Friday, May 23, 2008

Worry - Matthew 6:24-34

As I'm finishing up my sermon for Sunday, I'm really loving Eugene Peterson's version of this text in The Message (with my emphasis added):

Matthew 6:24-34 (The Message)

"You can't worship two gods at once. Loving one god, you'll end up hating the other. Adoration of one feeds contempt for the other. You can't worship God and Money both.

"If you decide for God, living a life of God-worship, it follows that you don't fuss about what's on the table at mealtimes or whether the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds.

"Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion—do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them.

"If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers—most of which are never even seen—don't you think he'll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you? What I'm trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting, so you can respond to God's giving. People who don't know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep your life in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. Don't worry about missing out. You'll find all your everyday human concerns will be met.

"Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don't get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes."

What are you worried about?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Review: Prince Caspian

When The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe came out in 2005 (can it have been that long ago already???), I was less than thrilled with the job done on putting one of my very favorite books on film. Still, as a dedicated fan, I felt obligated to check out the next installment in the Chronicles of Narnia: book two (in the correct, original order), Prince Caspian. Prince Caspian is not my favorite book in the series, but still, it's an important part of the whole.

I was very pleasantly surprised. I thought this film was much better than LWW. Actually, I've seen Caspian twice now, with two different sets of family. This movie takes more liberties with the book than did LWW, but I think the choices pay off and make sense in transitioning the book to the screen.

Acting wise, standouts include Peter Dinklage, (he was especially good, and I wish I'd seen him in more things) playing Trumpkin, Skandar Keynes, playing Edmund, and Anna Popplewell, playing Susan. Actually, all four of the children seem to growing into their acting roles, and Ben Barnes, as Prince Caspian, rounds out the group of young actors nicely.

Overall, the film was much darker then LWW. This is somewhat because of the story, but also because of how this film was written and directed. I liked the darker quality - it made the story seem more real, if that's a legitimate statement about a fantasy film. The crises seemed more urgent, the danger seemed more present, the character changes seemed more complete. The internal struggles were clearly communicated. I also thought that the make-up and costumes and effects were stronger in this film - that was a real complaint of mine in LWW. This time around, the centaurs, the minotaurs, the fauns, they all looked more 'realistic.'

Spiritually speaking, this film focused (less overtly probably than LWW) on faith/doubt themes, growing in your discipleship, temptation, moving on and letting go. In hand with reading the book, (which of course, is still better), watching this film with church folks should provide for good conversation. Also check out Eric Helm's thoughtful reflections on the movie. Updated: Forgot to also link to this excellent post by slavktivist about Caspian.

Next up in the series comes one of my favorites, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I hope the producers and director continue with the same tone and quality.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

General Conference Wrap-up Reflections: Points of Joy

As a (I think) last post about General Conference, I want to share some of the moments that brought me joy - because despite the exhaustion, and despite the disappointments and emotional lows, there really were times of great joy and hope as well, and I really do love being at General Conference.

*The Connection - Really, the greatest joy for me of being United Methodist is the connectional nature of the church. I love going to events like GC because I love seeing so many people from so many parts of my life all in one place, all brought together by the church we still love even when it is so hard to stay part of it! I saw friends from undergrad, colleagues from my two conferences, NCNY, and Greater NJ, including getting to spend time with my once pastor Bruce Webster, another NCNY delegate who is now retired and living in Florida. I got to see most of the GBCS staff, which I especially enjoyed since I had to miss my last board meeting. I got to see friends from seminary. I got to spend time with some methobloggers, like dogblogger. There was hardly enough time and enough meal slots to get to spend a little time with everybody. But I so enjoy the being together. And that's not even counting the time I got to spend with those in my delegation, who I got to know so much better, and those new folks I met, connections in committees and meetings that I will value for years to come. For me, that's the greatest joy of General Conference.

*GBCS lunch with Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver - Rep. Cleaver is a powerful speaker and preacher. I took some notes during the lunch, but none of them are making much sense to me two weeks later! He did say something about if God is bigger than us and inside of us, then shouldn't God be showing through us? Here's a link to a GBCS article about his message that is more helpful! I thought he was very inspiring.

*Address by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia - Hearing a president speak in person is a pretty neat event all around. Plus, Sirleaf in particular was a joy to hear. She spoke with purpose and authority. She was funny, and gracious. At the close of her speech, all the bishops greeted her, and one bishop snapped her picture with his cell phone - hilarious!

*Music and Worship, but I already mentioned that!

*Young People from NCNY - I was blessed to have two young people also on the NCNY delegation with me. I consider it a gift to me to watch them experience General Conference for the first time. They both had chances to speak on the main floor of conference, and I marvel at their confidence and boldness, which I definitely didn't feel when I was a first time delegate a couple of years older than they are. They both seemed to throw themselves into everything with complete commitment. It broke my heart to witness them experiencing such painful times and painful behavior by the church, something they'd probably not witnessed in quite this overwhelming way before, but their presence in the church also fills me with hope, because despite their experiences and maybe some disillusionment, here in the UMC they both still are, sharing their unfolding leadership.

Friday, May 09, 2008

General Conference Wrap-up Reflections: Legislative Committe Work

When I was a lay delegate to General Conference in 2000, I chose to be on the Faith and Order legislative committee. Which paragraphs of the Discipline are covered by what legislative committee changes somewhat every four years, and in 2000, Faith and Order dealt with nearly all the petitions relating to human sexuality. I wanted to be right in thick of it, and I didn't want to miss any part of the conversation.

Eight years later, things have changed. Oh, I still like being in the thick of it sometimes, and it was still a little hard not to be in the legislative committee working on those issues, but now after being on the board at GBCS for eight years, I've developed some real passion (and hopefully even some real knowledge) for the social justice issues we are so engaged in as a church.

Church and Society, Section 1, dealt with issues divided into six subcommittees:
Economic Justice
Environmental Justice (my group)
War and Peace
International Issues
Worker Rights/Immigration
General Issues (like the Social Creed)

In my subcommittee in particular, we dealt with petitions ranging from science and evolution, to global warming, to the privatization of water. Because we worked really hard and got done before some other groups, we also ended up handling some petitions that War and Peace did not get to - so we also ended up discussing some Israel/Palestine issues, which, for me, was out of my comfort/knowledge zone.

Many of the petitions we worked on were petitions submitted by GBCS that had already come through the Environmental/Economic Justice work area on which I serve. These petitions are mostly what I would call key policy statements, like our Energy Policy, or our statement on Environmental Racism.

Some petitions were focused on amending the Social Principles - by updating language to be more current and accurate, by addressing needs that have recently developed (like the emerging need to speak to water privatization), etc. We worked quite a bit on one that petition called to amend our Social Principles statement on Science and Technology. The GC approved language that reads, "We find that science’s descriptions of cosmological, geological, and biological evolution are not in conflict with theology." We are now on the record as United Methodists as saying that science, specifically evolution, is not in conflict with theology. That change certainly was a cause of some conversation and disagreement in our subcommittee, but ultimately, the motion had great support in committee and on the floor and carried. I find that pretty exciting.

Other petitions we worked on were interesting because they pertained to such specific issues that they required a great deal of learning just to be able to act on them sensibly. For example, a petition came about Cypress Mulch harvested from the fragile coastal region of Louisiana. I know nothing about cypress mulch or why it is a problem to use. But I know it was important to the folks who submitted the petition and that they expect us to act knowledgeably one way or another to act on the petition. So, thanks to some resource people (and the power of Google), our subcommittee learned enough to rewrite the petition to address all the concerns raised, and we passed the resolution. We now, as the UMC, are urged to avoid purchasing cypress mulch that is harvested from Louisiana.

We generally seemed to work well together as a whole committee. For example, our statement on Welcoming the Immigrant was a collaboration of the whole subcommittee and other interested delegates. When the subcommittee first presented the petition to the full group, there was some disagreement, and a minority report was going to be filed. But the groups got together, had conversation (late into the night, I understand), and were able to return to us the next day with a revised petition that all were happy with, and the petition then passed I think unanimously out of our committee. Such examples are unfortunately rare overall, but examples where you really feel like holy conferencing is a true possibility.

*photo: me presenting subcommittee legislation to the full committee

Some other GC articles you might find interesting:
A UMNS commentary about time and related issues at GC

UMPortal's coverage of the witness for an inclusive church at GC
UMPortal's list of excerpts from bishops' sermons at GC
"Speak it into Existence," a post by a young clergywoman, about her hope from GC

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

General Conference Wrap-up Reflections: Worship

Worship at General Conference was a wonderful gift, a highlight in the midst of such long and stress-filled days. The worship leaders were Mark Miller and Marcia McFee. Mark was the director of the seminary choir while I was at Drew, and his role has since expanded to include more and more teaching responsibility at the seminary as well. I don't think I ever found my worship life so fulfilling as when I was at Drew, so naturally, I was quite looking forward to worship at General Conference.

We opened worship, naturally, with "O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing," and "And Are We Yet Alive?" I like all kinds of music in worship, including some good old traditional hymns, and there's nothing like thousands of people singing "O For a Thousand Tongues."

Worship standouts throughout the week:

The service (Thursday?) where the communion liturgy was woven throughout the whole worship service. The bishops (throughout conference) sat on the floor, surrounding the body of delegate. This in itself was very powerful. This configuration for this interspersed setting of communion was particularly powerful.

Thursday was the episcopal address and the bishops' presentation on the four areas of focus and the seven vision pathways. My notes here are blurry and hard to distinguish into different section, but here are some short quotes - "[the church has] a diminished capacity to offer hope for the world . . . applying political solutions to relational differences." "Decline. Distraction. Division." "In the name of God, we do hard to one another. Our own need deafens us to the needs of others." "Not getting our own way, but giving ourselves away." John Wesley in The Character of a Methodist, "For opinions, for terms, let us not destroy the work of God." A quote like - "We put a man on the moon. We can have a poverty free world. We just need the mind to do it." "Go where the people are." "Connectionalism is not the enemy but a means of grace." Everybody says they would be happy, have enough, if they had "about 20% more." Scarcity mindset.

A great story was told about stopping at some children's kool-aid stand and the children anxiously hurrying the purchaser along. When asked about it, the kids responded that they only had the one cup to use over and over. Do we, the church, act like we only have one cup? When we are full, our purpose is to be emptied. When we are empty, our purpose is to be filled. We are the cup - God fills us, we pour out.

The first Young People's Address was fantastic. "My theology does not stand in the way of who you are." Multi-media, multi-sensory. Dynamic and excellent.

Excellent sermons were given by:
Bishop Hutchinson - telling a story about telling his son, "When the preacher gives the call to come forward, don't move." "Today, I'm asking you to move. Or, more clearly, to let yourself be moved."

Bishop Mark Hanson, ELCA - "nostalgia needs to be pruned so we can bear fruit." Pruned of our power and privilege. Computers have a root command with simple starting program, but if unplugged, the root command remains inactive on its hard disk. We have a root command: love one another. But unplugged from the vine, remains inactive.

Bishop Hee-Soo Jung, especially excellent - Some are seeking to be more open. Some are seeking to be more pure. Both can be good - more hospitality, or more holy as emphases. When we seek to be more hospitable, the danger is that you can lose the identity of what holds you together. When you seek to be more holy, the danger is being so inward looking as to be idolatrous. Ask Jesus to remember you when he comes into his kingdom. What does it mean for Jesus to remember us?

Musical standouts:
"For Every Mountain," by Kurt Carr, sung at Friday morning worship - awesome.
As previously mentioned, "Sanctuary," set to Dave Matthews Band's "Crash."
"Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence," arranged by Gustav Holst. Would be perfect on Christmas Eve I think.

Mark's ability to play the right song at the right time is such a gift. Music can be so powerful and so healing when you have the right thing just when it is needed. Mark has a special talent for that - leading with humor and grace and heart.

*photo source

General Conference Wrap-up Reflections: Human Sexuality

I'm finally home from General Conference, and beginning to recover enough to put some thoughts together. I'd hoped to write much more than I did, but the schedule just really made that impossible for me - I don't know how other folks got so much blogging done. I have several different sets of things I'd like to write about, so I am going to try to take them topic by topic for the next few days, and hope that by the time I'm done, you aren't wishing you'd never hear of General Conference again!

The voting related to issues of human sexuality happened on Wednesday, April 30th, which happened to be my birthday. I figured depending on how the voting played out, I could have a really good birthday or a really bad one...

I went into General Conference expecting our official stance on human sexuality to remain unchanged again for another four years. I didn't expect change to come this time around. But once I arrived in Fort Worth, there just seemed to be a sense in the air that things might be changing. Just a feeling I was getting. A movement. My childhood pastor and now colleague, Rev. Bruce Webster, was NCNY's representative on Church and Society 2, the legislative committee dealing with all the sexuality-related petitions (or the vast bulk of them at least.) He reported that things were going well. In his sub-committee, the recommendation came 14-6 to change the language of the discipline to reflect the deep disagreement we have in the church around sexuality. Then in the full legislative committee, the vote was the same - the majority report would recommend a change of language on the full floor. Not to be fully inclusive, just to acknowledge that faithful Christians disagree about homosexuality and how it fits into Christian practice. To my recollection, the legislative committee hadn't recommended anything but retaining the same language since 1996. And so I started to get a little hopeful.

When the conversation came to the main floor, I dared to get even a bit more hopeful. We adopted a petition against homophobia and heterosexism. That may not sound like much, but I thought it was hopeful. The conversation surrounding the majority and minority reports also gave me hope - the process of amending both reports led me to believe there were enough votes to make a change.

But, in the end, by such a close margin (55-45%, less than a hundred votes separating out of 992 possible votes), we voted against saying we disagree about this issue. What irony! 55-45 that we don't disagree.

The next day, we had a witness from members of the GLBT community, supporters, friends, family, etc., and delegates. I really can't do this witness justice. I invite you to watch it here (simply listed as 'witness' under the archives of Thursday, May 1). I had gone back and forth in my mind about whether these witnesses were effective or not from a strategic standpoint, based on the demonstrations on the floor of conference in 2000 and 2004. Do these witnesses make moderates more or less likely to have a change of heart? I'm not sure in general. But this witness, this holy witness seemed needed, and deeply moving.

Things that strike me:
- During the witness, when you include the gallery of visitors, together with delegates and bishops, it seemed there were many more people standing in support than not.

- The narrow vote margin (less than 100 votes separation) leads to speculation. If only US delegates had voted on this issue, I suspect the recommendation of the majority report would have passed. We are global church though. How do we exist as such with such cultural differences? The Discipline allows for some differences in Central/Regional Conference, but the US is not yet classified as a Regional Conference, and has no place for differences that might be US-specific.

- IRD's blog originally referred to the witness as people "storming" the floor. I think that blog post title has since been edited. It would be hard to characterize the witness as people storming the floor.

- During the parliamentary debate, it seemed that many of those who wanted us to retain our current language of 'incompatibility' would make recommendations of how to vote right before voting took place in the guise of asking a question for clarification. This tactic was so blatantly used that people were literally groaning aloud every time someone came to the mic and said they didn't understand what we were voting on. I have deep respect and love for many of my friends and colleagues who feel differently about issues of sexuality than I do. But using these tactics, the things I witnessed, I cannot respect.

- Many of my parishioners told me they read about the church retaining its position in the newspaper this weekend. I was so grateful for the various comments I received on Sunday morning. People expressed disappointment in the decisions made, and one woman told me how she chose FLUMC in part because it was clear that people with a variety of lifestyles were included in the leadership of our church - that was important to her. I had young people asking questions and wanting to know more. I appreciate how engaged they were in what was going on.

- Rev. Jeremy Smith at Hacking Christianity has several good GC-related posts, including these three posts that I would recommend for some reflection/analysis of our decisions, especially the third listed.