Friday, September 30, 2011

UFO in Georgia!

OK, it's not quite a UFO, but I love this curious yard monster! We had some rain the other day after a long, hot summer and a new neighbor moved in beside my driveway. Thursday I had to do a little yard work and took advantage of the time by taking a few early morning pictures.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Developing Missions

I sometimes wonder how folk blog so much! I'm running from one thing to another with work-- wrapping up some projects, starting others, trying to be ready for some big events later, and keep up with some of the day-to-day opportunities. But I don't think I'll clean my desk or office today.

Currently I'm thinking about a new approach to church compassion and benevolence as the economy and job loss continue to pound people. I've got to move from this being my ministry, and only in response to those who are asking, to something better defined. What's the best model you've seen?

I'm also working on getting a "time and talent" element back into our stewardship approach. Most churches do their "campaign" in late fall. Have you noticed how many of us only focus on funds for the year, on the the pledges of a congregation, and have dropped the other part of the church membership vows? We're looking at using a quarterly approach to highlight that tithe of time and talent given to church ministry. What's the best church model you've seen?

Another project I'm working on today is our annual mission event. We hold this every February and it's a mix of mission celebration, challenge to the congregation for participation and funding for the coming year, and "hands on" service in mission. This time we're adding a strong training component for disaster response, emergency shelter operation, and all the various certifications/badges you'd need to be part of a response team. We're VERY excited about this event scheduled for Saturday, February 4, as we work with Red Cross, VOAD, and the North Georgia UMC to be better prepared for action when disaster strikes.

Just another quite day in Augusta!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Fav Blogs of the Week

My favorite blogs of the week:

Best Tech Note:
How to Kill Facebook News Ticker

Provocative Methodist: "Get the Sinners Out"

Church Ministry:
Five cultural shifts that should affect the way we do church

Theology of CTA:
Gunter's Response

Church Involvement as Consumer or Citizen: "Choose Your C"

Best Question of the Week: "Puff of Witnesses"

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Troublemaker Series: #4 Denominations on the Internet

I was looking at the United Methodist Church website and thought it was rather busy. Of course, I'm not sure if they are intended for clergy, laity, folk interested in the church, or all of the above. Maybe that's what makes them so complicated. Or is it that denominations are in fact just complicated organizations now? If so, what's a comparable institution with a web presence for multiple users that does a great job?

How do you look at a denominational page and consider if it has focus and clarity? I wondered what other denominations do, and checked out a few. Do you know of any other groups that you would throw into the mix below? Who has the best website that matches their mission and personality and is easy to use for someone new to that page? Hey, church communication gurus I'd be glad to know what you say on this topic.

Even the link says "Our_mission_is_to_make_disciples_of_Jesus_Christ_for_the_transformation_of_the_world." Is that overkill or a good attention getter? There are a lot of tabs and links here so I'm not sure which is most important. I think Our church, Our Faith, Our People, Our World are the main tabs. While I like the Featured Stories approach how many is too many? I was going to count how many links, tabs, and stories were on the page, but even that seemed burdensome.

Check out a few other denoms in random order as I thought about them:
First words that got my attention: "God's Work, Our Hands"
Clean look with key links of: ELCA Home, Who We Are, What We Believe, Our Faith In Action, Growing In Faith

First words that got my attention: "Reaching the World"
A busy page with a lot of tabs, columns, etc.
Key tabs: Missions, Education, Stewardship, Pastors, Adults, Youth, Children

First words that got my attention: Lectionary quote & an even larger quote related to investments and buildings, I think. Odd contrast between the two.
Clean look but showed up with too much info on my page.
Key links: News & Announcements, Church Store, Events, Resources

The first attention getting words on the Google search were "Reaching the World for Christ," but the page is very busy and the main phrases that jumped out related to the annual meeting in June 2012 and the Directory of Services.
Key tabs are: My SBC, Home, Baptist Faith and Message, Cooperative Program, Faith and Facts, Church Search, SBC Search, Job Search, and Contact Us.

This page looked simple, almost stark.
First attention getting words: A Presbyterian and Reformed Church
"Professing Life Together in Christ, Committed to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, Committed to the Bible as the Word of God."
Key links: Home, Who We Are, What We Believe, Ministries, Government, Contacts, Find A Church, Resources, Calendar, News, ARP History, To Be Saved

Initial thought: A busy page larger than my screen.
First attention getting words: "Serving as the hands and feet of Christ."
Key links: Home, Who We Are, Find A Church, Regional Ministries, General Secretary, American Baptist Home Mission Societies, International Ministries, Resources, Conferences & Travel, Give, Quick Links, Login

Assemblies of God
Sharp presentation with photos. First attention getting words: "Evangelism, Worship, Discipleship & Compassion." Main tabs: Home, About Us, Beliefs, Ministries, Missions, Evnts, Resouorces, Media, Press, Donate

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Troublemaker Series: No # As We Decide on New Church Metrics

Has anyone else read the article "Measuring Ministry Impact" in the recent special edition of "Outreach?" I can't find this online yet as it just arrived in my mailbox in the last couple of days. It's written by Dave Urbanski with focus on church metrics not giving the whole view of a church.

If you haven't seen the story here's how it starts:

Do attendance and budgets tell the whole story?
A growing number of churches are looking for a new tool to gauge their success.
Nickels and noses.
Cash flow and people flow. How much money is relocating from pockets to collection plates- and how many people are in the pews?
Gathering such data from week to week has long been the traditional method most churches have used to measure ministry effectiveness. But in a growing number of ecclesiastical circles, a new conversation is gaining momentum.

My favorite line in the article: "Church is a who, not a what."

The "bottom line" of the article is that many are looking for a new metrics that adds a spiritual dimension to the old institutional numbers. Some existing software is showcased that attempts such a goal.

All very interesting in light of the current UMC discussions on church metrics as we march on toward GC2012. Too much of our UMC talk is about institutional survival rather than following the Christ and giving ourselves away with enthusiasm such as the Wesleys, Asbury, and previous generations of Methodists have shown us.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Troublemaker Series: #3 UMC Clergy

I'm struck by the seeming lack of a "plan" in the New Testament and our denominational plans today.

Well, that's not quite right, as there was a plan. It was rather simple- depend upon God, follow the way of Christ, listen to the guidance of the Spirit, preach/teach/disciple everyone. Sure, you could add a few ingredients here and there, and certainly "flesh out" all of the above, yet you must admit the agenda is rather simple and straightforward. But while we hold to the place of Scripture we likely don't want to go too far in applying it in this discussion.

As I've blogged recently there's a lot of talk, words, meetings, etc. in the buildup to all the denominational meetings in 2012. You'll notice I'm not "hung up" on some of the hot topic issues of clergy (after all, I'm a deacon, so my only guarantee comes from God!). Instead, I think there are some other critical issues deserving of consideration and discussion that may get lost, yet are critical to not just the survival but a thriving United Methodist denomination.

I'm sure one issue the entire UMC will look at in GC2012 will be that of the role of clergy, DS, and bishop. To say it another way, the whole system must work together- especially the local congregation- if we are serious about a new era of vibrant Methodist Christianity. Too much of this discussion is being held at the "higher levels" and we are again failing to engage our UM congregations. That's a shame as it could be an opportunity to engage and deploy a United Methodist Army in a shared mission that is of the greatest importance and urgency!

Check out this job description for a pastor
. While I've served as clergy for a number of years (and still LOVE it!) I'm better recognizing that 1) while our jobs demand the ability to "spin plates" and multitask not everything can be a priority and 2) the more I focus on the most important things in ministry and in my giftedness for the Church the more effective I am. The more I focus on preaching/teaching, witnessing in word and deed, discipling/spiritual mentoring in honest, real, Methodist ways, the better I do long term in ministry. Said another way, I'm not called to "do it all" in the church, but to say yes to equipping and engaging the laity in ministry and allowing this power of God in the laity to be unleashed (as opposed to controlling, stifling, or otherwise impeding).

Some "Troublemaker" questions that I'm pondering:
--I'm wondering what the "poster child" of UM clergy looks like during the next 10-20 years? Think of the next generation of pastors after Adam Hamilton, Rudy Rasmus, Mike Slaughter, Kirbyjon Caldwell, etc. Think of those younger than Olu Brown, Hyo Kim, Nora Martinez, and John Kenney. Maybe a Susan Pinson, or David Walters, or Jasmine Smothers, or who? What of those young clergy who haven't yet responded to the call yet who are still in high school? What does that poster look like for the "average" UM congregation in 2021 and beyond?

-What should the 1 or 2 primary jobs be of United Methodist clergy? If, for example, it is preaching and one other ministry then we need to turn the whole system in that direction. How will we better retool seminary, conferences, board of ordained ministry, etc. for this new generation of clergy? Said another way, will we want 60 year old seminary professors who've never served a congregation teaching preaching to 25 year old students we expect to lead multi ethnic congregations that may be more evangelical with expertise in building bridges into a community? Will we work our denomination in smarter ways to use current technology to make the best use of time so clergy can focus on the priority?

-What should the 1 or 2 primary jobs be of a District Superintendent? If it is to be a missional strategist and clergy/church coach then the whole system should be oriented in that direction of primary focus. We can't merely tag a variety of people who reflect a conference yet lack the skills to do the job. If they can't fulfill the job then they can certainly return to the better position that matches their gifts for ministry. It's OK because sometimes you don't know until you try. In college football, sometimes you don't know if someone is better suited to play as first string quarterback until you put them into the game situation. While we should make wise decisions, and not get hamstrung by politics, we shouldn't be afraid to take risks as we follow the Spirit.

-What should the 1 or 2 primary jobs be of a bishop? 1) primary for me is leadership in the annual conference, and 2) limited time outside of conference with the larger Church. If they are ineffective, and just voted in on popularity yet lack the skills, will we return them to a position that they are better equipped to do? What is the role of a bishop to be effective in the new UMC? and how will that be evaluated?

-How will congregations reorient toward a new Methodism that must, of necessity, engage both clergy and laity? Excellent, engaging worship for this younger generation is an imperative. Serious outreach through mission and evangelism must be a priority. Becoming congregations that reflect our communities, i.e. multi ethnic, socioeconomically varied, must be a shared value and expectation. Congregational turnaround and ownership will be the deal breaker in all of this no matter the competency and commitment of clergy.

-All "agency" work would be directly related to congregational and other direct ministry (campus, chaplaincy, mission, etc.) and these ministry equippers would coordinate their work. They would also have expectations of effectiveness in ministry and would be lean and action orinted.

-How will we clergy learn better ways of communicating the Good News to the larger community? For example, I'm rather certain the way I learned to preach in 1988, while holding some principles that will still work, may likely not be the best way to communicate to folk outside the church today. Oh, and I keep thinking of people outside the church because at our best the message, theology, and practices of Methodism made connections with the work of God in the larger community.

These are exciting times for the United Methodist Church, and I'm talking about a lot more than guaranteed appointments and church metrics!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Troublemaker Series: #2 Probation for Consignors, Church Members, & Clergy

Forgive me as I'm still dealing with consignment sale "clean up" both figuratively and literally.

The consignment sale reminds me again that a recurring issue with a crowd is that folk don't follow directions.

Yes, there is a learning curve if you are a new consignor, but that's not usually the problem area. Typically it's the consignors or volunteers who've been with us for awhile that want to make up new rules so we accommodate their desires. They feel experienced, knowledgeable, and privileged. When you have 250-300 consignors you can see where these EXTENDED conversations and this Pandora's Box can lead. So, there are some consignors and volunteers that we must say, "You've broken a more serious rule or failed to abide by the agreement, thus you are on probation the next sale until you can follow the guidelines."

It's odd how people think any other group or organization can have rules and a probation status, but that it's not appropriate for a church. The church walks that tightrope of having expectations yet extending grace and redemption.

For clergy there is a structure, at least in the United Methodist Church through annual conference life, with expectations through supervision (District Superintendent), for accountability through clergy order, Board of Ordained Ministry, and with Bishop and cabinet of DS's.

For laity there is opportunity through accountability groups, more serious Bible studies or prayer groups, and through spiritual guidance with a mentor, clergy, or someone who can be a help in one's spiritual life.

Putting a consignor who's out of line on probation is somewhat easy, and clergy can also be put "on probation," but imagine what this might look like for laity. A friend was talking with me at church recently and said he wished, "I had a report card or something from God to know how I'm doing!" Would we really want to know?! And if we weren't doing so well how would we handle being on probation!?

What does it look like to have good accountability in the Church for clergy and laity? How can we do this in ways that help people grow in relationship and dependence upon God and one another and not devolve into a simple "churching" of folk who we've caught breaking a rule of the community of faith? How can we help each other to "know how we are doing with God" and encourage one another to do even better for the next report card?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Troublemaker Series: #1 Would You Accept Me In Your Church?

It's been a long, busy week as we've offered the fall consignment sale at the church. 40% of the proceeds go to missions, so we go through this huge ordeal that attracted 256 consignors and thousands of shoppers. We sold over 18,000 items, and will net a nice amount for mission use. Irony of ironies, the Sunday School class I lead has been studying the Gospel of John, and last week we were in Chapter 2 with today's lesson being on Jesus driving the money changers out of Temple. :) Since church members haven't stepped up with checks to make the consignment sale obsolete I guess we'll continue to do the sale until Jesus or the Spirit moves us to make up that funding some other way.

So, I'm really tired, a good tired I guess, but still rather beat up after a long, demanding week week. At the same time, perhaps because of my fatigue, I'm finding a number of good questions and ideas have come to mind today that are a challenge to me and the church. So, there's no reason to sugar coat it or varnish the truth, but live with the tough challenge. Thus, begins what I'll call my "Troublemaker Series." It's not a bad thing for Jesus to confront individuals or the church, so I'll just place these challenges out there for dialogue and see what happens.

Despite some real positives about offering a consignment sale I'm not sure it's the best way to be about the work of the church. Yet the consignment sale is a huge attraction that engages many, many people from the community (read this as 60 mile radius!). These are all the people you see at the community store, yet not in my/your community church. At least a dozen times during the sale, I found myself in conversation with shoppers as they congratulated us on a cool concept (the WIN/WIN benefits shoppers/consignors/church/plus mission partners who receive the donated items). Those talkative shoppers went on to discuss their need to find a new church.

These were very honest conversations as they'd talk out loud about some issue in their life and how their current church just wasn't meeting their needs. These weren't angry people, or negative folk in conversation, but all seemed to be people who were swept up in our experience and wanting that to be part of an honest, real, engaging church in their life every week.

Get the picture? They were feeling that pinch between where they were, realizing they couldn't create that, and wanting to be part of a church family.

Then, without fail, they'd come to a moment in the conversation where they'd ask a crucial question- put most succinctly by one shopper- "Will you really accept me?"

Hold on to that for a moment, and think of the variety of folk in your community. Get specific and ask it from the view point of someone of a different ethnicity than you...
-someone from a different socio-economic group than you and your church...
- someone with physical handicap or challenges...
-someone from a different political viewpoint than you and your church...
-someone who is homosexual...
- someone with an addiction- past or present...
- someone with ongoing mental health challenges...
- or perhaps you think of someone else in your community that God has placed in your life somehow that needs a family of faith.

Think of a line of "shoppers" in your community stepping up to your church asking you that question. How would you respond? Would you be telling the truth? And would your church be able to follow through with those great intentions?

While I'm rather certain what Jesus would do I wonder if our churches will take the risk and accept someone into the life of a congregation that the Spirit brings to us.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Varied Church Jobs-- from DCE to Missions

It's been a long week of consignment sale preparation. Thursday night is always the "pre-sale" for workers & friends, and our tradition has been that my wife and daughter go work that and I spend the evening with our youngest son. It's a good time to catch up with him, catch up with some of my "day job" that's gone unattended during the consignment preparations, and to get a little rest after 4 physical days with the two biggest days looming Friday and Saturday.

Oh, and I get to catch up on blogs and other web information I follow.

During my years working as a church program director I always liked to know what other churches were doing in ministry, who was hiring, and how they framed the job descriptions. It is amazing how much you can learn about the church in a few minutes with review of the job description and a check of their website.

Anyway, I still keep up with who's hiring and like to check out a few websites every now and then. It also helps me to help other deacons who like to know what's going on in the larger world of United Methodism.

A few interesting jobs tonight include:
-a DCE position,
- a Global Outreach job,
- an Evangelism position,
plus I've seen a variety of ministry opportunities with children, youth, etc. I don't know anything about these particular churches, but there could be some good options developing for some of you interested in working in the Church.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Fall 2011 Consignment Sale

I'm shocked that 6 months have past and it's now time for the fall consignment sale. But the calendar and last 2 days of hyperactivity remind me otherwise. This isn't the old church yard sales I experienced in my early years of ministry where everyone would show up on the day of the sale and we broke out the masking tape and markers. This is a laptop computer, barcodes on every item, 60,000-70,000 item consignment sale. And they didn't teach me to install software, integrate a new computer into a network, and set up a local area network back in seminary days-- but you do what you've got to do!

It's always a huge blessing for the church as we get 40% of the net for the church's various mission projects. So, it's worth the challenges & long hours. And we have a huge response from the community who are involved as consignors, volunteers, and shoppers. All in all, it's an incredible experience.

So far during the last two days of set-up I've been reminded:
-there is no easy way to gather 300+ volunteers
-communication is a challenge with people & the more people you deal with during a day the more challenging it gets
-throw in some heat (back to 95+ the last two days in Augusta) & long days and the above issues become greater
-and yet I'm continually amazed at some of the workhorses and saints that show a commitment, perseverance, and depth of character that restores hope and gives me that energy I most need.

The sale is Friday 9-7 & Saturday 8-2. Oh, and then we clean up!

Find all the details here.



Sunday, September 11, 2011

After Worship on September 11, 2011

We experienced a very moving worship service today. A highlight for me was the Natalie Sleeth's choral anthem "Joy in the Morning." The music and power of the movement from a minor key to a more hopeful sound and climax was just the right touch for my emotionss and thoughts ten years after 9/11.

There'll be joy in the morning on that day,
There'll be joy in the morning on that day,
For the daylight will dawn when the darkness is gone,
There'll be joy in the morning on that day.

There'll be peace and contentment evermore,
There'll be peace and contentment evermore,
Every heart, every voice will together rejoice,
There'll be peace and contentment evermore.

And the glory, glory, glory of the Lord
Will shine... will shine (shine upon us)
And the glory, glory, glory of the Lord
Will bring the truth divine.

There'll be love and forgiveness everywhere,
There'll be love and forgiveness everywhere,
And the way of the Lord will that day be restored,
There'll be love and forgiveness everywhere.

There'll be love and forgiveness,
Therell be peace and contentment,
Therell be joy, joy, joy, joy... JOY!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Psalm 31
New International Version (NIV)

For the director of music. A psalm of David.

1 In you, LORD, I have taken refuge;
let me never be put to shame;
deliver me in your righteousness.
2 Turn your ear to me,
come quickly to my rescue;
be my rock of refuge,
a strong fortress to save me.
3 Since you are my rock and my fortress,
for the sake of your name lead and guide me.
4 Keep me free from the trap that is set for me,
for you are my refuge.
5 Into your hands I commit my spirit;
deliver me, LORD, my faithful God.

6 I hate those who cling to worthless idols;
as for me, I trust in the LORD.
7 I will be glad and rejoice in your love,
for you saw my affliction
and knew the anguish of my soul.
8 You have not given me into the hands of the enemy
but have set my feet in a spacious place.

9 Be merciful to me, LORD, for I am in distress;
my eyes grow weak with sorrow,
my soul and body with grief.
10 My life is consumed by anguish
and my years by groaning;
my strength fails because of my affliction,
and my bones grow weak.
11 Because of all my enemies,
I am the utter contempt of my neighbors
and an object of dread to my closest friends—
those who see me on the street flee from me.
12 I am forgotten as though I were dead;
I have become like broken pottery.
13 For I hear many whispering,
“Terror on every side!”
They conspire against me
and plot to take my life.

14 But I trust in you, LORD;
I say, “You are my God.”
15 My times are in your hands;
deliver me from the hands of my enemies,
from those who pursue me.
16 Let your face shine on your servant;
save me in your unfailing love.
17 Let me not be put to shame, LORD,
for I have cried out to you;
but let the wicked be put to shame
and be silent in the realm of the dead.
18 Let their lying lips be silenced,
for with pride and contempt
they speak arrogantly against the righteous.

19 How abundant are the good things
that you have stored up for those who fear you,
that you bestow in the sight of all,
on those who take refuge in you.
20 In the shelter of your presence you hide them
from all human intrigues;
you keep them safe in your dwelling
from accusing tongues.

21 Praise be to the LORD,
for he showed me the wonders of his love
when I was in a city under siege.
22 In my alarm I said,
“I am cut off from your sight!”
Yet you heard my cry for mercy
when I called to you for help.

23 Love the LORD, all his faithful people!
The LORD preserves those who are true to him,
but the proud he pays back in full.
24 Be strong and take heart,
all you who hope in the LORD.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Almost United Methodist Almost Haiku

Even in Georgia there is a hint of fall in the air this week. Political campaigning is in full gear & with the economy, jobs, and general angst it's a season for many words. Of course, in these days just before the 10th anniversary of 9/11 the emotions are on a roller coaster ride. Thank goodness for some entertainment as college football season has begun. Add to this cocktail that the build-up in "conversation" about the UMC General Conference has begun.

So, emotions, battle, concise words, and UM thoughts all came to my mind this morning as I awoke.

Ever wake up thinking of a UMC haiku?

I thought some of this might be obscure for some readers, or that you might want to know the context, therefore the key words are linked to a source. I've also started the day off learning something new as the "kireji" or "cutting word" is a strong concept.

With a tip of the hat to John Wesley & begging for forgiveness for anyone who loves Japanese poetry, I offer you:

Almost United Methodist Almost Haiku

GC12 scarecrow-
CTA metrics dashboard
coming death tsunami

Thursday, September 8, 2011

How to Be a GREAT College Football Fan (Among Other Things)

This is a wonderful time of year in the southeastern United States. Fall is trying to nudge out summer. School is back in session. Best of all, college football is in full swing!

Now I could just as easily focus on high school or pro football (NBC News highlighted the Cheeseheads this morning in Green Bay), but to me there is something special about college football. Living in Augusta GA we have a rich blend of college teams represented, and the closer you get to the weekend the more the talk is about football. I won't even go into the details of a certain UGA-SC game that is all the buzz in my area this week!

As I was enjoying cooler weather and doing some yard work, I couldn't help but think about the way great fans are a key part of college football. Watch ESPN Game Day, or attend your local game, and you know what I'm talking about.

Great fans plan and prepare to be part of the experience-- the clothes, the food, & all the preparations are part of the fun!

Great fans expect great things to happen in the next game! It usually doesn't matter what the record is since a great fan is going to hold out hope for the extraordinary to happen.

Great fans try to persuade other fans their team is the best. A great fan sticks with a team no matter the season record. Year in and year out they'll try to recruit other fans, players, and anyone who will listen that their team is the best.

Great fans know the players for this season and follow the numbers. A great fan gets into the details of the game. Such a fan isn't content with a superficial level of knowledge of the team.

Great fans encourage the coach. A person who has the long term interest of a team in mind accepts reality, yet is looking to build on the long term tradition.

Great fans are part of the game! They aren't idle participants, or lazy observers, but are actively engaged in the game even though they aren't playing on the field.

Great fans are part of why I love college football. Great fans attract other great fans and build on the tradition.

How exciting to be part of a crowd of rabid enthusiasts!

It's an old metaphor, yet still full of truth. Come to think of it, a great fan makes all the difference in church as well. I wonder what would happen if we all got as prepared, expecting the extraordinary, and as personally engaged in church life as we are with college football? The enthusiasm and excitement of one great fan is contagious and will attract other excited participation.

Let's bring on game day at church- I'll meet you in the parking lot for the tailgate party!

"Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord." Romans 12:11

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

"The Lady from Baga" by Dr. Vince Brawley

Dr. Vince Brawley was our team leader for the recent Togo Medical Mission June 21-30. Find one of the stories from the mission below which serves as an update of an ongoing story. I confess that I was one of the team that prayed through tears for this women in 2008 and none of us expected her to survive to see the new year.

"The Lady from Baga"
August 25, 2011 Mission Society News
Dr. Vince Brawley is an active member of Trinity on the Hill United Methodist Church in Augusta, Georgia. He is also a supporter of Esaho and Beatrice Kipuke, Mission Society missionaries to Togo, West Africa. Here, he recounts his experience on a short-term medical mission trip to Togo and the miraculous healing he witnessed.

Kipuke Ministries in Togo, Africa is the realization of the prayers and dreams of Esaho and Beatrice Kipuke. The Kipukes are French-speaking Africans called back to their home continent to minister to the physical, emotional, economic, and spiritual needs of the poor and underserved people in the rural villages of Togo. Kipuke Ministries is administrated under The Mission Society and serves as a major international missions partner of Trinity on the Hill UMC. Speaking on behalf of the team members that participated in short-term mission trips in both June 2008 and June 2011, the progress made by Kipuke Ministries over three years is simply inexplicable apart from God's grace. The Kipukes have consistently under-promised and over-delivered. The following story represents just one of the countless blessings that have been witnessed as a fruit of this ministry.

Bernadette is a member of the Baga village near the northern Togo city of Kara. Her chief is a former witch doctor who, because of an ongoing relationship with the Kipukes, has opened his village to the teachings of Jesus Christ. When we first met Bernadette in June 2008, she was in her mid 30s and was a married mother of three young children. She presented to our make-shift medical clinic with complaints of large masses in both breasts and sores in her neck, above her collar bones and in her armpits. The rock hard mass in one breast was the size of a grapefruit and she had an orange-sized tumor in the other. The sores were likely multiple lymph nodes containing metastatic cancer. She had lost weight and appeared very ill. Without the benefit of modern pathology, a diagnosis of advanced, untreatable breast cancer was made. Even had she lived in the United Sates, her prognosis for survival would have been grim. We gave her the only medicines available in our limited clinic pharmacy (analgesics for pain and antibiotics for possible infection of the skin ulcers), then Beatrice Kipuke shared the difficult news with her - that she would almost surely die in a matter of months, if not weeks. We laid hands on her and prayed but then, having little faith in her healing, starting preparing for the support of the children after her death. For some time, our U.S. team did not receive follow up on her condition, and we could only hope and pray for the wellbeing of her family. We were not aware that the Kipukes were holding Bible studies in Bernadette’s home and continuing to pray for her. During this passage, they sensed that her faith was growing and getting stronger. Esaho reports that she was “not crying anymore, but enjoying the presence of the Lord in her.” Around that time, the Kipukes returned to the U.S. for a brief respite.

In 2010, during a later U.S. visit from Esaho Kipuke, I casually asked him about "the lady from Baga," and he shared the following account. After their return, he and Beatrice made a visit to Bernadette’s home. She appeared from her hut and fell at Beatrice's feet proclaiming the mighty power of God. She then stood to raise her shirt showing disease-free breasts and pointing to healed scars on her skin. Despite Esaho’s confident faith in this story, I simply did not believe and could only assume that he had her confused with another woman. During my medical practice, I had witnessed “unexplained” healing and should have believed. However, this "doubting Thomas" would definitely have to see for myself.

In preparing for the return medical mission trip scheduled for June 2011, still skeptical, I emailed Esaho to inquire about setting a follow-up exam for Bernadette. He made it happen. On Sunday, June 26, 2011, our team of 12 Americans, the Kipukes, and several of our other African brothers and sisters were witnesses to the mighty healing power of our awesome God. As if her humble living conditions were not overwhelming enough, the woman, who was easily recognized by me and several of my fellow team members, stood before us. She was healthy and standing beside a thankful husband and one of her beautiful daughters. I touched her. There were no masses in her breasts and there were only healed scars where there had once been festering ulcers. Just as Jesus had commanded Thomas, I felt Him saying, "Stop doubting and believe.” I could only reply, "My Lord and My God!" and lament, "blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20, 27-29).

Sunday, September 4, 2011

John & Jonah Show Up in Worship

It happened again today as John appeared midway through the worship service at the center doors. He always stumbles through the doors, similar to Kramer from "Seinfeld," and then looks around rather confused trying to get his bearings. It would be funny except that John appears to be homeless and usually smells like he is. You can often see the look of dread on people's faces as they anticipate where John might sit!

The truth is John has a fairly severe mental illness and doesn't have a family that keeps him. He lives in one of those group transitional home settings just off Gordon Highway. He walks everywhere, and has little or no supervision. If you know Augusta then you may realize that means he walks miles to get to church on Sunday. You can't get much out of him to talk with him, so a few years ago I played detective and followed him to the house where he rents a room.

For the most part John is harmless, though at times he can be rather disruptive with his behavior. Usually he sits in worship, may get up a few times during an hour to go outside and smoke the very end of a throw away cigarette he picked up somewhere, and then he's either back in the sanctuary or in his favorite Sunday School class hoping they'll let him eat some food. So, I usually watch him like I would a 5 year old who can get into a lot of mischief with no supervision.

Today John appears at the center doors like a slapstick comedian, realizes he wasn't quite where he wanted to be, and quickly darts back in the narthex to then reappear in his favorite side aisle. Imagine your thoughts if you had to babysit John... or if you were sitting in church in the vicinity of such a character.

John certainly stands out in our crowd of primarily professional, middle class/upper class congregation. He's always got serious bedhead, usually favors an army jacket & surprisingly today is without it and sporting a half tucked shirt, hasn't bathed in who knows when, and laughs loudly at all the wrong places in worship. He usually likes a seat about 2/3's of the way down the aisle, and it doesn't really matter what time it is in the worship. If there is a cute female on the aisle all the better. Add in talking to himself and a rather serious wheezing and you get part of the picture!

Being "the mission guy" I usually try to sit near him. The ushers will give me the signal that one of "my guys" is in the building if I don't seem to be aware of a "disturbance in the force." I don't know what it is that is attractive to John, but he's as dedicated in attendance as many of our members.

At early worship this morning John appears just as the congregation is singing a prayer chorus and as some are going to the altar to pray.

Fill my cup, Lord, I lift it up, Lord.
Come and quench this thirsting of my soul.
Bread of heaven, feed me til I want no more;
fill my cup, fill it up and make me whole.

As the worship service moves on toward offering, and sermon, and communion, my old brother John becomes more at ease and more animated. Since we are usually televised on live TV at 11 AM even the early service has great lighting. But is it something about the preacher's face or the emotions of the place that cause John to laugh at such odd times? I likely don't see or hear what John experiences, but I wonder what draws him here and what he sees. I start hearing him get a little louder, so concerned for others in the congregation, I move closer and sit on John's pew.

Even as I'm trying to play good brother to John and the congregation I hear my preacher, Rev. Dan Brown, as he shares scripture and sermon from Jonah 4:1-5. Dan shares the story of Jonah who didn't want to go where God sent him with the message that was intended, and instead preferred to go in the opposite direction. And then when Jonah finally did go he shared a half hearted message for those he could care less about. I hear something about "needing to show grace to others like God shows us." And later, "... we are to be extensions of God's grace, even to people we do not like."

So, God, and the preacher, and John are all laughing at me now! It occurs to me that both the messenger and the crowd need each other in this relationship of God's grace. Who knows what God is doing in all those lives and what response we might get from those we least expect to respond?

We concluded worship with that hymn/chorus I'm lobbying to have changed. I love the music and the sentiment, but know the words aren't quite what they should be. Here's my version of "Here I Am Lord":

Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?
I have heard You calling in the night.
I will go Lord, when you lead me.
I will hold Your people in my heart.

Friday, September 2, 2011

What Will the New United Methodist Church Look Like?

Change must occur, and will happen in some form, but what will it look like for a denomination of John Wesley?

As the United Methodist Church moves closer to the conferences of 2012 the discussions will take on more frequency and more fervor. But why? Will it be to save a denomination or to make our budgets work out, or will there be any deeper motivations? Will we be more motivated by the Weems "death tsunami," declining finances and need for adjustment, or some theology from days gone by that we bring back to life (or, better said, allow God to resurrect).

You should be reminded that I write this as a deacon with primary work in missions and evangelism. So, even as I jot some thoughts I'm amazed at how irrelevant much of this is to the international United Methodist Church! How often should we remind ourselves of the Methodist movement that is working with few frills?

That Methodist troublemaker, Donald W. Haynes, often gets my attention. How can one person so consistently have you in agreement with him one minute and then aggravated the next? But, I've got to confess I like that about him! In his recent A Look at Connectional Table Recommendations he emphasizes the necessary focus of the denomination upon congregational vitality. He reminds us of Trueblood's writing about church needing a base and a field, and the simplicity and power of that view is worth examination. When your base is too weak you certainly don't have the strength, energy, and inclination to go to the field! The call is to the field and it is likely we need to "replant" many of our congregations with new clergy and churches that are United Methodist for this generation. That also means we need to look for different types of clergy, and likely adjust our approach to clergy training and deployment. Of course, how many of our "old" Methodists understand what this will require and boldly take hold of God's hand in some new ventures? Is there a place for entrepreneurial, evangelical United Methodist clergy and churches? And how will the "old guard" and conference leadership respond to such things? I'm feeling more and more like the old guard myself! It makes me curious what decisions would be made if the General Conference was composed of a majority of 35-40 year olds reorganizing the UMC for a bold 20 years of ministry.

I've got to add to the Haynes discussion by simply saying that most of our current agencies do not know how to work with congregations. It's not an indictment of the people, but recognition that they are often far removed from "the field" and their days revolve around meetings, paperwork, and ideas. While agencies may be effective at working with annual conferences our agencies have a built certain cultures over the decades full of middle management who are not free to make decisions and processes that are slow and methodical in all the wrong ways. For instance, my church was trying to work through GBGM to help fund a missionary on the field, but must go to a more direct process as July funds we gave in response to a need would not be available to the missionary until September! That is too slow for mission and too slow for a congregation responding to a need in 2011! Please note there are always exceptions to a general rule or blanket statement & I'm thinking of a few specific people at GBGM, GBHEM, & GBOD. Yet, in general, our general agencies are generally well suited to 1972, but not to 2011.

I will offer an exception to Haynes' comments re. GBGM. I believe that while the thrust of his argument is correct the exception I see is occurring with Patrick Friday and the work of "In Mission Together." If that strategy for connecting congregations with missions is the new way of GBGM then we do have a strong potential for the success and growth of mission as an international denominational approach that does engage congregations. Note that such a congregational movement of mission, beyond slick posters and special Sundays, will be the only way forward if we are to get serious about reclaiming a Wesleyan evangelical mission strategy that becomes the heartbeat of our churches. Can one office in an agency become the protocol and strategy for an entire organization?

Related to Haynes' thoughts and the Recommendations, is anyone else bothered theologically and practically with a separation of mission from the rest of the Christian and church life? How do you separate missions from evangelism? from discipleship? from worship? This sort of segregation of the various disciplines of faith is what has gotten us in some of this trouble now. I prefer a stronger integration of these elements of the faith. Why can't we house the denomination, and all the offices, in one location? Why can't they interact, inform, encourage, and strengthen each other just as we must allow in the local congregation?

Let's keep the prayers and discussion going as we seek to be the Church God desires for our day, and as we determine what the UMC will look like for the next generation. My hope is we hand off a stronger denomination in better position to confess the Risen Christ in word and deed for the entire world. We just need the courage and power to take those risky steps as the Spirit leads us. Perhaps we'll also realize that even as change occurs we can live without some of the frills that we thought were norms for the UMC.

After all, couldn't our best days, our most faithful days, be ahead of us?