Thursday, November 29, 2007

Review: Reclaiming the Church by John B. Cobb, Jr.

I recently finished reading John Cobb's Reclaiming the Church: Where the Mainline Church Went Wrong and What to Do about It. John Cobb is my favorite theologian - I was introduced to his work in Systematic Theology in seminary, and I felt like I'd finally found something who was writing about the theological thoughts of my own mind. (My personal favorite is his Grace and Responsibility), a process-oriented look at the theology of John Wesley, perfect for this United Methodist-nerd.) Reclaiming the Church is a short little book - it took me forever to read though since I kept getting distracted from it.

Cobb starts out in his introduction by talking about the state of the mainline/oldline church: it has become lukewarm. He says, "As a group and on the whole we are lukewarm. We do good things. We serve the needs of real people. But we inspire no passion. We no longer even call for primary commitment to the gospel that we purport to serve. We are quite content if, among the priorities of our members, Christian faith comes in third of fourth, after family and employer and nation perhaps. We accept still lower rankings from many of our members with little complaint, glad for the small favor of occasional attendance and financial contributions." (4)

In the first chapter, Cobb writes that the church has "a lack of a shared sense of the primary importance of that to which the church witnesses." (8) He argues strongly that "the professionalization of theology" is key to the lukewarmness of the church today: "The problem lies in the gap now existing between theology and church life, a gap that did not exist to any comparable extent a century ago. The pastors who initiated the fundamental theological changes involved in the social gospel were able to do so because they understood themselves to be responsible for articulating the meaning of the gospel to their people . . . Today, the situation is different . . . lay people and pastors do not understand themselves as responsible to think as Christians." (23) Do you agree?

Cobb goes on to talk about "responding to the loss of cultural props," highlighting endings and beginnings that have deeply impacted the church. Endings (not ended, but ending): Eurocentrism, Nationalism (particularly referring to Western Europe) and Economism, Enlightenment Rationalism, the Sexual Revolution, and Patriarchy. He says there are two serious proposals for reforming the church: renewal and transformation. Renewal, which focuses on the inner life of the church, "concentrat[ing] on our own commitments without seeking to impose them on others," or transformation, which lives always out of its past but "in such a way that it learns from and is changed by its cultural environment, while also taking responsibility to Christianize that environment." (43-44)

Cobb urges transformation, but recognizes that renewal and transformation sometimes work hand in hand as "two moments in a single process." He highlights moments in church history where groups sought renewal but in the end achieved transformation. "When the problem is that the distinctive biblical thems are clouded by the dominance of cultural patterns, renewal is needed. Transformation is needed when our historic teaching limits us to the themes dominant in our own tradition, preventing us from hearing the voices of those who have suffered." (55) According to Cobb's analysis, are we in need of renewal, transformation, neither, both? Again, Cobb prioritizes transformation. Transformation, he says, "is what happens when God is effectively present in an event . . . God's effective embodiment in the world can be named Christ. Thus Christ is causally present wherever transformation occurs." (60)

Cobb argues that we should boldly proclaim a purpose of the salvation of the world. He doesn't see this as an exclusively Christian purpose, but says, "What is important is not that we have a purpose shared by no one else, but that we genuinely understand our purpose to be Christian." (69) The way he frames and articulates this distinction is one of his strongest points, I think.

Cobb moves to talking about unity, a topic of high interest in today's very polarized church. "when contradictory positions are felt so strongly, we do not have lukewarmness! The problem for the church is that the intense convictions are not about Jesus Christ." (77) Emphasis mine. Exactly. He says that our goal of unity is "to find a way to do justice to the deepest convictions of both the traditionalists and the reformists, not to find compromises that will avoid institutional splits . . . the possibility of achieving authentic reconciliation lies in the existing unity. This unity is in Christ" (78) So simple and yet so complicated, right? "Most Christians can recognize authentic faith in another, even when the locus of emphasis differs." (79) I wonder here if we have moved beyond even this point though. Do we recognize authentic faith in one another despite our deep theological differences? Sometimes, yes. But sometimes we begin to question the faith of our theological foes, I think. In our scathing rhetoric against those we disagree with, rarely will you find a comment acknowledging that faith is still at the core of each person. What do you think?

Cobb also goes on to talk about how we can have a common effort with people from many faith traditions in working for the coming of the basileia of God. He argues that though he understand Jesus to be the only 'savior,' that indeed others can "contribute to salvation," and contribute to enriching the Christian faith (ie: Buddhist meditation practices used in Catholic monasteries). (89-90) He urges us to accept whatever helps us in our task as "coworkers for the Basileia." (91) I found this section particularly helpful, even if I'm not relating it very clearly, for understanding how I can claim the centrality of Christ and Christ's identity as way and savior without disregarding other faith traditions.

Cobb is a such an intelligent writer - even a short 100 page book like this one is full of content that makes me read and reread. But the effort is worth it - Cobb has insightful wisdom about the church and how we might move from lukewarmness, and I recommend you check out this (or any) of Cobb's work.

Monday, November 26, 2007

My Work Week

I've written a bit about pastors and work-week schedules before, though not in much detail. But I just finished reading Coffeepastor's post about his schedule, and like Cheesehead, who responded with her own post, I thought I'd do the same. (By the way, Cheesehead mentions 'sleeping in' until 7:30 in her post, and I feel I need to have a serious talk with her about the meaning of sleeping in.)

My schedule has changed a bit since moving to a new appointment in New Jersey, although not drastically. And my schedule has never been very particularly structured. But here it is:

1) Days off: This is something I struggle with a lot. I try very hard to take Fridays off, and if Friday doesn't work, I take Wednesday off. The truth is, I almost never take an entire day off. Inevitably, I find myself doing some ministry-related work, reading, emailing, sermon preparation, etc. I think this is in part because as a single pastor, I have a great deal of control over my time. When I decide to work (or not) usually doesn't impact anyone but me. And I don't feel like I'm overworking (at least not most of the time) because I feel like it all balances out in the end. So there that is. I'm trying to be better about keeping a day completely off. But it's a struggle.

2) I don't have set office hours. I tried to keep hours in Oneida, and no one would ever stop in during those hours intentionally, or I would end up missing my scheduled hours all the time anyway, so it seemed pointless. My predecessor here didn't keep office hours, so I was happy to continue in his footsteps on that. I'm a night owl, and I sleep in until about 9am unless something else comes up. I usually do a bit of work at home - responding to emails, etc., and then head into the office around 11am.

3) At the office, I start working on my weekly responsibilities. At the beginning of the week, I work mostly on my sermon, my sermon blog/Sunday School lesson, long term worship planning, etc. Towards the end of the week I'm thinking about bulletins, powerpoint presentations, and children's sermons. I've actually been trying really hard this Advent to get my sermons at least started well in advance. So far, I've got at least part of all my Advent sermons completed.

4) Visiting isn't something I do on a specific day. I try to do this when I have a good window of uninterrupted time, or as needed. Some weeks I don't make any visits at all, and some weeks I make several.

5) Evenings - Like visiting, some weeks I have no meetings at all, and some weeks I have them Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights. Thursday nights are for bell choir and choir, both of which I am in.

6) Weekends - I'm the conference youth coordinator for NCNY, and also a General Conference delegate, and these commitments, as well as some special church events, keep my weekends pretty full. Often this is why my Friday day-off plan doesn't work. But these weekend events are also some of things I love doing the most.

I got to the end of writing all that and almost didn't post it after all. I was thinking, who wants to read a detailed description of my work week? But then I started thinking about what my work week means for my ministry and what conclusions I can draw.

- I notice how rarely my schedule brings me into contact with people outside the church world, or outside United Methodism even. John at Locusts and Honey recently posted something along this line.

- My church schedule also rarely brings me into contact with people who are not white, not middle/upper class, and not fairly well-educated. This is especially true in my current location. I preach about the gospel message of God's love of the poor and oppressed, but I don't actually spend very much time with the very ones I have said the gospel is good news for.

- My weeks are pretty full and busy, but most of the things I work on are week-to-week needs. Writing a sermon, responding to pastoral care needs, taking part in committee meetings. Just doing the regular 'work' of the church takes up so much of my time. I feel strongly that we need to be thinking more long-term, need to be talking about vision, need to be looking past just maintaining things, but I find it hard to find the space to do that without leaving other responsibilities undone. How do you make space to think big? Is there room in the way we do church for discipleship? Real ministry?

Friday, November 23, 2007

Rev Gals Friday Five: Post Thanksgiving Day

Since I'm not doing anything particularly productive on my vacation (I guess that's how vacation is supposed to be, but I feel like I should be doing work), I may as well play the Rev Gals Friday Five instead of striving for a more theologically-trying post. (I replaced the RevGals pic with a Tofurky pic to better represent my Thanksgiving experience)

So here it is:

1. Did you go elsewhere for the day, or did you have visitors at your place instead? How was it?

This year we went to my aunt's house. For the past four years, we had Thanksgiving dinner at my parsonage, but now that I live in New Jersey, I couldn't get everyone to come to my new parsonage! We had 18 people altogether, including four generations of the extended Mudge Family. We had a good time. Now that my cousins are mostly grown (the youngest is 13, most of us are in our 20s and 30s), we seem to have rekindled our interest in getting together and keeping in touch/keeping close. We've always had a close extended family, although we've had some shaky years, and I think we're starting to remember and re-value that tradition.

2. Main course: If it was the turkey, the whole turkey, and nothing but the turkey, was it prepared in an unusual way? Or did you throw tradition to the winds and do something different?

We have a mixture of meat-eaters, vegetarians, and vegans at our dinner. Main dishes: Turkey, tofurky, spinach tortellini. Stuffing cooked in the turkey. Vegetarian stuffing. Vegan stuffing. Chocolate milk. Eggnog. Soy eggnog. Mash potatoes. Mash potatoes made with soy milk. We've been doing this long enough though that this is a pretty typical meal for us now.

3. Other than the meal, do you have any Thanksgiving customs that you observe every year?

-Most years, we have crayons set out to color on our table cloth.
-We exchange names for our "cousin exchange" for Christmas shopping. We started doing this because we have a huge number of cousins in the family, and we used to try to buy for everyone. It got to be too much. So we started drawing names and just buying for one cousin. Now, we don't actually draw names. It was too tricky to make sure everyone got someone not in their immediate family, or to honor special requests, so now I just tell everyone who they're buying for. (Ah, what power I have!)

4. The day after Thanksgiving is considered a major Christmas shopping day by most US retailers. Do you go out bargain hunting and shop ‘till you drop, or do you stay indoors with the blinds closed? Or something in between?

When I was in high school and my mom (a nurse) would have to work a very early shift on Black Friday, my friend and I would drop her at work, go get Dunkin Donuts, and then hit the early sales. Now, it depends. I did shop some today - my mom had the day off for the first time in years (actually, she's currently out of work with an injury). We didn't go at the crack of dawn though! And my locations included places like Cokesbury, Fair Trade Marketplace, and the Syracuse Food Coop. (Ok, and Target.)

5. Let the HOLIDAY SEASON commence! When will your Christmas decorations go up?

Growing up, we had firm rules on this. Advent Calendar - December 1st. Everything else, not until the 15th. I'm not exactly sure why, but I would lean toward this tradition myself if there were no other circumstances. BUT, now I have an open house every year, so I usually decorate a couple days before that, whenever it falls. (And the Advent Calendar still goes up on the 1st.)

Monday, November 19, 2007

General Conference: Delegation Meeting Reflections

Last weekend I headed up to NCNY for a General Conference Delegation meeting. We had the pleasure of having a conference call with retired Bishop Joseph Yeakel, who served as bishop of the New York West Area before I knew what a bishop was. Bishop Yeakel is known around the connection for his exceptional knowledge of UMC polity and order. If you've been to General Conference, you've likely seen him sitting behind the presiding bishop, acting as the fount of knowledge he is when it comes to questions of decoding the Robert's Rules, etc. Bishop Yeakel spoke to us, and especially to first time delegates, about what to expect and how to prepare for General Conference. He also answered our questions about what big issues to expect (besides the usual suspects), etc. I really enjoyed his conversation and insight.

Some notes I made on the conversation:

Bishop Yeakel reminded us that there's a difference between being a member and a delegate. We are members of Annual Conference, but delegates to General Conference. Being a delegate means that our responsibility is limited to the event, the time of GC itself. We go as individual delegates. I know this is not always the view held in other delegations, but in NCNY we have always emphasized that we vote as individuals, not as a block.

The bishop said, "We’re not the church John Wesley thought he was starting." He talked about Francis Asbury, how Wesley would have appointed Asbury to the role of the first bishop in the American Methodist movement, but that Asbury instead (or in addition, I guess) wanted to be elected by his colleagues. So, Bishop Yeakel talked about us having a "polity quadrilateral." We are:
1) Conciliatory. Conciliar. We meet in council.
2) Connectional, legally and by covenant.
3) Itinerant church. "We're not called to be called. We're called to be sent." That's a powerful statement.
4) Episcopal. Not a hierarchical or separate order. But bishops are chief connectional officers. The only person who can interpret what’s in the ‘Book of Covenant’ (the Bishop's preferred term for the Book of Discipline) is the bishop of the area where topic is in question (and Judicial Council, in review.)

Bishop Yeakel also talked about the types of legislative responsibilities we would have at GC:
1) Constitutional. Only legislation that becomes effective only after referendum to Annual Conferences.
2) Temporal economy/organization and administration: 'immediate' and complete control at over this at General Conference.
3) Normative law, like Social Principles. This is our best understanding of our life together, but not legalism of second category. Includes narrative portions of discipline.

Concluding our time, the Bishop said, “There’s a part of each one of us that is a political animal, and hopefully the grace of God can work through that too.” Hopefully indeed!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Methoblog, NCNY Bloggers

The Methoblog has been having some stressful times. If you joined the blogroll in the last few months, make sure to resubmit your site for inclusion.

I think I will soon be making a small blogroll with the growing number of NCNY bloggers.
We've got:

-Aaron Bouwens, one of my fellow ordinands, blogging at Lord If I Know.

-Andrew Glos, another pastor from NCNY serving here in GNJ. I think he's still officially in NCNY, so I'll claim him for the bloggers - he blogs at Cadences of God.

-Kurt Karandy, a CCYM alum, freshman at American University, future pastor, blogging at Curt Comments from Kurt.

-My pastor friend Richelle, who is actually a pastor younger than me (by 9 days), newly blogging at Work in Progress.

-Wes Sanders, a student at Binghamton University, who attended Exploration with me in November, blogging at Imparted Righteousness.

-**My friend Richelle just let me know that Alan Howe, another elder in NCNY, is blogging at Nexus Notes.

-**Also just found BJ Norrix's new blog, Thoughts from Dr. BJ.

If you know of any other NCNY bloggers, let me know!

Sunday, November 11, 2007

from jockeystreet: inch by inch

My brother, as I mentioned, has started blogging again, and I really like his most recent post, here. He lifts a quote from a book (that I got him, by the way...) that says: "Tiny, hesitant improvements are a terrific way of perpetuating a broken system . . ."

In the book Jim references, the excerpt refers mostly to ecological/sustainability issues, but it struck me as an apt metaphor for a life of discipleship in general. How often do we try to do the very least we think God might be asking of us, to avoid the real call from Jesus - "Take up your cross and follow me." I think we're hoping that doing a million little things somehow equals the commitment Jesus asks for in taking up the cross.

My brother goes on to talk about Destiny, the new massive mall/complex eventually opening in Syracuse, NY. Jim writes, "A green mall is more of the same. A perpetuation of the real problems, covered up with green technology. Instead of driving toward that 1000 foot drop-off at 55 mph, we're driving toward it at 35. And since we're going all nice and slow and careful, we can ignore those worriers who tell us we need to turn and go in another direction."

My favorite word I learned in Greek is the word we translate as repentance - metanoia, which means more literally in the Greek, changing the direction of one's mind. (I became stuck on it because the Greek New Testament says that Judas repented. English translations often choose to use a different word to describe Judas' actions.) To repent means to go in a different direction than you've been going. But instead of repenting, maybe we're hoping it's enough if we just go more slowly in the wrong direction we've already been going, perhaps hoping we're at least walking away from God a little less quickly.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Review: American Gangster

Last weekend my mother and I went to see American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. We made the mistake of going to see it at the theatres at Garden State Plaza, which is a HUGE mall in Northern New Jersey. I've been there before, during the day on a weekday and late at night for an after-store hours movie, but I've never gone on a Saturday at what was apparently the start of the shopping season. It was a zoo, an absolute zoo. But, nevertheless, we made it to the movie, a packed early afternoon showing.

The film is really excellent. I try never to give away major plot points in my reviews, but if you don't want any details, it's probably best to stop reading now. Washington and Crowe are both excellent actors. They're such personalities that they never seem to completely disappear into their parts, but maybe that's something that can't be helped giving their celebrity status. But Washington in particular has such a charisma about him that it is hard to dislike him in any role, whether he plays the 'good guy' or the 'bad guy'.

That charisma is exactly what the film's subject has: Frank Lucas, huge figure in the drug industry in Harlem in the 1970s. Throughout the movie, we see again and again the repugnant, violent, unethical behavior that Lucas displays. And yet, you can't help but be rooting for him a bit. After seeing the movie, I read several interviews and articles about Lucas, and this likability seems to be a common theme - judges who sentenced him, cops who pursued him, journalists who wrote about him - they all seem to end up liking Lucas. Lucas is never particularly contrite about his actions. In fact, he's probably best described as a little wistful about his glory days. He has this charisma.

Charisma is an interesting quality, characteristic, that some people seem to possess, regardless of their moral standing. You don't have to be a 'good' person to be charismatic. Thinking about charisma got me thinking about church leadership and charisma. Are growing churches led by leaders with a certain amount of charisma? I guess that's pretty off topic to the movie review, but my mind always seems to go there! Jesus certainly had a quality of charisma that shines even through texts 2000 years old. He had more than charisma, but he had that too. Have you ever known people you just loved being around, other qualities aside?

The film isn't a 'message' movie - it doesn't paint exact pictures for you of conclusions you should draw, but there are certainly subtle points made - underlying commentary on drugs and their impact, issues of race and racism, the Vietnam war and military personnel. Frank Lucas flew under the radar of law enforcement for so long because no one believed a black man could be in his position of power - do you cheer on the 'achievement' of Lucas, breaking racial barriers of the illegal variety? Questions come up about the military and drug use, and some characters in the movie don't want questions to be asked because of how bad it will make things look, regardless of how things are. These are all quiet themes in the storyline.

Monday, November 05, 2007

All Saints Sunday

*Today, as in many churches, we celebrated All Saints Sunday at Franklin Lakes. I appreciated Michelle's post at 33 Names of Grace about celebrating All Saints for the first time in a new appointment. Michelle talks about how you are thinking about those you lost in your previous appointment while not yet knowing the saints who are being grieved in your new appointment. Today at FLUMC, we in particular remembered two saints who passed away since last All Saints - and for good and for bad, both of these women died after my arrival here in September. Of course, I didn't have long to get to know these two women. But I got to have a small part in their lives.

We also took a moment to remember other saints - people had time to come forward and light a tea light candle in memory of other loved ones, and write their name on a record of sorts of the day. I would estimate that about half of the congregation came forward to light a candle for someone, and it is a time I always find very special. After worship, I was talking with my mother (who is in town visiting) about why it's a special day...

I think that we're not great (as a society) at grieving and mourning and comforting each other in grief and mourning. And I think that we might be ok at being there for people in their first year of grieving, but not so much after the first year. But I think we always carry with us these saints, these losses. We always have these people who have shaped us and touched us in our hearts. And sometimes, I think, we're just waiting for a chance to be able to talk about them, share about them, remember them out loud and in public.

Today, I thought about my grandfather, my grandmother, my aunt. I thought about Al, the first parishioner I lost in Oneida, and Wanda, whose funeral was the last I led there, and the many names in between. I thought, too, of the new names I already know, in the way you quickly know the names of people who have shaped the church in the years before your arrival.

What saints are you carrying with you?

*Image: 'All Saints Day', for sale here.