Today’s prompt for the Rethink Church Photo-A-Day is “Needs.” I decided I would write a Haiga, but wanted to give some background. A lot of folks over the years have joked that ministers work “an hour a week.”
We work far more than that amount. I run to hospitals, go to Nursing Homes, write sermons, read books, counsel the troubled, plan outreach, visit the sick in their homes, and try to be peacekeeper in everything from committees to marriages. I have spent sleepless nights thinking about the needs of my church.
There really are nights that I have trouble even going to sleep because my church has needs that I cannot fulfill, but must rely on God to meet: such trust does not come easily even for clergy. There are nights I wake up with bad dreams as a result. Despite all the rumors, ministers often do not see God face to face. We, too, have to rely on faith.
An honest response to this prompt for me is to show an “empty” church. I do not show it because the seats are empty. I show it because the seats are full for me.
I see the folks looking for a word of life during a funeral, a word of acceptance during communion, and a word of joy during a wedding. I see folks in tears, folks with smiles, and folks laughing. I see folks in doubt on Christmas Eve who have been dragged in by their family and folks with a smirk on Easter morning who have been brought by their loved ones. I see those folks next to the hopeful. This space is a sacred space that encompasses all of those emotions, relationships, and more.
Sermon: “Foraging Hope” Date: March 31, 2019 Scriptures: Luke 15:1-2, 11-32 (lectionary) Preacher: Rev. Robert Dean
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them…”
Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate
“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”
Luke 15:1-2, 11-32, NRSV
We’re in the midst of the season of Lent. This is a season of contrition, soul searching, and personal discipleship. As we have gathered in church during this season we have focused on looking at our approach to this season as being like a journey into the wilderness. Today we come across one of the more famous parables in Jesus’ teachings. What could this story have to do with a journey into the wilderness? How can it inform our journey? Well, let us look at these words to find a way into both the text and the season. Before we begin, let us pray:
Life-giving God, You are Parent to all of us. We come to today’s scriptures and find Jesus telling a story about a father. As our Parent, these words can teach us about You. Open our eyes and our hearts to Your wise Spirit as we approach these texts. We ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Friends, this is a season of contrition and redemption. We come across a story today of Jesus spending time with the least of the least. Jesus, a Jewish Rabbi, is spending his time with tax collectors and sinners. The tax collectors worked for the oppressors of the Jewish people. The sinners were the people who did not obey the laws and teachings of the religious leaders.
We find Jesus being grumbled about by the Pharisees and the scribes–the people who taught the religious laws and the people who copied the texts. The people grumbling were the people who should have known God as well as anyone could know God. When Jesus reaches Jerusalem, this is the group of folks who will spearhead the events of Good Friday.
Here in the season of Lent we find ourselves facing Jesus’ worst critics. We found ourselves in a strange place because Jesus responds to their criticism with a parable containing three perspectives. There is a selfish son who finds redemption, a loving father who is forgiving, and an elder brother who seemingly will not forgive and accept his brother home.
It begs a question: Who are we supposed to be paying attention to in the story? This parable, known as the parable of the prodigal son is further complicated by the evolution of the word prodigal over time. Prodigal once meant abundantly generous but has shifted since the phrase “prodigal son” was written into the title of the parable to mean either wasteful or errantly wandering.
We could focus our attention on the younger son. His story is a story of redemption which fits well into the Lenten narrative. He has gone off into the world, made mistakes, and comes home with contrition and humility. This message is a good message for those of us who have been wandering the wilds of our lives in need of redemption.
We could focus our attention on the father. He waits at the road, sees his son coming from far off, and runs to meet him. He is a loving and forgiving father. He celebrates the return of his son. Surely, as Christians we should see this as teaching about the way God meets us on the road. Perhaps we even see the story of the two disciples walking to Emmaus on Easter Sunday in grief, only to be met by the resurrected Christ who breaks bread with them. Surely, this would be a great message.
Either of those would be wonderful messages. I would ask a question with you: should we not stop to ask why this passage points out those grumbling religious leaders? Why are they here if the parable has such an obvious application?
Did you ever stop to wonder why the elder son was upset? The text stops to mention he has never even been given a goat to celebrate with his friends, but have you ever stopped to think about his frustration? The father has given his brother his share of the inheritance and it has been squandered. The father has reason to be mad. The brother has wound up in one of the lowest of the low places for a good Jewish boy–longing to eat the food of something shunned by his people. His brother has lost everything including his self-respect. What is making this elder brother upset?
We could say something to the effect of “being welcomed home means he will now receive another portion of the inheritance.” That might be true. We could also say the elder son is offended on behalf of his father. That also might be true. Both are reasonable responses and if that is what you wish to take away, please do so with my blessing.
I wonder if the issue is one of a scarcity mindset. If we are on a journey through life, I think we can all say we have had days when it feels as if we have barely made it through. I have had difficult days when it felt like I only made it to bed crawling on my knees. In fact, there have been days when I have only made it to bed that way when my back went out or was sick.
There are days when we go through the wilderness of life and finding it a bleak place. We look for figs on fig trees like the gardener in last week’s sermon but there is no fruit. We look for fish in the streams and we find nothing. We look for sustenance and it feels like we barely make it through.
Then we see them in the distance. The other people. We have scraped and saved while they have spent money, more money, and more money. We have fought to keep our family together and they party it up. We have tried to raise our children, have a few close friends, and maybe have enough to go get goat curry with our spouse every now and again when they come waltzing through the wilderness.
We see them in the distance and there may be part of us that jumps to judgment. We see them in the distance and we may wish to lash out. What are they doing here? Who do they think they are coming here? This is my house, this is my community, this is my church… We see them in the distance and it may tempt us to rush to grumble.
The Pharisees and scribes are often set up in Christian stories as terrible people, but let me ask you: should we always identify with the prodigal son? Yes, we may sit here as a forgiven people, but should we always connect with that part of the story? Should we identify with the forgiving father who forgives? Perhaps, sometimes we should. Is it possible we are being asked to connect with the elder son?
A little authorship note for those of you who may find meaning in this fact. Luke and Acts are often considered to have been written by the same author. If they were written about the same time, we have learned something important. The scribes and Pharisees are a part of a Jewish people. The Jewish people who came to faith in Christ became one part of a multicultural faith that had begun to spread over the world. Acts records the apostles heading out into the world and they do that quickly. Some people note that apostles reach out to the ends of Asia, throughout Africa, and out into Europe. The entire eastern hemisphere is beginning to hear about Jesus.
We look at the scribes and Pharisees and we see bullies, but by the time this book is written… Scholarship tells us Jerusalem has been destroyed by the Romans, the Pharisees and scribes are effectively homeless, and the Jewish faith is going through a massive re-envisioning. What if they are not the bullies? What if they are not the only ones who do not understand?
The thing about the elder brother we rarely notice is that he has his own story. He sees his brother go, he sees his brother come, and he is upset. Has he ever known deprivation? Chances are he has never had to suffer intensely. You only have a fatted calf if you can afford to have a fatted calf. He and his father are not living in a place of famine like the land where his younger brother travels. The younger son has been humiliated but when he shows up, there are extra robes and rings just waiting for him. If you can afford to have such luxuries lying around in an agrarian or farming culture, you are not in want.
The older brother is furious, is standing outside the circle of blessing, and is grumbling in the fields. All that the father has is his elder son’s, but the story ends with the father pleading for his son to come home to celebrate. The scribes and Pharisees may grumble in this moment, may celebrate as Jesus suffers, but by the time this book is written… They must find their own way.
A few years ago a movie came out called “The Passion of the Christ” and one of the great fears is that it would stoke anti-Semitism. It was a powerful portrayal of the crucifixion story which took liberties, but one reality is that texts like the statements before this parable have been used for anti-Semitic purposes. People see it and say “Look! They’re grumbling! They must hate Jesus.”
I think we miss something here. The elder son has his own story to live out. By the time this book is written, there are likely sections of the church who look at the Jewish people with all the scorn they see in the actions of the scribes and Pharisees: “They had a chance! They could have done better! What a bunch of fools! First, they kicked us out of synagogues, sent out people to arrest us, and now their temple is gone and now they’re the ones who have no place to go.”
The thing is that throughout Christian history, we have often forgotten that the gospels were recorded not just as histories and not just as teachings, but as living stories. We miss warnings in plain sight. Hebrews 4:12 (NRSV) says “Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
By the time these stories were collected, the Christian people are the ones who have begun to have their own communities and belief. By the time the church gathered to formalize some of their theology in 325 at Nicea, the Jewish people have been without their temple for nearly 180 years. By today, it has been almost 1,950 years since the temple fell. If we look at this text and we find a reason to justify anti-Semitism, we have failed to learn the same lesson offered to the elder son. We have failed to understand love, compassion, and grace.
The challenging thing is that the faith is still growing. United Methodists, some of our struggles come out of the fact that our faith is growing in places with different cultures with different values. Do we stand there grumbling in the fields? I know it is more complicated than that generalization, but we still should ask ourselves if we are standing in the fields.
Friends in the UCC, your denomination has been battling for inclusion and openly aiming to welcome LGBTQIA+ folks to the table. You are battling racism and seeking equality and justice. What of the conservative voices and people who do not understand what you are talking about? Do we stand in the field when they come home to God both dazed and confused? As the culture shifts around, are there times when you realize the doors have not been as open as they should be or the welcome not as exuberant?
Progressive Methodists, we should ask the questions I pose to the UCC folks. Conservative UCC friends, we should ask how we stay in ministry with those of a radically different culture or mindset from your own. Not a single one of these questions is not a question I do not ask myself.
It has been nearly 2,000 years of life for the Christian Church. We have had rough moments but there has always been food out there in the wilderness. We may not have always received the goat to celebrate with our friends, but our faith, our community, and our kin-dom has survived through thick and thin. We are a people who have been blessed for generation upon generation. Can we throw open the doors to the next generation? Can we be so bold as to see each other in the wilderness and have faith that there is enough hope out here for us all? Let us pray…
Last night there was a meeting in the Upper New York Annual Conference. The bishop spoke, hearts broke, and certain people started talking about others. Opinions like mine were thrown to the side as people began speaking about how inevitable it was that the church would split. I was offering people my peace to people who stayed after to pray when I came across someone mocking people who believed the things I believed. I offered them peace.
I would love to say my poem isn’t inspired by Proverbs 25:21-22, but the reality is that we all have to choose how we live out our lives of faith. I try to be a person of integrity who prays with people, but sometimes you need to choose how to respond to people. I would rather respond with grace than with anger.
Offer them peace. When they do not know what they do Offer them peace. When all they offer is a kris Which they offer to put in you For trying to keep your heart true: Offer them peace.
“Offer them peace” Rondelet by The Distracted Pastor, 2019
One lesson has rung through my mind the last few days. The good professor taught us that the world’s Christians do not have the same privilege that I had in my community as a child. When you’re not the dominant religion in an area, some assumptions of both the world around you and your own traditions can shift. I keep hearing the question “Who is your Jesus?” It has been running through my mind.
I want to be clear. I appreciate the Professor Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi enough to note that his opinions are not my opinion. I also want to be clear that my opinions do not need to be shared by everyone else in the body of Christ and this is alright with me. There’s enough room in the Kin-dom of God for there to be diversity.
So, who is my Jesus? My Jesus is radically loving, radically inclusive, and adept at turning the world upside down without people realizing what has happened.
My Jesus is the Jesus whom Paul comes to know and eventually says “for I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39).
My Jesus is the Jesus who throws the door open to a larger kin-dom (kindom) than imagined. My Jesus used the Apostles to share the gospel beyond traditional bounds. In Acts 8:26–40 the family is stretched to include a eunuch, which lest we forget is absolutely forbidden in Deuteronomy 23:1. Why shouldn’t you be baptized, Eunuch of Ethiopia? Well, because: “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” I guess that rule did not apply anymore.
My Jesus reached out to Romans and other Gentiles through Peter who is unequivocally told in Acts 10: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” My Jesus was there in the Holy Conferencing that took place in Acts 15:6-29 which opened the doors further. By the way, the Holy Spirit continued to pour itself out on those who engaged in fornication, hence we still have children’s moments where children born of believers come to be blessed. Thankfully, the United Methodist Church has not attempted to remove folks who are married and have children from leadership like several other major Christian denominations.
What’s more and what keeps ringing through my head is the story of the woman accused of adultery. In John 8:1-11 we read the story of a woman who is accused of an extramarital affair. Jesus tells her accusers that the one who is without sin should cast the first stone.
Nobody stones her. Nobody there is apparently without sin. Jesus says “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.” Now, first of all, yes Jesus says do not sin again. To be entirely fair, she is very fortunate Jesus is there to offer this moment of protective grace. I may prevent a child from being beaten up in a parking lot on an afternoon, but if the child keeps walking through the parking lot when I am not there… There is more than one way of looking at that second sentence.
What is amazing is that in all the readings of this scripture, one thing was never pointed out to me. Jesus says “I do not condemn you.” Who is the one who has the ability to condemn sins? Who has the authority to forgive sins? If it is Christ, Jesus’ words “I do not condemn you” hold divine authority. She is forgiven.
What’s further, in a crowd full of people who have sin (including the woman accused of adultery), it is this woman alone who leaves forgiven of her sins. Hebrews 10:4 says “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” The folks may leave to go and make an offering for their own sinful behavior, but it is Christ alone who forgives.
Now, I cannot say that God’s love does not extend to these folks. Judgment is God’s alone, but I can say that in this moment there is only one person in the crowd we can claim is absolutely forgiven by Christ’s own words. The woman accused of adultery is the only one explicitly told “I do not condemn you…” We can even go further to point out Jesus did not stop the crowd from leaving by saying “Wait! Hold on! God understands and your sins will be forgiven. Throw those stones!”
My Jesus is the Jesus who forgives. My Jesus is the one through whom I baptize children into the Kindom of God in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. My Jesus is the one who accepts those children even before they grow up into whatever person they may become in their adult days.
My Jesus is the Jesus who ate with sinners and tax collectors. My Jesus hangs out at Alcoholics Anonymous and in rehab centers. My Jesus sits with the homeless in the cold. My Jesus does a ton of caring through the children of the Kindom who bring food for community suppers, supply food pantries, donate towards medical supplies, walk alongside LGBTQIA+ folks as they struggle with depression and expulsion, cry with those imprisoned falsely in jails, mourn with those who are imprisoned fairly, and do every sort of thing they can in order to be with God’s children. Yes, all children are God’s children.
My Jesus is a pretty awesome Jesus. My Jesus is the reason I did not give up my faith after I grew up into adulthood. Some behavior that I have seen recently does not square up with that Jesus, but I need to be clear: My Jesus is worth following down the narrow path of life. I most certainly will follow that Jesus and will not be one of those who trample “under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace?… It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:29-31, NASB)
For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Therefore, when He comes into the world, He says,
“Sacrifice and offering You have not desired, But a body You have prepared for Me; In whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You have taken no pleasure. “Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come (In the scroll of the book it is written of Me) To do Your will, O God.’”
After saying above, “Sacrifices and offerings and whole burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You have not desired, nor have You taken pleasure in them” (which are offered according to the Law), then He said, “Behold, I have come to do Your will.” He takes away the first in order to establish the second. By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
Every priest stands daily ministering and offering time after time the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins; but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time onward until His enemies be made a footstool for His feet. For by one offering He has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us; for after saying,
“This is the covenant that I will make with them After those days, says the Lord: I will put My laws upon their heart, And on their mind I will write them,”
He then says,
“And their sins and their lawless deeds I will remember no more.”
Now where there is forgiveness of these things, there is no longer any offering for sin.
Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near.
For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge His people.” It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Friends, Tuesday was an odd day for me as a minister. Two things happened which led me to go for a long walk around the block. The first is probably obvious to anyone who knows I am United Methodist or even goes back a few blog posts.
General Conference was taking place and the institutional global church further pressed back against people pushing for inclusion. I did not see the legislation pass in person because I felt the need to go and pray for the church.
The second thing that happened was that I had a conversation with a colleague from a nearby church who came to discuss recent events during worship at our church. His church now has locked doors during worship. They were concerned. I was asked about what happened, was I afraid, and we discussed churches that have panic buttons and armed security. My colleague and I discussed that he doesn’t carry the panic button because he is aware as one of the people up front he might be the first one targeted by a shooter.
I went to take a long walk because it is weird to feel both slammed with pressure from above when there are people and colleagues in my neighborhood in the middle of nowhere that are now worried that church is literally a physically unsafe place without locked doors.
I have received threatening notes in the past regarding my own safety for taking stands on including folks from the margins, although honestly more about racial inclusion and less about LGBTQIA+ inclusion. I have upcoming meetings scheduled for dates before the Judicial Council will meet to determine whether what was just passed is enforceable under our constitution. I am concerned about what will happen between now and when the Judicial Council will (in my opinion) likely strike down portions of what passed.
I’m just concerned because my honest response to both issues is the same. If someone came into my church with a theological or physical gun, my place is between the church and that person. I have children and a family to provide for in this life, but that place of risk is my place as a minister.
I have taken a number of long walks between Tuesday and today. I will likely continue to keep walking, praying, and honestly playing a few video games on my phone to help keep my anxiety down.
I will find that ditto… I need the Pokémon who is all things to all people.
J: I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be sick. Me: It is okay. Just because you are sick it doesn’t mean I don’t love you.
United Methodist friends, today is going to be rough. I didn’t sleep. Many of my friends didn’t sleep. We are tired, cranky, and a little bit tired of the arc of history being so long… I heard a speech on the livestream of General Conference yesterday about hearing the same arguments over and over… I sympathize. I am also very stubborn!
Young friends, we are birthing something new. If you have never raised a child, I will tell you that it takes a lot of patience. I cannot tell you how many times YESTERDAY I asked a toddler to stop pulling leaves off of the houseplant… Being a parent takes patience.
Older friends, do not be deceived. Something isn’t wrong just because our younger family in Christ is trying to do something new. To be honest, we have likely had siblings trying to help us through this struggle for decades. I know that is a truth for me.
Beloved family in Christ who are my age, we likely have decades to go before our time is done. We are the ones who can shepherd and support the generation after us. I can think of folks who shepherd and shepherded me along this path. Don’t give up.
Nothing can separate us from the love of Jesus Christ. Nothing,
You have a voice. You stand up tall and you speak loud. You have a voice. People lived and died to give voice To those who gather and stand proud. Others sit silent in the crowd. You have a voice.
“You have a voice” by The Distracted Pastor, 2019
A prayer from a Gentile who was welcomed to Christ’s table thanks to the work of the apostles. I have a chance to lead and be a part of the church thanks to their efforts. I have a voice thanks to their efforts. How I use that voice matters.
I write this blog post for posting a few days before the beginning of the special session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. I write this blog with a lot of questions in my mind. What will happen over the next few days? What effects will that gathering have on the church as a whole?
My questions about the future have been inspiring questions in my mind. What does it mean that we are a “United” Methodist Church? What does it mean that we have deep divisions in our unity? Have we missed something?
I recently started rereading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together.” I have been pondering the nature of Christian community, the life of someone who had to make incredibly hard decisions to remain as faithful as he could, and it is nice to read about the life of someone who is not United Methodist during these troubling days. Still, Bonhoeffer has always been troubling. I found the following quote calling out for contemplation:
“Therefore, let those who until now have had the privilege of living a Christian life together with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of their hearts. Let them thank God on their knees and realize: it is grace, nothing but grace, that we are still permitted to live in the community of Christians today.”
Bonhoeffer writes this quote in the midst of contemplating how rare it is for Christians to live in community. As Bonhoeffer points out, Jesus himself lived a life that involved isolation during many of the major events of his life. Jesus was alone even in the midst of the crowd for many events of what we call the “passion.” Bonhoeffer points out the lonely lives lived by many of the apostles, missionaries, and even individual Christians throughout the centuries.
Reading Bonhoeffer is always challenging, but these words were particularly biting in light of the upcoming events in the life of my denomination. Have we honestly thanked God that we have each other? Have we thanked God for the privilege of living in community with one another? Have we seen our living together as anything but a gift of unmerited favor?
Honestly, when I see some of the vitriol in the community of faith I share with other Christians I do not always see people thankful for grace. I have seen people stand there and say “You do not belong in the church” when they are only in the church by the grace of God. They have been given the blessing of belonging to a body of faith. They have been given a grace and it seems as if that grace is taken for granted.
How many Christians over the centuries longed for a place to belong with other Christians? How many of our churches exist because people came together to have a place to belong? Are we turning our back on that legacy of grace? Are we so thirsty for law, structure, and power that we would burn our community of grace to the ground if we do not get our own way?
It is far easier to tear down than to build something. It is far easier to destroy than to give life. As we head into General Conference, I am praying we remember that we are only together by the grace of God. I am praying that grace prevails.
This past weekend I was challenged with a question. The question revolved around my vision of ministry. What evolved from the question was the realization that I am often not clear about my own particular vision for ministry. What do I seek to embody in my ministry? Could I express my vision for ministry in the time it takes to ride an elevator?
I have been thinking consistently about that question since it came into my mind. I have been asking myself how to express my view of ministry. Side questions arose from this contemplation. Could others remember it? Could they see it in my actions? Do I have a phrase that helps me stay focused on my purposes?
What’s the phrase? “I believe that the church should seek to be ONE.” I want my vision to be Open, Nurturing, and Empowering.
Let me break those buzzwords down into something more succinct. Buzzwords are nice but they do not always serve the purposes which they need to serve for others. These lists are meant to be examples and not a complete or restrictive compilation of ideas.
I believe the church should be Open to new people, Open to new expressions, Open to people who are differently abled, Open to hear/converse with our neighbors, Open to taking God’s love out of the church building, and Open to hear God’s voice.
I believe the church should be Nurturing to people who want to know God more, Nurturing to those who have had few advantages and many obstacles, Nurturing to those who are wounded or in need, and Nurturing with/towards other communities and people in our neighborhood.
I believe the church should be Empowering to people who need God’s freedom in their daily life, Empowering to those who have been oppressed, Empowering to folks who believe their voice does not matter, Empowering to those who need to borrow our strength to break free from their shackles, and Empowering to people who want to seek to enter into life changing discipleship.
What do those things look like? I believe that is the subject of a lot of posts to come, but here’s a few snippets of what I’m proposing to lead about more openly:
You cannot be truly Open to the community if your building or community has significant barriers for differently abled folks.
You cannot be truly Open to the community if you don’t welcome folks who are different than you in culture, race, ethnicity, or viewpoint.
You cannot be fully Nurturing to the community if you immediately dismiss people when they find the courage to talk about real life problems that make you feel uncomfortable.
You cannot be fully Nurturing to new leadership if you respond to every request to try something new with an immediate “No way. We’ve never done that before.”
You cannot be wholly Empowering if you look down your nose at folks who haven’t had the same advantages as you.
You cannot be wholly Empowering of other people’s ministries within the church if you rely on authority for leadership in the church instead of relationship, vision, and calling.
What are the words of the communion liturgy? Because there is ONE loaf, we who are many are ONE body. May we all be ONE in the love and care of Jesus.
Blessings friends. Sunday was an exciting Sunday at our church and in my own house. We celebrated worship with Rev. Dr. Marsha Williams, Associate Conference Minister of the New Conference of the United Church of Christ. We heard a powerfully thoughtful sermon on Christ’s love, shared communion, and eventually shared in a moment of sacramental beauty as my daughter was baptized. It was a holy and powerful moment as she was baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Sunday ended with memories of friends gathered, love shared, and God’s baptismal grace entering into the life of a child of God. As a parent, it was one of those moments where everything happens seemingly in a blur. Our church family has a new baptized member! What a joyful day!
Who knows where this newly baptized child of God will go? Reflecting back, I find myself drawn to reflect on “Our Time for Younger Disciples.” I shared with the children a reality. On Friday night I had sat with my friend and colleague Emily. Emily is preparing to welcome her third child into the world. She’s a woman of God who is called into ministry while living life as a mother similar to the way I am a man of God called into ministry while living life as a father. We both look like ministers although we look different, act different, and live different lives. God calls both of us and we are both children of God.
Rev. Dr. Marsha has a really cool title. She’s an Associate Conference Minister in the United Church of Christ and she has earned her doctorate. On an aside, while I do not aspire to Conference leadership in any denomination, I will admit that I want a doctorate someday. Anyway, Marsha is descended from a different part of the human family than my European roots and claims her African heritage with justifiable pride. We look very different. We’re married to two very different (but amazing) women, work out our call in different contexts, and each have our own traditions. We both look my ministers and pull portions of the same yoke for Jesus. We both look like ministers although we look different, act different, and live different lives. God calls both of us and we are both children of God.
I also shared with our younger friends that I have a friend at the Academy for Spiritual Formation named Hyunho. He’s a child of God from another completely different part of the human family who happily lives into his identity as a child with roots from South Korea. Hyunho is an Elder in the United Methodist Church like me! He is thoughtful, kind, intellectual, gracious, and kind. Hyunho has a humble and loving spirit that I long to have in my own life. His community’s practices and beliefs have inspired his approach to ministry within a cross-cultural appointment. In the midst of all of our differences, we are both called. We both look like ministers although we look different, act different, and live different lives. God calls both of us and we are both children of God.
I think back on these differences and similarities because God calls us all. The child we baptized Sunday may be called by God to be a scientist, a minister, a teacher, a nurse, or anything else. Each of the children who came forward for the children’s moment Sunday might be called to something different and strange—they will be called to believe in themselves and who they are called to be in this life! I hope our kids in church remember that God calls each of us. We are all called to be children of God—each and every one of us. I hope they live into the love of God that draws them near.
In honesty, I have spent a bit of time looking around the internet this morning. My normally scheduled blog post has been posted and I spent the morning looking at debates on the Facebook feeds of my colleagues. I have read carefully statements from groups like the Confessing Movement. I have prayed through debates around the video clip circulating around social media by Bishop Ough.
Honestly, watching the back and forth about the Council of Bishops recommendation is a bit heartbreaking. I hate watching colleagues, laity, and friends debate, argue, and occasionally attack one another. In some cases (but not all), we stand in direct opposition to the recommendation of Paul in Galatians 5:13-15—less concerned with serving one another in love and more concerned with biting with sharp teeth before we are consumed. My soul is a bit bruised from trying to find a space of peace in the midst of the debates.
My own discernment (for today) revolves around Acts 5:27-39. In Acts 5, we find the Apostles brought before the High Priest and the council in Jerusalem for sharing the Good News. There are folks who want to kill the Apostles, but a wise leader named Gamaliel advises them to be careful. Leaders had come, gathered followers, died, and the followers dispersed. If the Apostles were like those leaders then their movement would fizzle out in time. Human plans lead to failure. If the Apostles were acting with God’s blessing, they might find themselves fighting against God.
The council saw the wisdom of Gamaliel’s words and let the Apostles live. Obviously, their movement lasted beyond the lives of those Apostles. There was wisdom in Gamaliel’s counsel. Nobody wants to stand in the way of God when God is preparing to act. Still, here we are with sharpened arguments and deadly counterpoints while the world watches.
I admit that I have a more progressive outlook than some of my conservative colleagues, but I honestly wonder how long this battle can go on legislatively. More than that, I am wondering what is served by any of this battling? Is this constant argument truly of God?
Some context on why I wonder. We were debating the questions around human sexuality when I was teenager. My first time visiting Annual Conference with a friend and mentor included watching people debate questions relating back to Central Conferences with people stating on the floor of Annual Conference that this was a ploy to push what was then known as the “gay agenda.” We had debates around human sexuality as I went through seminary, became a pastor, went through the ordination process, was ordained, and as I have continued in my service. This debate has been going on longer than I have been alive. This debate has been the context of my entire faith journey.
So, why are we continuing to push a legislative solution? Clearly, saying “You have to believe this to be a part of the church” has been neither effective nor conclusive. Now there are people calling for a schism in the church. What good will that do? We have been down that road before on issues like pew rentals and slavery. Nothing concrete was solved through schism. The same debates came back time and time again until we ceased legislating and let the Holy Spirit work within us as a body.
So, why are we here again? Why are we assuming that this is something new? Why don’t we listen to Gamaliel? Do we really need to make human laws? If you believe scripture says “This is the way,” what good will a church law do? Do you hold the church law above scripture? If you believe that God is leading the church in a way contrary to one reading of scripture, do you believe that a human rule should overcome your obedience to the Spirit of God? In either case, when you look at the motivations on both sides, who truly believes that a church law made by humans would ever trump the conviction of another person?
Beloved friends, this is madness. I do not mean to be so very blunt about this, but go and take a deep breath and relax. If this is of God, then God will prevail. If this is from humans alone, it will not succeed.
I find wisdom in an offhand comment made by Father John Mefrige at the last session of the Academy for Spiritual Formation. His church, the Antiochian Orthodox Church, believes that the Orthodox Church is the one true church that follows in Christ’s path. How does he understand the rest of us Christians if God has led to one right way while we continue in our own faith? He said he sees a paradox in us! We are not Orthodox, yet there is evidence of the Spirit in us. We are Heterodox, but God lives and breathes in us. We do not make sense, yet here we are giving glory to God as best we can! How very peculiar and marvelous it is that God is praised through people like us!
Maybe we are also called to live in paradox. Apparently, that’s a thing that happens sometimes. If members of the Orthodox clergy can have a sense of humor about the very powerful and deep differences we share with their church, can we have a sense of grace with and for each other?
Go, take a deep breath, and remember that faith, hope, and love are what remain will after all of this has long since passed away. When you have done that, do everyone a favor and remember to continue to breathe!
The classes which comprised each society consisted of individuals who would meet with a leader weekly to talk about how their own faith journey was progressing, find what was needed for life (whether that be encouragement, reproof, advice, comfort, etc.), and to collect what each was willing to give for the relief of their preachers, the church, and the poor. Each week (or (as I understand it) as often as possible in a circuit where the preacher would travel long distances), the leaders would meet with the minister to talk about challenges, which challenging class-members needed individualized attention from the minister, and to give funds to the stewards of the society. Those were different times with different understandings of what was expected of church members.
Having now given a, extremely basic overview of what classes were within the societies of yesteryear, I will share why I was thinking about the General Rules while pondering the reading for today, which is 1 John 3:10-16. There’s a line in the General Rules about how a person could become involved with those societies which sticks in the mind. The line says:
“There is only one condition previously required of those who desire admission into these societies: ‘a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins.’ But wherever this is really fixed in the soul it will be shown by its fruits.”
The General Rules go on to talk about how those who wish to continue in the societies that they evidence their desire to be saved through following guidelines on how to live life in terms of doing no evil (don’t take God’s name in vain, don’t profane the Sabbath, don’t engage in drunkenness, don’t engage in slaveholding, don’t quarrel, don’t buy or sell illegal goods, don’t charge unlawful interest on others, don’t speak evil of others (especially governmental leaders and ministers), etc.). doing good (feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, visiting the imprisoned, exhorting all souls towards God, helping others within the household of faith, being frugal, having patience, etc.), and attending on the ordinances of God (go to church, spend time with the word, take communion, pray, fasting, etc.).
Some of these concepts are a bit foreign to us. A lot of our churches would be in trouble if we felt that speaking poorly of governmental leaders or our pastors was grounds for expulsion or reproof. We might raise an eyebrow at someone for drinking too much, suggest counseling, invite them to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, or simply pray deeply, but to expel someone from the church for even buying an alcoholic beverage is not a common standard for expulsion from church membership these days.
Times have changed over the centuries, but I continue to believe that there are still standards which we hold as church that continue to evolve. In some ways, we continue to struggle with some of the original concerns of the United Societies, but our role in the world has called us to be more vocal on other concerns.
Forgetting our identity as those who seek to live in this life as God’s people has proved disastrous in the past, such as when we forgot our call to avoid slavery as sin in the midst of the centuries that have passed since those rules were recorded in 1808. Forgetting our identity led to massive quantities of evil and suffering for those who were enslaved and in the souls of those who enslaved others. Forgetting our identity led to a grim chapter in our history which still has an effect today.
It is just as easy to forget our continually changing identity in the present as it was for those folks who struggled with slavery in bygone years. Reflecting on this reality, I pondered the scripture deeply in light of upcoming events.
“The children of God and the children of the devil are revealed in this way: all who do not do what is right are not from God, nor are those who do not love their brothers and sisters.
For this is the message you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We must not be like Cain who was from the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. Do not be astonished, brothers and sisters, that the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another. Whoever does not love abides in death. All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.”
What does it mean to desire to flee wrath by fleeting towards God? What does it mean to evidence that continuing effort by doing no intentional harm through our actions? What does it mean to do what is right in a world that is marked by racial injustice?
The very first message we heard, according to the writer of this epistle, was that we should love one another. First and foremost, the message was to love. How can we claim to live in love if we see people around us suffering due to their genetic composition? If Christ laid down His life for our lives, are we not called to do the same for each other? Does the need have to be as drastic as a life and death situation for us to be called to act?
I know many people who grew up with racial biases who would have nonetheless laid down their lives in order to save the lives of people (that they thought less of due to their ethnicity) due to their own moral, religious, and even political beliefs. To lay down one’s life is often a momentary decision and many individuals would have the courage to make that sacrifice in a moment.
I would love to say that those brave folks would lay down their privilege, their comfort, or their well-being over the long-term for those who are suffering from racial injustice, but I am not always certain that they would do the same over the (much more challenging) long term. In honesty, I would love to say that I know that I am perfectly laying down self-interest myself, but there is something to be said for the fact that moving away from “thoughts and prayers” for racial justice towards courageous acts to reassert equilibrium requires more than a moment’s courage or conviction for those of us who have privilege. I seek the courage and endurance to do so perfectly, but I often fall flat on my face. These words don’t come from a “holier than thou” stance. I often do not know how to move forward myself.
To move towards equilibrium will require more than most of us, including me, currently possess. It will require… imagination! Movement towards that equilibrium will also require the courage and character to do more than imagine, but it is hard to do anything but spin our wheels until we have an image of that more perfect (united) society in our collective mind and heart.
Although I hate to bring in my readings for The Academy for Spiritual Formation into yet another blog post, I am reminded of the writings of George Govorov. Theophan the Recluse (yes, that’s George Govorov) taught that growth in prayer must go through stages. I won’t quote a specific paragraph, because (as a friend put it) that particular chapter (the second) is kind of like a broken record.
Prayer of the Body: Prayer shared in physical ways, often with specific actions (speaking, bowing head, kneeling, reading from a prayer-book, etc.)
Prayer of the Mind: Prayer that has a resonance in the mind. There are no absent actions here. The prayer of the body is caught up into conscious thought and action through the mind. Each word is pondered in the mind, each movement is done with intention, etc.
Prayer of the Heart: Prayer moves beyond word, thought, and deed to a place where it comes from the center of our being. Prayer of the heart does not preclude physical actions or pondering words, but goes deeper. In Bishop Theophan’s view, prayer of the heart is at the center of true prayer.
In Govorov’s view, moving through each stage of prayer takes time, effort, and dedication. For some, the place where they belong is in practicing with their body until rhythm is established. For others, there is a moment for letting the words rattle through their minds until it takes root. For other, true prayer requires the heart to work in concert with the body and mind. A person united in body, mind, and heart could truly enter into God’s presence through prayer until their soul was set alight through the Holy Spirit!
It is my hope that we would continue to go on towards Christ through events like the gatherings this Saturday. I pray we move past dwelling in the midst of death into living in a place of love. For some, that may mean learning new words and new actions. Prayers of repentance in the body might mean learning new ways of living, new ways of acting, and even new ways of speaking. For others, this may be an opportunity to connect our mind to things we are already doing. What does it mean to speak out for justice with words that are not platitudes but are deeply pondered? What does it mean to ponder the words of others instead of just listening with one ear and letting those words pass out the other? For others, this may be a moment to let the heart take hold of deep truths.
I am not certain where I fall in that realm of prayer for repentance. In some areas I am likely in one place and in another place in other places. Regardless, as I ponder the scripture today, I am reminded of my desire to flee the wrath that comes from living in the midst of death. May God give me the courage to have open ears this Saturday and to enter more deeply into a prayer which may take a lifetime or longer to comprehend.
This church in Sawmill, AZ helped me to grow as a person as I faced my own racial biases while on two United Methodist Volunteers In Mission trips. I cannot tell you how much I was blessed by the people of this small but mighty Diné church.
Today I intend to ruffle some feathers. I do not often choose to intentionally poke my head into controversial affairs, but I was recently the subject of several heated arguments around a practice our church has adopted for 2018. In 2018 our church is serving gluten-free communion bread to all people who come to the communion table.
I would love to say the most heated debates were in the church, but honestly, the church was not at the heart of the biggest debates. The biggest debates have taken place in my family’s kitchen. The phrase “Never discuss politics or religion” does not hold much water in a minister’s house. Discussions with family members often stray into religious matters and there are few things as capable of bringing consternation into a family meal than conversations around things held as holy as the sacraments. I am blessed to have an extended family who can live with differences of opinion as long as they say their piece. Regardless, I have learned to never bring this subject again during Easter dinner. I’m guessing it would not go over well at Christmas or Thanksgiving either.
Still, I am passionate about this subject, even as I understand the reticence of folks to having anything change. If a church has had the same type of bread for the past 50 years, it can be hard to understand why they need to change because of others. Would it not be enough if we were to put a couple of gluten free wafers on a plate? Why should we all have to “suffer” from having bad bread in order to allow one or two people an easier time coming to communion?
Well, I have theories and responses to those questions. First, let’s deal with the idea of having two loaves of bread. Consider the words from the “Service of Word and Table I” in the United Methodist Hymnal: “Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf. The bread which we break is a sharing in the body of Christ.” While the body may be shared in other churches with different loaves, there is something powerful about witnessing that in the local church we are all sharing in one loaf as one body. There is no division when we share one loaf.
The other questions about suffering bad bread and about changing our own behavior will take a bit more nuance. I will say there is a thing called bad bread. Bad bread comes from people who have not taken the time to learn how to make bread. As we currently have a study based on the spirituality that can be drawn from bread baking, we are currently creating a crop of good bakers who may be able to rise (pun intended) to that particular challenge.
So, let’s go deep. In 2004 the church adopted the document “This Holy Mystery.” The document laid out the groundwork for the United Methodist Church’s understanding of the sacrament of communion. The document is a deep document, which has been reprinted in subsequent Books of Resolution, including the 2016 Book of Resolutions.
Here’s an interesting excerpt from “This Holy Mystery” found in the subsection labeled “Communion Elements.” The excerpt speaks on the use of alcohol at the communion table:
“Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and many Protestant denominations
have always used wine in the Eucharist. During the movement against beverage
alcohol in the late nineteenth century, the predecessor bodies of The United
Methodist Church turned to the use of unfermented grape juice. This continues to be the position of the denomination.”
There is a tradition of using alcoholic wine at the communion table. Despite that tradition, the United Methodist Church does not use alcohol at the communion table. We share in the unfermented fruit of the vine. Why buck tradition to engage in a practice that differs from so many other denominations? Our church felt a call to battle the spirits of spirits and we continue to stand against the abuses of alcohol. Consider what it says in ¶3042 of the 2016 Book of Resolutions:
“As God’s children and participants in the gift of abundant life, we recognize the need to respond to those who know brokenness from the widespread abuse of alcohol and other drugs in our world. The experience of God’s saving grace offers wholeness to each individual. In light of the reality of alcohol and other drug abuse, the church has a responsibility to recognize brokenness and to be an instrument of education, healing, and restoration.”
Consider the words and the implications of this responsibility to recognize, educate, heal, and restore those struggling with alcoholism. Our love of these individuals has moved us as a denomination to do something strange. We recognized the problem and as a church we chose to change instead of continuing to follow tradition. Compassion and wisdom moved the church to consider the challenge faced by individuals. The church was convicted.
If you are not familiar with life in most churches, change is a difficult idea. For some people, change is a four letter word. Despite the power of tradition, inertia, and complacency, an entire denomination decided to do something different for the sake of people who had a need. The church felt a responsibility upon recognizing the brokenness of individuals. This motivated them to do things differently.
I can personally attest that there are folks who do not come forward at communion because of a number of factors. Some people think those wafers are nasty and they usually are pretty bad. I have to agree and sometimes admit that the gluten-variety are no picnic either. That being said, if we’re serving wafers, which occasionally happens when plans go askew, we can all suffer together.
Some people do not come forward because of embarrassment. Why are they embarrassed? Sadly, snide comments about having gluten-free communion is one reason. Some people believe they are drawing attention away from communion if they confuse things by asking for something different. Some people believe others will judge them for “wanting to be different” even if they have an actual concern like celiac’s disease.
For these folks, I will name the brokenness. The Lord’s table is a place of welcome and grace. If embarrassment keeps people from participating in this means of grace, the situation needs to be addressed. To avoid the difficulty being faced by individuals for the sake of our own comfort is selfish. In United Methodist tradition, the sacrament is a form of blessing from God. Our lives are literally made better by participating in the sacrament. How could we look at the table, see there are people who feel excluded, and not work to address the situation?
In other words, if we have to choose between our gluten-filled tradition and the possibility (in our church the certainty) that a gluten-free change will help to bless more people, are we not obligated to consider a change? If the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbor, are we not obligated to make certain that they are welcome at the communion table? In this odd, strange, topsy-turvy world, doesn’t our own integrity demand action?
The bread to be and several tools. Bob’s Red Mill does not sponsor me, although we would be happy to pray for them if they mailed us a couple of coupons. Gluten-free flour isn’t cheap!
Now, I want to be clear. I do not believe in judging other churches or other ministers. Each church has to make their own decisions. As far as my ministry is concerned, I am always seeking to draw the circle of inclusion wider. I will keep trying to serve gluten-free communion as often as possible to make certain people are not left out. So, wish me luck as I seek to perfect gluten-free bread making despite the fact that I personally add extra gluten to the bread I make for my family. Pray for me as well, because it is difficult to educate when you only have a few minutes on any given communion Sunday.
So, I decided that I would spend a day doing a light-hearted blog post. The blog has been pretty dense since I returned from paternity leave, which reflects some challenges behind the scenes of ministry. In the midst of everything, I found myself needing to read to my infant the other day. She would not calm down without hearing my voice while rocking back and forth. I decided to read to her, looked through my Kindle purchases, and began to read her “The Hobbit” by J.R.R. Tolkien.
In the very first chapter, Bilbo encounters Gandalf. Gandalf is seeking aid in an adventure. When Gandalf expresses difficulty with finding someone to join him, Bilbo replies: “We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them!”
I started to laugh when I read this passage. I found humor in the fact that Bilbo will definitely go on an adventure, but also because I am aware that the hobbit acts a lot like me! Over the years I have truly enjoyed several versions of “Bag End.” In the apartment that we first shared when I was in seminary, I took over the walk-in closet in our living room and turned it into my office. I spent many hours under a single incandescent light bulb with books of theology, an aging computer, and a cup of coffee. It was definitely my own little hole in the ground. To be honest, it was absolute bliss…
Since we left that apartment, I have not really had a hole to hide in of quite the same caliber, but I have enjoyed several offices over the year. The closest I have come is my current home office which is filled with plants, garden gnomes, and within sight of several rather tookish children that enjoy their own adventures.
Two of my favorite garden gnomes sit right next to the computer desk in our “library.”
I can understand the enjoyment of a space. There is something safe and secure about being in a familiar place with reminders of pleasant days and happy nights. If you invest a space with a lot of happy cups of coffee, hours of research, or even just time spent happily interacting with friends, a space can become pretty comfortable. In fact, it can be hard to walk away from such spaces sometimes…
There is a challenge that comes with living in a land where adventure can come from simply stepping outside of one’s door! Winter is here in the United States. With winter in this particular location comes things like snow, ice, and slush. This area is by no means the snowiest place that I have ever lived. To be entirely honest, it is actually the least snowy location where I have ever resided, but less snow is not the same as no snow.
Some Sundays, freezing temperatures strike and nobody is at the church. Some nights we would have a committee meeting but there’s a forecast that keeps us from having anywhere near quorum.It can be really frustrating to deal with winter adventures, and sometimes we seem to embody the spirit of Bilbo Baggins. “Go to church? In this weather? We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them!”
So, here is some advice for people in church leadership during winter:
Love other people. I have been quoting Hebrews 13:1 a lot lately. In that verse we are reminded to “let mutual love continue.” Sometimes people will let us down and not make it to a meeting. Love them. Love them. When you are done, love them some more. Yes, they might take advantage of your love and continue to engage in the behavior that bothers you, but extend love first. All mutual love comes from someplace and we must be willing to love first. I am reminded of the passage I read the other day in “Ways of Imperfection” by Simon Tugwell. In that passage, on page 18, Tugwell points out a story where abba Poemen was in a conversation where several monks were discussing how to deal with a monk who kept falling asleep in church. After several rather strict ideas are suggested, abba Poemen is reported by Tugwell as saying: “If I see that my brother has gone to sleep, I cradle his head in my lap.” If ancient monastic Egyptians can understand the idea of compassionate loving in such circumstances, certainly we can as well.
Consider the circumstances. If you have a meeting with a saint who cannot drive after dark or on roads that might be challenging after peak maintenance hours, do not plan that meeting when things might be iffy. Roads (in our area) are often sketchy after dark and first thing in the morning. A little prior planning never hurt an administrator or worship planner. Late night services might fit the mood of an occasion like a “New Year’s Eve Prayer Vigil,” but be aware your worship time and the weather that surrounds it might affect some people in ways beyond their control.
Consider situational problems. If someone no longer comes because they slipped in your parking lot, consider ways you can make your parking lot safer. Alternatively, ask someone (or go yourself if you are able) to walk with them from their car into the church meeting. Again, a little prior planning is an integral part to good leadership.
Let things go. Nobody is helped when you dwell on things you cannot control. The weather turned sideways and your one absolutely perfect sermon of the year was heard by five people? Well, that happens sometimes. It is better to let go of your frustrations than to let them take root in your soul. You are a walking temple of God. Do not track dirt into your heart.
Those are four pieces of advice for leaders of churches during the slippery months. Do you have any other suggestions? What has worked for you?
This year in my annual report to the church there’s a strong statement. I wrote in November and revised earlier this month the idea that “ We need to remember that we are a community unified and united in purpose.” I did not make this statement lightly as unity within the body of Christ is one of the most challenging and most important characteristics of a healthy church.
You will notice I did not write the phrase “uniformity” as the goal is one of connection and not utter conformity. Unity and unification around a concept is important for any community, but especially a religious community. To borrow from Henri Nouwen (on the ninth page in his book “Discernment”) we should be united around the idea of our “one true desire—to know God’s heart and do God’s will in all things.”
There is nothing as antithetical to unification around this desire than arrogance. Arrogance leads us to believe it is okay to ignore God’s call to simple concepts like talking to people instead of about people. Arrogance leads us to believe that we are better than each other or better than those called to particular ministries. Arrogance leads us to engage in a lot of the behaviors that hurt and harm churches.
I think Bernard of Clairvaux puts it well. The saint from the 1100s has been translated (by the Cisterian Order in their 1973 critical translation) as saying “If ignorance makes beasts of us, arrogance make us like demons. It is pride, the greatest of sins, to use gifts as if they were one’s by natural right and while receiving benefits to usurp the benefactor’s glory.”
Now, what’s interesting about this quote is that Bernard prefaces it by pointing out that everyone should know two facts: what they are and that they are not who they are by their own power. Bernard states clearly that everyone needs to know that they are who they are by the gift of God and to accept their role with humility.
Leaders in the church (both lay and clergy) are called by God to places of leadership. They are given gifts and graces to fulfill their role. It is great arrogance to both take these gifts for granted and to ignore the responsibilities that come with them. Bernard warns strongly against dulling one’s blessing by forgetting one’s call and forgetting the purpose for which one has been blessed. Bernard, holding a very strong opinion, writes (pardon the 1970s language of translation)
“When a man, promoted to a high dignity, does not appreciate the favor he received, because of his ignorance he is rightly compared to the animals with whom he shares his present state of corruption and mortality. It also happens when a man, not appreciating the gift of reason, starts mingling with the herds of dumb beasts to the extent that, ignoring his own interior glory, he models his conduct on the object of his sense. Led on by curiosity, he becomes like any other animal since he does not see he has receive more than they.”
Leaders are called to live up to the blessings they have received. One of the greatest challenges that faces me as a United Methodist Elder is the echoes of the words spoken by Bishop Marcus Matthews over me at my ordination. I was told to “Take thou authority…” The bestowed authority is an authority that comes with challenges that are well addressed by this article from Ministry Matters. Nonetheless, it is a promotion that comes from a place of high dignity within my tradition.
On my desk there’s a list of people with arrows. I was ordained by Bishop Marcus Matthews, who was ordained by Bishop James Kenneth Mathews, who was ordained by Bishop Benton Thoburn Badly, who was ordained by Bishop James Mills Thorburn, who was ordained by Bishop Edward Raymond Ames, who was ordained by Bishop Robert Richford Roberts, who was ordained by Bishop Francis Asbury, who was ordained by Bishop Thomas Coke, who was ordained by Archbishop Potter, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Church of England, which was born out of direct apostolic succession from the beginning of the church.
There’s a high calling to the authority that was passed to me by Bishop Matthews. To ignore the weight and the responsibility of that calling would be a great sin. My authority as an Elder in apostolic succession comes with a great responsibility to not only maintain the standards of my office but to lead with integrity the people of God towards our one great and true desire.
Bernard’s words are not simply for leaders though. Believers in the church who are called to follow (both lay and clergy—especially if clergy serve in an episcopally based system or in a system where there is discernment of the body held over the discernment of the clergy) are called to know who they are, where they are, what is expected of them, and to accept the gifts granted to them by God with humility as well. Leaders are gifts from God often sent to teach us things that come unnaturally without help. Do leaders make mistakes? Yes, but they are often present to teach us things beyond ourselves.
As an Elder in that line of apostolic succession, I am also called to be a follower. I am asked to respect the bishop who has been discerned and sent to be the leader of my Annual Conference, am asked to respect my District Superintendent and the clergy who are called to assist in leadership through both the Order of Elders and the Board of Ordained Ministry. I am called to respect the Annual and General Conference, the Book of Discipline, the Book of Resolutions, and even to consider the non-binding words of the Council of Bishops with respect. I am called to participate in the life of the Conference and to use my voice, but I am also called to be a part of a system that is larger than myself. I am even called to consider the advice of the folks that I am called to lead, even if obedience is not required in that last situation due to the traditions surrounding both freedom of the pulpit and the role of the pastor within my church tradition. The calling to be a follower is as integral to my leadership as my call to be a leader.
In both these roles there’s a role both for knowledge and humility. Bernard writes:
“We should, therefore, fear that ignorance which gives us a too low opinion of our selves. But we should fear no less, but rather more, that which makes us think ourselves better than we are. This is what happens when we deceive ourselves thinking some good is in us of ourselves. But indeed you should detest and avoid even more than these two forms of ignorance that presumption by which you, knowingly and on purpose, seek your glory in goods that are not your own and that you certain are not in you by your own power.”
Bernard (in context) is talking about more than just physical goods. Bernard previously calls accepting praise for the spiritual blessings and spiritual roles that God has granted and gifted ability for to be no less than vainglory, which is excessive pride and vanity. Goods in Bernard’s view are more than just physical things. All that we have is given to us for the glory of God. When we claim anything as rightly ours by our own hand, whether it be a pair of jeans, a work of art, or a paycheck, then we are missing the point of why we have what we have in this life. To tie it back to Henri Nouwen, we have what we have for our “one true desire—to know God’s heart and do God’s will in all things.”
It is the greatest arrogance to take what we have been given for this one purpose and to use it to do the exact opposite. God is love and calls us to love. If we turn what God has given us to purposes of hate, isn’t that rightly named demonic? God calls us to care for the least of the children of God. If we hoard what we have from God to the detriment of those who need us to be the hands and feet of Christ, isn’t that the very heart of arrogance? Aren’t such acts drawing away or usurping the very glory of our one true benefactor?
When we are blessed by God we are called to live for that one true desire. When the Holy Spirit works and weaves within us, the tapestry is meant for God’s glory. When the Son grants us life and a place within the family of God, we are called to follow his teachings instead of our own.
Unity is currently an interesting word within United Methodist circles. The United Methodist Church is currently in prayer for “The Commission on a Way Forward” (hereinafter, “Commission”) The Commission was established by the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church by the General Conference delegates at the request of the Council of Bishops. Conversation has revolved around concepts like unity as the Commission has continued to meet over the past year.
As a result, of this conversation, my eyes have been drawn to the word “unity” when I have come across it both in my reading and in my study. I was drawn to thought when I came across the collect “For the Unity of the Church” in “The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other RItes and Ceremonies of the Church: Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David according to the use of The Episcopal Church” (hereinafter, “BCPASORCCTPPDAUEP” (just kidding)). The collect reads: (certified 2007)
“Almighty Father, whose blessed Son before his passion prayed for his disciples that they might be one, even as thou and he are one: Grant that thy Church, being bound together in love and obedience to thee, may be united in one body by the one Spirit, that the world may believe in him whom thou didst send, the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the same Spirit, one God, now and forever, Amen.”
In a similar manner, I was drawn into prayer and contemplation by the first full paragraph of the letter “From the colony of the Church of God to the colony of the Church of God at Corinth, called and sanctified by the will of God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” which is found in “Penguin Classics: Early Christian Writings” as translated by Maxwell Staniforth and revised by Andrew Louth (New York: Penguin Books, 1968). The paragraph which caught my eye reads:
“Because of our recent series of unexpected misfortunes and set-backs, my dear friends, we feel there has been some delay in turning our attention to the causes of dispute in your community. We refer particularly to the odious and unholy breach of unity among you, which is quite incompatible with God’s chosen people, and which a few hot-headed and unruly individuals have inflamed to such a pritch that your venerable and illustrious name, so richly deserving of everyone’s affection, has been brought into disrepute.”
The concept of unity caught my attention sharply in both of these readings. I was sharply caught by the ideas in the letter from Rome to Corinth, which is generally considered to have been authored by Clement of Lyons, the bishop of Rome at that time. Clement’s words were very strong. Disunity is described as having brought the name of the church in Corinth into disrepute. Indeed, of all of the struggles being faced by the church in Corinth, the disunity in the community is the very first thing that the church of Rome brings to the forefront for conversation.
Certainly, there is a brief statement of thanksgiving and blessing as per the custom of letter writing in that era. The church in Corinth is acknowledged to be called and sanctified. Indeed, before the letter writer enters into our quote, the writer also expresses the blessing, “All grace and peace to you from God Almighty, through Jesus Christ.” The combination of these statements is very brief and Clement is very clear that this is a situation that deserves to be addressed even as the church in Rome has her own situations to work through in her journey of faith.
Indeed, Clement was very concerned about the disunity of the church. The very next sentence Clement writes is, “There was a time when nobody could spend even a short while among you without noticing the excellence and constancy of your faith.” The connection that I make in this reading is that the disunity of the church in Corinth has led to others seeing their faith as being inconsistent and less than excellent. There’s a high opinion of unity in Clement’s writing.
Indeed, the high opinion of unity is seen in the collect. The collect asks God for unity within the church so that the world might believe in Jesus Christ. The church is called to unity in the collect through the binding together of the church by both love and obedience. Love and obedience are seen as reasons for unity within the life of the church even as that unity is seen as a converting witness.
Indeed, Jesus prays in John 17:11, “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” Jesus prayed that we would have unity as a people. There is a strong emphasis on the importance of unity in Clement, in the prayers of the church, and in the scriptures themselves.
So, if unity is so important, why is it ignored so often? Why do we engage in behavior like gossip if we know that there is almost no quicker way to stab unity in the back than to engage in gossip? Why do people hop from community to community looking for people like us if we know that we are called to be in community across the spectrum? Why do we do the very things that we do?
In many ways, the struggle of the church over questions of unity throughout the centuries reminds me of the writings of Paul. Ironically, while writing to the church in Corinth, Paul describes a struggle that he has faced in 2 Corinthians 12. Paul describes how there is a thorn in his side which has forced Paul to his knees in prayer repeatedly. Paul uses that thorn as a reminder of his weakness, a reminder of his dependency on the grace of God, and as an invitation to contemplate the power of Christ.
I wonder if our ongoing struggle with these concepts is continual because we are in need of a reminder of our weakness. I also wonder if our ongoing struggle with gossip is a sign of our unwillingness to let go of this most basic of sinful behaviors. Indeed, the works of the flesh listen in Galatians 5 include such sinful vices as dissensions, factions, strife, enmities, and other behaviors which should be excised from the life of the faithful. As Paul states in Galatians 5:21, those who do these things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
Unity is a concept that I believe we all need to be in prayer around as a community. God’s call is for us to be one. It deserves to be noted that God does not call for uniformity among the church. God’s call is for us to be united in Christ and unity does not require absolute conformity.
Paul seems to agree with this assertion that unity is important. Clement seems to agree with the assertion that unity is important. The collects and prayers of many modern denominations seem to agree with this assertion that unity is important as well. With such a great cloud of witnesses inviting us to see the importance of unity, it is crucial that we be in prayer both on obtaining unity and understanding what unity might actually look like in our context.
I was not hungry as I began my devotions this morning. A parishioner had a bumper crop of hot peppers which she recently shared with me. I was not hungry for food at all as my stomach was filled with an omelette that was stuffed with spicy goodness.
I was not thirsty as I began my devotions this morning. I had an ethically-sourced cup of coffee which sated my thirst quite nicely. The cup of coffee was a good cup of coffee with strong flavor.
I was neither hungry nor thirsty as I began my devotions this morning, but that state of being changed as I spent time in reflection. I came across a quote from Henri Nouwen as I was working through my favorite devotional book “A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants.” This quote from Henri Nouwen is sourced by the Guide as coming from “Reaching Out”:
“The Gospel doesn’t just contain ideas worth remembering. It is a message responding to our individual human condition. The Church is not an institution forcing us to follow its rules. It is a community of people inviting us to still our hunger and thirst at its tables.”
As I came out of the reverie, contemplation, and depths of my devotions, I found myself wanting to share this quote with others. There were deeper matters in my devotion this morning, but this was a word I felt needed to be shared for a simple reason. I am not certain the world sees the church in this light.
My devotional and one of my Bibles
I grew up in a northern home in a house that was very Protestant. My mother had been Roman Catholic but had become United Methodist when she married my father. We went to a United Methodist Church every Sunday and were taught things like “God loves all people.” There were moments when my family struggled with racism, but I do not believe that is a unique situation. On the whole, we were taught that the church was open to people of all races and ethnicities. My general thought process was that if God welcomed people of every variety into the family, shouldn’t we? Even in the extremely European communities where my family lived, seeing someone of another race was not the kind of thing that made one exclude and hate, so much as just being the kind of thing that made you say “Oh, hey. That’s different. Whatever.” I was not the most enlightened of kids, but at least I was not malicious. I was more ignorant than anything else.
When the time came to be educated about the past of our nation I remember reading stories of the activities of the KKK with horror. I was not just horrified about the way that people treated the “other” in these stories. I was offended by someone burning a cross as a symbol of hatred. I was furious that they would try and use a symbol of love and inclusion to threaten people! The behavior I was learning about was simply unacceptable.
I saw the church as a place where God’s love leveled the playing field of life. I saw the church as the place where we could look beyond our differences and find community. I saw the church as a place where even ignorant kids like me could find a home as we grew. I was absolutely horrified by what I learned. I began to ask questions of youth leaders and my good friend Jim Patterson who was an elder in an urban Presbyterian Church invited me to think deeply about what united us with different people.
In college I studied with Dr. Middleton who brought a global perspective to my theology, although it was still very much a western perspective. When I went to seminary I studied African religious history and African American religious theology. I was enthralled because the words I was reading were far different than those in my own heart. I literally read “Stony the Road We Trod” to my daughter as an infant on the day she was born because I did not want to fall behind and because she liked the sound of my voice as she napped against my chest. I read, I pondered, I made friends, and I tried to know more and more about how the Bible looked to people who were not like me.
For me, the church had become a place where I could safely challenge my own assumptions, grow deeper in my faith, and help the world to become a better place. When I hungered for knowledge, there was almost always a wise colleague or friend who could help me go deeper. When I thirsted for righteousness, there was almost always some place I could go to work towards a better world. When I had a need to belong, to grow, to work, to live, and to be a part of something greater than myself, the church was there to push me forward.
I do not think the world sees the church in the same way, especially when sometimes the first exposure people have to Christianity is images of burning crosses, abortion protestors with horrifying pictures, or bullhorn wielding “prophets” telling everyone they are going to burn in hell. Not everyone is lucky enough to have been nudged into the path of knowledge, faith, and blessing which I was blessed enough to find in my own life.
I am hungry and thirsty. The coffee still takes care of my natural thirst and that omelette is doing remarkably well at holding off my hunger, but I am hungry and thirsty for other things. The world does not see what a blessing the church can be in the midst of life. I want people to see a world where the church can be a place more concerned with community than regulations. I want people to see a world where the church is more concerned with bringing good food to the table than in meeting the budget so we can have fancier napkins. I want people to know that the church exists to be a blessing. All of our lives are made better each time someone joins in at the table. I wish people understood the power of the church fully active and empowered. Indeed, Irenaeus, the glory of God is humanity fully alive in Christ.
Hello from the land between one space and another. Last week I finished up the last of the Annual Meetings for the two halves of my church charge. Next week we are welcoming a new Administrative Assistant into our church office. I have been without an assistant (during the day) for four months and things have been a little chaotic around the office.
This is the land between one moment and another. Exacerbating this time between moments is the fact that our preschool program is off on a field trip this morning. This church is a very quiet place today. I am taking advantage of the quiet to sit in our future assistant’s office to work and pray today. I am trying to imbue the room with prayer in an attempt to be a blessing to our new assistant.
A few minutes ago I was sitting in the quiet and reading through my next book for the Academy for Spiritual Formation. I began to enter into the next book on my list which is “Abide: Keeping Vigil with the Word of God” by Macrina Wiederkehr. In many ways, this book is very different than the last book that I read for the academy. This book is focused on entering into the text and helping readers to grow deeper in their own time in scripture. There is less exposition and more reflection. Regardless, here is what Sister Wiederkehr writes on the very nature of entering into a quest for the word of God: (pg. 8)
“It is not easy to find the Word of God in the midst of a jumble of words. The secret is connection. A community of words connects with each other and somehow in that connection we discern God’s Word for us. Praying with the white space between the words, sentences, and paragraphs is also important. The artist in us needs white space—our place of waiting, listening, and being. White space is the womb and the tomb in which we abide. We will experience birth, life, and death there, as we keep vigil with the Word of God”
As I reflected on these words in this empty space a few things stuck out to me revolving around the white space and the connections between words through spaces. This paragraph was incredibly effective at drawing things out of my depths.
The first place this paragraph took me was into the present. I am sitting in a church office which is unoccupied by an assistant at the moment. My wife has been assisting before and after her work, but in general, this office has been empty. It is a white space. Melissa sat in this place and blessed this community. Bonnie sat in this place and blessed this community. My wife has sat in this place in a different way in an attempt to make space for the person who would follow her.
Soon our new assistant will begin her own ministry of blessing from this place. She will do things differently. She’ll connect to some traditions out of Bonnie’s methods and some tradition’s out of Melissa’s methods. She’ll create her own traditions and methods. Soon this place will begin to be reshaped by her presence in our midst. In the meantime, this sacred space is empty, quiet, and waiting in stillness. This is a holy moment—this is “the womb and the tomb” where a new ministry will be born, live, and someday conclude. Hopefully that conclusion will be many years and many blessings from now. This is a sacred white space.
The second place this paragraph took me to in my reflection was to Annual Conference. The entire idea behind Annual Conference is supposed to be “holy conferencing.” Somewhere in the midst of all of the debate, motions, and rules of order there is supposed to be a place where the Holy Spirit works, moves, and expresses itself through the people gathered together in prayer and discernment.
This paragraph reminded me of Annual Conference because of the sacred white spaces. I recall Cathy Hall Stengel standing up in conference this year asking the bishop where there was space for people not on two sides of a particular issue to express their voices. She called for white space. I recall JJ Warren standing up and expressing his call to ordained ministry when the doors had been closed on him due to his sexuality and requesting room to respond to God’s inevitable and unavoidable call on his soul. He was requesting that creative white space be made for the Holy Spirit to call the people God was calling into ministry.
I recall many moments where there was a need for creativity, grace, and kindness. Places were required for life to be born, live, and conclude through the power of the Holy Spirit. There needed to be white spaces before all became an unending cacophony of noise without rest, meter, or even tonal structure.
These thoughts came out as I pondered this selection, but I also found myself drawn to the concept of the connection of words. If everyone carries a bit of God’s image within them, then there is a bit of God’s creative word in all of the people we see. Sister Wiederkehr wrote (pg. 9) that “Every person you encounter during the hours of your day is a word that God has spoken into the world. You too are one of God’s spoken words. And now God speaks through you.” We are connected to each other through the very fact that we are part of the poetry God is writing in this moment.
My brother in Christ Kevin Nelson from Schenectady First United Methodist Church shared the African concept of “ubuntu” on the floor of Conference last week. He translated it roughly as “I am who I am because of who we are.” In my mind, his view of connectedness draws from this idea from Sister Wiederkehr nicely. We are who we are because of the voice of God spoken into each person at the table.
Why do we seek justice? The people we seek to help each carry a bit of God’s poetic word in our midst. Why do we seek love, mercy, and grace? The people who need these things (including ourselves) are all bearers of God’s creative word. Why do we comb through the scriptures listening, abiding, and trusting in God’s encompassing love? We do these things because who we are as a people has called us into a poetic dialogue with scripture. The words on the page, the words in our lives, and the white spaces between connect to create something beautiful.
Is this easy? No! In retrospect, the very first sentence of the quote I referenced above has proven foundational in all of the places where Sister Wiederkehr’s words led me to reflect today. It is definitely not easy to find the word of God in the midst of the jumble of words we come across in life. Even discounting the carriers of God’s words who like to honk car horns, cut people off, and act less than kindly, the words in the Bible itself can be jumbled, confused, and distracting.
As I do enter into the word myself this day, I will do so realizing the challenge within me. Following Sister Wiederkehr’s advice, I will wait for God, read God’s word, spend time listening to what was written with an obedient heart, pray through where God is leading me, and finally abide in the midst of the jumble. With God’s blessing the word of God expressed in my life will join in the dance of poetry found within the scriptures. Together it is my prayer that I will join in the great proclamation of God’s love and compassion.
So, if it isn’t clear, yet I am posting about something I am grateful on a regular basis through the month of June. I ordinarily don’t post on Saturdays, but as I am already at Annual Conference. I might as well take the time to try and be a blessing by pointing out where I have seen God over the past few days.
A bold speech by a young man named JJ Warren about his struggles with the church. He was bold and powerful in his words. He spoke from the heart and I was glad he was my brother in Christ. I look forward to the day when his cry for justice comes to fruition.
A bold correction from a seminarian who would not allow one viewpoint to stand as the only view which could be considered the “traditional” interpretation. She took her tuition money and put it into good use!
A powerful moment where I talked with someone on the other side of an issue. We refused to allow our differences to make us anything less than brothers in Christ.
Watching a young man named Ian use his voice with power and skill.
Connecting with a very intelligent man named Kevin. Sara is a blessed woman.
Watching people receive permission to make speeches that were neither for nor against on the floor of conference in a challenging moment. It was good to see people have a place to speak where there is often only stifling opposition.
Celebrating the life of my best friend in ministry on Thursday night. Celebrating the continuation of life with 9 other folks over Indian on Friday night.
I had someone who I used to pastor and now work with as a colleague ask if I’d be their spiritual director.
Celebrating the commissioning of a good friend this afternoon. I know it hasn’t happened yet, but I am still incredibly excited already.
Going to the Cokesbury table and walking away without buying anything. To be fair, there wasn’t a ton available on spiritual practices and that’s what I am really interested in at the moment. Mostly just curriculum, Bibles, and kitsch.
Realizing that I’ll have a new child in my arms at the next Annual Conference. That is pretty awesome.
The moment I realized that the best response to someone scowling at me for wearing the rainbow stole I bought for my wife was to smile with my warmest smile. I gave them the one I reserve for my kids, my wife, puppies, and babies.
The stories at the worship service led by Young People. “Jesus doesn’t call us to be comfortable!” “I feel valuable:..” “We can set the example for the rest of the church.”
The mom of a kid who is crawling around near me. I told her that we were expecting a kid after such a long time as just parents of kids who talk, walk, read, and so forth. She told me she had kids the same age as mine and that life will be fun and that it will be okay.
In the mid 2000’s I was reentering the United Methodist Church. I wanted to be a delegate to the Western New York Annual Conference. I was told by my pastor that we already had a delegate and I did not know about Equalization Members. I still went as a guest (out of pocket) and sat with our Associate Pastor who had to be present, but was a member of another Annual Conference. We laughed about our mutual feeling of uselessness. I was still at the table. We talked about human sexuality. I prayed a lot because I had neither voice nor vote. I prayed and felt helpless in light of a people who each sought God’s will in their own way.
In 2017, I was an elder. I really wanted the vote to go my way. I was bent over in prayer while everyone else was praying. I prayed and felt helpless in light of a people who each sought God’s will in their own way, including me.The vote didn’t go my way. I sighed, looked up, and smiled at the guy in front of me. He was on the opposite side. We had nothing in common but for the fact that we were both bowing down in prayer while everyone else stood and sung.
We talked about my kids. We talked about their squabbling. We talked about their love for each other when anyone else said or did anything to hurt their sister. We talked about how families fight like nobody else, but they are still family. We walked away as friends. No, we walked away as family. I told him the names of my children and he smiled. He will be praying for them. He will be praying for me. I will be praying for him.
Today is today. Tomorrow the sun will rise. Fear not. We are still family.
Two words are circling through my mind this morning. I am thinking about connectedness and gratitude. I was (and still am) sitting in a Denny’s with a hot cup of coffee thinking about Annual Conference when my server came up to my table. She’s been the ideal server. She substituted a cup of yogurt for my fruit because I am allergic to melon, has made certain that my cup of coffee is full, and has not called me “Hon” once (pet-peeve of mine—I am my wife’s hon and her’s alone).
I was thinking about the people I saw yesterday and smiled at this nice server. She walked away but stopped. I looked up and I saw her rubbing the back of her neck with the look of someone who has worked too many hours in a row. I wondered how long she’d been standing in those black shoes and hoped they were comfortable. She was standing with that slight tilt related to back pain that my physical therapist has scolded me about in the past. I was moved to pray for this nice person.
“This woman symbolizes all of us, both men and women, when we feel unable to stand tall and face life head-on. Some of us are crippled by shame, the dreadful feeling that we are defective and unworthy of love. Some are handicapped by emotional wounds from childhood. And some are diminished by the oppression of prejudice and discrimination, and unjustly denied equal access to educational and work opportunities. The burdens of life can at time be so heavy that it is not difficult to identify with this bent-over woman.
Jesus’ awareness of this crippled woman’s hardship and his care for her is a story of consolation. Made whole by Jesus, she becomes a symbol of hope, reminding us that the risen Jesus responds to our suffering in the same compassionate way.”
I can see where the authors are coming from when they think about this story. If you don’t remember the original story, Jesus was teaching in the synagogue when a woman who had been struggling with what the scriptures called a “crippling spirit” for 18 years came into view. He was busy teaching in that synagogue but compassion overrode his busyness. Jesus was pulled by his compassion into action. He spoke, he healed, and she was finally free.
I am reminded of the fact that not everyone is bent over, but we’re all in the same boat when it comes to needing to know a compassionate and loving Jesus. The authors state this clearly when they say that we are all in need of a consoling and compassionate Christ.
I was reminded of this strongly by yesterday’s Annual Conference session. I was reminded of this in my life while sitting alone at lunch missing my own family who stayed home to be in school this year and the best friend who never let me sit alone in all of our years together at Annual Conference. I was reminded of this as I sat with my friend’s widow and our mutual friend Harold at the Memorial Dinner. I was reminded of this when the Bishop unexpectedly sat down at our table for dinner but was so busy running in and out with Conference business that I asked a District Superintendent if he knew any way that we could guilt him into sitting still and eating dinner as an act of self-care. I was reminded of this when I saw old friends from across the connection who were excited to reconnect with me as a part of their past and as a part of their future. I was reminded of this when I talked with someone who was a new minister last year and was wondering about the challenges of the ordination process ahead of him. There are so many places where I saw people in need of this compassionate love of Jesus. I see the reasons that this story of a consoling Jesus gives hope because we are a people continually in need of hope.
I am reminded of this compassion as Annual Conference begins today. I am reminded how everyone we stand across from on any issue or debate is still a sister or brother in God. I am reminded of the connectedness that we all share in our need to know a compassionate God and to share that compassion with both each other and with all of our neighbors. We are all interconnected in our love and in our need to be a people following the compassionate Christ. This is good news and I am grateful to be connected with my sisters and brothers as we begin another day together.
Worship begins in an hour, my coffee cup is empty, and I have a good tip to leave for my server. See you all in session!
Today’s post is dedicated to my sisters and brothers at Annual Conference and to one awesome server who is currently waiting on 60 Amish folks from a tour bus. God bless her…
First, I agree that the why of ministry should not change often. What we do in the church must always be in flux. How we do ministry must always be in flux. The why should be stable, but I sincerly doubt it will never change. The first century Christians altered the world because a prophet came claiming to be Son of God. The why of ministry changed in that time. The words of the Great Mystery tells us that “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.” The why is guaranteed to change and if we say this is the only why God will ever supply then we may miss out on the truth and movement of the Spirit. If Jesus’ mission was the end of the story, the Gentiles would still be on the outside. The Spirit may still move!
Second, James would probably have issues with focusing only on prayer. What good is it to say “Go, be warm, and eat!” when that person laxks a place to go, no warm coat, and no food? James invited the early church to always hold prayer and blessing in a partnership with action.
Why do we do all of this church business? I was sitting with a friend at a local restaurant discussing the challenges of the church earlier. We talked about the people that we loved and the challenges they had faced. Our mutual affection for various individuals was very obvious. It made me wonder about how those friends and loved ones have been doing in recent years.
Why do we do all of this church business? I was standing in the kitchen at church talking with a parishioner about the challenges of denominational life. One wrong set of directions from MapQuest and suddenly there’s no chance of making it to a meeting. One wrong set of directions and suddenly there are thoughts of letting people down. We were talking about how colleagues and friends gently rib us when we miss meetings. We smiled at the fact that there is not only room at the table, but the chair is often pulled out and waiting for us.
Why do we do all of this church business? I have a theory that I would like to propose. I believe one of the many reasons that we engage in the act of church business is that we are victims of a strange set of relational physics. I believe the church is a place where we see the effects of the inertia of love.
An object in motion stays in motion. A person in love stays in love. Think for a moment about the people you grew up with in your church. Very rarely are they perfect people. Some of them might have a bad reputation in your memory because they were a bit cross or a bit temperamental. I would imagine others have a fond place in your memory after teaching you in Sunday School, teaching you songs, or even going camping with you on a church retreat. They did wonderful things and you came to love them.
I remember Rev. Lange. He wasn’t my pastor but a retired pastor who went to our church. Every Sunday he’d come up to me and shake my hand. I remember it fondly because the first time I went to shake his hand I learned that he had lost his thumb. He laughed really hard at that point and then smiled at me every time we shook hands after that first Sunday.
Rev. Lange wasn’t perfect in the least, but the way he smiled, the humor with which he approached the world, and the content of his good character made a deep impression. To this very day, I would not hesitate to stand up for this man. There is an inertia to the love and respect I have for him that has lasted years after his passing.
Many of us who are in church leadership have the same love for the church. As a Campus Minister why their ministry is important and I would bet most of them will come to the point where they say “When I was a student…” Ask a camp ministry worker about their love of camp and I’d bet they’d regale you with a tale about a great camping ministry. Ask a minister… Ask a church planter… I believe that we all have our own love and affection for the places that we have seen Christ in the church.
I believe that love is also why it can be hard to see that inertia at work in times of challenge. We all have our own inertia and while they often run parallel there are often moments when they go on a different course. There’ll be conflict if there are only so many dollars for ministry with people under the age of 35. Camping ministries, campus ministries, and youth groups can love each other, but there will be tension. Speak about the power of funding for electronic ministries and you will find someone passionate for the printed word of their youth. I think there’s a place where the inertia of love can be challenging.
For me, I think what’s most important is to recognize the love we hold for our ministry and each other. Keeping my eyes open and seeing that love in other people is especially important to me as I prepare to head out to Annual Conference. I pray that we all keep our eyes open and recognize God’s love shared in each other.
Today is a day of transition for me. Last week I attended the 54th Annual Meeting of the New York Conference of the United Church of Christ. After celebrating the Ascension of Jesus Christ and Memorial Day in my town, I am preparing to head out to Syracuse for the 8th Session of the Upper New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. As a pastor at a Federated congregation I am authorized to serve as a minister within the United Church of Christ even as I serve within my ordained capacity as an Elder within the United Methodist Church. I serve within the one church and have my membership and service within the other.
A relative of mine once said that it must feel like I am being constantly torn in two. I often get asked questions about the local church’s way of being, questions about how I balance responsibilities, and questions about how I manage to make all of the meetings. To be fair, I often ask that last question. Yes, it can be challenging when you have twice as many denominational meetings as many of your colleagues.
This time of year is often difficult for me professionally. I go to one denominational meeting. I celebrate the successes, embraces the challenges, and mourn the losses of colleagues and friends. I proceed to then go to the other denomination’s meeting. I am again called to celebrate the successes, embrace challenges, and mourn losses. I often share ideas that are working within the other church with friends from the others. Sometimes that is accepted as a good thing. Occasionally, I am told to keep what I am saying to myself. For the record, people are not necessarily being mean—tradition has a very bad habit of enshrining itself as unchangeable.
I was pondering this strange place between congregations the other day at the meeting of the UCC. In the middle of a prayer for the ministry of the UCC I was drawn to think about that balance between denominations, Here’s the excerpt that caught my attention.
As I thought through this prayer I was drawn to the beauty and simplicity of the words. The Spirit of God is indeed shown in each person. The blessing of the Spirit is not just for our own life, but for the good of all. Each person is blessed and called to be a part of God’s ongoing work in the world.
In this office window hangs a plastic stained glass window of a boat at sea. It reminds me of the call to be a missionary, especially as it came from my first pastoral parish (Canisteo First UMC). Next to the window is a cutting of catnip for our cat from a member of our local UCC Society here in Maine. The bush outside has peeked in at ministers from both denominations.
I am a blessed man. I am blessed while going about my service with the community of saints that span two denomination. I am blessed to be able to see the connections and relationships between the two churches. I am blessed to Christ’s body in each of the lives of the saints. Some are United Methodists, some are members of the United Church of Christ, and all are a blessed part of God’s body.
Yes, balancing two denominations is somewhat challenging. Yes, the number of meetings can get a bit long. Yes, some days I am just plain lucky that my head is firmly attached to my neck. I am blessed to be in this strange place. This place is more beautiful than most people know.