Friday, June 26, 2015

Surprising Hope in United Methodist Funerals: Series Map (Part 1) (Part 2) (Part 3) (Conclusion)

#SCOTUS Ruling and UM Clergy in Same-Sex Weddings

Courtroom sketch by Art Lien. Used by permission.
BY-NC-ND 3.0.
Today, June 26, 2015, the United States Supreme Court announced its ruling that every state must issue licenses for the marriage of same-sex couples, and every state must recognize the rights inherent in marriage of all persons who have been legally married in any other jurisdiction in the United States.

The ruling of the US Supreme Court does not change church law. Only General Conference establishes the doctrine, liturgy and discipline of The United Methodist Church.

Under the current Book of Discipline (2012) United Methodist clergy are not permitted to perform marriages or blessings for unions of same-sex couples. General Conference may decide to change that prohibition at some future point, or it may not.

Our Book of Discipline also empowers bishops to be the chief interpreters of the provisions of the Book of Discipline within their Episcopal areas, subject to review by the Judicial Council if duly requested.

This means our bishops are authorized to determine in what ways UM Clergy may participate in ceremonies celebrating the marriage of same-sex couples short of functioning as the presiders of those ceremonies.

Several bishops have already indicated how they are authorizing their clergy to proceed. The lists are widely variable. Some are more and some are less specific. If you are considering how you may be called upon to participate in such ceremonies, be sure to know and follow the directions provided by your bishop.

Here is a list of links to these statements as I am currently aware of them.

I invite you to provide links to other such statements in the comments below.

William McAlilly, Nashville Episcopal Area
Scott Jones, Great Plains
Sally Dyck, Northern Illinois
Michael Coyner, Indiana
Ken Carter, Florida

Gary Mueller, Arkansas
Janice Riggle Huie, Texas
Mike Lowry, Central Texas
Michael McKee, North Texas

James Dorff, Rio Texas

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards
Director of Worship Resources
Discipleship Ministries of The United Methodist Church

Thursday, June 18, 2015

A Gospel Reflection on Charleston

We know what happened at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on Wednesday night, June 17, 2015.

Dylann Storm Roof, a 21-year old white male, entered the church, observed a prayer meeting for a while, then opened fire on the African-American people gathered to pray. His shots killed 9 of them, including the pastor, The Rev. Clementa Pinckney.

We do not know exactly why.

The FBI is investigating this as a hate crime. Some reports of a surviving witness corroborate the appropriateness of this approach to the investigation. It does appear Dylann was motivated by hatred for African-American people. What we do not know, still, is the next why-- why he felt such hatred in the first place.

Such is the mystery of evil. We may never fully know or understand why.

But we cannot deny the effects. Nine African-American sisters and brothers in Christ are dead. A Christian community is deeply harmed.

And healing.

All at the same time.

+ + + + + + + + + +

The gospel reading for this coming Sunday may have something to say about all of this.

Jesus went with his disciples into what could very well and very quickly become dangerous waters. They were crossing the Sea of Galilee by night, "far from the peaceful shore." A storm rose, and it threatened to capsize their boat and kill them all.

Jesus was asleep.

They woke him, asking, "Do you not care that we are perishing?"

Jesus does not rebuke them for their question.

Note that. Jesus does not rebuke them for their question.

Instead he gets busy. He rebukes the wind and the waves.

Then, all becomes calm.

And then the disciples are truly terrified.

+ + + + + + + + + + + +

Let me run through that one more time.

Jesus did not rebuke the disciples because when they woke him up.

They understood, rightly, that what was facing them was way too big for them to handle.

He handled it.

What had been their panic was now converted into mysterium tremendum at fascinans, the  bone-rattling and fascinating mystery of the presence of the Divine. "Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?" 

+ + + + + + + + + + + +

A terrifying reality has descended on sisters and brothers in Charleston, South Carolina. A storm came into their midst, and killed nine people at prayer.

It's what happened next that is most important.

Did you see them on TV or Internet coverage? People gathered in circles, praying aloud, passionately, calling upon Jesus, calling for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The storm had come, and it was too big for them, and they knew it.

They cried out to Jesus.

They're still crying out to Jesus, all over this land.

And if you ask these people who have been praying in this way, calling on Jesus because this is too big for them to fix in any way, what they're feeling as they pray like this, they will tell you.

Some may say, "Peace like a river."

Others may say, "Power. Evil has come upon us, and it has been thoroughly rebuked in the name of Jesus."

Some will say, "Love. Look at all these people coming together and praying with us!"

Sounds like Jesus.

+ + + + + + + + + + + +

Some may see coverage of the people gathering in prayer and have no reference point for it. For some, these prayers, calling on the Spirit, calling for rebuke of evil, calling even for forgiveness and mercy and healing (as well as justice) for the killer and for his family, are mystifying. What is this?

Skeptics may say, "What good is your God when your God allowed this to happen?"

Some others may be a bit frightened by the passion and power of this praying. What is this?

Some who had not expected it may catch a glimpse or the smallest inkling that as these people are praying, someone or something actually is shutting up the voices of evil and tearing down their strongholds.

Those praying know. And they feel it. That's what this is. That's exactly what Jesus is doing. 

+ + + + + + + + + + + +

Jesus sent his disciples into that storm. And he was with them in the boat.

When they acknowledged what was happening was too big for them to handle, he rebuked the wind and the waves. And there was utter calm.

+ + + + + + + +

I thank God Jesus was in the boat with them.

I thank God the disciples of Jesus recognized when the storm was too big for them.

I thank God Jesus rebuked the wind and the waves.

+ + + + + + + + +

Jesus is in the boat with us whenever he sends us into dangerous places.

Jesus rebukes the storm when we recognize it's too big for us and cry out to him for help.

When he does-- and yes, he does!-- we may be skeptical, or surprised, or even terrified.

But last night, and today, and every night or day that sisters and brothers gather to call on the name of Jesus and the power of the Spirit to rebuke the storm, he also fills us with awareness of the answer to those first disciple's awestruck, terrified question: Who is this?

Praise God, it's Jesus.

Friday, February 20, 2015

2 Things to Do, and 2 to Quit Doing in Maundy Thursday Services

2 Things to Do in Maundy Thursday Services
File:Christ washes apostles' feet (Monreale).jpg
Jesus washes his disciples' feet. The Latin inscription
above is "Mandatum" meaning "Commandment." Public Domain.

1. Do wash feet... or hands

The heart of Maundy Thursday, as the church has kept it for centuries, is about following the example and obeying the new commandment of Jesus when he washed his disciples' feet. The "new commandment" is to "love one another as I have loved you." And Jesus says he has set the example of washing his disciples' feet with the expectation we will wash one another's feet.

Washing feet regularly was a  necessary in the time of Jesus. The basic shoe was a sandal, and nearly all roads and even many floors in homes were dust. It became a basic act of hospitality to make sure that guests in homes received a footwashing, typically from a child or a servant, as part of their welcome into the home. 

In modern US and European culture, shoes generally protect from dirt and dust, and roads and floors are relatively dust-free. Many use their hands far more than their feet. For those who work on their feet all day, or lack protective shoes, footwashing remains a powerful sign-act because it is also needed. For others, perhaps hand-washing may be the more needful basic act of physical care.

2. Do celebrate Holy Communion.
Though Holy Communion appears nowhere in the text Christians read from John's gospel this night, Maundy Thursday is an occasion to celebrate around the Lord's table. The one who washes us, also invites us to dine with him.

There is long Christian practice of fasting beginning after receiving from the Lord's table on this night until receiving again from the table at the Great Vigil of Easter (Saturday night after sundown) or Easter Sunday morning. As we watch and pray with Jesus during these three days (Thursday, Friday, Saturday), we allow ourselves to be sustained by this meal of bread and cup, remembering the night of his commandment and betrayal until we receive the bread and cup anew in celebration of the resurrection of Christ.

2 Things to Quit Doing in Maundy Thursday Services

1. Re-Schedule Re-enactments of the Last Supper

The Church observes Maundy Thursday not primarily to recall the last supper, but instead,  to hear and obey the new commandment of Jesus. We may easily miss this as the focal point if we overload a service primarily about the new commandment and footwashing with a re-enactment of the Last Supper as well. Worse, there is a temptation to substitute re-enactments for the actual Prayer of Great Thanksgiving, turning the prayer of the church into a play.

For several centuries, the Church in the West tried to sustain a focus on both events on this night-- both the founding of Holy Communion and the giving of the new commandment. Ultimately, it became clear this was too unwieldy. Neither was getting the focused attention both deserved. So the Western Church established the separate observance of "Corpus Christi" in the 13th century (set for the Thursday after Trinity Sunday), and this is still observed by Roman (and other) Catholics, as well as some Lutherans and Anglicans to this day. By having two different services at different times, the new commandment and footwashing on the one hand, and the commemoration of the founding of Holy Communion on the other, could each have its own service without either focus getting in the way or threatening to upstage the other.  

All fine and good, but United Methodists don't celebrate Corpus Christi. And we have, in many places, developed a tradition of re-enacting the last supper, often on Maundy Thursday. So how do we honor our own tradition in this matter without that getting in the way of what we're supposed to be doing in the Maundy Thursday service?

It's a matter of scheduling.

There may be other occasions during Holy Week when re-enactment of the Last Supper may make much better sense. A service of Tenebrae, either immediately following the Maundy Thursday service or on Friday night, may be one of them. A simple re-enactment could be offered immediately before the beginning of the reading from the passion narrative as background before the reading. Or you might have a Holy Thursday program that includes re-enactment along with a simple meal, all set in a fellowship hall, prior to the actual Maundy Thursday service in your worship space.

2. Quit Doing Christian-Hosted Seders

The United Methodist Book of Worship has this to say about United Methodists and Seder practices:

"United Methodists are encouraged to celebrate the Seder as invited guests in a Jewish home or in consultation with representatives of the Jewish community, thus respecting the integrity of what is a Jewish tradition and continuing the worthy practice of Jews and Christians sharing at table together. Celebrating the modern meal without a Jewish family as host is an affront to Jewish tradition and sometimes creates misunderstanding about the meaning of the Lord's Supper" (p. 351, emphasis added).

Why is our General Conference-approved official guidance on this matter so strong?

The answer is because it is simply true. Christians
hosting a Seder is offensive to many Jewish people, and does nothing to promote deeper understanding either of Judaism or of the Jewish roots of Christianity. 
And historically, there are important historical and biblical reasons that Christians today should not be presuming to celebrate this festival as if we had some reason to do so.
First, any specific connections between the Last Supper and Passover ritual in the time of Jesus are
impossible to establish. There are no reliable texts describing Jewish Passover practices until the third century, and there is no way to demonstrate that these texts, which are themselves rather sketchy on some points, reflect what first century practice would have been. Thus, trying to recreate a first-century Seder or imagine what it may have been is just that—an act of imaginative speculation, not an act of responsible historical or liturgical interpretation.

Second, what is typically done by Christians in "recreating" a first century Seder with Jesus
at the table is to read the more or less current Seder texts back into the first century, with Jesus as host. However, Jewish Seder practice today is not based even on the third century texts that might have been closer to the practice at the time of Jesus. Instead, Jewish Seder ritual today, as it has for centuries, consciously embraces the later history of the development of this rite beginning in the late middle ages and into current times. 

Third, Jesus chose perhaps the most non-distinctive elements of the Passover meal -- bread and wine, common to all meals -- as the signs and bearers of his body and blood in all the biblical accounts of the last supper in the gospels and I Corinthians. Given conflicting accounts between Luke and the others about which cup of wine Jesus used to designate his blood, there is no way to conclude decisively, on biblical grounds, what the meaning of that cup would have been related to a first century Seder, even if we had access to a definitive text.

And that's if we think the last Supper was a Seder. Or that the Christian Eucharist was modeled on the Seder in any meaningful way.

Which brings us to the fourth and fifth historical problems. The earliest forms of Christian Eucharistic prayers we have bear almost no resemblance to
anything we see from the third century, much less late medieval  or modern Jewish Seder texts. They actually bear far more resemblance to first or third century Jewish thanksgivings for meals in general or for Sabbath meals (Q'iddush).

Fifth and finally, John's Gospel, which we read on Maundy Thursday, describes the events of this night as occurring before the festival of the Passover (John 13:1), while the synoptics (including Luke, which we have read on Palm/Passion Sunday) place the Last Supper as a Passover meal. Passover themes are certainly present in all the gospel accounts and provide some kind of context for the story of the last meal the disciples shared with Jesus. However, these differing accounts in the gospels should make it clear that trying to press any specific actions into any particulars of Jewish Passover ritual of that or any time is problematic at best. 

So, if you want to celebrate a Seder, you can do that
in one of two ways. You can ask a Jewish family or congregation if you might join as a guest. Or your congregation can partner with a rabbi or a Jewish congregation and they can host you at a Seder. If you want to celebrate Maundy Thursday, trust and use our official liturgy or the alternatives on your Discipleship Ministries website. These reflect the wisdom and scholarship of centuries of Christian faith and practice. Christian-hosted Seders do not.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

When Lent Begins Cold with Ice and Snow

After the Ice Storm: Public Domain
And so Lent begins.

But for many in the United States, maybe not quite yet.

Icy roads, impassable snow drifts, bone-chilling cold in places unaccustomed to such feats of winter have rightly led many congregations in the US to cancel Ash Wednesday services today. And even where they're not cancelled, there may be fewer who venture out to join those who do gather.

What do you do when Lent begins with such intense cold, ice and snow when your area lacks the resources to manage it? 

Wait for it... wait for it...

If we take our cue from the first reading for Ash Wednesday, we simply wait. We wait until we can safely gather. For Joel, the act of gathering is essential to the season of penitence the Lord calls him to proclaim:

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy.
                                                                     (Joel 2:15-16 NRSV, emphasis added).

Assembly, gather, congregation, assemble, gather, leave-- six words in 2 short verses all point to the same thing. If we are serious about repentance, we can't do this alone. We have to be together, gathered together in one. Not even being part of a wedding is excuse to stay behind when the trumpet sounds in Zion.
The repentance we must enact is corporate. We can't do it individually in our homes or on our schedules. We have to be together to do this.

Note the context of this call to togetherness, no matter what. Israel's climate is temperate. And the season of the year when Joel calls for this fast appears to be near the time of planting or harvest, not a time known for dangerous cold, ice or snow. Joel does ask people to stop what they're doing and come. He doesn't ask them to risk their lives to do it.

So for many in the US today, there will not be a gathering for Ash Wednesday. That doesn't call for us to supplant our gathering together and use ashes at home or on a street corner or with a few friends and family nearby. What matters most as we begin Lent together isn't ashes or how we get them. It's the people of the church-- as many as possible-- gathering together as one, people of all ages and stages in life-- to embrace our mortality, confess our sin, and seek God's mercy and power to enable us truly to repent and walk in all the ways of God's kingdom as we vowed to do and to help each other do at our baptisms.

So the most important question isn't how will you get ashes today. The most important question is when can you safely gather next?

For some, this may be this coming Sunday. For others, it may be later yet, perhaps the following Sunday, since it's increasingly difficult to for many of our churches to gather in any critical mass during the week.

What then about ashes, if Lent has already begun and we missed Ash Wednesday?

You can still use them. But now use them as part of an opening rite of confession and penitence, while using the texts for the Sunday when you actually gather as the basis for the rest of the worship design and preaching that day.

If you think about it, it's not unlike what we do on Passion/Palm Sunday. We begin with the liturgy of the Palms, perhaps starting outside the worship space and processing in. Then we continue with the liturgy of the Passion.

In this case, simply begin the service with the Invitation to the Observance of Lenten Discipline (The United Methodist Book of Worship 322) and proceed through the Confession and Pardon (323), then offer a Lenten hymn (Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days UMH 269, or Dust and Ashes W&S 3098) and proceed with the readings, sermon, and celebration of Holy Communion for that Sunday as usual. Assuming you are celebrating Holy Communion, give the full Invitation to the Table as usual, and then proceed directly to the Peace of Christ, since you will have already offered the confession and pardon as part of the opening of the service.

Be safe out there.

And whenever you can, as soon as you can, be gathered.

The work of repentance with which this season of baptismal formation begins is something we cannot do individually or in isolated pockets of family and friends. "There is no holiness but social holiness," John Wesley reminds. The holiness we seek only happens as God sanctifies us-- together.


Thursday, February 12, 2015

Top 5 Reasons Ashes2Go is a Really Bad Idea

Ashes2Go is an initiative begun a few years ago, largely among Episcopal churches, though some Lutheran, Presbyterians, United Methodists and others whose denominations observe Ash Wednesday have joined the bandwagon as well.

The idea is to station pastors (usually) at strategic outdoor places with a supply of ashes to offer to passersby who may not, for whatever reason, get to an Ash Wednesday service that day. Usually there is some brief interaction of confession, prayer, and then imposition of ashes and perhaps a word of pardon. Exactly what happens can vary widely.

I don't typically use this forum to argue against a practice, but I'm making an exception in this case. My title is not intended as clickbait. I believe those who engage in this practice and promote it mean well. I do not in any way wish to impugn their motives, sincerity, or the quality of their Christian or pastoral commitment.

At the same time, I genuinely see Ashes2Go (or whatever it might be called where you are) as a really bad idea.

Here are my top 5 reasons for concluding that.

5. It focuses on the wrong thing.
Ash Wednesday, despite its name, isn't about ashes, though the rite of the gathered community that day most often includes them.  It's about gathering as a community of the baptized and seekers to acknowledge our mortality and seek God's mercy, pardon and cleansing power for our sin.

4. It replaces one part for the whole. The imposition of the ashes in the service of Ash Wednesday is only one part of the whole of the service of the gathered community, which is a complete service of Word and Table. We enter, we hear the Word of God proclaimed, we are invited to take on the whole of the disciplines of Lent as a community and as individual members of it, we receive ashes as a sign of our mortality and penitence, we hear the word of pardon, we offer one another the peace of Christ, we celebrate at the Lord's table, and we are sent forth to live what we have pledged and prayed.

3. Administering the ashes on the street may feel "meaningful," but it is not what the church seeks to do on Ash Wednesday.
People who receive ashes "randomly" through Ashes2Go, as well as those who impose the ashes, may find these actions personally "meaningful" in some way. But feeling something to be meaningful is not the same thing as participating in what the church seeks to do on Ash Wednesday. We gather together to start our Lenten journey together. From the earliest days, as the introduction to Ash Wednesday reminds, that journey is one in which the baptized accompany those preparing for baptism and those who had become estranged from the way of Christ and from the Christian community in the final days of their preparation to receive baptism (at Easter) or be restored to full fellowship in the life of the Christian community through reconciliation (typically at Maundy Thursday).

2. It means well, but performs poorly. Appeals for doing Ashes2Go typically involve calling the church to offer itself in ministry "outside its walls." That's a fine and admirable thing. Surely, we should be in ministry outside the walls of our worship spaces. The problem is the notion that offering ashes to random passersby who may or may not be part of a gathered community that day is a concrete and unambiguous way of sharing grace with all.

Ashes2Go may indeed get a few people "outside the walls" (mostly pastors). But that second part-- that the typical passerby would read the offering of ashes as a sign of grace, much less something they'd want-- may be more than a bit of a stretch these days. And worse, by offering ashes and "on the spot" individualized acts of pardon, we might (if unintentionally) be sending and reinforcing a message that says you don't really need to be part of a gathered community to receive the ashes on Ash Wednesday. You can get them when and where it's convenient for you, and you don't need to be part of a gathered community ritual to do it. After all, religious goods and services should be available when, where and as we wish to consume them, right?

Is that a message we want to send, really?

1. Any of these, and any number of others you might think of, are MUCH better ideas for outdoor outreach on Ash Wednesday.  If we really want to embody ministry "outside the walls" and do so in ways many of us can participate in (not just pastors), here are a nearly a half dozen ideas that, to me, at least, send that signal in an unambiguous, compassionate, and maybe even fun way:

a) Set up prayer stations on sidewalks or by train stations or bus stops. All it takes is a sign that says, "Want prayer?" and someone, lay or clergy, posted there to pray with folks who do. Well, and some training for those doing the praying so they can offer this ministry well.

b) Consider adding two more words to your sign-- "Seek healing?"-- and bring some olive oil along for anointing those who seek prayer for healing for themselves or others." If your congregation already has a healing prayer team, send them out to these stations after they've attended your Ash Wednesday service!

c) Go to strategic places where folks are liable to be thirsty and give away bottles of water, or cups of fresh squeezed orange juice, or coffee, or iced or hot tea  (not food-- it's a fast day, right?)

d) Sing, play, or gather a group to sing or play or a troupe to put on a brief performance, put out a hat, and then share any proceeds you might collect equally with all street performers in a one block radius. If there aren't street performers around, donate all proceeds to a reliable charity operating in the local area-- NOT your church-- and announce or put on your sign where the funds will go. Oh-- and record this and put it up on YouTube-- NOT to toot your own horn, but to inspire others to consider ways they can offer a few moments of joy and hope to others around them.

e) Hand out children's books and Lenten devotional booklets that include your church's contact information 

f) any combination or all of the above

What other good Ash Wednesday outreach ideas might you add?

HT Drew McIntyre