New Blog

I’ve moved to a new blog at brandonblacksten.com. You can check out my first post there: Why We Need Lent. Thanks for reading.

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Remembering Jesus at Christmas #1: Giving

The Christmas season is upon us, and so is everything that goes with it–Christmas music, lights, gatherings of all kinds, shopping, and church services. Every year, we hear about the importance of keeping Christ in Christmas, but we also discover that it’s so easy to lose Jesus among all the holiday craziness.

If we are really going to make Christmas about Jesus, it will require intentionally changing the ways we celebrate. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing several ways to remember Jesus at Christmas. The first is giving to people in need. We all know that Christmas is the season of giving, but if we’re honest, it really feels more like the season of buying and receiving. Christians often talk about the War on Christmas, but I think the biggest assault on Christmas actually comes from Christians (including myself) who make it all about stuff, and leave Jesus as an afterthought. One significant way we can re-focus our Christmas celebrations on Christ is to be more generous during the Christmas season. Here are three ways to think about giving more:

1. Give More to People in Need by Spending Less on Gifts

I know, this one is hard to stomach at first, especially for parents and grandparents. While my wife Courtney and I don’t have children yet, I can already imagine that I’ll want to buy lots of great presents that will bring them joy on Christmas morning. But most of us already have much more than we need, and we end up buying many gifts just because we feel obligated. And often, they’re forgotten hours or even minutes after they’re opened. Instead of buying things for people who don’t need them, we can make a much bigger impact—and come closer to the true meaning of Christmas—by giving to people who are in need. Adam Hamilton, senior pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, even challenged members of his congregation to consider giving as much to their Christmas Eve offering as they spend on their families for Christmas. Courtney and I aren’t quite there yet, but we are making a conscious effort to reduce our Christmas gift spending so that we can give more this year. Many churches take up an offering on Christmas Eve that is designated for a special cause, and that can be a great way to give at Christmas. At Hydro UMC, we’ll be sending our Christmas Eve offering to Circle of Care. Their mission is “to provide help, healing and wholeness to children, youth and families who are hurting or in need,” and they do that through residential and foster care programs. It is a ministry that truly embodies the spirit of Christ, and we are excited to support them. Spending less on gifts so that we can give more allows us to partner with great ministries like Circle of Care.

2. Give Charitable Gifts in Honor of a Loved One

Some of us want to give more at Christmas, but we have a hard time putting fewer gifts under the tree. One way to get the best of both worlds is to make donations in honor of loved ones. My father is a Marine, and the last two years, I have made a donation to the Semper Fi Fund in his honor. The Semper Fi Fund provides financial assistance and support to injured members of the Armed Services and their families, and when you make a donation in honor of someone, they send a nice card to them. As best I can tell, these gifts have been at least as meaningful as any other gift I’ve given him, and maybe even more so. A donation in honor of a loved one to a cause or charity dear to them makes for a deeply meaningful gift that also makes a difference.

Another way of doing this might be to involve the recipient in the giving process. This would be especially helpful if you’re a parent. You could let your child help you decide where to make a donation and help them to understand the impact of your gift. We often tell our children that giving is important, but we don’t always do a good job of modeling generosity for them. Involving them in the process is a way to teach them why we give, how we decide how much and to whom to give, and to let them experience the joy of giving for themselves.

3. Give Gifts that Make a Difference

Finally, you can buy products that benefit others. In Nashville, there is an amazing ministry called Magdalene House, which helps women who have survived prostitution, trafficking, and addiction to escape life on the streets and to be healed. Magdalene has created a social enterprise called Thistle Farms, where the women of Magdalene make natural bath and body products. When you purchase their products, you support the ministry and the women who make the products. When Courtney and I lived in Nashville, we bought Thistle Farms products for the women in our families, and they loved the products, especially once they knew the story behind them. Buying products like this can be a great way of getting a great gift and supporting a great cause.

thistle farms products

At Christmas, we celebrate the coming of the One who gave his life for us. He calls us to follow his example and live lives of generosity. However you approach giving during the Christmas season, I hope these ideas will help you to focus on the true meaning of Christmas this year and to imitate Jesus, who gives us more than we could ever ask or imagine. Next, we’ll look at celebrating Advent and Christmas by setting aside devotional time with God.

How has giving helped you to stay focused on Jesus during the Christmas season?

Dorothy Day on Time Management

Someday, I hope to live this gem from The Long Loneliness:

The same principle always worked. If we are rushed for time, sow time and we will reap time. Go to church and spend a quiet hour in prayer, you will have more time than ever and your work will get done. Sow time with the poor. Sit and listen to them, give them your time lavishly. You will reap time a hundredfold. Sow kindness and you will reap kindness. Sow love, you will reap love. (252)

On Carts, Horses, and Vital Congregations – #GC12Book Study Part 2

As we approach General Conference 2012, several United Methodist bloggers are participating in a study of the books recommended for GC 2012 during Lent. The study is hosted by Rev. Jeremy Smith at HackingChristianity.net. We’ll read a different book each week. On Thursdays, HX will host discussion, and on Tuesdays, we’ll synchroblog our responses to the week’s book. For more information, check out this post. See my week one post here

In Back to Zero: The Search to Rediscover the Methodist Movement, Gil Rendle argues that attempting to reclaim aspects of the movement character of Methodism’s origins will help the UMC to overcome institutional inertia and lead to increased missional faithfulness. What most struck me was the clash between some of Rendle’s suggestions and the assumptions of the Vital Congregations program. Vital Congregations (VC) is a program that arose as a result of the Call to Action report, and it attempts to address the adaptive challenge facing the UMC described in that report: “To redirect the flow of attention, energy, and resources to an intense concentration on fostering and sustaining an increase in the number of vital congregations effective in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” In other words, VC suggests focusing on congregations in order to help the UMC more effectively fulfill the mission of the UMC.

Rendle makes a competing suggestion. In contrast to the old UM paradigm that sought to produce “more dollars, satisfied clergy, and satisfied congregations” (43, ePub edition), he offers a new paradigm:

From output to input, members, clergy, and congregations have now been displaced as the object of attention and recipient of denominational resources to being the expendable resources of the system needed to make the critical difference of changed people who will change the world. (44)

For VC, the congregation becomes the object of focus as a proximate end toward the ultimate end of fulfilling the UM mission. For Rendle, the mission itself is the focus. My concern with the VC approach is that, while its congregational focus is ostensibly in service to the UM mission, focusing on congregations easily falls into seeing congregations as ends in themselves. As Rendle suggests, seeing congregations as resources rather than ends (even proximate ends) may better enable us to keep the horse in front of the cart when it comes to mission and congregations.

Part of keeping the horse in front of the cart concerns tracking the right metrics. VC and Rendle agree on the importance of measuring results, but they differ with regard to the best way to measure. VC seeks to develop vital congregations by asking existing congregations to set goals pertaining to five metrics: worship attendance, professions of faith, number of small groups, members in mission, and missional giving. Rendle suggests an approach that is less directive and potentially more fruitful. Admitting the difficulty of tracking the qualitative changes the UMC seeks, and drawing on business guru Jim Collins, he argues,

When one can’t quantify results by counting the difference to be measured, then one has to be willing to describe the difference. At every level of the system leaders need to describe the difference they are trying to make with the greatest detail they can muster. Only then can we have conversations in our congregations, our conferences, and our national agencies about whether there is evidence that we are moving toward the change that we want. (58)

While Rendle doesn’t prescribe a specific method comparable to VC, his approach does offer the possibility of measuring results in a way that is more missionally focused. Rather than using measures handed down from the general level, individual congregations, districts, and annual conferences could describe the differences they seek to make in their ministry settings and then choose measures relevant to their particular missions. These measures would then be used to set goals and foster accountability. In so doing, UM boies could be accountable to fulfilling the UM mission without putting excessive emphasis on the congregation-centric and context-nonspecific measures employed by VC.

While I have problems with the Vital Congregations program, I am not averse to metrics in general or those prescribed by VC. All five are important and worthy of our attention (except number of small groups – how is that a better measure than percentage of membership/attendees in small groups?). Working through the VC program even helped one congregation I worked with to identify areas of that need to be addressed. I am concerned, however, that VC makes it terribly tempting to put the cart in front of the horse – to put congregations before mission. In Back to Zero, Gil Rendle offers insights that, especially when compared to the VC approach, can help UM bodies to live their mission more faithfully. He offers little, however, in the way of concrete suggestions that might help us transform these insights into missional fruitfulness. Particularly, I have a hard time seeing how delegates might implement those insights at the General Conference level (perhaps why I’m not a delegate!). Nevertheless, Back to Zero challenged me to rethink the ways that I seek to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, both as a pastor and as a disciple.

Focus by Lovett Weems – #GC12Book Study Part 1

As we approach General Conference 2012, several United Methodist bloggers are participating in a study of the books recommended for GC 2012 during Lent. The study is hosted by Rev. Jeremy Smith at HackingChristianity.net. We’ll read a different book each week. On Thursdays, HX will host discussion, and on Tuesdays, we’ll synchroblog our responses to the week’s book. For more information, check out this post.

One of the reasons I opted in for the first two books of the #GC12Book Study is my familiarity with the first two authors, Lovett Weems and Gil Rendle. I’ve read Rendle’s work and found it very helpful – particularly Holy Conversations. While I’ve not read much of Weems beyond a few short articles, people I respect refer often to his work, so I was eager to get his take on the situation facing the UMC. He self-consciously writes “out of the pragmatic tradition of our heritage” and focuses on “the practical manifestations of [biblical, theological, and historical] commitments” (preface). Weems deftly presents the challenges facing the UMC, and many of his suggestions for the General Conference, Annual Conference, and local church are very helpful. I may even seek to implement some of his ideas for the local church in my ministry context.

I found myself unable, however, to get beyond one difficulty: the book’s framing. Weems begins by comparing the institutional positions of the UMC and the New York Yankees in 1964, when both entered a period of decline. Since 1965, the UMC has lost membership every year (the Yankees, however, have won a few World Series since then). Weems’s research indicates that the denomination has been able to stave off the effects of decline because giving and assets have increased each year during the same span. Because of what he calls the coming “death tsunami,” though, the effects of decline are about to catch up with us. From here, Weems goes on to outline his suggestions in order “to survive the death tsunami and return to the growth of our witness at the same time” (near end of Ch. 1).

Weems makes clear that his desire is not the survival of the UMC for its own sake, but for the sake God’s mission in the world. Still, when the issue is framed this way (1. We’ve been in decline for a while, but we’ve weathered it thus far; 2. We can’t weather it any more; 3. Here’s how not to die), the goal becomes survival for its own sake rather easily. At the local church level, I’ve encountered many situations where churches wanted to grow and/or survive, but, aside from references to the UMC mission statement or a vague imperative to bear fruit, they could not articulate why they wanted to grow. They could not compellingly articulate a clear sense of mission, why people need Jesus, or how their particular church offers something relevant to the lives of people in their context. In such situations, church members assume that they know the answers, but they find themselves unable to articulate them when asked.

I’m afraid that beginning with statistics of decline and talk of a death tsunami only exacerbates the problem of seeking survival for its own sake. Unless we begin with a sense of the Gospel’s power to save, with a desire to love our neighbors that doesn’t derive from their being (only) a potential new member, and a sense that the Wesleyan tradition offers a distinctive and relevant way of following Jesus in the 21st century, I worry that we will end up working only to survive. And we end up promoting a vision that is not compelling to anyone who isn’t already significantly invested in our institution.

In the end, I think my complaint against Focus is that it doesn’t address the questions I needed it to address – the deeper questions of the purpose for which the UMC exists. And while it may be unfair to ask a book to be something it is not, at the same time, Focus enables us to continue to pursue notions of success defined by the business world without a sense of who God is calling us to be. And if we continue down that path, suggestions like Weems’s, no matter how effective or successful they are, will not lead us into God’s desires for the United Methodist Church.

I welcome your responses.

A Declaration of Intention

Let’s get it out there: I don’t want to begin this blogging endeavor with a hokey “first post” post, but I can’t see any way around it. I’ve tried – this is my third attempt to write this – but it seems inevitable. So I’ll try to make it as quick and painless as possible. I’m Brandon, and this is my WordPress site. I hope to use this as a place to work through the questions that arise from the space I occupy in the world – I’m a United Methodist pastor who is married (we’re not-quite-newlyweds) to a youth minister. We are currently living in Nashville, TN, where Courtney works as a youth minister and where I attended Vanderbilt Divinity School. As of January 1st, I pastor two congregations in Dickson, TN. Around the beginning of June, we plan to head to the land of our mothers – Oklahoma – to continue our work there.

A few years ago, my mother bought me a journal with a quote from David Hare on the cover: “The act of writing is the act of discovering what you believe.” My primary intention here is to discover what I believe regarding the questions that arise as I walk through life with my wife, the folks with whom I do ministry, and my God. One frequently recurring category pertains to living in connection with the United Methodist Church.  Since 2012 is divisible by 4, this is a General Conference year, and the United Methodist Publishing House has published five new books to help prepare  delegates (and non-delegates like myself) to study as they seek to address the challenges facing the UMC. Jeremy Smith at Hacking Christianity is hosting a #GC2012 Book Study for Lent, and I’ll be participating in the synchroblog that will occur each Tuesday in Lent – at least for the first two books. If you are interested, swim on over to HX on Thursday for questions and conversation on Lovett Weems’s Focus.

Thanks for reading. I intend to post approximately weekly, and I hope you’ll join in the conversation. I’ll strive to make it worth your time.