mission opportunity, etc.

4. Don’t be afraid to change and rearrange. I’ve watch this Panera remodel, rearrange their seating and reconfigure their process for ordering food. How often do we change the way we do things in the church? Is the attitude in your church “Let’s give it a try and see what happens!” or “We’ve never done it that way before!”?

5. Be genuine. Don’t claim to be what you are not. If you are not a welcoming place for visitors, don’t claim it. If you don’t really value children or are afraid they will mess up your building, don’t claim to be child friendly. False advertising creates hard feelings.

Of course, the church is not a store, restaurant or bakery. But we can learn from those places and how they reach out to persons. Pay attention to the atmosphere, advertising, service of the establishments you frequent. See what you can apply from those places to your own situation. I bet it will make for interesting conversations.

So for now, I’m sitting in Panera, drinking coffee, writing and checking my email.

Blessings,

Mike

Saturday, March 24, 2007

10 Ways to Keep Your Church Hidden

My son Ben pointed me to a blog the other day titled Church Redone. The author identifies himself as “Joshua, a twenty-something guy on the east coast’ who is about figuring out what it means to follow Jesus. In a recent blog, “10 Ways to Keep Me from Discovering Church”, he identified 10 ways many churches (maybe your own) makes it hard for young adults (and just about everyone else) from connecting to a church. . The link is; http://www.churchredone.com/ where you can find all the details. Here is the list:

  1. Don’t have a website .
  2. Be completely inactive in the community
  3. Don’t answer your phone
  4. Allow misinformation :
  5. Lack clear signage :
  6. Have insufficient parking/seating
  7. Ignore Visitors :
  8. Respond half-heartedly to inquiries
  9. Be evasive about your beliefs
  10. Lie to me

I hope you will take Joshua’s experience to heart. How can you help other discover your church. Many of our congregation are wonderful but simply do not reach out to those outside their doors. Long gone are the days when most people will simply walk in off the street. Long gone are the days (if they ever were) when “everyone” knows the time of services, that worship changes times in the summer, even which door to enter to get into the sanctuary.

With Easter around the corner, how will you be more welcoming to those seeking a faith connection?

Blessings,

Mike

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Practice, Practice, Practice

This week I skipped town for a continuing education program in Richmond, VA. The program is titled “Extraordinary Leadership Training.” Now I signed up, not because I am or will ever become an extraordinary leader, but I’d like to become a better leader. The three year program will teach me about Bowen Family Systems Theory. The theory challenges me to work on myself and my family connections. I can sum it up briefly and inadequately as “learn, learn, learn, practice, practice, practice.

The program has taught me that leaders offer non-anxious presence and by doing so reduces the anxiety of the entire group. Little did I know how much I’d get to practice on my trip home. Fortunately for me, my colleague traveling with me, is well versed in offering a non-anxious presence.

Let me simply say, we arrived at the Richmond airport over 2 hours before our scheduled departure. We were flying to Cincinnati, in order to fly to Boston. (I could write a series of blogs regarding the special logic of air travel including simple ideas such as: to travel east you must first go west and it is cheaper to fly round trip than one way. I believe air travel log makes up a entirely separate branch of philosophy, logic, mathematics and physics!)

Upon arrival I went to a handy check-in kiosk only to discover it could not find our reservation. So we stood in line. After 20-30 minutes of non movement in the line, the long line, security personnel asked everyone on our side of the terminal to move to the other side of the building. We waited for probably 45 minutes before we were allowed to return. Two hours later we had missed our flight, while waiting in line but had lots of practice of non-anxious presence.

After enjoying a night (well really about 2/3rds of a night) at a local motel, compliments of Delta Airlines our saga continued. I’ll spare the rest of the details, but it proved to be a wonderful opportunity practicing staying calm, focused and finding humor in the entire experience.

So where am I headed with my ramblings? How often do we approach the challenges of life as an opportunity to practice what we believe? Do you see each day as a chance to become a little better person? I’d like to say I see each day this way, but one of my principles for living is to tell the truth. Still, I’d like to approach each day as a learning opportunity and each challenge as a chance to grow a little more.

The same is true for our faith. How do saints become such wonderful, solid, grounded persons who seem to exude the love of God? They practice. Their lives and ours are made up of individual opportunities to live what we truly believe. We become a sum of those opportunities.

This week I’m going to practice, practice, practice being a follower of Jesus Christ. How about you?

Grace & peace,

Mike

Friday, February 09, 2007

Miracle Stories

The other day as I attended a worship service in one of the churches I serve,
a guest preacher, shared about the miracle of healing in her life.I have seen dramatic healing, so I have no doubt such miracles occur. But as I reflected, I realized how limited our view of miracles can be. The miraculous, life giving power of God is not limited to the dramatic removal of a dreaded disease. Nor in my experience is the removal or the continuation of such a disease determined by the amount of faith of the victim and/or their loved ones. Too often, there seems to be an equation, “faith x prayer = healing.” The theory goes, if you just have enough faith then the healing happens. I call it the vending machine approach. You put enough currency into the slot, pull the selected lever and out pops the miracle.

I have lots of problems with this approach. First, it suggests we have some control over God. That is, if we just insert the correct spiritual/faith currency then God will have to do what we want. My life experience tells me it doesn’t work this way. God is God. We are not. Seems to me this is important to remember.

Secondly, the corollary to the first belief implies if there is no miracle, as we sought, then the problem is ours. We simply do not have enough faith. If we’d had enough faith then God would have healed the loved one, performed that miracle. So it is our fault. This belief suffers from the same faulty reasoning as the first because it still places us in control of God. It has the added feature of assessing blame and assigning guilt to the person who sought the miracle.

Finally, for me, this approach to God’s power forgets the reality of mystery. Miracles and healing are a mystery. Mystery is a critical part of faith. Life is mysterious. We do not have it all figured out and that is a good thing.

Before I leave these musings, let me say that I believe in miracles. I’ve seen dramatic healing of body, mind, spirit and relationships which clearly involved the mysterious life giving power of God. I have experienced them in my own life and participated in them in my ministry.

Where do you find the miraculous in your life?

Where have you seen the incredible, life giving, healing power of God at work?

Are you open to mystery?

Grace & peace,

Mike

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Reflections on 50

Today I reached a sort of milestone in my life, I turned 50. I am not sure what to feel or think about such an event, but a few things come to mind.

-Fifty is not as old as I used to think. I remember when 50 seemed ancient, but not any more. It does take a little adjustment in my mental clock, but just minor. Sure my body has changed, but it has been changing all of my life.

-After fifty years of living I think I’ve learned a few things: like how to make a good pizza, change the oil in the car, identify an albino chickadee (there is one which visits the feeder daily), how to say “thank you”, the simple pleasure of a walk in the woods, how to laugh and not take myself too seriously.

-After fifty years you’d think I’d learn not to: always look at my stomach in the mirror, get intimidated by angry people, over eat, worry about things I have no control over, leave piles of papers all over my office.

-Some other things I’ve learned; beauty is truly from the inside out, God is faithful and trustworthy, some kinds of grief always hurt, there is no greater treasure than the love of another, love gets better with practice and time, forgiveness is a gift which keeps on giving, gossip is also a gift which keeps on giving, a loving family is priceless…

So here I am, 50, over half way in this life. Today I know 50 is a great age to be (but so is 51, 61…). I feel so blessed.

I hope this day will be a blessing for you.

Grace & peace,

Mike

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Why I am a Christian, part 2

In an earlier post I offered a challenge to create a response to the question; "Why am I a Christian?" of 100 words or less and could be understood by someone who was not familiar with church, Christian faith and all the special language of faith.

Here is my most recent attempt to answer the question in 100 words or less. As I reflect on the true core of my faith it has come down to this expression.

What do you think?

I invite you to give the exercise a shot as well.

So here it is. Why I am a Christian.

I am a Christian because of Love. The Bible says: “God is love.” I have experienced the love of God in Jesus Christ in my own life. It has come when I was most unlovable and least deserving of love, as followers of Jesus loved me anyway.. Love inspires, challenges and motivates me to love others, particularly those who I would rather not love. I am continually changed by this love and I see it change others. It is in the church I experience and participated in this kind of radical loving. I choose to follow Christ because of love.

Grace & peace,
Mike



Friday, January 19, 2007

Why are you a Christian? -100 Words or Less

Can you do it? In 100 words or less can you state why you are a Christian?

To make it even more challenging, write it as if you are sharing your statement with someone who is not a Christian. So you can’t use unfamiliar theological or church terms. It has to make sense to someone with little or no experience with the church or Christian faith.

It also must be from the heart and not preachy. This is not why someone else should be a Christian, but why you are a follower of Jesus.

When you think you’ve completed the statement, share it with someone else and ask them to critique it. Then go back and perfect it.

If you’d like to share your final version with us, post it as a comment to my blog for others to see.

Finally, I challenge you to memorize it, so when the opportunity arises you can share it with someone who is not a Christian.

Right now, my statement is down to 300 words, so I’ve a ways to go before it is ready to be posted.

Will you take the challenge?

Grace & Peace,

Mike