My Life in Boxes

What is your life? You are a midst that appears for a little while and then vanishes. (James 4:14)

I hate moving.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am a United Methodist clergy, sold out to the theology of itinerancy. Plus I love arriving at new destinations along with an anticipated excitement that is born out of new beginnings. I enjoy the adventure of discovering fresh starts in unfamiliar surroundings. I even love meeting new people and developing new relationships. I especially appreciate the new perspective moving to a new location gives. But I hate, I loathe, I detest, the mechanics of physically moving. In general, my attitude toward moving embodies the old adage, “Everyone wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.”

Every time I start packing boxes for an upcoming move I hear George Carlin’s monologue on “Stuff” playing in my head. He espouses about how our homes are “just piles of stuff with a cover on it.” Carlin’s foul-mouth theology reduces the meaning of our very existence to finding a place to put our stuff, and if we get bigger homes, then we have to get more stuff to fill it up. Moving convicts me of my identity as a stuff-collector.

I know District Superintendents do not usually move their residence on the district to which they are appointed, but what better way to experience the full expanse of this 3,000 square mile James River District? After three moves on this district, a rationale can be made that these moves tie in with the new District Superintendent’s job description as a “Mission Strategist.” A more practical argument can also be made that moving enables me to be so much more compassionate and empathetic to the pastors who have made the big move this year. Ok, if those two don’t work for you, how about, it is harder to hit a moving target!

So, as I box up all my stuff to move from one pile to another, I also began to unpack (pun intended) questions such as: How much of this stuff do I really need? How much of my identity is contained in these cardboard and plastic vessels? Why do I keep moving the same stuff around? What is worth keeping and what needs to go?

My life in boxes is a vivid reminder that I am just passing through this world. There are some essential items that I pack last and open first in a new home. For me, it is paintings, pictures, and books. These are old friends that surround me with the comforting message that I’m home, wherever I am. However, even these sentimental trinkets can accumulate over the years and begin to weigh me down.

There is a story of a young priest who visited his monastic mentor. When he got to his friend’s one-room apartment he was surprised at the spartan accommodations. The room contained only a small bed, table, chair, and cupboard. He looked at his host and asked, “Where’s all your stuff?” His friend returned the question, “Where’s yours?” Somewhat surprised, the young cleric answered, “I have all I need. I’m just passing through.” The monk responded, “So am I.”

Moving actually helps me downsize my collection of stuff that is no longer needed. No doubt it is easier to stay put, build bigger barns or rent storage buildings for our collections, but I am thinking that our children and grandchildren will be pretty perturbed at having to go through all the crap we leave behind. Much of my stuff would be better utilized at thrift stores, shelters, clothes closets, and yes, even the dump. If I had to reduce my life to what I can put in a box, it better be pretty valuable stuff.

I listen to a lot of people who are worried about where we are moving as a denomination. However, perhaps the greater problem is that we are not moving at all. We have comfortably maintained the status quo with our mission being cluttered by the sentimental trinkets of yesteryear. I walk through a lot of churches with rooms full of memorabilia and monuments to past glories. Sunday school classes once bustling with children are now storage closets of stuff from a bygone era. Church walls are littered with yellowing artwork and full of pictures of people wearing funny clothes. They have collected a lot of stuff that produces some comfort in their decline, but no longer make disciples of Jesus Christ.

I get it. In case you didn’t hear, I hate moving! It’s painful, it’s stressful, and it usually involves downsizing. Just when I get set in my ways and stuck in my comfortable routines, it’s time to load up the wagon! So I get it when churches balk at the notion of having to change and move in new directions. But with every frustrating move, there is a corresponding memory. Packing my life in boxes and loading them up the truck is very stressful. My wife and I may even disagree on what stuff needs to go with us (I’ll not go any further with that thought). So I really do get it when churches disagree on what needs to change and what needs to stay the same.

However, even these disputes can be healed by the memory of how God has guided us in the past and delivered us to a new unknown future. In the midst of chaos of a move we have to focus hard to recall a promise of our Savior’s presence – always. It is that very memory that renews our realization of how God is not only moving us, but moving with us on the paths of righteousness, besides still waters, and through dark valleys.

When we gather as the Body of Christ it is this memory that calls us to move forward. We resist (because who loves moving?), but if we are careful to discern and listen, God will continue to lead us beyond ourselves on yet another exciting adventure. When the Holy Spirit comes, you’ve just got to move. Your feet, your hands, your hearts, and even your minds have just got to move forward. The same Spirit will move us to clean out those storerooms of the past and start filling them with new ideas, ministries and possibilities.

I am still unpacking boxes – literally and figuratively. I’ve got the important stuff with me already. God’s grace, my faith, my wife (who still loves me very much), my dog, Leo, and yes, even some sentimental pictures and practical books. But I didn’t have to move Jesus with me because he was already there!

Although I do not know where we are moving as a denomination, my prayer and heart’s desire is simply to discern where God is going, and then catch a ride.

I do believe it is time to get out of the box.

And the best of all, God is with us!

A New Thing!

See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland. (Isaiah 43:19)

I drove away from Hampton after Annual Conference with with a renewed sense of energy and hope for the people called “Methodist” in Virginia. Those in attendance may have had different reactions to the spirited movement, as well as enthusiasm of our new Bishop, but I think all would agree that something new is about to happen in Virginia, and I say, “It’s about time!”

I don’t know exactly what this new thing will be, but I for one am ready for it, and I am ready to lead the James River District to be open to the Holy Spirit to make disciples in every possible way.

Here are just a few of the new ways in which we are seeking to make disciples of Jesus Christ this year:

  1. This Annual Conference approved and blessed the new Wesley Foundation at Virginia State University in Ettrick. This is the first Wesley Foundation at one of the state’s historically African American universities. This is also a bigger partnership with Ettrick United Methodist Church seeking to bring new energy and growth to a congregation open to the Holy Spirit. Pastors Bob Lamb and Delano Douglas are working together on this adventure.
  2. A James River District Task Force has begun looking a new faith community in Windsor, Virginia, where there are no United Methodist churches. The new pastor of Grace Memorial UMC in Sedley, Will Sloan, has been appointed to initiate a ministry in a new venue (such as a coffee house) for those with questions about the Christian faith.
  3. The newly formed Prince George Cooperative Parish (Blandford, Gary’s, Salem) was created on our district to experiment and explore new ways for our churches to work together to share the Good News. Michael and Debbie Baugham will be the pastors.
  4. The James River District is beginning something new in Petersburg with the assignment of Alexander Davis to work with Pastor Tom Lester to begin a new worship experience at Washington Street UMC for those recently released from prison as well as those in recovery groups.
  5. Instead of 60+ Charge Conference, we will have 8 new Camp Meetings around the district this October to celebrate ministries, and oh yes, conduct some Charge Conference business. The focus will be Isaiah 43:19 and how each of our churches can be transformed into intentional disciple-making machines!
  6. Not to be left out, my wife and I have itinerated for the third time on the district (that’s got to be a new for a DS). We will be living in Newsoms on the southside, where Mary Alice will be the newly appointed pastor to the Newsoms Charge. I will have a southern office, plus I will be traveling more around the district.

And there’s more to come! To paraphrase Isaiah, Can you see it as it begins to spring forth? If not, hang in there, be patient and let me see it for you. The future of our denomination remains uncertain, and I am praying for the important work of the “Commission on a Way Forward.” Will we be able to continue “walking loosely” together or will God lead us to move along different paths? I haven’t a clue, but what is certain is the promise of our Lord to be with us always. What is certain is God’s glorious future. So, no matter what happens, I believe God will be doing “A New Thing,” and I not only want to be there when it happens, I want to be a part of it!

Seeking a new spirit,

Rob 

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:26)

P.S. So to prepare for all this newness, I am going to…well, I am going to leave you for a little while. During the months of August and September, I am going to do a new thing and take a renewal leave. The James River District will be well monitored by Tish Borden and Jim O’Quinn, plus I will have three District Superintendents on call if needed. So if you need to meet or speak with me before then, please do so by July 20th. Also, please be in prayer as I step away to prepare my soul for all God is about to do and through the people called Methodists on the James River District.

Why a Woman Shouldn’t Preach (Now that I have your attention….)

This year and last we have had several churches on the James River District welcome their very first female pastor. Whereas the ordination of women is more commonly accepted and most will be warmly welcomed there are still some people who struggle to accept this reality. It may be due to a cultural or a theological bias, or it may be just one of those, ” we’ve never done it that way before” kind of things. All should know that the United Methodist Church has been ordaining women since 1956 and lay women were always an important part of John Wesley’s (not to mention Jesus’), ministry. So, I thought I’d share a few biblical insights which I pray may be helpful to those who still have questions.

First, you will want to look up Ephesians 5:21-23 and 1 Timothy 2:11-12 for the two most familiar passages on the role of women in the early church. In short, they tell us that you wives (you know who you are) should submit to your husbands and that no woman should have authority over a man.

Like real estate, an important rule in biblical interpretation is location, location, location! To understand how God is speaking through the writer it is important to know the context of the passage as located in its cultural-historical setting, and Paul was definitely a product of his time and culture. In Paul’s’ time women were little more than property. This was true in both Greek and Hebrew cultures. Marriages were business transactions and daughters could be sold. No rights – period. Paul knew that in this culture no self-respecting Greek or Jew would listen to a woman, and for Paul the only thing that mattered would be for the Word of God to be heard. Whereas Paul had his ideas on proper decorum (covered heads and all), he never says that women cannot pray or prophesy. In fact it is our brother Paul who argues for equality in marriage, the equal dependence of male and female on each other, and the right of women to participate in worship.

Why, by first century standards, Paul was an outright liberal! In Corinth he made provisions for women to prophesy. In Romans he sent greetings to his friend, Phoebe, a deacon. In his missionary journey he works with several women, specifically Euodia and Priscilla. Paul even refers to a female apostle (yes, apostle), Junia in Romans 16:7. For you scholars, Junia has been interpreted in the masculine (Junias) by the patriarchal church, but the oldest texts we have always read the feminine. At the heart of Paul’s desire was to become like those he was trying to reach, “Though I am free, I make myself a slave…to win as many as possible. To the Jews I become a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became one under the law…to those not under the law I became like one not having the law…so as to win those not under the law. To the weak I became weak…” (1 Cor. 9:19-22). You get the picture.

But this thing with women is really all Jesus’ fault. He seemed bent on breaking all the old rules and went so far as actually associating publically with women (a real Old Testament no, no). He even bent down so low as to hang out with prostitutes and Samaritans. Maybe it was because it was a prophetess named Anna who gave thanks to God when Mary and Joseph brought their baby to the Temple to be blessed (Luke 2). And as I recall the Easter story, it was three women to be first to witness the resurrection, while the guys slept in, and it was a woman, Mary Magdalene, who gave the first Easter message to the disciples that began with, “I have seen the Lord! (John 20:18).”

And if that’s not enough biblical citations….

In Acts 21, Philip is reported to have 4 daughters who prophesied (that’s preaching). And in Acts 2, Luke quotes the prophet Joel on the day of Pentecost when he says, “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy…” So here we are in the 21st century and women can actually vote and everything. Do you really think if Paul were here today he would even worry about what the people of the 1st century believed about gender? Or do you think he would be just as sensitive to the roles defined by contemporary society and do whatever was necessary to preach the very same message of Christ in a very different cultural context? I believe the last thing Paul would want for us today would be to make his words about social roles an absolute for all time. In fact, to apply Paul’s principle of doing whatever it takes to preach Christ it would be just as big a sin not to allow a women to preach because they share a more equal status in contemporary culture, serve in more positions of authority and therefore would be listened to. Paul was just a man of his time trying to get the gospel across to the people of his time in a way they would hear it in his time.

Sometimes Paul changed his mind about things (study his view on the second coming) and sometimes he just admitted he was stating his opinion (see 1 Cor. 7:12) and sometimes Paul was just (I’m going to get letters here), wrong! He did seem to think slavery was OK in his day, and we are pretty much in agreement that is not an acceptable practice today – right?

Perhaps it is Paul who says it best in Galatians 3:28: There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

 

So why should a woman not preach? The same reason a man should not preach – because they have not been called to do so.  But if God does call you, whether you are male, female, Greek, Jew, slave, free, etc. and you don’t preach, well then woe be to thee!

 

For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! 1 Cor. 9:16

 

Rob

Is Your Church Real?

I know this sounds like a silly question because you probably have been there recently – at least I hope you have. Your five senses give testimony to the reality of the church building’s physical structure. You can see it, touch it, hear the people (or creaky floors), and even smell and taste the goodness of the Lord on Communion Sundays. But is it real?

The question came to my mind as the Cabinet was discussing the approval of starting an online church. Needless to say, it was a lively and theologically invigorating debate about the nature and identifying characteristics of a church. A tangential thought began to formulate in my mind about what makes a church (a.k.a. The Body of Christ), real. We all know the church is not a building for God as much as a people of God, but beyond our five senses what tells us that we are living, breathing models of the kingdom of God?

So, is your church real?

According to Merriam–Webster, “real” is defined as, “actually happening, and not imaginary.” By that account, we must be real. We actually meet and actually worship and actually break bread along with all the other functions and traditions that identify us as church. However…

In this age of virtual realities the lines between reality and perception have become quite blurred. Virtual Reality is defined as, “being close to being something without actually being it.” We go through the motions every Sunday, but is Christ’s presence actually being experienced in our words and in our practice? If so, do we actually leave any different than we when came? In other words, are we close to being church without actually being it?

In the move, The Matrix, that great philosopher, Morpheus went a long way in helping to dismantle what was left of my 20th century brain. He explains to Neo, “If real is defined by our senses, then real is nothing more than electrical impulses interpreted by our brains.” He follows this by asking, “Can we trust our senses?” Thus, what we define as real can be an illusion. I hated that movie.

In our Cabinet discussion, I was questioning whether a church that existed primarily in electronic form could truly be a church. Besides, how much have we read lately about how social media has produced more loneliness and anxiety among our population? If social media only produces the illusion of intimacy and creates more social isolation, wouldn’t an online community be counter-productive in creating a healthy spiritual family formed around relationships with God and neighbor? Can we be sacramental while being so disconnected? I was quite impressed with my astute insights.

Alas, my righteous reasoning all fell back into my theological lap as I’m pretty sure I heard God say to me, “Really? These are your concerns? What about all those “real” churches stuck in another reality altogether? How are you helping them becoming agents of God’s mission once again? Luther used the new technology of the printing press and Wesley went outside the church walls to field preaching. So what? You are fretting over using a new media to reach new people when so many are struggling, afraid and confused because they no longer know how to navigate in your so called post Christian world” (I will not go into more detail about what happened next but it did involve much repenting).

So when is a church real?

Maybe a place to start is asking if church is where we can become real before God. Can we be honest enough to confess our sins and seek to be transformed into the likeness of Christ? Can we disagree on divisive issues and still love one another? Perhaps it is when we become agents of the same reconciliation that we received from God, we become real to others. Besides, it makes sense that if we are to be the real Body of Christ in the world today, we will do all the things Jesus’ earthly body did when he walked upon the earth, (e.g. being full of compassion, welcoming, feeding, caring, loving, forgiving, healing, etc.).

I believe those outside our walls are skeptically asking, “Are you guys for real? Do you really believe Jesus is alive?” An article I was reading on church growth stated that the reason most visitors will return to a church is that they felt the people in worship acted as they believed Jesus was alive. When we gather with a sense of joy and expectancy that God might really show up, it shows! When we truly welcome as Christ welcomes us, it shows! If perception is reality then how are we being perceived by those watching us?

According to John’s Gospel (Chap. 20), Thomas missed Easter. He was absent that Sunday when the resurrected Jesus first appeared. He demanded proof Jesus was alive by touching the wounds on his hands and side, which Jesus obliged a week later. Likewise, perhaps people will know our church is real not by our buildings or even by our great traditions, but by our wounds; our sacrifice; our service; our love. You can debate any doctrine or argue any social principal you want, but it’s hard to dispute unconditional love.

A great definition of what it means to be real comes from a wonderful theological masterpiece by Margery Williams Bianco, entitled, The Velveteen Rabbit. At one point the stuffed bunny asks the wise skin horse, “What is real?”

‘Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse, ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’

‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit. 

‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’

‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’ 

‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.’

Is your church real? Be patient, remain calm, keep focused and keep loving. It doesn’t happen all at once.

Blessings,                                                                                                                                 Rob

The Message of the Cross

Isn’t it interesting that of all the symbols which represent world religions we get a cross? Jews get a star, Muslims get a star plus a crescent moon, but all we get is a cross (I’m thinking Charlie Brown and getting a rock for Halloween). A cross doesn’t point to an image of the grandeur of the natural world, in fact, it’s not natural at all. A symbol of death, torture, humiliation and derision just doesn’t seem a proper representation of the glory of our God.

No wonder the apostle Paul says the message of the cross is foolishness to both those cultured Greeks and pious Jews, and our message of a crucified Christ is downright scandalous to both religious and secular powers alike (1 Cor. 1:18-31).

I’m often reminded of a quote by George Macleod on where Jesus died. “The cross must be raised again at the center of the marketplace as well as on the steeple of the church. I am claiming that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves; on the town garbage heap, at a crossroads so cosmopolitan that they had to write his title in Hebrew, Latin and Greek. At the kind of place where cynics talk smut, and thieves curse, and soldiers gamble, because that is where he died, and that is what he died about, and that is where church ought to be and what church should be about.

The cross means we have a God who gets down and dirty. A God who muddies the divine, gets beaten up and bleeds because we (as sinful as we are) matter that much. We have a God who doesn’t view us from distance but who comes, listens, hears our cries – especially in the most painful alienated times of our lives.

Think about it, an incarnate god is scandalous enough, but that this incarnate god would become vulnerable enough to die to restore all of creation is a radical notion. That the Lord of all creation would become subject to creation and that a tortured Christ would love his torturers is beyond all reason or human wisdom. Yet, it’s our story.

Since we are observing the 500th year of the Reformation I’ve been reading up on Martin Luther. He referred to the cross as “God’s backside.”  In his “Theology of the Cross” he states, “If God can use the greatest of evil for our greatest good then all evil is utterly subverted for God.” So if God can take the greatest evil and turn it into good, how much more can God take all the lesser evils that we deal with daily and that litter human history? (Rom 8:28).

Luther sees that in the failure and the death of Christ, human history has been reversed. Before Christ, creation was moving towards death but because of Calvary it is now moving toward life. It is the cross, not the empty tomb, which has changed the course of history from moving toward death to moving towards new life. Easter is just the evidence.

The cross changes our vision to see people the way God sees people. According to Paul, it is the cross that keeps us focused on our call to be agents of the message of reconciliation. Because Christ died for us we must now live for Christ (2 Cor. 5:11-20).

The cross represents the furious love of God (G.K. Chesterton), and how desperately God desires to reach us all and to calling us to reach others. Jesus uttered the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” from the cross so you and I will never have to. Perhaps that is why Paul reminds both Corinthians and Methodists alike should consider our call in the shadow of the cross (see 1 Cor. 1 again).

Whatever your theory of atonement may be (mine has evolved over the years) what I know is that I cannot survey the cross and think mediocrity, or status quo, or same ol’, same ol’. If God is so sold out completely to reconciling the world to God, then I’d better be sold out as well.

I survey the cross and consider how foolish it is to turn the other cheek, love those who hate you and even forgive those who hurt you, or someone you love. I survey the wondrous cross and get a glimpse of how much God really does love all, even those the world considers to be nothing (Paul’s words). I survey the cross and stand convicted of the many times I have insisted on my agenda over God’s agenda of reconciliation.

As you move thought the solemnness of today’s “Good” Friday, I know we readying for Resurrection Sunday. But, don’t move too fast. Tonight and tomorrow I invite you to slow down and consider your call in the shadow of the cross. This is where it begins. This is where history changed from a world moving from death toward life – towards Resurrection.

As we pray for the way forward and upcoming tensions, the future of our denomination may be uncertain. But no matter which way we move as a church the cross still stands. Your call has not changed and the power of the cross will not be voided. After all, it’s not your call anyway – it’s God’s.

Blessings….                                                                                                                             Rob

What is Your Katrina?

 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28

 “Every church must find its Katrina.”

These words were spoken by the Rev. Lekisha Reed at the recent Black Church Convocation I attended in Atlanta. The context of her remarks were born out of her frustration in pastoring an unmotivated and lethargic congregation in Louisiana until Hurricane Katrina delivered a devastating visit to their community. The supportive and overwhelming response by the church and the community brought revival and new life as they came together and rediscovered God’s purpose.

Rev. Reed’s words came to mind on a Friday night as I sat in the sanctuary of Waverly United Methodist Church to observe the one year anniversary of the tornado that ripped through our small town, taking three beautiful lives. On February 24, 2016 a violent column of air ripped a nine-mile path without passion or prejudice, yet it also seemed to rip open other wounds that divided our community. On February 24, 2017, it was apparent that something had changed.

Trenika Springfield shares a message of hope after losing three family members in the February 24, 2016 tornado.

Trenika Springfield shares a message of hope after losing three family members in the February 24, 2016 tornado.

The worship service was a celebration of how both the community and the church responded to a crisis. Romans 8:28 came to mind as we witnessed how God brought so much good out of so much pain. The testimonies of support, help and love were especially evident as Trineka Springfield, who lost her son, brother and fiancé to the storm, stood and read the scriptures for the service. Perhaps the biggest miracle of all was the racially diverse congregation that worshipped as one body.

Sometimes our “Katrina” finds us, catches us by surprise and the choice to respond is clear. In fact, it’s usually in great disasters, like Hurricane Katrina or 911, that we become the people we are supposed to be all the time. However, other times we must be more intentional about finding our Katrina. There is so much pain and devastated lives in all our communities. The question is how well we are listening to that pain. Katrinas can come disguised as racism, poverty, or any form of injustice. Whether the disaster is natural or human-made the church is called to be the presence of Jesus in the midst of the storm.

Waverly United Methodist Church on February 24, 2017

Members of the community come together for worship as one body at the Waverly United Methodist Church on February 24, 2017.

More and more I believe that changing the course of decline in our churches has a lot to do with finding our Katrinas and re-engaging our communities. Not just offering handouts, but partnerships that develop lasting relationships and therefore, lasting changes in people’s lives. When we re-engage our communities, we rediscover how God has each of us in a particular place for a particular purpose. If the church is be the literal body of Christ (you see, I do take some things literally), we must be incarnational in the places we are planted. We must be the “word made flesh” and dwell among them.

Waverly found its Katrina. It wasn’t just a killer tornado, as much as the racism and division that has plagued and polarized our community. A storm brought us closer together and last Friday night I thought I caught a glimpse of a fresh vision offering hope. In that moment in time there was no more “them” and “us,” there was only “US!”

Where is the “Katrina” in your neighborhood?

By the way, Trineka Springfield has volunteered to open her new home that we are refurbishing to begin a new “House Church” for those who have been disenfranchised by the church. And the joy-filled hits just keep on coming!