Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Awake in Advent

Sleep is the predominate posture for the church. I first noticed this in the Book of Acts. Some of the most important intrusions of God, such as the revelation to Peter (Acts 10) and the release of Peter from prison (Acts 12), occur while the church and its leaders are fast asleep.

Jesus urged us to stay awake in Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-42), but we fell asleep. Now, as we move through Advent, the church continues to have difficulty keeping awake. Jesus warns us about God's advent in which "he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly" (Mark 13:36) and urges us to "Keep awake" (13:37). It is no accident that Mark has placed this parabolic assault on dormant disciples’ right before Gethsemane and the cross. As Jesus comes, and as Jesus goes, we are often asleep.

Whenever the master is absent, it is an occasion for a test of the servants.

"Now class, I am going down the hall to the principal's office for a few minutes. I certainly hope that I can trust you to act like responsible fifth graders. But just in case, I'm leaving the door open. I have asked Mrs. Moffat, across the hall, to listen for trouble. Now I hope that you will show me how responsible you are. I'm leaving now. I had better not hear a word out of you. You have work to do while I am gone...."

It is a worthless servant who can be trusted only when the master is in town. It is an irresponsible class which can be trusted only when the teacher is present.

We long for presence, for we are at our best when the master is with us. "Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus," is our advent prayer. "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," is the advent hymn. "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down" (Isaiah 64:1). When the master is with us, visibly, actively present, we are at our best. When the master is away, things do not always go well.

We identify with the deep yearning of Isaiah 64. The encroaching December dark, the subdued quality of Advent hymns, this morning's headlines all testify to a waiting, unfulfilled world. So we light a hopeful candle on the Advent wreath and wait for the coming of the light. It is dark and we flight off the anesthetizing comfort of sleep, feeling that we should be awake, just in case anything happens.

But we wait in the confidence that something has happened. Isaiah prays for the heavens to be cracked open because the prophet remembers that they have been before. Mark's parable says that the slaves who wait are those who have met and have known the master. This master is not only an absentee who has gone on a journey, he is also a wonderfully reckless boss who has "put his slaves in charge, each with his own work" (Mk. 13:34).

Everything that the master is, and all that he owns has been given to his servants. What sort of master would leave town and place all that he has in the hands of his servants? I have noted, when I was a campus pastor, the best way to make a young person responsible is to give that person great responsibility. The "Therefore keep awake" admonishment of the parable must be read after the "puts his slaves in charge."

We are waiting here in Advent, "for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ" (I Corin. 1:7). But we are not waiting for the advent of a God whom we do not know. We are waiting for the return of the One who knows us and is known by us. His promised Kingdom is not a future hope, something that might happen by-and-by. His time is now; his Kingdom is here. Already, he has put his servants in charge, now, each with his work. Now, at the office, in the classroom, over the kitchen sink the master's servants are "in charge, each with his work."

The church gathers this Sunday, lights one candle on a four-candled wreath, prays and then trembles upon remembrance. The Kingdom of God has been left in the hands of servants.

William H. Willimon

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Dare We Rejoice?

She came up to me at the end of a joyous Christmas service. She had just returned from a mission week in Haiti, one of the poorest places in the Western world.

“How dare you, with all the suffering and hunger in the world, speak of joy? The joy of this service was offensive.” I could see her point. With all the suffering in the world, how dare we Christians express joy? Our joy seems in sensitive and uncaring.

In recent years, we preachers have been encouraged do "share your story," to expose ourselves and our struggles to the gaze of the congregation, to preach "inductively," inviting the congregation to link its experience with our personal experience in democratically shared conversation, to be “authentic,” that is, self-revealing in the pulpit.

Little in Advent scripture supports such preaching. John the Baptist, at least in John's introduction of him (John 1:6-8, 19-28), is intent on convincing us that, "He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light" (John 1:8).The Baptizer's Jordan congregation is too sunk in old configurations of power, old officially sanctioned readings of the texts, to see anything new without the aid of external light.

Perhaps that is why there is so little real joy in our congregations. If we do experience joy, it is too often the ersatz high of a merely emotional rush brought on by an effective music program--joy induced by a pleasing soprano voice backed up by a pre-recorded tape. If the only theology we have to preach is of the pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps variety, then we are doomed. Doom produces gloom. In our better moments, we know that the ultimate sources of our mourning are more than psychological--they are political, social, maybe even cosmic. This society tries to convince us that if we are hungry for something more than present arrangements, if we gaze at the full shop windows and can't find anything we really want, if we wander through the shopping malls in a daze, it is a personal problem, something amiss in our psyche, something in need of corrective therapy.

What if our problem is more than psychological? What if what's wrong with us is what's wrong in the whole society, something out of kilter in the cosmos? What if our pain will be soothed by nothing less than the advent of God? The offer of anything less is cheap substitute, a set-up for even greater despair.

Real, full-throated, full-orbed, let loose joy is a gift to those who have heard the testimony that our God comes.

Which returns us to the question with which we began: How dare we, in a suffering, hurting world rejoice?

The question has within itself an answer. Dare is the right word. If we Christians are joyful, ours is not the simple-minded, bubble-brained cheerfulness of those who deny the world's hunger and pain or who think that somehow, it's all for the best. Joy is to us a gift, a Christmas gift of a God who is never content to leave us be, who intrudes, offers, creates.

Sometimes the Spirit intrudes, gives voice to a joy not of our own creation. Sometimes a light surprises our all too accustomed darkness for the first time in a long time, we see. Sometimes we experience so much of the near presence of God that we never stop rejoicing, and even in the worst of circumstances, we dare to give thanks.

"Dare to believe it possible." The one who calls you if faithful, and he will do this" (I Thess. 5:24).

Blessed are you that hunger now, for you shall be satisfied" (Luke 6:20). This Sunday in Advent, let us dare to rejoice.

William H. Willimon

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Preaching Politics

Back in August I was stunned to receive a threatening letter from a law firm in Birmingham in which the lawyer said he would “bring an action against the United Methodist Church in Alabama to terminate its tax exempt status because it has become a political and not a religious institution,” because our church is “so heavily political that it should no longer qualify for a tax exemption under the United States Internal Revenue Code.” The lawyer was upset about “blatantly political” statements. He also said that he intended to enlist the ACLU in his efforts. He set out three demands including a demand that I “Direct that the Methodist Church avoid political activities” and that I “Direct that the Methodist churches in your diocese [sic] hereinafter avoid political activities."

I didn’t know what to make of his threat against me and our church. I have been bishop here for five years and he is the only person who has ever written me a letter complaining that any pastor or has been engaged in “blatantly political” activity. In my forty years of ministry I have never had a complaint that I was “blatantly political.” Anyone knows from my writing that the opposite is the case – I would rather talk about Jesus than politics of the right or the left.

True, I have been most supportive of Governor Riley’s efforts at prisoner rehabilitation and Katrina relief and once led the Governor’s Prayer Breakfast. I also gave a prayer, at the invitation of Methodists, before a meeting of Alabama Arise. Our Conference has been a long time supporter of ALCAP that lobbies on gambling and liquor issues. I spoke at ALCAP’s annual meeting. However I’ve never had anyone, before this exchange of letters with this lawyer, question these activities.

In an effort to try to ascertain what led this lawyer to this action, I asked to meet with him and to meet with any of his clients who shared his concerns. He declined.

Even though I’m sure that all of you know more about the church than this attorney, just a couple of thoughts in case any of our pastors or churches need clarification:

  1. The US Constitution gives Methodist Christians the right to join with anyone else in speaking freely and advocating forcefully for any law or government action that seems, from a Methodist Christian point of view, worthy of our support. Scripture, and the Wesleyan Tradition (including tradition in the North Alabama Conference) give us the obligation to speak up and speak out whenever we feel so motivated by the power of the Holy Spirit.
  2. We are not free (by law and by pastoral concern) to use our pulpits to tell people which candidates to vote for. (I’ve never witnessed anyone do this in a Methodist church, but I mention it just in case.)
  3. Sometimes I wish I were as powerful as this lawyer implies, but I am not free to order our clergy not to preach anything they are led by scripture and the Holy Spirit to preach. United Methodist pulpit freedom is one of our great treasures.
  4. Even if this lawyer could get his friends at the ACLU or the Internal Revenue Service to get us to preach what he would like to hear, we would probably cite Acts 5:29.

Over Thanksgiving I talked to with a number of our churches who had served dinner to over three thousand people in need! Trinity and Robertson Chapel in the Upper Sand Mountain Parish, The East Tuscaloosa Community Soup Bowl, Holt, Florence First, Austinville and Guntersville First have made feeding those in need a centerpiece of their work. Birmingham Urban Ministries has done remarkable work during one of the most difficult year they’ve had financially. This is the primary way United Methodists respond to the weaknesses in our political leadership – not by preaching but by doing.

I urge all of our North Alabama churches to join Patsy and me in giving to the Annual Fountain of Love offering for our fine Methodist Homes Ministry. This is another great North Alabama Conference mission success story.

Will Willimon

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Re-Thinking Annual Conference Staff Positions

“Form follows function,” they say in art, and in business. After a number of years of frustration, in attempting to utilize a Connectional Ministries form that seemed at times nonfunctional, Dale Cohen, in consultation with the Cabinet, announces a new form of supporting and training our churches that is centered upon the local church and utilizing our connectional system to the fullest. I applaud their creativity and courage and I predict that this will be one of the most important changes made in our Conference (perhaps in any Conference in Methodism) in the past twenty years. We believe that God is calling us to grow and that every Conference position should be focused on working with the Holy Spirit to produce growth.

Re-Thinking the Role of Connectional Ministries’ Staff

In a continuing effort to lead growth in the North Alabama Conference,Dale Cohen, Director of Connectional Ministries, announced today that the staff of Connectional Ministries is being deployed in exciting new ways. “Dale and our exceptional connectional ministries staff are revolutionizing the way our churches are supported and encouraged. This reorganization is one of the most exciting things I have seen, at the Conference level, in my entire ministry,” said Bishop Willimon.

The Rev. Dr. Thomas Muhomba, Director of Ethnic and Multicultural Ministries, will be assigned to Pleasant Grove UMC to work with Rev. John Gates in leading Pleasant Grove into Multicultural Ministries. Dr. Muhomba and Rev. Gates will develop a thriving example of how any church can move toward greater effectiveness in ministering to their community. Dr. Muhomba will continue to work with Conference ethnic congregations (one of our areas of real growth) but on a limited basis as co-pastor of Pleasant Grove UMC.

The Rev. Matt Lacey, Director of Missions and Advocacy, will be assigned to Woodlawn UMC to work with Rev. Larry Horne in developing more missions and outreach to the Woodlawn community and serving as a “coaching church” to assist other churches who desire to grow through outreach and mission.

“In a short time Matt Lacey has greatly expanded the Missions and Advocacy ministries of the Annual Conference including Disaster Response. He will continue his leadership of many of these Conference ministries,” said Cohen.

The Rev. Lori Carden, Connectional Ministries Coordinator, will be assigned to work with the Mountain Lakes District in implementing a strategy for medium-sized congregations to effectively multiply by forming other congregations utilizing the best practices and principles of Natural Church Development.

“Lori is revolutionizing our churches through Natural Church Development. She now has nearly half of our congregations in NCD. This work will continue will now be augmented by asking Lori to play a more active role as advisor to the Cabinet in the use of NCD,” said Bishop Willimon.

The Rev. Robert Mercer, Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries, will be appointed to Helena United Methodist Church to serve as the Minister of Youth under the direction of Rev. Mike Edmondson. Although Robert will assist in events that are currently planned including Encounter 2010 and the Academy for Student Ministries, these and other Youth Ministry responsibilities will be transferred to Camp Sumatanga where they will have responsibility for maintaining and growing a vital Youth Ministry for the Conference.

Camp Sumatanga will also become the resource center for Children’s Ministry for the Conference. Camp Sumatanga will thus be undergirded through more opportunities for creating and providing programming in Children’s and Youth Ministries.

“We expect that Camp Sumatanga will once again be a premiere institution of learning and spiritual development for Children and Youth not only in North Alabama but from the entire Southeastern United States,” said Cohen.

Rev. Elizabeth Nall will continue to oversee Children’s Ministries and Adult Discipleship Team. “Elizabeth has formed an extensive network of children’s ministry leaders throughout the Conference, utilizing expertise from our churches, developing a score of new programs. This work is vital if we are to achieve our goals for growth,” said Cohen.

Pam Harris, Support Staff for Ethnic and Multicultural Ministries and for Children’s Ministries and Adult Discipleship will be placed as the Secretary of St. Paul United Methodist Church in Downtown Birmingham. In her new post at St. Paul’s Pam will continue to provide support for Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century and for Natural Church Development, working from a church that the Rev. Marcus Singleton is leading in a dramatic turn around.

“These moves will save the Conference thousands of dollars in a time when some of our churches are having a tough time paying their fair share of Conference apportionments,” said Cohen. “However, this is about much more. Our staff decided to turn the economic crisis into an opportunity for bold creative thinking to align ourselves more directly with our vision of challenging and equipping every church to grow more disciples of Jesus Christ by taking risks and changing lives.”

“Our thriving congregations are drawing upon a wide array of resources and training beyond our Conference staff,” said Bishop Willimon. “Dale’s transformation of our staff into Connectional Ministries Consultants led Dale and his staff to construct a vision of Conference ministries being led and resourced by staff now placed in local churches. After all, the local church is the basic unit of our Conference. This new arrangement really allows the Holy Spirit to work from the grass roots up, rather than the older model of top-down leadership.”

“Utilizing our healthiest churches as teaching churches, we can create a greater sense of connection as churches collaborate in teaching/learning together,” said Cohen. “Rather than relying on Connectional Ministries Staff to be ‘on retainer’ with all the concomitant costs (salaries, benefits, etc.), local church practitioners will both serve the local church and be available to consult with other churches. And if we hereby reduce Conference expenses, it will enable us to put even more money directly into missions and new church development.”

Questions about any of these changes should be directed to the Rev. Dale Cohen at (205) 226-7954 or at dcohen@northalabamaumc.org .

Will Willimon