Life on the Pendulum

According to this informative article on Wikipedia (my go-to for all things definitive!), a pendulum, when pushed away from its natural resting point (or point of equilibrium), will swing back toward the equilibrium point.  Then, when it swings past the equilibrium point, it swings back again, in the opposite direction.  All of this swinging has one goal–to get the pendulum back to equilibrium.  That’s a gross oversimplification of what I am sure is a very complicated physical concept, but hey, was a communications major in college, so you get what you get.

I have often compared the life of the Church to a pendulum, but only recently have I come to realize the implications of that way of thinking.  I have observed that the Church (and churches) sometimes sway back and forth when it comes to theology, biblical interpretation, and politics.  Sometimes, the Church is “conservative” (for lack of a better term), and sometimes the Church is “liberal” (same).  Both are extremes, and both are far away from the point of ecclesial equilibrium.  This equilibrium point is what theologians call the via media.  My Anglican friends like to remind me over and over again that the via media is their rallying cry, so I would like to thank them for preserving the concept for the rest of us until we are ready to embrace it.  Via media is what some would call the “radical center,” the “middle way,” or the “third way”–neither “conservative” nor “liberal,” but centered somewhere in between.  It’s a frustrating place to be sometimes, but I think it might be the place where the Church in the 21st Century needs to be in order to survive, thrive, and show the world the gospel of Jesus Christ.

For many years, I have lived on the pendulum, swinging first one direction theologically, and then another.  When I first became a follower of Jesus (I’ve always been a Methodist, but have only been a disciple of Jesus since my mid-teens), I was in what you might call the “conservative” or “traditionalist” camp.  I had problems with the direction I perceived the world was taking, and I was dismayed that anyone might think it o.k. to allow people of certain “lifestyle choices” to be a part of the church.  The pendulum began to swing for me when one of my best friends came out as gay, and felt comfortable confiding in me about his orientation.  To be honest, I was probably already moving away from my traditionalist position at the time, which is probably why he felt o.k. telling me this particular piece of information.  Soon after this, and into my college and seminary years, I found myself deeply entrenched in the so-called “liberal” wing of Christianity.  I participated in marches, signed petitions, made statements on the floor of annual conference, and generally got myself in trouble with the higher-ups.  As a liberal Christian, I couldn’t understand how anyone could ever read the Bible to discriminate against LGBTQ persons, and I saw myself as part of a battle for the heart and soul of the Church.

Fast forward to 2014.  I’m leaving a lot out, but that will have to wait for another blog on another day.

Now, I find myself as a university chaplain, not just to the “conservative” or “liberal” Christians, but to all the students, faculty, and staff, even those who do not share my faith.  Talk about walking the via media!  As I have interacted with university community members from a variety of walks of life and faith traditions, I have found that while I still hold many of the same convictions I have had for many years, I cannot bear to alienate my more conservative friends, students, and colleagues.  Without them, the conversation is not complete, in my mind at least.  Rather than tearing apart the Church I love and serve, I desire to bring people of all stripes together, to find the place of equilibrium within our community, and to move forward together in faith.  For me, that equilibrium represents common ground.  Not agreement in all things, but common ground.  What we share is more powerful and unifying than anything that divides us.  What we share is a love of God, and the desire to help others know Jesus Christ alive in the world.  We may speak different dialects and with varying accents, but we all generally speak the same language.

In the last few days, I have become aware of something called The United Methodist Centrist Movement.  This movement, made up of clergy and laity primarily from the West Ohio Conference, has suggested a platform for a way forward in the church I love:

1.  Fiscal Responsibility

2.  Connectional Realignment

3.  Itinerancy Reform

4.  Mutual Respect

I encourage anyone who reads this blog to read the platform, and consider supporting it.

Is it perfect?  No

Will it remain unchanged between now and General Conference 2016?  Most certainly not.

Does it provide a place of conversation for the kind of change that is needed in The United Methodist Church?  Most assuredly yes.

I’m tired of life on the pendulum, continually swinging back and forth, searching for that which can only be found in the restful center.  The idea of having a spiritual center is paramount to the theological construct for my ministry, and the idea of a theological and political center for the Church is appealing to me.  I want to rest in the center, the point of equilibrium, at the heart of Jesus Christ, with all of my sisters and brothers (left, right, and center) with me.  Will you join us?

Rest in the Center of Peace,

David

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Pastor Appreciation (For All the Saints)

October, as everyone on  the face of the earth knows, is Pastor Appreciation Month.  It is usually during this last week of October that many people make one of two realizations:

1.  (If a member of a congregation):  Oh NO!  Pastor Appreciation Month is almost over, and we didn’t do anything for our pastor!  At least I don’t think we did?  Did we?  No, that was last year.

2.  (If a pastor):  Well, another Pastor Appreciation Month is almost gone.  Guess I’ll put away this big basket I had set out for all the cards and gifts that didn’t show up…sigh.

(Your mileage may vary–you might have a pastor who is so awesome that you never forget to appreciate her/him, or you might have a congregation that is so awesome that they never forget to appreciate you.)

Well, I haven’t forgotten.  Since this weekend also marks All Saints Day (a much more well-known holiday), I’d like to dedicate this post to all the pastors who have had, and currently have, an influence on me.

Take Paul Whipple, for instance, who was the first pastor I remember having as a child who was “my pastor.”  Rev. Whipple was a fiery preacher, with a passion for social justice.  Though I was young when he left my home church, I credit him with being the person to place in my head the notion that the church is truly for all people.

Or, there’s George Lee, who was the first pastor to encourage me to consider that I might have a call to ministry.  He also encouraged me to stretch beyond my comfort zone, when he helped me sign up for Ministerial Recruitment Institute, which was a camp primarily for African-American students, but which ended up confirming in me the conviction that God had truly called me to be a pastor.   When I was ordained, George was the Elder who held my stole, and helped the bishop place it on my shoulders as a sign of the continuation of the ministry from one generation to another.

And then I remember Bill Ross, who helped me through a tough patch in my life, and who taught me that I wasn’t crazy after all.

And, Bruce Batchelor-Glader, who showed me how to step away from the pulpit and make preaching fun, and who fostered the connection between faith and social justice in my theology.

I think of Valerie Stultz, my first district superintendent when I was a young student pastor, who encouraged me to find my own voice, and of Jim Humphrey, who was our family “pastor” when I served my first congregation back in the U.S.A.  Jim’s encouragement of my family really made the difference during a time when we weren’t sure that local church ministry was where I really ought to be.

I’m grateful for Pat Christ, who has become my parents’ pastor, and whom I call my pastor, too, who has graciously allowed me to be a part of the Firestone Park UMC congregation as my charge of record while I am in extension ministry, and I’m grateful for Bryan Bucher, whom I have the privilege of hearing preach most Sundays, and whose theological depth and caring for humanity astounds me.

These are but a few of the people who have been pastor to my family and me, and I thank God for each and every one of them.  They are the saints whom I celebrate, during Pastor Appreciation Month, All Saints Sunday, and throughout the year.  Without them, I surely wouldn’t be where I am today, and their ministries are extended on to the campus of Ohio Northern University every day, because they helped form me into who I am.

If you are reading this, and there is a person who has been that kind of pastor to you, please stop reading now and go thank them.

Happy Pastor Appreciation Month, Saints!

–David

The Theology of Creation and Youth Ministry

There are people out there who are much smarter than I who are talking and writing and teaching about youth ministry.  I admire the work of many, including Kenda Dean, Andrew Root, Mark Ostreicher, and MTSO’s own Tim VanMeter, just to name a few.  Many, like Tim, have done great work on thinking about ecology and youth ministry, and have delved into the depths of theology surrounding our relationship to the creation.  But lately, I’ve been thinking about how a theology of creation, and specifically the idea that human beings are created in God’s image, can have a profound impact on youth ministry.  So, I wanted to share a few of my thoughts here, in the hopes that it will at the very least help me to clarify my own thinking, and perhaps might get others thinking about it, too.  Here goes…

“So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.”
–Genesis 1:27

In Genesis, we learn of the creation of humanity by God.  Now, I don’t want to get embroiled in a debate about creationism vs. evolution here, so if that’s what you’re looking for, you might as well stop reading now.  Suffice it to say, I believe that a person can hold that the earth is billions of years old, and that life has evolved over eons and eons to get to the place where we are now, and still believe that God is the Creator, and that we are created in God’s image.  How?  The short answer, to quote my first theology professor in seminary, is “It’s a mystery!”  In fairness to Sarah Lancaster, however, I should note that in the same breath, she also stated that this is an inadequate theological response.  If you want a longer answer, stick around, because I intend to one day write down why I hold those two beliefs…but that is a different blog for a different day.

Back to Genesis.  If we hold that God created human beings in God’s own image (what classical theology called the imago dei, then such a belief must have an impact on how we approach the world, and thus ministry, hence the relationship between youth ministry and the theology of creation.  If we hold that we are all created in God’s image, some of the very first thoughts/questions that come to mind are:

1.  Since God is Creator, each of us is also a creator in some way, and the ways we all create are different, and as varied as the human race.  Some people create by making works of art, or making music, while others create by growing food for others to eat.  Some create sermons or theological treatises, while some create clearly written and easy to understand directions for how to set up your TV set (Yes, they do exist out there somewhere!). 

2.  If each of us is created in the image of God, then we are obligated to treat each other like that’s true.  If I see you as having the image of God, and you see me as having the image of God, then it is nigh impossible for us to kill each other, lest we do violence to the very foundation of our humanity.  (A theology of broken souls, compared with Harry Potter’s quest to kill Voldemort’s horcruxes would be good here.)

3.  Seeing God’s image within others also forces us to recognize that God has a variety of ways of approaching the world, and does so through a variety of gifts.  Paul’s encouragement to the Church to recognize the spiritual gifts within the body of Christ is an example of this concept being played out in a specifically Christian way. 

4.  What happens if I meet someone in whom I just can’t seem to find the image of God?

Those are just a few preliminary thoughts.  Please don’t take this blog post as definitive–it’s a work in progress!

Now, if we turn to youth ministry, and look at our work with young people through the lens of a theology of creation, there are some insights that bubble to the surface.  First of all, it is important to note that our work with young people is part of the creative spirit of God, helping to create and co-create communities of love and care with others who also posses the image of God.  This relieves us of the notion that youth ministry is somehow about “keeping the kids occupied so they don’t get into trouble.” *(Actual quote from an actual congregation member)*  Second, it forces us to confront the fact that every young person we encounter has been given gifts by God–gifts that may be undiscovered and unused–but gifts nonetheless.  Those gifts may come out in ways we don’t want them to (such as the young man who has the gift of compassion, but instead uses his natural tendency to relate to others’ problems as a way to prey on the girls in the group), but it is our job to help young people recognize those gifts, and put them to use for the kingdom (or kindom) of God.  Third, a theology of creation in youth ministry confronts us with the mission to help young people overcome the brokenness of their lives and their souls, in a way that helps them embrace the “original blessing” given by God to all of humanity, but which we lose whenever we allow greed or arrogance to get in the way.  For us as Christians, this means a relationship with Jesus Christ, who overcame the horrors of torture and death in order to offer new and eternal life. 

I guess what I’m getting at is that youth ministry is pretty deep (I probably didn’t need to tell most of you that), and that a youth ministry rooted in a theology of creation can transform a dull and lifeless “keeping the kids busy” kind of ministry into one that embraces the frustrating and diverse nature of working with people who posses the imago dei within their souls.  So the next time “that kid” shows up at your door, or confronts you in the school parking lot, or causes havoc in your small group, remember that he or she is not just a problem to be dealt with, but a precious gift from the Creator, called from before the beginning of time to be in relationship with God.  Go, and help “that kid” become a child of God!