Bats

Anyone who does not think church is an adventure has never been on Tour de Faith.

Each year, Wesley Foundation’s annual bike trip brings a new set of surprises, from McDonald’s mercy to killer deer to Amish girls on 10-speeds that leave the rest of us in the dust. These serendipities are often as bizarre as they are unplanned. This year, they included flying mammals.

After three days and 140 miles of biking, our 2012 Tour de Faith crew was showing the signs of wear. Most of us moved like particularly anemic zombies, ones with bright red skin and serious personal chafing. An hour after dinner, only pride kept us from going straight to bed.

That, and bats.

The first one emerged after dinner, when most of our group was staking their territory in the fellowship hall of Thomasville United Methodist Church. It made its rounds for a few minutes before someone managed to snag it with a towel and release it outside.

The second was a bit more fiendish. It waited until just before lights out to take flight among us. So worn out were we that it might have gone unnoticed, had not it been for the cry of “Bat!” from one of the men.

Gripped by fatigue, we weren’t quick to process his meaning. We had spent a good portion of the day yelling at one another, things like “Car back!” and “Metal!” and “Bump!” These were clear warnings that required specific (usually evasive) action.

But judging from the various reactions among us, “Bat!” didn’t immediately compute. Some took it to mean “Grab your phones and open the camera app.” Others understood it as, “Scream and cover your head.” One apparently heard in that single word a summons to raise his hands and call sweetly to the bat in hopes of petting it.

The poor bat wasn’t doing much better. It swooped from one end of the room to another, looking for an exit but finding only more squeals and smartphones. It dove among the groups of people, without malice and clearly disoriented. Finally, after a few dozen tries, someone threw a towel in the bat’s path. It fell to the floor, trapped. A few of the guys wrapped it up and led it outside.

And then it was over, except for the farcical interviews on the same smartphones. We settled into our sleeping bags. The bat flew off to eat bugs. I’m sure we were both happier for the parting.

I fell asleep thinking about the bat, looking—as all writers do—for the metaphor or life lesson in its visitation. And I dreamt thankful dreams, grateful for the friends who take me in when I’m confused and out of control, then release me back to where I belong.

Wearing down

Wearing down

As this Monday rolls around, I’m nearing the end of Wesley Foundation’s annual tour de faith bike trip. We’ve covered 180 miles so far, which is about typical for this point in the tour. And as is also typical, we are wearing down.
Bike trip is, among other things, a great emptying. Spending five hours a day atop a bicycle in 90 degree heat is a grueling–if stylish–form of self mortification. To follow that up with four or five hours of mission work with our newfound neighbors is to push out bodies and minds well beyond the comfortable.
An old sports and military saw has it that fatigue makes cowards of us all. Perhaps. But I know fatigue makes grouches of us all, to the point that a scheduling blip or friendly jibe can elicit the snappiest of responses from otherwise reasonable people.
But that’s the point of TdF–to go near the limits of our easily frazzled nerves, and yet still treat one another with patience and kindness. To give more of ourselves, even when we think we have nothing left to give. To mirror Christ, who could still speak words of blessing even as he suffered toward an unfair and agonizing death.
I’m not going to judge how our group is doing in that regard. Suffice to say that we have both failed and succeeded in modeling Christ, and that we mostly cover the failures with forgiveness.
But I do want to raise the question, in both myself and others. Who are we really, when fatigue and struggle have robbed us of our facades? How do we treat our neighbors when we are decidedly at our worst?
The only way to know is to stretch our limits, to make ourselves vulnerable to petty selfishness and anger, and to find a way to overcome the resulting temptations. This is the example Jesus set for us when he fasted forty days in the wilderness. By the time life caved in on him during Passover, he had developed habits of grace that sustained his character so that his light shined as death closed in.
Whether we do it through fasting or quiet self denial or riding two hundred miles on a bicycle, we need to find our limits intentionally and develop–with equal intent–a habit of being at our best, even when we are at our worst. May God grant us grace to so grow in love that we still reflect Jesus, regardless of what comes our way.

Conflicted

Conflict makes life interesting.

For a lot of my friends, that sounds like a ludicrous statement. Most of them are either employed by or deeply involved in church life, and the word conflict dredges up images of interminable board meetings and Sunday school revolts. Conflict in that setting is a hindrance to ideals like peace and unity, not to mention another wearying factor to manage in a congregation.

Nevertheless, conflict in a broader sense makes life interesting. Every human culture at every point in recorded history has played games—two or more opponents trying to win a competition in which something is at stake, from bragging rights at the daycare to the honor of being sacrificed to the gods. In true American fashion, entities like ESPN and the NFL have parlayed friendly conflict into cash machine empire.

And who wants to read a book or watch a movie in which everyone gets along? Jerry Seinfeld’s show about nothing (which, if you watch closely, really was about much more than that) notwithstanding, a good story needs conflict. A character has to want something that is not simply handed to her. The interest of the story lies in the overcoming of the conflict.

Still, not all conflict is created equal. An argument over which brand of toilet paper to buy may be conflict, but certainly not of the attention-grabbing sort. For a conflict to really be interesting, something big has to be at stake. Otherwise, we end up with the same bizarre, petty script that gets played out day after day on reality television.

And in churches.

I have lived with churches in conflict, sometimes as pastor and sometimes as Joe Pewsitter. In both cases, I often wonder if our biggest problem is that our conflicts are too small. Members of the same ladies’ circle will come to blows over flower arrangements. Grown men will bare their teeth over carpet installation in the sanctuary.

Or, as we saw earlier this month at General Conference, otherwise sane Christian leaders will grandstand and finger point over ordination and sexuality, as if the very salvation of the world hinged on that one question. Or bitterly fight with one another over language involving job security for pastors.

These are conflicts, but they are not (or at least no longer) interesting ones. We still fight diseases of poverty, most notably malaria. We still respond well when natural disaster strikes. But the amount of time and energy we spend on such things pales in comparison to our arguments over who has jurisdiction over the parlor.

Our conflicts, by and large, are far too small.

Perhaps what we need—in both our churches and individual lives—is not another mechanism for coping with conflict. Perhaps we would be better served by looking for a greater conflict, one that matters.

This Sunday, four people were baptized at the church my family attends. Each one was asked, among other things, “Will you seek justice and resist evil in whatever form it presents itself?” It was a reminder to me of the scope of our pledge as Christians: to refuse to incorporate with evil, to fight it with every fiber of our being.

And to fight it collectively, as a church. Regardless of the color of our new carpet.

It’s Going to Be Okay (Even If It Isn’t)

Everybody take a deep breath. It’s going to be okay.

As the fallout from General Conference descends upon the land, Methodist leaders across the nation (I don’t presume to speak for those abroad) are in a frenzy of frustration. The various restructuring proposals brought to GC failed to pass, and Plan UMC—the compromise that did pass—was ruled unconstitutional by the judicial council before the ink was dry.

The delegates are frustrated that their work seems for naught. Non-delegates are angry that our representatives are coming home with little to show except the removal of guaranteed appointment. And everyone is upset at the prospect of another four years of wondering what we do next.

Hold on, though. When the going gets tough—and oh my, has it gotten tough—we need a little perspective. It’s going to be okay.

Perhaps not in the sense that we wish. None of us want to see our Mother Church struggle so mightily. All of us want more faithful and fruitful ministries. Regardless of our wishes, however, it’s likely that she will flounder for at least a few more years.

But what’s really at stake with the failures of this year’s GC? From the furor over Plan UMC, the answer seems to be restructuring. Much of the church recognizes that our bureaucracy is far too bloated, and even though the Council of Bishops attempt to seize more power in the name of streamlining (see the Call to Action legislation) failed, virtually everyone I know still hopes to find a corrective to our inefficiency.

Still, we’re talking about efficiency here. And although it is certainly a component of faithful living, it’s rather low on the list. We are told to be loving, compassionate, merciful, courageous, faithful, hope-filled, and so forth. Jesus never says, “Above all, be thou efficient.”

I don’t mean to be flippant. I want to honor the hard work of the GC delegates, not to mention the prayerful support of so many behind the scenes. What they do or fail to do matters. But it doesn’t matter most of all.

Any legislation GC might have passed would not make us more faithful, nor I would argue, would it make us more fruitful. It would have made some decisions smoother. It might have saved us money (although, after watching similar premises to the CTA being enacted in my own annual conference, I have grave doubts about that).

But no one will be spurred toward greater acts of love because of restructuring. No one will sacrifice their time and prayers and energy and money for the sake of someone else because our church runs more efficiently. If we are going to thrive as Wesleyan Christians—with or without the UMC bureaucracy—the primary responsibility for that lies where it always has.

It lies with those of us close enough to our neighbors to love them directly.

And one way or another, it’s going to be okay.

Thinking Through GC

A special GC post for Monday’s Penny…

Like many of my fellow Methodists, I’m both praying for and scratching my head at the goings on at General Conference. My temptation is to rush into some analysis, which would probably be quite passionate but devoid of anything helpful.

Piling frustration on fatigue never helps anyone–much less the delegates that have been representing us. Regardless of how you feel about what GC did or did not accomplish, I think the thing for us to do is take a step back and let things settle. Let’s go to work on Sunday (or whenever) to make and be disciples, and let’s reserve the judgment and rhetoric in the meantime. I’ll post some more considered thoughts on Monday.

For now, onward and upward.