“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.

Poetry as a Pastor

The church is founded 
on One who cares deeply
for people outside.

The Distracted Pastor, 2019

Recently, I have been expressing myself a lot more publicly through poetry. Poetry is a hobby of mine. I enjoy writing poetry, was published in an anthology in high school, and wrote a collection of poems for my family the Christmas before last. I do not aspire to being a professional poet, do not claim the title poet, and certainly do not believe that I am creating anything worthy of being etched in stone. I know that poems like my villanelle for my youngest daughter will probably be considered overly sentimental and sappy to most people. It probably won’t make it into an anthology of the best poems of 2019.

Still, I have enjoyed bringing this part of my heart out and into the open. Interestingly, I find that certain people respond to my poetry on my blog from vastly different places in life. There are classically beautiful women writing about life, people who enjoy writing poetry behind profile pictures of cats, people writing poems about living in cities I’ll never see, and a thousand and one different people writing poetry that come out of life experiences far different from mine.

There are moments when I wonder how someone from such a different place in life could like my poems. Often, I look at their poetry and occasionally find myself blown away by beauty, truth, and wisdom that is far outside of my sphere of understanding. My poems often aren’t even a spark compared to their flames. Reading some of these poems are humbling, intriguing, and often shatter preconceptions. I feel drawn into a world different from my own.

Some poetry is shared in low-tech ways too!

Sometimes, I find that drawing out of the “safe bubble” of the church scary. What would the woman down the road think if she finds out her pastor read that poem about longing? What would the Bishop think if he knew I enjoyed and found beauty in that poem about staring over the edge of a bridge in despair?

Sometimes I become anxious about what people in the church would think. I then remember that the God I love is the God I see in Jesus. The Jesus I know was accused often of being a miscreant for eating with tax collectors and sinners. The Jesus I know would probably enjoy a night at a poetry bar with people who were honest about their flaws far more than a night debating whether you round up or down when tithing your spices. The Jesus I know invited people to come near even when following him from that place of proximity often meant they had to make sacrifices. The Jesus I know would probably find beauty, sadness, grief, and loveliness in some poems I have enjoyed reading.

I honestly believe the church needs to relax sometimes and remember that God loves all of those people “out there.” One of my favorite churches was the church in the country which had a screen door leading into the sanctuary to let the sound, the smells, and the life of the world around it into worship. What’s even better, it bordered a farm which spread cow manure every spring. Worship with the scent of cow manure. If that’s not a unique incense for worship in the country, then I don’t know what else would qualify.

So, for those of you who read my blog for interesting theological commentary, I invite you to check out one of the people who like the poems I write. Most of them write some interesting stuff. For those of you who write poetry and often encourage mine, thank you for letting me be a part of your community. I love both sides of this blog’s community and thanks for letting me be a part of your online life.

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 Reflect: The Inertia of Love

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.