Friday, October 18, 2013

A Prayer

             Earlier this month some words came together for me and they ended up forming a prayer that I share here.
            May my soul:
·        Be tender, gentle, vulnerable, yet not easily crushed
·        Be strong, yet not overbearing
·        Be courageous, yet not foolish
·        Be joyful, yet woven with the immense sadness of the world
·        Be attentive to beauty, yet seeing the hurt, pain and ugliness in the world

With Faith and With Feathers,


Thursday, October 10, 2013

Reflections on Being a United Methodist Elder

I was asked to be part of a panel for our Minnesota United Methodist Conference Board of Ordained Ministry, and to reflect on the unique ministry of an ordained elder. These were my reflections:

In a speech in South Africa in 1966, Robert Kennedy said that there is an ancient Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.”  Textual evidence has thus far failed to find a Chinese source for this curse, but there is something right about it, regardless of its origin.
We live in interesting times.  The church is living in interesting times.  Mainline or old-line denominations have lost their social position.  Some argue that this is like New Testament times, but I think that analogy breaks down quickly.  There may be fewer people in our pews and we may have lost some of our social location, but Christianity, in some form, is embedded in powerful places in our culture.  Hobby Lobby, which recently opened a store in Duluth, is suing the federal government arguing that providing contraceptive health coverage for female employees violates the Christian values of the store and its owner.  Those same Christian values greeted a Jewish shopper, who, when asking about why Hobby Lobby would not stock any Chanukah items was told: "Because Mr. Green is the owner of the company, he's a Christian, and those are his values."  We live in interesting times as a church.
It is also an interesting time to be an elder in The United Methodist Church.  When I was ordained an elder in 1986, two years after I was ordained a deacon, and I still proudly display both ordination certificates, the language of our Discipline discussed ordination as “the specialized ministry of Word, Sacrament, and Order.”  Ordination was “fulfilled in the ministry of Word, Sacrament, and Order.”
The 2012 Book of Discipline has expanded the language of ordination.  Ordination is fulfilled in leadership of the people of God through ministries of Service, Word, Sacrament, Order, Compassion, and Justice (303).  Deacons are no longer “ministers who have progressed sufficiently in their preparation for the ministry to be received by an Annual Conference as either probationary members or associate members.”  Deacons are now “ordained by a bishop to a lifetime ministry of Word, Service, Compassion, and Justice” (328).  Elders “are ordained to a lifetime ministry of Word, Sacrament, Order, and Service” (332).
In distinction from Deacons, then, the unique ministry of the Elder could be located in Sacraments and Order.  What makes things even more interesting is that there are persons licensed to perform the same duties in local church settings as do those ordained Elders who are also appointed as pastors.  Licensed persons are licensed “to perform all the duties of a pastor” (313).  What is left of the unique ministry of the Elder?
Posing this question in this way carries with it some baggage.  As The United Methodist Church has added the order of Deacons, as the prevalence and power of licensed local pastors has increased, Elders have often been seen as trying to hold on to some of their power and privilege – guaranteed appointment, voting rights, sacramental authority.  How do we talk about the unique ministry of the Elder while avoiding maintenance of the status quo which has, at times, privileged Elders?  Can we get at uniqueness without arguing for privileges which seem unfair and unwarranted?
I am currently serving on the denominational Study of Ministry Commission. In the Study of Ministry Commission of the previous quadrennium the group concluded: The commission observes a lack of consistency in how the orders and roles in ministry are understood and supported across the church.  They suggested the following understanding as a way forward:

·        The elder connects the church and the denomination, chiefly through Order.
·        The deacon connects the church and the world, chiefly through Service.
·        The local pastor connects the church and the individual, chiefly through Proclamation.

As an Elder, I am not necessarily jazzed up by this understanding of the unique ministries of each order, particularly in a post-denominational age.  I get more excited about Word, Sacrament, Service, Compassion, and Justice.  I spend a lot of time trying to connect church with persons.  Yet the language that is unique to Elders is that we are “to order the life of the Church for service in mission and ministry” (332).  There is something potentially important there in these confusing, interesting, and dare I say, disordered times.
            Perhaps the unique ministry of the Elder in our time is by the Spirit and power and grace of God, to try and make our current disorder the creative chaos out of which a new order might be born.  There is something in that for all of us – lay persons, Deacons, licensed pastors – there is enough disorder to go around.  Perhaps Elders, though, need to muster the courage to enter our current disorder and make it the creative chaos out of which a new order might be born, and do this systemically.  Perhaps we are uniquely positioned to try and name the challenges, adaptive and technical, that face us, and to do so marshaling our best theological and other intellectual resources.  Perhaps we are uniquely called to flow from the balcony to the dance floor and back again.  Perhaps we are uniquely invited to monitor the temperature as change takes place. 
If we take these as our unique tasks, we do so knowing that many find in us a great deal of disorder.  The Call To Action Operational Assessment tells us “a large portion of the Church’s clergy has performance effectiveness issues” (25), and we are a large portion of the Church’s clergy.  Recently, a United Methodist economist, in a presentation to the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry arguing for the vital need for younger clergy, quoted an unnamed retired United Methodist bishop who told him, “We have not been recruiting the brightest and the best.”  I have been around long enough to hope that this bishop was referring to a time after 1986.  We live in interesting times.

            Perhaps the unique ministry of the Elder is to feel some of the pain of our disorder and yet, with courage granted by the Spirit, to lead us all, making the full use of all the gifts of all God’s people, so that disorder may become the creative chaos out of which new order can be born.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Saturday, October 5, 2013


The best I can recall, I first encountered Ernest Becker when he was mentioned in my “Abnormal Psychology” class in college. The teacher, a medical school professor who was teaching this undergraduate course, mentioned Becker’s name when we were discussing existential psychotherapy. He had a great respect for Becker’s work The Denial of Death. I think the book may make a cameo appearance in Woody Allen’s movie Annie Hall.
In the coming years I read an interview Sam Keen had done with Ernest Becker following the publication of The Denial of Death and following Becker’s cancer diagnosis. That interview, published in a volume called Voices and Visions, a collection of interviews Keen did for Psychology Today, was fascinating. Keen pressed him on why he had so come to emphasize the tragic dimensions of human existence in his work. Becker took well Keen’s observation about overemphasis, and then went on to say, “If I stress the terror, it is only because I am talking to cheerful robots.”
As with too many authors I would like to explore, it took me years to return to Becker more fully. It took me until 2009 to read The Denial of Death. It is an experience I cherish. Becker writes with incredible insight, and with a genuine talent for the turn of a phrase. Wrestling with this work has deepened my own thinking immeasurably, and contributed something to the enlargement of my soul.
Fortunately for me, being the book magnet that I am, I had over the years managed to collect a few other of Becker’s book, mostly used copies. Not long ago, I read the second edition of The Birth and Death of Meaning. Becker, throughout his work, wanted to combine insights from psychological, sociological, political and theological sources. Though not quite as rich and fecund as The Denial of Death, The Birth and Death of Meaning has a lot of wonderful moments, and the insights have lost little for being written over forty years ago.
In the face of the shutdown of our government, here are a few of Becker’s reflections on democracy.

Democracy needs adults more than anything (163).

So how are we doing? But if you just want to look at Washington and blame less-than-adult behavior on those we have elected, you miss the richness of Becker’s thought. True, our elected officials don’t always act like adults, but often we elect them because we have not exactly come into our own adulthood.

Becker argues that society teaches us lessons about what it means to be a success, a hero, and that we absorb such lessons at a very young age, in part, to ward off the anxiety that comes from being human, which means to “live in the teeth of paradoxes” (177). These lessons may not always be helpful. They often cut us off from seeing reality more fully and richly. When one becomes too rigid in adherence to cultural hero-systems you bring up people who are closed against the world, armored, brittle, afraid, people whose last resource would be easy adaptability to new choices and challenges (163). Is part of our political problem the deeper problem of too many of us being armored, brittle and afraid?

But democracy needs adults more than anything, especially adults who bring something new to the perception of the world, cut through accustomed categories, break down rigidities. We need open, free, and adaptable people precisely because we need unique perceptions of the real, new insights into it so as to disclose more of it (163).

All of this seems fresh and relevant to our world.

And Becker addresses me as a person of faith. Might faith help us develop into the kind of people more open to the world, more adaptable and free?

Religion, like any human aspiration, can also be automatic, reflexive, obsessive. Authoritarian religion is also an idol. (197)

Not terribly comforting, but true to life. Aren’t we seeing in some part of our political life today the mutual reinforcement of political and religious rigidity? Yet there is more. Forgive Becker’s lack of inclusive language here.

Genuine heroism for man is still the power to support contradictions, no matter how glaring or hopeless they seem. The ideal critique of a faith must always be whether it embodies within itself the fundamental contradictions of the human paradox, and yet is able to support them without fanaticism, sadism, and narcissism, but with openness and trust. Religion itself is an ideal of strength and of potential for growth, of what man might become by assuming the burden of his life, as well as being partly relieved of it. (198)

Someday, I hope soon, the government will re-open. It will be business as usual, but business as usual isn’t getting us very far. Democracy needs adults.

With Faith and With Feathers,