Is it Christmas without Santa Claus?

I wanted to share some thoughts because this has been a conversation among my clergy friends and even among non-clergy parents I know. And while Nathan and I are definately not in the main stream thinking, I do think the question of Santa is being raised more and more.

In our house, we aren’t big on Santa. I grew up with Santa. I don’t remember it being horrifying when I found out Santa wasn’t real. Actually, I don’t remember learning Santa was my parents, I just knew and then went along with it because it was what Christmas was. I don’t recall having conversations with friends about Santa not being real. And I don’t remember it not inspiring trust in my parents telling me things.

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But my husband and I made a choice when we had our first child and the choice we made was to leave Santa out of our family celebration. For those who have Santa come to visit, HAVE FUN! I mean that with all my heart. Our choice is not your choice and our choice is not the best choice for every family.

Santa is, in and of himself, not a bad guy. We as a society have, however, turned Santa into many things that I find go against the primary reason why I want to celebrate Christmas. Some parents choose to try to reframe Santa into a sort of “messiah” figure who brings us gifts we don’t deserve and they point to the joy of being able to give and recieve. Perhaps I am too lazy as a parent but this seems like too much work to me so I stick with Jesus. I have no interest in trying to change all the perceptions of Santa Claus that the world and their peers throw at them. I have no desire to add one more stress into celebrating Christmas, over the “is Santa really you and daddy” question that has to be dealt with.

So we just shrug our shoulders and say for some families having Santa come and visit is an important part of their Christmas celebration. It is just not part of our families tradition. That doesn’t mean that they are wrong or that you should try to tell them Santa isn’t real, it just means different families do different things at Christmas.

We are big on not letting the girls ask for things at Christmas. That is our one hard and fast rule and the hardest thing about Santa (and our very highly consumerist society) is that most people (sorry Dad!) can’t understand what is wrong with letting our children make a wish list and then having the joy of seeing those items magically appear under the tree. I believe very strongly that Christmas is about grace. It is about appreciating the people in our lives, seen and unseen. When I let myself or my children make demands on what grace (or gifts) are going to look like, well, it seems counterintuitive to me.

Jesus didn’t ask what I really, really wanted when he was born in Bethlehem. He never asked me if I wanted peace or hope or joy or love. He never asked if I wanted forgivenness. He never (to date) asked if I wanted to be called into a life of service and devotion to him and his church. He gave me these gifts and I through my responses accepted them. With them, I have learned there is a great cost. It would be much, much easier some days to give him back forgiveness and to be happy in my sin. But that is not the gift I was given. The gift I was given, which I accepted, causes me to be uncomfortable with my sin. It is much harder than I ever would have anticipated to appreciate these gifts and I am not sure some days if I knew what they really were going to demand if I would ask for them.

But I digress. Back to Santa.

There is grace in asking and getting what you want. Maybe. But I see more greed in this than grace. It makes Christmas about me, about what I want, what I think I need, and it gives us permission to not be gracious receivers. Because come on, if you were asked what you wanted and then you turn around on Christmas morning and the person who you told very clearly what you wanted gave you something the exact opposite of it, how much honest to goodness graciousness do most of us have in our hearts? And our children have less than us.

As a person of faith and especially as someone whose life is dedicated to the Gospel, I cannot promote or teach my children that if they are good they will receive good things in celebrating Jesus’ birth but if they are naughty they don’t deserve anything. Or they deserve terrible things. I am a sinner who receives gifts of grace I could never possibly earn daily. And Jesus never, ever judges us by our worthiness but offers us grace while we are yet sinners.

I cannot teach my children that someone who very unfairly distributes gifts is real. After all they are very much aware that the bully on the playground got everything on her Christmas list from Santa while another child got only items that are small and not very expensive. Our children are just pretty savvy about this. And if Santa is real, then why is he so unfair? Jesus gives the same measure and the same gifts to all of us, poor and wealthy alike.

Instead of focusing on Santa, we focus on being gracious receivers. We focus on taking our time to appreciate and enjoy each gift we are given and the person who gave it. We spend more time thinking about the gifts we will give and less focused on what we will get.

Oh Christmas morning is exciting for us! There is joy in our house and stockings in the tradition of St. Nicholas are handed around. But before anything is opened or presents are torn into, we gather in the kitchen to bake Jesus’ birthday cake and to prepare our birthday breakfast. While the cake bakes we open stockings and everyone laughs and shares the silly gifts they have. We sing, we eat, we celebrate. We talk about what we have given Jesus for his birthday. We bask in the glow of love, celebrating not a creepy man in a red suit who breaks in after dark with gifts that will determine if we were naughty or nice, but a Savior who gives what will truly sustain and last.

Is it Christmas without Santa Claus?

I would say even moreso. Never once on Christmas morning has anyone in our house wondered if they were less loved, less appreciated, less valued because Santa didn’t really come down our chimney. In fact, in those wonderful morning hours of December 25th, Santa doesn’t come up at all and Christmas, the essence of Christmas, is not lacking without him.

Divided and Broken

I have a confession to make. As I am reading my fellow United Methodists reactions to the trial and verdict of Reverend Frank Shaefer, I feel lost.

I sat at my desk today and cried because I don’t know what to feel. I read Reverend Becca Girell’s moving words on the Courage of Couples and wept for the many men and women and their families who are torn apart. I wept because we are a broken people and our brokeness has come down to hurting each other.

I have to confess that I am struggling. I have prayed, thought and read scripture as well as people on both sides of the issue trying to understand where I should stand. I do not know.

I do not know if a similarly-gendered couple came to me and asked me to marry them, if I would have the ability to say yes. I do not know if I would have the ability to say no.

I do not know if our church law changes, if I would be able to change with it. I do not know if I would stand up to my congregation and champion it.

I do not know if I would ever be able to give a sermon that included a definition of love as including marriage for everyone. I do not know if I would ever be able to give a sermon about marriage as being between one man and one woman alone.

I sincerely do not know.

Because I am basically a coward, I really just want to focus on taking care of the people in the Philippians and Illinois who are dealing with the devastation of natural disasters, or the kids in our town who need the support and care of adults who are healthy, or the families who will not have much of a Thanksgiving feast next week.

Because I am a coward and some of the people I love and respect most as colleagues and friends feel passionately about this, I am afraid in this church and in this time to say that I don’t know but I don’t. I cannot take sides. I cannot speak out one way or another. I want to be able to, but I am not convicted one way or another.

What I do know is that I made a commitment to this church and the people who call themselves United Methodist because this is where God has called me. There is so much I want to see changed in our church. There is so much that breaks my heart.

What I do know is that there seems to be very little love outpouring or grace being shown. We are divided without the ability to have conversation or to make changes. (Please, please, please among other things, the language of the Book of Discipline around homosexuality needs to be changed even if the position of the church on marriage does not.I am ashamed of it, even as I am uncertain of the issue.) People, people who God loves deeply, are being hurt.

Maybe there is no other way. Maybe the only way to make fruitful change is to actively go against church law as it stands and change it by force. After watching General Conference proceedings last April, I can see this as a valid argument. Certainly, we have at least one Bishop who feels like it is the only way. Maybe there is no way to change our broken church and giving up credentials to move on to new ministry outside of the church is the better way to live out God’s call.

It seems that there is no room for us doubters. (I can’t be the only one!)

It strikes me that the church should be about filling the world with love. We should be about promoting the things that bring love into the world. There is so much hate. There is so much division. There are so many people who feel rejected by what they believe or don’t believe, by who they are and who they are not.

When we cannot muster up enough love for each other in the church; when we are so busy being right that we cannot find a way to listen to each other and find a way forward, imperfect though it may be; when we are bogged down by a system that requires us to choose sides with no room for confusion or questioning or uncertainty; when we are causing our own people to weep, we are not able to witness to the love of Christ who came to point the way to a place where all our tears are wiped away.

One day, I am sure I will have no choice but to stand on one side or another. I will have to stop being a coward. Maybe it will be my child that stands in front of me asking me to chose love for them over the law of the church. I can only pray that the conviction of the Holy Spirit will help me to stand where I should. For now I am committed to speaking for loving one another to the best of our abilities. I am committed to loving my brothers and sisters who are hurting.  Sometimes love means pushing but sometimes it means respecting where boundaries are. Sometimes it means being committed to showing grace in words and actions to those whose life you could not or would not want to live.

John Wesley did not really think women should be ordained. He wrestled with women’s place in the leadership of the church. And yet, in 1761 he licensed Sarah Crosby to preach. I am not sure how he would feel about all the female clergy in our church today but I am so thankful that he was willing to open the doors. I am thankful that his witness was to God’s grace even when scripture and the prevailing wisdom of the world said it was better to keep women’s mouths shut in church. We are all better for the leadership of women in the church.

I suspect that anytime we err on the side of love, the church becomes stronger and fuller and the Gospel is heard more clearly. My heart hurts because it feels like some of us in our church believe that love is only genuine when it is presented the way we want it to be. It took many churches (and annual conferences) many years before they would allow women to truly live out their calling. In some places, women’s leadership is still not accepted. Changing what is is a hard and long and painful battle. Even though we know the attitude is still there today, no one in the church leadership would question a woman’s ability to be ordained simply because she is a women.

In the hardest things, we have to walk gently with love and care especially for those who passionately see differently than we do. We have to know that withholding our love and grace until the changes we want made, will only make the change harder and the brokeness deeper.

I do not know on which side to stand with regards to the church performing similar-gendered marriage services. My heart hurts because many I love and respect are feeling rejected and discouraged. I weep for a witness that is not of love and compassion. I can only pray that God will choose to step into the divide we have created and somehow bring us healing.  I am not yet ready to grieve for the church I love and have pledged to serve. I have hope that we can find ways to minister with and to people for whom love comes in different forms and ways. I have assurance that grace and love will make a way even where there does not seem to be a way.

The five most important things that will change your life, attitude, church, community, children…well everything

The last few days I have been bombarded by articles that give me the top phrases to say (or not say), the top three things to do to keep volunteers, the top five things my church needs to change, the top ten things I most need to make sure my children hear from me, and more.

I have read most all of them…you never know where a nugget of inspiration might come from…but this morning as I saw on Facebook that the majority of the reposts by friends were these lists I was struck by a truth.

The allure of these lists is that it makes it easy. Someone who knows something is telling us what the top things are that we should do to be better. Heck, even when they are nobody who knows nothing we cling to these lists like a log in a vast ocean.

We do not want to work hard to learn these truths. We do not want to go through the pain of learning the hard way. We do not want to take the time to discern, to think before we act or talk, to think more about the person in front of us than we think about ourselves. We just want someone to tell us exactly what to do or say in a moment so that we will not do or say the wrong thing.

Now don’t get me wrong. I like a good “top ten” list as much as the next person. The lists I have read are thoughtful and true and have the kind of sage advice I would get from my grandmother. But I wonder if they are not ruining us.

They make it seem like all this should be easy. They make it sound like all churches, all communities, all people have the same fix. We just need to get it together.

On the face of it they sound good. For example, I strongly dislike the phrase “it was in God’s plan” or something to that effect. I have worked really hard for a long time to not say that phrase. It is not my theology. I am pumping my fist, saying “yeah we need to get rid of that phrase” when I see it on a list of things Christians should never say.

But there are times in ministry when someone needs me to say “it was in God’s plan.” That is where their faith is. That is where their understanding of God resides. I can only know who and when to use this phrase when I have built a relationship with the people I am in ministry with. I can only discern when I need, yes need, to use this dislikable phrase, when I am fully engaged with the person in front of me. I cannot judge that their theology should be different or try to force them to see as I do.

I believe that people come to a relationship with Jesus Christ through different means. I am United Methodist because being United Methodist enables me to be the best follower of Christ I can be. I do not believe being United Methodist somehow gives me an edge up on any other Christian. One of my dearest friends is Southern Baptist. She will never have a female minister and I am okay with that. I know she loves me. I know she loves Jesus (and for the record, I know she knows I love Jesus too!) Her relationship with Jesus is expanded because of her experience in her church. She supports me in my walk as a United Methodist ordained clergy, even traveling many hours with her family in tow to stand with my family as I was ordained. She knows I could not live out my faith as a Southern Baptist.

We are all different. Some of us feel glory when we are at the mountains edge, others inside a room in front of a computer screen, others in the midst of a crowd dancing to loud music. We do not have the same tastes, the same likes, the same ideas about the world. We do not experience God in the same ways.

I have never known anyone out there whose lives have been transformed by reading a “top ten” list.

Transformation comes through relationship. Through understanding. Through love. It comes when I respect your journey and support you in it even when it is not my journey. It comes through hard prayer and discernment. Through pain…so much pain. Through abundance of grace. It comes when we are willing to become not like everyone else expects us to be but when we are willing to become more fully the person God created us to be.

This is true of individuals. It is true of communities. And dare I say it is true of each church. We have to stop relying on some quick and easy solution that we can train ministers to implement in every broken church and start training clergy to know how to be in relationship with their churches. Only when we start to see that each community of faith is uniquely created by God for God’s glory will we ever have a chance at seeing a revival of the Holy Spirit.

I’ll probably keep reading the lists…we all need a hobby, right? But I am mindful that they cannot save what is so deeply broken. Only Jesus saves the broken and even his lists require more than being able to say or do the right thing at the right time.

Hurt feelings

“Mama, you hurt my feelings!” my seven year old told me in the midst of a melt-down while driving home the other night. She had just gotten in trouble for fighting with her sister (again) and thought that I should be nicer to her because (she argued) pulling her sisters arm nearly out of joint was an accident and her sister started it. (Said sister also got in trouble but was choosing to be stoic.)

Telling me that I have hurt her feelings has become the new “I hate you!”. Once she realized “I hate you!” had very little effect on me, she thought “you hurt my feelings” would get a more profound response from me.

It doesn’t.

Unfortunately for her, my mind was made up very early on in motherhood that my emotional well being was not tied up in whether or not my children were happy with me at any given moment. I do not believe God calls me to be responsible for my children’s happiness (nor they responsible for mine) but I am responsible for helping them navigate this world in a healthy way.

We all get our feelings hurt. I want my children to know how to deal with those hurt feelings in a way that will build up relationships instead of tearing them apart. I want them to learn to talk about their feelings and listen to others whose feelings they have hurt.

We are all disappointed in other people, in circumstances, in the fact that we cannot just wail on our sister when she makes us mad (even, as my children often argue, when it feels justified). Christ calls us to more. Christ expects more of us.

Our emotional wellbeing has to be tied up in what God wants for us. Not how we make other people feel (because, really, sometimes true love hurts feelings), not in whether others are first concerned about our feelings, but in whether we are earnestly striving to be the people God wants us to be. Most of the time, if we are honest, our feelings get hurt because someone is not coddling us, or seeing the world as we want them to see it. How many times I wonder, would Jesus have had his feelings hurt by the disciples ignorance if he were dependent on them for his happiness?

We are called to be light in the darkness. Our feelings are bound to get hurt. Our hopes are bound to be stomped on. But we do not do what we do for our own pleasure, we do it so that Christ may be lifted up, so that the kingdom of God can be built, so that love can triumph.

My seven year old doesn’t get all of that. What she does get is that her feelings of happiness, while important to me, are not the center of my existence and are not reason enough to justify causing someone else pain. One day I hope that she will see that this is not because I don’t love her but because I love her deeply.

No Maternal Instincts

“Mothers are all insane.” ~J.D. Salinger (May 2013 Readers Digest)

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I have absolutely no maternal instincts.

My first daughter was born during my last year of college. It never occurred to me to do anything but finish my degree and graduate with a English/Religion major and a dream of going to seminary.

We found out we were expecting our second daughter mere weeks before I started seminary. She was born a week before mid-terms in that first spring semester. It never occurred to me to take time off…I just lugged her to class, nursed her during lectures and handed her over to my roommate (or whomever I could beg to take her) when I absolutely could not take her to class with me.

18 months later her little sister joined our family and the seminary campus.

It never occurred to me to do anything less. I thought only of this profound, important, all consuming call that God had invaded my life with when I was 14 years old.

I plowed on imperfectly, starting as the pastor of a two point charge when number two was three months old. I stayed there as the pastor through two and a half more years of seminary, one more baby and most of the fifth one (who was born three weeks after we moved).

I have gotten a lot of guilt piled on me who were either called to a different life or who chose to follow their call differently.

I have cried tears, not because I have missed things my children are doing, but because other people make me feel terrible about choosing to live out my call over living for my children.

I have been told I can’t do everything.

I have been told that my family has to come first or my children will end up hating the church.

I have been told that I need to wait to take on more responsibilities in the life of our denomination…wait until they grow up and move out and move on. (Which by the way means I will have served the church for 25 years while waiting…)

I have watched other women, strong, beautiful called women, wonder and worry and stress over family planning and how to balance the guilt with our call. I have seen them sacrifice having a family AND/OR sacrifice the kingdom work God has called them to because of some outdated notion that women are not capable of having a healthy whole family and fully live into the calling Christ has placed in us.

I have five daughters and very little maternal instinct. I confess that I am baffled when other women talk about missing their children after a few days apart. I don’t feel a burden in my soul to rush home to help with homework or particularly guilty when I am not there to kiss them good night.

    I love my daughters. They are intelligent, fun, delightful little girls. They are engaged in the world around them. They are curious. They love to be with me and with each other. They are storytellers and adventure bringers. They are wonderful friends to others. They provide an abundance of sermon illustrations. When I spend time with them, my heart is refreshed and my soul sings praises.

BUT they are not my whole life. They do not define me and I certainly do not want to define them. I want them to become fully the people that God desires them to be. The only way to do this is, I think, to fully be the woman God has called me to be. Yes, mother is part of that. But there is also wife, friend, pastor, preacher, lover of God’s people, prophet, dreamer, visionary, and much, much more.

I will not win the super mom story battle. I don’t have the instincts or honestly the will to win that prize. But if I have daughters who become women that love God, love others fully and are able to be confident in who God has created them to be then I will take comfort in the fact that I have done my best with God’s gift of five precious lives.

Young clergy will not save the United Methodist Church

There seems to be a wave moving across the United Methodist Church to push for the recruitment of more young clergy. As I listened to Bishop Lowry speak last night at the Iowa Annual Conference clergy session I was struck by his words that the church needs to be salted with more young lay and clergy persons because we need their dynamic ideas. As a young clergy who started in ministry at the age of 23 and is now 32 I have spent the better part of the last decade being a “young clergy” in this church.

Maybe things are different for young clergy in Bishop Lowry’s conference. I sincerely hope it is so. Having been a part of two conferences now, I can say that my experience is that we are a church that wants youth to save the church BUT we want young clergy and lay who do ministry like the older clergy and lay only with more energy. We are not a church who values the ideals, new ideas and outside of the box thinking that will transform the UMC and by extension the world.

There are some reasons I think this is the case:

1. We require every ordained clergy to go through Clinical Pastoral Education. In essence we are proclaiming that ministry in the United Methodist Church involves a large component of chaplaincy. As long as we expect our ministers to be more fully trained as chaplains then they are to be leaders, visionaries, or prophets we will have a church that expects to be served by a chaplain and not led to deeper discipleship.

2. The process of ordination is one that rewards young clergy for showing that they are part of the institution and punishes them for thinking outside of the box, unless that outside of the box thinking is translated into more local church members.

3. Young clergy are sent to churches that truly are chaplaincy appointments. They are churches that are not healthy, that have had leadership that has not led, that have been largely ignored by the denomination as long as their financial obligations are met.

4. Young clergy have enormous student debt and then are asked “are you so in debt as to embarrass yourself or your ministry?” In my heart when I was asked I thought I should say yes. But I also wanted to be ordained. Instead of encouraging ordinands not to giggle when the question is asked, why are we not recognizing that many of our young clergy are coming into ministry with enormous debt and including in the process the opportunity to develop a plan to successfully handle the debt in their lives in a healthy way? The shame of this debt is made harder when we are asked to serve in churches that do not adequately compensate for the work or are in places where spouses cannot find work or are underpaid for their skills.

5. There is a huge culture of young clergy needing to “pay their dues”. As young clergy go through the process, there is a sense that they have to act in certain ways, hide certain beliefs or actions, and not make waves lest they risk their ordination. They are encouraged to “walk the line” until they are ordained. The trouble is that by the time they get there they are tired, burnt out or have lost their voice.

I believe we need more young leaders, both lay and clergy. But young clergy are not going to save the church. Within ten years of ministry, those celebrated young leaders will no longer be young. We need more pastors and lay leaders of all ages that are bold to push our churches beyond maintenance and mediocrity. We need to believe that the Holy Spirit is still moving and that most of our church leaders really do want to make a difference in the lives of those in their community for Jesus Christ.

Revelation

We just finished studying the book of Revelation. It took us about eight weeks and we worked out our faith in this hard book together. My challenge as a leader was to make a commitment to studying Revelation from a point of grace. This was a challenge because so many prepared studies on Revelation teach from a perspective of fear. Which means that I had to put a lot more effort into preparation than usual.

Revelation by grace was hard. What was even harder was to realize that we have a church that has become fearful. We are afraid. Afraid to do God’s will. Afraid what will happen if we don’t do God’s will. Afraid that people won’t come when we reach out. Afraid that people will come when we reach out. We live in a constant state of fear, so much so that I am not sure that we even recognize it as such.

As John is trembling in fear at the beginning of this vision, the son of man says “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.” (Rev. 1:17-18) Do not be afraid. I think that has to be our theme in the church today if we have any hope of reaching new people for Jesus Christ. Do not use fear as a tactic to move people towards salvation. Do not give into fear when the future seems not quite what we want it. And do not allow fear to rule our hearts and minds when we are trying to work things out with others in the church who do not see the world as we do.

At the end I found a lot of grace in teaching Revelation, especially through the conversation and questions of  two amazing groups of lay people. Revelation demands incredible imagination and a clinging to grace. It demands nothing less than a committed “yes” from people of faith as we seek to transform the world into the hope of God’s heart.

As I came home …

As I came home from my ordinand retreat, I sat in the Chicago O’Hare Airport pondering on this long journey towards ordination and the church I am committing my life to. Jeff Mickles, the chair of the Virginia Conference Broad of Ordained Ministry, reminded the 32 of us who will be ordained that ordination is the next step in our call. We are moving from disciples to apostles, from people who are learning to those who are sent out. We move from being the students to becoming the teachers. Ordained persons in the United Methodist Church live into a different call from local pastors and even provisional members.

As I sat in the airport I pondered on my life in the church up to this point and why I so deeply love such a broken and flawed denomination.

I remember sitting in Lew Parks UM Doctrine and Polity class, learning for the first time that ordained elders had a security of appointments. I remember being shocked that after I was ordained I would always be given a church to serve if I wanted to serve. It seemed strange to know that the only job I would ever do, ever qualify to do, was a job I could not lose. I remember feeling uncomfortable with the weight of that knowledge.

I also remembered the clergy women’s consultation I attended two years into my first appointment. I was shocked to come out into the lobby and find doors lined up, with a silent witness from the LGBT community. As I listened to one of the Bishops (I don’t recall who now) preach about people standing outside the doors and knocking, it was the first glimpse I had really had of the pain our church has caused some.

I remember my first time as an Annual Conference delegate. I was a district young adult representative and had never been before. I poured over my Book of Resolutions for weeks trying to understand what all this meant and how I was supposed to figure out how to vote.

This process has been hard. I have at times wondered why I was doing it, if the church really wanted me, if I was meant to be here. I faced hard questioning about my abilities and my knowledge. I faced my learning disabilities and what they meant as I serve a church. There were times I raged against the hoops, that I sobbed because of the hurts, that I tried to speak for change. There are also the friends I have made, the hurts that have been healed, the hope I have found because of this process.

I face a church that no longer has security of appointments (although in fairness I have to say the process to be unappointed is one that is both fair and thoughtful to both the church and the pastor…read the legislation). It is a church where there are still those outside the doors. It is a church that still under-equips both pastors and small churches.

It is the church who has helped shaped me to be who I am since I answered my call at the age of 14.

It is the church I will try to faithfully serve.

It is the church in which God will shape me to become whoever He needs me to be.

Together, we will walk, struggling and striving to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Hope and Resurrection

I have been in ministry for eight years. I chose and still choose not to have gone the associate member route that is so often encouraged with younger clergy and so that means I have served a total of four churches (two charges) that are the face of the churches statistics reflect in the Call to Action Report.  On paper, these churches are not vital. On conference reports, these churches have more outflows that inflows. More people leave than come in, more money is spent than is collected. On paper, they have little to offer. When you walk through their tiny buildings with their outdated decor and their sanctuary that looks full at 70 worshipers, they don’t seem to have any thing to offer.

And yet I have this sense that it is not the churches or these church members who have failed.

It is the conference leadership, who only defines them by statistics on a page.

It is the District Superintendents, who see the statistics and the scared, hopeless faces around the table put them into the “non-vital” category.

It is the pastors who are bullied, who are busy trying to change the past, who don’t know how to offer a dream to a people who seem to be heading at a break neck speed towards death, who aren’t courageous enough to stand up to the woe-is-us attitude and offer hope.

The small (and I mean small…think 20-50 on a Sunday morning) churches I serve, went from booming 50 years ago to bust ten years ago. They have made excuses and been given excuses. They have clung for way too long to what was. They have given into fear. They have landed at hopelessness. Some of it IS their own doing. Some of it is because they have bought what they were told by well meaning pastors and conference reports.

We live in a big culture. The bigger the better. When something fails you just throw it away and buy a new one. These small rural churches know they have failed. They are put up against the large mega churches near-by that they keep losing members to and they know they are no longer vital. They understand they are part of a church that is dying. They (and I as their pastor) don’t need to be scared into believing the statistics because we live the statistics with every letter of transfer we sign and every loyal church member we bury. What we need is someone who is in a position of authority, someone who “knows church” to look at those death statistics and preach resurrection.

My sorrowful reaction to the General Conference Call to Action report comes not because I don’t want to face reality. I live this church reality every day. It is sorrow because when I read the report several months ago, I found so much to be hopeful for out of the report. When I presented the report to two small rural churches that know they are not vital, I saw hope in their eyes and heard it in their conversation. “The General Church has finally given us something that offers hope!” was our response. We are building a dream and a future out of the Call to Action report and it is already changing our churches.

My sorrow was that the report given seems to try to take the power of resurrection out this report, especially for a small church. Of course I was not at General Conference, I know only what I saw and what I am reading and I was not a part of the conversation that took place afterwards with the young delegates and Adam Hamilton.

I only know that when I speak words of hope and resurrection to these small churches they begin to dream about what God might do with them yet. When I take the time to cast a vision with them of the future God desires them to have, they become engaged in God’s work. It may not be big and flashy. It may not lead to needing a bigger building and more classrooms but it will lead to lives transformed in the name of Jesus.

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I won’t share with my churches the report given at General Conference. I was hoping to, as encouragement in this journey, but we don’t need a reality check. We will keep moving forward with the hope that IS found in this report, with  areas that were lifted up that we can make healthy changes and thus build a more vital future. I suspect it will take a few years before we move completely out of hopelessness. I suspect it will take a few years after that for the reports to trickle up to show we are “vital”. But I believe that God is working to resurrect two small rural churches in Iowa because he is not done with them yet. And I am thankful for a General Church that has given is a good word that encourage’s us in this journey, even if they sometimes forget that “perfect love casts out fear” and instilling fear is not necessary to speak hard truth.

A prompt

I have occasionally thought about starting a blog but have quickly put the notion to rest. There are so many blogs out there. What could I possibly have to say that someone might find worth reading? Could I add anything to the kingdom by becoming one of those thousands who believe they have something worth listening too? I am on the back edge (as opposed to the cutting edge) of this technology and I know it.

But here I am….carving out time in my hectic schedule to make an effort to offer something that I think we need.

I am prompted by the 2012 General Conference of the United Methodist Church, my two rural churches that were made to feel like the only hope they had left was to survive, and my children.

I have no intention of spending much time on my children in this blog BUT they prompt me to try in some small way to work for change in our church. NOT because I want the institution to survive for them but because I think encompassed in this institution are truths about God and his kingdom that are powerful and good. I don’t believe God is done with our denomination any more than I believe the rural congregations I serve are only capable of surviving. What’s more I look at my girls and see something we are missing in the church…imagination.

In bible study, we are working through the book of Revelation. It is daunting work trying to wade through the many ways this book of faith has been interpreted and misinterpreted. One thing I have realized out of this study is that God has quite an imagination. Seraphs covered in eyes, with six sets of wings comes vividly to my mind here. It seems to me that we have lost our imagination in the church. We no longer imagine who we could be if we were brave enough, if we trusted enough, if we took the risk. We have forgotten we believe in God who is the most amazing imagination, who has imagined beyond what we are capable of knowing.

As a pastor, I am committed to gaining a corporate imagination. I see it happening in two rural churches in north central Iowa: people who did not know how to dream are beginning to dream about what God might do. Our dreams might never be carried out but because we are willing to imagine we are becoming who God wants us to be.