How to Move a Small Church Online

I want to get really practical and share what I’ve learned serving Bartonville United Methodist Church (Average Weekly Worship Attendance Before Pandemic: 30) and Kingston Mines United Methodist Church (AWWABP: 18) in central Illinois. I think this conversation is still worthwhile, months into this pandemic, because one of the strange gifts of this time is that ministry is revealed as iterative. We all can keep improving, even after our new normal is up and running.

Automated Phone Calls/Texting
Things are changing from day-to-day, and people need and want to stay connected across our present distance, so if you have never invested in something like this, now is the time. For my purposes, I only use it rarely for whole church calls, so buying a package of a certain number of calls/texts at a time makes the most sense, rather than a recurring monthly plan. For that, the best price is Robotalker.

A friend who pastors two other small churches near me has a different use for an automated system. She has been able to develop up her text congregation over time to include a ton of otherwise disconnected people from the community that are happy to receive regular, brief devotional texts. She’s had to upgrade her subscription at least once to keep up with demand! If that’s what you want, check out One Call Now.

Facebook Live
Just do this. It’s free. It’s easy. You’ve got a smartphone or a tablet already, and its built-in camera(s) and microphone are already far better than that VHS that recorded your great grandparents’ 60th wedding anniversary. Lots of people (including many in their 70, 80s, and up) are already on Facebook, and even people who have basically moved on to other social media services will come to church there. You also will get people watching who have never attended your church. This is effortless evangelism

If you can, go live rather than pre-recorded. Just like the concert, the football game, and the comedian are best live, worship is best live, warts and all. If you like the opportunity to polish by doing multiple takes and complicated editing, that’s mostly likely a time-sucking ego issue, not an excellence issue. Yes, work hard, and even rehearse, but you were never perfectly polished before, and people love and need their human pastor (the kind who forgets the words to the Lord’s Prayer and then laughs rather than shuts down in embarrassment).

Many people start their streams early, but we do not want to broadcast our casual conversations or prayer requests, and editing afterward has consistently messed up audio-visual syncing on Facebook’s end, so we just start on time.

Another great thing about Facebook Live is that it makes it simple to have someone sub in. Pastor, take a Sunday off. I have a retired pastor in his mid-70s in my congregation who reactivated his Facebook account so I could add him to our Facebook page. We did a brief tech rehearsal, and then he went live from his home. It was great: I got a week off, and our people got to see the other person they consider their pastor.

A note: if you pastor two (or more) churches with two (or more) Facebook pages, learn how to crosspost. Unfortunately a mobile device cannot go Live on multiple Pages at once in Facebook’s apps. However, it’s worth the time for me to create an original post of the same video for each church. It’s an easy way to share the love across both churches. (I make this note, because while my churches love to fellowship, worship, and do ministry together, multi-church pastors know that this is not always the case, and they must look for ways to make all the churches feel seen, appreciated, and included.) I always go Live from Bartonville’s page, then I crosspost to Kingston Mines’ page, then I share the Kingston Mines post on my page.

Finally, if you’re worried about Internet connectivity issues, those are far better now than they were back in March. But if you are able, reschedule your service(s) to get of the peak times of hours and half hours. Bartonville and Kingston Mines used to worship at 9:00 and 10:45. Now both worship at 9:15 on Sundays and I do a live devotional at 9:15 on Wednesdays too. We do not have two services, because they would just be identical and thus redundant.

Video/Phone Conferencing
Internet access is not great in every geography or even across a single congregation. It is vital that you make options for everyone to be connected, and that means a phone number that people can call in from any phone and be connected to worship. This is also the way the small church’s leadership meetings can continue safely through this time. (Even though virtually everywhere in the US could hold a small enough in-person meeting as of this writing, you serve with people who still need to be able to choose to distance without choosing to stop being part of the life of the church.)

Zoom is simply the best option, because you can have computer/device-savvy people connect with video and participate; you can have casual Internet users watch because Zoom can feed Live to Facebook; and you can have people call in to participate. Be aware and inform your people that calling in from a landline will be a standard long-distance call. Zoom will allow you to add-on a toll-free number (which will charge your church for those long-distance calls) or buy a local phone number, if available. It just starts to get beyond the limited budgets of the churches this blog post is aimed at. I should also mention that those horror stories of Zoom security issues (imagine someone breaking into your church and screaming profanities or streaming pornography) have been extremely well addressed, and most were due to users failing to enact recommended precautions.

FreeConferenceCall continues to only be a good option in very limited cases. I am frugal (perhaps to a fault) with asking my churches to spend their limited funds, but some things really are “you get what you pay for.” If people call in once and do not connected, many will not try again the the following week. Add up the energy costs of your mostly closed building and the budgeted mileage reimbursements you haven’t been able to use to visit people, and you have already more than covered your Zoom subscription. Plus if you’re United Methodist, Zoom even has a discount for you.

Getting Stable WiFi in the Church Building
First, depending on where you live, good Internet is not guaranteed. Second, if you do have Internet, the speed necessary for streaming video may be pricier than what you currently have (although a mere 5MB upload speed should be plenty, according to Facebook). Third, even if you have reliable and speedy Internet access, it is likely available near the church office where the modem sits and nowhere else in your maze-like building, while your church needs to be available to stream from the sanctuary (if not at this moment, then soon, when some people come back and others remain distanced).

For Internet speed, first talk to your local Internet provider. (You might know a church down the street who seems to do it better than you, and you can ask them about their service.) It is also possible that there is not a great wired Internet option in your area, but that your cellphone service provides faster speeds via phone or mobile hotspot, so explore those options too.

For WiFi that makes it to your sanctuary, the absolute cheapest way is to do a WiFi range extender, and you can Google some reviews on those. The better way is to set up a mesh network. After a good bit of research, I settled on the TP-Link Deco M5, which is priced well and reviewed well. (Note: In some spaces, you might be able to get away with the two-node set of the same product, but unless you add cables to what is included in the box, one of the nodes is going to have to be a few inches from the modem you currently have, leaving only one to do the extending.) Then I got a set of these no-installation-needed brackets for each of them.

Best of all, you personally are capable of setting it up. You open the box, which instructs you to download the TP-Link app to your smartphone. The app then walks you through how to install, update the firmware, turn on network protections, and run speed tests in various areas. At work there is nothing I hate more than wrestling with technology that should be designed better. From unsealing the box to the end of the process, it took 40 minutes.

Upping Your Visuals
If you’re not using Canva for graphic design, you should be. I use the free version.

My Sundays and Wednesdays
I have weekly recurring alarms set on my phone, because it is pretty easy to show up late for online church. At 9am, I start my teleconferencing meeting on my laptop and talk to whomever calls in. At 9:14, I wrap up and mute all the other callers. At 9:15, I go Live on Facebook on my phone (this tripod mount on this tripod), while continuing the meeting on my computer. I could still do with some better lighting, but maybe that’s my next iteration.

Toni Morrison, Theologian

Toni Morrison’s name at birth was Chloe Ardelia Wofford. “Toni” became her name when she joined the Catholic Church at age 12 and took her baptismal saint’s name from Anthony of Padua. (Morrison was her married name, the one she tried too late to avoid using on her first novel. That fact and many others below are from this interview with Terry Gross.)

St. Anthony is that popular guy whom people ask to intercede for them to find lost things. Far more importantly, in his life he was known for powerful preaching of the Gospel, and for his devotion (as a Franciscan, no surprise) to the sick and the poor. In 1946 he was declared a Doctor of the Church. How appropriate a saint for this author who continually wrote of lost things (and people) found, the sick, the poor, the despised, the abandoned, the crushed, the excluded, all brought into the light of a Love bright enough to expose every hidden thing.

For all that, however, it was maddening when Morrison died and several Catholic authors and bloggers claimed her as Catholic. Yes, she was formed by the Roman Catholic Church, but for Catholics (especially male and white Catholics) to claim her in that way was so wrong, not just for plenty of normal reasons that religions and ideologies shouldn’t claim people who don’t claim them. (Specifically, in the case of Morrison and others, sharing publicly that you like some things Pope Francis has said does not mean you embrace the Roman Catholic Church.) This was even more deeply wrong because it so went against her own voluminous work and its deepest themes.

And now, having lambasted others for claiming Morrison for their church, I will argue that she is a deeply theological writer. I do not just mean “spiritual” in some nebulous way, nor “religious.” She is indeed a writer of works both spiritual and religious, but more specifically she is a theological writer. She writes about God, about how God relates to people, about how people relate to people, she does it well, and she does it in ways that have the power to form other people’s lives and understanding of God and humankind. That’s a theologian.

After Morrison’s death I began reading one of her novels I had missed: Paradise, published in 1997. The following is just one passage which theologians, professional and amateur, would do well to reckon with. The characters Misner and Pulliam are two pastors, representing two factions threatening to split what was once a seemingly idyllic town. The setting is the beginning of a wedding, with bride and groom standing there at the front of the congregation as this scene unfolds:

Suitable language came to mind but, not trusting himself to deliver it without revealing his deep personal hurt, Misner walked away from the pulpit, to the rear wall of the church. There he stretched, reaching up until he was able to unhook the cross that hung there. He carried it then, past the empty choir stall, past the organ where Kate sat, the chair where Pulliam was, on to the podium and held it before him for all to see–if only they would. See what was certainly the first sign any human anywhere had made: the vertical line; the horizontal one. Even as children, they drew it with their fingers in snow, sand or mud; they laid it down as sticks in dirt; arranged it from bones on frozen tundra and broad savannas; as pebbles on riverbanks; scratched it on cave walls and outcroppings from Nome to South Africa. Algonquin and Laplanders, Zulu and Druids–all had a finger memory of this original mark. The circle was not first, nor was the parallel or the triangle. It was this mark, this, that lay underneath every other. This mark, rendered in the placement of facial features. This mark of a standing human figure poised to embrace. Remove it, as Pulliam had done, and Christianity was like any and every religion in the world: a population of supplicants begging respite from begrudging authority; harried believers ducking fate or dodging evil; the weak negotiating a doomed trek through the wilderness; the sighted ripped of light and thrown into the perpetual dark of choicelessness. Without this sign, the believer’s life was confined to praising God and taking the hits. The praise was credit; the hits were interest due on a debt that could never be paid. Or, as Pulliam put it, no one knew when he had “graduated.” But with it, in the religion in which this sign was paramount and foundational, well, life was a whole other matter.

See? The execution of this one solitary black man propped up on these two intersecting lines to which he was attached in a parody of human embrace, fasted to two big sticks that were so convenient, so recognizable, so embedded in consciousness as consciousness, being both ordinary and sublime. See? His woolly head alternately rising on his neck and falling toward his chest, the glow of his midnight skin dimmed by dust, streaked by gall, fouled by spit and urine, gone pewter in the hot, dry wind and, finally, as the sun dimmed in shame, as his flesh matched the odd lessening of afternoon light as though it were evening, always sudden in that climate, swallowing him and the other death row felons, and the silhouette of this original sign merged with a false night sky. See how this official murder out of hundreds marked the difference; moved the relationship between God and man from CEO to supplicant to one on one? The cross he held was abstract; the absent body was real, but both combined to pull humans from backstage to the spotlight, from muttering in the wings to the principal role in the story of their lives. This execution made it possible–freely, not in fear–one’s self and one another. Which what love was: unmotivated respect. All of which testified not to a peevish Lord who was His own love but to one who enabled human love. Not for His own glory–never. God loved the way humans loved one another; loved the way humans loved themselves; loved the genius of the cross who managed to do both and die knowing it.

But Richard Misner could not speak calmly of these things. So he stood there and let the minutes tick by as he held the crossed oak in his hands, urging it to say what he could not: that not only is God interested in you; He is you.

Would they see? Would they?

It’s impossible to name all the talents that made Morrison one of the best, but to me her greatest talent is the way that when she creates a character, she enters that character and sees through their vision, their perspective. Lesser writers warp their characters when they get inside their skin, stretching them out to match the author’s own shape. With Morrison, for all that readers have been taught that writers’ perspectives and their characters’ perspectives are not the same thing, her skill baits the trap for us to think that we now understand what Morrison herself believed, in this case, about the cross. We don’t.

Hopefully, however, we have been forced to question and possibly re-form once again what we ourselves do know. This is what the best theologians have the power to do.

Bonus: My pet (i.e., unsubstantiated) theory is that as Morrison wrote the above passage, she couldn’t resist a dig at a particularly virulent bestseller then topping the charts: Laurie Beth Jones’ Jesus, CEO.

Engle Institute for Preaching: First Unpacking

Last week I didn’t write here because I was attending the Engle Institute for Preaching at Princeton Theological Seminary. Through this year, the continuing ed event was always aimed at preachers in their first 2-10 years of preaching ministry. That ten year mark has always been squishy (with preachers still made welcome at 11 or 13 years too), but next year they are having a second track for people in their 11th through 25th years of ministry. I don’t know what that will look like, and I don’t think they do yet either.

In any case, if you preach and want to be a better preacher, they’ve got that Princeton money, so it was only $175 for a week, including room and board. You should definitely apply. The best way to get in is to apply early, and the best way to know registration is open is to subscribe to PTS’ Continuing Education E-Newsletter.

On a personal note, it was certainly the most fully “mainline” Protestant space I’ve been in since seminary, and it was the first time I had been around so much Reformed theology in my life. (A new Episcopalian friend and some Lutherans there agreed.)

In the course of the week, all 65 of us Engle Fellows attended a five-day plenary session (audio available here; video available here). This year the Engle Institute brought in Roger Nam, Professor of Biblical Studies and Dean of Portland Seminary, who challenged us to preach Ezra/Nehemiah in our churches. His own lens (which I will now not be able to read Ezra/Nehemiah without) as a second-generation Korean-American who learned Korean as an adult in order to live and minister in South Korea, is that of repatriation. How do those returning to Jerusalem relate to this place that is a home to which they’ve never been? How do those who stayed in the land relate to the returned people? And what in the world are we supposed to do with the “holy” (or is it most unholy?) breakup of marriages and families we find in Nehemiah 13? (Less practical but incredibly interesting: Did you know there was a Jewish settlement, complete with its own Temple, on an island in the Nile in the 5th c. BCE?)

After the plenary session, on Monday through Thursday I attended Preaching and the Theopoetics of Public Discourse, taught by Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm. (Yes, I’ve been trying to tell you I’m a preaching nerd.) This was the description for the course:

From ‘A City upon a Hill’ to ‘The Drum Major Instinct,’ American preachers have given voice to poetry and prose that have stirred our imaginations and empowered the church’s ministries of compassion and justice. This workshop will immerse participants in the theopoetics of preaching: the creative process of engaging metaphors, sounds, and the rhythms of Scripture and poetry to inspire our souls and empower sermon listeners.

(Click here to see all the other course offerings.)

We read favorite poems to one another, we watched some fabulous sermons and questioned some less fabulous ones, and we came away not totally knowing what “theopoetics” means, but still informed by it. One practical nugget (a Yale thang?): writing a sermon in sense lines as verse, rather than as blocks of prose, in order to free up creativity and communication of meaning.

Some links: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “The Drum Major Instinct,” Robert F. Kennedy on the night MLK was assassinated; Mitch Landrieu (warning of the possibility of violence months before Charlottesville) on the removal of Confederate monuments; Otis Moss III and Otis Moss, Jr. share a Father’s Day sermon on “Prophetic Grief” right after the Mother Emanuel shooting.

If you’re wondering if politics came up in our conversations: yes. I came away so thankful that my congregations are far from politically homogeneous.

Monday and Tuesday afternoon, I went to Carolyn B. Helsel‘s Stories of Recognition:

Preachers include stories in nearly every sermon, knowing the power of stories to expand listeners’ understanding of faith and ability to empathize with others. In today’s society, when many people remain in their own echo chambers of news media that affirm their own views of the world, how can preachers employ stories to help us see the humanity in our brothers and sisters across the aisle? This two-day afternoon workshop will engage practices of storytelling that help listeners recognize the commonalities between themselves and persons they view as very different from themselves, as well as to see how our experiences may be more different from one another than we might imagine due to identity markers such as race, gender, age, and physical ability. Resources for such stories will be available, and preachers will practice storytelling.

We literally told stories to one another, talked about how the stories we tell about ourselves shape us, and then talked about how the stories we tell about ourselves are not the only stories we could be telling of the same lives. That is, telling different stories about ourselves can be transformational. (For the Big Instance, if the Gospel is true, then we are part of God’s story. What difference might that make?) Practically, we also shared our favorite TV shows, movies, and book recommendations for stories we enjoy.

My final workshop pick was for Wednesday and Thursday afternoons, How to Turn the Ear into an Eye: Preaching as an Oral-Aural Event with Jared Alcántara:

This workshop empowers participants to “preach for the ear” instead of “preach for the eye” through helping them to conceive of the sermon as an oral-aural event rather than a written artifact. It teaches the rules of orality in preaching, discusses practices to avoid when preparing sermons, and invites participants to learn from one another through the practice of preaching for the ear.

Unfortunately, while we did get to watch some great preaching, and we actually learned and used some tools, I wanted something deeper about how communication works, how people hear and learn and respond and are transformed by hearing spoken words. (I only realize now while I seem to negatively review the class: those techniques and tools are ones that I will be using for a looong time after I might have forgotten some theory shared across four hours of class time.)

Princeton was great (although the beds were uncomfortable to sleep in and the wealth of the downtown area was uncomfortable to walk through), the workshops were great, the worship was great, but the people I got to meet were definitely the best part. If I had to boil down what I received from the week as a whole, it was the encouragement to just be absolutely who I am, whoever that might be. There is plenty of learning to do, plenty of technique to sharpen, but the core of who I am as preacher is actually something God made.

Yes, believe it or not, God made me to preach ridiculously long lectio continua sermon series in imitation of how the Church Fathers (and the Reformers in imitation of the Fathers) did it, to read poetry and theology devotionally, to listen to novels alongside leadership books on the way to pastoral care visits, and…to blog while I’m on the clock.

Love in the Ruins

This week the Illinois Great Rivers Conference of the United Methodist Church has its Annual Conference. I’m not alone in already having disrupted sleep, messed up digestion, and anxiety gathering across my shoulders as we near the gathering.

Our first and thorniest business is to elect delegates to the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, our denomination’s global gathering, which will be in Minneapolis from May 5-May 15, 2020. General Conference 2020 is so important because it will likely host the first concrete steps to dismantle the United Methodist Church as an institution. While there are an increasing number of people trying to frame yet another schism of Christ’s one Body as “mitosis,” there are several reasons why we cannot call it that. Reason one: this schism will end some local churches’ ministries due to splits within those local bodies. Reason two: this schism will kill some individual believers’ faith. Reason three: this schism will make the church less able to do works of mercy in the world. Reason four: by this schism we continue to witness to the world that the Church is no different than the world. (We do not love others as ourselves. We do not love across difference. We do not love our enemies. Christ has made no difference for us, so why would anyone want to join us in Christ’s way?)

Finally, mitosis is a term that denies our agency and responsibility. We are not automatically following genetic instructions inside a cell. We are human beings looking at one another and saying we have no need of one another, then deciding to walk apart from one another. The United Methodist Church is pursuing a divorce, and as we elect delegates this week we are deciding who will represent us in our divorce proceedings. Of course it’s causing us anxiety and grief (which may include, yes, anger).

In recent American Christian history, when churches have divorced, some have spent a lot of time and money in court. The Episcopal Church’s Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori was decisively responsible for her denomination’s spending tens of millions of dollars in holding onto property. There are reasons to hope that the United Methodist Church will not follow the same path. But again, this makes it clear that this is not mitosis for the whole body’s growth. This is a divorce, and it contains the disputes that accompany a divorce. It contains massive conflict.

Even in 2016 (the most recent regular General Conference, which set the stage for the 2019 special General Conference), although it was clear that competing visions of Christian sexual ethics were going to be central, there was also a sense that the United Methodist Church was bigger than that division, that because of the context of our larger relationship to one another, our love for one another, there might be some hope for reconciliation within the body. In the 2015 Annual Conference, when we (well not me, since I wasn’t eligible to vote that time around) voted, we could and did send a group of delegates which we knew disagreed on human sexual ethics, and we did so with a clear conscience. Yes, there were progressives unhappily represented by conservatives and vice versa, but as a whole, we generally felt accurately represented in our United Methodist democracy.

This time around, however, battle lines seem to be drawn more clearly. The Traditional Plan is official United Methodist teaching. UMC Next officially rejects that teaching. In my Annual Conference, there is at least one major conservative group and one major progressive group trying to make sure they control who goes to General Conference 2020. That’s not what chromosomes do. That’s what people trying to gain the most favorable terms of a divorce for themselves do. That’s what people trying to win do.

We should consider, then, what our Christian faith says about divorce and then what our Christian faith says about winning.

Jesus’ teaching in Mark is that divorce is always a sin, and not only a sin but a sin which births other sins. But the United Methodist Church joins a long tradition (the other Gospels, the epistles, the teaching of the Orthodox Church) of setting Jesus’ teaching in Mark inside the context of Jesus’ whole ministry and teaching. When I recently preached on that teaching in Mark, for instance, I urged my folks to look at how Jesus actually treats the divorced people he meets (most obviously, the woman in John who has been divorced four or five times). With compassion and love, Jesus turns us broken people into those who proclaim our Healer.

Thus The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church 2016 can offer this nuanced approach to marriage and divorce:

God’s plan is for lifelong, faithful marriage. The church must be on the forefront of premarital, marital, and post marital counseling in order to create and preserve healthy relationships. However, when a married couple is estranged beyond reconciliation, even after thoughtful consideration and counsel, divorce is a regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness. We grieve over the devastating emotional, spiritual, and economic consequences of divorce for all involved, understanding that women and especially children are disproportionately impacted by such burdens…It is recommended that methods of mediation be used to minimize the adversarial nature and fault-finding that are often part of our current judicial processes, encouraging reconciliation wherever possible.

Although divorce publicly declares that a marriage no longer exists, other covenantal relationships resulting from the marriage remain, such as the nurture and support of children and extended family ties. We urge respectful negotiations in deciding the custody of minor children and support the consideration of either or both parents for this responsibility in that custody not be reduced to financial support, control, or manipulation and retaliation. The welfare of each child is the most important consideration…

Divorce does not preclude a new marriage. We encourage an intentional commitment of the Church and society to minister compassionately to those in the process of divorce, as well as members of divorced and remarried families, in a community of faith where God’s grace is shared by all.

¶161.II.D.


Back in 1968, we United Methodists lacked some premarital counseling, even as we entered into covenant in good faith. In the decades since, we could have used some marital counseling for the ways we chose to relate to one another throughout the regular frustrations that come in every marriage. (Of John Gottman’s “four horsemen” which he claims from his research are the most accurate predictors of divorce, at least Contempt, Criticism, and Stonewalling were recently acted out on General Conference microphones, and Defensiveness has since joined the other three for regular rides across United Methodist blogs and social media.) But I am most struck by the Book of Resolutions‘ claim that there is also such a thing as “post marital counseling.” There is no such thing as post-mitosis counseling, because everything is just fine and both new cells are just fine and natural and even good. But if this is a divorce and we recognize it as a divorce, then we can choose to enter the divorce process grieving together that we could not figure out a way to reconcile. In this way we can end one way of relating with a blessing rather than a curse. We can choose the spirit (or Spirit) with which we approach the divorce process. Because of the Spirit this is possible even if you are mad, sad, and hurt as Hell by all that has come before.

Continuing with the Book of Resolutions‘ understanding, if we recognize what we are choosing to do as divorce, then we can be intentional in moderating its effects on the vulnerable people and groups and even institutions and agencies who will be affected by our decisions. As others have already pointed out, there are ways in which we can choose to support some of our important works of mercy, education, and more, even after the divorce is final. But we have to be intentional about that work. More damage is all that will be done if we do this swiftly, haphazardly, or if we assume things will just work themselves out.

This finally brings us to that theme of “winning.” What does our Christian faith have to say about our will to win? Jesus says the last will be first and the first will be last. Paul says that certain kinds of conflict we enter into with one another as Christians are losses for all involved. Luther helped clarify the vast gulf between the Way of the Cross and the Way of Glory. Trying to “win” at Annual Conference in order to “win” at General Conference is a game everyone loses.

So how do we seek the one and the ways of the one who took a cross as his throne?
1) We tell the truth. (This is a divorce. It isn’t mitosis.)
2) We grieve together with God. (We are breaking up because we are broken.)
3) We invest as much love in our divorce proceedings as possible.

This week, when we choose delegates, we are not choosing champions to battle and win for us (because we only have one champion, and He won by losing everything). We are choosing people we sense have been gifted and called by God for a particular kind of peacemaking, dreaming, and yes, loving our enemies.

Please pray, and as you turn to the Scriptures as part of your discernment, I’d encourage you to look not just for single Bible verses or laws or principles or precepts, but ask God to bring to mind particular saints of the Scriptures, people who show us how to grieve and to hope and to dream and to plan rebuilding even while the house is still on fire. Here are a few places to start: Abraham, Moses, Rahab, David, Esther, Ruth and Naomi, Ezra and Nehemiah, Mary.

From Single Issue to Seamless Garment

I thought I knew what terrible and low and shallow was until I was on social media in the week after The Alabama Human Life Protection Act was signed into law. To step directly in this cow pie, both sides have been putting up terrible and hateful and (again, yes) shallow bursts of characters and images, often with undocumented claims made by unverified sources, almost never intending to engage their opponents, let alone persuade them.

For those like me, who are pro-life but who eschew the professionalized mainstream pro-life movement, the main reason to avoid that movement is that it has deliberately narrowed what “pro-life” means to the human gestation period. In a sense, the decision to narrow has been strategic. For instance, advocates for research and development of treatments for pancreatic cancer would indeed get nowhere if they tried to get people to donate to the Cancer Is Bad Foundation. It’s too broad. You must narrow to be effective in your cause.  With pro-life causes, however, it’s different, because the ultimate goal is not to be against something, but to be for something. And for what? Life. Pro-life in the sense that it has been reduced by the mainstream anti-abortion movement–pro-life from conception to birth–in fact makes no sense as a concept to stand alone, because it fails to paint a large enough picture of the meaning of life. Being against abortion must be tied to a larger, cohesive vision of what human life is for, and what worth the individual human life has. For Christians at least this means an understanding of the value of a human life which can never be diminished by anything that human being does or anything that a human being has done to it, because we believe that humans are created in the image of God.

Thankfully for those of us who are persuaded at least that pro-life must mean something beyond birth, Catholic thinkers have been working on the question for a long time. Supposedly it was Eileen Egan (friend and biographer to Mother Teresa, marcher with MLK, correspondent with Thomas Merton, co-worker with Dorothy Day and Jim Douglass, and so much more) who first referred to the Christian understanding of the value of life as a “seamless garment.” This is a reference to the garments of Christ. When Jesus was stripped naked to be crucified, the Gospels say that his garments were gambled for as a whole cloth rather than ripped into pieces. Likewise, because God’s valuing of human life is irreducible, one pro-life issue cannot be separated from another without destroying the whole. Egan’s vision–known since then as either “the seamless garment” or the “consistent life ethic”–was deepened by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, whose thought is now being extended by Cardinal Blase Cupich, and is easy to read within some of Pope Francis’ words.

But for many of my readers, that’s a lot of thinkers and leaders and activists who aren’t very familiar. What’s it all mean? It means that truly choosing life means choosing life in every sphere in which human life is trying to flourish. Yes, widespread abortion is, of course, a threat to human life. But so is the death penalty. So is poverty. So are many of our gun laws (and lack of them). So are our nuclear arsenals, endless wars, military budgets, military presence around the world, military equipment and tactics among local law enforcement, concealed carry in our church buildings, armed teachers in our schools, for-profit prisons, mandatory minimum sentencing, lack of access to healthcare (including women’s health care, and–sorry Catholics–contraception), euthanasia, human germline modification, our valuing economic growth as the sole measure of our corporate well-being, our trade policies, our immigration policies, our drug wars, our treatment of the environment, our relationships with other nations, our relationships across human difference (race, class, gender, sex, religion, and far more) within our own neighborhoods.

The seamless garment approach is flexible enough to still recognize that in terms of numbers and impact, some threats are harming or taking more lives than others. It also recognizes that because all these “issues” deal with human flourishing, they are interconnected too deeply to be separated.

That’s a lot, and to name so many things together might indeed muddle the issue. In this blog post I seemingly tried to lose pro-choice readers at the beginning and pro-life political conservatives by the end. But my hope is not that you agree with me or Dorothy Day or President Eisenhower. Rather, I hope that you are convinced that if any human life is worthy of defense, first you must define why life matters with a big enough picture to share with others, then you must train that lens to see where one life is being valued more than another life, and then you need to see that to encourage life, to be pro-life, you must encourage a life a whole lot better than getting it to birth. Finally, you must also realize that although formal politics–laws and the courts–can do some of this work, it is not their job to form one human conscience or a whole society to recognize and value life in all its forms. That’s our job, in relationship with one another.

A Vow Too Far (for Now)?

I’ve begun reading Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light, edited and with commentary by Brian Kolodiechjuk, M.C. This was the book that shocked many (but not all) at Mother Teresa’s death with its revelation that she had suffered from spiritual darkness and aridity for most of her ministry. But the book starts earlier than that, using her correspondence with her priest/confessor/spiritual director and her archbishop to tell the story of how she was formed and called to the streets of Calcutta.

The first piece of this calling, a “calling within a calling” was a private vow (meaning that she was already a professed nun, and then took a vow beyond her religious vows) she made in April 1942: “I made a vow to God, binding under [pain of] mortal sin, to give to God anything that He may ask, ‘Not to refuse Him anything.’” (p. 28, Kindle edition)

Just to share what this meant to Teresa, I’ll share a longer quote Kolodiechjuk supplies from her “Explanation of the Original Constitutions of the Missionaries of Charity” (p. 29, Kindle edition):

“Why must we give ourselves fully to God? Because God has given Himself to us. If God who owes nothing to us is ready to impart to us no less than Himself, shall we answer with just a fraction of ourselves? To give ourselves fully to God is a means of receiving God Himself. I for God and God for me.”

“Not to refuse God anything.” In theory, that is what being a disciple means. That is, there’s no disciple but the one who refuses Jesus nothing. The followers of Jesus we find in the Gospels and in history show us, however, that we all follow Jesus with daily varying levels of commitment and hourly varying mixtures of faithfulness and unfaithfulness in our deepest places. Sanctification can in this light be defined as our synergistic movement in the Spirit toward becoming those who refuse God nothing, just as the incarnate Son refused the Father nothing.

But I’m afraid.

There’s a common enough joke among Christians that you have to be careful about offering God all, or God might call you to the exact places where you most don’t want to go. In reality, the joke masks anxiety not about places or life conditions, but something at the bedrock: Is God to be trusted? Is God good? If God is actually trustworthy and good and loves me, then truly it wouldn’t matter where I go or what happens to me. But if I doubt those basics, it’s going to be very difficult to refuse God nothing.

We joke because we don’t want to admit that we are all that rescue dog brought home from the shelter who, at the offer of a kind touch, cowers, shakes, and pees himself. We all need a whole lot of healing and patience from a caregiver till we learn to trust. For some of us, we need a whole lot of healing before we even learn not to bite. Our hope is this: God chooses to bring us home knowing all that sometimes difficult road with us, having committed to not toss us back to the streets. Why? Not because God pities us, but because God delights in us. God is that friend you have who always has a new rescue dog, cat, squirrel, pigeon they found and are trying to home.

For now, maybe the question for me from Saint Teresa isn’t, “Will I vow to refuse God nothing?” but “Will I notice what goes on in my rescued heart (and body too) when God draws near?” Am I anxious? Am I afraid? Do I jump back? Or am I comforted? Do I more and more often jump up into God’s lap in affection and trust? After all, trust is just another word for faith. And from our dog’s-eye-view, affection is another word for love.

Did Jesus Kiss Judas?

I guess I had always pictured Judas slinking up to Jesus with exaggerated warmth–“Rabbi!”–and giving him a quick peck on the cheek. The Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture has me wondering if I’m just being too Western again. Or too US American:

How magnificent is the endurance of evil by the Lord who even kissed his own traitor, and then spoke words even softer than a kiss! For he did not say, O you abominable one or traitor, is this what you do in return for great kindnesses? He simply says, “Judas,” using his first name. This is in the voice of one commiserating with another or who wished another to come back to him, not the voice of anger.

Dionysius of Alexandria, Quoted in The anCient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Mark, p. 215

I likely would have dismissed this reading of Judas’ kiss as a two-way kiss out of hand, because some of the readings in these volumes are quite…imaginative. But on the next page of the same volume, Ephrem of Syria assumes the same kiss, writing, “Jesus kissed the mouth of him who, by means of it, gave the signal for death to those who apprehended him.”

The Anchor Bible Dictionary has a three page entry for “Kiss” (pp. 89-92 in Volume IV). It disappointingly does not say anything about whether any recent scholars think Jesus kissed Judas back, but it does say that “the holy kiss” (mentioned several times in the New Testament) was a unique practice of early Christians, without precedent in the Greco-Roman or Jewish world. Some scholars even claim that Jesus initiated the practice with his disciples, and the disciples kept up the practice in the early Christian communities. If this is true, as the ABD puts it, Judas’ kiss was “a sign which would convey one message to outsiders but would be the usual form of greeting and hence arouse no suspicions to the inside group” (91). Of course, the whole mob with torches, clubs, and short swords probably would raise suspicion.

But back to Dionysius of Alexandria. As with many of the writers quoted in the ACCoS (many of them relatively minor figures) I had to look him up. During Dionysius’ life, the Church suffered seasons of persecution, in which some Christians denied their faith verbally or in writing and some offered sacrifices to prove they were not Christians, so that they and their families would not be hurt or killed. Seasons of persecution were followed by seasons of tolerance, and as churches reconstituted themselves, Christian leaders were divided about what to do about those who had apostatized and now wanted to return.

Some, led by Novatian, argued that those who had denied Christ and offered sacrifices to idols could not return to receive the sacraments. Such idolatry and faithlessness, he argued, were unforgivable. Others–in what became the Orthodox position set against what eventually became known as the Novatian heresy–said that Christians could repent and be forgiven and restored. Dionysius of Alexandria was one of the great leaders of that Orthodox position, and I see it in his read of Jesus and Judas in the Garden.

Dionysius knew Judas-like folks. Dionysius likely knew people who had been killed due to treachery by other Christians. Even with that life experience he looked to Jesus in the Garden, and he could not imagine a Jesus who would refuse to kiss his disciple when his disciple came to kiss him. The Jesus Dionysius heard in the Gospels would not speak with the condemning voice of Novatian, but always “in the voice of one commiserating with another or who wished another to come back to him, not the voice of anger.”

I want to see, hear, and believe in a Jesus who would kiss Judas back.

(Related public service announcement: Scorsese’s stunning Silence, which deals with faith, apostasy, reconciliation, and grace upon grace upon grace, is streaming on Amazon Prime.)

Our Hope Was Never in General Conference, Part II

In his post-General Conference briefings, my own Bishop Frank Beard urged us to trust in the process–not merely the United Methodist process, but God’s process with us on this discipleship journey, however long and winding and painful it may be. For him that means that we prayed for years for the work of General Conference 2019, so the fact that we might not like its outcome is not a good enough reason to summarily dismiss its conclusions and legislation. To put words in his mouth, “Did we pray or not? Does God answer prayer or not?”

I don’t dismiss General Conference 2019’s work. This was our 2019 step on our journey with God as a global United Methodist Church. It was neither our first nor our last step on our journey with God, even if some of us decide to part ways with this particular institutional form of God’s one Church.

The reason I write this is because you might get the wrong idea from my last post on the relative importance of General Conferences, that I am flippant about the conclusions of church councils. I’m not. Rather, the Christian Tradition itself is what teaches me to receive the Tradition itself critically. That’s how all living traditions work, as wide rivers with many currents rather than tiny capillaries with single currents.

I have known people who claim to aim to be “first five hundred year Christians” (meaning, the stuff the Church agreed about for the first 500 years is what they will name as essential doctrine, and everything that cannot be connected to that is adiaphora). I was once ordained in a denomination which claimed the first seven ecumenical councils were its theological core, but I’ve only ever met one person who I believe actually knows those councils intimately. (She died several years ago and was Roman Catholic, not this other denomination, anyway.) Either of those frameworks seem nice, but what they really are are “fragments [we] have shored against [our] ruin,” our sense that things are falling apart, and we are the ones who must save the Church. Those two examples in particular are entirely modernist attempts to create something stable and lasting in an uncertain world, which is in the end the attempt to create a foundation other than Christ (1 Cor. 3:10-11). (Alternate Old Testament reference: Genesis 11.)

I myself am temperamentally conservative. That is, I want to live a traditioned life. I am convinced that human beings over time have learned to live life well, to ask and to answer important questions well. I am convinced that to ignore those human voices of the past is the definition of foolishness. When I read a book about any topic at all, I want to go back and read the primary sources. When I listen to music, I want to plot where parts of a band’s or a composition’s sound comes from. And when I do theology I want to dig all the way to the tips of the roots. In fact, when doing theology, I am convinced that ignoring human beings and their thoughts and actions and lives over time is not just foolishness. This is truly for one part of the living, eternal body of Christ to say to another, “I have no need of you” (1 Cor. 12:21).

Conservative in the sense in which I describe myself does not have to do with a particular political party, especially not a US political party. Traditioned in this sense also doesn’t mean I pretend that there is some single Tradition to be formed by. That’s utopia (sentimental nonsense literally meaning “nowhere”). For my greatest interest–the Church–I don’t believe there is some single faithful Methodist, or Protestant, or Western Christian, or universal Christian tradition. Instead I mean that I am always going to be suspicious when a “new” theology seems to have no roots, or makes no claim to roots, or claims to need no roots in the Christian past. The Tradition may be a massive river with many currents, but rivers still have banks.

All that is a long-winded way to say, yes, I believe church councils have proclaimed the Gospel, but I still believe they have erred. Yes, I believe General Conferences have both proclaimed the Gospel and have erred. Finally, no, I don’t dismiss their workings easily. The Tradition I value is what teaches me to question the Tradition and to know it is certainly not infallible.

That’s the real point: the life of faith–whether for global denominations or for the individual Christian–must be lived in uncertainty (“the conviction of things not seen,” says Hebrews 11:1), because faith lives in the world, and the world is uncertain. Faith which is certainty is not faith at all. God keeps speaking through people (councils, conferences), people sometimes faithfully proclaim and sometimes mangle the message we’ve been given, and the Church’s life and our individual lives are lived in that uncertainty and on that journey. We live in our uncertainty, because God is the only one who is certain. We live without the foundations we lust after, because Christ is our one foundation. Thank God that God’s grip on us is infinitely stronger than our ability to grasp God.

Or if you prefer less Kierkegaard and more Wesley in your tea, the church has not yet been perfected in grace, but it is on the way. Even if you find yourself among those United Methodists who believe that in St. Louis you witnessed the death of your beloved denomination, still you must know: best of all, God is with us.

How Do I Live If I Am Dust?

Some years I need Lent, and some years I want Lent. This year is both kinds. (See my post from yesterday afternoon, A Holy Lent After General Conference 2019.)

I am dust, and to dust I shall return. Why do I even find that to be a life-giving thought? For one, because it’s true. One minute a little over thirty-five years ago there was me, and the minute before that there was no me. A whole lot happened before me. The creation of at least one whole universe and probably more. The lives and deaths of an uncountable array of living things and non-living things too. And one day soon–and yes, even 60 years from now is soon–I’ll die. The world won’t stop turning to mark that moment any more that it stopped turning to mark my beginning.

How then do we live? No…How then do I live? If next-to-nothing that I build will have any quantifiable effect on any other thing 100 years from today, how then do I live?

Qohelet, that “Preacher” in Ecclesiastes, asks these questions, and I think he’s right to ask them. Jesus also asks these questions. He talks about that man that kept prospering and prospering, so he pulled out all the stops and built giant barns. And then he died before he could even use them. Yes, the message of Jesus is a warning to rich people, but not just to rich people, to anyone who tries to build anything in this life. A career, a retirement account, a credit history, a skill, a family, a friendship, a porch swing.

This is where Jesus comes back to the foreground. Life must be lived for life itself, and the Christian life is the grace-enabled response to Life’s open invitation to live in Life itself. Not to build a reputation. Not to build a church. Not to build a denomination. Not to build a kingdom, let alone rule it. But to live and to love and to be loved. And over time to become satisfied that Love and Life are enough, because that’s all that eternal Life is going to be anyway.

Why wait to start living it? Why wait to share our Love and Life with one another?

A Holy Lent After General Conference 2019

In three hours, General Conference ends. It appears to be the case that, just as I had said to anybody that directly asked two weeks ago, nothing will be passed, and everyone will go home to re-legislate it all again in 2020 in Minneapolis. What I had not anticipated was how much grief there would be even if nothing changed.

Psychologists call this “denial.”

What I had not anticipated was how much grief I myself would feel, even though I am entirely insulated from any outcome–progressive, traditional, or status quo–of General Conference as a white, cis-gender, heterosexual male who has already made it through the fiery gauntlet that United Methodists have welded together into an ordination process. Today I almost got in a car accident because I was just in my own thoughts about it all.

All this is preamble to say this: I have nothing at stake personally, and still I am distracted, anxious, and grieving. There are those for whom all this is entirely personal, and I can’t imagine what they’re going through. And I pray we each reach out to those others in our lives who are in that place. If there is ever a time for grieving, it is now. If there is ever a time for embracing, it is now. (Okay, yes, I may be currently leading a Bible study on Ecclesiastes.)

This Sunday, I’m preaching from Mark 10:32-45. The passage begins with Jesus and the disciples on the road to Jerusalem (and the Cross) once again, with Jesus out in front, on his own. The disciples are all hanging back, some out of amazement and some out of fear (and presumably some out of both amazement and fear). Jesus has had his face set on Jerusalem for a long time already, and now in verse 33 he gives the disciples a very specific prediction of exactly how it will happen.

As soon as Jesus finishes telling of his imminent arrest, trials, mocking, torture, crucifixion, and resurrection, this is when James and John decide they want to break away from the pack and draw near to him. Why? Because they want power in his kingdom. Their hearts skipped all the suffering and have jumped straight to the glory. They haven’t yet understood, even as he has told them and showed them and told them and showed them again and again the whole time they have known him, that the Kingdom he has come to bring good news about is upside down and sideways from the kingdoms of the world. It is not the same old kingdom now under new management

In verse 41, the disciples get mad at James and John for their requests, but their anger does not seem to be, “Haven’t you heard the good news of the Kingdom of Peace?” Instead, their anger is more, “No, that’s my seat!” Or at least that’s my assumption, because Jesus doesn’t direct his teaching to just James and John, but rather to the whole group. The rulers of the nations of the earth lord it over one another, and lords higher in the hierarchy lord it over lesser lords below. Jesus concludes: “But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant…For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

If the first disciples didn’t hear Jesus the Son of God, when the literal sound waves from his human vocal chords vibrated the literal bones in their skulls, then we disciples are surely going to sometimes–even often–miss his voice. We’re even more certainly going to miss one another’s voices.

I am so grateful this year that Lent follows so close after General Conference. The discipline of Lent takes different forms. I know for myself that I need a time to be silent as ashes, silent as dust, silent so I can hear someone else’s voice who is currently hearing the call of God to give up silence for Lent.