The Question I am most often asked

It is understandable during the present era for people to change churches and whole denominations without so much as a glance from someone else. If a person prefers attending a new church rather than the one in which he or she has been brought up, then there is little or no controversy. After all church membership and attendance are matters of personal preference today.
This attitude changes to some degree if one’s new church differs significantly in religious practice or theological outlook from one’s previous church. A person who is in an independent church joins the Roman Catholic Church or the Unitarian Universalist Church may raise some eyebrows back home. The leaders of the independent church may grouse a little just as it would happen if the membership move went the other direction. But, for the most part, Christian believers would shrug and ask, “what does it matter?” Now I can reveal the question I am most often asked.
“Why (or how) did you go from being a minister in the churches of Christ to being a United Methodist pastor?” I have had several joking replies to this question over the years. But, it is truly a serious question because implied within it are multiple questions about leadership, prejudice, theology, and practice. The question itself forgets the present era’s attitude. It does not allow me to say, “I like it better” which is what most people could say without further inquiry. I do not get away with it. Sometimes my answer is a biographical one. I tell the story of my faith journey. I do not wish to do that here.
I want to say that I changed because I looked for meaning in my life. What does it mean to be a Christian? This is the question I ask myself and God. My own faith journey is bent on answering that question if only for my own edification. There are pitfalls to answering this question that take us away from the issue of meaning.
The first pitfall is fundamentalism. The churches of Christ practice a form of Christian fundamentalism that allows a believer to assume he or she has arrived to truth. All forms of religious fundamentalism are essentially anti-religious and anti-spirituality because of the intention to provide answers without giving any sense of meaning to a person’s life. There is a “do this and that” or “believe this and not that” attitude that divorces the believer from reality and the collective human experience. The other day I was told about an argument a fundamentalist christian began with an educator at the Tennessee Aquarium over whether or not a species of fish could be 350,000,000 years old if the earth is only a few thousand years old. The Christian fundamentalist considers it an article of faith to avoid being connected to the world of reason and experience. Therefore there is no true meaning for such a person in this life. A psychology of total fantasy about the world that because of some doctrines leads a person into dark fantasies that are always at odds with other people and destructive. Such a believer must have the world fit into the framework and therefore bends not only natural science but history, sociology, psychology, medicine, theology, and philosophy to fit the fantasy. Even the Bible cannot be read in any way other than an approved method that fits the doctrine. So no meaning comes from such an attitude.
The second pitfall is the doctrine of christian history being little more than the story of abuse and apostasy. This doctrine holds that the true church disappeared from history with (one assumes) a few pockets of faithful resistance in some places (no one is quite sure where). Ironically, this is that actual beginning of all christian heresy. When the Christian Church is viewed as a monolithic entity in this world, it is easy to point to times of lax moral standards, theological insight, and little Biblical compassion as though these are proofs that the Church is somehow false. Yet, when we view the Christian Church as saved sinners we can understand without condoning the human and sinful actions that happen. Therefore, there is no meaning for the believer because his or her connection to the spiritual and moral development of the faith is lost.
The third pitfall is the lack of understanding of real working theology. By this I mean “knowing God.” If God is an eternal being, then we mortal beings cannot hope to fully define God. Even when we try to characterize God as “omni- something” we fall short of the glory that belongs to God. Biblical writers knew they would never get God defined. Phrases applied to Jesus that reflect divinity are titles human rulers gave themselves. “King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Son of God, Savior of the World, My Lord and My God, are all absolute terms that are more applicable to the Divine nature of the Messiah than to all the human pretenders who were/are mortal and finite.
The true meaningful Christianity we need goes far beyond the notion of personal preference and the pitfalls I have described toward a life that is really working with God, the Bible, and the Christian Church as it exists. So the answer to the question I am often asked, is that I am searching for the answer of what it means to be a Christian.

What I Do and How I Do It.

No one in his or her right mind wants my job. That is why only the called ones should do it. We clergy types are the true rebels. We are counter-cultural. If the culture wants to ignore the needs of those who are truly in need, we step in to help. If the culture preachers that salvation is found in social approval, we preach salvation is by the grace of God. If the culture claims God is only alive when we want God’s help, we claim Christ is Risen. If the culture says “give us a sure word we want to hear,” we proclaim God’s truths are higher than our own thoughts.

The role of the clergy person, pastor, deacon, teacher, elder, minister, or whatever we may be called by others is to live and embody the words of God in this world. We are to be prophets. Not fortune-tellers but those who know the way of the world is doomed to death and destruction. The paths we take to our incessant desires and indulgences help to destroy everything God has done.  We are to be prophetic physicians who proclaim the world and its’ people can be healed.  It is indeed God’s purpose to do so.

How I attempt to fulfill this ministry is by getting involved in the community around the church and calling the church to do the same. Through Soddy Daisy Food Bank I help feed the poor. The Soddy Daisy Ministerial Association is designed to help the other clergy in town. I keep an office where people may come and share whatever they are feeling. I practice friendship with the people I meet. I attempt to keep the way to God open for any who wish to find grace.

And yet most of what I try to say and do are not followed by others. Most Christians are distracted. Personally, I try to avoid this by not being a multi-tasker. I do not believe in having unrelated irons in the fire. I am a one-trick pony. I practice a sense of Buddhist mindfulness in the task at hand. I do one thing at a time.  Yes, I know that the world does not work that way. So what? I am looking for the world’s ways to work right just once.

I am suspicious of the term “relevance.” Does this mean finding a way I like? Does it mean being something shallow, vacuous, and phony so other people can be shallow, vacuous, and phony? Could it be that I am supposed to give approval to attitudes that I know are false, wrong, and self-indulgent?

When I see Christians who have no need to make a living being consumed by things that are not God, I know how the church has lost the young people who are “busy” with so many other activities that they wonder if God is even real. “If God makes no difference in the lives of such believers, may be there isn’t one,” they seem to say.

The Church, even the local congregation, is not an end in itself. It is a community being transformed to the kingdom of God. If it is anything else, then it is dead and unfruitful for the kingdom of God.

Perhaps, I should be asking myself, “Why I do it?” I know the answer. Too many others are not hearing God. I must speak and act. So should we all.