Posts Tagged ‘kingdom people’

John Meunier

As a part-time local pastor in the United Methodist Church, my drive to church is longer than most ordained clergy. Like many part-time pastors, I serve a church many miles from my home. It takes about 30 minutes to drive to worship on Sunday morning.

During that drive, I pass many churches. Some are small churches like the one I serve. Some are much larger. For a couple weeks, one I pass had a water slide and an inflatable bounce house set up in its parking lot. We are a people who love church so much, it seems, that we put them down everywhere we can find some open real estate.

Which gets me thinking about why the world needs the little church I serve. The 25 or so people who worship there every week could easily be absorbed by other congregations. Why does God need Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church?

The answer, of course, can only be found among the members of the congregation. It is found as we gather together on Sunday to offer healing prayers around our piano player whose sore back is acting up. It is found as the choir ladies – all half dozen of them – sing a Communion hymn. It is found as members gather after worship for Bible Study. It is found as a church member shares with the congregation a way they can help a boy in town who need dialysis.

It turns out that God often works among the few. Jesus Christ shows up with a rag-tag bunch of a dozen. God gets rid of all the extra soldiers because it would not bring him as much glory if Gideon were to win the day at the head of a mighty host.

By every rational standard of efficiency and wise organization, these tiny churches make no sense at all. For whatever reason, though, God appears to love these little Gideon churches. He has so many of them. And thank God for that.

Last month was Black History Month. Along with invitations from several African American communities, I was given the opportunity to speak at Bethel Seminary in San Diego. They invited me as the Black History Month speaker. I used to be better at accepting that invitation and then presenting the gospel in sermon. But with my current title of Associate Dean for Black Church Studies at the Divinity School at Duke University, I am torn between which message is appropriate to deliver.

While the gospel is always and anywhere a timely message, it may be another year before some will look straight on at the devastating reality born of racism. Still, I find it hard to expect that the mere reporting of historical practices of apartheid and segregation, oppression and discrimination, or exclusion and inequality will result in changed behavior. If so, the world would already be a very different place. Books line the shelves. The list of contributors is long: Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Booker T. Washington, Benjamin Mays, Richard Wright, Martin Luther King,  Malcolm X, John Hope Franklin, Maya Angelou, Nell Irvin Painter, Nikki Giovanni, Valerie Bridgeman, John Perkins, William Pannell, Thomas C. Holt, Henry Louis Gates, and Cornel West. And that’s only the names of those African Americans most would recognize. So many other scholars have provided a record of the wrongs, hopes, and possibilities on the topic of Black History. It’s not that the information is unavailable.

It may be the difficulty of trying to process the onerous information. How does one receive a history that rehearses repeated actions and attitudes of oppression and discrimination? Should the audience nod in agreement with the descriptions that indeed are horrific or shake their heads in dispute at the proposal they participate in such behaviors? Denial on the part of the listener suggests deceitfulness on the part of the presenter. Now both hearer and speaker take positions of defensiveness, each trying to maintain a semblance of dignity born of integrity. Feelings of antagonism give rise to the very division between so-called racial groups that the event seeks to dismantle. It is difficult to recognize the habits and practices I do without thinking are in fact perpetuating the very reality I think is wrong.

Or maybe, the problem is an unwillingness to acknowledge the institutional structures that enable continued division and misunderstanding across racial lines. Can we recognize the difficulty of supporting an economic system based on privately owned businesses when hurdles abound for African Americans whose access to financial backing and prime real estate was only insured less than 50 years ago? By then White America already owned and controlled the majority of this country’s wealth. As well-established businesses struggle in the failing economy, the harder hit will of course effect less established minority businesses. It is difficult to see that the very way we do things, the very way we’ve always done things, may in fact be wrong.

Can we acknowledge that most of our images of racial difference continue to actually characterize economic and intellectual difference? The projected Black culture continues to suggest aborted education, broken English, and deficit economics define the African American experience. Portrayals of affluence within the African American community seems limited to entertainers and sports celebrities. Condoleezza Rice’s status as an African American hero is criticized because of ideological differences and the disrespect of President Barak Obama too often suggests blatant racism as well as partisan politics. We don’t seem to know how to describe racial diversity within cultural sameness and won’t describe cultural difference without drawing attention to racial identity.

And there’s the rub. The very fact that I choose to speak of race in this blog, highlights the problem. I could have kept silent by writing only the paragraph below. But in order to truly wrestle with what we believe about the power of God to transform the world, I wanted to present a real conundrum. I use race because as a Christian, now living in the south, I am convinced that the most insidious effects of sin in our culture can be made evident in the practices of racism. Just as sin pervades human nature, racism permeates our culture. As an African American, living in the 21st century, I experience the effects of exclusion in the past as inequality in the present. And my experience of racism has been the least of all compared to most.

So I begin again.

While it may be another year before some will look straight on at the devastating reality born of racism, the gospel is always and anywhere a timely message. I remain convinced that the transformation of this world will result only when the followers of Christ practice a radical Christianity of repentance, reconciliation, and justice.

That change will come only when the presence of the Holy Spirit enables us to admit that injustice exists in the way we legislate healthcare, grant citizenship, imprison lawbreakers, employ personnel, and educate youth. That change will come only by knowing the intention of God for his people to love their neighbors (and so-called enemies). That change will come only when we practice community as a living example of holiness. That change will come only when we in the church realize our practices of good are not civil or even moral responsibilities but demonstrations of what the world will look like when God’s kingdom comes on earth. And to admit that, to know that, to practice that, to realize that requires a scriptural imagination born of familiarity with the biblical revelation that in Christ God is actively reconciling this world to himself.

I guess that’s why I think it is always appropriate to teach and preach the revelation of God in Scripture.

It’s been a long time! Thanks to everybody for hanging in there with Next Step during this down time. Actually down time isn’t really the best descriptor because the past months have been incredibly busy & productive. My PhD work continues – I’m at the halfway mark…Hooray! There IS light at the end of the tunnel & the good news is I don’t think it’s an oncoming train.

More important than the PhD work is what God’s been doing behind the scenes at Next Step. That’s the way God seems to work in my life – behind the scenes. Preveniently is how I like to describe it – bringing people & ideas together in an exciting way that I never could have orchestrated on my own.

The most obvious result of all this behind the scenes work is the newly redesigned website. I’m still exploring it myself! And of course it’s a work in progress so it will definitely change & take more shape as we continue to tweak it. Your comments are welcome as we work to make it the best site possible.

Of course the website only reflects all the real life ministry opportunities that have been unfolding during these past few months. I hope you’ll take the time to explore the site & the various new initiatives we’ve launched. To get you started, I want to describe a few of the most exciting things happening at Next Step.

First, we’ve expanded! Kelly Falany Brumbeloe has joined me as an Associate Director. Kelly is a graduate of Asbury Seminary & serves in the North Georgia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. She lives in Marietta, Georgia – gotta love the whole telecommuting thing! Kelly will be blogging & has already begun speaking & teaching. She’s also an integral part of two of the initiatives I’m excited to tell you about. Read on…

Next Step’s mission remains the same – to train, encourage & challenge Christ followers to live more fully as committed disciples of the Jesus way, to share their faith with greater love & boldness, & to impact their world with greater courage and integrity on behalf of Jesus Christ. With that in mind we’ve created the Discipleship Connection Project to provide a point of intersection between theological scholarship & individual Christ followers. We’re going to be partnering with outstanding leaders from universities and seminaries across the world in order to offer online & webcast resources & teaching to deepen & strengthen Christian faith. This is incredibly exciting & I hope you’ll consider participating when we’re up & running. We’ll keep you posted on our progress & the official launch!

The second project I’d like to let you in on is Next Step’s Justice & Mercy Initiative. One of the hallmarks of a Wesleyan approach to Christian faith is the intimate connection between personal & social holiness. John Wesley even asserted that you can’t have one without the other. The Justice & Mercy Initiative will provide hands on teaching & other events so that Christ followers can experience in a dynamic way how these two aspects of the Jesus way come together.

Finally, as you navigate the new site, you’ll notice the opportunity to support Next Step in more deliberate ways. From its beginning, Next Step has been a self-sustaining ministry, existing simply on revenue generated through speaking & teaching. Now God has placed some exciting opportunities before us; but they’ll be impossible without additional support. Many of you have been faithful in your prayers & your spiritual, emotional & intellectual support of Next Step. I hope you’ll consider expanding that support to the financial arena as well. As we finalize the site, you’ll be able to make one time gifts or provide monthly support through our Sustaining Partners program.

These are exciting times for Next Step! Thanks again for sticking it out through all the silent web time – rest assured, it won’t be silent anymore!

Yesterday was an amazing day! Historic. So many vivid memories it’s hard to process. There’ve been plenty of people dissecting all the symbolism so I won’t go there. But two images stand out for me. They’re not profound really but illustrate for me this feeling of ‘new day’ that so many people have been talking about. The first is Little Sasha giving her new president dad a thumbs up after he took the oath. The second was the sea of cell phones & digital cameras that lit up the room as the President & First Lady entered the Youth Ball. For me, those two images round out the whole new day concept pretty nicely.

As I return to the routine of my studies & work, the words of Elizabeth Alexander’s Inaugural Poem, Praise Song for the Day, stay with me.

Praise song for the day.
Each day we go about our business,
walking past each other,
catching each others’ eyes or not,
about to speak or speaking.
All about us is noise.
All about us is noise and bramble,
thorn and din,
each one of our ancestors on our tongues.
Someone is stitching up a hem,
darning a hole in a uniform,
patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.
Someone is trying to make music somewhere
with a pair of wooden spoons on an oil drum
with cello, boom box, harmonica, voice.
A woman and her son wait for the bus.
A farmer considers the changing sky;
A teacher says, “Take out your pencils. Begin.”
We encounter each other in words,
words spiny or smooth,
whispered or declaimed;
words to consider, reconsider.
We cross dirt roads and highways that mark
the will of someone
and then others who said,
“I need to see  what’s on the other side;
I know there’s something better
down the road.”
We need to find a place where we are safe;
We walk into that which we cannot yet see.
Say it plain, that many have died for this day.
Sing the names of the dead
who brought us here,
who laid the train tracks, raised the bridges,
picked the cotton and the lettuce,
built brick by brick the glittering edifices
they would then keep clean
and work inside of.
Praise song for struggle;
praise song for the day.
Praise song for every hand-lettered sign;
The figuring it out at kitchen tables.
Some live by “Love thy neighbor as thy self.”
Others by first do no harm,
or take no more than you need.
What if the mightiest word is love,
love beyond marital, filial, national.
Love that casts a widening pool of light.
Love with no need to preempt grievance.
In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air,
anything can be made, any sentence begun.
On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp — praise
song for walking forward in that light.

On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp – anything can be made, any sentence begun. For this to truly be a new day, it will have to be about more than President Obama. It will have to be about each of us. What will we make? What new sentence will we begin?