Patriotism in Church

bible-american-flag1There was a time when I was a volunteer firefighter. Sometime after I joined with Stonewall Fire and Rescue, I was having a conversation with the chief, at the time it was a man named Jimmy Andrews, and he told me something that I have continued to remember even since I have moved on from being a firefighter. Jimmy said that when he first became a firefighter he heard someone say that the following should be one’s main priorities (and in this order): God, country, family, the fire department, and everything else. Someone else once told me to always make sure that I “keep the Main Thing the main thing.” The takeaway from both of these bits of wisdom is that God should always be the number one priority over all else in our lives, period. When we worship we should always make sure we remember that we are participants in a service for an audience of one: God. We are to worship him and no one or nothing else.

We especially need to remember to keep the Main Thing the main thing when we gather to worship. When we worship we should always make sure we remember that we are participants in a service for an audience of one: God. We are to worship him and no one or nothing else. Now, that should be obvious but I feel like we can sometimes get carried away with celebrating other things to the point that it becomes idolatry. In other words, we forget to keep the Main Thing the main thing.

I’m proud of my country and I love the fact that we, as Americans, have a lot of freedom that we tend to take for granted. We are able to speak our minds, able to gather in worship, able to choose our elected officials and pursue our lives as we see fit. We can come and go as we please without a government official checking our “papers” every few miles. These are things we should be thankful and I feel that it’s appropriate for us to give thanks to God for these freedoms and for our country. Having a flag in the sanctuary is OK. I even like belting out “God Bless America” on Sundays around the patriotic holidays. These things are fine and, so long as they are done properly, I believe they are acceptable to God. But we do have to be careful not to cross a line and make our worship activities more about Lady Liberty, Uncle Sam, and Old Glory than about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

A few days ago I read an account of last Sunday’s worship service at First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. I have to be very honest: Reading about this service – and watching some of it – made me very uncomfortable and I can’t honestly say that I would have wanted to be a participant in it. The author points out that the worship service was much more about American and very little about God.

The fact that there was a red, white, and blue hued cross made me cringe.

To me, this is a major problem that, unfortunately, seems to be an issue that is becoming more and more prevalent in churches in the United States. This does not seem confined to any particular denomination or type of church but more and more American Christians are equating their faith with their patriotism. This is nothing short of idolatry. In celebrating our country, we must be very careful to make sure that we do not place our loyalty to our homeland equal to or even greater than our loyalty to God. Our love for anything (or anyone) should not be equal to or greater than our love for God.

In scripture, we are reminded that we are to place nothing – absolutely nothing – above God. When God told the Israelites, “You must not have any other god but me” (Exodus 20:3 NLT) he wasn’t just talking about a statue of Buddha or the like. An idol can be anything that we are willing to worship or otherwise place above God. This includes patriotism. I want to emphasize that it is perfectly alright to be thankful for our country and to celebrate that blessing but we must be careful to make sure that we do not do so at the expense of our loyalty to God.

We must keep the Main Thing the main thing.

When a celebration of anything overshadows God in a worship service, the line between acceptable and unacceptable has not only been crossed, it has been ignored altogether. It’s also worth noting that in many countries such celebrations are virtually unheard of in Christian worship. I look back on the Wesleyan Pilgrimage I set out on last summer and out of all the churches I visited in England – Methodist or Anglican – I can not recall one that had a Union Jack anywhere on or in the building.

All I’m saying is that we must be careful to make sure that we do not cross a line that should not be crossed.

Inevitably, someone is likely going to accuse me of not being a patriot or of condemning those who do acknowledge patriotic holidays during worship. That could not be farther from the truth. Sing a patriotic song recognize the military, say a prayer of thanks for our freedom (we will be doing all of these things at Shiloh this Sunday). I am not against these things. I am against a worship service not being centered on God and centered on other things, be it a nation, a celebrity, or anything else that is not God. These thoughts – which are mine and mine only – are only intended to serve as food for thought as to what boundaries should be set.

I will close with the words of the author of the article I linked above, as his concerns are also mine.

What would a Christian from another country say? Would they recognize their place in this church?

What about those for whom this has not been such a great country? What about those who still bear the stripes callously inflicted upon their ancestors’ backs?

What about those who don’t claim the Christian faith? Would they come away from such a celebration understanding anything about the gospel of Christ, and hear its call on their lives?

What would happen if Jesus showed up in the flesh? Would we recognize him as our guest of honor? Would we even recognize him at all? (emphasis his)

I don’t think so.

Ladies and gentlemen, something has gone desperately wrong.

God, forgive us.

And may it be so, Lord. Amen.

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We Don’t Get to Choose Who Receives Compassion

compassionIf you didn’t know, I’m a former paramedic. During my time on the ambulance, I responded to my share of overdose calls and I also expressed by share of frustration over them. Part of the reason was that I was simply following the example of my peers – I was expected to deride and offhandedly insult people who had overdosed so that’s what I did. One day I realized how wrong that attitude was when I responded to an overdose call and had to administer the drug Narcan. The house I responded to was where the patient lived with her husband and two young children. The husband expressed to me that he had been trying to get her to seek help for addiction but that so far his efforts were ignored by her. While I was working on his wife, I remember him saying “I just hope she gets help before it’s too late.” This with the backdrop of two young children who had to witness their mother almost die right in front of them because addiction had sunk its sharp teeth into her was used by God to convict me of my attitude and to change my heart.

EMS responders have a moral and an ethical (and when on duty legal) to render the best care possible to all regardless of who they are, what they look like, where they live, or the choices they made. None of the matters. EMTs and paramedics practice medicine and are not supposed to base their care on the circumstances of the patient. If someone calls for help, EMS is supposed to respond and is supposed to render the best possible care they are able, period, full stop. For the most part, in spite of some who feel that only certain patients deserve the best care (these providers have no business in EMS and should be stripped of their patches, but that’s another rant), EMS responders give excellent care and indeed save lives.

So imagine my shock, disappointment, and anger when I read about an elected official who wants EMS providers to pick and choose who deserves to live simply because of their poor choices.

Dan Picard (hopefully no relation to Jean-Luc) is a city councilman in Middletown, Ohio and wants EMS units to stop responding to calls for help involving opioid overdoses (story). He says that these calls are too expensive and that the city can not afford it. Mr. Picard is also in favor of issuing a court summons to overdose patients and requiring them to perform community service to compensate the city for saving his/her life. Here’s what Mr. Picard said he wants to do:

I want to send a message to the world that you don’t want to come to Middletown to overdose because someone might not come with Narcan and save your life. We need to put a fear about overdosing in Middletown.

That statement drips with something but compassion is not that with which it is dripping.

The councilman wants to punish people for seeking help for a condition which could very easily kill them (the fact that they took the drug is irrelevant). This plan is illegal, immoral, and unethical but let’s say it was implemented. The city would have a much larger problem: A sudden influx of overdose deaths because people are afraid to call for help for fear of being branded a criminal. I feel that would have a much worse effect on their budget than administering a bunch of Narcan (in addition to the moral, legal, and ethical considerations). Addiction is a disease (this is not up for debate – medical science proves this) and should be treated as a disease, not as a criminal offense.

For Christians, there are other issues to consider.

Whether we are talking about the medical field or anything else, we don’t get to pick and choose to whom we will show compassion and mercy. For Christians, compassion is supposed to be our way of life. Compassion is what Christians are supposed to be known for! From the very beginning, God was setting the example of showing compassion. We read in Genesis of the fall of humanity when Adam and Eve ate the fruit that God told them not to eat. He could have killed them where they stood but instead of showed compassion on them by making them animal skins to cover their newly discovered nudity.

Throughout scripture, we see other examples of compassionate action and instruction that as we have shown compassion we should show compassion. We read the words of Paul: “Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12 NLT). We also see an account in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus happened upon some blind men who cried out to him for their sight. This was his response: “Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes. Immediately they received their sight and followed him” (Matthew 20:34 NIV).

While we don’t have to be Jesus, we are called to be like Jesus (Ephesians 5:1-2). Jesus did not pick and choose to whom he showed mercy and compassion when they were crying out. He freely showed compassion. If we are Christians, this is part of our calling. We do not get to pick and choose to whom we show compassion. We are called to be compassionate to the entire world.

I have no idea what, if any, faith Mr. Picard claims but I feel that he would do himself and his citizens well to follow the example of Jesus rather than the example of a group of politicians who do not believe in showing mercy to the poor and marginalized.

We all would.

More LLP Conversation

25806_picture2If you look down the main page, you will see that my previous post was one where I proposed some ideas for reforms on how Licensed Local Pastors are viewed, utilized, and treated in the United Methodist Church. I went to bed thinking that, as usual, relatively no one would notice my musings or care. Oh boy, I was wrong. The last thing I was expecting was for the post to receive well over 2,000 views (and counting), and several comments. A couple of days ago I found out that the post had been shared to a Licensed Local Pastors group on Facebook and there was a good bit of conversation happening there as well. I have also been contacted by a few people who want to discuss ways we can work together to find a way forward for Licensed Local Pastors.

Sharing this news is not to brag but rather to show my appreciation for the fact that a conversation has begun and that people are taking notice. One person shared with me that their bishop made the statement that LLPs should have a say in constitutional amendments and be able to vote for JC and GC delegates. The DS I serve under in Kentucky had this to say in a tweet to me:

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For the record, I completely agree with Rev. Williams. LLPs who are making the effort to participate in the connection should be allowed to have more of a say in how the connection is governed. Clearly, this is a conversation that has needed to take place and may have more support for change than many – including myself – thought.

The comments I saw were overall positive. There were some who say that I didn’t go far enough in my proposal because it did not call for full equity. Frankly, full equity (whereby LLPs and Elders are truly treated as equals in all ways) was not what I was going for. I began to realize that I needed to clarify some things that I had said and positions that I hold. It is that which I will try to do right now.

  • Let me say this plainly and clearly: I am not de-emphasizing ordination. Quite the opposite. Recall that I intend to pursue ordination as an Elder myself. The callings for LLPs and Elders overlap in many ways but there are also distinctions in each of their callings which I feel should be preserved. Elders are appointed to a congregation but they are avowed for life and are submitting to itineracy. LLPs typically are not subject to itineracy (though in cases like Mississippi most full-time LLPs and some part-time LLPs are often part of that system, mainly out of necessity), LLPs and their license is not truly a permanent form of clergy association. Having said that, LLPs are nonetheless clergy and are nonetheless members of the United Methodist Church. As such, LLPs should be given the same voting rights as their other clergy colleagues and the laity to which they minister. LLPs should also be allowed to have a vote in matters of licensing, continuation of candidacy, and other matters that are not directly dealing with ordination in the clergy session. LLPs are clergy and should be given voice and vote.
  • Let me also say this plainly and clearly: I am not de-emphasizing seminary education. How in the world anyone could think I was doing this is beyond me as I am a student at Asbury Theological Seminary. I do feel that regardless of whether one wants to pursue COS or seminary they ought to be able to complete their studies completely online. However, this should be done in consultation with one’s DS and/or DCOM and BoOM. One of the concerns raised by a colleague was that the spiritual formation aspect of education may be neglected by allowing one to complete their studies online. The candidate ought to be expected to participate in covanent groups and the like and should be held accountable for this. One’s participation in such groups should be taken into account when their annual consultation takes place.
  • I am not calling for full equity of LLPs and Elders. Going back to what I said above, the calling of an Elder is different from that of an LLP in several ways. I am not advocating for and am not in favor of LLPs serving as district superintendents and bishops. Such ministry is outside the purview of the LLP and should not even be considered as a possibility. I’m aware that there are some who will not agree with my stance on this but so be it. Such is simply not the role of an LLP.
  • I meant exactly what I called for actual enforcement of the current standards for LLPs. LLPs who refuse to make adequate progress on their education within the prescribed timeframe, who refuse to participate in continuing education, who preach doctrine and practices contrary to that of the UMC, or who otherwise are not in-line with what is already expected of UMC clergy per the Book of Discipline should be discontinued, period, full stop (and for the record, I feel the same about Elders).

Here’s the reality: The UMC already heavily relies on LLPs. LLPs already outnumber Elders in several annual conferences (including Kentucky). This is a trend that appears to be increasing in spite of young clergy and other initiatives by annual conferences and the denomination at large. I do not feel that Elders will completely go away, rather that there just will not be as many. As we race toward the future, the reality is that many of the current full-time appointments will likely become part-time appointments sooner rather than later.

The trend continues to be that pastors will more and more be bi-vocational. Given current UMC structure, Elders are not even allowed to serve part time/bi-vocational appointments without approval. What I’m saying is that the make-up of clergy within the UMC is changing and is only going to continue to do so.

The UMC may choose to bury its collective head in the sand about some issues but it can not continue to ignore this one. This needs to be addressed and it needs to be addressed at the 2020 General Conference.

I want to encourage anyone who wishes to discuss this further to please reach out to me via email or social media. I would love to discuss this more and I will gladly work with anyone to reform the way LLPs are utilized and recognized within the UMC.

An Ignored Injustice Within the UMC

cross-and-flame-color-1058x1818If you follow my social media, you may know that I have just completed the 2017 edition of what I have dubbed the “Tour de Annual Conference,” where I attend sessions of the Mississippi and Kentucky annual conferences. I feel that since Mississippi is giving me financial aid for seminary it’s vital that I continue to participate in the life of that conference. Likewise, as I am serving in Kentucky I am there to represent my congregation and to participate in the conference which is allowing me to serve.

Just as other annual conferences have done/will do, Mississippi and Kentucky took up the proposed constitutional amendments that General Conference passed for affirmation or defeat by the annual conferences. Both Bishop James Swanson (Mississippi) and Bishop Leonard Fairley (Kentucky) issued a reminder that while the ministry of licensed local pastors is important, they are not allowed to vote on these amendments. I do believe that their words were sincere but it was also a reminder of a major injustice that has been allowed to take place in the United Methodist Church that has been mostly ignored.

In a nutshell, licensed local pastors are not treated as equals.

Currently, I am a licensed local pastor (LLP). I became licensed during the 2013 session of the Mississippi Annual Conference, the last class of new licensees to be part of Mississippi’s Ordering of Ministry service (the explanation is that LLPs are not actually licensed until they receive an appointment, so now they are recognized and presented their licenses once appointments are set). I affirm this vital part of ministry because I am doing it now, but I do intend to pursue ordination after I complete seminary.

For various reasons, some LLPs – either by calling or their life circumstances – choose to remain as LLPs for their ministry careers. In order to do this. LLPs are required to complete the prescribed Course of Study (which takes several years) and to participate in continuing education. Under our current polity, LLPs are not ordained and can only perform the duties of an Elder within the parameters of their appointment. Elders are always Elders but one is only an LLP as long as they are under appointment. No appointment, no license. In that vein, LLPs are also not guaranteed an appointment.

Most of the LLPs I have had the pleasure to know are committed to their church. While some, like me, are not cradle Methodists, LLPs are no less committed to their church and have invested much time and energy into becoming better pastors and in serving their congregations well. Most participate in the life of their annual conference and districts.

And yet, LLPs are not allowed to vote on constitutional amendments or to serve as delegates to General and Jurisdictional Conference.

Increasingly, the United Methodist Church is having to rely more and more on LLPs in order to ensure that as many congregations as possible have a pastor, lest we return to the circuit rider model where a pastor may oversee many churches at once, often serving the sacraments and preaching at each congregation once a quarter and utilizing lay preachers to fill in the gaps. The numbers from the Lewis Center tell the story. Here’s a quote from an article that United Methodist News Service ran about the rise of LLPs that uses numbers from GCFA and the Lewis Center:

The denomination’s General Council on Finance and Administration reports that from 2010 to 2015, the number of ordained elders and provisional member elders serving churches dropped from 15,806 to 14,614.

Though the denomination was shrinking in the United States, local pastors appointed to churches climbed from 6,193 to 7,569 in that time. Both full-time and part-time local pastor numbers grew, with the latter growing faster.

The Rev. Lovett Weems, director of the Lewis Center, has long followed United Methodist clergy trends. He notes that in 1990, elders outnumbered local pastors 5 to 1. That ratio is roughly 2 to 1 now, and drops further when looking just at those in church appointments.

Conferences vary widely in clergy makeup, but the West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Oklahoma Indian Missionary and Red Bird Missionary conferences had more local pastors than elders serving churches as of summer 2015, according to GCFA. Some other conferences, such as Upper New York, East Ohio, North Alabama and Missouri, are close, and still others acknowledge they are highly dependent on this growing category of clergy.

In other words, the ranks of the ordained are shrinking and the ranks of LLPs are growing. It seems fair to speculate that this trend is not going to change anytime soon.

Other research which has been widely publicized indicates that the numbers of bi-vocational pastors are going to rise to the point that there will come a day where one who is truly in full-time pastoral ministry will be limited only to the largest of congregations.

There are all sorts of reasons why one would choose not to attend seminary but one is certainly the cost (even with financial aid, students often come out of seminary with a heavy load of debt). There also has to be consideration given to the number of people who are coming into pastoral ministry as second or even third career persons.

All of this is to say that the UMC must change the way it treats LLPs as the church’s reliance on LLPs increases. This is not to say that ordination does not still have a place (remember, I plan to pursue ordination) but we must start treating LLPs as equals. Currently, the Book of Discipline indicates that LLPs do not have a vote on constitutional amendments, can not vote for or serve as delegates to General and Jurisdictional conferences, and there is also virtually nothing that an LLP can vote on in the clergy executive session to which they are amenable to.

It should be noted that lay delegates to the annual conference have full voice and vote on constitutional amendments, lay delegates to GC and JC, and other matters not related to ordination and clergy connection. The LLP who potentially serves their congregation does not. If for no other reason than the equalization of clergy and lay representation, this issue needs to be addressed.

I also note that there is a disconnect between how LLPs are treated by leadership and the ordained clergy. I have not personally experienced this but I have heard from many LLPs that they feel very disconnected from the conference due to events and other matters seemingly geared more toward the ordained clergy. Some LLPs do not even feel obligated to participate in district and conference events or even Course of Study due to the perception that they are viewed as second class or that the leadership does not care about them. I have to acknowledge that this is sometimes due to the LLP choosing not to participate in the life of the connection but I also do not doubt that some have been outright mistreated. Conference and district leadership must begin to take LLPs seriously and to hold them accountable.

So I’ve given my thoughts on this topic long enough so now I would like to propose some changes that I would like to see made. I do not have all the answers. I also do not know how some of this would be implemented, but others do and I hope that they will be willing to take some of this on.

  • LLPs must be held accountable so that they finish their educational requirements, take continuing education, and participate in the life of the larger connection. With greater respect and responsibility comes greater accountability. This is probably one of the biggest issues with LLPs at this time. I know for a fact that there are LLPs who have been continued for many years and have made little to even no progress in Course of Study and do not attend anything dealing with the conference or district. LLPs must be connectional and must be willing to submit to fulfilling their educational requirements of they want to be treated as equals.
  • If an LLP refuses to abide by these standards, they should be discontinued. There is no reason to keep someone in an appointment when they refuse to be held to the standard simply for the sake of having a warm body. This does not serve the church or the Kingdom. LLPs who refuse to pursue their education, who refuse to participate in the connection, or who are found to have doctrine and practices that are contrary to that of the United Methodist Church should be removed. To do otherwise is unacceptable.
  • LLPs who have completed either Course of Study or seminary (some with seminary education choose to remain LLPs) should be given full voice and vote in the clergy session (except on matters directly dealing with granting probationary status or the ordination of Elders and Deacons), be allowed to vote on constitutional amendments, to vote for and be eligible to be elected as delegates to General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference. With the number of LLPs rising, it simply does not make sense for LLPs to not have representation.
  • Upon the recommendation of the LLP’s DCOM and approval of the Clergy Session, an LLP who is making satisfactory progress on their education should be allowed to vote for delegates to General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference (but not allowed to serve as delegates) and to vote on constitutional amendments. Again, a LLP who is serving and following the standards and rules should not be deprived of their voice and vote on matters that will impact them. This is not fair and, frankly, does not make sense.
  • Course of Study should be offered with the traditional classroom method along with the option to complete CoS online. This would give more flexibility for LLPs to complete Course of Study faster and in a timeframe and method which would be more conducive to their schedule. This is with bi-vocational pastors in mind but all LLPs would be able to potentially complete Couse of Study faster.
  • Those who pursue seminary should be allowed to complete their Master of Divinity degrees entirely online. Currently, one can complete 2/3 of work online with the remaining 1/3 being obtained in residential classes (often as intensives which meet for a week or two on campus). With modern technology, there is absolutely no reason why one should not be able to complete seminary online. The ability to complete the degree online should not be a replacement for the traditional classroom model but should be allowed to be an option for those who do wish to pursue a seminary education. Not only would this be a benefit to one who wishes to remain an LLP but would also be wonderful for those who wish to pursue ordination.

Licensed Local Pastors are vital to the ministry of the United Methodist Church. Licensed Local Pastors provide vital ministry to small rural churches, at least one megachurch in Texas, and in congregations in between. If current trends hold, LLPs will outnumber Elders at some point. It’s time for LLPs to be treated as equals but also to be held to the same standards of participation and sound doctrine as their ordained brothers and sisters. This injustice in the UMC has been ignored for far too long. It’s time for this to be made right.

And if others won’t work toward it, someday when I’m able… I will.

#StillUM

StillUMThis week I’m attending this year’s session of the Mississippi Annual Conference. I feel that since they are paying for part of my seminary education, I should continue to participate in the life of my home annual conference with my presence, even now when I don’t have voice or vote on the plenary floor. I have thoroughly enjoyed connecting with several friends and witnessing the business side of the church in action. I know many people who don’t enjoy this part of being a United Methodist but I actually look forward to it. I will even get another dose of the fun next week when I represent Shiloh at the session of the Kentucky Annual Conference in Bowling Green.

The practice in Mississippi for as long as I have been part of the Annual Conference has been to deal with matters pertaining to church closures on the final day, but instead, they made this one of the first items of business. As has been extensively covered in Methodist media, two congregations – The Orchard and Getwell – reached agreements to leave the  Mississippi Annual Conference. These disassociations have been very controversial so apparently, the decision was made to go ahead and deal with these official closures.

While sitting in the gallery, I heard several passionate speeches about the situation and the closing of churches in general. By far, the best speech was one given by Rev. Chris McAlily whose father, Bishop Bill McAlily, was the founding pastor of Getwell. The closure of churches is always painful but, as Chris stated, this is different because we were not dealing with the death of congregations. Instead, we were finalizing a divorce.

I am very disappointed that these congregations chose to leave. Both congregations cited the human sexuality issue as a “distraction” to their ministry and, therefore, decided that leaving was their best course of action. May God bless their ministries. These are still brothers and sisters in Christ and I wish them nothing but the best. I remain disappointed and, to a degree, angry over this situation. I still, however, hope their ministries are fruitful and that God does great things through them.

But I maintain that, now, leaving is not the best course of action.

There may come a time when I and many others may have to discern whether remaining part of the United Methodist Church or if going elsewhere is in the best interest of my calling that God has given to me. Now is not that time. I remain hopeful that we can figure out some way to remain together so that the word “united” in United Methodist Church is not merely decoration or lip service. God has me at this table, I am attending a seminary that produces more United Methodist ordained clergy than any of the 13 official seminaries of the UMC, I am serving in a United Methodist congregation, and I intend to remain in the UMC until I feel that the time has come for me to go. But again I say, now is not that time.

My hope is that I am not alone.

That is why my profile picture on my Twitter and Facebook pages are the image at the beginning of this post. I made this image as a way of saying that I am still a UM and will remain so for the foreseeable future. This is also a declaration that I will continue to pray for the United Methodist Church and I remain committed to its mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Do you feel the same way? I invite you to join this mini-movement and declare that you are a proud United Methodist and that you are not going anyway. Our first obligation and loyalty should absolutely be to God but if you are a United Methodist clergyperson or layperson, God has us here because this is where he wants us to work for him. If you feel the way I do, save the picture and use it on your social media. Use the hashtag #StillUM when making posts.

For those of us who are in the UMC, God has us planted here. Let’s bloom.

#StillUM

Worship is Active Work, Not Passive Consumption

liturgysermonseriesslideOne time I overheard a conversation between two people who were discussing their churches. From what I could pick up, one went to a church within the mainline denominations and the other went to a non-denominational church. The topic of their worship services came up and the man who worshiped in the mainline congregation was describing what sounded like a service that included a lot of ritual (think a traditional Methodist or Episcopalian service – it seemed to be along those lines). His friend said, “Well, that sounds nice but I don’t believe in all that ritual and, what’s the word, liturgical stuff. We don’t do that at my church.”

Oh, yes you do.

Every worship service has a liturgy. The word “liturgy” at its core derives from Greek which is translated “public work.” Another way to say it is, “the work of the people.” Further derivations of these words become “minister.” All of this to say, the work we do in the public setting of the worship service is a liturgy. So, it does not matter what the name on the sign of the church says, all churches have a liturgy.

It’s in keeping with this notion that all worship services have a liturgy and the origin of the word that I bring this next point: The word worship is a verb. The definition is, “to show reverence and adoration for (a deity); honor with religious rites; to take part in a religious ceremony.”

Worship is meant to be an active means of grace. It’s meant to be more than sitting idly in the pew or singing with very little effort. We are called to give our entire being to the worship of God, to engage all of our senses (yes, even taste, by means of Holy Communion) and our intellect into pouring our praise for and awe of God. We should engage our passion into worship and find joy in the worship of the risen Christ who died and rose again for us.

But I do want us to remember something: Worship, liturgy, is work. Work is not always fun and work is something we do in order to accomplish an important goal. Work also means that we often have to do things that are not our preferred way of doing them. But even more important than having our preferences met is knowing that we direct our worship to and only to God.

Worship is, indeed, work, but it’s holy work and work that we do for God. Do we take it seriously? Do we remember that worship is an active engagement of our entire being and not just a passive activity we do our of sheer obligation or tradition? We must be honest with ourselves and ponder these questions for ourselves and act accordingly.

Perhaps what needs to change is not the style of worship in our churches but our attitudes toward worship. Worship is work and the work is not done by us for us.

Worship is work done by us for God.

What Does Worship Really Mean?

worshiphim“Worship is when all God’s people get caught up in love and wonder and praise of God. It is not the performance of the few for the many.” – Dr. Ben Witherington III

Several times, I have mentioned here that I have had a sense that we, as the wider Christian church, need to get back to our roots. The decline of Christianity in the western world has led to an almost panic-like push to find the best ways for the church to do what it has been doing for about the last 2,000 years. Some say we should get back to using a traditional style of worship service while others say that we should put aside ancient rituals in favor of contemporary styles of worship. Some say that worship means having an organ and a preacher wearing a robe and stole while others say that there should be the feel of a rock concert and that the preacher should be wearing a flannel shirt and skinny jeans. The church is good at a lot of things and having debates such as these seems to be one of them.

Let me go ahead and state that this is not about advocating for traditional or contemporary worship. This is not about robes or skinny jeans or whether any of these things are right or wrong. Instead, this is about us remembering that worship is not about us. Worship is not for the people sitting in pews or chairs. Worship is not to please any person at all.

Worship is about God and is for God.

When we get bogged down in these debates, we lose sight of the real point of why we gather together and sing, pray, hear a message, and depart to serve. Regardless of what music or liturgy is present, the worship service can often take on the feel of a performance meant for the entertainment of the congregation. If this is what worship becomes, we’re doing it wrong.

The quote at the top of this post is from my New Testament Intro professor from a lecture he was giving on the theology of worship. Dr. Witherington was essentially telling us during this lecture that we worry so much about what we get from worship or what others get from worship. The thing we ought to be most worried about, however, is what God receives from our worship. Is God receiving our adoration and praise or is he receiving lip service in favor of self-serving, feel-good acts within the walls of the church?

Church, we have lost our way.

Scripture is filled with instruction on how we are to worship. One of my favorite passages on worship is Psalm 150. “Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heaven!” There and elsewhere is nothing about the style with which we worship or about worship being primarily for us. We need to remember this.

Another source of instruction on worship is courtesy of Methodism founder John Wesley.

“In divine worship, (as in all other actions,) the first thing to be considered is the end, and the next thing is the means conducing to that end. The end is the honour of God, and the edification of the Church; and then God is honoured, when the Church is edified. The means conducing to that end, are to have the service so administered as may inform the mind, engage the affections, and increase devotion.”

— John Wesley, from his commentary on the Roman Catholic catechism

Should the church and those who make it up be built up? Of course. One of the things that worship should do is to draw us closer to God and make us think. Worship should give us the spiritual food that we need to go out and serve God in the world. But first and foremost, worship should be about and for God, directed at him as the primary reason and audience of worship. It’s alright to prefer a certain type of music or a certain preaching style but the first consideration that should be made about worship is whether or not the worship is directed to and dedicated to the glorification of God.

In the end, the how does not really matter as much as the audience. The audience is not us! The audience of worship is God. We need to remember that worship simply is not for us and that our preferences on music, the color of the carpet, and whether or not there are hymnals or projected lyrics should not matter in the end. Unfortunately, we seem to have allowed “worship wars” to take over. We have lost our way.

We need to get back to our roots.

Send Me to Kansas City

li17_promoslide_speaker_720x486If you follow me on social media, you may have seen that yesterday I started and shared a GoFundMe page. If you didn’t read it, the reason I’m asking for some help is so that I can attend the Leadership Institute at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City. Over the years I have heard nothing but great things about this time of learning and everyone I have ever talked to about this conference all have the same response: “Go!” So, I hope to do just that.

Why a GoFundMe page, you ask? Jessica and I are very blessed in that we are able to pay bills and live in a nice house (it’s a parsonage provided by the church if you didn’t know). However, this does not leave much money left over for things like the Leadership Institute. I’m in seminary and, needless to say, seminary is expensive. I do things on the side such as umpiring and such but this is money that we would rather put toward paying down things such as student loan debt. Anytime I have been able to attend a conference recently, these have been of little to no cost to me and have been within driving distance. This particular one will be a bit different, in that I will be better served by flying and that this conference will be a bit more expensive than the others I have attended. However, I do feel that this will be a valuable time of growth and, if at all possible, I would very much like to go.

The goal I have set will pay for airfare, hotel, rental car, meals, my registration fee, and the other expenses associated with attending the conference based on my estimates. Anything left over or raised in excess of my goal will go toward my seminary expenses and/or my student loan debt.

Some advice I heard a few years ago was that pastors should try to attend at least one conference every year that will help to transform their leadership. I feel that L.I. is such a conference. While I am in seminary and I am learning a lot about theology, the practical side is something that seminaries just are not very capable of teaching effectively. L.I. will help me to learn some practical things I can do as a pastor to be the best leader for my congregations that I possibly can be.

Your help is greatly appreciated. If you can’t donate funds, I certainly understand. Any other help you can give, such as your prayers and sharing the GoFundMe page, are just as appreciated and needed. Thanks for taking the time to read this. I will post an update soon.li2017_simplelogo_small

Prosperity at What Price?

ZomboMeme 09052017204148“[When I die] if I leave behind me ten pounds . . . you and all mankind [may] bear witness against me, that I have lived and died a thief and a robber.” – John Wesley

One of the great things about subscribing to satellite radio is that I have access to all sorts of music. I can listen to anything from acoustic music you might hear in Starbucks to Broadway show tunes. Additionally, I have access to several channels of news and other information. There are even several religious channels where I can listen to programming from contemporary Christian and southern gospel music to sermons and talk shows dedicated to faith.

One such channel is the Joel Osteen channel.

Now, let me stop right here and issue a preface: I know that a lot of people find inspiration from people like Joel Osteen, T.D. Jakes, and Joyce Meyer. I have to admit, they do sometimes give some nuggets of truth in their writings and messages. If you fall into this category, know that my intent is not to offend you, but you should also know that the body of their work is very much contrary to orthodox Christian teaching. This is an opinion piece based on my opinions and convictions. Please know that that is the place where I am coming from.

When I drive to and from Asbury, I have anywhere from one to two hours to kill and I flip through the channels (when safe to do so, of course). Tuesday I landed on Osteen’s channel and a message that he gave at Lakewood Church was playing. I decided to give it a listen to find out just why so many people were drawn to him and similar prosperity preachers. I listened, found myself groaning and wanting to throw things a few times, and shaking my head. They played another one and I thought it sounded very similar to the one I had just heard.

Yesterday I went to town to run an errand and my radio was still on the channel. Yet another message was playing – yes, a different one than either of the previous two I had heard – and I again thought that it sounded very similar to the ones I heard on Tuesday. It was then that I realized what the secret is. Allow me to give you a run-down of the anatomy of a prosperity gospel “sermon:”

A funny story
A scripture that is taken way out of context
Another story
Perhaps another scripture that is taken out of context (which was not named)
A closing story
Sprinkled throughout is some sort of “you can do it!” phrase which is repeated over and over.

As I mentioned above, an occasional truth was expounded but the essential point of all of the message was that God wants to bless us with material wealth and all we have to do is believe that we can receive this wealth. More than anything, what was proclaimed was a belief in oneself as opposed to a message of rebirth, transformation, and sanctification through faith and obedience to God.

In other words, the prosperity gospel treats God as nothing but a means to an end involving the wealth and success of this world.

Very little of what I heard was kingdom minded. It tells the hearer nothing more than what they want to hear – that they are special, that God wants them to be wealthy, that God wants them to be successful, and all one has to do is have faith and God will give them these things.

The prosperity gospel is a gospel of self, not of Jesus Christ.

Jesus spoke about money more than any other subject. One of my favorite verses that we should all use to check ourselves is, “19 Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. 21 Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be.” (Matthew 6:19-21 NLT) A couple of verses later, Jesus says this: “24 No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money.” (Matthew 6:24 NLT)

Jesus makes clear that the pursuit of money and stuff should not be our number one priority. Note that Jesus did not say that having wealth in of itself is a sin, but he did say that we are to be good stewards of our money and to be generous with it (see Matthew 19:21). Indeed, making money into an idol and basing our worth in God’s eyes on the size of our bank accounts can actually be detrimental to our souls. If we place money on the same level as God or have the audacity to somehow think that holiness is measured by wealth, we are guilty of idolatry.

While prosperity preachers may tickle your ears and help you to feel better about yourself, know that there is little if any interest in the condition of your soul. I actually encourage you to follow some advice that Joel Osteen gives at the end of his messages: Find a church where the Bible is believed and proclaimed. Don’t go to a church that proclaims God as simply a means to material wealth, but one where you will find out the good news that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and that Christ will come again.

Remember: Christ died so that we can have eternal life, not earthly wealth.

 

Is Healthcare For All a Christian Principle?

healthcareBy now, you have heard that the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that essentially repeals the Affordable Care Act, also known as “ObamaCare.” Among the impacts this law has are the rolling back of protections for people (such as myself) with pre-existing conditions. There is some speculation in the media that the Senate will not pass the bill (at least not as easily) but who really knows what will happen when the bribes campaign contributions from insurance companies start rolling in. I suppose we can only wait and see.

I can attest to the difficulty people with pre-existing conditions may encounter if “TrumpCare” becomes law. When I was a child I had ketotic hypoglycemia. Based on my memories, it seems that there was a constant battle with insurance companies over coverage of my care related to this disease. I no longer battle this disease but I do have some issues. Granted, some can be dealt with through weight loss but there is at least one condition that I will likely have for the rest of my life regardless of my weight.  To think that an insurance company may potentially be able to deny coverage to me simply because of a disorder that I can not control is quite concerning.

Unfortunately, this may potentially apply to millions of American citizens, all because some politicians chose what was best for their interests rather than what is in the best interest of the citizens they serve.

There is debate among some about whether or not the provision of healthcare for all people is in line with Christian teaching. I must be honest: I’m vexed that this is even a question. I believe that there is no question that the expectation of healthcare for all people is indeed a tenet of living out our discipleship. Throughout scripture, there are multiple examples of the people being healed and instruction for God’s people to take care of one another. Jesus taught that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves (and I’m pretty sure we all want to be able to receive care when we need it), he taught of the Good Samaritan caring for an injured man whom he did not even know, he teaches about healing mercy in Matthew 25. There is simply no way that anyone who claims to be a disciple of Jesus Christ can claim that anyone should be denied access to affordable, quality healthcare.

The prophet Ezekiel denounced the leaders of ancient Israel whose failure of responsible government included failure to provide health care: “you don’t strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, bring back the strays, or seek out the lost; but instead you use force to rule them with injustice” (Ezekiel 34:4). The United Methodist Church, therefore, affirms in our Social Principles (¶ 162V) healthcare as a basic human right and affirms the duty of government to assure health care for all.” (Taken from the UMC website). In the earliest days of the Methodist movement, John Wesley felt that part of our Christian duty was to provide care. He set up countless free clinics in England and when Methodism came to America, clinics continued to be established. To this day, there are numerous hospitals and other systems connected to Methodism.

I have no problem with doctors, hospitals, and other entities being paid for their work, just as we would expect to be paid for other work we undertake. But I also believe that healthcare should be affordable for all people and that all people should have equal access to quality care regardless of circumstances such as pre-existing conditions. To go against this is simply not right.

If we are to dare to call ourselves a Christian nation, one of the things we must provide for affordable healthcare for all people.