Toasting Matt Leung

This is the toast I gave this past Saturday as the best man at Matt Leung's wedding reception. I've known Matt for just over 10 years. We met in 2002 at the Freshman Campout for the college ministry we were both a part of. I was the awkward 19 year old who was made somewhat more awkward by a recent injury that broke my jaw. And Matt was the only person there who was lame enough to bring his guitar on the campout. I guess he was trying to impress the ladies.

We hung out for only a short time that night. He played 90's alternative songs on his guitar, and I clumsily tried to sing along with my jaw wired shut. Even then we made an odd pair. We also probably had an interesting conversation or two, and maybe even got into a friendly argument - those things are pretty par for the course with Matt. A few years later we were roommates during a short mission trip overseas, then shared a house in North Campus for two years with three other dudes. And somewhere along the way we became best friends.

We became best friends for a lot of reasons. For one thing, Matt is a lot of fun to argue with, because he's wicked smart, very logical, and maybe a little bit stubborn. Matt loves to argue because he has a knack for understanding people, and a passion for pushing people to grow. He's also a brilliant encourager. Matt has been my loyal friend during some of the darkest, most difficult days, and at crucial forks in the road Matt has been the one I could count on to help me discern which direction God is calling me to go.

And he's been all that in spite of the fact that we haven't even lived in the same city in over six years. During that time period our friendship has grown largely over email. Matt is incredibly talented at goading me into debates, most of which happen over email, and most of which include one or two other friends, friends who typically don't respond much because normal people don't have the energy or the inclination to engage in our friendly but often heated diatribes. We debate politics and war, religion, theology and morality. And occasionally we even talk about really tough issues, like during which season did The Office start to go downhill, and what exactly was the nature of its decline? Innocent bystanders often mistake us for enemies, but disagreement and nuance is just how we work out our friendship.

Matt, our friendship has been filled with more verbal competition than most of our mutual friends can stand, but none of it has ever been about winning, at least not for me. Our debates don't really ever end with a clear winner (when they end at all), but they do end with me being better, sharper. Arguing with you has sharpened me as a thinker, as a Christian, and as a human being: like iron sharpens iron.

And then there's Nataly. She might be the only woman in the world that can handle Matt, other than his mom. So it's good that we got the two of them married - it's too late for her to back out now. Nataly, when I first heard Matt talk about you, I was listening to the words of a man who was grappling for the first time with truly falling in love. My old friend had finally met his match: a woman who can not only handle Matt in all of his idiosyncrasies, but can encourage them, overcome them - even fulfill them.

So let's raise our glasses to Matt and Nataly: In your life together, may you be one as Christ and the Church are one, may your love and faithfulness ever increase, may your patience and your hope be long, and may you sharpen one another in your gifts and encourage one another in spite of your weaknesses. And may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you, all your days. Amen.

UMC Candidacy Questions: My Beliefs

As a part of the candidacy process for ordination in the United Methodist Church one is required to type up and submit answers to a number of different questions and prompts. As I approach my meeting with the District Committee on Ordained Ministry on Thursday, February 23, I will be posting a few of my responses here. The third of these responses (and the last one I intend to post on this blog) follows, below.  ¶ 311.2.a.iii Write about your beliefs as a Christian.

I believe that the God who created all things took on flesh and walked the earth in the person of Jesus Christ. I believe that Jesus is the Word of God, the fulfillment of the Old Testament’s history of Israel, the full enactment of God’s faithfulness to the promises he made to his people, the assertion of God’s Reign on earth. I believe that Jesus displays the power and the wisdom of God in the weakness and foolishness of his death on the cross. I believe that Jesus’ innocence, his faithful obedience, was affirmed when he rose from the dead. I believe that in Jesus’ death and resurrection sin was defeated and death itself died. I believe that God has poured out his Holy Spirit on the whole world to bear witness to this Good News about what God has done in Jesus.

I believe that God has called-out the church to be witnesses of these things —- to partner with him in the sharing of this News and in the performance of this Reign through the power of the Holy Spirit. I believe that to bear witness to Jesus as Lord means to renounce all other lords as ultimately false and to follow after his pattern of Lordship by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, showing hospitality to strangers, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and imprisoned. I believe that living life towards this God who has come to love us his enemies in the person of Jesus means to live by a similarly radical kind of love toward God, toward neighbor, and toward our own enemies. I believe that holiness is becoming consumed by this kind of love, overwhelmed by its fulness and completeness, and graciously perfected and overcome by its practice. I believe that the Holy Spirit works on us through certain ‘means of grace’, central among them being the practice of baptism, whereby the church welcomes one into its covenant community of worship and witness, and holy communion, whereby the church takes up particular discrete acts of Jesus, gives thanks to God through them, breaks bread to remember what Christ has done for us and to rehearse for the Wedding Supper of the Lamb, and shares a common table as an act of holy hospitality and as spiritual food to empower our ongoing worship and witness. I believe that to follow after this Jesus, to walk on his way, is the only good and true and beautiful way to live, the only genuinely, fully and originally human way to be.

I believe that the same Jesus will one day bring his Reign into its fulness, at which point we will answer for our sins, but he will wipe away our tears, make all things new, and come to dwell fully and completely with humankind in a New Earth. I believe that whatever this looks like, however God freely determines to wrap this whole drama up, it will be Good, and Holy, and Righteous, and True. And I believe that living our lives together and with the fellowship of the Holy Spirit between the resurrection of Jesus and the resurrection of all things that his own resurrection foretells is what gives us the courage to live counterintuitive lives of faithfully hopeful love as described above.

UMC Candidacy Questions: My Calling

As a part of the candidacy process for ordination in the United Methodist Church one is required to type up and submit answers to a number of different questions and prompts. As I approach my meeting with the District Committee on Ordained Ministry on Thursday, February 23, I will be posting a few of my responses here. The second of these responses follows, below. 

¶ 311.2.a.ii & ¶ 311.2.a.v: Describe God’s call to licensed or ordained ministry and the role of the church in your call. Describe your present understanding of your call to ministry as elder, deacon, or licensed ministry.

My calling is to be a servant of Christ’s church -— to nurture the church and to call it to live more fully into its mission as God’s embassy in word and deed to a broken and hurting world.

My whole life I’ve imagined that one day I would become either some kind of pastor or some kind of scientist. As a kid, most of that imagining took place with Klein United Methodist Church as my primary spiritual point of reference. Sunday School and worship, Weekday Ministries and VBS, Klein is the main community through which God began to work in my life. I learned about the Bible, how to pray the Lord’s Prayer, and I learned the Apostle’s Creed, the Gloria Patri and the Doxology. We took communion together, celebrated baptisms together, and for the most part we loved each other, with Jesus at the center of it all. I went through Confirmation and MYF and flesh was put on some of these things that I’d done for years without full understanding. I was taken by the beauty of it all, the fantastic drama of God’s love for us and his invitation for us to join him in the sharing of that love.

While growing up in that environment, I waffled wildly about what I thought I’d do when I “grew up.” Most of those occupations were scientific, but ministry was in the back of my mind from a very early age. Even as I went to college to study physics the thought of some kind of vocational ministry steadily grew and grew, until I was unable to imagine studying anything other than theology. After a brief post-graduate stint in corporate America as a software consultant I did the only thing that seemed good and right and holy and sane. I went to seminary.

After a season of prayer and discernment God called me to a small seminary in Seattle, Washington. But the longer I was up there, the more I longed to come back to my old spiritual family in the Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church. I fell under the influence of some of Wesley’s influences on the topic of sanctification (Anabaptism and Eastern Orthodoxy), rediscovered Paul through the writings of a few Methodist New Testament scholars (Richard Hays and Michael Gorman), and fell in love with high-church liturgy. I met several times with an associate pastor from FUMC Seattle to discuss what the ordination process looks like in the UMC. She was kind and encouraging. So, after another season of prayer and discernment, God called me to come back down to Houston and follow him by serving his church among the people called Methodists.

And so again, my calling is to be a servant of Christ’s church -— to nurture the church and to call it to live more fully into its mission as God’s embassy in word and deed to a broken and hurting world.

I would be greatly humbled at the opportunity to live that out as an elder in the United Methodist Church. But given the complications primarily involving my education** I’m not entirely sure how all of this is going to play out. For some time I’ve been in conversation with my pastor and others about tweaking my current job in a few ways and turning it into a Licensed Local Pastor position. The thought of that is exciting for several reasons, but more recently as I’ve struggled with where I’m at, where the UMC says that I need to be at, and what God’s will might have to say about all that, I have come to the decision that I probably need to take a year to discern. So at present my understanding is that I’m called to seek certified candidacy while I seek God’s will, hopefully in continued holy conversation with our District Committee on Ordained Ministry and other trusted mentors, colleagues and friends. I’m not sure what God has for me in the medium to long-range future. But I am hopeful that God will see me through, and regardless of what happens my prayer is that God would bless the United Methodist Church and form it more and more into a body oriented toward the worship of and the witness to Jesus Christ our Lord.

**The United Methodist Church requires that Candidates receive a Masters of Divinity degree from a seminary approved by the University Senate of the UMC, or its equivalent. My seminary is not on the University Senate's list, and in spite of the phenomenal amount of assistance I've received we have not been able to find someone willing and able to determine what "or equivalent" means. One can also take an alternative route involving what's called "course of study", but this route has a built in age requirement: 40 years old. This 28 year old tends to think that's a bit of a reach. This difficult dynamic made the last paragraph of this response by far the most difficult to write. Nonetheless I remain hopeful, albeit a bit discouraged of late.

UMC Candidacy Questions: Most Formative Experience

As a part of the candidacy process for ordination in the United Methodist Church one is required to type up and submit answers to a number of different questions and prompts. As I approach my meeting with the District Committee on Ordained Ministry on Thursday, February 23, I will be posting a few of my responses here. The first of these responses follows, below. ¶ 311.2.a.i: What is the most formative experience of your Christian life?

I could answer this question by talking about my church growing up, or the amazing and encouraging friends that God has blessed me with, or my experience in seminary and how it was probably exactly what I needed right when I needed it - all are wonderful gifts from God. But I think at this point I’d like to say that the most formative experience of my Christian life has been my current job as director of youth ministries at Aldersgate UMC in Santa Fe, TX.

This charge is strengthening my faith. I loved seminary, but writing an exegetical paper on a passage from Isaiah (for instance) is much easier to me than convincing a roomful of skeptical 9th graders that God has done something dramatic and beautiful -— even exciting -— for us and for our world, and that God wants us to participate in the continuation of that drama, beauty and excitement that he’s still doing today. It’s not that I don’t already have faith, or that I don’t already believe these things that I teach. I most certainly do. But the exercise of having to explain my faith and why I’m so excited about it, and having to do so in different words and from different angles, has been deeply formative for me. It’s as if my mouth having to form the gospel is teaching my heart all over again how to love it. Having to explain why the good news is so good enhances and enlivens that goodness for me. Talking about how exciting God’s reign is has made God’s reign even more exciting.

Further, being at Aldersgate encourages me to pray. There’s nothing that has encouraged prayer more consistently and humbly in my life than my being responsible for the spiritual formation of this small band of young people. Jesus claims that there’s a lot at stake here. Evidently messing this up might end worse for me than if I had a millstone tied around my neck at the bottom of the sea. But I’m also humbled and driven to prayer by the simple fact that I love these teens that I get to work with, and I care deeply for the families with whom I interact. And so I give thanks often, and I intercede on their behalf. What a gift!

Lastly, my time at Aldersgate continues to grow my love for Christ’s church. Churches are messy. Sometimes we fight or bicker. Sometimes we spend way to much time talking about things that are really just silly distractions. And sometimes we do a terrible job of loving each other, not to mention our neighbors and our enemies. But sometimes the church gets it. Sometimes we catch a vision, if only a fleeting one, of God’s mercy and grace, and sometimes we even act on that vision. Sometimes we live out our allegiance to God’s Reign instead of trying to fortify our own reigns. Sometimes, if just for a moment, the church lives into her calling by really and truly worshipping God, and by really and truly living into God’s mission for which he’s sending us out into the world. Church is messy, sure. But by a miracle of grace God nurtures and shapes these messy bodies into what will become his bride. Aldersgate can be messy. And yet somehow God still manages to offer us his Sanctifying grace. And that has been deeply formative for me.