The Dipping Part

bread_wine2Children’s time at church is such a mixed blessing. On the one hand, I dislike that the kids seem paraded up front on display, where their unabashed curiosity, evolving faith, and sweet antics entertain the watching adults like an adorable weekly installment of “Kids Say the Darnedest Things.” On the other hand, give me half as many adults who exhibit so much excitement and curiosity about their evolving faith. Pretty sure, to paraphrase John Wesley, they alone could prevail against the gates of hell.

We’ve experienced an interesting shift at the church where I serve. Children’s time has gotten younger, with middle school and even most elementary school kids staying in their seats during the children’s message, and a gaggle of small toddlers, preschoolers, and very early elementary kids surrounding me. This only serves to heighten the tendency for unabashed curiosity, evolving faith, and sweet antics. And they do say the darnedest things.

This week, while I was trying and failing miserably to draw their attention to the coloring book in my hands as encouragement to draw outside the lines or color Jesus with purple skin, a preschooler pointed at the altar behind me, set for communion (which we serve by intinction, that is, each person takes a piece of bread, which they then dip into the cup of grape juice).

“Oooh!” she exclaimed. “Are we doing the dipping part? That’s my favorite part!”

Mine too, kiddo. And may we all be so excited about it.

Later, when I began the communion liturgy, I paused to make sure that someone was getting the kids from children’s church. “We don’t want them to miss the ‘dipping part’,” I said, to the titters of the rest of the congregation. “No one who is that excited about communion should ever be hindered from coming to Christ’s table.”

With the children back in the sanctuary, this also gave me more wiggle room, I felt, to tell the story and say prayers for communion in a more kid-friendly way, connecting to their excitement as best I could. Later, adults would tell me that they really “got” communion this week, and felt it was connected to the message of faith that goes beyond the basics.

All because, really, of a child with simple, exuberant faith, and a love for the dipping part.

Favorite Christmas Hymns

Throughout Advent, I invited the congregation at Lebanon UMC to vote for their favorite Christmas Hymns, and for the first Sunday after Christmas, we counted them down– well, not in order, but as part of the worship service. I shared some history of each song, gleaned from the wisdom of the Internets, and I did my best Casey Kasem impression.

The Top Eleven Favorite Hymns of Lebanon UMC

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJoy to the World (3)
Your third favorite Christmas song is not a Christmas song at all. Note the lack of virgin mothers, of mangers and cattle, of baby Jesus himself! It’s about as much a Christmas hymn as the 1971 Three Dog Night song by the same name (Jeremiah was a bullfrog!). The hymn we know refers not to the first coming of Christ, but to his return in glory: The Lord has come. Still, it has captured the spirit of the Christmas season, and on some lists is the number one Christmas song in the United States. Here it earned the third place spot. Its repetition and infectious tune make it a joy to sing, a joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea, a joy to you and me, a joy to the world.
O Little Town of Bethlehem (2)
In 1865, an Episcopal priest from Philadelphia traveled to Europe and then to the Middle East, where he saw the village of Bethlehem itself. Inspired by the sight, he later wrote a poem, which he shared with his church’s organist, who then wrote the tune. The resulting hymn, O Little Town of Bethlehem, was first sung in the Church of the Holy Trinity, Philadelphia, in 1868.
Away in a Manger (6-tie)
Some claim this hymn was written by Martin Luther and sung to his children as a cradle song, just as I sing it to one of my children nearly every time I tuck him in. However, no manuscript by Luther has ever been found, and those who speak German say the song feels more clunky in German than in English, so this is probably just a myth. Rather, this song is thought to have originated with German American Lutherans in Pennsylvania (where some of my family is from, so maybe my ancestors wrote it!). There, the first two stanzas appeared in a Sunday school book for children in 1885.
What Child is This (4)
The words to this favorite Christmas hymn were written in 1865 by, of all people, an English insurance company manager who underwent a serious illness and experienced a spiritual renewal. The words were later set to the traditional English folk song Greensleeves. Although English in origin, today the song is more popular in the United States, including here where it grabbed the number 4 spot.
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (9)
Your ninth-favorite Christmas hymn is also not a Christmas hymn, but an Advent song, expressing the deep longing for the deliverance of God. The Latin text was first documented in Germany in 1710, and the tune we use hails from 15th century France. The seven stanzas come from seven O Antiphons, each expressing a title for God, sung by monastics in the seven days leading up to Christmas, over a thousand years ago.
Hark the Herald Angels Sing (10-tie)
Although *only* tying for tenth place in our poll, this one is ours– written by Charles Wesley, who with his brother John, launched what would become the Methodist movement. The original opening line was “hark how all the welkin rings,” and for those of you who were not reading Wikipedia last night, the “welkin” is the “firmament of heaven”. The tune we use today was written by Mendelssohn, one of the greatest composers of the 19th century. Like many Christmas hymns, and hymns in general, the tune and lyrics did not originate together, but when put together, the result is Christmas magic.
Angels We Have Heard on High (6-tie)
And speaking of Angels… This next hymn is one of the most mysterious of all Christmas hymns; the origins of ‘Angels We Have Heard on High’ are shrouded in mystery. Urban legend says that the Gloria refrain originated as early as 129 C.E., when the bishop of Rome ordered the singing of a nativity hymn, however no record of this incident or the music exists, and it is unlikely that a piece of music could survive so long. Other legends state it was a French folk song, sung as shepherds on the fields and hills in that country called to one another. One scholar of hymns concluded that his best guess was that the hymn was actually written in France in the 18th century. By 1816, it was known in England, where– and I have always wondered at the similarity between these two hymns– it served as the inspiration for the English hymn, Angels From the Realms of Glory.
Silent Night, Holy Night (1)
You are not alone in loving this number one hymn. Translated into over 140 languages, ‘Silent Night’ is the third best-selling single of all time. Originally written in 1818 in German as an upbeat dance, by 1914 it was a soft lullaby, one famously sung on the Christmas Day truce during WWI. The Pope had called for a day of peace, but no one thought that could really happen. Somehow, however, it did; peace broke out, soldiers from both sides laying down weapons, decorating their trenches and barracks, playing games together, taking pictures together, and solemnly gathering and burning their dead together. A second silent night, a second Christmas miracle, broke out in the European trenches. It’s said the German troops began singing, Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht… and the British joined in, All is calm, all is bright…
O Holy Night (8)
Originally written in French, ‘O Holy Night’ was translated to English by an American Unitarian Universalist minister in Boston in 1855. He was an abolitionist, and was especially moved by the line in the third stanza, Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother… The song was initially incredibly popular in France in the Catholic Church, and later in the American North during the Civil War, but it was denounced by the French church when it was discovered that the author of the lyrics became a socialist, and that the composer of the music– a friend of the author, whom the author had asked to write music for his poem– was oh horror of horrors, a Jew. How could he possibly compose a hymn of praise for the Christ child? The song was declared lacking in musical taste and devoid of the spirit of religion. Some combination of the condemnation by the French church, association with those godless Unitarian Universalists and the anti-slavery movement (while many denominational publishing houses– including ours– were situated south of the Mason-Dixon line), and plain old copyright issues, mean the hymn isn’t in many hymnal, including the United Methodist Hymnal. See if you think it lacks musical taste or is devoid of religious spirit.
O Come, All Ye Faithful (5)
Your fifth-favorite Christmas hymn was written in 1744 in Latin by an English lay man and set to music by him as well– an uncommon practice as we have seen in the context of other hymns, the words and the music were published together in 1751. They were translated into English 100 years later. The music, however, has also been attributed to a later composer, and dated 1782, so some confusion about the tune’s origin exists. The hymn speaks of the high adoration of Jesus; these are not your grandkids’ “adorbs”. The opening words, in Latin, adeste fideles (which my auto correct kept trying to render adept fiddles), mean, “be present, faithful ones”. More than just commanding us to come, the hymn calls us to deep presence.
Go Tell it on the Mountain (10-tie)
Our final Christmas hymn does not hail from France, or Germany, or England, or New England. This song originated as an African American spiritual, and as such, it was passed down orally long before it was written down. The man credited with publishing and preserving it, John Wesley Work, Jr., was the first African-American collector of spirituals, seeking to preserve the richness and heritage of the American slaves. The song was made more popular by the Fisk University Jubilee Singers, during a musical tour to raise money for their university. These students were at first reluctant to share publicly the spiritual songs, laden with the complex history of both slavery and freed African-American people. The song was known to be sung by slaves in the south as early as 1865. In the 1960s, Peter Paul and Mary adapted it as a civil rights anthem, but it properly remains in the hands and in the legacy of the African-American slaves who first sang it, telling of the joyful hope of salvation and the call then– and still today– to not only receive the gift of Christ’s presence, but to proclaim it, share it, and live it.

Reflecting on the Social Principles Consultation

My notes on the "Nurturing Community" section.

My notes on the “Nurturing Community” section.

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to Washington, D.C. to the offices of the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church. There I participated in a Consultation on the Social Principles, one of eight planned meetings “to consider a process about how to make the United Methodist Social Principles more succinct, theologically founded and globally relevant.”

At these consultations, participants looked at the Social Principles– statements The UMC makes on various topics (read the text online here) in small groups and asked:

  1. What role do the current Social Principles play in enhancing the mission and ministry of The United Methodist Church?
  2. How much or how well have the current Social Principles served to empower mission and ministry in your geographical area?
  3. What might globally relevant Social Principles look like?

The consultations in Washington were live streamed and recorded, and you can view much of them online at this channel. I can’t find the place where we discussed marriage, sexuality, and abortion, so I can’t link directly to that. If you’d like to hear me rattle off on some other stuff, you could jump to 57:00 in the 1/16 11 am session (ecology), 19:55 in the 1/17 morning session (corporate responsibility), or 28:55 in the 1/17 afternoon session 2 (restorative justice). Although for my money, the winner for the whole consultation was Sunny’s “Social Principles for Texans” in that same video, 34:30.

It’s actually fairly easy to summarize what our group in particular and I believe the consultation overall thought about these questions.

1. What role do the current Social Principles play in enhancing the mission and ministry of The United Methodist Church?

On almost every issue, we felt that the ministry and mission of The United Methodist Church were enhanced by the Social Principles because they indicate that our church says something about important challenges in our world. We gave thanks that ours is a church that clearly and emphatically opposes the death penalty, that defines abuse as verbal, psychological, and sexual in addition to physical, that calls for just economic practices and so on. However, in nearly every social principle, we found ways in which the ministry and mission of The UMC was harmed by either not being strong enough on a position, by being too United-States-centric, or by using language and upholding positions that are hurtful and inflict harm on people.

2. How much or how well have the current Social Principles served to empower mission and ministry in your geographical area?

Again, on almost every issue, individuals could point to examples of using the Social Principles to educate and advocate in their contexts. We heard from one another about opposition to gambling, calling out usurious lending, advocating for organized labor, and on and on. We gave thanks for the 1908 Social Creed of The UMC, and the rich history of our denomination in the struggle for justice in labor and economics particularly. Again, however, we also heard examples of places where the Social Principles have undermined local ministries, most notably and predictably, by driving away and harming LGBTQ persons in our communities and circles of beloved ones.

3. What might globally relevant Social Principles look like?

Our first and simplest answer to this question: SHORTER. Our group felt that in order for the Social Principles to be relevant worldwide, they would need to

  • Be shorter— less is more
  • Name values (principles), not behaviors (positions)
  • Be positively worded— state what we believe, not what we oppose or fear
  • Be statements that incorporate theology and human dignity we can’t just re-state a universal statement of human rights, but say something unique to us as people of faith
  • Contain only that which is applicable cross-culturally or world-wide

We do feel that this is possible, and that there is much The United Methodist Church specifically can say about most or all of the issues named in the Social Principles. In addition, the current Social Principles contain specifics about living out these principles (where we manage to articulate them) in ways that are contextual. As I describe at 32:45 in this session, our group suggests that we have this shorter, worldwide set of principles and then hopefully many books of resolutions (The UMC currently has one Book of Resolutions), specific to different contexts and cultures, including United States’ culture(s), which are contextually written, time-specific, and give relevant examples.

Finally, it is important to note that the goal of these Consultations is not to amend or re-write any of the Social Principles. The feedback from these Consultations is being summarized and crafted into a proposal to the next General Conference (in Portland, OR, in spring of 2016), to then develop a plan for how to update, amend, or re-write the Social Principles. Yes, we all just love the glacial rate at which institutional change happens. Fortunately, nothing stops any United Methodist anywhere in the connection from writing and submitting their suggestions for re-writes and changes. My experience at the Consultation convinced me of the need for shorter, values- and theology- driven, positively stated, world-wide relevant re-writes to each and every Social Principle. 

So I’ll be over here, working on just that.

Why I Blog

04-cafe-2-cAll the world is my parish. 

That’s what Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, said. Ironically, I think he said it to clarify his commitment to itinerant ministry, to his particular sort of traveling, voyaging, never-rooted-for-too-long preaching of salvation in every place he could reach.

I might be tempted to say I blog for that reason– to spread personal and social holiness through all the land and all the regions where my pixilated pastoring can reach. But that would not be honest of me.

For a long time I thought maybe I blogged because I’m an extrovert, and I wanted more places to talk and think and emote “out loud,” more people with whom to share and converse and dialogue and process. I’ll admit that blogging is good for that. I treasure the conversations I have had through my blog(s) and facebook and other online communities.

I admit at least in part that I blog because I hope that it matters, that my thoughts matter, that something I write might be read or shared and might change something or someone, no matter how minutely. I hope this isn’t too selfish a thought. Or too navel-gazing (unlike this post).

I know that I *do* think out loud, and that processing through writing helps me clarify my thoughts and ideas. I know that I’m a better preacher, conversationalist, speaker, and a better listener, thinker, silent presence, when I have taken time in writing.

And I get better with practice. I can feel that I’m rusty, that this post is hard.

But mostly, what I’m noticing about myself, now in my third appointment as a pastor, is that I blog and maintain an online presence (as best I can), and see the world as my parish, as a reaction to, rather than a justification of, the itinerant ministry that John Wesley and the Methodist clergy riding in his horseshoe tracks embrace. That is to say: I don’t blog to reach out, but rather to have a place to touch back. No matter how far I move, or where I go, or how different a local church or conference might be, I am still Becca, or Pastor Becca, or  @pastorbecca. I have some continuity in this space, some carry-over readers and listeners, some people who read and remember my posts from ten years ago (and some new congregants who scroll back and read up on me when I arrive, I hear!). That means I have some authenticity, and some accountability here. I have to be the same, evolving, work-in-progress ME I have always been, or y’all would call shenanigans. And I also have a touchstone, a rootedness in my root-less ministry journey. I have people I don’t have to leave and lose, a home church not confined by membership or appointment. A community and– what’s the word– that I can find myself in again and again. Not only as the preacher or pastor, but sometimes, maybe often, as a member and participant.

Ah, yes. A parish. A parish I can find in all the world.

Under (Re)Construction

caution tape 2The dust is still clearing…

In case you missed it, I did that most Methodist of things this summer, and itinerated (relocated at the discretion of the Bishop and the Cabinet, for the non-Methodist-types), starting in my new appointment, Lebanon United Methodist Church in Lebanon, New Hampshire, on July 1.

And so of course, my blogging and podcasting have fallen away temporarily. But have no fear! I have recordings of all the sermons from June and July, and I will be posting them, and I will be resuming sharing my thoughts and reflections here in this space.

God is always at work in all of us, creating and re-creating, and so I am excited to see what will unfold in this new place for me and my family, and this new season. May you be blessed and re-created too!

Let the penalty fix the “crime”

shame hands face coveredHere we go again…

A month after the Board of Ordained Ministry in Pennsylvania stripped Rev. Frank Schaefer of his ordination credentials for officiating at his son’s wedding and refusing to state he would follow the entirety of the Book of Discipline in the future, the United Methodist Church is back at it again.

The New York Annual Conference announced the date of March 10 as the beginning of the trial of Rev. Dr. Tom Ogletree. Like Rev. Schaefer, Rev. Dr. Ogletree is an ordained United Methodist Elder. Like Schaefer, he has a son who is gay. Like Schaefer, he officiated at his son’s wedding. In addition, Rev. Dr. Ogletree is a former professor and Dean at a Divinity School in Connecticut, oh, right, Yale, and before that Drew. Where he taught such irrelevant courses as theological ethics and Christian social ethics. And literally wrote the book in the church’s witness to the world– Oh, just read about him here.

At least one friend has compared the coming trial to that time that the Ministry of Magic tried to interrogate Professor Dumbledore. Not a bad comparison.

I don’t want to get in to all that right now.

These trials have a sort of fatalistic nature to them. We all assume that the persons on trial will be found guilty. I’m not sure this should be the case– after all, the church says we can’t officiate at same-sex weddings, but does not take time to define sex, or explain how, in the absence of legal background checks, medical screenings and examinations, hormonal and chromosomal lab results and so on, a pastor is supposed to determine such. But I digress.

Let’s assume for a moment that Rev. Dr. Ogletree is found guilty of violating the unjust law as laid out in The United Methodist Book of Discipline. Where the real interest lies is in the sentencing.

Some clergy members who have been found guilty of such violations have their credentials revoked, as was the case with Rev. Schaefer (legal or not). But in 2011, the jury in the Wisconsin Annual Conference sentenced Rev. Amy DeLong (found not guilty of being a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” but guilty of officiating a same-sex wedding) with a twenty day suspension, and then charged her to research and write a paper addressing the nature of the clergy covenant, how it has been harmed and how it might be healed.

The old saying goes, let the punishment fit the crime. But DeLong’s “punishment” seemed more intended to fix or at least address the root problems in the alleged “crime.”

What if the jury in Rev. Dr. Ogletree’s trial took that approach? What if they used this opportunity not to punish Ogletree or scare others into compliance with laws they find unjust (how’s that working for ya?), but to address root problems in this issue?

Specifically, I would like to see the jury, should they find Rev. Dr. Ogletree guilty of a violation of unjust church law, instruct him to create or propose a system for dealing with charges that persons are self-avowed practicing homosexuals or have officiated at same-sex weddings, in ways other than trials. Church trials are a waste of time, money, human resources, and spiritual strength. They show the watching world that The United Methodist Church is divided and broken, and no better able to live together in difference and brokenness than middle schoolers on the playground. Yes, they highlight the injustices in the system and as such become a force for eventual change, but I fear there won’t be much of a church left by the time they’ve accomplished that work. If only we had a former Dean of a theological school, a professor of Christian ethics, an author who has researched the church’s witness to the world on social issues, and a pastor and parent with life experience to reflect with us on these things!

So that’s my modest proposal for the jury in the Ogletree trial: Find Rev. Dr. Ogletree guilty if you must (although try to see if you can get your terms and concepts around sex and sexuality and gender and gender identity somewhat consistent if you can). But then consider the injustice of the letter of the law. Consider the pain to the whole church and the whole world for as long as the world is still listening to anything remotely called “church.” Consider the resource and gift of the person in front of you.

Seek the Middle Way. Remain in connection. Work for justice and for healing.

Let the punishment at least try to start fixing the crime.

The courage of couples

wedding rings 1Tim Schaefer takes the stand today.

Tim’s father, Rev. Frank Schaefer, was found guilty yesterday in a United Methodist Church trial for officiating at Tim’s wedding to his similarly-gendered partner six years ago. An inactive member of Schaefer’s church, angry because his mother and Schaefer had a disagreement which led to her being fired from her position as organist by the church’s personnel committee (SPRC, for Methopeeps), hunted down the marriage license and filed a complaint against Pastor Frank, just after his mother’s termination and just before the statute of limitations ran out.

Today, the jury will hear testimony to decide a sentence for Rev. Schaefer, which could range from a reprimand to being stripped of his credentials as a United Methodist clergy person.

Much has been made about Pastor Frank’s love for his son, which motivated him to officiate at the wedding. While this is beautiful and true, I rather think that all clergy should be motivated by their love of other people’s children as well. Nevertheless, Pastor Frank’s action is rightly heralded as heroic, courageous, and loving.

But what about Tim and his partner? What about the couple dragged into the spotlight for doing what couples everywhere long to do when they are in love and want to spend their lives together?

The sad fact is that when a United Methodist clergy person officiates at a wedding for persons who are of similar genders, that clergy person takes a risk with her or his livelihood. But the couple getting married takes a risk as well. Their names get printed online and flashed across TV screens. Their pictures are plastered on newspaper articles and church websites. Their marriage, relationship, sexuality, and very personhood are dissected, debated, shamed, and stigmatized. The counsel for the church yesterday used his closing argument to rant, not about a violation of church policy, but about the “unnaturalness” of homosexuality.

It takes a special sort of couple to be willing to subject themselves to such a spectacle, centered around what should be a celebration of their love and commitment before God and their loved ones.

I think this is why we see so many trials and cases in mediation involving pastors officiating for their children: Frank Schaefer, Tom Ogletree, Steve Heiss. The couple married have to agree to journey with their officiant into the dark pit of church policy, hateful rhetoric, and punitive judgements. It takes a trust that perhaps these children share with their parents. It takes courage on the part of the couples, to become the faces of the pain inflicted by the church’s injustice.

I have talked with similarly-gendered couples contemplating getting married, and we have discussed together (something I’ve never had to discuss with a heterosexual couple!) whether or not they are willing to be part of this frenzy, whether they want to take and disclose an action that could make their wedding day a political hot topic. Across the board, they have said that they did not want to be subjected to such public scrutiny, and I affirm their choices to maintain privacy and sacredness for themselves. The outcomes of those conversations are not mine to disclose; they belong to the couples themselves.

And so today I give thanks and I pray for the courageous couples who are so willing, who allow their love for one another to also be a call for justice, who invite the world to come barging into their relationships, so that God’s justice might one day barge into our church.

Today I give thanks for Tim.

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