Saturday, September 14, 2019

Doing The Stuff That Matters




One of the great privileges of being in ministry is to have deep conversations with the people of our conference. Whether a zoom or phone call, or in an in-person conversation, each one, no matter how difficult or raw, is something I hold as precious. Thank you, friends, for welcoming me into your lives and sharing yourself with me.

This week, Rev. Joyce DeToni-Hill and I had the chance to catch up. She shared more about her passion as a spiritual guide for the Denver Front Range American Pilgrim Chapter. She has walked the Camino De Santiago several times and is looking forward to sharing this spiritual experience with others who wish to take this pilgrimage.

She said something that I have been pondering ever since we met. As people walk the Camino, they stay at hostels, monasteries, and other simple places that offer generous hospitality for rest and fellowship with other pilgrims. She told me about one monastery that offers overnight accommodations. It was a centuries old monastery: “What kept that monastery open since 900AD?” she asked. “They kept doing the stuff that matters.”

Having been a local church pastor for a couple of decades, that observation nags at me: do we keep doing the stuff that matters, or do we keep doing the stuff we’ve always been doing? Are we willing to keep up with the emerging needs and hungers in our community and fling open our doors and spill into the streets with ministries that address those things, or are we nostalgic for the glory days of a church of a bygone era?

Are we doing the stuff that matters?

To do the stuff that matters means we will probably have to stop doing some things that no longer matter. That is hard! It is not comfortable! It leads us to unknown situations! But isn’t this what Jesus asks of us when he said, “Come, follow me.”

I want all our churches to be vital spiritual centers in the communities they serve. My prayer is that in 900 years, someone will point to your church and say, “They kept doing the things that matter.”

Have a blessed Sunday!






Saturday, September 7, 2019

CHOOSE LIFE!

It's Saturday night and I am praying for the clergy and laity of the Mountain Sky Conference as we prepare for Sunday worship.

"I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live, loving your God, obeying the commandments and cleaving to God, for that means life to you... that you may dwell in the land which God swore to your parents."
       
Moses spoke these words the Israelites as they stood on the far side of the Jordan river. This is the second generation of those who were once slaves but were liberated from Egypt. The first generation nearly reached this same point forty years earlier but didn’t reach the Promised Land because they feared the risk of following God over the Jordan river. The result of their lack of faith was that even though this first generation experienced God's help in their release from captivity, they led themselves into another kind of captivity as they wandered in the wilderness, because they lacked the faith to follow God into the promised land.  This journey became a death march, as the first generation slowly died off. Moses speaks to their surviving children, now adults themselves. The decision is now before them: to choose life, or death. Are they able to trust God enough to risk following God over the Jordan, or shall they stay wandering in the wilderness another generation? 

The promised land is so close now that they can see it. Yet, so did their parents decades earlier. Will they have the depth of faith and trust in God to enable them to risk crossing over into Canaan? "I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live."

This choice is ours as well. Every day, God sets before us life and death. Are we willing to take a step towards life, or will we be like that first generation of wandering Israelites, and choose death over life?

As a pastor, I have seen too many people settle for death instead of choosing life.  It is a culture of death which pervades so much of our world, our nation, our cities, our communities. Too many of us have adopted this culture of death in our own lives. Life has become cheap, meaningless, hopeless, and nowhere else is that visible than the way we live our lives. We have grown so comfortable with death that we invite death into our lives, into our bodies, into our relationships, into our homes, into the land, the water, the air, in countless ways.

How have you settled for a culture of death?

It’s not just individuals who must choose between life and death. Entire communities, too, must decide.  I have seen too many churches choose death instead of life. One church had dwindled down to 8 members. They didn’t want their church to close, but were unaware of the ways they had chosen death over life. They had literally nailed the front doors of the church shut, so that everyone needed to find a side door when they came to church. They allowed their building to become so run down that there were more rats than people in the church. When a newcomer made their way through the hallway maze from the side door to the sanctuary,  they were greeted with cold stares instead of warm welcome which communicated strongly to the newcomers, “What are YOU doing here?” And woe to the visitor who sat in the pew of one of the regulars.

This church had chosen death instead of life. They believed their best years were behind them and they stopped looking forward to the promised land God was calling them to.

With so many of us willingly accepting a culture of death in our lives, relationships and homes,  it is any wonder why there is so much violence in our neighborhoods, cities, schools, and world? Until we get a sense of our own self-worth, that life--our life--is not a cheap thing to be thrown away but a gift to be savored, and that the same holds for every living person, every living thing on this planet, we will be plagued with a culture of death. But it is not inevitable. It is not our fate. We can end the violence, end the death-inviting behaviors, end the brittle and battering relationships.
Jesus said,  “I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” I have come that YOU might have life. And not just a miserly piece of it. Not some fraction that could be used up before you know it, but abundant life.
This life is rooted in love. Love of God, love of neighbor, love of ourselves. This is the abundant life Jesus tries to teach us over and over again: When we love, we find ourselves connect to others in deep and mysterious ways. What happens to others, even to those we don’t know, matter and move us when we are living a life of love. We react to it. We want to do something about it. We want to make things better.
You and I can push back this culture of death. Together. In community. It starts now. Whatever and wherever death has a hold of you, know God is wanting to give you life. Abundant life. And it is right this moment that we can choose life, can choose the way of love, can live into connection with others by committing ourselves to community. When we say we are a part of a church community what we mean is that I am greater, more powerful, more loving, more hopeful with you than I am without you. I can affect more change, I can transform more of the world, I can better heal my own life and the lives of those around me when I join my love with others than I can do when I am alone.
Choose life!



Saturday, August 24, 2019

Jeremiah’s Calling...And Yours

I was in conversation with someone earlier this week who was telling me about their new pastor. “We got another older pastor. We’ve been saying for years we want someone younger but we are never given one.”

It’s something I hear often as a bishop. I asked my friend, “When was the last time your church sent someone into ordained ministry?”

There was a long pause. 

“Um...I really don’t know.”

There’s a crisis of call in many of our churches. Not only are we not helping people hear their call into ordained ministry, we aren’t helping everyone hear their unique calling, given by God, to be lived out each and every day. 

Have you claimed your call? 

Jeremiah heard God’s call to be a prophet and balked: “I’m just a boy—I wouldn’t know what to do or say.”

God doesn’t take “no” for an answer, and equipped Jeremiah for his vocation: Go where I send you. Speak what I need you to say. And don’t be afraid. 

Are you living out your call? Or have you, like Jeremiah, made excuses? Don’t you know God created you for a unique purpose and if you reject that purpose, if you fail to claim your call, the world is left hungry for the love of God you could have made visible. 

It’s time to stop making excuses and claim your calling. And it’s time for all our churches to help everyone listen for and respond to their call. 

Don’t be afraid! God will give you what you need!


Saturday, August 17, 2019

Exercising Empathy

As I was reading the news this morning, I found a lump forming in my throat and tears filling my eyes. I was reading about the funeral of El Paso shooting victim Margie Reckard. Her partner of 22 years, Antonio Basco, has no family and feared he’d be the only one at her funeral. He put out a simple invitation to the public to join him for the funeral. Hundreds of strangers from across the country came to El Paso to mourn with him. 


The article from HuffPost described the scene, “As the line swelled, Basco came back out to thank attendees personally for coming. People crowded around to hug and touch him. Basco appeared overwhelmed that strangers were now running toward him to show love and offer condolences.”


I am moved by the unbridled empathy of strangers who not only were touched by Basco’s story, but connected so deeply with his grief that they were moved to go to El Paso and companion him during this heartbreaking time. 


This kind of empathy has become exceedingly rare these days. We may still feel deep empathy when our child cries because they’re not chosen for a sports team or when our spouse is once again overlooked for a promotion. But our empathy beyond our family and friends has grown thin and the cost is healthy community. When was the last time a stranger’s pain moved you to action?


As I continue to read the news, it seems that empathy has become an outdated commodity in church and society. We create teams of “Us” and “Them” and keep adding players to each side. Each time we do that, each time we fail to recognize our shared humanity and kinship, walls are built that create boundaries of who’s in and out. And for every border built, we divide God’s family and our hearts harden to those who aren’t like us. 


It’s time to exercise our empathy, flex tendons of tenderness and strengthen our ability to enter into the pains, fears, and despair of those around us, particularly those we otherwise overlook. 


Jesus kept his sights on those pushed to society’s edges. He allowed what he saw to move him deeply and disturb him enough to do something. He healed and fed those in need. He sought justice for the oppressed and challenged those who abused power. 


And he calls you and I to do the same. 


“Stoop down and reach out to those who are oppressed. Share their burdens, and so complete Christ’s law. If you think you are too good for that, you are badly deceived.” (Galatians 6:2-3)



Saturday, August 3, 2019

SOCIAL HOLINESS, SPIRITUALITY, AND SHOOTINGS

In the midst of the noise of our day, listening is a deeply spiritual practice. Listening to another person is a spiritual act. Listening to sighs too deep for words is a spiritual act. Listening to the wind blow through the trees is a spiritual act. All this is to assist us as we listen with open hearts for the voice of God.

Saturdays are a day of spiritual listening for me. After reading scripture in the morning, I strain the ears of my heart to hear God’s whisper. Today, I heard bird calls, a child laugh, waves lapping the shore. But where was God’s voice?

This evening, as I looked at my phone to catch up on the day’s news, I heard it: God was weeping. El Paso became the latest community to experience a mass shooting, with 20 shot dead in a Walmart, many buying school supplies. As of today, there have been 248 mass shootings in the United States in 2019. 246 people have been killed, 979 wounded, thousands have experienced trauma.

Tonight, I hear God weeping.

“Thoughts and prayers” ring hollow in the face of these numbers and mock the fact that the life to which Jesus calls us is one of engaged faith. The apostle Paul said, “Faith without works is dead.” John Wesley said, “The gospel of Christ knows of no religion, but social; no holiness but social holiness. Faith working by love, is the length and breath and depth and height of Christian perfection.”

When we bow our heads and pray for those whose lives have been irrevocably impacted by the El Paso shooting, what will we do when we rise from our pews? How will the holy practice we engaged in during worship be embodied social holiness in our daily living?

God weeps tonight. What will you do tomorrow, so that your “faith is working by love”?

We can stop the killings. We can ease the deep pain of those who weep. We can create beloved communities that draw the outcast in. We can work for better mental health access in our communities. We can let our elected officials know that it is past time that this nation passed sensible gun control laws.
We can do all this through Christ, who expects nothing less of us.



Saturday, July 20, 2019

A Faith on Fire

It was a jarring thing to pull into my mother’s hometown of Springhill, Nova Scotia to see the big “Ross Refrigeration” sign in front of the Presbyterian Church. My cousin attended that church and my sisters and I have, on more than one occasion, sung in the choir. 

The congregation had shrunk so that they could no longer sustain ministry. The only option was to close their doors and sell their building. How many churches that are still open have lost the fire of faith and are now chilly communities, just one breath away from closure?




When someone walks into your sanctuary tomorrow, will they feel the fire of a passionate faith? Will they be warmly welcomed? Or will they need to guard their heart against the coldness they will experience?

Psalm 15 reminds us that we are to come before God bringing our most authentic and best selves to worship:

“Here is the answer: The one who lives with integrity, does what is right, and speaks honestly with truth from the heart.

The one who doesn’t speak evil against others or wrong their neighbor, or slander friends.”

When you step into worship, do you bring the best of you you can? Even more importantly, do you allow worship to transform you in ways that will inform how you live the rest of the week?

Our nation, world, and church are all experiencing a crisis of civility and trust that are fracturing communities with chilling consequences. Our churches—meaning all clergy and laity—need to be a blazing beacon of hope in these troubled times. We need to bring love into a world that has forgotten what love feels like and how it changes how we see one another. We need to bring hope into a world that has resigned itself to despair. We need to bring God’s generous grace into a world that defaults to judgement and division. 

May your church be on fire with the Holy Spirit tomorrow. And may you leave worship forever changed. May Love guide your every step, every action, every word. 




Thursday, June 27, 2019

LGBTQ+ LIVES, GOD'S GRACE, AND THE UMC


When I was a campus minister, a student came to my office extremely troubled by an experience she recently had with a para-church campus ministry organization.

“I realized there was something missing in my life. I saw these students living with meaning and purpose. They were a part of this religious organization. I wanted what they had. They welcomed me with open arms and invited me to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. That excited me! And so I began my journey to Christ and it felt so good! Then they discovered I was a lesbian and told me I was sinful and couldn’t have a real relationship with Jesus. If it’s a personal relationship, how could they decide if my connection to Christ was right or not?”

That student’s question has long stuck with me—if, indeed, each of us is invited to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, can we dictate to one another what that relationship must look like? Isn’t the point of a personal relationship that Christ meets us where we are—which is unlike where anyone is—to offer us the fullness of life in God?

We United Methodists are a people grounded in Grace: Grace, Grace and more Grace—Prevenient, Justifying, and Sanctifying Grace! This is what sets us apart from so many other denominations: there is a Love that will not let us go, that is always seeking us, going before us, inviting us to a relationship with God that heals, forgives, frees, and restores the image of God in us. John Wesley used the metaphor of a house to describe grace, breaking it down to a three part act: Prevenient Grace meets us on the porch, inviting us to take a journey with/towards God. This Grace is always available to us, just waiting for us to say, “Yes.”

What comes next is Justifying Grace. Justifying grace is the doorway, where we experience forgiveness as we turn towards the new life God offers us. It sets us on a path to salvation through the life, death and resurrection of Christ.

To enter the house is to experience Sanctifying Grace. Here we live and move in God’s generous and expansive grace as the image of God is restored in us and we increase in the knowledge and love of God and neighbor.

I love John Wesley. I am a bit (?!) of a MethoGeek. But I have found the house metaphor to be limiting. Recently, I was at a retreat center in Cody, Wyoming. The retreat center was the former home of an Episcopal priest/artist. Her artwork is throughout the retreat center. There, high on a shelf in our meeting room, was a perfect metaphor for grace—it is a picture of two dancing figures. While they are depicted as angels, I see in them humanity and God. Prevenient grace is God extending a hand, inviting us to reach for it; justifying grace is God teaching us the steps for this life of faith—the old steps that led us astray are replaced by the rhythm of God’s love that teaches us a new way to move in the world; sanctifying grace is allowing ourselves to lose ourselves so completely to the Divine Dance that we experience a oneness with God—we are made anew as the image of God is restored in us.

While United Methodist theology and spirituality are grounded in Grace, there are some who have sought to limit the reality and presence of grace in the lives of LGBTQ+ United Methodists. In fact, there are those in the church who refuse to believe—in spite of the spiritual gifts present—that LGBTQ+ people have truly experienced God’s grace and the new life that comes from submitting to God’s Law of Love. Because it is not their experience, because it doesn’t look the same as their (straight) life, there is a damning assumption that LGBTQ+ people are beyond the grasp of God and are instead mired in sin.

When will we understand that our human categories are far too small for the fulness of God? There is nothing holy or faithful when we segregate or sever from the Body of Christ those whom God has sanctified or impose sanctions on sacraments and rituals against those whose lives we may not understand. When we do that, we mar the image of God that exists in the lives of God’s beloved children and we do harm.

I love United Methodism and while I mourn that the denomination that helped me experience God’s Grace may be dying, I will do all I can to help those around me—no matter who they are, no matter race, ethnicity, ability, gender identity, sexual orientation, or age—fall into God’s waiting arms, so they can learn the unique dance steps God seeks to teach them, so that they may lose themselves in life in God, and thereby find themselves coming into the beautiful creation God intended for them.