Thursday, February 28, 2008

A Last Word on Underwood

I've done something today I've never done before -

I've pulled my previous post on Underwood's merger with Colonial Park.

I was not forced to do this. I appreciate the comments on both sides of this issue that have been posted. I appreciate the calls and emails of support that are not posted.

The amount of traffic on that post indicated to me that it was becoming something I never intended. Here I thought my mama and a few of my friends checked out what I had to say about life, the church, the Tigers....who knew?

What I say, or comment on, about something that has occurred is not what this is all about. Based on the feedback I was getting, it was becoming clear that my post was becoming an issue and not that to which my post was attempting to point.

And I cannot let my comments on the process of this merger divert the necessary care that needs to be shown toward the good people of Underwood who are gladly merging with the good people of Colonial Park, or, and especially, the folks who have been spiritually injured and marginalized by this process who need a particular level of care from the church that they are not getting but deserve.

I was also motivated to give voice to key figures in my life from Underwood who felt theirs were silenced, or, in the end, didn't matter. It was not something they asked me to do - but something I felt I owed those who walked the journey with me in the initial days of declaring my call.

I do still very much have questions about the process - I think we all should have questions.

Mergers and closures are no small thing. And they need to be owned by the totality of the church. A Church Conference, not a Charge Conference, is the best way we have in our polity to guarantee that. A Charge Conference is the most politically expedient way to get a sought for end. A Church Conference is harder to make something happen, and it ought to be - but that which passes represents best the God inspired imaginations of the people who worship there, because it requires "conferencing" in the Wesleyan tradtion, and discernment of the Spirit of God from the whole.

It's a point to be reflected upon, because more than a few Churches in the city need to be honest with themselves about the future vitality of ministry in their current context amidst the prospects of new ministries in other places in need of being planted.

What greater witness have we, as we end our time in a given place, than to give ourselves away for the sake of the Kingdom?

It is how we do this that states most clearly our character as people of God. We cannot let the way it was done here be the template.

As it was in the first post, it is the "process" that I'm calling into question, nothing and no one else. You don't have to like that I've commented, you don't have to agree with it.

Get your own blog and knock yourselves out.

Oh, and I'm still voting against it - if you're wondering.

In the end, I'm thankful for that Church on that corner, and for those devoted people of God who are intregal to who I am. God bless, Underwood.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Go 'Dores!

Now you might think this a petty thing - what with UT beating my Tigers over the weekend.
But I do hold a degree from Vanderbilt University. I, along with some buddies, used to play 21 on the Memorial Gym floor. It's a bear of a room.

How's that #1 thing working for ya, UT?

In the words of Khan Noonien Singh: "Ahh, Kirk, do you know the old Klingon proverb that 'revenge is a dish best served cold.' It is very, very cold in space."

Monday, February 25, 2008

Nothing Until Now

Ask anybody who's talked with me this season - the UT game is the one I saw coming up main street. And then to enter the game #1 and undefeated - a recipe for what happened was better than any dish Emeril Lagasse could dream up.
Of all people, we'd lose to, you knew it would be them.

You, my couple of faithful readers, will also note that I've said nothing about Tiger basketball this season.

Not until now.

First, this Tiger team is incredible to watch, especially in person. I have a feeling with them that I haven't had since I was at Memphis State in the early 80's. Interestingly enough, sitting on the baseline nearest the Tiger bench Saturday night was the the school's leading scorer - Keith Lee, and next to him Penny Hardaway.

Legacy. Cool.

A couple of thoughts after losing to UT.
  • No question, Cal has met his match in Bruce Pearl. Cal lives with the need for a foil. John Cheney, Rick Pitino, Bob Huggins - Pearl may have them all beat.

  • UT is for real. I was very impressed with their talent.

  • We still should have won the game by 10 points. Why didn't we? 46% from the FT line. Calipari says "we'll hit them when it counts." Well, if Saturday night didn't prove it, nothing will - THEY ALL COUNT!

Friday, February 22, 2008

REPOST - "It's the 'How' That's the Problem - Or, R.I.P. Underwood"

With the transition between these two congregations having come and gone, and with a group of Underwood nomads wondering the Methodist congregations of Memphis looking for a place to call home, as well as a group content to never step foot inside a United Methodist Church again, I've decided to re-post this previously pulled article, complete with original comments - even the "anonymous" ones. I do this to keep before us the real pain suffered by this act of violence and the complicity of a system that let it happen. Oh, and I count myself as part of that system.
Some years ago, when Dr. Kervorkian's story was very active in the consciousness of the country, a poll was taken among United Methodists as to whether or not they believed that "euthanasia" was appropriate. Well, the "system" freaked out. Seemed that United Methodists, by something like 3 to 1 thought that euthanasia was an acceptable way to bring life to its close.

Missives emerged from the higher ups encouraging conversations that "death with dignity," which the Church affirms, cannot be confused with "mercy killing." Were theological hairs being split?

For the purposes of this post, I am not here to debate that issue. Rather, I want to report a case of euthanasia that has occurred in the city with a worshipping congregation. This congregation is a pivot point in my call to ministry.

Underwood is my home charge conference. I started the process for ministry from that church back in 1982. I stood before that charge conference, told of my call, and under Paul Douglass's superintendancy was voted upon as to whether or not Underwood would endorse me and send me on to the district. I still have that paper ballot stored away somewhere.

Those folks helped raise me. They are good, proud people who have cared for and loved each other well for 50 years. That congregation, no larger than it is, has spawned an extraordinary number of clergy into our conference -a fraternity of which I'm proud to be a part. And while my progressive leanings may not resonate with their worldview I've never doubted that they were proud to count me as one of their own.

At this point I want to be clear:

What I comment on is my understanding of what has recently transpired in the official actions of the legislative body of that congregation. It is not my intent nor perogative to interfere in the actions of another congregation - even one I love deeply.

But since official action has taken place, I do believe I am within my right to offer comment.

By action of a recent Charge Conference, Underwood's last service will be March 2 and they will be worshipping with Colonial Park UMC thereon - even though the merger is not official until Annual Conference in June.

Here's my problem:

Underwood has been in a state of flux for a few years. Like a number of churches in the city they are among those who have found it difficult to establish an enduring niche for ministry in their community beyond the legacy of their own story.

They didn't need to be told that. They have been very self-aware.

This issue is not whether or not they should close, merge, or do any of those things that a chartered congregation may do as it ponders its future. It is a matter of process. And this process is replete with manipulations and distortions that signal to any who observe it that the end justifies the means.

By any objective measure, to have an exploratory committee formed in Advent and be effectively closed before Easter - in a year when Easter is extraordinarily early, is a study in haste - it is pulling the plug on a congregation. It is neither merciful nor dignified.

To have questions of congregational ultimacy determined by the Charge Conference, rather than the Church Conference, while "legal," is not the way to make such decisions. Why not have the congregation "own" this decision in total?

So, congregants made a decision based upon a picture that had been painted, a "truth" that had been implied that's official sounding enough to leave the impression that it must be so and fuzzy enough to wiggle out of when people finally start waking up, albeit too late, to see what's happening to them.

It appears that some of the congregation were left with the impression that if they didn't vote for this merger measure they would be closed by June - that the annual conference would not appoint them another pastor. Did that come out of thin air?

How could anyone consider a 12-7 vote a win, when 2 of the 12 are automatic, and as many as 4 of the 12 voted believing they had no choice? The Church, when it wants to reach a particular conclusion in the face of divergent opinion, too often bows at the altars of Robert's Rules and The Book of Discipline than the altar of Christ Jesus.

This is about voter suppression, and the marginalization of choice. Choice of what to do with their last days as a worshipping congregation - choice of exploration of all options of what to do and where to go - even their choice of when to say goodbye.

March 2 may seem expedient to some. I call it violent - and that's what euthanasia is - and if, when it comes to something like this - the behavior of those on the "winning" side looks more like a conquest than a covenantal merger - you have your answer of what track this train was always going to take.

So, you've got a few who'll go along with the program. God bless them, and I trust they find what they're looking for in this new arrangement.

But you'll have a large group of folks, whose voices were silenced, who'll speak now by their exploration of other options - any option other than the mandated one. And, you'll have a congregation robbed of its chance to say farewell gracefully - something that any of us would pray for upon the hour of our deaths.

And the saddest truth is - a relationship with Colonial Park may well be the best choice for Underwood - but the way at which it was arrived will scar ministry's potential for years to come. If this is the way we're going to craft an urban strategy for ministry in Memphis, I don't want any part of it.

There is a way to do this, one that is difficult enough - but grace-full. To do violence to a congregation is not it.

Oh, and when the annual conference actually gets to vote on this merger, even though it will be perfunctory - there will be at least one "no" vote on the floor of the conference. Mine.

Monday, February 11, 2008

A View from the Coast

Last week I was among 11 folks from Saint John's who traveled to Vancleave, Mississippi, to participate in work projects related to Hurricane Katrina.

Katrina? Isn't that old news? Hardly. Folks down there are still talking years, as in 3-5, before they're done.

Katrina? Aren't we late to the game on this? After all, that happened so long ago. Maybe. But don't forget this - while this is our first time to go to the Coast to deal with the impact of Katrina on folks down there, we must never forget that Katrina came to us in the days following the storm, as we housed 30 survivors for over 4 months at Nelson Woods.

And so we went - a group that represented Saint John's in all its diversity. It was a beautiful thing to behold.

Our job for the two days we worked? To continue the rehabilitation of Retha's house. Retha lives outside of Lucedale. Her home had some significant issues. We painted, inside and out; we did plumbing and ripped out the bathroom. There were septic tank issues. Carpentry was needed.

And we 11 tackled it, as best we could, head on.

Although the days were long and tiring, to a person, I believe we'd say it was a blessing. Retha's face glowed not only with appreciation for the work being done, but with stunning gratitude when she was presented the prayer quilt that you had prayed over.

A few comments and then an anecdote:

I was impressed with the work and organization of the Mississippi Conference in this effort. Vancleave UMC, is just like any of a number of rural United Methodist Churches across the country. The difference is that just behind this church is this huge building that is part barracks and part warehouse for material to be taken for work projects. It was very well run and I was reminded of the words from the folks at UMCOR when I dealt with them in '99 during the first of what is now too many tornadoes to strike the Jackson area: "we won't be the first ones on the ground, but we will be the last ones to leave."

Churches from all the country have been to Vancleave to offer help. It was truly impressive. However, I grew weary pretty quickly of being told that our group is not typical in that we were only working a weekend when most groups come on a Sunday and leave on a Saturday. First off, you don't need to tell me that a group from Saint John's is not typical.

To that I say, "Amen, praise the Lord." But any of you who know me understand how little patience I have for being told "how we do usually do things." Sure, we should always be willing to adhere to the patterns, if not "liturgy," that goes before us. I'm all for that. But in this instance, although I don't think it was on purpose, it was easy to communicate our presence and our work was less important than a group who had been there all week. I reject that out of hand. Our presence and willingness to do what the moment required be it one day or two weeks is the same. It is the "giving" that is the sign of Christ alive in us. We can't quantify gifts and grace. It was a point I felt needed to be made to our group before we left.

We learned the value to doing our part, having taken up the task from those who had done work before us, and, passing on the work to be completed to those who come behind us. It's a lesson of stewardship and the continuity and interdependency on the body of Christ. And that was an issue, because we each were tempted to fall prey to that Protestant work ethic thing that WE have to finish what WE started.

The people there were very warm and understood that this "mission" was there opportunity and responsibility. I appreciated that very much, and know all too well that a congregation with a "mission" is one that is vital and alive.

And now the story -

On the last day, with just a couple of hours to go before we called it a day, and, with plenty more left to do, I, while cutting a notch in some drywall for the bathroom, because I was squeezed into an awkward position, and in a hurry, did the stupid thing that I have warned others not to do, and turned the razor blade toward me to cut the last bit of sheetrock.

It went through the last bit of sheet rock, of course, and across my forearm, where it opened about an inch and a half gash. It was obvious from the moment it happened that this was more than a band aid deal.

Retha, the one for whom we worked, had just arrived home from her place of employment. She was in housekeeping services for the George County General Hospital. She drove her truck, while Jaime Winton (almost six month pregnant Jaime Winton), drove and we followed her to the hospital.

So, in we walked to the emergency room. Me, absolutely filthy, and holding the laceration together along with some Steri-strips that Steve put on it, and "mama to be," who was our team leader, and had all the UMVIM insurance info.

It wasn't until I was being triaged that the hospital staff assumed that Jaime was "Mrs. Jeffords." I mean, after all, she came in with me, she had my information, and she was concerned for me, and, she was very pregnant!

When they moved me from triage to an ER bay, they said, "if your wife can check you in, we'll get you cleaned up." Jaime dealt with all of that, out front, and I decided it wasn't worth telling the whole story of who we were and why we were there. I just wanted to get sewn up and on my way.

Well, after the 3rd or so reference to "my wife," I decided I just needed to tell the story. But I led into it in a way that could have mis-communicated what was true. I said, "Oh, she's not my wife."

The look I got from the nurse seemed to say, "Oh, so, you got her knocked up but you're not going to make an honest woman out of her."

And then I said, "I'm her pastor." The next look I got did not indicate clarity, but confusion bordering on disgust.

Little did I know that at the same time out front, Jaime is having the same issue trying to communicate who she is, who I am, and what we're doing there.

"Oh, he's my preacher."

More confusion.

After a while, we each, in our own way, told the story of who we were and why we were there. After we got back into the car, I told Jaime of the confusion and the looks I had received when I decided not to let the assumptions they had about us continue. She laughed and said she had to do the same thing.

Moral of that story - never assume you know anything based on what you see, or, beware of what happens when you travel with your preacher!