Archives For Ministry

UnknownWe’ve come out of the gate with gusto at the Tamed Cynic Podcast, being privileged to have conversations with some of the best voices and minds in the Church.

Will Willimon was our first guest on the Podcast and now he’s here for redux…

There’s a question 2/3 in about #’s that points out the curriculum I developed for 4th and 5th graders, Tribe Time, a virtue-based program that spends 2 years on the Book of Leviticus. You can find out more about it here

For those of you who don’t know Will Willimon, he was recognized by Baylor as one of America’s 12 Best Preachers. The Pew Foundation lists him as the 2nd most read author among Protestant clergy, selling over a million copies. Take that Beth Moore.

The former dean of Duke Chapel and former Bishop of North Alabama he currently teaches at Duke and pastors Duke Memorial United Methodist Church.

The very best of my preaching is just a shallow imitation of this master artist.

As a young seminary student, Willimon’s sarcastic, caustic demeanor freed me to be me in the pulpit.

You can find his blog and links to his books here.

Bishop Willimon was our guest preacher this past weekend and afterwards agreed to do a Q/A forum on Church Leadership.

0To listen to my previous interview with Bishop Willimon click here.

Be on the lookout for the next installments. We’ve got Brian Blount, Brian Zahnd, and Robert Two Bulls in the queue.

You can listen to this Willimon interview here below in the ‘Listen’ widget on the sidebar. You can also download it in iTunes here.

Better yet, download the free mobile app here.

UnknownIf you’re in the DC area, stop by Aldersgate (Collingwood) this Sunday to hear Bishop Will Willimon preach.

Actually, stop by Aldersgate Kingstowne at 10:00 to hear me preach.

THEN go over to our Collingwood location for a lunchtime forum with Bishop Willimon at 12:30.

You can get more details here.

I will be convening the forum, and I’d love to be able to pose your questions to Bishop Willimon.

 

You can email me at jamicheli@mac.com.

You can leave it in the comment section below.

Or-better yet- click on the ‘Speakpipe’ to the right of the screen and leave me an audio question.

 

Untitled3To prime the question pump, you can listen to the Tamed Cynic Podcast with Bishop Willimon here.

 

I thought I’d give you these gem quotes from Willimon’s book, Bishop: The Art of Questioning Authority by an Authority in Question.

Bishop Willimon gets away with saying things that would get me in trouble with my own bishop:

 “A Living God gives churches two choices: grow (that is, change) or die (dead doesn’t change.’

 

‘Being surrounded by biblical literalists, neo-Calvinist fundamentalists, and Baptist bigots is a golden opportunity to rediscover the vitality and intellectual superiority of Wesleyan Christianity.’

 

“The baptized have been all too willing to transfer their baptismal responsibilities on to the backs of clergy.”

 

‘What is incomprehensible is that we call this stability-protecting, past-perpetuating institution (the UMC) the ‘Body of Christ.’

All the Gospels present Jesus as a ceaseless, peripatetic.

Never once did Jesus say, ‘Come, settle down with me.’

 

“The test of my ministry is how well God uses me to challenge and to equip every church to make more disciples for Jesus Christ by taking more risks and changing more lives.”

 

“Change, especially when we don’t know where it is headed, opens space for the Holy Spirit to intrude and show us what God can do.”

 

“Whenever Jesus is busy, his work brings enemies out of the woodwork, some of whom are more adept practitioners of the gospel than I.”

 

“Methodism is church in motion. The Body of Christ atrophies when it is preoccupied with self-care…laity are called not to maintain the church, but to be part of the mission of  Jesus Christ in the world. Our great task is not to stabilize or harmonize the People of God but to put the church in motion.”

“Boredom is killing the church.”

 

 

 

Open grave jmikolaSave Marilynne Robinson’s Rev. Ames in Gilead, the clergyman of literature skew heavy towards the phony and contemptible. For every Elder Zosima there’s at least ten Elmer Gantry’s. The vicars of Jane Austen’s Victorian novels typically evidence little boldness and even more paltry theological wit.

And what’s most often lacking among the modern-day ministers of John Updike and Flannery O’Connor’s is belief itself.

Faith is their fiction.

It’s easy to assume, I suppose, that faith and doubt are part of a pastor’s professional portfolio, doctrines which we’re schooled to parse impersonally.

Doubt is something we know only from hindsight or from a detached 3rd party distance.

While faith is the tool of our trade, as unexamined a part of our professional life as a mechanic’s wrench or a doctor’s stethoscope.

Like all assumptions, this one was pulled straight out of someone’s @#$.

This week my congregation was slammed with the news of 3 deaths in the space of a day. The size of our congregation means that this past year the number of funerals we performed totaled roughly half the Sunday worship attendance of the average Methodist Church. That’s not even including the burials and graveside services we did for folks from the larger community.

One of the 3 deaths was sudden and unexpected.

One was not.

The third one was but wasn’t- you know the kind- but sadder still for the loose ends that remain and stand a good chance of overwhelming the survivors.

In a lot of ways ours is a dismal trade.

And for both proximity and frequency, I tend to think clergy have more occasion than most to wrestle with faith and doubt. Not less.

What is a singularly painful but mercifully infrequent moment in most families lives is for us part of punching the clock.

If we had one.

Only the most unreflective, unfeeling fool would be able to strap on a collar or stole and stare into the void over and over and not wonder if there’s really anything there on the other side.

And only such a fool would not weep on the inside for the gift of faith that comes back from the other side even if nothing more definitive than that ever does.

6a00d834515f9b69e2019b00771a43970b-800wiIn Unapologetic, Francis Spufford writes:

“Lots of atheists seem to be certain, recently that this (doubt in the face of suffering) ought not to be a problem for believers, because- curl of lip- we all believe we’re going to be whisked away to a magic kingdom in the sky instead. Facing the prospect of annihilation squarely is the exclusive achievement of-preen- the unbeliever. 

But I don’t know many actual Christians who feel this way, or anything like it. Death’s reality is a given of human experience, for anyone old enough to have shaken off adolescent delusions of immortality. There it is, the black water, not to be cancelled by declarations, by storytelling of any kind. 

Whatever sense belief makes of death, it has to incorporate its self-evident reality, not deny it.

And again, in my experience, belief makes the problem harder, not easier. 

Because there death is, real for us as it is for everyone else, and yet (as with every outrage of the cruel world) we also have to fit it with the intermittently felt, constantly transmitted assurance that we are loved. 

I don’t mean to suggest all believers are in a state of continual anguish about this, but it is a very rare believer who has not had to come to a reckoning with the contradiction involved.

On the one hand, the cruel world- the world made cruel by seeing it as created- and on the other hand, the sensation of being cherished by its creator.

When it comes the holy yet dismal trade that is at least 1/3 of ministry, I say:

What he said.

While literature portrays pastors as charlatans and buffoons, popular piety too often over-corrects and caroms off reality, treating pastors as heroes of faith and virtue.

If there’s anything heroic about ministry, it’s that we keep stepping close to the cruel void that most only face a few times in their lives. If there’s anything remarkable about pastors, it’s that they so step and most of the time come away with some small measure of faith.

 

So much of what I do as a pastor is ephemeral.

It’s hard to step away from the pulpit and know if a sermon will survive any longer than the moment that’s just passed. It’s difficult to sit by a hospital bed and discern if you’ve been anything more than simply kind, if you’ve been helpful. Or true. I do believe in measuring. I believe numbers matter because people matter to God, but I also know that in ministry there are not as many quantifiables as some would like to pretend. Still fewer are the tangible outcomes produced by ministry.

One of them, however, is the mission work made possible in part by my congregation, and thus in part, by me.

I hope it sounds neither sentimental nor self-interested that I find a great sense of fulfillment in knowing that I had a small role to play in the Community/Clinic getting built in Chikisis, Guatemala over 2012-2013.

Not only will the center house service teams in a region of the Highlands otherwise too remote to help, it will serve as a gathering spot of indigenous women in the region to receive medical training and o

ther empowerment skills.

Here are some photos taken by our most recent team of the center as well as some photos of digging the central sewage lines for the community- part of our larger Guatemala Toilet Project in Chikisis.

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There’s a lot of BS in the ministry. I doubt that comes as a surprise.

From Joel Osteen to the for-profit mission industry, from bureaucratic red tape that makes the ACA appear streamlined to stubborn institutional preservation, it can sometimes be hard to spot the Jesus germ that started it all.

But one thing that is pure and holy is the privilege to share someone’s final hours with their family and to offer up their loved one in prayer.

In gratitude to the God who gave her to them.

There’s a lot of BS in ministry, no doubt, because there’s a lot of things about ministry that are like any other job. One vantage that I alone get to enjoy is to see couples at very beginning of their life together and to see couples at the very end of one of their lives.

Weddings are a billion dollar a year industry. Weddings are the stuff of little girls’ dreams and older girls’ peer pressure. Weddings are the happy denouement to daytime TV.

Engaged couples routinely shell out a bucket full of Benjamins to pay for photographers and videographers to memorialize the romance of their big day.

I think the money could be better spent on a different day:

Having seen plenty of couples at the beginning and the end of their lives together, I can tell you with 100% counterintuitive certitude that the most romantic moments to be found are found at the end of a couple’s life together.

Not at the beginning.

When one spouse refuses to leave the other as she prepares to leave this world.

I’m familiar with the stare a bride and a groom give each other as they make promises to each other they can’t possibly comprehend in the moment, all the while thinking it incomprehensible that they could ever love each other as much they do in that moment they say ‘I do.’

Fact is, couples can love each other more than on that day they say ‘I do.’

And couples do.

I’ve seen it.

I spent some time this week and last with a woman and her husband and children as they stood vigil over her last days.

I doubt it comes as a surprise, but death has a way of distinguishing between what’s BS and what really matters(ed) in life.

Sitting next to her bed, I listened to them tell stories. And among them was this love story: how her husband in the last decade of their almost six together fed her and and dressed her and carried her. He made her laugh and he sang to her. He did her make-up and her hair and learned how to redirect her frustrated dementia with a few steps of the tango.

During at least half of those years she suffered dementia I never would’ve guessed she even had it because her husband suffered an acute case of love and made sure his wife ended her life with every bit the beauty and dignity with which she had lived it.

These past years he’s been her eyes and ears and mind and patience, and he did it all by himself and did so uncomplainingly.

Theirs was, is- who’s to say what’s the correct tense- a perfect love.

And I don’t mean that in any schlocky, sentimental way.

According to the ancient Christians, perfect love is the ability to see a person as having a life and value quite apart from your own. It’s to love without regard for how the other is or isn’t useful to you.

In other words, perfect love is the ability to recognize what it’s like to be the other. Sometimes that means being able to see that what is on the outside is gloriously radiant is on the inside fragile and suffering.

At other times, it means being able to see that what is on the outside fragile and suffering is on the inside wonderfully beautiful.

One of the ironies of our culture is that most people assume that romantic love is why we get married yet most of those same people assume that romantic love doesn’t last.

Both are wrong.

The theologian Soren Kierkegaard wrote that marriage actually enhances romance instead of abating it. It’s the commitment of two people to another, come what may, that provides the space for romantic love to make spontaneous appearances in a couple’s life. It’s their commitment that hones their ability to see and love the ‘otherness’ of the other.

Marriage, says Kierkegaard, empowers us to attain what romantic love seeks but cannot by itself achieve; that is, to love another person.

Always.

That’s why, to my mind, the best damn scripture for understanding marriage isn’t 1 Corinthians 13 or that terrible Ephesians passage or the blush-inducing Song of Songs.

No, I think it’s the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

What too many couples and too much of culture assume is that a couple will never love each other more than they do the day they’re married.

I’ve got frontline experience that it’s actually the opposite.

Being able to say ‘I did’ is far more romantic than saying ‘I do.’

 

IMG_1015From time to time (every hour) church people and ordinary civilians will query me:

‘Pastor, why on earth are you dressed that way?’

And while comfort, ease of running or manifestly sexy legs are all equally plausible responses, the most truthful answer is:

I get it honest.

At least I don’t still tuck my shirt in to my shorty shorts.

 

 

 

 

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zipper    Simul iustus et peccator fatue

Martin Luther, founding padre of the Protestant Reformation, insisted that God’s grace is a declaration announced to us.

From outside us.

     God’s grace is a promise to which we can only respond with trust.

     There is no discernible interior change in us.

     We essentially remain the same d*&^%$-bags we were before.

     Only now, we know in faith, when God regards us, he graciously chooses to see Jesus instead of the a#$-clowns most of us are most of the time.

Says Luther:

Even after we’ve responded to the promise of grace, we never cease to be sinners. The new life faith makes possible always remains, in Luther’s view, nascent. Sin remains our determinative attribute even after justification.

     This is Luther’s doctrine ‘Simul iustus et peccator.’ 

     It translates to ‘at once justified and a sinner.’

Or as the contemporary paraphrase edition puts it: ‘Being loved by God doesn’t stop us from being a Frodo D*&^%$- Baggins.’

     Case in point: Sunday morning.

Contemporary worship service.

Unlike most Sunday mornings when I roll out of bed straight into my car with last night’s toothpaste slobber still crusted on the side of my mouth and then conceal most of the evidence from having pressed snooze 33 times behind my Luther-like alb, this Sunday I actually put on a tie.

And a blazer.

And combed my hair.

After first having showered.

Truth be told, this humble man of the cloth thought he looked pretty damn good.

Definitely more Palmer Joss this Sunday than rugged Rev Maclean.

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That I thought I looked pretty damn good was reflected in my gosh-aren’t-I-hilarious banter during the announcements.

An ecclesial Ryan Gosling, to be sure, I stood in front of several hundred worshippers and welcomed them in the name of Christ.

In between opening praise songs, I seamlessly slipped onstage to offer an opening prayer, gelling the words of the songs with the upcoming message.

To chuckles, including my own, I gave the announcements for the day (if you see him, please tell Rev Perry the Gov’t Shutdown doesn’t apply to him and he should return to work…HAH!)

I then celebrated the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, pouring water over little Charlotte while a baker’s dozen of her cousins snapped pictures.

Later in the service I stood front and center up by the altar to lead the pastoral and the Lord’s Prayer.

And then we closed the service with ‘Forever Reign.’ A praise # from Hillsong United, the Walmart of contemporary Christian music.

Imagining my voice to sound as good as I looked, I sang:

You are good, You are good

When there’s nothing good in me

You are love, You are love

On display for all to see

     On display.

Damn.

Some synapse fired in me, triggering an almost primordial, survivalist self-awareness.

Holding the manilla worship bulletin in my left hand, I lowered my right hand down.

Slowly, as to be imperceptible to the band and singers standing 5 feet straight in front of me.

All the while still singing:

You are peace, You are peace

When my fear is crippling

My hand did a too-subtle-to-be-noticed reconnaissance.

Fly down.

Thinking myself cooler than 007, I’d instead been X,Y,Z during the entire service.

And while some worshippers in that moment had their eyes closed in enthused praise and worship, I closed mine, mentally weighing my options:

Do I suck it up and just zip it up right now?

What if the band sees me or the worshippers to my left or right?

What if it gets stuck and I look like I’m playing with myself while the band plays their last number?

What if Karli or one of the other singers sees me and snorts into the mic?

Should I just leave it, offer the benediction and hope no one sees?

Definitely the last, I decided, all the while singing:

The riches of Your love

Will always be enough

Nothing compares to Your embrace

Song ended, an ‘In the name of the Father, Son and Spirit’ served up, I sheepishly waited for everyone to ‘go forth in the name of the Lord.’

Coast clear.

I breathed a sigh of relief.

And then… a youth grinned at me knowingly (because of what I didn’t know).

 “Hey man, did you know your fly was down through, like, the entire service?”

    Simul iustus et peccator fatue

     ‘At once justified and an idiot’

     God’s grace always remains outside of us, apart from us, Luther says.

It’s a promise announced to us not an attribute original in us.

We are always at once graced by God and the same a#$-clown we were before.

When you think about it, it must be so.

Lest we ever forget that God’s grace is exactly what it is: an undeserved gift.

You are good, You are good

When there’s nothing good in me

You are love, You are love

On display for all to see

 

photoThis is from Elaine Woods, our Children’s Minister.

This past weekend I drove my son to college to begin his fall classes as a freshman.  As I gave my son a hug from his dorm room and said good bye until Thanksgiving, I noticed as small leather book on his desk.

Curious as to what it was, I asked him.  He said it was a Bible given to him, with a warm encouraging note on the inside cover, from his Catechism teacher.  I was surprised.

He’d only been on campus a few hours, yet this was unpacked even before any family photos.

I thought of our and the programs we offer our youth and children; how important is it to teach basic Christian principles and the stories in which we learn to our young ones, and then develop their faith as they mature.

My son left home for college with a character and a foundation learned in no small part from his participation in the life of the church.

Beginning at 3 years old until high school, we provide opportunities for kids to understand and love Jesus through Sunday school classes, worship, youth groups, and mission work.

Kick-off Sunday is this Sunday, September 8th

Bring your kids, and encourage them to participate in one of our programs.

With your help, what they learn and experience will not be forgotten.

 

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This is too depressing even to warrant sarcastic ridicule, save to point out that this is what Joel Osteen’s ‘Prosperity Gospel’ spawns.

Not to speak for the Apostle, but I imagine this is exactly the sort of crap he had in mind when he told the Romans: ‘…be not conformed to this world…’ 

 

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Heresy = Beliefs considered anathema by the ecumenical councils of the Christian Church

If Orthodoxy = ‘right praise’ then heresy = ‘wrong praise.’

*Leviticus 10: wrong praise = a very big deal

If Stanley Hauerwas is correct to assert that most Christians in America today are ‘functional atheists;’ that is, most Christians live in such a way that it makes no difference that God raised Jesus from the dead, then surely even more Christians today are inadvertent heretics, trodding paths of belief the ancient Church long ago labeled dangerous detours.

Today these ancient errors of the faith can be found wearing many different guises. For all you know, you might be wearing one too.

By pointing out what Christians DO NOT believe, we can get one step closer to what we do.

Heresy #6: Donatism

What Is It?

The rigorist belief that the Church must be a Church of ‘saints not sinners;’ therefore, Christian clerics must have a pure of character and an unwavering fidelity in order to effectively discharge their priestly duties.

Who Screwed Up First

Donatus, a Berber Bishop in the 4th century.

‘Donatism’ arose as a direct result of the persecutions Christians suffered under the Roman Emperor, Diocletian.

In a nutshell, there were a number of Christians, including clergy, who recanted their faith or who handed over ‘holy things’ to the empire rather than face a punishment that could prove fatal.

Once the persecution ended, the Church faced the tricky dilemma: What to do with those priests who hadn’t stood strong in the face of persecution?

Should not clergy be the outstanding example of which laity are the norm?

In particular, does their character (or lack thereof) now call into question how effective they are in presiding over the sacraments?

Is the Eucharist no longer a sharing in the Body and Blood of Christ because one of these cowardly, wimpy priests said Mass?

Donatus labeled those priests who had caved under persecution ‘traditores’ and claimed that their infidelity render their priesthood, especially their administration of the sacraments, invalid.

Laying his rhetorical smack down and judging it a heresy, St Augustine, who was in his former life no stranger to matters of impure moral character, concluded that Donatism underestimated the extent to which sin afflicts every person (and so misunderstood grace) but also reduced the sacraments to objects of human administration rather than means of God’s grace at which the priest is merely a servant.

In sum, ministers need not be perfect for God to use ministers for grace’s sake.

How Do You Know If You’re a Heretic?

If you- subconsciously even- need your pastor to be a perfect Christian because you are lackadaisical about practicing your own faith then you might just be a modern day Donatist.

If you avoid the complexity in your own marriage or family by projecting on to your pastor the Platonic ideal of what it means to be a spouse or parent and needing him/her to be the perfect parent and the perfect husband or wife then you’re verging on heresy.

If you put your pastor on a pedestal and feel disappointed when your pastor turns out to be an actual, real, living-breathing human being then Augustine would lay the smack down on you too- though, chances are, you’d be disappointed in him too.

If ‘decorum’ is a more urgent standard by which you judge your pastor than ‘disciples made’ then you’re just a Donatist with a Flannery O’Connor twist.

If you expect your pastor to do Christianity for you and your congregation (visiting all the sick, praying at every meeting, leading every ministry, welcoming every newcomer…) then, like a certain Berber before you, you’ve got it all backwards.

If you really don’t trust in your heart the Gospel of grace and thus do not trust that the Church is a place for sinners and thus need your pastor to be a saint (your hagiographic version of) then the good news is you’re a heretic. The bad news is you might not have ever truly converted in the first place.

If you’re more upset by what your pastor wears or whether your pastor swears than you are by the number of people in your community who know not Christ then not only are you why the ‘Nones’ want to have nothing to do with the Church you’re why Augustine wanted the Donatists to have nothing do with the Church.

If you would disqualify entire groups of ‘others’ from ministry by implying that only the sinless qualify for ordination, then 1) shame on you and 2) heretic.

If you’re a pastor who encourages any of the above presumptions, then more so than any others you’re a Donatist in 21st century guise.

Persons Most Likely to Commit This Heresy Today

Marcus Borg

Joel Osteen

Church People

Adherents of Civil Religion

Denominational Leaders

The Religious Right

Remedies

Take the log out of your own eye.

Read St Augustine’s Confessions and breath a sigh of relief that he’s not your pastor.

Get to know your pastor.

Repeat until memorized: ‘While we were yet sinners, Christ died for the morally pure, well-spoken, ideal spouse, perfect parent, flawless leader, doubtless, ungodly.’