Sunday, June 21, 2009

A Music Video Tour Through My Past

So, a comment on facebook made me take a trip down memory lane. I was really into a Christian music? rap? group when I was growing up called DC Talk. You may have heard of one of the members: Toby Mac. Anyway, here's my story told through Youtube:

I first saw them on the Arsenio Hall show performing this song

Then I bought the CD "Free at Last" and couldn't get enough of this song (a remake of the dooby brothers classic)... especially after seeing them open up for Michael W. Smith:

However, the track that lasted the longest off that album was "The Hardway"

Then Jesus Freak Came out and they figured out how to make pretty cool music videos. This one was directed by the same guy who directed a REALLY vulgar Nine Inch Nails video around the same time:

This video was played on MTV and everyone said it was going to be their "crossover" into mainstream, but that never materialized.

Then they released their final full-scale album that had one of my favorite videos... consume me (a guy I knew in college thought it said "You can sue me")

Before you go, watch their first video ever... it's pretty funny.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Great Restructuring of the Methodist Church

The following is most of a paper I have written for my seminary UMC Polity class on the upcoming amendments being voted on by this year's annual conferences. For links to more online resources, please see the end of the post, and please forward this to your friends and pastors so that we can all be well informed.

In the summer of 2008 the General Conference of the United Methodist Church passed several amendments that focused on the most significant restructuring since the merger that created the denomination. The amendments came from proposals of a six-person task force that were amended and then strongly endorsed by the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table and focused on the global structure of the church. This paper seeks to explore the purpose and implications of the twenty-three amendments that implement the regional conference structure by looking at all sides of the conversation surrounding the amendments. I will start by looking at the amendments themselves, then at the reasons put forth by those who are supporting the amendments, then at the same for those in opposition followed by the proponents’ response to those objections. I will conclude with my observations on the implications for the church at large.

Explanation of Ammendments

Of the twenty-three proposed restructuring amendments, most simply deal with changing verbiage in the discipline from “central” to “regional;” however, there are five that make more than superficial name changes. The first such amendment is amendment four. Besides the aforementioned name change, this amendment deletes “for the church outside the United States” when referring to the central (now changed to regional) conference in paragraph ten of the constitution. This means that the regional conferences will be a church-wide structure that includes the churches in the United States. Next, amendment ten together with amendment twenty-three extends this concept by altering paragraphs twenty-eight and thirty-eight respectively to make the setting of boundaries and number of regional conferences a General Conference decision.

Amendment 13 is the most significant of the amendments as it grants many powers to the regional conferences of which there are six significant powers to point out. First, for those regional conferences in which there are no jurisdictional conferences, the regional conference will have the task of electing bishops to serve that regional conference. Second, the regional conferences have the power to create boards “as may be required” opening up the possibility for large organizations related to general conferences. The third significant power is that regional conferences decide the number and boundaries of the annual conferences. This seems to be in conflict with ¶27.4 that assigns the same power to Jurisdictional conferences. The next power of significance allows the regional conferences, subject to the General Conference, to adapt the Discipline to the conditions in their respective areas. The fifth significant power given to the regional conferences in this amendment is the power to appoint a judicial court “to determine legal questions arising on the rules, regulations, and such revised, adapter or new sections of the regional conference Discipline.” The phrasing here implies that the regional conferences’ judicial court will rule in three areas: 1. Rules, 2. Regulations, 3. Revised, adapted, or new sections of the regional conference discipline. The final significant power assigned through this amendment is the appointment of an appeals committee to hear appeals from pastoral trials.

The last significant amendment is amendment twenty-six. This amendment establishes a college of Bishops for each regional conference. In those regional conferences without jurisdictional conferences, the college of Bishops would arrange the plan of Episcopal supervision for the annual conferences. For those with jurisdictional conferences, that power would remain with the Jurisdictional conference.

The Supporting Argument

Now that the amendments and their changes are clear it is important to understand the rationale and purpose behind them from those who created and support their propositions. The common reason pointed to by all supporters is the globalization of the United Methodist Church. Proponents point to the fact that our church structure reflects an ethno-centric viewpoint that places the United States at the center with all the other nations as affiliates to the United States’ denomination. Bishop Scott Jones points out that for twenty-five percent of the denomination, their main language is French . Tex Sample offers that by 2012 over 50% of our denomination will exist outside the United States calling our current structure “colonial.” In addition, he points to the Korean and South American Churches becoming autonomous Methodist churches as a symptom of this problem. Kristina Gonzales captures the spirit of all of the supporters’ understanding of this structure when she says that our current “language, processes and structure really marginalizes our central conferences.” Reverend Johnathan Wanday, a member of a central conference, calls this a “bold step from the leaders of the church to make every body feel that they are equal in our communion.”

Also cited as a reason for the changes is the fact that, because of our current structure, a lot of time of the General Conference and the boards of the General Agencies is taken up with U.S.-only issues. In fact, Bishop Ann Sherer states in a video created by the Task Group on the Worldwide Nature of the Church that over half of the work of the General Conference is focused on U.S. Issues adding that “eighty percent of the book of resolutions concerns the United States.”

One of the reasons repeated across all the proponents is that it has been to long of a wait since a proposal in 1996, some tracing the process back to 1964 , and we should not put off such important legislation any longer.

Proponents of the amendments point out that a study committee, chaired by Bishop Jones, has been appointed to bring enabling legislation to the 2012 general conference to flesh out how this structure should work, practically. Jones promises as the head of that committee, they will follow the guidelines given by the General Conference to the best of their ability. The reasoning behind passing the structural changes separate from the practical implementation is because doing both at one general conference, in the words of Bishop Jones, “gets really confusing, that’s hard.”

The Opposing Argument

The amendments are not without their opponents. The chief concern among the opponents is the vagueness of the amendments. In direct conflict with Bishop Jones reasoning of passing the structure and implementation separately, those in opposition see vague wording and open-ended powers that could be easily abused. Maxie Dunnam says that “No one knows what the regional conferences that will be created by these amendments will vote on… We have no idea what issues will be handled separately by regional conferences.” Basically, the opponents do not favor altering the constitution until they have seen a plan of how a restructured church will enhance unity, growth, and development. This repeated concern is that the church is being asked to establish a new structure without knowing how that structure will be implemented. They call to wait until the task force brings its report to the 2012 General Conference. Then, the church can alter the constitution to reflect the needs of how the new structure will operate.

In response to the limiting of the U.S. issues in General Conference and other church-wide agencies, Maxie Dunnam is concerned saying, “we are better in the United States when we hear the perspectives of the poor and the voices of diversity on the issues that are before us here.” He sees the respect that the central conferences have for the Bible challenges the U.S. church to live closer to God’s will for His people. Similarly, Eddie Fox sees this as establishing a national church. His concern is that this idea violates one of the core tenants of Methodism: the connectional system.

Another concern is the implications of creating another level of bureaucracy with its associated agencies, employees, and most important: cost. Eddie Fox is particularly concerned with there being another layer of bureaucracy separating the local church from the general conference asserting that it will have a negative impact not just because of the separation or cost, but also because of the time it will demand.

Possibly the most serious concern of the opponents is the ability of the regional conferences to appoint their own judicial councils and appeal committees. The concern here is that different parts of the communion would begin adopting different practices and beliefs that would ultimately result in schism. Dunnam compares this move to the structure of the Anglican communion and cautions against a similar schism to the one occurring in that communion occurring in the United Methodist Church being a serious possibility in the future because of the potential decisions of these bodies.

The final critique from the opponents of the amendments strikes at the heart of the purpose of these amendments to move away from a U.S. centric model. They assert that these amendments did not come from the persons the amendments claim to help, but were proposed by the Council of Bishops and the Connectional Table. They claim that the ammendments were made without serious input from those in the central conferences, and are an example of the “colonial” mindset Tex Sample refers to. In fact, Jerry Kulah, a District Superintendent from Liberia, says that the African church was not consulted on this matter. These opponents suggest that if changes in the United Methodist Church’s structure need to be made, they should be made “not for the church of developing world, but … with the church of the developing world,” asking them to take the lead while we listen.

Response to Opponents

This debate is as lively as one would expect on issues of this level of importance and consequence. Those in favor of the amendments, chiefly Bishop Scott Jones, have tried to address all of the concerns brought by those opposing the amendments. In regards to the need for input on U.S. issues, Bishop Jones cites the difference in the ways churches are planted in developing world and the need for more than one hymnal as examples of the need for separate regional conferences and conversations. In response to the idea that the regional conferences will be more bureaucracy he says, “That’s not the case, there is no level of bureaucracy contemplated here.” Bishop Jones clarifies that statement by saying that the proposal is that regional conference will take up part of the time that is used currently General conference by meeting immediately afterwards. In regards to the concern about a Judicial Council, he says, “That’s not true… there is one Judicial council for our church.” He clarifies this statement by saying there may be “groupings” that talk about issues only relevant to a particular region. When talking about the proposals originating with the people to whom they claim to help, Scott says that the proposal was sent to the central conference bishops who unanimously approved it; additionally, he asserts that the central conference bishops pushed these organizations to make a proposal “something like this.” It is not clear in his statements where in the process the bishops of the central conference were asked to approve what was going on, but is clear that they were not the ones designing the proposal. Finally, Bishop Jones adds that these amendments are completely neutral with regard to the issues of human sexuality, and that will have to be decided by the General conference .

My Observations

It is not something I take lightly to say, but Bishop Scott Jones is being less than truthful in several of his claims about this legislation. First, the idea that regional conference is not additional bureaucracy is patently false. As illustrated in the aforementioned explanation of the amendments, the regional conferences are more than a meeting that happens after general conference as the bishop suggests (in fact, that piece of information is to be found nowhere in the proposed amendments); rather, they are able to have boards “as may be required” to fulfill their mission of promoting “evangelistic, educational, missionary, social-concern, and benevolent interests and institutions of the Church within their own boundaries.” That alone illustrates the bureaucracy that will be created by and around these regional conferences without even going into all the other powers previously discussed that are granted by amendment 13.

Additionally, though there is a semantic difference between court and council, it is difficult to imagine how Bishop Jones’ assertion that there will not be Judicial Councils appointed by regional conferences could be seen as truthful since amendment thirteen grants the following right to the regional conferences: “To appoint a judicial court to determine legal questions arising on the rules, regulations, and such revised, adapted, or new sections of the regional conference Discipline enacted by the regional conference.”

Though it is true that there is no specific act in the amendments in regards to the issue of human sexuality, it does not take a lot of creativity to see how these new structures and rules could and, if history is any indication, would be used by those who desire change in those areas to affect their desired outcome. One could imagine a scenario where the criterion for ordination, which Bishop Jones already noted must be different for different areas of the world , might be interpreted as needing to be opened to practicing homosexual persons. With the regionalization of the church, the debate at general conference would be not only over homosexuality but also over the authority of regional conferences in the area of ordination criteria.

Besides the concern of those in the developing world over not being consulted in a meaningful way in the design of this system, what is clear in this conversation is that the proposed amendments are far too vague. They grant broad power to these conferences to interpret the discipline and make judicial decisions without clarifying what areas are “off limits” to those bodies. They also give to the General conference the power to change the boundaries of and create regional conferences by a simple majority vote which opens up the option of there being separate regional conferences even within one country ( e.g. a western U.S. conference and an eastern U.S. conference) without specifying the process by or reasons for which those changes are to be made. It even causes the discipline to conflict with itself. In short, it is my opinion that the passage of these vague, incomplete amendments is far too dangerous to be considered a viable option.

Links to online resources:
The amendments and resources for download by the authoring group.
Maxie Dunnam on YouTube
Bishop Scott Jones on YouTube
Eddie Fox on YouTube
Tex Sample on YouTube
Jerry Kulah (Liberian D.S.) on YouTube

Friday, April 10, 2009

The Seven Last Words of Jesus

The tenebrae service on good Friday is the only service in the church year that is supposed to be a service of mourning. The rest of the year we celebrate the risen Christ, but in this service, on this day, we mourn the death of God. This is the reading for that service. A warning, it is powerful. Take time to imagine each scripture. Easter will come, but for now, mourn.

Luke 23:33-34 -- When they came to the place called "The Skull," they nailed Jesus to the cross there, and the two criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Jesus said, "Forgive them, Father! They know not what they do."

Luke 23:39-43 -- One of the criminals hanging there threw insults at him: "Aren't you the messiah? Save yourself and us!" The other one, however, rebuked him, saying: "Don't you fear God? Here we are all under the same sentence. Ours, however, is only right, for we are getting what we deserve for what we did; but he has done no wrong." And he said to Jesus, "Remember me, Jesus, when you come as King!" Jesus said to him, "I tell you this: Today you will be in Paradise with me."

John 19:25-27 -- Standing close to Jesus' cross were his mother, his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. Jesus saw his mother and the disciple he loved standing there; so he said to his mother, "Woman, here is your son." Then he said to the disciple, "Here is your mother." And from that time the disciple took her to live in his home.

Mark 15: 33-34 -- And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Elo-i, elo-i, lama sabach-thani?" which means, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

John 19:28 -- After this jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the scripture0, "I thirst."

John 19:29-30 -- A bowl was there, full of cheap wine mixed with vinegar, so a sponge was soaked in it, put on hyssop and lifted up to his lips. When Jesus had received the wine, he said, "It is finished."

Luke 23:46 -- Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!" And having said this he breathed his last.

Christ has died.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Scapegoats & Yom Kippur

In my sermon I talked (or am talking depending on when you are reading this) about the Jewish ritual of the Day of the Atonement (Yom Kippur) which is full of symbolism that points to Jesus and helps us understand His sacrifice for us. As a matter of fact, all of the Jewish feasts in the Bible have a messianic nature to them, but that is a whole class I teach from time to time. I digress.

The scapegoat bit happened at the end of the liturgy of Yom Kippur. After the scapegoat was selected, there would be a crimson piece of wool tied to its horns, after offering all the other sacrifices, the high priest would place his hands on the head of a scapegoat, symbolically transferring the sins of the people onto the goat, and pray, "I beseech You, O Lord; Grant atonement for the sins, and for the iniquities and transgressions which the entire house of Israel has committed against You, As it is written in the Torah of Your servant, Moses: 'For on this day atonement shall be made for you, to purify you from all your sins - before the Lord you shall be purified'." The congregation responds with the words "Blessed be the Name of His glorious kingdom, for ever and ever."

Then, the scapegoat was taken out into the desert to a place called Azazel where the priest would push the goat off of a cliff. Before he did that, he would take a piece of the wool that had been tied around the goat's horns because once the goat had died, the wool would turn white fulfilling the scripture, "Though your sins are as scarlet, they shall whiten as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be white as wool" (Isaiah 1:18)

Hebrews 9:11-14 talks about Jesus being the replacement for the goats used on the Day of Atonement. Dying once and for all for the forgiveness of sin.

What is interesting to me about all this is that we still use this term to refer to people who are blamed for the wrongs of others. This happens often in families. Saying "If it wasn't for your ________ I/they wouldn't be so _________." The problem is that no other human can take the consequences of your sin for you. The only one that can do that is Jesus. He did it once and for all. He is the only scapegoat that will stand up under such a heavy burden. Maybe it's time for you to unload... don't worry, He can take it. He already did.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Drowning like a Fish

OK, apart from the hilariousness of this video, the underlying theme has been haunting me for days. The idea that our culture can blind us so thoroughly to something so basic and obvious is amazing. My question for the past couple of days has been: What else? What else have I bought into in my culture that is totally wrong? Here are a couple breaths of ideas that have started to expand for me:

Bigger is better.
Technology makes my life easier.
Power can prevent evil and create safety.
God's favor is reflected in a country's economy (God has blessed America over other countries).
Efficiency trumps creativity.
You need to spend a lot of time working on the areas in which you have the least ability.
Promptness = respect.

These are the seeds of something God is doing in me through this ridiculous video. On a more weighty note (that was a joke) I LOVE (that differs from agree with) the social principals of the UMC. The following is an especially moist tidbit I read last night. You can read all of them here.

"We recognize science as a legitimate interpretation of God’s natural world. We affirm the validity of the claims of science in describing the natural world, although we preclude science from making authoritative claims about theological issues. We recognize technology as a legitimate use of God’s natural world when such use enhances human life and enables all of God’s children to develop their God-given creative potential without violating our ethical convictions about the relationship of humanity to the natural world.

In acknowledging the important roles of science and technology, however, we also believe that theological understandings of human experience are crucial to a full understanding of the place of humanity in the universe. Science and theology are complementary rather than mutually incompatible. We therefore encourage dialogue between the scientific and theological communities and seek the kind of participation that will enable humanity to sustain life on earth and, by God’s grace, increase the quality of our common lives together."

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Aliens and The Trinity

I have been doing a bit of preparation and research for our upcoming series on the Trinity (it's going to be called THR3E). I was looking for trinity symbols and information about the relatedness of the Godhead when I stumbled upon several crop circle representations of various trinity symbols. At first glance I thought that was weird and cool all at the same time.

I'm going to confess, I am a bit of a geek and VERY interested in space and everything that is or might be in it. The first question that popped into my mind was this: If there are aliens who are trying to contact us by bending agriculture into symbols (that sounds crazier every time I try and reword it) do they know and have a relationship with God?

But then it occurred to me. Aliens and the Trinity are kind of similar to us! The trinity is so difficult to understand because it is so different from our experience (one might say alien to it). In fact it is so difficult and different that we don't discuss it or think about it at all. But for those of us who have experienced its power, we are never the same. So maybe we need to think in terms of a trinity abduction. I could go on, but I will stop while I am still sounding a bit sane.

BTW, there's a series of fiction books that talks about aliens and God written by C.S. Lewis starting with Out of Silent Planet... if you are into that sort of thing.