Friday, May 18, 2012

milkweeds in my garden

Waverly, Iowa is a lovely town.  Our German heritage shines through with our street numbering system (oh so very practical - once you learn the system) our comfortable homes and tidy yards.  It may seem like an exaggeration, but everything seems so nice and neat in Waverly, all except the flowerbeds at Trinity, the church I am privledged to serve.

We have two members who are the 'official' church gardeners.  They do a wonderful job caring for our various flower beds.  Two summers ago, my first year in Waverly, I pointed out to them that there was a milkweed in their flowerbed.  Before I could pull it out they both yelled STOP!

I had always thought that Milkweeds (part of the Asclepias family) were pretty, albeit messy plants, and while its great fun in the fall to break open the seed pouch and scatter their silky seeds to the wind, their rightful place is in the ditches of country roads, certainly not a flower bed.

Except, except that Monarch Butterflies depend on milkweeds as a food source for the larvae, aka caterpillars.  More milkweeds = more monarch butterflies!  The world hasn't been so kind to Monarch butterflies.  More and more chemicals are being used in the fields and ditches here in North America, and the forests on the southern end of their migration are facing increasing threats from loggers.

My first summer here we had one milkweed plant, last summer it was two - imagine my surprise when I noticed a plethora of milkweeds in our flowerbed!  That's something to celebrate!  I'm not the only one who is tempted to pull the milkweeds - after all the word 'weed' is in the name of this common plant.  So, now we plant a sign in the flowerbed that says:  "Don't pull out the milkweeds!"  We are good United Methodists and pay attention to signs.

As the church and the world changes at lightening fast speed, I wonder how many other presuppositions need to be looked at again.  How many folks have given up on God, thinking that they are worthless, like our humble milkweeds?  How many people have we overlooked who have gifts that aren't being lifted up and honored?

It seems to me that we need to spend less time racing through our day and more time paying attention to the basics, like milkweeds and monarch butterflies and relationships with folks who may not fit our nice neat expectations.  When we do so I believe we will be richly blessed.

in Christ, together

Friday, May 11, 2012

better than...

A Facebook friend posted the lyrics to this song earlier this week:

Better than a church bell ringing
Better than a choir singing out...

We pour out our miseries
God just hears a melody

Beautiful, the mess we are
The honest cries of breaking hearts
Are better than a Hallelujah

(Amy Grant ~ Better than a Hallelujah)

The words really resonated with me.  No one wants to appear broken, and yet, our brokenness is part of our reality – its why we/the world is in need of a savior.   The Good News is (and always has been) that in the midst of our suffering, God is always, always, always there.  What a comfort, what an assurance! 

I know from my own experience that there are times when I hide behind a mask rather than express my true emotions because they are so real and raw, and I am afraid that this may be perceived as either weakness, whiny-ness or just plain brokenness.   In these times it’s always good to turn to God’s song book, the Psalms:

“Yes, my soul, find rest in God; 
my hope comes from him.
Truly he is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will not be shaken.”  (Psalm 62:5-6)

As followers of Christ and members of the United Methodist Church we have a tradition of asking one another; “how is it with your soul?”  It is my hope that as we journey together in faith we are able to build relationships that allow us to be authentic and vulnerable with one another.  As the Body of Christ we are called to share one another’s burdens and celebrate one another’s victories.

So, my  questions today is – “how is it with your soul?” 

Really…I mean it…how is it with your soul?

in Christ, together

(from my midweek reflection - 5/10/2012)

Sunday, May 6, 2012

it's all about L.O.V.E.

Love is one of the most complicated of all human emotions.  Wrapped up in four little letters is the yearning of the heart, the hope of what could be as well as memories of what was.

It would be so much easier to keep our emotions in check if we were like the Greeks, with multiple words for love - eros for passionate, desiring, physical love; philia for a love based on friendship and loyalty to friends and family alike; and agape which is often equated with the love of God and the sacrificial love that one has for others.

But all we have is L.O.V.E.  And love has a tendency to get us into trouble at times, more often than not its the lack of love - for ourselves and others that gets us into trouble.  On the other hand, love also helps us to be better people, for love is, indeed patient and kind (1 Corinthians 13:4a).

Because I love the United Methodist Church, and because I dream of us living into God's love in radical, Christ focused ways, I was compelled to respond to events of General Conference this week, and the defeat of the Hamilton/Slaughter substitution amendment in particular from the pulpit this morning.  To follow is the text of this morning's homily.  (please forgive the ellipses and dashes)

John 21:15-17
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’  He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.

This morning’s scripture lesson is a continuation of Jesus' third appearance to his disciples after the resurrection.  This time, Jesus is on the shore along the sea of Galilee.  This morning we find Jesus and the disciples enjoying breakfast and Peter becomes the focus of Christ's parable about love.

Peter, of all of the disciples was the most impetuous – often outrageous, and yet, I find him to be a very, very human disciple. I can relate to Peter. On the night of Jesus’ arrest Peter swore his allegiance to Jesus – and then before the sun rose the next day, he denied him – not once – but three times.

From all accounts, it seems that Peter is getting a good talking to – and like any parent it would seem that Jesus wants to make a point - I have done this before myself - making my children repeat the instructions over and over again before an important task, but friends, there is so much more to our Gospel lesson than  this.

Three times Jesus asks Peter – do you love me? And each time Peter replies – more vehemently each time – 'of course you know I do…'

Then feed my sheep, Jesus says.

Are we to take this literally?  Does this mean that Jesus wants Peter to go out and became a sheep rancher?

Not at all – in fact we know that he was a fisherman – a fisherman who responded to Jesus’ call to drop his nets and follow him – to become a fisher for people. So what happens to these fish once they are caught? What happens to people once they hear the good news and become a Christ follower?

They become one of His – since Jesus is the good shepherd, they, we become one of His flock – a sheep of his fold.  We see this throughout scripture –  in the Gospel of Mark chapter 6, verse 34

When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.

And in Luke chapter 15:

Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

And returning to the Gospel of John, chapter 10:7-11

Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.  All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them.   I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture.  The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

Thanks be to God for Jesus, the good shepherd – who love us and calls us to himself!

The past two weeks delegates from the United Methodist church around the globe gathered in Tampa, Florida to set the course for our denomination. We gather only once every four years – and it is mesmerizing to watch the process and proceedings unfold.

There is meaningful worship, legislative committee work and then, over the course of five days, the group gathers to vote on the structure of the church. You may have read about some of the proceedings, there are plenty of reports out there if you’re interested –

What I learned from watching the proceedings was that we are a global church – and culture matters. What is acceptable in one part of the world, like our dependence on cell phones and Wi-Fi for example, is foreign in another – an iPhone isn’t going to do me much good in the bush in Africa or in a remote village in the Philippines, or on the northern end of Bremer county for that matter.

We also all read scripture through the lens of our experiences, traditions and use our minds to sort it all out. Undoubtedly there are parts of scripture that challenge us and our sensibilities. There are parts of scripture that say that a woman is not to speak to the assembly (church), that shaving is taboo, that slavery is acceptable, that widows are supposed to marry their brother in law and have a child right away.

I lift this all up, because as I read this passage in the Gospel of John – and elsewhere in scripture - Jesus never makes a distinction as to exactly who his sheep are. Sheep are sheep – people are people – each precious and beloved in God’s sight – each created in God’s own image…that is powerful to me – that speaks to my own belovedness and uniqueness – the knowledge that God does not withhold his love, even if I am to deny him, like Peter did, is a powerful living – breathing – example of God’s amazing love and grace.

As United Methodists, we call this Prevenient Grace – God loving us before we even know of God. 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.

and because God first loved us – we are able to love others…

I believe the source of all love is God – I believe that this love is then meant to be shared in healthy and holistic ways to the Glory of God – it’s the love of Jesus that kept Mother Teresa in Calcutta, serving among the poorest of the poor, it’s the love of God that draws us together as we sing praises to the one who created us, its God’s love that should be at the center of all of our relationships and it is God’s love that makes room for the least and the lost, those who are outcast from ‘normal society’, the widow, the orphan, the broken and hurting.

As followers of Christ, as baptized believers in the Way, the Truth and the Life – we are like Peter – challenged to respond to these same three questions Jesus asked Peter.  If you love me...feed, tend, love my sheep.

At General conference, the issue of homosexuality and the UMC’s stance was once again a point of contention and yes, even hurt. We are divided about this – there is no doubt. The debate is often a bitter one. One of the most encouraging moments in General Conference this last week was when Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter lifted up an amendment – basically saying that we agree to disagree – but we do so in love.

I think that this document is very important, not only in the discussion about homosexuality, but it can form and inform us as we move forward as a church – as we live out God’s call and claim on our own lives as followers of Jesus.

***** The Hamilton/Slaughter Amendment:*****

Homosexuality continues to divide our society and the church. All in the United Methodist Church affirm that homosexual persons are people of sacred worth and all are welcome in our churches, but we disagree as a people regarding whether homosexual practices is contrary to the will of God.

The Bible is our primary text for discerning God’s will. We read and interpret it by the light of the Spirit’s witness, with the help of the thoughtful reflections of Christians throughout the centuries and assisted by our understanding of history, culture, and science.

The majority view through the history of the church is that the scriptures teach that same-sex sexual intimacy is contrary to the will of God. This view is rooted in several passages from both the Old and New Testament.

A significant minority of our church views the scriptures that speak to same-sex intimacy as reflecting the understanding, values, historical circumstances and sexual ethics of the period in which the scriptures were written, and therefore believe these passages do not reflect the timeless will of God. They read the scriptures related to same-sex intimacy in the same way that they read the Bible’s passages on polygamy, concubinage, slavery and the role of women in the church.

United Methodists will continue to struggle with this issue in the years ahead as a growing number of young adults identify today with what is the minority view. The majority view of the General Conference, and thus the official position of the church, continues to hold out that same-sex intimacy is not God’s will. We recognize, however, that many faithful United Methodists disagree with this view.

It is likely that this issue will continue to be a source of conflict within the church. We have a choice: We can divide, or we can commit to disagree with compassion, grace, and love, while continuing to seek to understand the concerns of the other. Given these options, schism or respectful co-existence, we choose the latter.

We commit to disagree with respect and love, we commit to love all persons and above all, we pledge to seek God’s will. With regard to homosexuality, as with so many other issues, United Methodists adopt the attitude of John Wesley who once said, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may.”

Submitted by Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter.

****** (you may read more at this link: click here)

Sadly, this amendment did not pass, but I think it is a document that we can and should use to inform our lives together.

As we prayerfully discern how God is calling us to live as a church, I think we have to first come to grips with what God’s love is all about – is it abundant and extended to all, or is it just for a few select folk?

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs – not just those who look like you – remember those who are sick, in prison, the widowed and orphaned.’ 

A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep. Not just the 'good' ones, remember the ones who have a tendency to stray – they need you even more some times’  

He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep. I am giving you the whole world – and everyone in it, to love and to care for – just as God loves and cares for you.

Are we ready, church, to feed His sheep, tend his lambs? Even those society would call black sheep?

I pray that we are – in the name of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

what's next for the UMC?

The General Conference of the United Methodist Church, the decision making body for the denomination I serve in, ended last night with a whimper.  No reorganization plan, even though we have heard for the past couple of years that this was desperately needed, no significant legislation around ordination, no set-aside Bishop to help facilitate the work of the Council of Bishops, we couldn't even agree to disagree on the issue of homosexuality.

I admit that I am naive when it comes to politics and especially church politics, but I had hoped for better from the Church.  But then again, it is a human construct, made up of frail human beings and I do trust that everyone there was indeed doing their best to love God and love one another.

In stunned silence I pondered last night what all of this means for the community where I live and the people I am appointed to serve alongside.  How will the level of dis-trust and anxiety that was obvious in Tampa affect us here in Iowa?  I woke up with more questions than answers.

Today is Wayne Williams funeral.  His pastor was at General Conference this past week, so I am stepping in to lead his community in the celebration of his life, death and resurrection.  These words of comfort, spoken often at the graveside, speak to me today:

In the midst of life, we are in death; from whom can we seek help? Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth. God who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through the Spirit that dwells in you.

Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also dwells secure.  You, Lord, show me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

I don't think the UMC is dead, but I do think that there is a realization that our hope does not come from the institutional church.  There are those who are unable to wait for the institution to provide the framework, and even the security, that we all crave, but instead are preparing their hearts and minds to step out in faith, to live into their call more fully.  

As the pundits unpack the events of the past two weeks, there are those who will be looking forward not to the next meeting of the General Conference (in 4 years in Portland) but to the places where the Body of Christ can make a real difference in the world.  Pray for them, pray for us all, pray for healing and for hope.

in Christ, together

Thursday, May 3, 2012

can we/should we wait four more years??

One of the strongest impressions that I have as I watch the proceedings of our UMC General Conference via streaming video, as well as twitter, a variety of blogs and Facebook is that we are rushing through things waaaayyy too fast down in Tampa.  

An eleven day meeting once every four years is not enough to guide and thoughtfully direct and speak for this institution that is the United Methodist Church.  

Given the global nature of the church, the wide variety of cultures and contexts that we represent, and the implications of the legislation that is being voted on, we desperately need to have more time in Holy Conversation with one another.  When we rush through things we don't have the time to build a consensus, let alone relationships - and so folks get suspicious and trust levels plummet.  This was painfully obvious during Wednesday morning's conversations around Plan UMC and this morning's conversation around the LGBTQ issue.  

The same thing happens in the local church, when some group seems to be ram-rodding a change through, or circumnavigating the power structures that are in place.  I get this.  I just think that the church, and the institutional Church in particular, can and should be better than this.

On the other hand, I can't believe that we are going to wait FOUR MORE YEARS before we can visit (or revisit) any of the ideas and proposals that are floating out there since GC started...I really think this four year waiting game and the build up to GC leads to a lot of heightened anxiety - and to top it all off, its happening during an election year, when we are already in the political pot-stirring soup.  

I wish we'd get on a different cycle, maybe meet a little more frequently, and give ourselves some breathing room when we do gather together.  

Then again, I am just an observer - watching via electronic media over 1300 miles away.  What do I know?


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

truth or consequences?

We have come to an interesting fork in the road in the UMC.

With barely a whimper, guaranteed appointments went away.  Gone.  Permanently.  Over and out.  While holding clergy folk accountable to be effective in their work is the reasoning, (and that's not a bad thing) I think there are some unintended consequences that need to be considered.

I think the removal of guaranteed appointments is a game changer for all of those who are called to ministry as a 2nd career pastor.  Unless one has the financial resources to afford the Masters of Divinity why do it?  With the change there seems to be little difference between elders orders and licensed local pastors.

This is what I hear the church saying to those of us who are over 35 and called to serve as a pastor:

* we need 2000 more young clergy asap, so we are going to invest a lot of money in seminary educations, but only for those who are under the age of 35.
* the times have changed and we do not think guaranteed appointments are necessary any more

I am curious about the implications this will have on our seminaries, let alone the work of District Committees on Ordained Ministry, who has oversight of all licensed local pastors in their district as well.  While we're at it, how will this affect the work of the Boards of Ordained Ministry?

It seems to me that over time this move will cause another round of restructuring as more oversight will be needed as the ranks of ordained elders decreases even faster than is being projected with this change.  (I pray that I am wrong here, but who knows?)

I did not become a pastor to get rich, I am a pastor because I have been called by God to use the gifts that I have to the service of the church.  These gifts were honed by nearly 20 years in the world.  You see, I was 41 when I had a call to ministry.  A conversation with my DS (now Bishop Deb Kiesey) convinced me to go to seminary instead of becoming a licensed local pastor, because only then would I have a guarantee of an appointment.  To go to seminary I went heavily into debt.  I don't regret my seminary education, in fact, I would not be the pastor I am today without my seminary education!  However, the carrot on the stick was the promise of a job if I would make the investment of a seminary education.

There are many more questions than answers right now and I look forward to hearing how this move will be interpreted by my Annual Conference.  In the meanwhile, I continue to pray for those who feel harmed by this move.  May we continue to serve prophetically, with humility and faithfulness.

in Christ, together,

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

broken faith

We are surrounded by institutions.  The government, hospitals/health care, education, churches are all institutions that have a certain equity that comes by virtue of their very being...however, things can happen along the way that undermine one's faith in the institution and once faith is broken, it is hard to trust again, even if one's very well being is dependent on the institution.

My daughter had chest pains on Monday - she said she felt as if a brick was parked on her chest.  Also her pulse rate is in the 40s, great if you're Lance Armstrong, but not if you're an average 23 year old mom 3 months after the birth of your first child.  She called her primary care physician who sent her straight to the local Emergency Room.  After a few tests they decided to send her to our teaching hospital, 100 miles from home.

Late last night she was admitted and spent the night and much of the morning awaiting tests and consults.  This morning's tests led to one conclusion - this is not a heart problem, so she can go home.  However, we have no idea why she continues to be in pain.  Really?  That's it?

I am grateful that Lauren is well educated and able to advocate for herself.  We tried to explain our frustration to the doctor and he threw his hands up in the air, explaining again that he is a cardiologist, it is not a heart problem, so she should be relieved.

Emotionally she is hurt and she is frustrated because she feels as if no one is really listening to her.  As I write this tears are rolling down her cheeks, and there is nothing I can do to fix this.

People are more than a patient, more than a kid on a bus, more than a butt in a pew - we are complex beings with a myriad of systems, body, mind and soul, working in unison.  If you think about it, it all makes sense - when an institution fails its often because they fail to look at things from a holistic point of view.

I don't know how to fix this for Lauren, but I will let this form and inform my response to people who have been hurt by the church.  The un-churched and de-churched are most often separated from the church because of a failure by the institution.  We need to honor this with thoughtful conversations, prayer and yes - repentance.   It may not fix things right away, but it will put us on a journey toward health and wholeness, and isn't that what we ultimately all desire?

I hope that the folks representing the UMC in Tampa will get this point as well.   The events of the past two days are doing even more to undermine the level of trust that many have in the General Conference.  With guaranteed appointments out the window but the tenure of lifetime Bishops secure and with Plan UMC set to be hotly debated later this week GC is roaring down a path that is fraught with anxiety and fear.  I don't know how we are going to fix this.

in Christ, together,

is bigger better?

The best worship service I have been privileged to attend in a very, very long time was at a United Methodist church on the eastern edge of McMinnville, Tn. on Palm Sunday of this year.

In the past one might have categorized the church as an African American church, but it is a wonderful mix of folk of all colors and from all walks of life.   A part-time licensed local pastor, Eddie Vance, serves the church.  Rev. Vance does something with computers and technology during the week, but there isn't a screen or a projector in sight.  Neither does Clark UMC have a website, or even a Facebook page.

As I watch the General Conference proceedings unfold, I can't help but think about churches like Clark UMC and wonder what implications all of this brouhaha will have on these fine folks.  When all is said and done will any amount of legislation change how these people embrace the gospel and one another?

Rev. Vance can preach, my can he preach, but what really shown through was the sense that this is a faith family that trusts in the very real presence of the Holy Spirit to transform lives - one life at a time.  Along the way they celebrate victories big and small very publicly.  From lifting up the accomplishments of their children, to the welcoming of a new sister into the faith community to the celebration of Holy Communion - every part of worship is about faith in God's transformative power.

Can the pure joy of being in union and communion with one another in worship, as I experienced during our time together that Sunday morning, be measured in ways that are meaningful and faithful?

I saw in the twitter feed that last night, (April 30th) after worship at General Conference, that a challenge was made for annual conferences to each make a certain number of disciples in the next quadrenium, (Iowa's challenge was just shy of 10,800).  Dan Dick has an excellent blog (click here) that asks some challenging questions about the implications of such a challenge and what it really REALLY means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

I'm not advocating business as usual, I am just thinking out loud here, given how our world is changing, are we doing enough, are we bold enough, to be the Church of Jesus Christ - or will each church in our conference be asked to make 13 new disciples (our fair share to meet the goal) and think thats ok?

Lots to think and pray about.

in Christ, together

btw, please do stop by Clark UMC if you're in SE Tennessee some Sunday - don't be surprised if the worship service goes a little long - they are, after all, following the Holy Spirit and you never know where the winds may blow...