Wednesday, August 28, 2013

I stood in the dirt-paved alleyway.  Mud-brick homes loomed on all sides, surrounding the half-dozen Roma families gathered for worship.

No translator had been found, and it was deemed that I would preach anyway.  For at least an hour.

I am less and less afraid of public speaking, and less and less unsure of my Ukrainian - but this opportunity terrified me.  I was a little bit angry at God for bringing me to this situation that I was not comfortable with.  Vitya promised to read the Bible passages if I would preach, because of his speech impediment he had never read aloud before - so we were taking big steps together.

I began in Luke 7 and decided that I would just preach story by story until they let me sit down.  I preached about faith and worthiness.  I mixed up cases and genders and endings at least fifty times.  I told the story of how I came to faith, I shared about Rev Cindy Bloise, I used an Henri Nouwen metaphor.  I think I only cussed once, and only because I didn't know a nicer way to say whore, and only because I hate the way that they describe her as a sinner and leave it at that, and it didn't seem to phase anyone.

Twenty minutes in, the geese gave me a pleasant distraction to catch my breath, say a prayer of thanks, and check with Vitya to make sure that people could understand me.  All was well.

I preached through the entire chapter, said a quick Amen, and sat down.  I was still scared - and well I should have been.  Pastor Volodymyr then began a twenty minute conversation with me, in front of everyone, to complement the sermon (which had only lasted forty minutes!).  So, not only did I have to preach in Ukrainian, but I had to pass an exam about my own sermon, too!

Vitya and I laughed uproariously on the bus home talking through each mistake I had made, and just the shear ridiculousness of being forced to preach.

I sometimes forget about all the privilege I have.  Apparently we created quite a ruckus among the Ukrainians by sitting in the gypsy section of the bus instead of the front where white people sit.  It reminded me of one of my favorite moments with my mom.  We went to Hoss's in Dubois and I parked against the fence where employees park and my mom said, "Michael, park where the people park."

Even with Vitya, I am reminded of my own privilege.  In my childhood, I had a terribly strong speech impediment, but at school we worked to correct it.  I can learn these languages and speak publicly because people invested in me.  Vitya was thought an idiot and shoved to the margins of his classes until he dropped out of school.

At twenty, he starts his final year of school on Monday.  I'm thankful that there is an alternative school here in Lviv where he can study.  He's reading Pushkin for fun and proclaiming the Gospel in Gypsy villages.

I think that God uses our fear and our weaknesses.  God doesn't pick the very best and treat them as the most worthy - instead God chooses the least and the lowest and does a great work.  And our fears become part of our faith.


Saturday, August 24, 2013


I have returned safely to Ukraine.  It is a wonderful feeling to be home, or what has become home, again.

To sit with friends and hear the stories of what I missed.
To tsk at the dating decisions some have made.
To have a big barbecue and watch a movie on the lawn with a dozen close friends.
To make new friends.
To see that all is well, and that our local leadership team rocks.
To know that all will continue to be well as we grow this amazing little ministry into the future.

It is wonderful.

It fills me with wonder.  It's one of the funny things about being in ministry.  You can work and pray everyday for something.  You can fight for it.  You can plead for it.  You can get so frustrated that you want to cry.  You can push and push.

And then when you step away, God brings it to pass.

I return to find that one of my closest friends has made a huge step in his walk with the Lord.  I return to find that several of my university students loved English camp and are joining us for Pilgrims.  I return to find that my co-director just continues to step up as a thoughtful and gracious leader.

One of the biggest struggles of the American church is for us to accept that God's timing is greater than our own.  Our whole culture is so time obsessed.

There are two cultural values at play: time driven value or event driven value.

If an American wedding is planned to start at 12:00 and it's 12:05 everyone gets very nervous that the whole thing has been called off.  We are a time based culture.  We are driven by schedules and timetables and meeting times.

In Latin America, the wedding begins when the bride gets there and stands at the back of the aisle.  If you're not the bride, you better get there before her.  If you're the least important person you better show up early because no one will wait for you.  The culture is focused on the event happening even if it is delayed by hours.

And I think that God's value system is more Event driven than Time driven.  That's an odd statement to make, but it seems that God rarely cares what my scheduler says but that God is always faithful to accomplish what needs to happen.

Tomorrow we celebrate one of our own going off to seminary.  My dear friend Olia Kryvycka will be moving to Belfast, Ireland to attend an Interconfessional Bible College for a year long seminary training.  How long I have prayed for her to respond to this call, and how overjoyed I am for her to continue exploring what God would have for her to do.  

With Olia I have openly shared every joy and heartbreak of being in ministry.  She has celebrated with me in resurrection times and cried with me in the tomb.  I shared with her the ugly mean things that happen to people in ministry.  Every. Single. Time.  And, yet, she has responded to God's call.  This is one of the proudest moments of my life - I am so proud of the person that Olia has become and the work that she will do in God's great name.

I know that wherever she goes, I will be right there with her in spirit.  I will be holding her up in prayer.  Her mission will be my own.  Her struggles and disappointments and joys will be mine as well.

It is my most sincere hope that others will respond to this call.  To come and die.  To take up their cross.  To follow to the ends of the earth.  To walk in the shoes of others.  To laugh much too loud and awkwardly mangle words.  To go and tell the others.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Nudists and Methodists

Yes, here is the post you have been waiting for.  Here is the post where I compare Methodists and Nudists.  Because we are basically in the same boat. 

NBC News posted this very interesting article with a few almost NSFW photos and a few shocking sentences - I mean, it's about nudists ... so ... read with caution, I guess.

For those who don't have the time to read a whole article or who are too afraid to click on a link about nudists while still at the church office - here are the opening paragraphs:

Traditional nudist Methodist groups are trying to re-brand their wrinkled public image by swapping out some of the older faces in online marketing pictures and replacing them with fresher looks. Yet their numbers are shrinking as former flower children slip into senior years. Since 2008, membership in the American Association for Nude Recreation United Methodist Church (AANRUMC) has dwindled from 50,000 to 35,000, says spokesman Tom Mulhall.


Some say the decline may be partly because some clubs and resorts in the gray end of the movement are inept at using social media to replenish lost members. But young nudists Methodists also say they don't always feel welcomed by the old-timers at traditional clubs churches - and many, frankly, just can't afford to patronize cushy clothing-optional resorts catered dinners and fellowship outings, so they stick to shedding their threads spending time with friends for free at open-air venues: beaches, hiking trails, remote lakes, small ponds. 

Do you see what I did there?  With these simple changes, doesn't this feel like an article that could grace the pages of any United Methodist publication trying to address the very serious issue of denominational decline and fleeing young people? 

This article continues with a formula that has become too routine for this reader:

  • complaints by young people in the organization about the lack of social media savvy
  • evidence of attempts to seem more hip
  • comparisons to similar organizations that attract younger audiences
  • reflective thoughts on the nature of the organization
  • a quote by an optimistic - but not entirely idealistic -young person who believes in the cause
Does this rundown seem familiar to you, too?  I've read a few too many articles about the decline in my beloved denomination. 

But here's the other thing that connects nudists and Methodists - we're not going away. 

It's not like young people don't think about being nude anymore.  Sixteen year olds are sexting suggestive pics to one another, so obviously exhibitionism is huge for these generations.  The reality is membership in an organization is sliding. 

In my generation, I find no lack of interest in issues of faith.  But, I sense quite deeply the utter disinterest in membership and organizations that my generation feels.  I don't blame them. 

The article about nudists touches on the idea of a loss of rights and power.  This theme is often hinted at in articles about denominational decline.  As the United Methodist church recedes, we lose the level of power and influence that we once held.  How sad that we think this matters.  What an indictment against us and against our future that we think this is important. 

We are Christians.  We follow Jesus the Christ who laid aside every scrap of power he deserved, knelt at the feet of his disciples, and then hung on the cross to die the most humiliating death imaginable. 

We cannot save a denomination for the sake of saving a denomination.  We must set aside the inherent power of being the denomination of politicians, businessmen, judges, and doctors.  We must strive for downward mobility, to scrape the very bottom of the barrel with people who desperately need to hear the good news.  We must save this denomination because we really believe in the good it has done for the world by the disciples it has formed - and because we have the resources and connectivity to do so much more.

There are many great articles floating around right now about the church and millennials.  Many stress the importance of authenticity, and this is absolutely correct.  

We must strive to become a church of nudists.  We must work to be a church that is open and honest. "Warts and all," as they say.  When we can put all of our "dirty laundry" out in the open and own up to our mistakes and failures we will become the authentic church that my generation craves.