Saturday, April 28, 2012

missing link

prevenient [pri-veen-yuhnt]
a path - one of many
Beersheba Springs, Tn
1. coming before; antecedent.
2. anticipatory.

God's prevenient grace is with us from birth, preparing us for new life in Christ. "Prevenient" means "comes before."

Wesley did not believe that humanity was totally "depraved" but rather God places a little spark of divine grace within us which enables us to recognize and accept God's justifying grace.

(from John Wesley: Holiness of heart and life
I grew up in  a household that was Holy Spirit focused.  My parents were faithful, but pretty low key when it came to talking about their faith.  While I did not know the term "prevenient grace" as a child, I did know that God and God's love and the power of the Holy Spirit was always with me, wooing me into a deeper relationship with God.

As I mull over the state of the United Methodist Church (all churches in the West for that matter) I am starting to fear that we are overlooking the person and the work of the third person of the Holy Spirit.

Why is it that we are missing this important link in our conversations?  Is it because God, operating underneath an umbrella of grace, takes too long for some?  Is it because we have too little faith?  Or perhaps because we are being called on the carpet for not being faithful disciples over the past 50 years or so and we are now playing catch up?

Are we living as people who have received the very breath of God?  Aren't we, like the disciples, given this gift to strengthen and equip us for great things?

"If you love me, show it by doing what I've told you. I will talk to the Father, and he'll provide you another Friend so that you will always have someone with you. This Friend is the Spirit of Truth. The godless world can't take him in because it doesn't have eyes to see him, doesn't know what to look for. But you know him already because he has been staying with you, and will even be in you! (John 14:15-17 The Message)

Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. (John 20:21-22)

Are we living as people who have received the Holy Spirit?

I had a conversation with one of those highly desirable, under 35, young adults the other day, nearly 10 years ago she had a call to seminary, but felt pushed into elder's track.  It was easier for her to drop out at the birth of her first child rather than continue to follow how God was leading her.  Now, 8 years later, doors are opening (isn't this the Spirit at work?) and she is enrolled in seminary again, this time determined to follow the deacon's route.

My own call to ministry came when I was 41, yes I am a late bloomer, but I sure wasn't ready in my teens,  20's or even 30's to hear God's call and claim on my life, let alone the call to ordained ministry.  Truth be told, from the age of 18 to 29 or so I didn't even go to church except when I was home visiting my family (gasp).  When I was in college I never even stepped foot in the Wesley Foundation on campus.  Why?  Its not because I was disinterested in God or anything, I was never invited - plain and simple.

BUT, when I was ready, God's prevenient grace woo'd me to go to church.  This was after I had settled into my career and after the birth of my daughter.  A few weeks later the Spirit compelled me to step forward and answer an altar call one Sunday morning and I was received by profession of faith.  It wasn't anything that anyone did, it was the work of God.  The church, Mountain View UMC in Stone Mountain, Georgia was a safe place for me to work things out, and after I joined they did an outstanding job welcoming me into the fold and plugging me into Sunday school and community activities.

During Rejoice! worship reflection time,
Maddie learns a few chords
I know that youth and young adults are vitally important, from my experience what they want isn't more stuff.  What they want is authentic engagement in the world with people who care about them, people who are welcoming, people who listen - really listen and who give them space to work things out, by the grace of God, in fear and trembling.  (The same could be said for newly retired folk and the aging and everyone in between.)

The Christian life is not meant to be easy, no cheap grace be a disciple of Christ involves giving ones life away time and time again.  Those people who were used by God to woo me back into the church and later into ministry, who walked alongside me in seminary and continue to be fellow travelers on this faith journey are precious to me.  I hope that I am able to have the same kind of impact on a another person's life, but I know that it takes time and commitment to cultivate relationships and to get to know one another's gifts, graces and passions.

This is what we need to be in covenant about - its not about how much money we spend but the time that we give freely to engage in Christ centered relationships with others, and these come about because someone is listening to the nudge of the Holy Spirit to share God's love with a fellow traveler.

I guess that's really where the rubber hits the road.  How many of us are taking the time not only to cultivate these relationships, but to listen to the Holy Spirit and to mentor those who have bright eyes and a call to ministry, both as committed laity and clergy?  How many of US are that missing link - what a difference a thoughtful conversation, prayer and encouragement could make...but we have to make the investment, which means setting aside our toys, giving away our time and we have to pay attention to the Spirit of truth.

I have had powerful experiences of God's presence in times of prayer, worship and fellowship.  In some rare moments I actually feel as if I have entered into the cosmic dance of the Holy Trinity - each person of the Trinity fully themselves and fully in union and communion with one another.  There is no brokenness, only love, justice and mercy.  This is the kind of community I want to be a part of, its not something we can legislate, its something we have to embody with intentionality and compassion for the unique blessedness and belovedness of one another.

in Christ, together - for that is how we were made to be,

Friday, April 27, 2012


"Off Kilter"  a bronze by Ana Duncan

off-kilter \-ˈkil-tər\

1: not in perfect balance : a bit askew
2: eccentric, unconventional 
off–kilter characters, an off–kilter approach

I come from a long line of Pennsylvania farmers.  My dad is the oldest son of the oldest son of the...well, you get the picture.  When the patriarch passed away the Coble family farm was passed down to the oldest son, only in my dad's case it went to his youngest brother.  And so, from the age of 11 or so, our family began the migration west - following a meandering path from farm to farm - from Illinois to Tennessee and ultimately to Iowa.

Coble Farm - the barn, circa 1803
rural Hershey, PA
My mom and dad and the 6 of us kids made the most of it, we had plenty of fun on our adventures exploring our amazing country. Everywhere we landed we became a part of a United Methodist Church.  My only youth group experience was in Illinois, when I was in Junior High.  My younger sister, Elizabeth, and I were confirmed at a small country church in Morris Chapel, Tn.  I think Jay was confirmed in Martin, Tn.  Mark, Stephanie and Glen in Wayland, Iowa.

the shop - likely the oldest structure
on the farm
Regardless of where we landed, home is always in Pennsylvania, we are a part of the family farm as much as it is part of us.

One mid-May when we lived in Martin, I had to come up with something for my dad's 49th birthday.  I wanted it to be special and so I remembered, from our time on the family farm, that every year on his birthday there was always a bouquet of Lilies of the Valley on the table.  I am not sure what he thought of his present - a pot full of Lilies of the Valley.  I'm not even sure if they were ever re-planted by the house, the family moved a few months later, but Lilies of the Valley still make me think of the family farm and the tiny cemetery on the corner of the farm back home in Pennsylvania.  

Lily of the Valley -
Trinity Waverly Parsonage
Imagine my surprise when I noticed Lilies of the Valley blooming at the parsonage last year, my first spring in Waverly, Ia.  I discovered them too late to pick a little bouquet and include them on the table.  Now that I know they are there I am able to keep an eye out for them - and thanks to the mild winter and early spring the Lilies of the Valley are already blooming this year.  The same thing with the Peonies (another sentimental favorite) they always seem to bloom during Annual Conference (early June) they're a full month ahead of schedule!

Fern Peonies
This year our mild winter and early spring has thrown everything here in Iowa off-kilter!  If I were to really pay attention, I am sure that I would notice other things that just aren't 'right'.

That's what I am hearing from the various voices at General Conference - although they aren't being nearly as subtle about it...from the CtA to IOT to reevaluating how we reach young people to how we engage with our sisters and brothers in the Central Conferences (outside of the USA), things just aren't 'right'.

It makes me wonder how many of us have a sentimental picture of the church and are overlooking the signs that things are off-kilter in our own backyards.  It is easy to maintain a status quo, but as one who has lived in a variety of cultures and contexts, we can't keep doing things the same old, same old - unless we're perfectly happy with the results we have thus aging population, less commitment to hands on missions and service, more passion over the style of music we sing than worshipping God...the list could go on and on.

I am probably the last generation that will have 'brand loyalty'.  We can't expect a generation that has unlimited access to news, music and information to be satisfied with anything less than our very best, and that means that all of those seminary classes that taught us to be a non-anxious presence may need to be set aside for a season.

I think its time to lift up the prophetic voices among laity and clergy alike and hear and see what they hear and see.  We need to team up those who have the gift of apostleship - strong leadership skills to forge into new directions and evangelism too for that matter - not door to door canvasing, but contextual engagement with our neighbors.

Adam Hamilton, pastor of Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, said in his conversation with young clergy yesterday (and I paraphrase), 'the call to action proposals are not the silver bullet that will fix the church, ultimately, the old model that starts with evangelism and discipling in the church doesn't work any more... it has been turned on its head - at Church of the Resurrection we invite people to be a part of God's mission, somewhere along the way they rub shoulders with people who are followers of Christ, somewhere along the way they get invited to worship or a bible study and somewhere along the way they find that their lives have been transformed...they find that they need what the church and Christ has to offer and then we send them out to even more bold and courageous mission for Christ in the future.'  Click here to watch the Adam Hamilton interview.

Rather than retreat into our institutional strongholds I believe it's time to embrace 'off kilter' and see what we can learn from this season in our life.  It's time to be bold and courageous for the sake of God, not to save the United Methodist Church, but to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ,  Along the way, we may discover that God is trying to teach us something - if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

in Christ, together,

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Thursday morning snark

adj \ˈsnär-kē\
sarcastic, impertinent,
or irreverent in tone or manner

This week and next United Methodist delegates from around the world are gathering in Tampa, Florida for our General Conference.  GC is the decision making body for the denomination and essentially their job while there is to set the course for the church for the next four years.

There's been a lot of snark on twitter and Facebook about all sorts of aspects of the gathering thus far; from worship to parliamentary procedure to representation on committees.  Trying to keep up with it all could be all consuming...I am guilty of watching off and on throughout my day.  I will admit that I am scanning twitter more too - it is kinda fun to live vicariously through the event.

Because so many of us who are commenting are hundreds of miles away there is an unhealthy sense of freedom to toss a jab here and there, and I myself am guilty of doing so.

I didn't give it much thought until this morning when I was in the church kitchen looking for a plastic spoon.  I found them here:

When I opened the door I found more than I bargained for, tada! Plastic spoons, forks and knives on the shelf of the dumbwaiter?  The dumbwaiter is a relic from the days of shuttling coffee fellowship supplies upstairs to the church parlor.  Somewhere along the line the dumbwaiter has been repurposed as a storage cabinet.

Why?  Well I assume its because someone - one day long ago - probably thought that putting SOMETHING there would likely prevent the young people from playing in it - and it is a convenient and unused place in the kitchen after all...sigh.

I wonder how many of my predecessors talked to the kitchen ladies about the use of the dumbwaiter (let alone the location of the plastic stuff), or maybe they just walked away and let them do their own thing...either out of respect for their 'sacred' space or out of fear for making them angry.

I am not sure that I am ready to dive into that conversation either, but it does make me look at myself and what I am doing as a church leader.  Does what I do make sense to those who are not familiar with the Christian faith?  Am I open to rearranging things that may have made sense in the past for the sake of clarity and for the essential work that the church is called to - sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ?

I wonder how many of us have taken a good look at our own houses recently with a loving and yet critical eye - to consider thoughtfully if we as a community of faith are truly open to receiving the least and the lost, the stranger and the unchurched with open arms and with radical hospitality?  And let's push beyond physical space - I am as guilty as anyone else of using the vocabulary that I learned by virtue of my seminary education, but is this really going to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?  These are the questions and the issues that I do have some control over, and this is where I need to turn my energy in the days and weeks ahead.

I do not envy my sisters and brothers in Tampa, they are under a great deal of pressure to make legislation (and some even believe these decisions are essential to save the church) all of this in a very brief amount of time (not that I think that legislation will really save the church - but that discussion is for another day).

I need to remember that it is first and foremost about Jesus - and by the grace of God I am called to serve in times such as these, as are those who are on the ground in Tampa.  I need to give up the snark, drink another cup of tea and spend more time on my knees in prayer for those who are bearing this burden.   Then I think I'll take a walk around and see what I can do to make our house of worship a place that is open and loving to all.

in Christ, together,

Friday, April 6, 2012

Good Friday?

Five years ago today when Justin was 8, he was hurt by another boy on the playground.  Since then we call Good Friday, "bad Friday."  I wrote about it here.

Anne Sexton (1928-1974)
There's not much that I can add to what I wrote last year - but it's refreshing to see that there are others burdened by Good Friday and Easter too for that matter.  Anne Sexton (1928-1974) was a poet famous for her highly personal poems.  She wrote from the 1950's until her death, she also won a Pulitzer Prize in 1967.   I came across her poem, Protestant Easter, this morning.

For the past few months I have enjoyed an app. on my cellphone called, Show of Hands.  Its a Mobile Poll that asks all sorts of interesting questions.  Just the other day there were questions about the election, fast food, and whether or not I'd be attending religious services on Easter Sunday.  I was surprised to see that only 42% of the over 15,000 people who responded are going to a worship service this weekend!  There must be something terribly wrong about how we've been sharing the 'Good News' of God's love and grace if such a high percentage of folks don't want anything to do with the biggest celebration of our faith.

Perhaps this poem by Anne Sexton, written from the point of view of an 8 year old, is a clue about how we seem to those on the outside.   I find it an interesting lens to view Easter as I ponder what happened on the cross so many years ago.

"Protestant Easter" by Anne Sexton

eight years old

When he was a little boy
Jesus was good all the time.
No wonder that he grew up to be such a big shot
who could forgive people so much.
When he died everyone was mean.
Later on he rose when no one else was looking.
Either he was hiding or else
he went up.
Maybe he was only hiding?
Maybe he could fly?

Yesterday I found a purple crocus
blowing its way out of the snow.
It was all alone.
It was getting its work done.
Maybe Jesus was only getting his work done
and letting God blow him off the Cross
and maybe he was afraid for a minute
so he hid under the big stones.
He was smart to go to sleep up there
even though his mother got so sad
and let them put him in a cave.
I sat in a tunnel when I was five.
That tunnel, my mother said,
went straight into the big river
and so I never went again.
Maybe Jesus knew my tunnel
and crawled right through to the river
so he could wash all the blood off.
Maybe he only meant to get clean
and then come back again?
Don't tell me that he went up in smoke
like Daddy's cigar!
He didn't blow out like a match!
It is special
being here at Easter
with the Cross they built like a capital T.
The ceiling is an upside-down rowboat.
I usually count its ribs.
Maybe he was drowning?
Or maybe we are all upside down?
I can see the face of a mouse inside
of all that stained-glass window.
Well, it could be a mouse!
Once I thought the Bunny Rabbit was special
and I hunted for eggs.
That's when I was seven.
I'm grownup now. Now it's really Jesus.
I just have to get Him straight.
And right now.

Who are we anyhow?
What do we belong to?
Are we a we?
I think that he rose
but I'm not quite sure
and they don't really say
singing their Alleluia
in the churchy way.
Jesus was on that Cross.
After that they pounded nails into his hands.
After that, well, after that,
everyone wore hats
and then there was a big stone rolled away
and then almost everyone --
the ones who sit up straight --
looked at the ceiling.

Alleluia they sing.
They don't know.
They don't care if he was hiding or flying.
Well, it doesn't matter how he got there.
It matters where he was going.
The important thing for me
is that I'm wearing white gloves.
I always sit straight.
I keep on looking at the ceiling.
And about Jesus,
they couldn't be sure of it,
not so sure of it anyhow,
so they decided to become Protestants.
Those are the people that sing
when they aren't quite

- Anne Sexton, from Live or Die, 1966 Houghton Mifflin Co.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

It was on Thursday...Holy Week musings

The past week I had the opportunity to travel through some familiar country, specifically Tennessee and Georgia, where I spent 23 years of my life.  One of the things about driving through these places was remembering the sights and sounds of shared experiences with family and friends.  Go figure, some of the most powerful memories were around food.

When I got to Atlanta, I drove down Ponce de Leon, past the first place I worked (its now a spiffy car wash), I tried to go to Bobby and June's, a restaurant near Turner Broadcasting, but they're closed now.  I spent a few minutes on the outskirts of Newnan, near where we lived last and was so saddened by the endless strip malls that I got back on the highway as quickly as I could.

I did get to have a terrific meal of catfish at a little state park north of Nashville, the veggie plate (and peach cobbler for dessert) at Mary Mac's, and a Frosted Orange at the Varsity next to Georgia Tech.  Simple meals, but sitting there in those places brought back so many memories.

Whether its a big family dinner or a simple meal with a friend, there is something special about the many senses that are engaged as we break bread together.  I think this is why God ordered the Hebrew people to share the Passover meal each year, a meal loaded with symbolism and memories, so that they would never forget their story.

It was the same with Jesus, as he broke bread with the disciples at the Passover meal on what would be His Last Supper.  He didn't want them to forget what it was like to be with him, but also what it was like to be in unity with one another.  The food would nourish them all for the journey through Christ's passion, and it would also sustain them just as it sustains us for life's journey.

Today is Maundy Thursday, the day the church gathers to break bread with one another and meditate about Jesus' Last Supper.  Today I remember those whom I have had the blessing to break bread with in my life...from special sit down meals to an ordinary sandwich, you have blessed me along the way, and I say a prayer for you, that you are well.

I also pray that you may know the love of God, a love so powerful that compelled Jesus to give his life for us - and he prepared his disciples for what was to happen when he took bread and broke it and said 'this is my body, broken for you."  And then he lifted the cup of wine and said; "this is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins."  "Whenever you are together, do this in remembrance of me."

Today we break bread and drink from the cup in remembrance of Him.  One day, I look forward to feasting together at the heavenly banquet with you, my friends.

in Christ, together,

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Holy Week musings

Lt Col Elizabeth Coble
(aka my little sister)
Over the past week I have done quite a bit of driving.  When I left home I had a plan in place - a destination and a time line.  I knew where I needed to be when so that I could meet up with my sister who was finally coming home after 20 months of deployment in Afghanistan.

Sadly, the US Army and I didn't coordinate things very well, and I found myself with a few extra days on my hands.  So, I looked for a place in the hills of southeast Tennessee to have a mini-retreat.  I was on vacation after all.  The kind folks at Beersheba Springs Assembly United Methodist Camp provided wonderful accommodations, and the weather and scenery couldn't have been more beautiful.
the chapel, Beersheba Springs
Assembly UM camp

As I packed the vehicle Monday morning to continue my journey to meet up with Liz in the Atlanta area a 2nd email came, saying that she wouldn't arrive until Thursday.  But wait!  My flight out of Atlanta is for Wednesday!  grrrr... another change of plans...another detour...another readjustment in expectations.

It's not the end of the world, I keep reminding myself.  It is just going to be different from what I had envisioned.  (I say this as two friends from seminary sit in a hospital room in Iowa City with their 8 year old son who had major surgery a couple of weeks ago.  I have NOTHING to complain about in comparison to the burdens they are dealing with right now.  Please pray for Drew and his parents Jaye and Amy Johnson, and sister Allie.)

I took advantage of the extra time to go to lunch at one of my favorite places in Atlanta, Mary Mac's, and I took in some of the sights of the city before heading to my hotel.  I had a quiet evening, finished up some reading and watched the end of the basketball game.  But it still wasn't what I had planned or prepared for...sigh.

In the midst of Holy Week, as I prepare for the worship services ahead and the range of emotions that come with The Last Supper, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, I can really empathize with the disciples.

Tuesday of Holy Week is traditionally when we remember Jesus' heated encounter with the temple authorities.  From the triumphant welcome of Jesus and his disciples on Palm Sunday to the shouting match with the pharisees (see Matthew 21 and Mark 11) the whole mood of the city changed in that instant and it wasn't pretty.  I can hear the 12 muttering under their breath, "What next?  Where is he taking us now?  What are we supposed to learn from this?"

As I meditate on the events of Jesus' last days on earth, I can see that normal is relative, that we are at our best AND our worst when plans change.

It is my prayer this day that I can find a way to let go of my expectations for everything to be 'just so' and embrace changes in plans as part of a grand adventure.  I know in my head that God is in the midst of things - now I need to be especially vigilant to see Him along the edges.  Let it be so, dear Lord, let it be so.

in Christ, together,

I came across this quote from Mother Teresa while at Beersheba Springs Assembly, it seems especially appropriate for Holy Week.

It is necessary that we find God, 
and God cannot be found in noise and unpeace.... 
See how Nature--trees, flowers and grass--grow in stillness; 
how stars, moon and sun run their course in silence. 
The more we receive through quiet prayer, 
the more we can give in the activity of our daily lives. 
In essence, it is not what we say, 
but what God says to us and through us. 
All our words are useless if they do not come from within. 
Words that do not carry the light of Christ only increase the darkness.