Saturday, May 4, 2024

Yes, Jesus Loves Me

 “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so…”

This is the very first song nearly every child learns in a Christian Sunday School. Sunday School teachers and members of the church are vessels of this love through their care and instruction. In this supportive environment, children grow in faith as they grow into their God-created selves.

But in too many churches, once young people begin to question their sexual orientation or gender identity, the message they receive is that God’s love is now conditional. This causes deep spiritual harm. Someone who doesn’t have a nurturing environment to grow into the person God created them to be lives a stunted life, never living into their full potential.

Church ought to be the place where every child of God will find a loving and accepting home to be who they are.

The United Methodist Church made huge changes to be that loving place through General Conference actions.

There are some United Methodists who are going to think we went too far by removing the language that declared homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching”, allowing clergy to preside over same-gender weddings (if they choose to do so) and allowing LGBTQ clergy. I hope you will enter into a time of wondering: why would these pass overwhelmingly by delegates from around the world (the ban against LGBTQ clergy only had 51 no votes out the entire body)? What scriptures would prompt people to adopt these positions? How do these statements help us “do no harm; do good; and stay in love with God?”

We humans see the image of God as through a mirror dimly (I Corinthians 13: 12). God is so much bigger than our limited comprehension. The God who created the world in all its diverse flourishings has imprinted on each human God’s own image. The more we encounter and enter into relationship with each other, the deeper we look into each other’s eyes, the clearer God’s image emerges. We gain a bigger picture of who God is, particularly when we include those who don’t look like us, think like us, or love like us.

There are people of all ages in your community who are looking for a grace-filled community that allows them to ask questions, to be able to take tentative and shaky steps to explore who God made them to be, to find themselves in a community who will cheer them on when they do so.

Will you and your church be that community?

Let me tell you: there is amazing joy waiting for you if you are willing to do so. For wherever there is new life, whenever someone says yes to being their full God-created self, when someone is finally able to proclaim out loud to God “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully madethe angels sing and the saints dance.

I pray that our United Methodist Churches will be such loving places. May no child of God ever think they are beyond God’s love. May they be able to sing throughout their life:

“Yes, Jesus loves me! Yes, Jesus loves me! Yes, Jesus loves me, the Bible tells me so”


Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Where Love and Joy Dance

 How apt that this past week’s lectionary was from I John 4, a beautiful passage on love—the love God has for us and the love we ought to have for one another.

Love is the bedrock of the Christian life.

And love is what I am experiencing in Charlotte at General Conference.

For years, General Conference has felt more like a battleground than an experience of Christian conferencing. Voices were silenced. Lives were demeaned. Hope was dashed, over and over again.  

But something is happening in Charlotte. At first there was a timidity of spirit, but then an open-heartedness to one another grew and even in the midst of differences, joy has bubbled up in contagious ways. Truly, the Holy Spirit is in this place.

What’s changed?

One of the best lines I ever heard in a church meeting was when a group was moving through a difficult topic but slowly aligning in consensus. Someone disagreed with the direction and said, “I just need to be a devil’s advocate and say…” Someone else said, “The church is the last place that needs an advocate of the devil.”

Differences of opinion and diverse voices are so vital for healthy conferencing. But those who just seek to disrupt, divide, and disorder do little to build up the Body of Christ.

Continue to pray for the delegates, who are working hard to respond to the Spirit’s leading, who are listening intently to one another,  and who are helping us realize the future of our beloved denomination.

And may this gracious spirit pervade our local churches, so that all who walk through our doors will find a place of welcome, where love and joy dance together down the aisles.

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Prior to the Start of General Conference

I write from Charlotte, North Carolina, where the Council of Bishops has been meeting prior to the start of General Conference. Over the next few days, delegates, volunteers, and observers from around the world will arrive as the long-awaited General Conference begins. 

There is a pensive hope that pervades our meeting, hope that we are nearing the other side of the chaos and contention we all experienced during a difficult season of disaffiliation. 

How many of us have brought tender hope to the start of each General Conference, only to have that hope crushed in painful ways as the delegates reaffirmed or tightened restrictions about the role of LGBTQ+ people in the life and ministry of the church? 

Martin Luther King, Jr. once said: “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” 

Today, on the eve of the start of General Conference, I am drinking from the well of infinite hope. 

I am hopeful that this General Conference will be an experience of God’s grace beyond what we have ever experienced. 

I am hopeful that this General Conference will provide a witness to the world that there can be unity in the midst of diversity. 

I am hopeful that this General Conference will be spiritually enriching for the delegates and all who are assisting and watching. 

I am hopeful that this General Conference will remove the harmful language about LGBTQ+ people, so no one will question whether they are welcomed in the household of faith. 

I am hopeful that at the conclusion of this General Conference, we will be a new church, with a renewed sense of identity and purpose. It has been a long pregnancy. The labor has been particularly painful. But there is a birthing in our midst and we are the midwives. May we be attentive as we listen for sighs too deep for words, for the stirrings of the Spirit, for the movements of new life seeking to see the light of day. 

And then, when the last person leaves the convention center and returns home, may we all participate in raising this new church to be a strong presence in every community around the globe. The world is in need of the generous grace and deep love found in Jesus Christ that is the
bedrock of United Methodism. 

Please cover the delegates in prayer as they begin their work. May the Holy Spirit sustain and guide them in the days to come.

Saturday, April 13, 2024

The Ones Who Aren't Here

 I and so many others are frantically preparing for General Conference, that once-every-four-years United Methodist meeting that we had to postpone due to COVID. At this meeting, delegates determine church policy for the next four years which will order our shared life and ministry.

I love my friendships across The United Methodist Church. There is an orientation to life and faith that we share as United Methodists that has fostered deep and lasting friendships for me. But oddly, as I sit in prayer for the upcoming meetings, it is not the faces of my friends that rise up within me nor the issues the delegates will tackle. Instead, the names and faces of those who have left the denomination are the ones that swirl with the Spirit in the space of my prayers.
Even though we held deep differences—in particular about the role of lgbtq+ people in the life and ministry of the church (and even though their beliefs have been soul wounding to so many of us) I can’t help feeling the void their departure has left.
This is in part because I do believe in the power of our sacraments. It is through baptism and communion that we come to experience God’s generous grace. The bread is broken, but we are together made whole. The water we place on our forehead to remember our baptism reminds us that God loves us and claims us, but not we alone! Through these experiences, we are united with others, whether we like it or not. They are our kin in Christ and we are theirs.
Because of this experience, I can’t “other” another. I can’t dismiss them. I can’t pretend they don’t exist. I can’t wish for a church without them in it.
The Church’s witness is lessened when we are unable to live gracefully among ourselves. Our diversity ought to be revered as a blessing that opens us more fully to the image of God that is imprinted on humanity. It isn’t easy work. It is hard. Really hard. We have to be willing to be changed by our encounter with another. But this is what leads us all to a holier and more whole place.
I look forward to the ways the Holy Spirit will show up at General Conference, and the people we will be at the end of our time together. But today, I am sitting and reflecting on the ones who won’t be there.

Saturday, March 9, 2024

What Are We Teaching the Children?

 I grew up on a dead end street on the South Shore of Long Island, perfect for playing ball in the summer and sledding in the winter. It seemed to be an inevitable badge of childhood that all of us would eventually sport a scar on one or both knees from tripping on the curbs that were marked as 1st and 3rd bases. The block had many young families, so I grew up with enough friends to make two teams of whatever we chose to play. We were fiercely competitive, but the make-up of the teams were never the same, as players were interchangeable, one team to the other.

We certainly had our fights, but they never lasted long if we wanted to continue to play our games. We needed one another, so whatever grievances we held against each other were quickly forgotten so we could resume our play.

Why, as we grow older, do we lose this capacity to forgive and forget? Why do we harbor resentments for so long? When did we stop seeing that we are all, ultimately, on the same team?

This hit home for me as I watched the State of the Union address. When did we devolve from having civility in the chambers to cat-calls and taunting? When did Thanksgiving dinners begin to need referees or rules about what we can and can’t talk about? When did we grow so polarized that we have forgotten we are on the same team?

I can’t help but wonder about what we are modeling to our children. Do our actions model respect when we interrupt a speaker? Are we teaching tolerance of difference when we dismiss and dehumanize those we disagree with? Are we helping our children grow into adults that will lean into hard conversations with humility and curiosity?

Jesus reserved some of his harshest words to for those who mistreat children:

 “I’m telling you, once and for all, that unless you return to square one and start over like children, you’re not even going to get a look at the kingdom, let alone get in. Whoever becomes simple and elemental again, like this child, will rank high in God’s kingdom. What’s more, when you receive the childlike on my account, it’s the same as receiving me.

“But if you give them a hard time, bullying or taking advantage of their simple trust, you’ll soon wish you hadn’t. You’d be better off dropped in the middle of the lake with a millstone around your neck. Doom to the world for giving these God-believing children a hard time! Hard times are inevitable, but you don’t have to make it worse—and it’s doomsday to you if you do.” (Matthew 18: 3-7, The Message)

This week, consider what your words and actions are teaching the children around you. And then, take time to consider what the children in your life might be trying to teach you about God and a life of faith.

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Ring Out!

 This weekend I am in Orlando at Exploration 2024, a gathering for young adults to explore how God may be calling them into a vocation in the church. I love helping people explore their call—I believe each one of us was created to contribute something unique to the whole of our life together. Our task (and it can take our entire lives) is to figure out what it is and live it.

It’s kind of like playing in a bell choir.

Unlike a vocal choir, where often all the vocal sections (bass, tenor, alto, soprano) sing the same phrase with counterpoint notes, a bell choir member has but 2-4 notes (well, we altos also often have only 2-4 notes, but at least we sing them throughout the song!). Which means that as the song with bells is performed, a bell ringer must be prepared to come in at the right time with the right bell. I have seen some bell ringers ring just one bell through an entire piece, but the song would not be complete if they did not play their part at the right time. If they played the wrong bell, or came in early or late, or even refrained from playing, the musical piece would be changed.

While in other musical groups, people play individual instruments, all the bells together make the musical instrument. We all are the instrument together.  If someone misses their cue, or misses a performance, the instrument will not be able to perform due to missing notes.

Each of us carries a note we must play if the Song of Life is to be complete. To not be aware we are carrying the note, to not play the note at all, or to play it wrong results in the Song of Life devolving from being a Divine Love Song to a cacophony of dissonant and disconnected notes.

Scripture put it this way:

“Now there are varieties of gifts but the same Spirit, and there are varieties of services but the same Lord, and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (I Corinthians 12: 4-7)

You are needed in this world. If you don’t bring your whole self, with your unique gift, to our life together, the vibrations that reverberate in our souls is diminished. The beauty of life fades. The sweet goodness of life is lessened.

Live so aware of yourself and others that you will know the right cue—of when and how to let your life ring out in joy and delight.

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

I Will Go, Lord, Where you Lead Me

 This is an anxious season for pastors. I confess from February to the beginning of June, whenever my phone rang I would break out in a cold sweat, and if I noticed it was my DS, I definitely sent it to voicemail. “Why?” you might ask. Because it is appointment season!

We who have said yes to answering a call to ordained ministry in The United Methodist Church agreed to become itinerant preachers, going where God and the Bishop feel our gifts best match the needs of the church. We are not solo practitioners but are a part of a connection of both clergy and churches. This web of connection seeks to multiply effective ministry by deploying clergy across the conference so we can, together, provide a strong and vital witness of God’s love.

This is the season where I, along with the district superintendents, pastors, and Staff Parish Relations Committees, do discerning work. Each pastor has to ask themselves: Am I being fruitful and faithful in my current ministry? Am I growing spiritually? Am I deepening my leadership skills? Do I have the skills this church needs? If I don’t, am I willing/able to learn them?

As bishop and cabinet, we look at every church and every pastor. We look not only at individual churches but clusters of churches as well so that entire regions can have the kinds of pastors needed for support. Data is reviewed, church statements read, and prayers are lifted. Spouse’s and children’s needs are considered, as is community support if a pastor is single.

Itineracy is a proud part of our history, one of the reasons why Methodism spread across this country so effectively. Unmarried circuit riders traveled a circuit of several churches over the course of 5-6 weeks, preaching and teaching and equipping laity for the work of ministry. It wasn’t an easy life back then…prior to 1847, more than half of circuit riders died before they were 30! And it isn’t an easy one now.

 Every time your pastor sings “I will go, Lord, where you lead me,” they are reaffirming their commitment to the itineracy. They are saying they are giving their full selves to serve not in the place they want for themselves, but in the place communal discernment believes is best for the whole as each pastor’s appointment impacts every other pastor’s appointment.

I invite you to be in prayer for the pastors in your life, for the churches throughout our conference, for the district superintendents, and for me as we all, together, seek to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, which always leads us to places we hadn’t expected to go, to be in relationship with people who are new to us, to do things we never thought we would.