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“Will you recommend fasting or abstinence both by precept and example?” This question is one of the traditional questions asked of every person who is about to be ordained an elder in The United Methodist Church. Of course, the answer we give in response to this question is, “Yes”. So today, I would like to commend fasting to you.
This week the jurisdictional conferences begin the important work of electing bishops to serve in The United Methodist Church, I would like to urge you, my United Methodist brothers and sisters to spend some time, perhaps even a day or two, in prayer and fasting as we intercede for those who are making these decisions for our church.
Fasting is an often neglected spiritual discipline in our church these days. And I have to say that this fact dismays me. My experience has been that God HONORS fasting and prayer. The status quo is disrupted and GOD STUFF starts happening. I don’t quite understand it, but I can testify to it. I wish I could tell you that God will always answer your prayers the way you want them answered, but I can’t. Sometimes nothing seems to happen and sometimes something different than you expect happens; but often something amazing begins.
Whenever I commend fasting to friends and colleagues, I invariably hear protests. “I can’t fast”, the friend says. “I’m on a special diet.” My answer to that is simple…you have an incorrect view of fasting. It is possible for almost anyone to prayerfully fast. Please note that I said PRAYERFULLY—that is the key. Fasting needs to be led, and directed by the Holy Spirit. It is gracious, not overly arduous. It begins with prayer and serves to remind us to pray throughout the day. I am diabetic, so when I fast it no longer means giving up eating. For me it may mean giving up meat for a day, or a week. Or sometimes, I choose to give up watching television and/or abstaining from using my computer. Once I gave up reading and sound (tv and radio) for a day; and frankly, that was one of the most refreshing fasts I have ever experienced. That day, I simply walked along the river, observed nature, and listened for God’s voice. I made some space for God; and I believe I heard God’s clear message.
This is not a sermon or a deep theological reflection. It is a call to fast. I would simply like to adhere to my ordination vow as an elder in the United Methodist Church by commending fasting by both precept and example. Please join me sometime this week as you are able and as you are led.
Recently I came across a thought provoking blog post written by Chris Lehman, the principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, entitled “Making Teachers Rich”. The article deals with the hot-button issue of merit pay for educators and the notion among education reformers that higher pay for the best teachers is a key to attracting the best teachers to the profession. Lehman begins by reflecting on a statement by Jason Kamras, the Washington, DC district’s chief of human capital, who says, “We want to make teachers rich”. Lehmen then says,
Economically, teaching should be a wonderfully middle-class career.
You should be able to buy a house in the district you teach in.
You should be able to afford to send your own children to college.
You should be able to teach for a career and then retire with a pension.
You should not feel like teaching is unsustainable economically.
I don’t think teachers should aspire to riches, and I worry that someone who is running the Human Resource department of a major urban district would think we should.”
“To me, that speaks to so much that is wrong in our country. Right now we have a disappearing middle-class… and those of us left in the middle class are made to feel that our grip on it is tenuous at best. I worry this creates a dichotomy where there is only “rich” and “poor” – and that is no good for our country. I make more money as a high school principal than I ever thought I would when I went into education…. and I make about 125% what a teacher at the top of the pay scale in Philly makes. That should be enough. What bothers me is that making a teacher’s salary (or even a principal’s salary) doesn’t feel secure. I don’t know how I’m going to pay for Jakob and Theo’s college… and I worry a lot that the pension and social security that should take care of me when I’m retired won’t be there. I worry that the house my wife and I bought could lose value – although Philly has held value much better than most places in the country. Dealing with those issues as a society would go a long way toward making teachers feel much more financially secure than a raise based on test scores ever could.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be economically secure. But thinking that we are going to somehow find the “best” teachers and make them rich is to set teachers off on a chase for something that makes the kids a mere means to an end that we shouldn’t be chasing in the first place.
Let’s make teachers feel secure economically. Let’s make sure there’s a middle class for them to belong to. Let’s make a life of service honorable and secure. But let’s not forget that service doesn’t have to — and probably shouldn’t — “make you rich.”
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As a retired pastor and as a teacher, I agree with Lehman completely; and I can’t help noticing that a parallel controversy is happening in the United Methodist Church. Greed has infiltrated both systems. In the church we think that we will attract bright young people to seek a career in the ministry if we dangle the prospect of a high salary. We try to recruit the brightest and the best young adults to be the future leaders of our congregations.
Somehow, the United Methodist Church has forgotten that Jesus did not seek out and call the best and the brightest folks to be his disciples. He chose rugged fishermen, a despised tax collector, and other ordinary people to be the leaders of his movement. Jesus did NOT promise his followers wealth, fame, or adulation. In fact, he told them right up front that he was headed down a difficult road that would culminate in a cross. As we seek to develop a “culture of call” I am concerned that I am hearing recruiting pitches and I am NOT hearing preaching that asks young adults to “deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus.”
I don’t think we should become a denomination anchored by mega-churches. I believe we should adopt a new vision of recreating the middle class in the United States, and CREATING a middle class in areas of extreme poverty. Historically, the Wesleyan movement is credited with preventing a bloody revolution of the poor in England. Methodists cared for the poor, set up schools, and reformed the nation through their emphasis on spreading scriptural holiness throughout the land. That is a worthy mission for us now in the 21st century as well.
Instead of enticing young men and women to enter the ministry with a promise of wealth and super-stardom, I believe we should be planning to work toward the restoration of the MIDDLE class. It will take hard work, personal sacrifice, and a lofty vision of staying contentedly in the ordinary middle to make it happen. I believe my petition to General Conference on creating a More Equitable Salary may be a step in the right direction.
Do you agree? Or do we need to appeal to greed and ambition in order to become a healthy church?
Coretta Scott King was my teacher. In 1980, when I was a student at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, Mrs. King and Dr. Noel Erksine co-taught a course on the Theology of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. It was an extraordinary opportunity, and it turned out to be a class that continues to influence my life.
The class was rigorous academically. We read all of Dr.King’s published work, Mrs. King’s autobiography, My Life With Martin Luther King, Jr. , and David Lewis’ biography, King. In addition, we were required to write a major term paper. (I earned a “C” on my paper which attempted to describe the influence of Gandhi on Dr. King.) Mrs. King was able to schedule presentations by some notable associates of her husband. Particularly, I remember presentations by Dr. Harold DeWolf (Dr. King’s dissertation professor from Boston University), and The Rev. Ralph Abernathy. We were disappointed when Ambassador Andrew Young cancelled his presentation to a combined class from the law school and the theology school due to an African president’s funeral that President Carter asked him to attend. Mrs. King was gracious, elegant, and personable as she offered us her personal perspective and memories of her life as a civil rights leader. We were well-instructed in the principles of non-violent direct action; and we were repeatedly told that non-violent direct action is NOT the same thing as pacifism. (I was dismayed to see a section in Wikipedia describing Mrs. King as a pacifist when I looked it up just now.) The entire class was remarkable, and I will not forget our last class session when we stood in a circle, crossed our arms, held hands, and sang “We Shall Overcome.” Mrs. King was a trained soprano (The New England Conservatory of Music in Boston) and her beautiful voice rang out clearly above the entire class as we sang.
In my work as a United Methodist pastor, and as a public school teacher, I have continued to look for ways to work for justice, peace, and racial equality. In the church, I served on the Florida Conference Commission on Religion and Race, the conference Ethnic Local Church Committee, and the work area on Church and Society. Each of these groups gave me an avenue to express my quest for justice, equality, and peace. Through the years I made conscious attempts to step over racial boundaries in whatever community I happened to be living. I became acquainted with the neighboring pastors of African American churches, and I attended worship in these churches when it was possible. I routinely attended the local observance of Dr. King’s birthday even when I was the only white face. On one occasion I was even asked to give a spontaneous speech at such a community gathering. Eventually, I was appointed to be the pastor of a small African American congregation as part of a two point charge in Ft. Myers, Florida. I served that congregation for three years, and I felt honored to get to know that community on an intimate level as only a pastor is privileged to do. I was pleased to find occasions to connect the congregations. When the African American Church held a barbecue, some of my white congregation would attend, and when the white congregation held a rummage sale, the favor was reciprocated. The women from the two churches would carpool together to district UMW meetings, and several times we were able to hold Bible studies together.
It wasn’t always easy, though. I paid a price for my quiet activism. In one congregation I served, some of the leaders were disturbed by several of my “unseemly” actions. I scandalized some in the congregation by officiating at the large wedding of an African American couple in “our” sanctuary. And a number of folks stayed home in protest on the night I invited the AME choir to sing at our annual revival meeting. Even though I seldom preached on the topic of racial justice, I stirred up the issue through my actions. I didn’t stay long in that church; and I was grateful for the guaranteed appointment that The United Methodist Church offers ordained elders in full connection.
As a teacher, I have also found ways to honor Dr. and Mrs. King. It has actually been fairly easy to incorporate something about Dr. King into each class I taught. As a reading teacher, I taught two groups of Kreyol-speaking Haitian kids how to sing “We Shall Overcome.” We discussed the importance of the song, and I introduced Dr. King to them as an important figure in American history. As an eleventh grade English teacher, I expanded our study of King’s Letter from the Birmingham Jail. We searched the letter for examples of rhetorical devices as our curriculum required; but we also discussed the historical context of the letter. I brought in my signed copy of Dr. King’s book The Trumpet of Conscience, and showed my students Mrs. King’s personalized inscription. To my dismay, I am now discovering that my students no longer know the history. Today most students know rather vaguely that Martin Luther King, Jr. once gave a great speech, and that we commemorate his birthday with a national holiday; but beyond that even African American students know little.
I was excited about a month ago when I learned that the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to three African women who used the strategy of non-violent direct action to bring peace to their countries. Dr. King’s legacy continues to live today, and his method for addressing injustice is still useful. These ideas still need to be passed on to future generations so that injustice may be dealt with in a productive. effective manner. So I would like to challenge YOU to honor Dr. King this year as we celebrate his life. And I’d like to offer you the space in the comments on this blog to tell others how you plan to recognize his accomplishments.