Monday, June 24, 2013

Power and Grace

My tribe is gathering in Indianapolis, as I've said in a previous post. The Church of the Nazarene is going about it's business this week. While I nerd out about legislation, for the most part, it's pretty mundane.

We've come through some tough times recently and logistically. Our denomination began in the US and quickly spread around the world. It's been tough integrating members from around the world into an essentially US-centric system. It's become even tougher as those outside the US well outnumber those within.

For the most part we've been moving forward fitfully, but with grace. At the previous General Assembly we elected a native of Cape Verde as one of six General Superintendents, the highest position within our little family. It's been a big deal.

Monday night, another change was on the docket. Our denomination is legislatively controlled by a General Board, who handles business between these every-four-year assemblies. Currently, the United States has a representation of about 60% on this board in a format that, for a while, actually gave Nazarenes outside the US a larger representation than their membership would otherwise dictate.

The formula we have now was once a gracious sharing of power by the US founders of the denomination to the global members who are the future of the Church of the Nazarene.

A resolution last night would change the representation of the General Board in several ways, shrinking the overall membership from about 50 to about 30 to keep it manageable. I'm not sure there would be much objection to such a move.

In addition, however, it would change the representation to be proportional by membership. The representation of the six regions (Meso-America, South America, Eurasia, Africa, Asia-Pacific, and USA/Canada) would be determined by membership in those areas.

This would call for a reduction in total members for most regions, but a drastic reduction in representation for the US. Currently the US has 30% of the membership, but 60% of the representation.

As I watched the proceedings, countless Americans stood to oppose the change. They never mentioned power, but they came darn close. One even said that because the US contributes the vast majority of the money to operate the denomination, it should have a larger say in how things run.

That might make sense in a capitalist organization or even a democratic one. It makes no sense in a Christian organization, where all people are valued equally. It makes even less sense in a denomination which decided in 1980 (before I was even born) that money would not dictate representation in the Church of the Nazarene.

Some have said this change is too much too soon with unknown consequences. Yet it is the result of four years of study by a commission formed and approved by the General Assembly at its last meeting. It is not a fly by night decision.

A great man once said, "The only legitimate use of power is to share it." By virtue of more blessings than we could ever count or name, the United States has a lot of power - not just politically or economically, but culturally as well. The same is true within the Church of the Nazarene.

It is our Christian duty to give away power, to share it and not abuse it. It is our duty as Nazarenes to show trust in each other, grace, and hope. We have spent the past week in worship together, celebrating our global presence and our continued work of embodying God's love across the globe.

When it comes to issues of power and grace, we hesitate.

Before I jump off a cliff thinking our elected delegates did this on purpose, I must pause to consider that they hadn't thought it through entirely or hadn't had the opportunity to fully grasp what was being asked.

According to our rules, any delegate who voted to reject resolution GA-310a, can call for a reconsideration of the resolution. I hope and pray that through discussions this evening and through the week, someone decides to make this step. Further, that someone would speak truth to the powerful with grace - that we would, together, be able to move forward as equals, as brother and sisters in our Lord Jesus Christ.

If we cannot be fair with each other, how are we to be trusted and received by others in the world?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Twitter Assembly

Every four years or so (there's been a few fives in there and may be again) my tribe, the Church of the Nazarene, gets together for a General Assembly.  Featuring delegates from more than a hundred countries and who knows how many languages, with 20,000 or more attendees, it's one of the larger religious conferences in the country (if not the world).

For just the second time since I was old enough to navigate a major US city by myself, I'm not there in person. I'm quite sad about it. The older I get the more I recognize that what happens at these big events has little or nothing to do with the actual life and ministry of my neighborhood. At the same time, I geek out for this kind of thing and I really, really enjoy seeing far-flung friends and family.

There's been a lot of talk about the cost of such an event (it's in eight figures, at least), but I realized tonight that gathering together to sing Amazing Grace in 40 different languages is probably worth all of it. It looks like the Kingdom and that is, essentially, what the gospel is all about.

Don't cry too much for me, though. This time around, it's much easier to participate from afar. Through Facebook and Twitter I've been able to keep up with the happenings and all of the worship services and business meetings will be streamed live.

One interesting thing, though, is the impact of Twitter on an organization the size, scope and age of the Church of the Nazarene. Institutions are notoriously image conscious and religious institutions even more so. Our tribe has gone a long way towards openness and accountability, but we still have a painfully long way to go.

Twitter is going to help us. Not only do most of the leadership tweet (or have someone tweeting for them), which makes them more accessible, but Twitter has a way of making us more accountable. No more saying one thing to one audience and something else to another. This is, no doubt, a good thing.

It will be a little uncomfortable for us Nazarenes who are used to keeping things nice and friendly and sometimes superficial. But it will be good for us in the long run.

I'm looking forward to a great week of General Assembly - from the comfort of my living room!

Sunday, June 16, 2013


This weekend I ran into two sports-related stories with intriguing references to family. The first was a piece about Yankee's closer Mariano Rivera. He's a devout Christian with a close connection to a small faith community in Westchester County. He talks in the story about going on vacation with 40-50 people. He says he takes the whole family - and he doesn't mean only blood relations. His spiritual mentors and those with whom he lives and worships are included. There's no difference.

ESPN Magazine featured an article about Steelers Safety Troy Palomalu, particularly about his financial life. He's joined an investment group where four well-off families have pooled their money. In contrast to many professional athletes who spend away millions with amazing speed, Polamalu hasn't even touched his salary. He lives on an allowance from the investment earnings of the collaboration. These families have tied themselves and their wealth to each other. It's a family connection - they say as much about each other.

We're drawn to this idea of family, even beyond our blood and marital relations, it's something inherent in all of us. Even the most introverted among us doesn't really want to be alone (not all the time, anyway)- we want to be understood.

That's really quite different from being included or even valued.

We want a family that will accept us for who we are. Polamalu's "family" tells him no when he wants to invest in stupid things. Most athletes employ yes-men who tell them what they want to hear. You could say one is looking out for themselves, the other is valuing a friend.

I'm not sure it's that cut and dry.

In spite of this concern for the other, there's still an underlying theme of disconnect. It's explicit towards the end of the Polamalu article - one of the partners says basically, "if we don't like what he's doing, we can kick him out. We won't; he's family. But we could."

This is short of family. Rivera makes clear that his "family" is family precisely because they remained when they, by all rights, should have kicked him out. It might help that he's got hundreds of millions of dollars, but I believe it goes beyond just self-interest.

Most of the time, when we're doing something stupid, when we need to be put in our place, we know it. Even when we're unwilling to be corrected or to listen to others, we know what's up - we're just stubborn. We recognize people are trying to look out for us, but we're just unwilling to be looked after.

Some of that is stubbornness. Some of it is prioritizing immediate gratification. But I suspect a lot of it is just a feeling of disconnection. If you're not sure someone really understands you, you just can't trust they've got your best interests in mind.

We often say "family is family" or "blood is thicker than water" or whatever expression we want to convey that family knows best, can be relied on, knows each other, etc. It's sometimes true. A lot of times, it's not. Families, quite often, are pretty disfunctional. The families we make for each other can be that way too.

As much as we want to be know, to be understood, we also don't want that. We want enough distance we can ignore or avoid "family." We don't like being connected to people, to be vulnerable to people, to be dependent.

I'd like to say I'm often asked to define family (it would be a great rhetorical device here); I'm not. I do think about it from time to time.

The more I think about it, the more I want to say: family is simply people who really know each other. Not people who are familiar (family-like) or people who know a lot about each other. Family is people who know each other. People who may disagree, fight, argue, and whatnot, but people who get what it means to be you in the same way you get what it means to be you.

Family is scary, but I don't think we'll get very far without it.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Love Wins

The blog writing has been weak lately. I apologize. It's been the end of the school year for my wife, which means our family focus becomes getting to that final day. I haven't cracked open the computer in a week. I check Facebook and email on occasion in case of emergency, but it's been a good break. We've had family in and the separation has done me good. I kind of like not being tied to a screen so much.

Now that summer has arrived, I'm looking at a wall of work. Good work, but work nonetheless. The wall is made up of four sermons, two essays, and prep for two classes I'll be teaching this fall. I've set a tentative and unrealistic deadline of July 1st for getting it all done. That's not likely to happen, but I will be working, hopefully about four hours a day for the rest of the month.

I spent the day today getting some final errands done before diving into the work. The afternoon was family time, although not as much as my wife would like (I spent a lot of it catching up on computery internet things).

My daughter's development is flying these days. She's climbing stairs and while she's not talking, she's pretty good at communicating what she wants. It seems like every hour there's something new. Everyone said it would happen, but I realized today how much I miss her as a baby. She's not a baby anymore. When she was, I just wanted her to be able to communicate. I wanted to give her what she needed, but it was tough to know what that was.

Now, it's pretty easy to know what she needs, but she's much more concerned with what she wants. That's less fun.

This whole developing a personality thing is not as nice as it's cracked up to be. She's becoming her own person. What's worse, the person she's becoming is an awful lot like me. Scary. I'm already encountering so much that I wish were different.

Check that.

I'm encountering so much in her personality that would be easier for me if it was different. That's life, though, right? It only gets worse from here. At some point soon, she'll be a crazed zombie, living in my house and angry about everything. Sooner than I think, I think.

Good thing for me I watched a zombie movie tonight. Warm Bodies wasn't a great movie. It's a love story about zombies. It's not even a great zombie movie.

The message, though, as overt and silly as it is, is simply that love can change the world. The zombies are re-animated, brought back to life; the world is redeemed and restored - through love.

It's cheesy and silly. But so is the gospel. That's really all it is. Love. Love everyone. Love your angry, crying infant daughter. Love her when she acts the same way at fifteen. Love your enemies. Love those who want to kill you and eat your brains. Love them. You never know what might happen. It's foolish and unrealistic and perhaps that's why I like this gospel so much.

(Someone remind me of this post in about 13 years.)

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

So, I heard an NPR story a few weeks back about this movie, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which is soon out, based on a book by the same name. It sounded like a bit of a think-piece/thriller with international diplomacy overtones. Right up my alley!

The next day I saw the book for a dollar at the used book store. I finished it this afternoon.

The book itself was disappointing. The author can turn a phrase and it's interesting enough, but there wasn't the kind of pay-off I expected.

Basically, it's the story of a young Pakistani man who goes to Princeton and becomes a financial analyst in New York and his ultimate disillusion with American life.

If you can get past the often idiotic tropes (the dynamic main character is named "Changez," I kid you not), the core story is, like the Hobbit, one of there and back again. The strangeness of American individualism after a lifetime of group culture and socialization, the freedom and enjoyment of independence and liberty, followed by the hollow emptiness of the same.

The story serves, for most of the novel, as a great picture of the costs and benefits to our compartmentalized modern, western lives. There's a lot of good stuff there to both think on and discuss.

Towards the end, there is a fantastic quote:

Such journeys have convinced me that it is not always possible to restore one's boundaries after they have been blurred and made permeable by a relationship: try as we might, we cannot reconstitute ourselves as the autonomous beings we previously imagined ourselves to be.

At some point, as we seek to self-determine our future, we encounter the limitations of such a personal vision. I'm sure there's an equivalent in Pakistani society or anywhere else - it's not necessarily an American or Western phenomenon. In the end, we are in this thing together, whether we like it or not.

We are not just whole people (with permeable barriers between our physical, spiritual, work, home, school, family, private, and public lives), but we are part of a larger whole. The "fundamentals" in the title refer to the essential parts of a project or a person or a culture, the things that make it real.

In the midst of a world obsessed with every detail but the fundamental ones, there is a yearning for something different. I'm not sure what the book was trying to say in the end - I'm not sure there was ever any revelation of true fundamentals - but I do believe they're out there and they have to do with more than individual or cultural or political identities.

I can't say it any better than the quote does - so here it is again:

Such journeys have convinced me that it is not always possible to restore one's boundaries after they have been blurred and made permeable by a relationship: try as we might, we cannot reconstitute ourselves as the autonomous beings we previously imagined ourselves to be.