“It is grace, nothing but grace…”

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.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Life Together,” page 4.

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.

Open, Nurturing, Empowering…

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.

Seven years ago, I knelt before my Conference and was ordained into ministry because people were Open to my leadership, Nurtured my potential, and Empowered me to go forth in ministry. What kind of person would I be if I did not seek to do the same for others?

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.

Let Us Ramble: On Baptismal Hope

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.

An Honest Opinion

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!

Let us Seek: “All that is required…”

In pondering today’s scripture reading from the Revised Common Lectionary, I found myself thinking back to “The Nature, Design, and General Rules of Our United Societies” as first printed in the 1808 Discipline under the heading “The General Rules of the Methodist Church.” In reading the description of the societies which gave birth to churches, there is much to ponder.

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.

This Saturday, April 21st, the Upper New York Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church will kickoff the “Imagine No Racism” Campaign. We are gathering as a Conference to seek to imagine a better world without racism and (hopefully) with equity, and this gathering came to mind as I read today’s scripture. 1 John 3:10-16 reads this way in the New Revised Standard Version:

“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.

  1. Prayer of the Body: Prayer shared in physical ways, often with specific actions (speaking, bowing head, kneeling, reading from a prayer-book, etc.)
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Let us Ramble: On Gluten-Free Communion

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.

Let Us Ramble: Hobbit Holes and Worship

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?

Let us Ramble: Humility and Community

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.

Let us Ramble: On Unity

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.

Let us Ramble: Stilling hunger

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.

A Powerful Pair

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.