good news

Round, round, get around, I get around

I went over to Wilderstead today to pay my excavator for straightening my creek and for completing the ring road around my cabin. This involved putting a culvert across the gully between the spur to the power pole and the other spur that goes by my cabin, then connecting the two spurs. So now, no one needs to do a three-point turn to get out of my hollow anymore.

He left two downed trees that he had to remove to put the ring in. I unlimbered my chain saw and whacked 'em up. I was going to stack them for firewood, but then I looked at the way rainwater will sheet across that road (and right under my cabin) and put the logs by the road in such a way that as dirt is flushed down the hill it will collect against the logs and dam the water, diverting it past the cabin. A bit of primitive landscaping, you could say. I'll need to do some more with some block on the uphill side and some other things to finish that project. I also need to install some reflectors on the downhill side of the culvert, since getting too close to that side in the dark could make for a really bad night.

My roofers showed up around 11:30 a.m. to continue work on reinstalling the trusses on my retirement cottage. It's slow work, but they were ploughing ahead with it. God speed the work.


The Wilderstead Bypass

Time Warp

I’ve been researching old tunes to match the lyrics of “The Wife of Usher’s Well,” an old British ballad about a woman whose three sons who were lost at sea return to her for a night. One of the key verses goes,
It fell about the Martinmas,
When nights are lang and mirk,
The carline wife’s three sons came hame,
And their hats were o’ the birk.
The birch was associated with the dead. The next verse talks about its significance:
It neither grew in syke nor ditch,
Nor yet in ony sheugh;
But at the gates o’ Paradise
That birk grew fair eneugh.
The woman is thrilled to have her sons returned to her, but of course, they cannot stay. But what has St. Martin’s Day (November 11) got to do with it? Well, in a sense, everything.

Our Hallowe’en is, of course, the night before All Saints’ Day (November 1): originally, All Hallows’ Eve. October 31 is also the traditional quarter-day celebration of the Celtic Samhain (pronounced sao-wen), a night when the barrier between the world of the living and the world of the dead is low and penetrable, and there can be traffic back and forth. Such traffic can be welcomed, of course – or feared – but is always a thing fraught with danger. The uncanny is only to be expected. The Christian celebration of the saints (and, next day, All the Faithful Departed – All Souls’ Day) was deliberately planted athwart the pagan holy day to ease Christian fears of what unsanctified spirits might do.

Meanwhile, in the early Middle Ages, the penitential season of Advent was longer than it is now. It started, in fact, on St. Martin’s Day and lasted seven weeks. Later on, it was linked to St. Andrew’s Day (November 30) and shortened to four weeks. But people with long memories (folk memory, not personal memory) still associated St. Martin’s Day with a focus upon preparing for the Day of Judgment.

And then, in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII updated the calendar, which had gotten out of synch with the solar year. It was a problem of long standing, and only the Pope had the international standing to fix it; unfortunately, the Protestant Reformation (not to mention, the Great Schism of 1054) meant that much of Europe ignored it for another two hundred years. (This is why George Washington has two birthdays, as we learn in school.) The calendar year had become ten days too long, so Pope Gregory decreed that Thursday, October 4, 1582, would be followed by Friday, October 15, 1582. All over Europe, Catholics were horrified that the Pope had taken ten days from their lives (as they saw it). Well, of course, he had done no such thing. He had just renumbered the days to fix the anomaly. But the unease over his action lingered. England (and Scotland) only adopted the New Style (as they called it) in September, 1752.

Now, “The Wife of Usher’s Well” is commonly dated to the 17th Century (the 1600s). Though it was written in England (Norfolk or the Scots Border, take your pick), it reflects the Continental usage of time-reckoning. For when the Pope dropped ten days from the calendar in early October, 1582, that meant that when the people were officially celebrating St. Martin’s Day (November 11), it was “really” All Saints’ Day (November 1), since even the Pope couldn’t really take ten days away from everybody. St. Martin’s Day came to be called Old Hallowe’en and Old Hallowmas Eve.

The point of this – in the ballad – is that the three sons came home at Martinmas – Old Hallowe’en, when the boundary between this world and the next is crossable, if only for a night. The three sons sneak out of heaven to ease their mother’s heart, but as they go back, one of them bids farewell to more than his mother:
’Fare ye weel, my mother dear!
Fareweel to barn and byre!
And fare ye weel, the bonny lass
That kindles my mother’s fire!’
It’s a song that deserves to be remembered, and a perfect song for this season.
mad hatter

The Eccentric and the Weirdo

Many years ago, I read an essay in TIME magazine by Pico Iyer called, “The Eccentric and the Weirdo.” This followed upon some outrage committed by somebody, of which I remember no specifics though it was long before the age of school shootings, I believe.

Anyway, Iyer talked about eccentrics – people who present themselves or behave in ways outside the social norm. Some are perhaps mentally disturbed, while others have just decided to be different. In any case, they present no danger to others. John Betjeman attending Oxford accompanied by his teddy bear, Archibald Ormsby-Gore, would be a good example of a mild eccentric. Betjeman was a failure at Oxford, but that didn’t stop him from becoming Poet Laureate and a successful journalist. Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico (1818-1880) would be another example of an eccentric whose quirks ran a bit deeper. Norton was a man who became dissociated from his personal reality of business failure and thereafter dressed in a bandbox uniform, going about San Francisco as if on an imperial tour of his domain. He wrote President Lincoln about how to handle the Civil War, and Lincoln wrote back in a respectful manner. He lived in poverty, printing his own money which local restaurateurs honored. Everyone humored him, and when he died his funeral was one of the largest ever seen in his hometown. He was part of the scene.

The weirdo is different from the eccentric. The eccentric stands out in a crowd. The eccentric cultivates differentness. But the weirdo is like a leaf hiding in the forest. The weirdo cultivates the appearance of normality. Some are wholesome, family types or community leaders, who nevertheless conceal beneath their exterior awful desires and/or behaviors. Think John Wayne Gacy, the pedophile serial killer. People are always shocked when weirdos commit outrages. They would be the last anyone suspected of such things. Other weirdos mimic the eccentrics, counting on getting the same pass from others that the genuine eccentrics do. Think Charles Manson and his ‘family,” who presented as harmless hippies but were anything but. Some weirdos do get noticed, but the people around them usually do not try to restrain them – until they go from being merely a “loner” to being a school shooter or something.

In any case, Iyer said that the presence of the eccentric and the tolerance for him is an indicator of a healthy society. We are not disturbed by people who are different. We can let them indulge their whims or mild delusions. It costs us nothing to do so. But the presence of the weirdo and our denial at times of what should be clear to us is an indicator of a sick society. Where I differ from Iyer is that I believe the same society can be capable of tolerating the eccentric and at the same time incapable of detecting the weirdo.

And I think that one of the key things that distinguishes eccentricity from weirdo-hood is not merely the likelihood of committing outrages like gun violence or sexual violation, but the demands each places upon the rest of us in society. It costs us little to humor the eccentric, while accommodating the weirdo costs us much. Someone who claims to have been Cleopatra’s bath slave in a previous life may be a bore, but her chatter at the water cooler can be easily ignored. But if the person with the reincarnation fixation were to demand that all others interact with her in ancient Egyptian, that would go beyond eccentricity. Even though she poses no physical danger to anyone else, her demands distort society all around her and cause everyone inconvenience. And if management were to humor her and demand that the rest of us accommodate her desires or lose our jobs, then that is an outrage. In today’s world, that is not a fanciful possibility. People all over want to leverage their supposed victimhood not only to act in an eccentric manner, but to force others to change their behavior to match the reality they’ve chosen – or else. In so doing, they have crossed over from eccentric to weirdo.

A healthy society tolerates eccentrics, but a healthy society should not tolerate weirdos. I think that to be a fundamental distinction. But putting it in practice requires creating and sustaining a societal consensus that is itself healthy, which is not an easy task. Meanwhile, an inquisitorial age, whether it seeks to detect and punish witches or heretics or sexual deviants or traitors or bigots, is always prone to act as a sick society at times, even if the dangers it seeks to combat are real. And a society that puts the weirdos in charge of the inquisition will commit untold damage to everybody before the fever burns itself out.
distress signal

The diagnosis is the easy part

A world dominated by China will be an uglier world. To keep China from bullying other nations, the US and our friends and allies need to decide where the boundaries (political, military, economic, social) are, then enforce those boundaries. To lead that coalition, the US needs not only a more well-thought out foreign policy, but a more robust military (particularly in our long-neglected surface fleet). And we need to once again engage the world in trade. And to do all that, we need to get our fiscal house in order.

We need to pay down the debt. We need to quit inventing new benefits. We need to quit squandering money generally. We need to pare back the administrative state. We need to re-orient our priorities so that the non-discretionary part of our budget is under control. Meanwhile, we need to quit relying on China for our manufacturing (and for buying up our debt). All this is the work of many years, and it must be sustained for at least forty years – all of which requires a broad consensus in government, which requires a broad consensus in the people.

But let’s face it. There is NO appetite in this country for any of that. We are chasing moonbeams, denouncing each other as oppressors, coddling political violence. Each of us believes one can declare one’s own reality – and then force everyone else to live in it. The sheer volume of Stupid is overwhelming, and not just Stupid, but Nasty. The problem isn’t the fools and would-be tyrants in Washington, but the fools and would-be tyrants in every town and institution in the country.

I was born at the very height of US power and influence. That I may live to see the curtailment of it and the rise of a despicable regime that contemplates the enslavement of millions – billions! – grieves me more than I can say. And again, the problem isn’t in Washington. It’s in Us.

Autumnal thoughts

Another birthday approaches. At my age, birthdays aren’t as special as they once were. I don’t look forward to them much. I don’t regret them or fear them, mind you. But things are different when you have more behind you than ahead of you. The tale is not yet finished, but there are only a few chapters remaining.

I tried to talk to Daniel about this over the summer, particularly when his other grandfather died. I told him that I wasn’t worried about my own death, though I know it could come as suddenly as Lew’s. I’m at the age where people of my generation are dropping out by ones and twos. It comes to us all. But neither am I giving up on life and just waiting for Jesus.

In his writings on Middle-earth, J.R.R. Tolkien explained why his demiurgic Powers, the Valar, seemed to do so little to aid in the conflict between the free peoples and the Dark Lord. He explained that having built the earth from the elements up, they couldn’t just tear it apart to root out evil without also ruining it for the people who lived there. Also, the longer the story of the world ran, and the closer it got to its fulfillment, the less there was for the powers who began it to do. You can’t just change the theme in the next to last chapter; by that time, there isn’t room to work that much new into it. Massive intervention and fundamental changes of plan just aren’t in the cards.

By the time you’re my age, your life is pretty much what you’ve made it. You have, one may hope, a few good years left to do some new things, or maybe some of the same stuff a few more times, but you’re not going to change what your life has been all about. I’m not going to start a new career, or get another degree, though I might publish a book or take my grandsons on more special trips. And though I might live many more years yet, the years I have left in which I can be really active are fewer than that. I mean, I’ve always loved the outdoors, but the ground is getting harder all the time to sleep on, you know? The time will come when I’ll want to go back inside and sleep in my bed, no matter how lovely it is outside.

Blessed are those who reach my age and are satisfied with how they’ve spent their years. (Actually, blessed are those who reach my age at all, but that’s another thing.) I look back over my life and am happy with what I’ve done. Oh, it would have been grand to have done even more, to have risen higher, or gone more places, or whatever. But I did good work in the field to which I was called. “A workman unashamed” and all that. I was not entirely unprofitable to the Lord. And I may have a few more licks to get in for God before I’m done.

My focus these days is on my family, particularly two little boys I want to help navigate the passage to adulthood with. And I have a few things on my bucket list yet. I have a secret prayer or two I beseech God to answer. There are still a few things to desire, and to strive for. But mostly, I’m just living in the present, enjoying yet another fall. Fall was always my favorite time of year, though spring has recently been surpassing it in my esteem. But I’m trying to quit looking past the current season, to be in a hurry to get someplace. I was always in a hurry, but there’s not much of anywhere left to go. There is simply Now, and Now is good, a gift from the hand of God.

Questions, Part 5 – the Profession of Ministry

The Northumbrian Priests Law was promulgated by Archbishop Wulfstan of York sometime around 1020-1023, making it more or less exactly a thousand years old. In it, the good Archbishop set down his expectations for his parish clergy on the wild and wooly frontier of eleventh-century Northumbria. His priests were not, alas, very highly educated, and they were also, alas, likely to be married (celibacy was still only required for monks and monk wannabes at this time), but still, some kind of professional standards had to be maintained. Among his requirements were a) that they shaved regularly, and b) that they refrained from serving as ale-minstrels.

Well, times change and with them, the expectations on the professional clergy. In the questions posed to every candidate for clergy membership in the Annual Conference – each of which expects a positive answer – the question of professional standards is broached. In their approach to the use of time and other resources, we are dealing here with Wesley’s expectations, not Wulfstan’s.
17. Are you determined to employ all your time in the work of God?
18. Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work?
19. Will you observe the following directions?
a) Be diligent. Never be unemployed. Never be triflingly employed. Never trifle away time; neither spend any more time at any one place than is strictly necessary.
b) Be punctual. Do everything exactly at the time. And do not mend our rules, but keep them; not for wrath, but for conscience’ sake.

That first question (No. 17) seems to echo an earlier question in the first section, concerning the spiritual life of the clergy: 5. Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly to God and his work? But we should probably make this distinction, that this second iteration is concerned with The Job, not with God’s claim on our souls. Those being admitted in Full Connection are not, usually, going to be the kind of clergy engaged in what we call “bi-vocational ministry” or “tent-making.” What we are being asked is, “Will you keep your side-hustle, if any, under control?” Those being paid a full-time salary – with generous benefits – ought to make sure that they give their best efforts to those who are paying them. Anything they do on the side to generate income should be seemly for a minister of the gospel to engage in, and (equally important) not get in the way of their official job.

Now, the clergy, being one of the three traditionally learned professions, have various opportunities to earn honoraria by speaking and teaching here and there, or by selling books and articles for publication. But we all know clergy who spend a lot of time away from their appointed parishes preaching revivals or addressing convocations or just being a celebrity. There is an issue here of giving an honest amount of work for the salary and benefits accompanying the job that we were actually assigned to do. For many years, my Conference had a rule that no minister could accept preaching engagements outside the parish exceeding two weeks (including two Sundays) in any given year without the express permission of his Staff-Parish Relations Committee.

Likewise, the Elders of the Church (and now, Deacons in Full Connection) have filled many responsibilities for the running of the machine: acting as superintendents, presiding over Charge Conferences, serving on Conference and denominational agencies or as a General Conference delegate, volunteering for a Conference church camp, serving on the Board of Ordained Ministry or one of the District Committees on Ministry, acting as mentors to ministerial candidates, yada yada yada. This is all part of our responsibility to the church at large, but not to our local parishes which are paying our salaries. Once again, the need to keep all this in perspective is important. It is not fair to use one’s appointment as a mere salary-paying machine to finance the other stuff one wants or needs to do. That would make it a mere benefice, a thing that should make good Methodists shudder in disapproval.

The questions regarding the use of time (No. 19, a and b) are straight out of the driven world of John Wesley. We who are only too aware of the tendency to burn out in the pursuit of other people’s good need to be frequently reminded of our need for Sabbath rest. Wesley’s insistence on redeeming the time seems excessive to us. But then, I have met far too many clergy who could not measure up to basic professional standards, like returning phone calls in a timely manner, or submitting forms on time, or even being at a meeting they were committed to being at. Sometimes this is sloppiness or mental laziness; sometimes it is a symptom of burnout or depression. But if the young adult inclined to take a free and easy attitude towards being at work on time should not be indulged by the manager of a Dairy Queen, then neither should a professional with a fancy education be allowed to get away with standing people up or keeping them waiting unduly: not those who are paying his salary, nor colleagues who are also incredibly busy, and certainly not those he would wish to attract to membership and/or leadership in the Church of Jesus Christ. Alas, there are too many of these airheads. This is something seminary cannot fix; this requires close and helpful supervision in the earliest years by a mentor who is a master of his or her own time.

The question about debt is often accompanied by a certain amount of tittering among those who know only too well how much in student loans these candidates are still carrying. At the same time, keeping up with the social and dress demands of a white collar job on a blue collar salary can be challenging. But to quote Super Chicken, “You knew the job was dangerous when you took it, Fred.” There are certain financial strains that accompany the mission. Learning to manage your own finances is a basic requirement of discipleship and leadership. As for me, I long ago decided, in the words of Charles Williams, that “labour without grudge is labour without grief.” After getting through Charge Conference which set my salary each year, I determined as far as I could to forget how much money I was making. We budgeted in a little mad money each pay period so we wouldn’t feel poor, no matter what our actual situation was. Getting your debt under control frees you to approach life like one of its landlords, not as a tenant farmer facing eviction. And in the end, you cannot do good ministry if you are constantly resentful of those who pay you so little or envious of those who have more than you do.

Finally, we have that last bit of advice we are asked to affirm, which comes to us from Father Wesley: And do not mend our rules, but keep them; not for wrath, but for conscience’ sake. If you are the kind of person we have to threaten with consequences to get you to fulfill the ordinary expectations of your role, then you are going to be miserable, and you are going to make us miserable, too. Having agreed to all our rules up front and without coercion, you should take it as a point of honor to fulfill the expectations of your role without a lot of other legal stuff. And if you’re going to be that kind of person, who’ll do right simply because you want to do right, then we will always have a place for you.

Questions, Part 4 – Best practices for the clergy

In the examination of new clergy before the Annual Conference, there are only three questions asking for commitments regarding pastoral practice. They are as follows.
14. Will you diligently instruct the children in every place?
15. Will you visit from house to house?
16. Will you recommend fasting or abstinence, both by precept and example?
Looking over these questions, I want to ask, Why these three? Are we specifically asked about these because they are more important than other things we could be doing? Or are we asked about these because these are typically the things that get ignored in our attempts to wrap our arms around the task to be done? Either way, when I look at what clergy I know are actually doing – including very successful clergy, pastoring large and successful congregations, who write all those books and lead all those seminars in “How We Do It At Mega-Miracle Church” – I don’t see a lot of emphasis on these things. This should lead us to re-examine the meaning of “success” in pastoral practice.

Over the years of my work, in every pastorate I served, I knew the name of every child in my church. And I made it a point to spend quality time with them. I guest-taught in their Sunday School classes, I did youth work, I led retreats, I taught the PRAY (Scouting) awards and VBS. Once I had a 5-year-old boy whose dog had been run over in the driveway by his dad (ouch), and I went to call on him at home. His mother asked me about the purpose of my call, and I said I was there to see Austin. I told him I was sorry about his dog, and he took me out in the backyard and showed me where they buried him and talked to me about his dog. I couldn’t “fix” the hurt, and didn’t try; I was just there to show him that he counted as much with me as the adults did; I was his pastor, too. Nowadays, a lot of churches shuffle the kids off to “children’s church,” which I think is really bad liturgical practice. “Oh, we’re doing things on their level there,” my colleagues say. Baloney. You’re getting rid of them so you can change what worship feels like for the adults. This is bad for kids, and it’s bad for adults. One of John Wesley’s preachers told him once upon a time that he didn’t feel that he had a call from God to work with the young. That was too bad, Wesley replied, because the job description included working with the young, call or not (hint from Mr. W: if you want to keep your job, you’ll get a call real fast). I note that we are not only asked to “instruct the children in every place,” but diligently to instruct them.

As for doing pastoral calls, society has changed a great deal since I started out. People no longer know how to receive guests – including the pastor – in their homes. They’re frantically busy, they’re embarrassed at the wreck their house is in, the art of conversation has decayed. Unless there’s a specific need to be addressed or a social event, the clergy really aren’t expected to drop by. Most pastoral calls center on hospitals and nursing homes. Yet it remains important for the clergy to get out there and meet the people on their turf. It’s too easy to sell Jesus wholesale from your holy warehouse, doing church admin, preparing the next Sunday blockbuster show, holding meetings on the premises. It’s far harder to go retailing Jesus where people actually live. Now “their turf” includes not only their homes, but their workplaces, their schools (including athletic and arts performances), even the post office downtown – so long as something significant is exchanged and not merely a “howdy.” Pastors need to get out and meet people in circumstances other than their religious fortress. And people need the witness of God’s presence where they live and work and play. Now, back in the day, Class Leaders participated in this shepherding activity, and in all but the smallest congregations today’s pastors need the laity’s assistance in providing pastoral care. But it remains true that life is lived out there, and if you think your work is all in here, then you won’t be very effective, no matter how large a congregation you lead.

Of all the spiritual disciplines, fasting or abstinence seems the least well understood and practiced. Nowadays, Protestants as well as Catholics often “give something up for Lent,” but that’s about as far as it goes. Except for dieting, which obsesses many people; however, dieting is not the same as fasting. No doubt, “every missed meal can be a fast” if only your spirit is right, but most people aren’t thinking about God as they struggle to lose weight. That said, some of the pastors whom I respect the most for their spiritual maturity do fasting as a frequent practice. They don’t brag about it, but they don’t shy away from talking about it, either. I’m guessing that if we want to recover the spiritual power we’ve lost as a movement, we need to start taking this seriously again – all of us.

Questions, Part 3 – Keeping the clergy honest

In my last post on this topic, I offered more encouragement than evaluation to aspiring clergy. This is appropriate, particularly when talking about spiritual commitments. Yes, a failure of faith or discipleship on the part of a pastor can lead to catastrophic consequences for both clergy and parishioners, but I still would tend to approach such a failure with sympathy rather than condemnation. There but for the grace of God go I, as the saying has it.

But as we move through the examination of candidates, the new clergy are asked to make a set of affirmations that are also promises. The beginnings of a covenant are here, not merely of mutual support but of mutual accountability. The second batch of questions asked of every candidate for full membership in the Annual Conference concerns denominational standards.
6. Do you know the General Rules of our Church?
7. Will you keep them?
8. Have you studied the doctrines of The United Methodist Church?
9. After full examination, do you believe that our doctrines are in harmony with the Holy Scriptures?
10. Will you preach and maintain them?
11. Have you studied our form of Church discipline and polity?
12. Do you approve our Church government and polity?
13. Will you support and maintain them?
The General Rules are those of the Methodist Societies out of which the Methodist Episcopal Church was created in 1784. They are not so much doctrinal in nature as practical. There are three basic principles: Do no evil; Do all the good you can; Be faithful in your use of the means of grace (worship, prayer, Bible study, the sacraments, etc.). These were the behavioral standards expected of all Methodists back in the day, and those who would not live by them literally had their tickets pulled: in Mr. Wesley’s day, you had to have a ticket (renewed quarterly) to participate in a Methodist class meeting, and without participation in a class, you were no Methodist.

The candidate promises to “keep” the General Rules. This means, obviously, to live by the Rules oneself, but it implies something more. For in early Methodist days, it was the leadership – the Class Leaders and the itinerant preachers – who kept tabs on those who were making the effort to sustain their discipleship and those who weren’t. If you are going to be put in charge of a parish, you will have an outsized influence on determining who gets promoted to leadership. The pastor is thus the “quality control” officer. It is commonly said that a church needs its best givers on the Finance Committee. It could equally well be said that a church needs people who really want to live for Christ in all leadership positions, for without those eager to grow in grace leading the church, the church will wind up coasting under the leadership of the lazy and self-satisfied, and the parish will become a religious club instead of an engine for fulfillment of the mission of the Church. This puts the pastor in a terrible squeeze when faced with the locally powerful, I know, and I’m not trying to make the pastor responsible for all outcomes here. But it falls to the pastor to articulate either a high-demand vision or a low-demand vision of discipleship. To do the job that needs to be done, you are going to step on some toes. Smile when you do it, but don’t let the fear of local poohbahs deter you from getting specific about how we are to live out our three basic Rules.

The candidate also affirms his or her adequate knowledge of our doctrines, agrees that those doctrines are in harmony with the Scriptures, and promises to preach and maintain them. Now, it is to our shame that we have people with MDiv degrees who have been taught everything but our doctrines, and furthermore, don’t care. We have clergy who either think their doctrines are Scriptural, or that the Scriptures themselves don’t matter; either way, they are teaching “their” theology, not the official stuff contained in our denominational standards. You can hear them say, “Well, in my theology . . . “ (I’d like to know when these personal theologies got handed out. I must have missed that day in seminary.) And, of course, you have all kinds of clergy, at every level, who preach and maintain doctrines contrary to our official standards of teaching, and think they have license to do so: “freedom of the pulpit” and all that. But this is a matter of common honesty. You are being paid to teach one thing, but you expect to teach something else and still retain your position. This is fraudulent. Your opinions may be honestly come by, but you are taking money under false pretenses. Honesty would demand that if you don’t agree with our doctrines, you resign your position and go find somewhere your teaching will match the official standards of whatever ecclesial body you wind up in. Both progressives and traditionalists of various sorts are equally guilty here.

The candidates are then asked about our denominational discipline and polity, the rules under which we govern ourselves. They are asked to give their approval of these, so there can be no question of them being subject to rules they did not assent to. And they are asked if they will support and maintain them: no working around them, no wink-and-a-nudge-Bob’s-your-uncle, no refusal to do what is expected of them. And yet, we still find clergy who refuse to obey the rules without a squawk; worse, we have leaders -- bishops and superintendents and senior clergy – who actively subvert or disobey the rules they have been given the power to enforce, who shield others from obeying the plain rules established by our denominational procedures. This is simply shameful.

Much of the dysfunction of The United Methodist Church, which is ultimately leading to separation between its major factions, is because we have clergy who haven’t kept their promises in this section of the examination. They stood before the Annual Conference and promised – but they have let the church grow flabby under their leadership, they have presumed they had license to teach their own doctrines instead of the official ones, and they have made the gold standard of our discipline and polity “whatever you can get away with.” Many of them are very nice people, but they are acting in a manner no organization can accept in its leaders and continue to thrive.

Ah, but people grow and change, Arthur. Yes, they do. But if you are a paid agent of one party who comes to believe in and work for the success of another party’s platform, then you need to be honest with yourself and with those you are in connection with, and leave your cushy position to advocate in that other party’s ranks. And if you won’t, then those of us who still believe in our party’s platform need to expel you from your place – not because we’re mean and intolerant, but because our indifference or impotence is doing actual harm to the stated mission of the movement, and we promised to support and maintain the rules, doctrines, discipline and polity of that movement.

This problem will not go away after the Great and Awful Day of Separation comes and goes. In both the post-separation UMC, the new Global Methodist Church to be, and whatever else comes out of this mess, the need for the clergy to hold each other to their commitments will remain. This is why we have a professional body of clergy in the first place. Somebody has to be responsible for training, credentialing, deploying, supervising -- and holding accountable -- other members of the congregation of the clergy.

Questions, Part 2 -- The spiritual life of the clergy

A charge to keep I have, a God to glorify,
a never-dying soul to save and fit it for the sky
-- Charles Wesley

Every ministerial candidate seeking admission to full membership in the Annual Conference is expected to answer a series of questions. The first five of these questions pertain to his or her own spiritual life.
1. Have you faith in Christ?
2. Are you going on to perfection?
3. Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life?
4. Are you earnestly striving after it?
5. Are you resolved to devote yourself wholly to God and his work?

Now, you’d think this would go without saying. Yeah, you’d think. But because this is really serious business, we have to pause and ask the obvious, lest we rush past it. It’s too important not to address. For, as John Wesley discovered in his fiasco-laden mission to North America, you can’t give to others what you don’t have yourself. Not only that, but no organization should want as a leader someone who’s not sold out on the goal we are in the business of pursuing. The first duty of the minister, then, is to be what we want everyone to be, a disciple of Jesus Christ. And that means not only having the right relationship with God in Christ, but also living the life Christ calls us all to.

Now, clergy do a lot of “spiritual” things. They plan and lead worship, and their attendance is the most regular of anybody’s. They pray a lot, especially with other people. They are involved in multitudinous good works. They read the Bible with great attention to prepare sermons and lessons. They appear, therefore, to be far more religious than most of their fellows. But . . . all these activities are not a substitute for the spiritual life we expect every Christian to maintain. These are in addition to the ordinary discipleship expected of every Christian. The Job requires a lot of religious activity, but the pastor has one’s own soul to keep in health, and doing for others is not the same thing as doing for yourself. This is why James said, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.”

Not only that, but the stresses of the pastoral life can be very wearing – and even toxic. C.S. Lewis noted that no doctrine seems so flimsy as the one you have just successfully defended; you can find yourself wondering, “Do I really believe this?” even as you say the magnificent words you are required to say. Moreover, you can easily come to resent the demands on your time, the comparatively low pay, the lack of real friends, the sacrifices your family (especially your children) make. You become cynical about those placed over you (not without some justice, many times, but still, an insubordinate attitude will hurt you more than it hurts your incompetent bosses). And you can also so burn out on religious people that once you get free of The Job, you don’t want to participate in anything churchy ever again.

Well. I’m retired now, so I’m back to where I started, just trying to be a Christian. I no longer have The Job, with its structure provided by my overloaded calendar, to hold me up – to make me read the Bible, pray, worship, etc. So it’s all back on me now. And I never had much of a formation experience. I was a church orphan: no one ever taught me how to pray, how to spend my time, how to form proper devotional habits. I pray a lot, but I have no regular devotions. We give to church and missions causes, and we do so in an organized way. And I still go to church. I give myself time off now and then, but I go pretty regularly, even though I struggle to pay attention and get out of the service what I need. It’s hard – but I haven’t given up. Festina lente, as the Emperor Augustus used to say. “Make haste slowly.” I’m still trying to reach that bright city up ahead, and though I’m limping and sore, I still declare of Jesus, “Whom have I in heaven but thee?” He is still my goal, my heart’s desire, the only thing I’m counting on. As the old spiritual puts it,
He made me a watchman, upon the city wall,
and if I am a Christian, I am the least of all.
But least and last, it doesn’t matter, so long as I make it in the end. As for my colleagues, I want you to realize it's a long trip. Take care of your soul, and don't give up.