Freedom is….

LIBERTY bell cut

“Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.” – Kris Kristofferson

Freedom is a feel good word that politicians like to use. It has high value in American culture and you can rarely go wrong crying ‘freedom!”

Listening recently to an interview with the governor of Louisiana as he was visiting in London, I heard him questioned about his use of “no-go zones” in London and Paris and the lack of assimilation of Muslims in Europe. This talking point was recently admitted by Fox News as being a false claim made by an on air consultant. British Prime Minister David Cameron labeled it as the opinion ‘of a complete idiot.” The governor did not back down from his statement while refusing to offer background or the whereabouts of these zones. Whatever his special knowledge of Europe which comes as ‘news’ to the Europeans, it was what he said about America that got my attention, and I think there is a truth to his view of America as he understands it that deserves our attention.

His point was about the necessity of assimilation, restoring the old metaphor of the great melting pot in place of the emerging image of the salad bowl. In one sentence he said that immigrants need to adopt the customs and values of the majority of Americans in order to enjoy the freedom America offers. As I thought about what I had heard, my son said “did in really just say that in the same sentence?”

Is freedom just another word for nothing left to lose? Leave behind your cultural heritage, religion, family values, and ethnic identity so that there is nothing of yourself left to lose so that now, you can be free. Our fore bearer immigrants fled persecution of their beliefs, family traditions, and ethnicity. They felt no need to adopt the majority culture that was already here in Native American populations. Sadly, they persecuted the natives and each other over competing beliefs and territory. They enslaved people forcing a culture that was in no way beneficial for them. We watched as Catholics, Jews, Africans, Irish, Asians and Italians struggled to maintain their identities and cultural traditions as have Native Americans. Today we imagine ourselves more enlightened. But to hear a national political figure hearken back to the old, long discredited idea that to earn your freedom you must ‘melt in our pot’ and embrace the majority is greatly disturbing.

Freedom is not leaving everything behind. It is the opportunity for all to achieve self-determination, without fear from the tyranny of the majority. This was, after all, the great concern about democracy. “Which is better – to be ruled by one tyrant three thousand miles away or by three thousand tyrants one mile away?” asked loyalist and congregational pastor, Mather Byles leading up to the American Revolution. He was surely proved wrong by history, but right in terms of the need to preserve liberty for all, majority and minority alike. Within the genius of our democratic experiment is the role of the courts to protect our liberties from those who would ‘melt’ us into their pot.

Kristofferson said of his song, “Me and Bobby McGee” that it developed out of an a Fellini film about a man who leaves a feeble girl behind on the side of the road, only later in life to be confronted by what he had lost and the guilt for what he had done to gain his freedom. This is the feeling he had writing this song. What all of us want is for freedom to be just another word for all we each want to be.

Grace and Peace,

Ed Light

The Jester and the Thorny Crown

Robin WilliamsA comedian is one of God’s great gifts to the world. Comedy takes a different look at life whether we laugh at others or ourselves. The best comedians don’t necessarily tell jokes. They tell life in the absurd. Humor is all around us and the most funny is not always the most silly, it is about that which is normally so serious that it borders on tragedy.

The loss of Robin Williams is tragic beyond description. He was a one of a kind. His humor was manic while is personhood was kind and gentle. But as life is often complicated (thus humorous) he knew pain and loss, addiction and depression.

Robin Williams, like his friend, Lewis Black, hold us up and help us see the humor in life. We are the joke and by that, they mean themselves as well. Be enthusiatic, whimsical, or angry, childlike or profane, they make us laugh at ourselves. These two men would do USO tours together brining humor to service men and women overseas. Lewis Black said in Time magazine this week “It was like Robin had the most brilliant audience inside his head throwing out suggestions, because he would put combinations together that were just crazy. And how he could work out of the moment. That working out of the moment is a gift, but he did it on another level.”Comedy comes from within and it requires a great heart, and often time, significant pain.

Fredrick Buechner, theologian and pastor, wrote in his classic “Telling the Truth” that “The Gospel is bad news before it is good news. It is the news that man (and woman) is a sinner, to use the old word, that he is evil in the imagination of his heart, that when he looks in the mirror all in a lather what he sees is at least eight parts chicken, phony, slob. That is the tragedy. But it is also the news that he is loved anyway, cherished, forgiven, bleeding to be sure, but also bled for. That is the comedy.” Comedy helps us with pain, that’s why slapstick speaks to every culture and laughter is the same in whatever language. So, a comedian walks through the pearly gates…..

Grace and Peace,

Ed Light

A Man Has Two Sons

Two Sons Matt21

A man had two sons is a frequently used premise in the Bible, beginning with Adam and Eve’s Cain and Abel.  Cain kills Abel in a futile attempt to gain God’s favor by sacrificing him for his crops.  It sets in motion the use of the ‘two sons’ way of looking at the world, even to this day.

Currently, I’ve been thinking about Ishmael and Isaac, the two sons of Abraham, one through Hagar the other Sarah.  As is true to the counterintuitive pattern of this phenomena in the Bible, the oldest son gets robbed of his rightful place in the pecking order, pushed aside by Sarah’s boy, Isaac.  It is all about inheritance, power, wealth, and property.  Looking at the Middle East, you might come to the conclusion that not much has changed.

Judaism and Christianity claim their path back to their spiritual  roots to Abraham through Isaac.  Islam sees their heritage dating back through Ishmael.  It is a competition that seems ordained by God, setting at odds these three religions through the ages.

In truth, however, there has been a mostly peaceful coexistence between these three religious communities, with the exception of the Crusades when European Kings tried to ‘save’ the Holy Land, and the current tension that begins with the partition of Palestine in 1948.  It is only when money, power, and the competition for territory become the issue that the relationships of Abraham’s sons become a problem.

We Christians are but adoptive children in these stories, having the parable of the Prodigal Son as our ‘father has two sons’ reference.  It should better be known as the ‘parable of the father who loves them both’, but that would ignore the point view of both sons that the younger prodigal is the one who came out ahead in the story.  Isaac, Jacob, and the nameless, imaginary, and irresponsible younger brother in Jesus’ parable stand as the patron saints of younger siblings who supplant their older brothers.  Oldest brothers can only look to Cain and wonder if….. no, lets not go there.

The current conflict in Syria and Iraq goes back to the seventh century when two factions disagreed over who should best inherit from the prophet Muhammad. The Shia wanted his relative Ali, and the Sunni wanted anyone else along as he was appointed by the social elite. Battles raged for a while, but for hundreds of years, these groups managed to get along. But oil, wealth, control of territory, and the intervention of the West upsets the fragile balance and the ‘brothers’ relive the struggles of the ‘man who has two sons.’

What is consistent in these stories, and what seems missed in the two brother approach to faith communities (Jews and Christians, Judeo-Christian and Muslim, Sunni and Shiite) is that God loves each son and cares for their reconciliation.  This is revealed in the parable of the father who loves, a son who returns, and a son who stayed but is jealous and resentful.  We ought to be able to figure this out, but then again, there is the real estate, money, and power.

Grace and Peace,

Ed Light

Disasterous Metaphors

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There is nothing as intellectually annoying as an overused metaphor that is misused. At least that is how I felt during the last session of our Annual Conference. Our leadership continually used the illustration of the Titanic as a metaphor (or possibly an analogy) for the United Methodist Church. The point is that we are sinking, having hit an iceberg for which there seems no clear analogy. Like those who are in fear of drowning (metaphorically or not) there is a real sense of desperation in the church today.

In my experience, one does not usually make the best decisions when desperate, or worse yet, in a panic. The same can probably be true when trying to come up with a metaphor. The issue is that we need to cut back on the successful ministries of our conference that have well served us over the years in order to provide a process where churches and groups can submit applications for money that will somehow be judged worthy of funding through an analysis valuing new people in new places. Living in the metaphor, we are deciding who gets to be in the life boat.

My issue is more about the metaphor itself. Institutions often seem to like to play the “Titanic” card when dealing with their decline. It is, after all, an old ship that sank. What they fail to recognize is that when it sank it was considered to be the best new idea on the planet. It was an unsinkable ship, using the best new design, incorporating all the knowledge of how to best build a ship. However, it suffered from an inherent flaw in the design of its bulkheads, budget cuts that resulted in the use of substandard steel, and a desire to set a speed record from getting from here to there that had them taking a shortcut. This metaphor might more fit struggling institutions than simply an old sinking ship.

Oklahoma United Methodists have now been under a strategic plan that is much celebrated by our leadership. We have declined in every statistical category since its inception, but it is a heralded success. Its weakness is that it was a process of thinking about the church rather than a plan, and it failed to address our primary issues. This last week it was revealed that our conference recorded the worse attendance to membership ratio in the United Methodist Church. How can that be? Simply, it is because our membership records are the least accurate in the church. Our institutional thinking stills values the number on the role more than the discipleship in and beyond our pews. Even when we emphasize attendance, we concern ourselves with worship rather than Sunday School and small groups which is where discipleship training is most critical.

The decline of most all mainline churches is a statistical legacy of western expansion. In the 19th and 20th Centuries we planted churches everywhere we could. As America moved from a rural culture where most everyone was on the farm to today’s urban culture where less than 7% are rural, we were left with most of our congregations in decline. This wasn’t because of our theology, politics, or hip-ness, but people just didn’t live there anymore. All that they left behind was their membership record.  No matter how many new churches we start, as long as we are closing churches those gains will be offset.

Today, most people under the age of the Vietnam War don’t seem to be concerned about membership. They seek religious experiences of worship, fellowship, discipleship, mission, and service. They struggle with the church in general as they see it as too political, judgmental, and close minded. Baby boomer preachers may be surprised that the young are not looking for doctrinal purity or a church where everyone is the same.  Most aren’t even sure for what Millenials are looking.

We have churches who are connecting with new people in new places, and they vary in size and tradition. What they have in common is commitment to mission and discipleship and an openness that one can experience in just one visit. We want to be that church, and while there are those who are wanting to jump ship and take to the lifeboats, we need to find a new metaphor, even if it has to be the Ark.

Grace and Peace,

Ed Light

 

Game Changing … Wait we did what?

HiLights

fork-in-the-roadAs we approach Annual Conference, I believe we should seriously look at a proposal wedged into the realignment plan by the Corporate Board.  It says: “gradually wean our institutions (campus ministries, Circle of Care, etc.) from asking for Conference support through the Apportionment process and, instead, enable them to tell their stories directly to the churches and to directly seek support from the churches.”
This represents the most radical proposal to ever come from our conference leadership, a true game changer with so many possible unintended and questionable actual intentions, that a couple of hours of limited, meaningless table talks will hardly suffice.  Given the usual brief rushed everyone wants to go home Thursday schedule for several potentially volatile votes, I would like to share some thoughts to consider:
1.  If just 36 of our institutions and ministries were to tell their stories to just half our churches, that would…

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Game Changing … Wait we did what?

fork-in-the-roadAs we approach Annual Conference, I believe we should seriously look at a proposal wedged into the realignment plan by the Corporate Board.  It says: “gradually wean our institutions (campus ministries, Circle of Care, etc.) from asking for Conference support through the Apportionment process and, instead, enable them to tell their stories directly to the churches and to directly seek support from the churches.”
This represents the most radical proposal to ever come from our conference leadership, a true game changer with so many possible unintended and questionable actual intentions, that a couple of hours of limited, meaningless table talks will hardly suffice.  Given the usual brief rushed everyone wants to go home Thursday schedule for several potentially volatile votes, I would like to share some thoughts to consider:
1.  If just 36 of our institutions and ministries were to tell their stories to just half our churches, that would amount to over 9,000 presentations a year, or around 175 a Sunday.
2. The larger membership churches will be the primary focus of this effort for as the saying goes”that’s where the money is!”
3.  The NPNP slush fund will be put into the hands of a relatively few people who get to decide who the winners and who the losers may be.  The annual conference will not be able to set priorities, evaluate, or focus those institutions as they have no financial or moral authority to do so.
4. The orphaned ministries may find themselves essentially ‘non-denominational’ (which for some may be intentional) and recruit leadership and funding wherever they can find it.
5.  What is left in apportioned support is simply the bureaucracy, who are not interested or required to tell their story, new church starts (hampered by having no identity other than the mission of the UMC is to start new churches), and the NPNP slush fund with a high turnover since after a year of funding, you are now the same old people in old places.
5.1  It is not random that Campus Ministry is the first mention in a short list of examples.  They have long been targeted by conference leadership who have made clear their lack of enthusiasm (usually pointing to a couple of ministries among the many successful ministries on campus) for the ‘lazy’ campus ministers.  At the same time they say we need to reach more young adults, just not college students.  Ok, that’s beyond stupid and I long ago stopped trying to point that out.
6. These are just some of the intended or untended consequences that lurk behind that simple sentence.  It is not offered as a major motion that will redefine connectionalism, if not for all practical purposes, eliminate those relationships.  The conference will be asked to abrogate their responsibilities all in the quise of reducing the number of districts.

Just saying….

Ed Light

A Woman’s Place

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When the Gospel of John comes up in the Easter lection, it engages three of the superstars of the early church. Mary of Magdala who discovers the empty tomb, Peter and the disciple Jesus loved (we assume John) who race each other to check out her story. While the two men are remembered for who got there first, who went in first, and of course, who believed first, Mary is the one who saw him first.   As the men exit the scene, we are left with the amazing encounter between Mary and Jesus. When Mary hears her name, she recognizes Jesus and embraces him. The more appropriate translation of Jesus’ response is “stop holding on to me…go and tell my brothers… What follows is an under-appreciated, but critical aspect of the story, recognized only when you realize that Mary is clinging to him with everything she has within her. She does as she has been told.

Mary becomes the first apostle of the resurrection. To do so, she must let go of her personal relationship with Jesus in order to share the good, and amazing news of his resurrection. I believe this serves as an example for the church of this an every age. To be obedient to the wishes and intent of Jesus, we have to let go of the notion that it is all about our own personal relationship with Christ, in order to carry his message, life, and reality out into the world.

What is unique to John is that here in John 20, the revelation of the risen Christ comes to a woman and in John 4, the Samaritan woman at the well is the first person Jesus reveals himself as the Messiah. These bookends to his ministry mean something to John that should be important to us. The Samaritan woman was characterized as a ‘loose’ woman. Pope Gregory in 591 A.D. proclaimed Mary Magdalene to be a harlot, assuming her to be the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with her hair, something never supported in scripture. The Gospel of John identifies that woman as Mary, the sister of Martha, about whom there had never been such an accusation at all.

A good article on this by James Carroll is found in the Smithsonian Magazine on- line at http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/who-was-mary-magdalene-119565482/?no-ist. What he notes is that throughout history, Mary Magdalene is pulled back into events as women seem to challenge the hierarchy of men. In Pope Gregory’s church, women had been pushed out of leadership as deacons, priests, and even bishops. Some deny that women were ever in such leadership roles, however, if that were so, why did Pope Gelasius I a hundred years earlier write a letter condemning women who were priests?

Whenever men want to discredit the leadership of women, they go after sex and biology. Mary becomes the harlot, women are too emotional for leadership, and they just think differently than men. In the early church they were labeled Gnostics running afoul of an emerging orthodoxy. Even today you see many major Christian communities holding on to orthodoxy as a way of excluding people, particularly women, from leadership. The Gospel of John, which did not follow the orthodoxy of Mark, Luke, and Matthew’s story line on the life of Jesus, provides a challenge to these assertions and assumptions. Women are the first to know him as Messiah and risen. They then dutifully run to share the message to the world, in Samaria, and the Upper Room. What the male hierarchy refuses to acknowledge, God embraces!

In appreciation of Mary of Magdala,

Ed Light