Saturday, July 13, 2019

The numbers game

You may know that my day job for this past year has been pastor at First United Methodist Church in Bolivar, TN.  At the end of June, I had First United Methodist Church in Whiteville, TN added to my work.  It is not a true two-point circuit, but the church classifies it as Bolivar First – Whiteville First Extended Ministry.  It is a fine distinction, to be sure, but accuracy is a goal of mine.

I bring this up because our Conference (Memphis) is in a bit of a clergy supply crisis.  We retired nineteen (19!) pastors at this past Annual Conference session, with virtually all of the ministers being under regular appointment.  We took in three elders, all of whom were already serving local churches.  This is indicative of the situation as I was describing it.  The ratio of retirees to incoming pastors is going the wrong way.

Some of the fallout from these circumstances is that people with less training are being asked to fill pulpits at a higher rate than ever.  Don’t hear me disparaging Lay Pastors or Lay Servants.  The simple observation is that ten years ago a rural county might have one pastoral charge to which someone in one of these categories was appointed.  Now, there are counties where all of the pastors – perhaps with the exception of the church in the county seat – have one of these classifications.  

The other consideration that the current situation precipitates is that three-church circuits are becoming appointments with four congregations.  Two-church parishes are adding a third component.  And, as I said to the start, historically station churches are partnering with other worshiping fellowships in their area.

All of this is to say that, after forty-five years in Methodist pulpits, I am riding the circuit once again.  And, I have friends and colleagues who look at me, shake their heads and say, “Tsk-tsk.  Isn’t it a shame about Rick’s demotion?”  I want to be quick to say that I didn’t start this post in order to bellyache about a diminishment of status.  I don’t consider my situation a reduction in station at all.  I consider it a fulfilling of my calling.  I spent a lot of years in Methodist circuits (as to the meaning of a lot, we’ll just leave it at that).  It is not any harder than being in a tall-steeple church and having two (or three!) worship services on Sunday morning. 

Folks are folks.  Churches are churches.  The sheep need shepherding.  I kind of leave it at that.  As for status, I have a great friend in the ministry who now rests from his labors who used to say, “You hear your name read out at Conference and sometimes it sounds impressive.  Then, the next day, it’s just church work.”

Friday, July 12, 2019

On "The Cure of Souls"

I had a really challenging talk recently with a group of United Methodist ministers about one of the ancient pieces of job description for pastors.  The phrase that we kicked around was “the cure of souls.”  It has been a part of the pastoral task virtually from the beginning.  It really takes in just about all of the work of the pastor. 

Now, the way a lot of churches set up the work of its clergy in modern times, the pastor has responsibility for administration and public relations and a host of other areas.  But these jobs fall outside of the classic daily work of the priestly figure.

The cure of souls has under its umbrella preaching, teaching, directing worship and administering the sacraments.  A present-day addition might be counseling.  All in all, the category encompasses all that a pastor might do for the shepherding of a pastoral flock.

The conversation that fostered these thoughts began with an objection that “cure of souls” is an impossibly awesome task.  “Cure” was taken to mean “remedy” or “to make (absolutely) whole.”  The other side of the debate holds that the term means “to minister,” or “to oversee spiritually.” 

A further observation was that “cure” here, rather than being a medical term, could be an agricultural or culinary term.  When we speak of preparing something like a ham, we understand that we can sugar-cure it, or smoke-cure it, or salt-cure the ham.  “Cure” in this instance carries with it the meaning of “prepare” or “preserve.”  To prepare or preserve souls, while an awesome task in itself, may describe the work of a pastor as much as any other simple term.

The original meaning of “cure of souls” was for the shepherding of individuals or for particular congregations.  In some circles, the Roman Catholic Church among others, cure of souls reached out beyond the congregational walls and extended over a district or parish. 

Later church understanding replaced “cure” with “care.”  I don’t have any real problem with that.  But I sort of gravitate toward the old wineskins, and if that means that I have to do a little more interpretation, so be it.

Thanks to those who sparked a truly stimulating discussion.  I am still cogitating over all this a bit.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Continuing some thoughts on Hoyt Hickman's worship work

The late Hoyt Hickman, one of the Deans of modern United Methodist liturgical thought, wrote a book titled Worshiping with United Methodists.1 In it, he sought to answer the question, “What is Christian worship?” He listed five assumptions that characterize Christian worship.  His fourth notion is: Worship should be relevant and inclusive.

“Relevant” is a word from which I nearly turn and run.  I get it.  I even agree with it.  And, I am hard-pressed to find a fully appropriate alternative.  But I spent so long – particularly during my seminary years – listening to all kinds of people harp on “relevance, that to this day it makes my skin crawl.” 

It is certainly the case that what the church does, and this is nowhere more vital than during worship, should be germane to the lives of its membership.  It is also true that sometimes our worship can be so dated and full of bells & smells that it might as well be in Latin.  Worship that does not connect with the real lives of worshipers is no worship at all.

My knee-jerk reaction to the R-word is based on my experience of people who acted as if “relevance” was something they could package.  They might not know what it was, but they knew it when they saw it.  It is as if they could impose relevance on the worship event with a guitar and sandals.

My take on worship that is relevant is that it meets people where they are and connects them with the Spirit of God.  That means that a great deal of the heavy lifting must be done by worshipers.  Because for all else that happens in worship, the focus is on God.  Worshipers bring a gift of adoration and praise to God Almighty.  It is not up to Christian worship to foster a feeling or emotion or even a state of mind.  Christian worship is about bringing worshiper to the Worshiped.  When worship fosters an opportunity for the congregation to assemble at the foot of the Throne of Grace – that, y’all, is relevant worship.

1Nashville: Abingdon, 1996.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The United Methodist Articles of Religion -- Article IV

A further look at the United Methodist Church’s Articles of Religion -- as stated in a previous post:

The United Methodist Church has several sources that historically define its “doctrinal standards.”  These include the church’s Confession of Faith, the General Rules, John Wesley’s Explanatory Notes on the New Testament and Wesley’s Standard Sermons.  Also, in this roster of foundational documents are the church’s Articles of Religion.  In 1784 when the American Church was chartered, John Wesley provided these Articles for the church.  Wesley had composed 24 statements, and the American church added a 25th that was America-specific.  They have always been authoritative in Methodism and the church included them in its Discipline from 1790 on.  The fourth article is:

Article IV — Of the Holy Ghost
The Holy Ghost, proceeding from the Father and the Son, is of one substance, majesty, and glory with the Father and the Son, very and eternal God.

The first several articles work together to provide a strong Trinitarian affirmation.  This article is a simple restatement of a large section of The Nicene Creed.  The early church controversy that the Council of Nicaea addressed had to do with the nature of the Holy Ghost/Spirit.  The heresy stated that the Spirit was of inferior nature to the Father and the Son, and that the Father issued the Spirit from the Father’s nature alone.  Nicaea affirmed that the Spirit was of like nature of both Father and Son.  It stated that while there are separate persons within the mystery of the Trinity, that the Three were at the same time One.

The Methodist movement affirms and employs the Nicene Creed both as theological statement and as liturgical element.

It is interesting that for some the most troubling part of Article IV is the use of “Ghost.”  The Holy Ghost/Holy Spirit issue is a result of an effort to differentiate between the Third Person of the Trinity in the New Testament and the references to the “spirit of God” in the Old.  Some older translations even print “spirit” in all lower-case letters in the Old Testament and resort to printing “SPIRIT” or “HOLY SPIRIT” in all upper-case type in the New Testament.  These folks offered “Holy Ghost” as a way of differentiating between the two entities in print.

As is often the case, the original reason for such practices got lost to memory.  But, for a group of folks, because some of their old Bibles – and old liturgical practices – used “Ghost,” they stubbornly adhered to this usage.  John Wesley, while fully understanding the nature of the issue kept true to his preference for adhering to ancient practices in the face of the modern.  He also maintained that “Holy Ghost,” as it appears in liturgical pieces, is more poetic.  He cites the Gloria Patri and observes that “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit…” provides a metrical stumbling block.  He didn’t see it as an obstacle to Christian understanding or practice.  And, he further notes, that for Methodist documents to use one term in some places and a second in others does far more damage than an adherence to an established practice.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

"Go on your way..."

The Revised common Lectionary’s suggested gospel reading for this week is Luke 10:1-11, 16-20.  It is Luke’s version of the Commissioning of the Seventy.  A portion of the reading reads:

Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, “Peace to this house!” And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the labourer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, “The kingdom of God has come near to you.” But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, “Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.” -- Luke 10:3-11

This is certainly an example of the austerity that Jesus asked of his disciples (and we remind ourselves that this is not just an undertaking by The Twelve, but a much larger endeavor by seventy disciples).  It also speaks of the faith that Jesus asks of his emissaries that God will provide for their needs.  These are good words.

There is, however, another possible way of looking at the passage.  We remember that, while Jesus died around 35 CE, the gospel of Luke was not put to paper until around 75 CE, a bit after the fall of Jerusalem in 72 CE.  In the forty years between Jesus’ ministry and the composition of the Third Gospel the church dealt with a number of difficulties within its membership.  One of those was the abuse of hospitality or generosity by would-be evangelists.  Luke 10 has the ring of a document that has gathered some material in order to address a more recent situation.  That is to say that it is possible that Jesus gave a piece of instruction here and another there which Luke has gathered into one place for emphasis and instruction.

We notice that there is a marked similarity between this teaching and the first-century document that didn’t make the final cut for inclusion in the Bible: The Dicache (“The Teaching of The Twelve”).   There is a section of that work that reads:

Chapter 11. Concerning Teachers, Apostles, and Prophets
Whosoever, therefore, comes and teaches you all these things that have been said before, receive him. But if the teacher himself turn and teach another doctrine to the destruction of this, hear him not; but if he teach so as to increase righteousness and the knowledge of the Lord, receive him as the Lord. But concerning the apostles and prophets, according to the decree of the Gospel, thus do. Let every apostle that comes to you be received as the Lord. But he shall not remain except one day; but if there be need, also the next; but if he remain three days, he is a false prophet. And when the apostle goes away, let him take nothing but bread until he lodges; but if he ask money, he is a false prophet. And every prophet that speaks in the Spirit you shall neither try nor judge; for every sin shall be forgiven, but this sin shall not be forgiven. But not every one that speaks in the Spirit is a prophet; but only if he hold the ways of the Lord. Therefore from their ways shall the false prophet and the prophet be known. And every prophet who orders a meal in the Spirit eats not from it, except indeed he be a false prophet; and every prophet who teaches the truth, if he do not what he teaches, is a false prophet. And every prophet, proved true, working unto the mystery of the Church in the world, yet not teaching others to do what he himself does, shall not be judged among you, for with God he has his judgment; for so did also the ancient prophets. But whoever says in the Spirit, Give me money, or something else, you shall not listen to him; but if he says to you to give for others' sake who are in need, let no one judge him.

False prophets and money-grubbing wolves in sheep’s clothing did not cease appearing with the closing of the New Testament.  Anyone with a television who turns the set on during weekend evenings can see these a-plenty.  You’d think we would have caught up with them by now.

Monday, July 8, 2019

Further thoughts on Naaman the Syrian

I have been thinking a little more about this week’s Old Testament reading from the Revised Common Lectionary.  The lection is 2 Kings 5:1-14, which is the story of the healing of Naaman the Syrian.  There are some important characters in this tale about whom we know very little, not even their names.  But without them we have no story. 

We encounter the first in verses 2-3.  That section reads:

Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, ‘If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.’

The story doesn’t spend time on details that we might find upsetting.  The narrative unfolds in the telling of the capture and enslavement of a young Israelite girl by some of the bad guys.  I kind of want there to be fire from heaven or for the oppressors to drop dead.  But that is not the way the story goes. This girl’s capture and enslavement is the vehicle by which Naaman, the Syrian general, comes to be aware of the authority of the prophet Elisha.

When Naaman arrives at the home of Elisha, he makes his healing request.  Then, verse 10 reports:

Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, ‘Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.’

Elisha sends a go-between with his reply.  If we examine these verses, we see that the general and the prophet never do meet face-to-face.  It is a servant who brings the words of power.

Farther along in the tale, Naaman reflects on the directions given by Elisha.  The prophet’s instructions are that the supplicant should go to the Jordan river and wash himself seven times.  Naaman is angry and complains both that the prophet did not engage him personally and that Elisha directs the general to wash in the local waters rather than in what Naaman considers to be the superior waters of his own country.  The narrative picks up in verses 12b-13:

He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, ‘Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, “Wash, and be clean”?’

Naaman washes in the Jordan and his leprosy leaves him. 

If we ask, “Who are the significant characters in this story?” the quick answer is, “Elijah and Naaman.”  But truth be known, it is these unnamed servants that make the story go.  Without the slave girl, Naaman may never become aware of the power of Elisha.  Without the messenger with the healing words, there is no contrast between the fantastic and the simple.  If the servants of Naaman don’t question him in his rage, perhaps the general goes back to his own land unhealed.  He may, as a slaveholder, take his anger out on the Israelite slave.  He may, as a general, wage war on Israel.  He may, as a leper, die a horrible death.

Naaman has all of these anonymous servants/slaves to thank in part for his healing.  And I am grateful to them for giving us a marvelous story.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

The simple story of Naaman the Syrian

The Revised common Lectionary suggests this Sunday’s Old Testament reading to be 2 Kings 5:1-14.  It is the story of Naaman the Syrian.  It is a story that I greatly enjoy for a number of reasons.  In a nutshell, Naaman suffered from leprosy.  He goes to Elisha and sends the prophet word that he has come seeking healing of his malady.  Elisha sends the general instructions to go to the Jordan River and wash himself seven times.  Naaman gets angry, first that the prophet did not come and speak to the general himself; and secondly that Elisha’s instructions are so mundane as to go and take a bath.  He complains that the rivers of his home country should be at least as efficacious as these foreign waters.  He is about to leave “in a rage,” when his servants put it to him that if the prophet had demanded a mighty deed that Naaman would have done it in a heartbeat.  Why not, then, do this thing that Elisha directs?  The general capitulates, and his leprosy disappears.

I could go on and on about this story – trust me, you don’t want that.  One appealing aspect, though, is the initial refusal of the pilgrim general to carry out his healing prescription.  It is not complicated enough or difficult enough or miracle enough for him initially.  When cooler heads prevail, he undertakes the simple act and he receives that for which he asked.

I know a man who “just wasn’t feeling like himself,” and so he went to his doctor.  After a thorough examination, the physician took out a prescription pad, scribbled something on it, ripped the page out of his book and gave it to the patient.  When the seeker looked at the note, it said “Walk.”  The man objected a bit.  He said, “But, aren’t you going to give me any pills or tonic?  For the kind of money you charge, I at least want some Latin!”

While we sometimes try to make things more complicated than circumstances warrant, the simple – not simplistic – approach is frequently the most effective.

The numbers game

You may know that my day job for this past year has been pastor at First United Methodist Church in Bolivar, TN.   At the end of June, I h...