Monday, July 10, 2006

Where's the New Territory? Maybe it's the Old Territory?

Today I finished a long letter I wrote to Bishop Coyner. It probably won't go anywhere -- but I offer it here, nonetheless.

Dear Bishop Coyner,

Greetings! Ever since Annual Conference I’ve been thinking about something I heard you say and then read in the Daily Hoosier United Methodist dated Friday, June 10th, 2006. You are quoted as saying (and that’s how I recall it also) that “generation issues are our new territory.” You mentioned Veterans, Baby Boomers, Gen Xer’s, and Millenials.

I just wanted to offer a few words in response to your comments.

For over 20 years while attending Annual Conference I’m trying to remember a time, even in the Board of Global Ministries reports, where we the lay people and clergy and congregations of the Annual Conference were challenged to see our “new territory” as the poor (of any generation). Those generational categories (and I’ve looked at a lot of the materials on the subject) seem to be aimed pretty specifically at the middle class and above. It seemed to be so as well in your comments – as I thought of how few IPODS and computers I see in the ears and hands and homes of the young people of our parish.

I thought Randy Maddox’s “teachings” were a good reminder of what Wesley had to say and I assume that you had invited him as a reminder and challenge to us to see Wesley’s commitments and theology as fundamental (basic) to our own struggles and vision today.

Wesley had an incredibly strong commitment to the poor – first and foremost as the “new territory” for the church (he felt that the Anglican Church had wandered far from this, as I understand – though I’m certainly no scholar). And it was something much more substantial (to use that seems way too light) than the meager stuff we do now – like tutor kids (Wesley started schools), hand out food (Wesley invested in the poor through micro-lending and other ventures – not to mention his out-and-out advocacy of ending slavery), and send money to Operation Katrina (while Wesley was out advocating the redistribution of wealth). Personally, I think we should be embarrassed. I am.

This simply reminded me that whether in rural areas, suburban or urban areas our commitment to the poor is not based on where we are situated. It is based on where our hearts are situated.

We spent a lot of time at Annual Conference talking about “tithing.” It seems to me that for Wesley – giving and stewardship were more about our commitment to the poor than anything else. And that meant something far different than asking people to make sure to give to the “missions” part of the budget. For him the whole ministry of the church was situated in our commitment to the poor. And yet our discussion on tithing hardly touched this at all – it was all about keeping the institution up and running.

I have yet to see a stewardship program – either one that is sold as a program or one that a particular congregation or conference has created to fit themselves that makes as its very foundation our commitment to the poor (since that seems to be so central to the Biblical witness)). I imagine it is because we are afraid it “wouldn’t work.”

Now…I don’t have anything against having the institution up and running – but the question always arises “for what purpose.” A lot of folks here at Broadway work very hard to keep our institution up and running – but it really takes up a lot less of our time and energy and conversation than does our ministry (and by “our ministry” I don’t mean our official programming – I mean what we see happening in the lives of our members and friends and neighbors). Even our annual charge conference is mostly spent talking about the things that we see bubbling up in our neighborhood and in the lives and ministry of the people in our congregation in the larger community.

I had an experience as I left Annual Conference that shed some light on this…

On the way home, Scott Collins (Broadway’s lay delegate) and I, stopped off at Bear’s to get a bite to eat. Afterwards Scott needed an aspirin so we stopped in the Seven-Eleven around the corner. When Scott was up at the counter I heard him say, “Words of wisdom? You need to talk with my friend!” – and he was motioning me over. When I got to him the cashier explained that a friend of hers was graduating from high school that day and that she was collecting words of wisdom in a notebook, from all the customers in the store that day, to give to her friend.

I stepped off to the side, because I couldn’t think of anything to write. The next two people in line stepped to the counter and she explained the same thing to
them. “Cool,” the young man in line said and he wrote down two words…”Don’t die.” I thought…”oh yeah, sure…that’s what a teenager needs to hear – ‘be immortal’.” Later on I was thinking – you know when that teenage young woman gets to be 30 or 40 and is going through a particularly rough time – she may look at those two words and be encouraged. I stepped back to the counter as they left. I said – “would a quote be alright?” “Sure,” she answered, “I already have quotes from the Grateful Dead and Elvis.” “Well,” I said…”I was thinking of St. Augustine.” “That’s alright,” she said. And so I wrote, what I say every time we share communion, “Be What You See, Receive Who You Are, and Say Amen!” Scott wrote something (I don’t remember what it was now) and we left.

The Gospel lesson from John the next day was that text where Jesus says, “you must be born again…” and then goes on to say, “the wind blows where it will.” I kind of think that he was telling Nicodemus that while Nicodemus may think that salvation comes to the righteous, the good law abiding religious folk, I think he’s saying – you never know where that wind is going to blow. I thought about the gathering of United Methodists in the auditorium, all talking about ourselves (for the most part – heck, even when we talked about the devastation of Katrina it was almost exclusively, about the destruction of United Methodist Churches there). In Annual Conference when the stranger was talked about they were talked about as someone to be “helped” or “saved.” And then as we leave I go into a Seven-Eleven of all places and am met by a woman who sees every stranger who walks in the door as a person with a gift to give, and invites the giving. Yes indeed – “the wind blows where it will.”

With Randy Maddox there as a speaker at Annual Conference – don’t you think that one of the truly Wesleyan answers to that question of where our new territory is -- is not “generation x” and so-on, but instead one of the answers to that question is the poor? At least don’t you think that is one of Wesley’s answers? I think it odd (okay, maybe not really so odd) that we can have an entire annual conference – heck an entire 21 years for me since I graduated from seminary – and not one, not one bishop, not one annual conference, not one annual conference speaker has challenged us to center our ministry, our congregational life, our budget – around the poor! Instead we are challenged to “serve the poor” – certainly a Matthew 25 type of activity. But Jesus did much more than feed and clothe and visit the poor in prison (actually that last one we don’t have any story about in particular – he even sent his disciples to visit John the Baptist rather than going himself) – still you get the point…but instead Jesus hung out with the poor (and tax collectors and sinners). He tells stories where it is clear that the poor are invited to the banquet (not invited to come pick up a doggie bag at the door and then head on out).

We add people to our conference staff on clergy recruitment and retention. We have people who work on congregational development (and redevelopment?). We have people who work in camping…but no one to work to intentionally to strengthen our witness among and with the poor? And the Bishop’s Initiative on Children and Poverty is certainly very, very far from fulfilling any type of commitment to this.

Jesus’ commitment to the poor – heck the whole Biblical testimony to the commitment of faith to the poor is dramatic – if we cut out all the references to the poor in the Bible it would look like Swiss cheese (name anything else of which you can say the same – the only thing that would appear more often are variations on the word God – and I’m not sure the count wouldn’t be close).

I’m not asking us to add a staff person to increase our commitment to those who are poor – but at the least, at the very least, our Episcopal leader could remind us in words like those that appeared in the Together piece that we are called to be with the poor – not for THEIR salvation – but for our very own!

For example, what would it look like for our bishop to make a clear statement that the cabinet will make their appointments and base their actions, their lifestyles, and their public statements around their commitment to children and poverty (as the Bishop’s Initiative on Children & Poverty would seem to suggest)?

What if our congregations were challenged not to “help” the poor – but to go and listen to the poor (because we trust and know that God’s abundance is present there)?

What if we were to ask our conference staff members not to spend their time “resourcing local congregations” but instead, we ask them to invest in what God is doing among the poor of our communities and ask them to connect congregations to what God is doing in and among the poor?

Well…I’ve certainly gone on and on. If you are interested I would certainly like to talk with you about this.

Keep tellin’ the Story,

Rev. Michael Mather
Pastor, Broadway UMC


Blogger Steve said...

Wow! What a great letter. Have you heard anything from Bishop Coyner?

Your comments and analysis in this letter are 100% correct. I've made similar arguments in an early piece I wrote that has been re-worked recently for GBOD (

One of the arguments I make is that the church can only be "the Church" when it is in ministry with the poor. This was Wesley's understanding of ministry because it was so central to the ministry and life of Jesus Christ.

Thanks for sharing this letter. I pray that it begins a positive conversation with Bishop Coyner and action in the Annual Conference.

Thanks for your ministry.


10:53 PM  
Blogger Mike Mather said...

I haven't heard anything from Bishop Coyner yet...but I imagine I will hear something (just not sure what). I'll take a look at your piece -- thanks for letting me know about it.


9:14 AM  
Blogger Troy said...

I love this: "What if our congregations were challenged not to “help” the poor – but to go and listen to the poor (because we trust and know that God’s abundance is present there)?"

At Butch's funeral last week this very thought popped into my mind as a regret, that I had not spent enough time with him-- not necessarily for advancing his good, but my own! It was always clear to me everytime I saw him at church that he was full of a lot of good stuff. I can't really explain it but he seemed like this treasure God had given to us.

1:31 PM  
Blogger Mike Mather said...

Dear Troy,

Thanks for your comments. Butch is just another example of the goodness that surrounds us all the time -- but that we way too often miss in the larger church.


8:40 PM  
Blogger Amy said...

I share your feelings about our United Methodist Church. Thank you for writing so eloquently and passionately.

11:19 PM  
Anonymous Rachel Metheny said...

Preach it, brother! Hey Mike. I really needed to hear something like this right now. I have been thinking about my letter back to the Board of Ordained Ministry. One of things I want them to consider doing is adding some questions pertaining to our commitment to the poor for possible candidates for ministry. It seems that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find people who want to go into ministry who actually have a passion for the poor and outcast (not just somebody who wants to learn and thing of two). Of course, this actually challenges them to live out the gospel in radical ways, though as you say not unlike the ways that Wesley intended!!! I'm a little pissed at the church too! Thanks for being such a great advocate in the church. You always continue to give me inspitation. Rachel

5:05 PM  
Blogger Mike Mather said...

Rachel -- Great to hear from you all the way from Guatemala! We miss you back in Indy! I like your idea for the Board of Ordained Ministry -- be sure to include that in your letter to them!


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