Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Bill Gates

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is one of the partners of the United Methodist Church in the Nothing But Nets campaign, so I tend to perk up my ears when I hear news of the foundation. This week, Bill and Melinda Gates sent out an annual letter, outlining their goals, hopes and progress on the issues of health that they care most about. But it was the following that caught my eye:

"Our spending in 2008 was $3.3 billion. In 2009, instead of reducing this amount, we are choosing to increase it to $3.8 billion, which is about 7 percent of our assets.

Although spending at this level will reduce the assets more quickly, the goal of our foundation is to make investments whose payback to society is very high rather than to pay out the minimum to make the endowment last as long as possible."

This is something different even than a theology of abundance (which is what I'm hearing most from people in church circles on how to talk about money). No one would argue that the Gates foundation has an abundance. But they are pushing ahead to give more because the need is greater--and because they can have more impact.

I'm not arguing that the Gates Foundation has any kind of theological basis or that their giving patterns fit a theological argument. But they are not hoarding, and that to me is good news. They are saying that when they see brothers and sisters in need, they don't just try to keep the institution safe guarded and going. Although I'm not sure I would term it "extravagant generosity", they are trying to be more generous, not less.

This is good for me. I'm hoping that this is good for the church. We need to be more generous, not less because there is much more need. And instead of hoarding for the future, our giving needs to have impact right now, when people are hurting and struggling all across the globe. We will always and everywhere need Jesus. But now there might be more opportunity to help people realize it. With our time and with our resources, I hope that we give bigger.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Holy Boldness

Tonight we start session 5 of the Holy Boldness Urban Academy that we've been holding in our conference. We began the process in July-ish of 2006, bringing together the design team around a model that the General Board of Global Ministries provided. The hope is that through a 6-session academy (note: not a conference!), urban churches might identify paths toward one another and paths into ministry in their own neighborhoods.

We know that most of our urban churches are struggling right now. If they're not struggling, they're probably considering moving out into the suburbs. But I take great hope in some of the things I've seen come out of our academy. Churches working together, even across conference boundaries. Churches sharing good ideas with each other, encouraging one another. Urban churches realizing that they are not alone and that there is something different about them than their suburban or rural counterparts--and that ministry cannot be done in exactly the same way in all three areas.

And yet they've realized that not everything is different. There is still a need for focus and for ministries that have a life-changing impact on the neighborhood and community. The gospel is not different...but it is heard sometimes differently. We have an incredible opportunity to be in an uncomfortable place.

Why incredible opportunity? I still remember being at Perkins Minister's Week early on in my pastorate when I heard Ched Myers giving his reading of the Mark 14 passage in which Jesus says in most of our translations: "you will always have the poor with you." He wondered out loud whether or not it could also mean "you will always be with the poor."

Now I haven't done due diligence and gone and checked the Greek myself. But that phrase caught me. What if it isn't that we will always be able to go out and serve the poor as one of the many options that a church might offer for ministry? What if, instead, we are asked to keep the poor constantly within hearing, within seeing, within reach? This is just one of the incredible opportunities I find in urban ministry.

Not that it isn't available, especially in rural ministry. But in the gentile UMC, it is easy to become addicted to the office with my desk and secretary, screening calls. My place of leisure with my books and resources around me. This Holy Boldness academy has reminded me once again that the power of God in the urban church is one that draws such a wondrous crowd together that we might experience something like the Pentecost every day. Economic diversity, racial diversity, unchurched and churched, age diversity. It's not just the poor in wealth, but every person who has been impoverished because they have not "fit" into other places.

I hope and pray for the churches who are converging on Travis Park UMC right now that they will be encouraged--to be holy and bold. And to be with those who also need the Word in their midst, made manifest by the Body of Christ, choosing to stay among them.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Covenant Connection

There are so many reasons I'm proud to be from the Southwest Texas Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church (Bishop Schnase was in my father's youth group in Del Rio!)...but one of the big ones is Covenant Connection, which is what we call our process of the provisional membership years. There is so much support built into it, so much community, so much useful continuing ed and some really great feedback that I believe helps form and shape incredible ministers. I think that the fact that we're one of the smaller conferences in the Jurisdiction and yet have managed to produce some excellent leadership has a lot to do with the way we start our pastors out.

I say this because I just got back from our 3rd Covenant Connection retreat of Year 1 (this is supposedly the last class that will be three years, something that many of us regret, since our process aims to create community and it's difficult to do that in the 17 months that a 2 year process will give them). The skill sets of the provisional members are evident, but it's also clear to me that many of them are figuring out that this can be a place where they can admit their own struggles and the places that they would most like coaching and feedback. It's not just gatekeeping--it's continued instruction and a safe place to learn how to be colleagues both with each other and with the greater orders of elder and deacon.

So hooray for annual conferences that aren't just letting people hang around and occasionally meet for the time between their commissioning and ordination. Hooray for annual conferences who are taking seriously the fact that this time that we are given is a gift--to help us become more effective and receive affirmation and continued feedback and advice!

May we not be so anxious to get to the goal that we miss the richness of the journey and thus become poorer for it.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

More Auden

I thought that one more line from Auden at this point in our History would be helpful. We're coming up on the Inauguration, and I have such high hopes...and I'm trying to remember that it's most helpful to put my hope in God. And yet it's so easy to hope that our government can do good!

Our government, though, is made of fallible people facing difficult problems. I doubt that there has been a government ever which hasn't been made up of fallible people facing difficult problems. Yet the people in this one I like more than I like others (oh, may I not be fallible!) and they are facing more difficult problems than many governments have faced at the beginning of a term.

But back to Auden. When I remember that it is people who are in charge...and people of whom they are in charge, I remember this line, said by Simeon, the man whom God promised would not die until he saw the salvation of God:

"for the course of History is predictable in the degree to which all men love themselves, and spontaneous in the degree to which each man loves God and through Him his neighbour."

What is predictable scares me...what is spontaneous and somehow the working of the Spirit delights me. My hopes and prayers for this country are that we don't let predictability work its insidious machinations...but instead a fresh Wind might blow. And leave all of us more loving.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

For the Time Being

Several years ago, I ran into one of W.H. Auden's longer poems called For the Time Being. Though I really ought to read it beginning with Advent (since it does!), I always end up running through it at this time of year because the first part I ever read was the last part in the poem:

Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tee,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes--
Some have gotten broken--and carrying them up into the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week--
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted--quite unsuccessfully--
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off. But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid's geometry
And Newton's mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets
And much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this. To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most tying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now, recollecting that moment
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.
And craving the sensation but ignoring the cause,
We look round for something, no matter what, to inhibit
Our self-reflection, and the obvious thing for that purpose
Would be some great suffering. So, once we have met the Son,
We are tempted ever after to pray to the Father:
"Lead us into temptation and evil for our sake".
They will come, all right, don't worry; probably in a form
That we do not expect, and certainly with a force
More dreadful than we can imagine. In the meantime
There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance. The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon;
When the Spirit must practise his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God's Will will be done, that, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.
(final Narrator and Chorus sections of "For the Time Being" by W.H.Auden)

I wait for that lovely movement in which everything becomes a You and nothing is an It. I see so much need for that in the world today. Reduced to numbers and statistics, decisions must be made because those statistics cannot lie, but they really are lies which are spun and spinning always, some more fathomable to our beliefs and some complete anathema to them. And yet there is nothing else than those numbers, those billions of "Its" because for everything to become a You might break our minds into thousands of pieces.

Perhaps the Time Being is the time to let broken be okay. Because we know the One who will make us Whole. And that One is the One to whom no person is an It.

Monday, January 5, 2009

We will not panic

I keep having to tell myself this. I keep reminding myself of Philippians 4:4-7.

Vacations do this to me. Just when the rhythm of work seems to be working its way into me, I get thrown off by something that is supposed to be relaxing and generally is, until I come back and realize that the rhythm is gone and it's going to take awhile to get back.

Not good for someone with ADD.

So I will not panic about the letters that must be written immediately, the positions that have to be filled, the job descriptions that need to be examined and the many other details that are falling around me. I'm going to pray and then I'm going to tackle them one at a time.

But it does remind me that I would rather have these problems than the problem of what will I eat and what will I wear and where will I lay my head tonight.

Not Panicking! The Official Theme of 2009!