Archive for the 'Future' Category

Words from the Past about Our Future

One convention down, one to go. Right now that feels like two too many! These extravaganzas whip the faithful into a frenzy, do their best to sell their party’s “product”  to voters, and widen the partisan fault lines separating the 330 million+ of us who reside in “…one nation…indivisible…”

RecentlyJFK assume responsibility for the future in the space of a few days a number of Facebook friends posted this JFK quote. They are a diverse group politically, spiritually, and ideologically. They don’t all know each other. But President Kennedy’s words touched them. They heard hope and possibility. They heard the Good News of a way forward. They heard the promise of healing our national brokenness. They wanted more of us to hear what they’d heard: “…not…the Republican answer, or the Democratic answer…the right answer…not …blame for the past…accept… responsibility for the future.”

What a healthy, adult approach! Fixing blame is a good way to gain political advantage, but a terrible way to solve problems. Blame binds us to the past we cannot change. Future-oriented responsibility empowers us to shape our collective future. Blaming, especially in politics, is toxic, divisive, and self-centered. By contrast, claiming and facing our future together offers new energy, new hope, and renewed purpose. It’s our future, our country, our environment, our children and grandchildren, our traditions and values to be passed on to future generations.

“Let us not seek the Republican answer, or the Democratic answer, but the right answer.”  I can hear the protests: “The R’s will say they have the right right answer, the D’s will say they do, the verbal food fight will begin, somebody will throw a fit and walk out, and we’re back where we’ve been for years—going nowhere.” How do we move together toward a “right answer” that bridges our deep and real partisan differences?

More recently some other Facebook friends shared these words from John Kennedy’s brother Robert. I don’t know thRFK when you teache original context of these words. But, except for the male-oriented language, they sound as fresh as today’s Twitter feed. Teaching and preaching fear based on human differences is an old human game. During RFK’s career as senator and later Attorney General, that fear focused largely on Communism and racial differences. Fifty years later political and religious leaders—and just plain folks– teach hate and fear of the Other with regard to a bewildering range of fears and prejudices. We’ve demonized so many sorts of folk as “Them” that we’re struggling desperately to find an Us with room enough for all our uniquenesses.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical “South Pacific” taught us correctly that “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear.”  That specific “hate and fear” was the island community’s view of love between a US soldier stationed on a South Pacific island and a native woman. Both the native culture and the US military base culture forbade that relationship. In the theater, love conquers all and the couple lives happily ever after. But our real-life experience too often validates RFK’s wisdom: “When you teach a [person] to hate and fear [the neighbor]…you… learn to confront others not as fellow citizens, but as enemies.”

As I stand on this small island of sanity between the two parties’ conventions, I hunger for leaders who affirm the Kennedys’ wisdom. Who will lead our nation toward the right answer for all of us, not just for their special interests? Who will renounce the blame game and lead us—all of us—to take responsibility for our common future? Who will reject hate and fear as motivations for political and social action? Who will take the lead in refusing to demonize the Other? Who will lead us beyond a culture of toxic fear, hate, and prejudice toward a culture of mutual respect and even love for one another? Who will lead us to see others with whom we differ not as enemies but as neighbors?

Elections can obscure our view of life’s Big Picture. In case you’re struggling with that, the prophet Isaiah offers a very clear view of it. God’s dream for God’s world is that Really Big Picture:

But here on this mountain, God-of-the-Angel-Armies
    will throw a feast for all the people of the world,
A feast of the finest foods, a feast with vintage wines,
    a feast of seven courses, a feast lavish with gourmet desserts.
And here on this mountain, God will banish
    the pall of doom hanging over all peoples,
The shadow of doom darkening all nations.
    Yes, he’ll banish death forever.
And God will wipe the tears from every face.
    He’ll remove every sign of disgrace
From his people, wherever they are.
    Yes! God says so!”  Isaiah 25:6-9 MSG

messianic banquet 7-16

This “messianic banquet” sounds too good to be true—“all the people of the world” sharing an incredibly lavish feast together, the end of death and “every sign of disgrace”. Followers of Jesus believe we act out God’s dream for God’s world every time we share the Lord’s Supper.  All are welcome at the table. We feast on the very life of God. Christ’s body and blood transform us into new people. We come away forgiven, renewed, reconciled to God and one another.

This vision puts day-to-day politics in perspective. It reminds us that God’s dream for our neighbors on the other side of political, religious, and social issues is for them to sit with us at God’s ultimate feast. It helps us see each person as God’s precious child. That identity supercedes all the other labels we stick on one another. God’s dream leads us to choose God’s limitless Love that prepares, invites, and works ceaselessly to gather God’s children at God’s table. It empowers us to reject “carefully-taught” hate and fear that poisons every aspect of our life together. Claiming and living out this vision is the best way I know for us to take responsibility for the future we leave as our legacy–NO MATTER WHO WINS THIS ELECTION.


The End–or the Re-Beginning? (Revised)

(Didn’t mean to confuse anyone. Hit the Publish button prematurely a moment ago. Revised to add categories and tags to help more folks find this.)

Twice a month I have breakfast with some other retired United Methodist pastors. The other day we found ourselves discussing the “stuckness” in much of contemporary life. Every attempt at dialog and civil discussion of “hot-button” issues quickly degenerates into a shouting match. In Arizona, where my colleagues and I live, it often happens around immigration issues. Bring together folks with strongly opposed ideas and expect the encounter to go nuclear! We disagree intensely with our neighbors about this and many other issues. But we’re so sure of our position that we refuse to seek common ground with those who differ. We’d rather be “right” than together. We’re stuck in our (self)-rightness.

Naturally we professional  church folk talked about the “stuckness” in our United Methodist system–the exhaustive, expensive General Conference whose hours of debate and mountains of paper changed precious little; the focus at the top on “metrics”—evaluating pastors and ministry primarily by counting dollars and people. (Many worry that this approach will squeeze the life out of pastors and their ministries by not taking into account vital but harder-to-measure “qualitative” factors.) We talked about the “Statement of Gospel Obedience” resolution by the Western Jurisdictional Conference (a regional unit of the church). This resolution proposes what amounts to ecclesiastical civil disobedience to the church’s conservative stance on homosexuality. Homosexuality, you may know, is the subject most likely to trigger a yelling fit among United Methodists these days.

Then we sought to widen our horizons. If our national political process doesn’t get unstuck, our whole country—and beyond—will suffer. Right now Congress is stuck with regard to passing a meaningful national budget; with regard to increasingly critical immigration issues; with regard to doing much of anything that requires cooperation or compromise. Most legislators are dug in on their own side of the aisle. They’re unwilling or afraid to make any move toward the other side, let alone actually cross party lines to take meaningful action for the common good. 2012 has brought a dismal display of bipartisan dereliction of duty and legislative malpractice with respect to the national debt. Remember that ridiculous drama in the first part of the year, the on-again/off-again deal between the President and the Speaker, the Select Committee’s utter failure to agree on budget cuts sufficient to stave off “sequestration” (automatic budget cuts) in 2013. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office recently predicted that this dismal display of inaction could well send the whole nation careening over that fiscal cliff into renewed recession.

The mood in the room had grown serious. Were we seeing an ending, a decline, a historic transition? What if we fail to overcome the stuckness paralyzing our church, our nation, our families, nearly all our institutions? We must address our challenges creatively and responsibly with the best available wisdom from all perspectives—or else. None of us was eager to detail “or else”. But all of us envisioned disturbing scenarios if our leaders fail to exercise the courage and political will to “unstick” our public dialog, our political process—and themselves!

Then someone (not me) asked, “Are we coming to the end? Or are we at the beginning of something new?” Key question for people of faith to ask. Huge question for Christ-followers who believe the last word in life is not death but Resurrection. Hard question to answer while we’re making our way through history one messy day at a time. All of us around that table hoped and prayed for our nation and our church to find their way through the “stuckness”. We also reaffirmed that we have the power, individually and together, to act to “unstick” ideas and attitudes in the local congregations of which we’re a part; in the neighborhoods, community organizations, and political groups in which we’re involved; in our persistent, respectful communication with our legislators. We can choose to model civil, respectful dialog instead of perpetuating polarization, stereotypes, name-calling, and negativity. We can be respectful and assertive equal-opportunity truth-tellers, especially where truth seems in short supply.

Are we at an ending—or a re-beginning? People of faith will answer “Yes”. Every ending contains the seeds of new beginning. Those seeds are planted by our God who says, “Look, I’m doing a new thing.” (Isaiah 43:19 CEB)The shape of the new beginning is often unclear clear while we’re in transition. But never doubt that our creative God is at work whether or not we can see it clearly at any given moment. Look at the Exodus journey. Look at the Babylonian Exile. Look at the post-Easter church. Look at those times in your life when all the pieces came together in a way you never could have planned or imagined. The end may not be what we want. But every ending bears the seeds of re-beginning. What else should we expect from the God who promises, ”I am making everything new.” (Revelation 21:5 CEV)

“A baby…God’s opinion…”

“A baby,” wrote poet/philosopher Carl Sandburg,is God’s opinion that the world should go on.” But for the last 40+ years (since the birth of my first child), I’ve heard a constant, jarring countermelody:  “I’m so glad I don’t have to raise children today.” This sad song laments the revolutionary change that’s marked those four decades. The world has become in many respects a disturbing, dangerous place. Parents must exercise constant vigilance. Children aren’t automatically safe even in the places and with the people we once trusted implicitly. Substance abuse has become epidemic. The social, political, religious, and economic structures that held life together for so long are broken and/or irrelevant. None of the “old reliables” are reliable any more. The transforming changes that have shaped this strange new world are a mixed blessing. They open up both revolutionary possibilities and potentially catastrophic risks. Today’s parents face a world far more precarious and complex than the one into which they or their parents were born.

“I’m glad I don’t have to raise children today.”  The song sings concern, uncertainty, even bewilderment. Just below the surface we can hear nostalgia, fear, and despair.  O to return to that simpler, gentler time (which never was as good as we remember from this distance). But we know we can’t. We fear that we have lost something irreplaceably precious in this relentless change. We’ve been robbed of what was loved, familiar, and certain, and left with ideas and practices that are at best strange and unsettling, at worst disturbing and even dangerous. We feel powerless against these threats to our core values, our “way of life”. Worst of all, we don’t believe things will get better. “I’m glad I don’t have to raise children today.” It’s very hard, the results are very uncertain, our neighbors care very little, and the world is very rapidly going to hell in a basket.

Yet Carl Sandburg sings on: “A baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.”  We worshiped on Mother’s Day with a church that sings Sandburg’s song from its heart. This faith community highly values children and their families throughout its life. These disciples don’t underestimate the challenge of raising today’s children. They do offer outstanding support and resources to families who choose to partner with them. They don’t uncritically embrace every new fad/trend, nor do they hyper-critically condemn all newness and change. They understand that God needs earlier generations–you and me–to help make God’s ongoing world a safer, healthier place for today’s “babies”–including our newest granddaughter who will be born soon after this post flies off into cyberspace! Then, in God’s time, she and her generation will take their turn partnering with God to help God continue building God’s world to serve God’s purposes.

You may have noticed that some Christians have a different take on this issue. Some believe God’s already stamped a “use-by”date on this world. It’s very close and not subject to change. So why bother trying to change what’s already a done deal? Just get yourself ready–really ready–and hang on tight. Some others believe the way forward is back–back to “pure”, “orthodox”, “uncorrupted”. So they huddle together with like-minded folks and leave the rest of us to our fates.

But those folks at Green Valley Church see things a bit differently. Yes, it’s a huge challenge raising children today–like it’s  been in every era. But these babies are God’s opinion that God’s world will go on. So let’s get busy together with God to make this world a place where babies, their families, and everyone can thrive as God intends. Sunday’s bulletin described their upcoming ACTS weekend (Assisting Community Through Service). They’ll clean up parks, paint and clean school rooms, collect food, help out in libraries and other community agencies. The bulletin also described the congregation’s planned  participation in an upcoming community forum. More than a thousand folks from faith communities all over the Las Vegas Valley will gather to seek ways to cooperate in addressing critical social and economic issues. They believe God’s opinion that the world should go on and become more the place God intends it to be. They intend to help it happen–together with all who join them in singing with Carl Sandburg: “A baby is God’s opinion that the world should go on.”

In case you missed it–We who follow Jesus believe that God came in the form of a human baby to announce that opinion. The $5 theological word for that is Incarnation. You may know it better as Christmas.

The Main Thing Is Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing

That’s my prayer for the 2000+ clergy and lay members of our United Methodist General Conference that convenes April 24 in Tampa, Florida. “God, keep these brothers and sisters focused on the MainThing. Remind them daily that 1) other United Methodists (or variously-labeled Christians) are not the enemy;  2) one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results ; and 3) how they do their business (as those who know and follow Jesus) matters to the watching church and world at least as much  as what they do.”

The Main Thing is not institutional survival. We’ve invested huge amounts of time, energy, study, prayer, dialog, money, and paper in analyzing the denomination’s decline and seeking ways to reverse that decline. (This decline, of course, affects many churches besides the United Methodist Church. Decisions about restructuring, revitalizing (and giving up buzzwords for Lent?) must not become desperate efforts to hang on by our fingernails. Survival-driven decisions are doomed from the outset: “[Jesus said]…those who want to save their life  will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:35 NRSV)

I certainly don’t expect survival anxiety to overwhelm this General Conference. Too many of the members have strong and vital faith, deep commitment, and a burning vision of a stronger-than-ever UMC. I’m rooting–and praying–for them. The greatest obstacle to claiming the future God has for us may turn out to be a deeper anxiety. Call it “relevance” anxiety; “Does anybody care?” anxiety; “Is anybody listening?” anxiety; “Do we matter any more?” anxiety. Large segments of society get along quite well without Christian underpinnings, thank you. Irrelevance, indifference, and apathy might well be a fate worse than “losing our life”.

It’s happening in Europe. In a recent Huffington Post article George Courtauld writes, “There is no question that Britain is becoming a more secular society…the establishment, many politicians and much of the media…dismiss all religions as equally nonsensical, embarrassing and irrelevant…In modern Britain and much of Europe now the religious are regarded as insane or silly.” Sadly, Courtauld’s solution is a book aimed at acquainting us with the Christian customs and traditions that underlie English-speaking civilization. It’s an interesting, helpful book. But a book’s not enough. “When the fullness of time had come,” God didn’t send a book. “God sent his son…”(Galatians 4:4 NRSV)–The Main Thing! A person is relevant in ways a book can never be.

Our UMC’s official language says our Main Thing is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” This General Conference will succeed–or fail–to the extent it equips and empowers that mission throughout our wondrously diverse denomiation. Dear GC (and other beyond-local-church folk), please give us some tools, some wisely-focused funding, and some inspiration. Clear away the bureaucratic clutter that distracts us from The Main Thing. And please let the Holy Spirit help you become our cheering section and earn to give us just the right kind and amount of help, which is usually almost as much as we think we need. (Thanks to Kennon Callahan for that wisdom.)

Lest you think this is an exercise in bashing bureaucrats and denominational power players–Whatever happens in Tampa, the future of the church is not in the hands of those folks. It’s in our hands–you and me and folks like us in thousands of local churches. It’s in the way we love and serve our neighbors in the spirit of Jesus. It’s in the way we step boldly into the future believing that our best days are ahead of us, not behind us. It’s in the way we dare to pray not only for our brothers and sisters in Tampa but for ourselves and our congregations: Keep us focused on The Main Thing–making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Make us willing to lose our lives for your sake and the sake of the gospel. Free us from the insanity of doing the same old things and expecting different results. Give us holy boldness to follow you in new ways and places. Let the fullness of time come wherever we serve you. Let people see Jesus convincingly and unmistakably through our lives and our life together.”

That embodied (incarnational) love of Jesus will look very different in our different circumstances. How will it look where you live your life and follow Jesus?


Rising Eighty

Sherman Yellen told folks he was “rising 80” as he approached that milestone birthday recently. He’d learned that expression from his grandfather, who’d picked it up while living in London. Our youth-obsessed culture doesn’t generally link “rising” and “80.” We’ll more likely link”80″ with “slowing down”, “declining”, or “doddering”. At best we might link “80” with “spry”, and at worst “scratching and clawing to stay on the green side of the grass”. [WARNING: Don’t ever call me “spry” and not expect serious consequences. “Spry” sounds to me like code for “Amazing–a relic like you actually functioning without equipment, pills, and keepers! Why aren’t you in a home with the rest of the geezers?”]

Sherman Yellen has risen to 80 and he’s still going strong. I hope he doesn’t mind me calling him an octogenarian with attitude. “…my best advice for any age”, he says, “is to paste the battle stories of your past into a scrap book and stay close to the present, living in the moment with few regrets.” Yellen hasn’t “retired” at age “Rising 80” to rest on his two Emmies and one Tony nomination. His latest production,  “Josephine Tonight”, is playing to sellouts in Alexandria, VA, and opening next month in Sarasota, FL. His other new musical about Al Jolson (written with another octogenarian) debuts next fall. “Living in the moment” means Yellen loves getting great reviews, but not as much as tme spent with his young granddaughters. It means he’s “still learning” at an age where we expect folks to worry more about remembering to take their pills than learning new skills. Yellen says he learned to write song lyrics when he was “well over 60, when we are not supposed to learn new skills…I found that the learning process doesn’t stop, or even decline (ignore all so called scientific studies to the contrary written by rubbish statisticians who hate their fathers).” Now that’s attitude!

I believe (and I hope Yellen would agree) that “living in the moment” means living toward tomorrow. A key component of “Rising 80″ (or 60 0r 40 or any age) is faith in the future. The prophet Isaiah wrote to a once-proud people who’d watched invading armies destroy their once-proud society. Not surprisingly, they didn’t trust God for their future. God told them through the prophet,  “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:18-19 NIV)

 “Paste the battle stories of your past into a scrapbook and live in the moment…” Faith in the future means valuing the new thing God is doing today more than yesterday’s battle stories.We dare not forget our history. But we’ll shrivel up and die if we insist on living there forever. Today is not 1950, 1980, or whenever your “golden age” was. Today is Today–Rising 2012, with all its wonder and chaos, peril and promise. God’s “new thing” is unfolding before our eyes. “Do you not perceive it?”

God give us eyes to see Your newness springing up in and around us. Give us hearts to embrace it, strength to help build it, and mouths to proclaim it. Teach us to live in the moment, because every moment is your moment, and every day your new day.

Here’s a link to Sherman Yellen’s article “On Rising Eighty”: