Lessons for the Church at Sears

My grandmother has this fascination with buying Christmas presents early. I want to appreciate that in her, but something has always made me shrug my shoulders when in August and September she lovingly asks, “What do you think Noah wants for Christmas.”

Now, take me back to the days of getting the Sears’ Wish Book in the mail and I can promise you I had a different reaction. We looked forward to receive the catalog each year. When it arrived, we would turn through the catalog’s pages as if it we were on a shopping spree filled with endless wonders. We would circle our desired items and eagerly wait for Christmas morning.

I still have never got the electronic football field game.

On Monday, a part of the American experience came to an end. Once the nation’s largest retailer, Sears Holdings filled for bankruptcy protection in a move that was long expected for the struggling commercial giant. The filling sets in motion a series of developments that will lead to the closing of 142 stores and other changes.

While business writers and economists will talk about what Sears’ bankruptcy filing means for the economy or, even, the upcoming midterm elections, I’m left wondering what lessons the church can take from the bankruptcy. There are warning signs for the church within Sears’ bankruptcy.

For one, at the root of Sears’ struggles is a legacy of trying to maintain its current business model without much adaptation to reach new people. Since Sears’ lost the title of “America’s top retailer” to Wal-Mart in the 1990s, the company has been trying different approaches with the same goal in mind: Get back to its once lofty position in the American consumer market.

What Sears failed to realize was how the market was changing, especially with the advent of online shopping and retail stores that were more targeted to specific segments of the economy. It struggled to adapt and maintained a large presence in the “big box” store mindset of having people come to them.

The church, especially in the United States, has a similar problem. One of our struggles is how to adapt to the world around us. We are in the midst of a historic seismic shift in the way people think and approach religion. At the same time, we are seeing changes in the culture, especially in how people receive information and engage with one another. This is a 500-year shift in how we think and approach community life that is the equivalent to the changes that took place prior to the Reformation.

In response, we are struggling to appropriately adapt to the changes. Many of our activities with the culture are centered around a mindset of “doing the things we’ve always done … but better” mindset. We are more concerned with maintaining the status quo, and often believe that if we do so that we will also reach new people. The two cross each other out. We cannot continue to do the same things, especially if they are not working to reach people, and expect them to work.

What adaptations Sears did undertake, in the last 20 years, was centered on consolidation and assuring loyal customers would remain loyal. There was limited outreach to gain new consumers for their stories.

One of the biggest decisions for Sears in that time frame, beyond today’s announcements, was the acquisition of Kmart in 2005. The merger was intended to promote a larger outreach and a renewed vitality for the retailers, but in time only led to a weaker product. Sears was left to deal with under-performing stores in bad locations. The move led to the company beginning a slow process of closing stores, while also trying to maintain its customer base.

It didn’t work.

The church struggles with the same temptation to try new things that only end up reaching the same people. A merger, for instance, of Sears and Kmart only benefited those who favored shopping at those stories. It wasn’t going to move people who didn’t like shopping in giant stores to come their way. It was an internal move that led to disastrous internal responses.

Many of our conversations in the church only pertain to those who are already part of our communities, especially when it comes to outreach. When we talk about reaching new people, often what we really mean is we want to encourage those who have left to come back home. While that kind of outreach is important and needed, what we often forget about is the important bridge-building work that needs to be done to share the love of Jesus Christ with those who believe there is nothing for them in the community of faith.

Like Sears, what often hinders us from having those conversations are concerns about resources and money. The church, today, spends a large amount of our resources making sure we have enough money in the offering plate to support our work. The conversation, though, is about maintaining what we are doing, because by the time we get to doing missions and outreach there is seldom enough time, because our focus is on making sure the church doesn’t close its doors.

Jesus doesn’t call us to a Sears-type ministry. In fact, Jesus calls us into a ministry and mission where the harvest is plentiful. To reach the generation that is in front of us will require us to adapt our missional engagements to be more effective. The message of Jesus Christ never changes, but how we reach people and share that love may need to look different in order to share that love.

If we are unwilling to make the necessary adaptations, the stories written about the church in the future may be the same written, today, about Sears: A once mighty cornerstone of the community that was never able to keep up with the times.

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How Should We Respond to Sexual Assault

Perhaps like many of you, I sat glued to my television and live stream on my computer as Christine Blasey Ford testified about an alleged sexual assault that took place while she was in high school. The accused person in the assault, Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh, would testify later that day.

It was a moment that recalled the Anita Hill testimony in 1991 regarding then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. It was also a moment that brought up pain for those who have been the victims of sexual assault, their families, and others.

Personally, I cannot imagine what it must have been like for Ford or Kavanaugh in that moment. I cannot relate to their pain, because I have not experienced that for myself. Yet, their testimony and the conversation regarding sexual assault – not just in the past week but, truly, in the last few years – has been on my mind. The question I keep thinking about is this: How does God call us to respond to these moments?

Statistics tell us that more that one in five women and one in 71 men will be sexually assaulted in their lives. The vast majority of these assaults, more than 60 percent, will never been reported to the authorities. Only a handful of the reported assaults, between 2-10 percent, are deemed to be falsely reported.

Those numbers tell us that we likely know someone, whether they have told us or not, who has been the victim of either a sexual assault or an attempted assault. This is something that is close to home for us all.

However, our primary response is often to politicize or demean the accusations. I know this from first-hand experience.

In 2006, I was a reporter for what was then known as the Pope Center for Higher Education Reform in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. My role was to cover higher education issues and stories for a libertarian-leaning organization. During that time, the Duke Lacrosse case began to make national news. As a refresher, members of the Duke lacrosse team were accused of sexual assault, only to be exonerated after a lengthy political and judicial process. One of my editors wanted me to push hard on the story, because it was what people were talking about and it was in our backyard. There was a faint connection to higher education policy, even though we largely dealt with public institutions.

I felt uncomfortable with the story. It didn’t feel like it reached the standards of what our organization was about – discussing policy and classical liberal arts education. The editor won, and I found myself at Duke University covering protests related to the case. It was not a story I look back on fondly. I am left with the feeling that we covered the story simply to play “gotcha” journalism with Duke University during a time of deep confusion and anxiety. It was a bad situation.

That moment reminds me of other reactions to sexual assault allegations. We will often use “boys will be boys” language to dismiss allegations that we deem to be unfair or unnecessary. The language casts boys and men as sexually-focused individuals who cannot control their inner needs. At the same time, we will tell girls and women that “if you wouldn’t dress that way” nothing would happen to you. This language dismisses women as mere objects instead of God’s beloved. Neither response is what God calls us to be about, but these are often the reactions we see expressed in the moments after a sexual assault allegation is raised.

We can, and must, do better.

I believe God calls the church to do better in our care for people regarding sexual assault. The Great Commandment teaches us to love God and to love others as ourselves. Our love for others comes out of the commitment and unconditional love God shares with us. We are to love others and value people in the ways we would want to be treated. This is especially the case when it comes to hearing the pain from those who have dealt with sexual assault.

The church, and those who seek to follow in Christ’s footsteps, should be a safe place where we give a listening ear to victims of sexual assault. We should be a place where victims can express their pain and have a community of support who will listen to them, comfort them, and support them unconditionally. The church should be a place of love, and grace for victims of sexual assault.

As well, the church should and must be a place of grace and hope for those accused of sexual assault. We must be willing to offer the accused a chance to express their story, to offer repentance, and redemption. We are, after all, a grace-filled people who seek the resurrection’s hope of second chances for all people.

In all situations, though, we must be willing to pray for the victims, the accused, and their families. At the same time, we must do a better job expressing grace-filled sexual ethics that start at the basic desire of love, respect, and treating each other as we would want to be treated. We must take leadership in creating places of safety and grace, so that our communities will be a place where all people are treated and valued because of their sacred worth in God’s eyes.

This is an important time for our nation, but I believe it is also an important time in our witness of God’s love in these areas. May we share the kingdom ethics in treating others as we would want to be treated.

How Do You See Yourself?

On my desk is a devotional book from the Francis Asbury Society in Wilmore. A pastoral mentor of mine created a covenant group of clergy who are in prayer and devotions with one another.

I have to be honest and admit there are times when the book stares at me on top of all the other things that need to be accomplished. How easy it is for us to go through life checking off things to do before concerning ourselves with our relationship with God! Yet, today’s devotion struck me as a wise and needed word for today, and maybe it might be also for you.

The devotion, written by former Asbury University president Dennis Kinlaw, focuses on Acts 9:1-30. It is the story of Saul’s awakening to Christ and how Ananias went to find him so he may be baptized and see again. Kinlaw writes about how we often do not see ourselves in the manner of how God’s sees us. That we are often too busy concerning ourselves with how others perceive us and whether we match-up compared to them.

I can relate.

It is easy for me, as a pastor and as a follower of Christ, to compare myself to other pastors, ministries, and leaders. When I’m around other clergy, I easily begin to think I am inadequate as a pastor when someone talks about doing something I’ve dreamt about doing. I can look with rose-colored glasses about what has taken place at other churches and forget about the issues that were present or the struggles. When I do this, I am unable to see God’s worth within me.

We all can do this.

We live in a time where we find ourselves instantly comparing our lives with others. Social media, for instance, gives us the ability to edit the difficulties out of our lives and only show the “highlights.” (Have you ever seen a parent post the details of their arguments with their kids to get them to eat their vegetables?) We don’t have to limit ourselves to social media to see how we only show one another the highlights. In our interactions with others, we often only allow people to see the good moments, because we never want people to see our weaknesses, struggles, or concerns.

What happens as a result? If we are already feeling down or struggling, when we encounter other people or communities that “have it all together” we immediately perceive ourselves as less that. Our eyes blind us to the realities of what is truly taking place and, thus, what we see is just a distortion.

The truth is God sees more in us than we often see in ourselves. God sees beyond what we often define ourselves by – our weaknesses, struggles, and past mistakes – and sees us for who we are and can be. God sees us as beloved children of a loving Father who are called to be not someone else, but to be ourselves as a light of Christ.

If we try to be someone who we are not then we will never see ourselves as God sees us. We will only see what we are not instead of who we are. People of faith, and to be honest churches, limit their full potential by only trying to live as a carbon copy of someone else.

God doesn’t call us to be just like another disciple or church. God calls us to reflect God’s love for us and to be the people and church we are created and capable of being.

True spiritual growth comes when we are willing to let go of perceiving ourselves based upon the measurements of the world, but see ourselves as God sees us. We are children of God. We are beloved by the Lord. We are God’s witnesses.

That is a far better way of how to see ourselves.

Our Values: Foundational Principles for Ogden Memorial

Today is the first day of school in Caldwell County. This has been a day, personally, I’ve been looking forward to for some time since it is Noah’s first day in kindergarten.

The fact schools are back in session reminds me of my educational experiences in Raleigh County Schools in West Virginia. Each of my teachers invested in my life. They sought to teach me how to write, read, and understand the world we live in. I am who I am because of the teachers who invested in me.

Most importantly, though, my teachers tried to instill within me values that would define who I am. Values like treating my classmates with respect, living with kindness, and being patient. Those values are still important to me some 30 years later.

When we think of values our minds go to the core foundational principles that define who we live and interact with others. They are what inspire our words and actions even when we are not aware of them.

Christ calls us to claim values in our journey together. Values that serve as an outflow of our relationship with the Lord and define how we live out our love of God. We see our values being expressed through the Beatitudes, Jesus’ prayers, ministries, and common life with his believers. Jesus often called us to go and do likewise. We follow in the footsteps of Christ by taking on the same values and core principles we see reflected in Jesus as an aspect of who we are in Christ’s love.

Throughout 2018, our vision team has been working with me in prayerful conversations about the values that define our common life at Ogden Memorial. I am appreciative of Sara Brown, Jae Englebright, Elaine Overhults, Mary Rohrer, and Emory Spradlin for their dedication and work. They have blessed me with their prayers, laughter, and desire to see the church come alive.

We began our work with a focus on our values, first, because we wanted to set our mind on common principles that define who we are at Ogden. Values that are unchanging. We recognize that leaders may change, ministries may change, pastors may change, but the values of a community are constant. They define our work and how we live out our purpose of loving God and making disciples.

Together we discerned five core values that will define our work moving forward at Ogden Memorial. They are: love, discipleship, prayer, worship, and community. We believe these are values best described how God is leading us forward at Ogden Memorial. Each of the values have statements that were written by members of the team in collaboration with one another.

Beginning September 2, you will hear more about how these values will shape our mission together during worship. Members of the vision team will share about the values and the sermon will reflect on their meaning and purpose for our shared life together. We will celebrate our values on September 30 with a potluck following worship.

Our values. That is what they are. These are the values God has blessed us with to define our relationships with one another and ministry with our community.

I believe, as I have always, that Ogden Memorial is sleeping giant waiting to come alive with fruitful and vibrant ministry. These values and the work of the church coming together to get to this point are a positive step towards that direction.

I’m excited about what is next for Ogden Memorial. I hope you are, as well.

Love Your Enemy: How Christ Calls Us to Love People We Disagree With

One of my favorite television shows is “The West Wing.” The classic Aaron Sorkin drama about life in the White House was one of the best written dramas and more than 10 years after its last episode aired it still fascinates viewers with its impressive dialogue and storytelling.

The show is one I turn to when I want to get away from the world. Abbi in her loving kindness gave me the entire series for Christmas one year, and life has never been the same for my viewing habits.

The other day I had an episode on in the background while sitting in my home office. It was an episode I’ve seen dozens of time. A Republican lawyer outwits the deputy speechwriter on a national public affairs program. This led to the president wanting to hire her, which led to the frustration of key staff members. At the end of the episode, she is in the chief of staff’s office waiting to give her response to the job offer when she meets the deputy chief of staff and the same deputy speechwriter she debated. Their conversation quickly turned to one of the issues discussed in the episode – gun control in the aftermath of a presidential assassination attempt. After a lengthy discussion, the lawyer ended the conversation by saying the problem with their position was that they didn’t like people who who like guns.

I mention the story not to talk about guns or even gun control, but to reflect upon the meaning of that line. She essentially said, “You don’t like people who disagree with you.” Something about it, even though I’ve heard it time and time again, stayed with me. I believe it is because I see it in our conversations today.

We don’t like people who disagree with us.

It shouldn’t take us long to recognize this issue. We struggle with loving and respecting anyone who disagree with us.

This is something I pay a lot of attention to, both as a pastor and also someone who is interested in public theology (how Christ moves us into the public square to be a faithful witness of Jesus Christ in the world). We are experiencing the rise of what I call “acceptable anger” towards those we disagree with. What I mean is that we find it within the boundaries of normal behavior to demean or ridicule personally those who have a different view than what we may hold. Our actions and words are intended not to discuss the issues, but to dismiss those who would dare to see things from a different perspective. We find it acceptable, because we believe that if we are right then it makes our response towards others automatically virtuous and righteous.

One of the places “acceptable anger” is displayed is on social media platforms. Facebook groups and posts that deal with various issues are often highlighted by resentment towards the people who have a different view. We write in such a way that we seek to separate ourselves from those who offer another perspective.

It is easy to dismiss this as a social media problem, and in some ways, it is because we are unable to personally interact with someone through the words we type it is not. Social media is a user-generated platform, which means how we engage social media is often a reflection of who we are and who we have become.

Where I notice this being especially bad is among fellow United Methodists as it relates to conversations on human sexuality and the upcoming 2019 General Conference. I am a member of several clergy online groups. The intent of these groups is to seek practical advice, discuss issues, and encourage one another in ministry. What often happens is that these platforms can be used by people to demean those who disagree with an interpretation of Scripture, perspective on the future of the church, and the issues facing the global movement of God’s kingdom. Posts quickly turn towards name calling towards anyone who has a different perspective.

These posts and comments are from pastors. If the shepherd of a congregation – the pastor – is dismissive towards others, how can the sheep – the flock of a congregation – know the way to truly loving others as God calls us to love?

I have always been struck by how Jesus’ words to love your enemies from Matthew 5:43 is one of the hardest to apply to our lives. An enemy is more than someone who seeks to do harm towards you. An enemy can be someone you disagree with and do not value because of their opinion. So, how do we love our enemy if our enemy is someone we disagree with?

Perhaps it is found in living out the Great Commandment: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves. Love means we give of ourselves in deep connection and commitment to God. This is our response to God’s love towards us, which is reflected in God’s creation and presence in our lives.

Our love of God, then, shapes how we respond to one another. We are called to treat each other with the same love we would want shown towards us. That means we value people for who they are and meet them where they are. We can only do this when we see the imago Dei – the image of God – in those we disagree with. Genesis 1:27 reminds of how each person was created in the image of God to reflect the very character of God. Every person is of sacred worth, even those we disagree with, because they are beloved by God.

This changes our response to people. To treat people with love is to see them as someone of worth. It changes the conversation from seeing someone as an enemy, but as a person God loves in the same ways God loves us.

Richard Mouw, a Christian ethicist who wrote the book “Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil Word.” In the book, he shares how kindness and gentleness should be the defining mark of our relationship with others, especially with those we disagree with on certain issues. Mouw writes, “When Christians fail to measure up to the standards of kindness and gentleness, we are not the people God meant us to be.”

He is right. Our calling as Christ followers is to be above the practices of the world, especially as it relates to our conversations with one another about what it means to be the church. Being people of holy love doesn’t mean we cannot disagree with issues nor does it mean we ignore real issues so as not to offend anyone. What it means that in our conversations about the serious issues that face the church and, truly, the world, we must be ever mindful that within the person we disagree with is the imago Dei.

How different would our world be if we enter into them remembering that God’s image is in the person we disagree with?

Seeking the Kingdom of God in Times of Anxiety

I worry a lot.

I worry about trivial things, such as whether it is possible West Virginia University will ever win a national title in anything beyond rifle. I worry about my family, such as whether we can find adequate care for Noah’s needs. I worry about things that involve the ministry of the church, such as whether we are being faithful in our common mission as United Methodists of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

There are times when being worried about something is necessary, such as when we are concerned for our family’s needs. That is true to a point, because sometimes we allow our natural worries about life’s concerns consume us. Worrying that consumes us can bring us into to a state of anxiety, which can hinder our lives by controlling our thoughts, actions, and perspectives upon the future.

I believe we are in a time of anxiety in the United Methodist Church about what may happen in February at the called General Conference. As we get closer to the called conference, we have allowed the natural concern for the church move us into a state of tension and anxiety.

This tension and anxiety is centered on several elements. It is focused on the issues of human sexuality (which we will begin conversations on later this month). There is also tension surrounding what the General Conference may decide and how it will affect our community. We are focused on the unknown.

I know this anxiety and I have experienced it myself. There have been moments when I’ve felt my own anxiety about what will happen come February. My conversations with friends and family can easily turn towards General Conference and the back-and-forth dialogues that are taking places on social media in the perspective caucuses of the church.

None of this is helpful. None of this has been helpful in my own life. None of this is helpful for us as we seek to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

Jesus reminds us of this in Matthew 6:25-33. He says there is nothing that can be added to our lives through worry and anxiety. We can only cripple our lives when we are consumed by worry and anxiety.

When we think about the life of the church there is nothing that can be gained towards our mission of making disciples if we are worried about the unknown. The only thing that happens when we worry is it leads us to fear, distrust, and discouragement about where God is leading us. None of these are values that are helpful for the mission of the church today or in the future.

What is helpful is to find the places of hope and to seek the kingdom of God. It is the life Jesus invites us into when we are filled with worry and anxiety. In Matthew 6:33 Jesus says it is the kingdom of God that should be our focus and not things that can easily distract and consume our lives.

It is not always easy to do this. That is because when we focus on our worries and anxieties all we see are the negatives. The kingdom of God’s focus for us can get lost through our concerns about what is wrong. When all we see are the negatives we lose sight of the work of the kingdom in our midst and where God is leading us.

We are at our best when our primary focus is not on our worries and anxieties – as real as they may be – but on where God is leading us as a community to be the hands and feet of Christ. The main thing of making disciples of Jesus Christ must be our primary concern. When we take our eyes off of this and place it more upon the concerns of the moment we lose sight of the people Jesus calls us to love – the hurting, the lost, and the forgotten.

The kingdom of God is here. We are a part of God’s kingdom and called to live into the realities of God’s leading, even as we await what may happen in February. No matter what happens in February there will be work of sharing love, planting seeds of hope, and extending grace to the people of Princeton. As long as there are people who need to know God’s love there will be work for the church to do in our community.

Let us make our focus the work of sharing God’s love and seeking the kingdom of God. Nothing can be added to our church and witness by worrying about what may happen. When our focus, though, is on the kingdom of God we will see the possibilities of sharing God’s love all around us and the work that needs to be done to let our community know, truly, that God loves them and so do we.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Every morning growing up, I would look forward to the simple and melodious sounds coming from my television. They would announce the start to one of my favorite shows. One that would draw me into a world of creativity, imagination, and hope.

It’s a beautiful day in this neighborhood,

A beautiful day for a neighbor,

Would you be mine?

Could you be mine?

Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, staring Fred Rogers, aired in our homes for 31 seasons. It ended in 2001, but the show and Rogers’ legacy lives on with Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, which seeks to promote the same values as the original classic. Though Rogers passed away in 2003, his legacy of encouraging imagination and welcoming all people into our lives regardless of their background is still an important and needed message today. He taught us how to be, well, neighborly to one another.

The idea of neighbor is one that has been on my mind this week, especially in the context we find it addressed in the Great Commandment. Matthew, Mark, and Luke each describe a variation of Jesus’ command to love God and love our neighbor as we would want to be loved. Our love for each other should be the same as the love God shows for us.

So, what do we mean by loving God “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength?” (Mark 12:30)

The word “love” comes from a Greek word agape. The Greek language used in Scripture has four different words used to describe love. This particular usage is the highest form of love in the Greek language and references one of commitment to God and to one another. When we see Jesus use this word, especially in Mark 12:30, he invites us to love God with every ounce of our being. That everything we are and strive to be is wrapped up in our love and connection to God. Our love of God is to be the most important thing in our lives and it its to define everything about who we are.

That is especially the case in regards to our relationships with one another. Jesus says we are to “love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31) The idea of neighbor is described in the story of the Great Samaritan in Luke 11:25-37. There we see Jesus encourage us to expand the idea of neighbor – those whom we have a direct connection and identity with – to include more than simply the people we like and get along with. He invites us to treat everyone as our neighbor. The bonds of community Christ are to be extended to all people because of our love of God.

This idea of neighbor was expressed throughout Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, especially in one classic episode. Francois Clemmons, who portrayed Officer Clemmons, was the first African-American to have a regular role on a children’s television show. In a 1969 episode, Clemmons visited Rogers’ home on a hot day and the two sat together in a children’s pool cooling off their feet. The image of the two men – one black and the other white – sitting with their feet touching came during a period of racial unrest in America. It was one that Clemmons would go on to say deeply touched him, because of its embrace and welcome of all people. Rogers’ act was a physical expression of God’s call to treat all people with love and equal care.

Can you imagine what kind of world it would be if we lived out the Great Commandment in our relationships with one another?

So often our relationships are defined by the standards of the world. Is the person acceptable? Are they safe? Are they from a good background? Do we agree with them politically and socially? These are questions that society teaches us. Society would like for us to believe that the idea of the Great Commandment is a good story, but not practical in our relationships with one another.

Jesus never taught that the Great Commandment wasn’t practical or easy. Jesus saw the idea of loving God and loving our neighbor as a core value for all who would desire to be in relationship with the Lord. The call to do likewise from Luke 10:37 is a reminder of how Jesus expects those who follow in his footsteps to love the Lord completely and to love all people the same.

How we seek to love one another is never defined by our connections to the political world, but to the worldview Christ instills within us. We are to make room for people even when it is difficult. Jesus calls us to welcome the unwelcomed. Jesus calls us to love the unlovable. Jesus calls us to embrace people who are different than us. Jesus invites us to make room for people who have special needs.

Jesus invites us to be, well … neighbors.

What would it look like if, because of the Great Commandment, we hear the refrain from “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” as sung by those who are crying out for love today?

Won’t you please,

Won’t you please

Please won’t you be my neighbor?