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June 23, 2013
Recently, I’ve heard Leonard Sweet ask two different groups, “In 2017, should we celebrate the birth of Protestantism or its death?”
Here are my thoughts after a lengthy tour of colleges in Cambridge which were founded by Christians advocating learning and scholarship. A good bit also comes from conversations with Len as well as our group advances.
May 31, 2013
For a long time, I would feel guilty because certain things seem to come easy to me. It felt as if I was cheating because my own natural talents allowed me to do certain things faster and better than others. It also made it much easier to slack off on certain things…or at least I thought it did.
However, during a recent conversation with some good friends I was reminded of Sunday’s Scripture from Romans 5. Here is a portion, “We also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
I’d found out the word boast, in this context, may be paraphrased to mean “lift up to God as an offering.” And now the light bulb has gone off once more.
Only in recent years have I been more open about my personal medical problems. None of them are life threatening but they do make it difficult for me to do certain things. It’s only by an act of grace that I can sit down with others for a few hours without having to get up. I also have other issues, that for someone in my profession, make it much more difficult.
So, while thinking on the Romans passage, I have to say my natural gifts…those things granted to me by God…are necessary. Without them, I’d never be able to do anything. I’ve also found that pride takes over and I attribute these gifts to myself when my health is going great.
So, this suffering of illness has led me to endurance and has helped increase my character. My illness has helped me hone my natural gifts and spend more time making strange and often synchronistic connections.
In the end, I take these talents and gifts and “boast” in them by giving them back to God as an offering. Ever remembering that the treasures I’ve been gifted with are not to be hoarded but shared with the world around me.
April 25, 2013
Lent is not too far behind us and we are in the midst of the Easter Season. It’s quite an interesting time because the Bishop of the Memphis Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, Bill McAlilly, has called us to forty days of prayer before our Annual Conference.
For those of you who don’t know what an Annual Conference is, it’s a general meeting of United Methodist ministers and church leaders that occurs every year. We go over budgets for our area, clergy appointments, and a variety of other things. Honestly, it seems to me to be a lot of boring meetings with a few sermons squeezed in to try and keep us awake during business sessions. (Oxymoron, anyone?) There is a Bible study or two but I often spend this time catching up with colleagues. Hooo, boy, brutal honesty here, right? Hopefully, the Bishop doesn’t read my blog….
So, the Bishop has called me to prayer before Annual Conference and I don’t like it. I’ve just gotten through Lent where I really experienced some great things and now I’m being asked to intentionally pray for another 40 days? And I’m being asked to pray for a conference I find boring?
My heart grumbles and moans at this but since the Bishop has went to the trouble to put together a prayer guide on his daily blog, I can at least look at it. After all, he’s in my blog stream so maybe this will help me out, right? Plus, it is using the same technology which has really helped my devotional life so I guess I will go for it. Heck, it even seems he is using guest bloggers so it should have some variety.
So, here I am at Day Two of this time of prayer and this is the question that comes up in the blog:
When was the last time you felt bathed in God’s majestic presence? When was the last time you recognized God’s presence in the ordinary, mundane circumstances of day-to-day living?
And I don’t like it…at least the first half of the question. In fact, the story shared made me feel out of sync with God. I tried to remember one of those majestic moments and nothing recently came up. Oh, I’ve shared how God has graciously provided for me of late and there was definitely a sense of the Divine Presence but nothing so grand and majestic as described in the article.
My thing is that, for some time now, I’ve been finding God in the most mundane of places and events. It hasn’t been any great or overwhelming feeling of presence but, rather, a sure and steady recognition of presence in the world around me.
A Kindergarten Teacher at Play
As I read Reverend Bettye Lewis on the Bishop’s blog today, I began thinking about where I’ve seen God’s presence most recently and I began to remember yesterday evening. My wife, Kindergarten teacher supreme, purchases caterpillars for her class every year so her children can watch them eat their food, spin a chrysalis, and then transform into butterflies. It’s an amazing and wonderful thing and she is often known as the “Butterfly Lady” because of it. (I remember one year when she took our daughter to a butterfly release and their picture was in the local paper. She’s been doing this for some time.)
This year my wife did something I don’t remember her doing in the past. She bought an extra set of caterpillars and kept them at home. She’s been showing it to our 3.9674 year old son and, last evening, she took the chrysalis’ out of their little tub and put them into their butterfly garden. When they come out of their cocoon, we will be able to see their beautiful wings open up.
It was a wonderful time and, as a minister, I find it filled with wonderful metaphor. I mean, come on, it’s Easter season. This is a simple one, right? I should go into the story of death and rebirth. Isn’t this a resurrection? At the very least, it’s a transformation. We see this when the caterpillar becomes a butterfly so, naturally, this is where any preacher should go.
Where did I see God in this moment? Did I see God in the miracle of a transforming caterpillar? No, in this most extraordinarily mundane moment, I saw God in my wife’s smile and my son’s curiosity. Yes, it’s that simple. No real deep metaphor or super spiritual statement. Just the joy my wife has in doing the same thing year after year. She’s never bored with it and loves watching it every time. Her excitement never wanes. My son is seeing this for the first time and I’m amazed at his gentleness and curiosity. In these moments, I find God looking back at me and asking me, “Derek, where is your curiosity? Where is your gentleness? Where is your excitement in the ebb and flow of daily life?”
I’m not bowled over by God’s presence but I’m humbled by the questions that arise in my heart. I’m not sent to my knees weeping tears of repentance nor am I jumping to my feet shouting and full of joy. I’m just sitting back and smiling knowing that God is right there in the room with me smiling back through the eyes of my family.
Thank you, Jesus.
April 5, 2013
Ministry and Community in a Digital Age
What I’m about to share with you brings me both joy and sadness. Joy in the story I’m sharing and sadness because it still needs to be shared. For the last few years, I have been hearing a number of ministerial leaders talk about “unplugging” from Facebook, Twitter, and other various forms of social media. The reasons often given go something like this, “Real community isn’t being built,” or “Social media is a waste of a good minister’s time.” (I don’t quite get that last bit. If it’s a waste of a good minister’s time, does that mean it’s NOT a waste of a bad minister’s time?)
For those of you who have come to know me over the years, I take such things rather personally. I’ve been actively online since 1994 and from the beginning I became a part of a variety of emerging online communities. Over the last twenty years, a number of the people I’ve met online have gone out of their way to meet me face-to-face and I’ve done the same thing. Many have shared the joys of marriage, the birth of children and grandchildren, as well as many other normal joys found in our lives. Quite a few have also shared the sorrow of losing a spouse, a parent, and/or a beloved friend. In many cases, I’ve stayed in touch with these people online much more readily than my own family.
I should pause and mention I’m doing better at staying in touch with my family now that they’ve become more active online. When I talk to my older brother and try and update him on what’s going in my life, he tells me one of his children has already shared some of it with him because of my Facebook updates.
Now that we have these connections established, let’s talk about cake and community in the digital age. A number of months back, I was sitting in front of my computer screen when a post popped up by one of my parishioners.* She said that she was in need of a cat carrier and wondered if anyone might have one they’d be willing to loan her. I immediately responded that I had one and would be happy to bring it to her. She sent me a message and asked when I could bring it. I replied, “Is now okay?”
She agreed and my wife and I drove to her home. It’s not a long drive since she only lives half a mile away. When we arrived, I noticed she did not seem to be feeling well and openly wondered why she was still in town as she normally leaves the area for a warmer climate during the winter months. She then shared with my wife and me some physical problems that had arisen. This particular ailment was keeping her at home for the most part and she wanted the cat carrier as she was getting a kitty to keep her company.
As we talked, I mentioned that I found it providential to have come across her post on Facebook, as I would not have known otherwise. In fact, I most likely would have made that fatal ministerial error of assumption. That is, until otherwise alerted, I would have assumed everything was all right. After mentioning Facebook, this wonderful lady then said the most marvelous thing, “I’ve found Facebook to be full of spiritual people.”
She then proceeded to talk about a number of faith conversations she would have online and then shared a rather surprising and engaging story with me. (First, I must preface this by saying a few things. One, this lady of whom I am speaking is in her mid to late 80s; two, she is an early adopter; and three, I pastor two churches a little over five miles apart. The importance of the last will become clearer as I go on.)
Her story began by mentioning a number of conversations she’d had with a lady who attends the other church I pastor. The friend from the other church is in her late 50s or early 60s and, like the one battling illness, is also single. She then proceeded to talk about how they had begun to develop a really good friendship. In fact, one day when she wasn’t feeling quite well her online and face-to-face neighbor stopped by and they had cake. If I’m remembering right, they had a two-hour conversation concerning the difficulties of living the single life.
This may not seem like much to some of you but for these two ladies it was a very meaningful experience. I also found it to be a very powerful story for a number of reasons. As someone who pastors two churches, it has been my experience that people in separate congregations often do not spend much time together even when the churches share a pastor. Second, these are two people many would think are not in the “internet demographic.” People, especially ministers, often think that the digital age is the domain of the young but that’s just not true. It is a place where two grown women have used social media to do just that…. be social! There is so much people of all ages could learn from them.
In reflecting back on this story, I can see how God’s prevenient grace is at work. Yes, lots of coincidences could have occurred but I see someone powerful behind it all. I just happened to be on Facebook at the right moment for this to come across my feed and this person just happened to have a story to share with me showing something very powerful about social media. Yes, I believe the Spirit will guide us into divine encounters through online engagement when we are open to such things.
In these moments, I get to see a piece of community built between two people who may not have the opportunity to interact without this medium we call the internet. Two people who found it easier to begin faith discussions online and they let this carry over into real life.
I’m sharing this story because I want us to build real communities. Virtual communities that lead to face-to-face communities and face-to-face communities that lead to virtual ones. This life is about connection. We connect to one another and, in doing so; we connect God to all of the lives we touch.
I hope you will share this blog with all of your friends. If you’re a part of a church, I hope you’re using this medium to the best of your ability and continue to do so.
*Both of these church members have given me permission to share this story but I’ve left out their names to give them a bit of privacy. Those who live in the area will know who they are and that’s what matters the most.
March 30, 2013
While Jesus lay in the grave, the world still turned, children played, families sat down to eat, and life went on as usual.
How do we live this day? Do we see Jesus wrestling with death and hell? Knowing what we know, do we expectantly wait for tomorrow?
Today I will eat, laugh, play, and enjoy life knowing that my Lord is wrestling on my behalf with death and hell because, unlike those of old, I wait expectantly knowing what is to come.
March 25, 2013
On the first day of Holy Week, our true Lord began His Triumphal Entry.
On the second day of Holy Week, our true Lord made the sellers in the Temple flee.
On the third day of Holy Week, our true Lord made them guess at His authority.
On the fourth day of Holy Week, our true Lord condemned religious hypocrisy.
On the fifth day of Holy Week, our true Lord sat down and ate with His enemy.
On the sixth day of Holy Week, our True Lord suffered a violent death that echoes throughout eternity.
On the seventh day of Holy Week, our True Lord lay in the dark grave silent as can be.
ON THE EIGHTH DAY OF HOLY WEEK, OUR RESURRECTED LORD BURST FORTH FROM THE TOMB FOR ALL TO SEE!
Derek W. White
Holy Week 2013
February 28, 2013
Recently, I have been reading quite a few books on leadership for my doctoral program. It’s been quite interesting as I have been to leadership conferences over the years as well as read a number of books and articles on this topic. My Bachelor’s Degree is in Organizational Management so it’s safe to say I’m pretty familiar with most leadership models used in the business world as well as the ones used in churches. (Big surprise: They’re often the same.)
If you’ve taken a science class or watched educational videos along the way, you’re probably familiar with osmosis. It’s when water passes through one membrane into another to achieve balance. However, it’s also used to describe the “process of gradual or unconscious assimilation of ideas and/or knowledge.” This is the way most leadership seems to work in both the church and the world around us. We spend time around great leaders, we read their books, go to their seminars, and hopefully we will assimilate their methods or principles into our lives.
My views on leadership have begun to change due to one simple sentence written by Leonard Sweet in his book I Am a Follower. It reads, “Christians are called to live by faith in a world that lives by fame.” When I came across this sentence, I immediately posted it on Twitter and it became one of my most retweeted posts. (For those who don’t use Twitter, this means quite a few people sent this message out to their friends.) It also made me reevaluate many of the leadership models I’ve come across over the years. Most of them are personality based and this has bothered me for some time but I’ve not addressed it as often as I should.
Well, it’s time to stop. Stop practicing an osmosis form of leadership in the church. It’s time to put behind us a model of leadership which says find the biggest, the flashiest, and the shiniest and try to have them rub off on us. It’s time to quit trying to get someone else’s Christian fame to permeate our lives and look for something different.
When thinking about leadership, one nice theological word comes to mind: kenosis. All these years of theological study and I get to use one of those thousand dollar words. (Yeah, with the price of seminary, these words end up costing quite a bit.) What does it mean? On a theological level it simply means, “The relinquishment of the form and power of God when Jesus became human, suffered and died.” The basis for this idea is found in Philippians 2:6-8, “[Christ] though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”
So, Jesus emptied Himself. What does that mean? It means that Jesus walked in the power of His humanity and humbled Himself. This is the man who washed the feet of His followers and touched lepers and outcasts. This is how Jesus led…by following the will of His Father and serving others. It also means that everything Jesus did was in the power of God’s Spirit. This is the wonder of it all.
Now, here is where it gets tough. We often have two types of people in the church. People who want to lead so they might have a little fame or power to stand out front or ones that believe they’re unable to lead but they’re very happy to support others. According to the model promoted by American culture, this is the way it’s supposed to be. According to Jesus, we must turn our models upside down!
Kenotic Leadership means we must humble ourselves and follow Christ even if it means sitting on the sidelines. This Jesus leadership also means we should find the most humble people doing the work behind the scenes and follow them as they follow Jesus. It’s not going to be an easy job so I’m looking for some people who would like to walk with me along this way. I want to be a follower of Jesus and I find that He appears amongst those who are the most humble, loving servants we might ever find.
So, who is ready to empty themselves for Jesus?
God’s Best Always and in All Ways,
February 19, 2013
I recently read a short blurb on Twitter which mentioned how important it is for religious leaders to use social media because, if you’re not online, you don’t exist to anyone under thirty. This reminded me of a discussion I had with my friend Joey Reed concerning Facebook, Twitter, and various other social media and how people of faith use them.
First, I’d like to point out every bit of new communication technology has had its detractors. From the Guttenberg press granting the unclean masses the ability to learn above their station to television rotting the minds of our children, complaints have been loud and forceful. It’s the same way with social media and the Internet.
Interestingly enough, the complaints about modern communications echo those of the past. I’ve met a number of educators, teachers, and religious leaders who complain about the availability of information on the Internet. Many whom I’ve met have been annoyed that anyone (the unclean masses) is able to learn without the need of a traditional lecturer. Some, it would seem, are upset because it takes them out of a position of power. They are no longer the arbiters of knowledge able to hand it out as some special mystical gift to the “chosen ones.”
Others complain that social media is ruining the minds of our children. It keeps them online too much. They’re engaged with online activities to such a degree they’re not able to interact with “the real world.” It sounds exactly like the same thing my parents told me when I was a child. “Derek,” they would say, “you keep playing those video games and watching TV all the time your brain is going to fall out and you won’t know how to deal with other people.” My mom is gone now and the Technological Age has left my father behind. I love them both very much and they were right about a number of things but, on this, they were very wrong.
Now, don’t misunderstand me. Both of these areas do need direction and guidance. For example, we need to be effective guides who will show others how to find good sources in a world of free information. As web 1.0 came on the scene, I learned the hard way that there was a great deal of horrible information out and about. Much of it was deliberate misinformation because geeks and nerds such as myself love to mess with people’s heads.
In the areas of consuming media, we have to also teach people how to be discerning. This is one reason I’m studying signs and symbols. I’m a huge believer in grace and try my best to see God in what would be considered by some the darkest and dirtiest corners of what is often loosely referred to as entertainment. I do not recommend this for everyone. In fact, I don’t even recommend it to myself where everything is concerned. There are some things even I’m not ready to handle.
With this in mind, those of us who would be guides in the world around us must first learn that we are no longer the sole fonts of wisdom and knowledge. Next, we need to learn how to see God’s goodness everywhere. We are called to walk with others as we discover those symbols of God, which are often grossly distorted, and tease them out. Then we should also be willing to point out those things that aren’t so nice.
For example, I recently came across an article about the Israeli soldier who posted a picture of a child in the cross hairs of a sniper rifle. This is bad. Very bad. In fact, it’s ugly and horrible and made me, as a father of two, want to scream. This horror needs to be brought out into the open, named, and shamed.
So, where do I see God in this situation? Where can I find good in this even a bit? It took some time to find it but it happened. The good I found, first and foremost, was the number of outraged people who made an uproar about it. The fact human beings were disgusted about it showed me a God working in and through people who find this horrifying. I was also reminded of another Israeli guy who, in opposition to his culture, took up the cause of the weak and the outcast. He stood against the mistreatment of children even though others would later abuse them in His name.
In the end, social media is just another form of communication. If you are a Christian who doesn’t see a need for it, then I’d suggest you don’t like the idea of the Day of Pentecost as outlined in the Book of Acts. Many people see this story as one about “speaking in tongues” and all other kinds of crazy things but, at its heart, it’s a story about communication. The ability of a small group of people to communicate with a much larger one. On a theological level, it also is a promise that the whole Tower of Babel thing has come to an end.
From where I’m sitting, I can see the rise of the Internet as a new Day of Pentecost for many Christians. It will allow a few, small voices to be heard around the world and allow us to speak with people of all nations and tribes. It allows us to build new friendships and share our lives with one another. And, who knows, maybe we can even walk over the Interwebz together as we discover the grace of God in this strange, amazing, and changing landscape.
February 11, 2013
When I look around most mainline churches, I find everyone looks pretty much the same. Most people come from similar economic and cultural backgrounds and have many of the same peers. It reminds of Clone Wars from the Star Wars series. Maybe the church should be suing Lucas…it’s had this idea for a much longer time. I just thought mainline denominations such as my own would be better at it because we’re more “liberal” and “open.”
Recently, I was at a minister’s meeting and a missions strategist in our denomination began to talk about something near and dear to my geeky heart. A powerful moment occurred when he asked the church members present, “Are you willing to allow people with piercings and tattoos into your congregation?” That question, powerful though it be, brought out my cynical side as I turned to a colleague and whispered, “When are we going to be willing to let ministers like that in our pulpits?”
You see, my denomination doesn’t have too many freaks and geeks in our pulpits. (At least ones who will admit it.) It’s not a common thing among us though I see it among many people in the “emergent church movement” as well as in many nondenominational churches but there are very few in the United Methodist Church. But we’re the liberal ones, right?
After mulling on this leader’s statements, I began to talk with other colleagues. Many of them shared stories of how they’d been told not to wear an earring or nose ring. Some mentioned how they’d been taken aside and informed it would “be best” if their tattoos remained covered.
Then it hit me…I’m not the only one! Yes, I’ve got some ink (rather recent I might add) and have had my ears pierced for over 25 years. I’m not ashamed of it. It’s a part of who I am. Everything has a meaning and memory behind it. The sum of these parts of my past and present inform who I will be in the future.
And this is why I find my journey difficult…I look around my denomination and other mainline churches and wonder, “Where are my people? Where are the freaks and geeks?” I realize I’m missing the outsider, the one who is different, the one who is estranged and then it dawns on me…my people aren’t here. I’m a missionary to a culture in which I didn’t grow up and I want to find a way to bring these two strange, different worlds together.
How do I begin doing it? I’m not sure. I think I’ll start by asking some of my strange, odd friends who don’t go to church because everyone looks the same.
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January 28, 2013
Recently I was at a meeting where my District Superintendent was speaking. He told all present that over the next few months he would be asking the ministers in our district about their devotional lives. Honestly, I was pleased with this question because this is something I have been thinking upon for some time now. It is a question that I’ve wrestled with over the years because, honestly, I wasn’t very good at it.
I am looking at my bookshelf and see many devotional books I’ve purchased over the years. One of the most famous is, “My Utmost for His Highest” by Oswald Chambers and the other is “The Complete Works of EM Bounds on Prayer.” I remember when I first bought these books and tried to read through them. For some reason, they never quite seemed to work. It was as if something in the format didn’t work well with me. (I’ve come to realize part of the reason is they’re not conversational in tone. I’ll elaborate on the rest of it further along.)
I just couldn’t “get into it” and I would feel guilty after a few days went by and I had not read them. I tried other books over the years and some of them came from a very different theological bent than my own while others lined right up with the way I approached Scripture. Yet, during all this time, I thought I could never put together a consistent devotional time.
A few months back, I decided to try something different and I purchased some Anglican prayer beads. I found them to be very helpful in focusing my prayer life but I also realized, as usual, I would do it for a few days and then fall away from using them. Then, as in the past, guilt would come running into the door of my mind smiling and saying, “You’re not much of a Christian and definitely not much of a preacher. You #$%@ hypocrite!” (Yes, that’s the way my guilt talks to me. He’s not a very nice fellow.)
So, I decided I was going to fix this by practicing a bit of self-examination. After all, it’s good for someone in my type of work to look at how they spend their time. So, I started to be overtly conscious of how I would spend my days. Well, my morning starts off with me waking up, doing the “normal” things we all do, and then checking my Blog Feeds. The first thing I read is all the Christian writers I follow as well as a few inspirational writers as well. It is my goal to see what they may have posted that morning and examine how it speaks into my life. I ask myself, “What is Jesus saying to me through these writers?” and “How do I apply this to my life, my family, and the life of the church?”
Some of the bloggers I read are Richard Beck, Rachel Held Evans, Seth Godin, and a variety of UMC bloggers. Often, when the Holy Spirit hits me square between the eyes, I pray over the matter and try and find out how I can influence the world around me. The rest of my day is pretty normal. I check my email, log on to Facebook, and answer questions and various prayer needs as they come in. If it is a Monday morning, I also try my best to read over the texts I will be preaching on the next Sunday but I also have to logon to an online avatar based chat for my doctoral program. Chances are I will see what else is on the schedule and, since my calendar usually has a meeting or two during the week, I check on those as well.
In the late afternoon, if I haven’t already done so, I try and plan the evening meal. When my wife gets home, I help her unload the kids from the vehicle and then give them each a hug. (When I can catch them!) My wife then helps me prepare the evening meal because that’s our thing. We like spending this time together. In the evening, my family sits down and eats together unless there is a meeting to attend or I need to visit someone. We pray together, talk about the events of the day, and chase my son Arthur around the table as we try to get him to eat his dinner.
(As an aside, the family meals were started by our daughter, Laurel. One advantage to having a child raised on television was she thought it was “proper” for families to eat together. So, at the age of six, she pointed this out to her obviously improper parents, and since then we make it a practice to eat together. Or, as I like to refer to it, we make it a family spiritual discipline. Now that she’s a teenager she doesn’t always like the idea so I enjoy reminding her she’s the one who came up with the idea! Out of the mouth of babes and all that jazz…)
Some evenings I will take the time to go hang out with some friends and play a game or two. This is my own strange way of practicing outreach. Other times, I may grab a meal with them and share with what God is doing in my life. It’s my hope we grow to the point where they’ll share the same with me.
So, after looking at my life very closely for about two weeks, it hit me. I’m an idiot! I do have a devotional life! It just doesn’t look like what I was taught it was supposed to look like. After all, the “proper” devotional life means reading a few chapters of the Bible every day and praying for at least thirty minutes, right?
My spiritual disciplines are different, yet, when I think about it, they’re the same as many others. Why? Because God has me living in the 21st Century and my practices and personality work were made for these times. For so long I thought the spiritual life was meant to be such a chore, so my enjoyment of reading interesting faith-filled blogs and the pleasure of praying for complete strangers just didn’t seem right. Now, I realize these “disciplines” are not meant to be horribly back breaking but, instead, are to fill our lives with joy.
UPDATE: Someone recently asked where does Scripture play a role in my disciplines. The answer is relatively easy. The majority of Christian writers I read use Scripture and/or cause me to look at certain passages in a fresh light.
Also, I often preach through the Revised Common Lectionary which I read through and try to let it speak into my life on a weekly basis.
So, my friends, what are your spiritual disciplines and how do they look different from others? I hope you will comment on this blog and share them with me. Even if you have more traditional spiritual disciplines please feel free to share them. If you don’t have any, I’d like to hear about them as well.