Saturday, November 16, 2013

Expanding the Canon: The Chronicles of Narnia

“He'll be coming and going" he had said. "One day you'll see him and another you won't. He doesn't like being tied down--and of course he has other countries to attend to. It's quite all right. He'll often drop in. Only you mustn't press him. He's wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

            In my statement of faith I posted here months ago I said that I believed in Holy Scripture, both canonical and non-canonical. One of my good friends asked me what I would consider to be non-canonical Scripture. Obviously, there are a ton of books Christians use like they use Scripture (some even bring in patriotic texts into their theological formation ie. the Constitution, or just pick up a hymnal). Of course I am not putting any of the books that make my list on the same level of Scripture, merely showing my audience how these books have shaped my faith despite not being a part of the canon of Scripture. 
              Personally, a lot of CS Lewis makes my list, but I count the entire Chronicles of Narnia as one text, without all of them the text is not complete. 

To me these tales have shaped in formed my own views of God in two major ways.
      1.      God cannot be tamed
            Too often I find that theology preached in churches, sang in “Christian music” tries to either make God this broad shouldered militant bully, or an easily transported figurine to be worn like jewelry around one’s neck or put in a box. Lewis writes that Aslan (the Christ character in the story) is not a tame lion. He is good, but not tame. Aslan is always about his father’s business; his father is the Emperor Across the Sea. Aslan is essentially this unpredictable character that pops up in the books without warning or notice, but only when human beings are involved. He saves Lucy in Prince Caspian, sacrifices himself for Edmund in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and he greets the travelers outside the Kingdom of the Sea where his father lives in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Aslan does what he wants; it just so happens that what he wants is to help humanity while at the same time protecting and saving all of Narnia.

       2.      It is God’s will that none should perish (1 Peter 2:9)
              Rob Bell was heavily criticized for his book Love Wins, a book which asks the question in chapter 4 “Does God Get What God Wants?” It was a question pointed at a particular theologian that lead to him saying “Farewell” to Rob Bell on his twitter account. Yet, CS Lewis in The Last Battle answers Bell’s question in a much more nuanced fashion. In the book penned by Lewis all of Narnia is battling over its fate, whether or not Tash (the Ba’al false god idol) or The Emperor Across the Sea will have full control over the land. In the end The Emperor Across the Sea and his allies win “Heaven” comes to Narnia and joy abounds, but a servant of Tash has found his way into Narnian heaven. Confused he asks Aslan how he made it into “heaven” and Aslan replies:

Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him, for I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore, if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him . . . .

Lewis appears to be taking 1 Samuel 16:7 literally, and his allegory reflects it, to Lewis God judges not the outward appearances but the heart of the person. The servant of Tash was doing good for goodness sake – thinking he was serving Tash, but really Aslan was taking his actions into account and judged him to be righteous. To answer Bell’s question, Lewis in this allegory says a resounding yes.
          These novels have shaped my faith in a way that is very unique, I would be a different person, and would view my faith in a completely different way if these books did not exist. For me, The Chronicles of Narnia count as non-canonical scripture, through them I am “reproved, rebuked, and exhorted with great patience and instruction (2 Tim 4:2-5)”.

Any thoughts, questions, comments or concerns? 

Monday, September 30, 2013

Inclusion is not about Tolerance, it's about Repentance

The IRD recently published a blog post blasting current and former Candler theological students as being intolerant of the beliefs of Rev. Eddie Fox when it comes to LGBT inclusion and the very “practice” of homosexuality. 
One of my major problems with the author’s argument was the false assertion that those who seek to undo the centuries of harm done to the LGBT community are doing it just for the sake of being inclusive. “But isn’t it interesting?  Those who would change Christian sexual doctrine for the sake of tolerance are so openly intolerant?” I’m sorry to inform the IRD that for most progressive Christians, inclusion is not about tolerance - it is about repentance. Repenting of using the Scriptures as a weapon that leads LGBT teens to kill themselves and adults to live “in closets” and in shame; as a tool to separate God’s children from the grace, love, and mercy found within the Church; and failing to read and interpret Scripture in the Spirit through whom it was written. 
Yes, “through whom”, not “in which”; Scripture was written through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 3:16), and that Spirit is dwelling in and speaking through people to this day – God has not ceased to speak to people through Scripture, reason, tradition, and personal experience. I hate to be the rain on this parade of injustice, but the Holy Spirit is busy breaking the chains of homophobia, in the PCUSA, the Episcopal Church, UCC, Disciples of Christ, ECLA, and even in the United Methodist Church. Though the Church is not a perfect reflection of Christ, through the Holy Spirit it is moving on to perfection or being made perfect in Christ (1 John 4:8).
Repenting is about turning away from wrong doing, and turning towards a life that reflects the life of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. A life that is in-tune with the love of the Father as demonstrated in the sending of His beloved Son (John 3:16-17), in-tune with His justice in the saving of the oppressed slaves in Egypt (Exodus), and in-tune with His correction (Acts 10). “What God has made clean, you must not call profane (Acts 10:15b).” For too long we as the Church have been calling people profane, unclean, wicked, abominations, etc. – but in Christ all have been made clean. I’m sorry for those people in the Church who miss the old days when people wouldn’t call them out on calling people profane, when they have been made new in Christ – may God soften hearts, and correct them gently through the example of Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit. For too long fear of “the other” and of the unknown has been paralyzing the Church from serving those who most need the gospel, but the love of God is casting such fear out – God is calling us to stop living in fear and to start seeking the Spirit of power and love (2 Timothy 1:7). 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

My Statement of Faith

For my Doctrines & Themes class I had to make a statement of faith that was at the most only one page long. Since I am not very creative when it comes to writing out what I believe - I wrote it out in creedal form. 

I believe:
In the Holy Spirit the Revealer – one with the Creator and the Redeemer
The Holy Spirit is restoring the bond of love, trust, and communication betwixt the Creator and creation
The Revealer speaks through prophets/heretics, music, Scriptures, doctrines, and many other forms of communication

In Jesus the Redeemer – one with the Creator and the Restorer
Who has been revealed to all of humanity by way of the Revealer through Holy Scriptures, Reason, Personal Experiences, and Tradition
The very embodiment of the Creator’s vision for humanity

In God the Creator – the Mother/Father, the Beginning & the End
Through whom all was made and is being made new
Through whom all natural laws have been written
From whom all that is good comes
From whom all love flows

In Holy Scriptures both canonical and non-canonical
All inspired by God and used by God to serve God’s purposes in the world
In the sacredness of all of creation
In the explicit and implicit company of the saints
In the practices of Revelation, Resurrection, Recreation
In not fearing death

And in abundant life

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

LGBT Christians: Brush Off Your Feet

It is very ironic when I tell my LGBT friends to leave their non-affirming churches seeing as I am a Methodist and my denomination is not affirming of LGBT persons at all (albeit the denomination as a whole is at least in discussion about how to better engage the LGBT community & my local church is much more affirming). But I am getting sidetracked – It is my firm belief that LGBT persons should not stay in, tithe at, or participate in religious communities that are not affirming. 
       “Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the Day of Judgment than for that town.” – Matthew 10:11-15
In this passage Jesus is speaking to His apostles about carrying the good news into surrounding towns, and He is careful to tell them not to stay where they are not welcome. I know what you may be thinking how ironic that I’m using the Sodom & Gomorrah reference since the story of Sodom & Gomorrah is typically used against people who are LGBT; but it works really well when you consider Ezekiel 16:49: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” The needy in these church communities are the LGBT youth contemplating suicide because they don’t feel like God loves them but, at the same time the needy in these communities are also the oppressive ministers and congregants using poorly thought out theology to spiritually terrorize minority groups. 
Non-affirming churches are committing the same sins as Sodom by not welcoming, by taking tithes from LGBT Christians and using their funds to promote hatred, by focusing on adjectives like gender, sex, sexuality, class, race, etc and not focusing on the subjects – the people made in the divine image of Almighty God. 
Don’t get me wrong, Jesus at no point says not to share the good news of God’s grace with these unwelcoming cities, and likewise I would say that we should not give up hope on these non-affirming churches. If God can part the Red Sea and even make asses reprimand prophets then surely God is capable of softening hard-hearts, but I don’t believe that LGBT people should be the ones witnessing in these hostile environments, it should be heterosexuals. When God saw the children of Israel being oppressed in Egypt, he didn’t call one of the slaves to talk to Pharaoh; he called Moses, a former prince of Egypt. When God saw that the Israelite spies were in trouble in Jericho God used Rahab, a citizen of that town to save them; God is constantly calling the people in power and in comfortable positions to use their power for good rather than for evil. Justice not oppression. Love and not hate. Love does not excommunicate someone because of whom they are attracted to; love does not use seven verses to shut people out of the faith community overruling Jesus’ command to love one’s neighbor as oneself; love does not sit idly by as young LGBT kids leave the pews to be laid in coffins – love speaks truth to power, love embracing all of God’s children, love looks like Jesus.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Orientation at APTS

            Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary (APTS) is a very special seminary in that its orientation lasts for three days. 7:30AM – 5PM, Wednesday to Friday. It was the most tiring educational experience I’ve been through thus far – but it was also extremely refreshing.
            We started on Wednesday with Breakfast and introductions, and let me tell you the entering class of APTS is extremely diverse and very eclectic; I am in very good company here. We moved from breakfast into Morning Worship with Dr. Jennifer Lord. She lead us around Shelton Chapel showing us every nook and cranny, explaining to us what everything was for and expanding on the symbolism of bricks, arches, and stained windows. It was a beautiful prayer service. We went out and met every member of the faculty, got to spend quick session meeting all of the people that would be our instructors for the first semester. We were informed that we would no longer be using APA or MLA writing formats but Turabian. A lot happened on Wednesday. The day was rounded out with an ice cream social catered by Amy’s Ice Cream, it was delicious. The most important part of the social was socializing with current students; it was delightful getting to hear their stories, meet their kids, and most importantly playing with their dogs.
            Thursday was “camp” day. We set out at 8:05AM after breakfast for John Know Ranch. We spent the first 30 minutes or so in prayer, and learning about the camp. Around 9:45is we started our team building exercises which lasted until 12:30. It was so much fun getting to know more about y classmates, and learning how very different we all are, while at the same time seeing the massive similarities between us. The best part was working together to find shade trees to stand under. At lunch I led the group in a rousing rendition of the Johnny Appleseed prayer. After lunch Jackie Saxon discussed with us the spiritual difficulties of attending seminary. She relayed to us the importance of being involved in local churches, and not just using our chapel services as church. We had an hour of free time, which I used to sit in the air-conditioned building while others chose to go out in the heat and hike or swim (crazies). We returned to the seminary around 5ish.
            Friday was the final day and somehow that made it feel the longest. We had breakfast & a prayer service with President Ted Wardlaw. Then we Master in Divinity students were taken to a room to be handed a massive test. The test is issued by the Association of Theological Schools and it gives examples of issues arising in ministry and we had to reply to these issues by bubbling in the answers we most likely would choose. Luckily we have a while to finish it. After that test was put away, another was issued. A writing test – we were instructed to write about an influential person in our life or about an influential book (besides the Bible). It was actually pretty fun since it was such an open topic. We had community lunch, then an orientation to the library. Dr Suzie Parks gave a brief seminar on inclusive and expansive language, which was interesting. The most interesting demonstration came from the department of Ministers Facing Money – which revealed the amount of debt from education alone that our class was carrying (around $475,000 for 43 people). There were more talks, my mind left the building and then my body did too as we all left to go pay our bill for this semester.

            I found the whole experience to be very difficult, enriching, and completely inexplicable. I was made tired physically, while spiritually I felt refreshed, it was almost like those times when I went to summer camp with youth groups. Yet at the same time I learned a lot that weighed heavy on my mind. What if I am wasting my time here? What if I never get ordained? What if God was calling me elsewhere and this is just a three-year detour? Questions that will be answered soon enough I guess. But for now I’m trying to learn the Hebrew alphabet and vowel forms.  

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Why I am doing this.

            Next week I will be graduating from the University of North Texas which of course prompts the question: “What are you doing next?” I typically have two different answers, to my own shame response 1: “I’m going to Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary for a dual-degree in Divinity and Social Work.” Response 2 is, “I’m going to grad school in Austin.”
Response 1 typically elicits these replies:
a.      “Oh you’re going to be a pastor/priest that’s great!’
b.      “Oh…you’re going to be a pastor – what do you think about the Church’s opinion on __________?”
a.      Homosexuality (DOMA, Prop 8, marriage equality, LGBT homelessness, LGBT suicide, etc.)
b.      Women
                                                                                  i.     Ordination
                                                                                 ii.     Reproductive Rights
                                                                               iii.     Pay inequity
c.      Race Relations/Slavery
d.      Palestine/Israeli Relations
e.      War
f.       Other Religions
g.      Etc.
c.      “You’re too smart to waste your talents on the Church.”
d.      “Good luck with that…”
Response 2 typically elicits these replies:
a.      “That’s great! We need more social workers.”
b.      “You’re going to UT, my grandkid goes there too, look out for __.”
c.      “You’ll be so great at that.”
Honestly I like giving the second response more, not only because I like being encouraged, but I am also tired of defending the Church. I went to Christian school from Pre-K to 8th grade, and we were constantly being taught apologetics, or ways to defend the faith. Quite frankly, I am so tired of defending God, God is supposed to be my shield and my defense (Psalm 7:10) not the other way around. But I digress; my faith should not revolve around defending God or defending the Church. So for years now, I’ve given up defending that God and defending the Church. One of the reasons I want so much to faithfully live out my call is to help make the Church an institution that no longer needs defending because it faithfully living out the call of following Christ’s example.
            Now to the questions of why I am going to seminary and why I am seeking ordination; the answer is really simple and easy: Because I am called to. Isaiah said it best, “Here am I Lord, send me (Isaiah 6:8)” and like Isaiah I may have accepted God’s call on my life without fully knowing what I was getting into. I am going to seminary because I felt called to, this was the next step I felt the Spirit leading me to. Wherever He (or She) leads me I’ll go…

I first felt/heard the call to ministry in the Summer of 2006 – I had no idea that I would wind up in the UMC or that I would wind up staying in the South, that the Presbyterians would be successful at luring me into their seminary, or that I would wind up so socially progressive in comparison to my upbringing. I had no idea that God would lead me through Baylor, to ACC, to UNT, to APTS. I honestly had no idea that I would actually have to move somewhere in this faith journey, I thought that being called meant I had already arrived; thank God that I haven’t arrived yet. Thank God that this journey is never ending. I am thankful to God, that I have been called to walk alongside others as they walk this journey as well. 

Sunday, July 7, 2013

My 1st Beyoncé Concert Experience!

"God is real, and God lives inside of me and inside of all of us and it doesn't matter where I am, I know that, and I feel it, like right now I'm hot - it's a tingling. It's love. I feel it when I look at my child, I feel it when I look at my husband. It's God." 
Beyoncé Knowles Carter from Life is but a Dream

            I love Beyoncé, for anyone that knows me knows this is the biggest understatement of all-time. Since 1998’s hit single from Destiny’s Child “No, no, no”; to 2000’s “Jumpin’ jumpin’” and “Say My Name”; to 2001’s “Survivor”, “Independent Woman Part 1”, and “Bootylicious”. I loved her in Destiny’s Child then in 2003 my favorite song, “Crazy in Love” was released I did that “uh-oh” dance almost every day. I have every one of her albums, I collect magazines with here on the cover, I even have a book about her, plus she’s Methodist, I love Beyoncé.
            Last night my deep love for Beyoncé came to a climax as I got to witness her perform live for the first time ever! Dallas, TX 8PM American Airlines Center and the place was packed. We had made the pilgrimage from across Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and a few other states to see the woman heralded as the best live performer of my generation. I was seated in section 117 row A seat 1, directly facing the 2nd stage (yes she has two stages). Someone yelled in my ear, “Is that Jay-Z?” I looked and sure as the sun rises there was his definitive nose, and his goofy grin starting at the stage waiting for her wife, and partner of 13 years. I screamed, “Hey Jay!” He turned and saw me jumping up and down frantically, laughed then waved back. I was star-struck, not because I’m that big of a Jay-Z fan, but because I love his wife more than I love ice cream or sweet tea. Loud drum noises starting coming from the stage and the whole area was filled with piercing screams and tears as we saw a canvas drop then get pulled away into the rafters. Boom. Boom. Boom. Up pops Beyoncé with flames and sparks and the crowd looses that last remains of sanity they were maintaining. She didn’t speak she just stared at us, almost like she was absorbing the applause to charge her batteries from the show she did the night before. “You ready?” she questioned as Run the World started. She just started dancing and singing as if it’s perfectly normal for a woman in heels to sing and dance and maintain perfect pitch without running out of breath or taking an intermission. From the Run the World she seamlessly transitioned into End of Time, I was trying to keep up with the moves, since I was fortunate enough to have no one sitting next to me. I and the drunken White women behind me were dancing like we were Beyoncé, singing loudly, as if people had come to see and hear us.
            “This isn’t a show for you to sit down and get comfortable in your seats! I want you to get up and dance like you’re the only person in the room.” I honestly had no patience for people last night, showing up late as if they didn’t pay a ton of money to come, saying excuse me to get past me when they saw I was dancing, Instagraming and Facebooking when they should have been dancing, screaming, laughing, and crying. I was too through, until this mother in my section noticed the empty seat next to me and sent down her daughter who had to be around 9-10ish and this little girl was getting it. When I say getting it, I mean she could have been on the stage and people would have gone nuts to see her dance and hear her sing. She and I were kindred spirits, yelling to gain the attention of Beyoncé, Jay-Z, the dancers – we danced together and high-fived after Single Ladies. I have no idea what her name is, but for two hours she was my best friend, we were like peas in a pod, enjoying the concert together.
            What’s that? Not a bird or a plane, it’s just Beyoncé flyng across the arena to get to the second stage. That guitar starts up and we all knew what song was next. “Now’s my favorite part of the show, cause y’all get to sing to me. I know y’all know the words – sing!” Our response, “To the left, to the left, everything you own in the box to the left…” It was almost like a liturgical call and response. Yet more than any church I had ever been to, this was a place of freedom, freedom to dance like no one was watching, freedom to sing loud and of key, freedom to trust a stranger with your child,  freedom to laugh and cry without judgment, we were all family last night and it was beautiful.
            Harnessing the power of your body requires responsibility seduction is much more than beauty, it is generous, it is intelligence, it is mysterious, it is exclusive.” And just like that Queen Bey gave kids a better reason to save sex for marriage than the public school system in Texas, she busts out with Naughty Girl, and as she danced flirtatiously for all to see, everyone in the arena knew that her body was her own, and that it is exclusively for one man in the room, as his was exclusively for hers. I have problems with abstinence only sexual education in schools, because it makes sex something shameful, which only means that it is talked about in hushed tones in locker rooms and bathrooms without adult guidance and wisdom, Beyoncé bypassed every parent in the room and said to every little girl in that room, love yourself, love your body, but use it responsibly. Your body is to be exclusive; your body is a temple. “When you are with the right person it brings out the best in you.” It could have been a light sermon on sexuality and the importance of marriage, but it was unassuming and vulnerable, and personal like all discussions of human sexuality should be.
            “If I should stay, I would only be in your way…” the tribute to Whitney Houston lead into her ultimate closing song Halo. She ran across the stage serenaded thousands of us, sticking the microphone in the face of this young man who took it away, hitting every note like he knew she was coming for him, he did a victory dance as she left for the other side of the stage. She held up the mic to a fearful girl, “Don’t be scared lil mama”, the girls sang softly at Beyoncé’s urging. Screams came from off to my right, Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s family were sneaking away before the show ended so of course I yelled out “Bye Jay!” we’re best friends he just doesn’t know it yet. The show ended and I was shocked it had been slightly over two hours. I just sat back, after dancing and singing my heart I felt even more energized, more gleeful, more excited, more me than I felt coming in.
             I wouldn’t be a good Christian blogger if I didn’t somehow tie this in with a moral of the story. Which quite frankly I thought I was doing throughout the whole blog, but lest you forget let me end with this: like Beyoncé, other Christians should be vocal about their faith, yet not shoving it down people’s throat; they should be humble, yet not feigning modesty – if your bad and you know it please stand up and own it; they should create safe spaces for people to be vulnerable, yet be responsible; they should love who God made them to be, “Flaws and All”. Most of all, they should be prepared to work tirelessly for the sake of the Kingdom, like Beyoncé works tirelessly for her fans (mostly me) – and  be prepared to answer the question God asks all who are listening, “You ready?” May our answer always be “Yes”. 

Saturday, June 22, 2013

My 1st Methodist Funeral Experience

               I always thought that the first Methodist funeral I attended would be of a sweet old woman name Bethel, my denomination like all mainline denominations is made up of a lot of old people. I love old people; I always have so I have no problem with being in churches surrounded by people with gray hair. I did however have a problem when the first Methodist funeral I attended was for my friend Kim Kaiser who was nowhere near being old; she hadn't even gotten the chance to graduate from college yet.

               For those of you who don’t know me, I wear my emotions like the latest fashion trend, if I am sad I will cry loudly and openly, I feel no guilt or shame in being a person that shows how I feel, but when I got the news last Saturday that my friend Kim was killed in a collision I had no idea how to process the information. I sent out a text to 3 of my closest friends (Ned, Ty, and Bubba). I specifically didn't tell my mother for fear she would give me some Calvinist comfort about how this is all a part of God’s masterplan rubbish. Obviously, predestination brings comfort to some people, but I’m a pupil of John Wesley, my God doesn’t plan on killing 20-somethings in car accidents to bring Himself glory. Of the three friends I texted only one replied, Ned, and Ned went on to give me the exact answer that I didn't want to hear about how God was going to turn this experience into something good. I love Ned, I respect Ned and acknowledge that he is so much smarter than I am it is embarrassing, but I think/know that he is wrong. I don’t think God planned for my friend to die in the seat of her car on the way to pick up her cousin Hailey from a youth retreat, I don’t believe that God planned for her to die before we could go and see “Man of Steel” together, I don’t believe that God wants Hailey to feel overwhelming guilt for Kim’s death, that’s not the God that I know, the God that loves me and speaks to me and tells that I am created in His image.

               Fast-forward to the morning of Friday June 21st, I am in FUMC Denton acting as a greeter; I have yet to break-down emotionally. I directed traffic until I sat with my friends from the Denton Wesley then the slideshows start, and the tears come. I managed to stay relatively stable until her aunt and uncle came forward to tell family stories about her, and then my eyes became waterfalls. Then came Rev. Cammy Gaston and she gave a great sermon about hope, and resurrection, but what was really awesome was the prayer afterwards. The prayer basically told God everything I was thinking, it brought frustrations with the injustice of a 22-year-old dying in a car wreck, yet the trust in God being with us, our very present help in time of trouble. It was healing, and theologically sound, trusting in God yet not an easy answer like “God is in control”, it was what my spirit needed. After the service ended my friends from the Wesley and I wept like babies on one another, then went to the reception to tell stories about Kim to her family, because the family wanted to know how she had blessed us.

Lisa Gungor & myself
               Around 10PM on Friday Gungor’s twitter account mentioned that they would be screening their new DVD and they sent out a blanket invite. I called my friend Aubrey, and we hopped in her car and headed to Covenant Church in Carrolton to see this DVD. My heart was healed once more by the words of Michael Gungor as he talked about the beautiful balance of life and death. He spoke of how billions of new stars are being born, BILLIONS, and how humans are mortal and how we die, but that God isn't done, God is still creating. Then this beautiful chorus rose up “Holy, holy, holy Lord – the earth is yours and singing.” And another song stated “These bones cry out…only you can raise the dead, can lift my head up…” God has lifted my head up, through my friends, through music and impromptu DVD screenings, and through a random clerk at 7-11 giving me a Slurpee for free last night. Were these things predestined for me so that I could be blessed? I doubt it, but I know that they are still from God, the same God that causes the sun to shine on both the just and the unjust, has taken time out of His busy schedule to lift my head up.

Monday, June 10, 2013

SWTX Annual Conference: Day 4

               Sunday! This particular morning was rather interesting in that it went by so quickly. The report on new church development was absolutely inspirational, the SWTX Conference has plans to start 14 new faith communities in our geographical area by the end of next year – I was going to make a motion we set a goal of 10 churches in 7 years, so needless to say I was out-dreamed. The issue of where to host our next gathering was brought forward, Corpus Christi has been hosting for quite a while, and so like usual it was expected we would return there once again next year. I went forward to ask if we would continue to meet at the same place after our conference – I was essentially told we’ll get there when we get there, but it’s a discussion I’m sure will continue later on. We got to applaud a lot of wonderful people that work for the conference and that do wonderful work with the poor and the marginalized. We also celebrated the act that $1 million of the the denomination-wide $50 million goal was met by our conference alone for Imagine No Malaria. God is doing great things in SWTX, of that I have no doubt.

               The appointments list was released, and so we moved to the worship Service of Covenants. It was a moving time seeing all of the new/returning appointees stand with their lay delegates and at the end everyone stood and prayed as one congregation. It was truly a blessed time, even if the awesome sermon by Reverend Jasmine Smothers came to steal the show. Her sermon stepped on every toe in the room, but it was a needed balm to our conference as it moves from the struggle of Thursday afternoon, and the drama of Saturday’s nomination battle. She challenged all of us to speak the truth humbly, and in love. We were warned about the way we speak and the methods of speaking we use bring about change in our Church and in our churches. Reverend Smothers stomped on the feet of the young clergy, reminding them to walk humbly; and she stomped on the feet of the elder members of the church who have grown comfortable and refuse to change to serve the purposes of the Kingdom. It was an awesome sermon and I was inspired by Reverend Smothers.

               One of the most wonderful things for me this weekend was getting to fellowship with so many awesome retired clergy. It was so cool to hear their stories and especially to see the light that comes to their eyes when they recall their first appointments. It was so great to talk with a bunch of Methodists who are much more advanced in years than I am, oftentimes we pit the young and old against one another in struggles for power just like the world does, but it is so refreshing to be in an Annual Conference where young and old aren't struggling with one another – but they are walking hand-in-hand on their way to serve the Lord with gladness making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. I was blessed this year, I struggled with our conference, but I couldn't help but walk away blessed. 

Sunday, June 9, 2013

SWTX Annual Conference: Day 3

Me & my bestie Bishop Jim Dorff
               I decided to sleep in on Saturday; I was greeted in the morning by coffee at my door as well as the beautiful baby of my pastor, Caleb. He was grumpy, much like I was ( it’s why we get along). I rode the shuttle bus to the convention center and got to have great conversations with the most delightful persons who are advanced in year.  The 3rd plenary session reminded me once again that the UMC is a massive bureaucracy as we discussed the Unification Implementation Team’s request to suspend our standing rules – their request was not amendable or debatable so it was really more of an edict than a request. Pensions were brought up and approved, blah blah blah.
               What was really interesting was the move to replace the Rev Abby Parker (Austin District) with Rev Pamela Dykehouse (Corpus Christi), The Corpus Christi District’s argument, from the floor anyway, was that they had no representation on the board that Abby Parker was nominated for, the Transitional Uniting Table. Their assessment was fair, a very American “No taxation without representation”-esque move, but I found it interesting that Victoria District which also wasn't represented on the that Table didn't move in a similar fashion, also I’m surprised that Abby Parker, the only deacon on that Table was the one targeted as well as the Austin District, when the San Antonio District held the most seats. But, I digress – a vote was taken to see who would make the cut and Rev Parker won by the closest of margins, then we moved on to another vote as the Corpus Christi District worked to replace another nominee with their own, their move failed and some members of their district took to Twitter to complain (a move I make myself all the time). Complaints were valid as well; Rev Ryan Barnett tweeted about how unfair it was that the only district that paid 100% of its apportionments wasn't being represented on the Uniting Table or the Unification Team.
Reverend Jasmine Smothers and myself
               Then came our worship service, like a wave of grace. Let me say this, our speaker Rev Jasmine Smothers brought the Word of God in a way that recharged my spiritual batteries. I felt challenged and invigorated as she preached from the Gospel of Mark on the paraplegic man who had friends that brought him to Jesus by way of a hole in the ceiling; their faith caused Jesus to heal their friend. She challenged us to have an encounter with Jesus, then go out and help others encounter Christ as well. I worked through lunch, blogging, but our Bible study on the Gospel of John after lunch was invigorating and refreshing – even filling. John is my favorite of the Gospels and the most complicated, so listening to a person who loves it as much as I do was so much fun. I didn't live on God’s Word alone though, the lovely Joe Tanasi brought me chicken fingers, and they were like manna from Heaven.
Rev. Valerie Vogt & I cheesing it up
               The District Superintendent’s Report brought an amazing surprise, a Mariachi band burst through that doors and proceeded to serenade us all with beautiful music. It. Was. Awesome. After they left we had to get serious and vote on Constitutional Amendments from General Conference 2012, all of them were rather trite so I assume they will all pass.

Eric took the glasses off to show off his clergy fashion
               The Ordination Service is my favorite and it didn't disappoint this year. This year my pastor, Eric Vogt was being commissioned, as he had been a licensed local pastor before and his beautiful wife Valerie was being accepted as an ordained Elder in full-connection with the annual conference. It was so moving to see so many deacons and elders join their peers on their journey of ordained ministry.  I was blessed by the reception getting to see so many people blessed by these people and the ministry of lives was a blessing. Of course I harassed Bishop Dorff and my district superintendent about planting new churches in East Austin. (Yes I’m that lay person) It was a great day, and I am excited for tomorrow morning’s worship service.

It was raining clergy

Saturday, June 8, 2013

SWTX Annual Conference: Day 2

               It has been my goal to make it this entire annual conference without buying any food for myself, on Friday I broke my streak and bought some mini corn dogs (they were delicious in case you were wondering). Anyhow, yesterday the Mary Ann Kaiser dramatic saga concerning her ordination being discontinued by a vote of clergy I’m going to call it “NGAM” or “No gays allowed movement”. Reverend John Elford of University United Methodist Church in Austin requested a ruling of law on the matter of the Book of Discipline being ignored as clergy took action that was unconstitutional (for our Church). The Bishop has 30 days to make a ruling and will then send it onward to the Judicial Council. Also the national branch of Reconciling Ministries hopped on board to support Mary Ann as well as GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation). At 2PM CST hundreds of people tweeted their support and their demands for justice for Mary Ann, a reminder of how global our Church really has, and how many of its people are seeking justice for all.

               But, I’m getting ahead of myself, my day started at 6AM as I headed to the Methodist Renewal Movement breakfast where Rev. Wendy Deichmann spoke about the renewal that has been taking place at United Theological Seminary. Her speech at some points sounded lie a really long commercial for her seminary, but I still found myself inspired by the beautiful work that the Holy Spirit did through her to save UTS.  Also, their breakfast tacos were delicious and filled with plenty of God’s perfect gift to mankind, bacon. I also got to briefly catch up with Rev. Ryan Barnett of Saint John’s UMC in Corpus Christi, who also happens to be a founding member of the Methodist Renewal Movement, he’s a really busy guy so it was a blessing to get to run into him.

               The first two plenary sessions were rather boring and uneventful with the exception being the call for legal review.  I had a lovely dinner with the Reverend Abby Parker, and her boo-thang JD Herrera. Then we went onward to a Young Adult hangout where we all sat around and discussed our lives our hopes and our dream, and of course our evil plans to overthrow the elderly (just kidding). It was a wonderful time of fellowship and I was blessed by the new friends I made, as well as the wonderful encouragement it was to see that I wasn't the only person in the conference that didn't have gray hair. Saturday is a new day, and we shall see which way the Spirit is moving. 

Thursday, June 6, 2013

SWTX Annual Conference: Day 1

                I am a Black male, and I live in the South, discrimination is nothing new to me.  As a Christian, one place where I have always found safety and comfort has been in the Church; the Church being a place that affirms me being made in the image of Almighty God, the Church that tells me I have sacred worth, the Church the forces me to see that all others also have this same holiness within them. Today, the first day of the Southwest Texas Annual Conference I got to see the Church cease to be a place of safety, and instead transform itself back into an institution of oppression.
               Mary Ann Kaiser, a woman filled with the mercy and grace of God and overflowing with the Holy Spirit was denied orientation in my annual conference because of her sexual orientation. The vote was very close 124 to 119; but her call and her gifts were denied entry into the ever exclusive “straights only club” known as the clergy. She has served at University United Methodist as the Youth Minister and gone to seminary, she did everything right – except for one thing, she was honest about who she is and whom she loves.  Our Conference’s Reconciling Ministry Team had a special dinner where we hoped we would celebrate her ordination victory; instead we used the time to pray for our sister, our Church, and our leaders. We prayed that the church would cease to be the oppressor of the LGBT community and start to be the body of Christ.
               The Memorial Service was beautiful and very applicable especially this part of the confession: “Paralyzed by fear, we have remained silent when we should have spoken up; yielded to bigotry instead of standing for equality…”

I refuse to yield.

I refuse to remain silent.

               I will stand for equality, so help me God I will not stop until this Church ceases to be a harbor for hatred, ignorance, and oppression and transforms itself by the power of the Holy Spirit into an Altar for all, where all believers can come and fully participate in the glorious gift of grace that Christ offers the world. Amen.

Monday, May 13, 2013

UMC 2013: There will be Schism and Rumors of Schism

            I love people. It is one of my primary flaws and my primary strengths, people are messy and gross and hateful and bitter and wonderful and selfless and kind and gracious and beautiful. Do you see my dilemma? I love the United Methodist Church, even though I have only been a part of this family for a short while, this is still my family – and it is made up of humans, beautiful, messy humans. Humans that are currently in a state of sheer panic and disarray; what is a newly reborn UMC baby to do in this midst of this talk of a schism besides pray and duck their head?
            The UMC is not a stranger to schism and rumors of schism. In 1844 the Methodist Episcopal Church split over the issue of slavery when one of the five bishops inherited slaves. The Church’s silence on the issue of slavery was brought to the forefront and we know how it ended. The Church reunited after slavery was ended and we all lived happily ever after. UNTIL women wanted to be ordained (although John Wesley ordained a woman in 1761 – it took until 1956 for women to fully gain ordination in the UMC), talk of schism rose again – female Elders were attacked and harassed but the storm passed and the UMC endured. The primary problem is not that we spend too much time focusing on issues of controversy, but that we avoid conflict with the world and with each other. Actually, that’s not entirely true – our real primary issue is that we as a denomination lost sight of Wesleyan values. John Wesley opposed slavery, he ordained women – he championed the rights of minority groups. So how then did the Methodist Episcopal Church split over slavery? We know exactly what Wesley thought on slavery, his followers in England fought hard to end slavery while Methodists here in the United States stayed silent on the issue. We lost sight of where we came from and what held us together and we left.
            Everyone can talk about how expensive a split will be. And then there are issues of the property: obviously Asbury Seminary will go to the conservatives, Iliff and Claremont will go to the progressives – but what about Perkins and Duke? I’m not just speaking about the seminaries but the people they represent. Perkins has moderates and liberals and conservatives and every color of the rainbow, as does Duke, as does the UMC. How will this split really work? The answer is it won’t.
            Splitting isn't about our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, it is about us and what we want. We want instant change and gratification for our wants/desires. Our brothers and sisters won’t fall in line with our wishes so we feel it best to disown them rather than work to reach an amicable solution. We are spoiled children fighting over toys instead of fighting for justice. If a schism is really necessary let it be done with kindness and love, not hatred and disrespect. Let us be filled with grace and the Holy Spirit, not animosity, hostility, and a spirit of self-centeredness.
            When we take communion the presiding Elder says “This is not my table or the United Methodist Church’s table, it’s God’s table and it is for everyone”, we need to remember that all of the property of the UMC, all of her seminaries, every building, pew,  hymnal, Book of Worship, Book of Discipline, everything it owns is borrowed, even its members. The UMC belongs to God, so before we split up that which is God’s let us remember that God will hold us accountable for what was placed into our hands. And when God judges our actions we need to have a really good excuse to tell our Heavenly parent why we couldn't play nicely with our siblings. 


Sunday, February 10, 2013

Men & Children Ministry

“Sons are indeed a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one’s youth. Happy is the man who has his quiver full of them. He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.” - Psalms 127:3-5 (NRSV)

This Sunday one of the greeters and Stephen Ministers came up to me, she wanted to know the attendance of the nursery, just like every Sunday. Usually it’s this sweet middle aged couple, but today it was Jeanette Scruggs, and she stopped me and starting telling how impressed she was to see a young man working in children’s ministry. Yes, I am one of the unsung heroes, me and the 30 other men in the US that are so bold to burst through the gendered world of children’s ministry. There are many reasons why men don’t serve in children’s ministry, too many to list but I will list three reasons why men don’t do children’s ministry, and three harmful things that result as a result of their absence.

1. Taking care of children is for women, therefore children’s ministry is only for women.
We all know that men can take care of children just as well as women can, and if you don’t believe that - stop watching Leave it Beaver and hop on the Modern family bandwagon. Men have made massive leaps and bounds in the area of homemaking in the same manner women have proven they can do more than cook and clean and “submit” to men’s authority. Unfortunately for children in the church it takes the Church longer to adapt to society. It will be a few years before more men start serving.
Another element in this formula, men have historically only allowed women to serve in two ministry functions: women’s ministry and children’s ministry. Because of that women tend to be better at doing ministry in said arenas, I’m sure a man could be a great women’s minister (I know of a woman that ran the United Methodist Men ministry in her church, and got re-elected). But women have a stronghold in children’s ministry because it was the “leftovers” that men allotted them.

2. Children are difficult to deal with, give me something to build instead.
If we are being entirely honest, children are hard work, and  a Sunday morning sermon means free Daycare and a reprieve from the onslaught of “why” questions and “Johnny hit me”, “I want dessert now”, “Let’s buy that toy”, etc. Why should men give up their break from their own children to watch other people’s?

3. Men are rarely asked to help.
Let’s get real, the children’s volunteer table is made to trap women into service, it’s riddled with pink, purple, red, flowers, rainbows, and a host of other stereotypical gendered images used to tug at the hearts of women and trick them into mothering more kids. Men are trapped into gardening, building, moving people, visiting prisons, all worthy services, but things the average male church members are more comfortable.
Some people argue that men can’t be trusted around kids because of sexual abuse cases - which I am going to say is just ridiculous, both genders are just as susceptible to pedophilia, but I’ll the psychologists deal with that.

Side Effects
1. Men are missing out on being blessed by serving kids
I LOVE working with children, not just because I get paid to do it, but because I am so blessed by them. Every time I get to be harassed by my 5th & 6th graders I continually come away extremely tired and worn out swearing that I will never have children, until the next day when I am talking my friends’ ears off about how wonderful all of my kids are. I call them all my children, even though when they were born I was in elementary school, they are my babies, I teach them about faith and life and love, and occasionally about gender inequality. I love their laughter and their ability to find joy in every situation. The children I teach at Sunday school are so loud, crazy, and disobedient; but they want to learn and to help others every chance they get. They are a prime example of what it is to wander, and a prime example of what Christ meant by “childlike faith”.
2. It promotes a gender hierarchy.
I know I have beaten this to the ground, but children’s ministry is typically placed at the bottom of the totem pole, and then given primarily women, basically scraps from the table. Personally, to me children’s ministry is the most important, but I’m a minority in that aspect...but I digress. Placing children’s ministry at the bottom of the totem pole does two things. 1. It shows young boys that women are not to be trusted with important tasks and authority. 2. It makes working with children less of a priority. Which leads to my last point.
3. Men missing can make children feel unimportant and unwanted
Nothing in this world will make a child feel less loved and less valuable than an adult not spending time with them. I can remember as a kid forcing myself to pretend to like sports in a desperate attempt to get the attention of my father. I really don’t want the children I work for to have to go through the same awful experience I did. Men being involved in children’s ministry, stops them from hiding from their children in the main service and gets them involved in their children’s lives and in the lives of other children. The coolest time for me as a kid in Sunday School was when the music man came and sang for us. He not only made the songs so much fun he spent time getting to know us. In 2nd grade we got the man that used to be a clown who gave out candy for accurate answers to Bible trivia. These men shaped my views on God and my life, they lifted me up and encouraged me. They made me feel loved and cared for.

The lack of men in children’s ministry saddens me, but I definitely see a bright future where churches no longer use gender hierarchy to determine where women are placed. A future where men participate in the spiritual formation of their children; where children are loved and cared for by adults, not just the women, but the whole Christian community.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Two Deaths & A Book About Teens With Cancer

He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” - Job 1:21(NRSV)

It’s very strange reading a book about teenagers that are dying, while going through the death of two people in your life. I just finished reading The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, a book about teenagers with cancer, some with cancer that is easily treated, others with terminal cancer and little hope for survival. Reading about teens contemplating their own deaths at the fault of their own mutated cells, made going through two recent deaths a learning experience.
The first death I was prepared for, my friend Michael’s mother had a heart attack on Christmas and fell into a coma, I was hopeful for her recovery, yet prepared for her death. The second completely caught me off guard, my friend Jennifer Stanford, died in a car accident. It is a very different thing to bury a parent, and to watch a parent bury a child. Something about children burying their parents feels more natural. In the book, the main character who has terminal cancer constantly wonders about life and death and the meaning of it all. As I sat in a room for the visitation of Trisha Heath, I wondered alongside Hazel, “Why do the good die young and the corrupt live on?” I wondered why God allows Bernie Madoff to live comfortably, while good people struggle to get by. I wondered why this mother of three was dead at 59 and Scott Peterson, a man that killed his wife and unborn child is still alive and comfortable in California, fighting for his right to live. I wondered why Jennifer Stanford was killed in a car accident, while so many drunk drivers recklessly endanger others’ lives and survive their crashes.
And I wondered about Hazel, and Augustus Waters, and Isaac, and the other fictional teens in this book whose stories reflect the realities of living cancer patients. I wondered why God made our bodies prone to improper mutation that could end up killing us. I wondered how families I know like the Moores, the Onstotts, and many others who have fought cancer together and have come out on top. Why do they survive while others who fight just as hard die?
“Funerals are for the living.” said Hazel, and she is so right. As a kid I went to the funerals of my grandfather, two aunts and one uncle. I am well acquainted with how funerals go, and I must confess this: I hate funerals. I hate how they make people more sad, instead of hopeful, I hate how pastors turn eulogies into sermons about being a good Christian - instead of celebrating the deceased. And as a person prone to empathy I hate how much I cry at them. But I go to them, not because I loved the deceased, but because I love the living people they have left behind, because the funeral is for the survivors, not those that have died. I go to them to cry with other people that are crying, to hug the man that never hugs, but needs one because his mom is dead, to comfort that woman that I have never met before who is weeping uncontrollably. I go to meet family members I probably won’t see again until someone else dies or gets married.
The funeral for Mrs. Heath was an interesting one, I had never gone to the funeral of a Caucasian person before, all of my family, like me, is Black. So this funeral was new, yet at the same time very familiar. There were still the people that were horribly under-dressed, the people on their phones the whole time, and the people, like my brother, who cracked jokes to lighten the mood. One thing I found the most interesting is how much sadder this funeral was than the ones for my family. The pastor was so somber you thought he was shipping her to Hell, the room was lit dimly so it looked depressing. This is not how Christians are supposed to be buried. We have hope for resurrection, something I feel needs to be taught in churches far more often.
One thing I will take away from this experience, besides the acknowledgement of how short life is and many other cliches, is gratitude. Life and death are not fair, but I am thankful for both of them. Some people live long a fruitful lives and get to have three children and a loving husband; some people only live long enough to graduate college; some people die within hours of birth; some do good; some have nothing but wicked deeds attributed to them. Life is unfair, but death is the great equalizer, no matter how much money one does or doesn't have, no matter gay, straight, or bi, White, Black, or Beige, we will all return to dust. We have all been blessed with the gift of life, and the bittersweet gift of death, what we do with this gift is important. The Lord will keep giving, and the Lord will keep taking away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.