The Vile Opportunity of COVID-19

The Vile Opportunity of COVID-19

I’m the first one to express frustration at all that is going on right now. So, first, let the airing of grievances begin!

  1. I loathe, entirely, having a home office. We have 2 small children (5 & 3) and they provide constant entertainment and distraction. My wife has done an incredible job of trying to keep our family room (where my home office is located) blocked off to the rest of the house when I’m trying to write. But it’s not just the kids that make it hard to work from home. It’s the TV right behind me calling my name. It’s the window beside me that beckons me outside. It’s the pantry and refrigerator full of all sorts of goodies…
  2. Preaching to an empty sanctuary is for the birds. Seriously, it’s awful. It’s weird, it’s awkward, it’s emotionally draining to look at empty pews and think about who should be sitting there.
  3. I miss my people. There have been babies born, surgeries performed, people struggling. And I hate that I can’t be there for them in the same way right now. I miss those moments after worship full of hugs and handshakes and little white lies like “what an interesting sermon.” 🙂
  4. I miss baseball! SERIOUSLY! I’m a baseball addict. I even miss t-ball right now and I never thought that would happen. I love stopping by the school on a sunny afternoon and watching baseball and softball, hanging out at little league games, heading to Dozer Park, sneaking off to Wrigley and watching any game that’s on TV. I told someone the other day that I miss baseball so much that I’d even watch the White Sox, and that’s saying something. ESPN is the most depressing channel to watch right now.
  5. I hate how this has become a total political issue. Conservatives are going to argue with anything that Gov. Pritzker or Nancy Pelosi or Joe Biden says. In the same way, those who lean Democrat are going to rip apart anything that President Trump says. I know that they are all posturing as well and waging political battles at the expense of we, the people. I think the common sense truth is somewhere in the middle of all the politics and I’m waiting for us to wake up to that.

I’m sure I could keep going, but I promised myself I’d stop at 5. I’m sure you have yours too.

But, like you, I have a list of good things that have come from this as well.

  1. Families are spending a lot of quality time together. And that’s good, even if parents are craving some alone time and the wine cabinet has run dry.
  2. Communities are coming together in love and kindness. We’ve been walking a lot more, and total strangers are going out of their way to greet us. We realize how much we need that interaction. Folks have also been kind to stop their walks and allow our girls to love on their dogs as they walk passed our house.
  3. I’m getting some neglected home improvement projects done. Lawn, fertilized and reseeded. Cleaned up all the outdoor landscaping. Built a raised garden bed for us to grow fresh veggies. Replaced all the cabinet pulls in our kitchen. Fixed a broken rocking chair. Supervised from an acceptable distance while my buddy did a TON of work on my car.
  4. I had some time to really think about some things I want to accomplish in my life. Yes, I’m crazy. I just applied for a doctoral program at United Seminary.
  5. Churches all over the place are blowing the dust out. Well, actually the Holy Spirit is blowing the dust out. I’m seeing churches that haven’t done anything since Jesus left re-engage their community in incredible ways. I’ve been so proud of my local church. They’ve been meeting tangible needs for our food pantry and weekend snack bags through the school. I can’t tell you how many calls and texts and porch presents I’ve received from church members offering encouragement and love during this time. Living rooms all over our area are becoming sanctuaries. We even had guys at the Peoria Fire Department join us for worship this morning! Life groups are a new emphasis for us, and I’m so proud of the way they’ve continued online. I think we’re seeing what is really important and the Holy Spirit is awakening us to the centrality of Scripture, prayer and evangelism. We’re doing some really cool, innovative things….that we probably should have been doing all along and COVID kicked them into necessary.

And it’s that last point that I think the Holy Spirit might be really trying to show all churches, but most especially those of us in the Methodist/Wesleyan movement. Is it possible that God is trying to reawaken us to who we really are? I’ve been thinking a lot lately that this is a great opportunity for us in that Wesleyan tradition to return to being a bit more vile. Yes, vile.

As the Holy Spirit shows us what is really important, I think maybe we’re being shown that we’ve made an idol out of our church buildings. Before you start throwing stones, I’m not saying we should abandon our buildings! My local church has a brand new family life center that is almost finished–we haven’t even used it yet.

I’m so proud of how it’s come together, it’s absolutely beautiful and it’s going to be an awesome tool in God’s hands. But it’s just that, a tool. Maybe it’s time for us to be a bit more vile.

Papa Wesley struggled with this for a bit, too. George Whitfield was preaching out in the field and the prim and proper Anglican, Mr. Wesley, really hated it. He wrote in his journal:

“What marvel the devil does not love field preaching? Neither do I. I love a commodious room, a soft cushion, a handsome pulpit.”–The Journal of John Wesley, June 23, 1759

I totally identify with that! Have you seen that new addition? Seriously, watch the video I embedded above. I think our church sanctuary is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever been in and you have no idea how much I love taking my place behind the sacred desk to preach the word to eager listeners. Well at least most of them are eager….Selah hasn’t been able to hang with us during living room worship.

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Selah passed out during my sermon….”Great Sermon, Dad.”

But, just hear me out.  The church building is just one tool in God’s hands, not the only one. And it’s extremely likely that when the shelter at home orders start to lift (ours in Illinois has been extended through May 30), we won’t be able to go flocking back to the church building right away. There will likely still be restrictions on large group gatherings (10, 50, 100, whatever). Church leaders are already scrambling to make plans for how to address that reality and what other things need to change for awhile about group gatherings (passing the offering plate, shaking hands, how to receive communion….should we be doing group singing since aerosol is the best way to spread the virus, on and on and on). And even when restrictions on group gatherings are totally lifted, there are still going to be a lot of people who are nervous about gathering or their health won’t allow it. A lot of the innovations we’ve created on the fly will need to continue. We’ll need to continue to make online worship available and do it well. Online giving will become more normative (less than half of U.S. churches were set up to receive offerings online prior to the pandemic). Some things will never go back to “normal.” And I’m saying that’s ok. Maybe they shouldn’t. Listen, I want to be back in our buildings too, but we shouldn’t abandon these other means of doing and being church either.

I left a line out of Wesley’s journal earlier. He hated the field preaching and loved the beautiful buildings…..BUT:

“What a marvel the devil does not love field preaching? Neither do I. I love a commodious room, a soft cushion, a handsome pulpit. But where is my zeal if I do not trample all these under foot in order to save one more soul?“–The Journal of John Wesley, June 23, 1759

I want to point out that Wesley never ended up loving field preaching. This journal entry actually comes 20 years AFTER he started field preaching. It took a lot of convincing from George Whitfield and more and more church doors being closed to Papa Wesley, but he finally gave in:

“At four in the afternoon, I submitted to be more vile and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation, speaking from a little eminence in a ground adjoining to the city, to about three thousand people.”–The Journal of John Wesley, April 2, 1739

Doors were closed, so he took his message to the people and started preaching in a field. 3,000 people listened. Twenty years later he’s still doing the field preaching thing, and it’s still rubbing against his high church anglicanism but it’s all worth it to see more people come to know Jesus. Field preaching was a huge part of the Wesleyan movement and the evangelical revival in general. The Methodists were known for their innovation. The class & band meetings, those wonderful hymns, lay preachers, women in leadership. John was writing about healthy living before anyone else was even thinking about it.

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John Wesley Preaching from the Steps of a Market Cross. J.W. Hatherell, mid 20th century.

Friends, COVID19 has closed some doors. We’re doing church differently. My suggestion is that we use this opportunity to be more vile and reach more and more people with the message of Jesus Christ, let’s be laser-focused on making new and better disciples….even when our beautiful buildings are back open. By being more vile, I mean let’s open ourselves up a bit and allow ourselves to innovate again. Let’s do all we can to use all the tools God has offered for building His Kingdom….our church buildings, our living rooms, the coffee shop, your workplace, the park, and even the internet.

It may make us uncomfortable, but at least we’re in good company with Papa Wesley. Vile, innovative. It’s who we were. It’s in our DNA. It’s who we can be again.

Practical Energy Guidance for Local Churches

We’ve all been navigating a new ministry reality in the midst of COVID19 precautions. I never thought that I would cancel worship for a non-weather related incident. Yet here we are, no worship this week or next….and likely beyond that. There’s plenty of ministry to be done. My refrain this week has been “we may not be able to meet AT church but there’s plenty of opportunity to BE THE CHURCH.” I’ve read plenty of offerings from others on how to do ministry in this new weirdness we’re experiencing. And we’re all doing our best to do that…50 plates spinning and maybe a couple going well.

Much has been made about the need for continued faithful giving to local churches during a shut down. This is very true. Just because we’re not meeting in the building does not mean that the ministries of the Church aren’t ongoing, in fact, many churches are doing more now than they have in years. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned about the financial impact this may or may not have on my local church. I’m letting my folks know how important their continued faithfulness is giving is during this time. And it all matters. Keep up your regular giving. If you’re not giving, give something. If you’re getting hit financially, trust God and still give something. Every dollar counts. Especially if you’re blessed enough to be able to give above and beyond your regular tithe, do it!

But I think there will still be an impact and there are practical things that local churches can do to better steward their resources during this time. Cutting unnecessary spending is definitely going to help. I’ve instructed my staff to not make any purchases that can wait for later.

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It occurred to me on Monday, though, that one of the high cost areas for most local churches (without even thinking about it) is energy consumption. And many of us don’t consider the fact that even items that are “off” or “idle” still draw electricity. According to a 2015 study by the National Resources Defense Council, about 25% of residential energy consumption is from devices that are in idle or standby mode. I don’t know about you, but a 25% reduction in my home electric bill is nothing to turn my nose up at. I imagine that the same could be said for local churches.

One of my staff and I walked our entire campus this week. There were a ton of things that we could adjust to save on energy consumption, especially while the building is unoccupied. I was amazed at how many things were on or at least plugged in. So we made some changes in the hopes of being better stewards of our resources (financial and otherwise). I offer some practical tips for other local churches to consider:

  • Many thermostats are scheduled based around the church activity week. If your building is locked down right now, set them all to unoccupied. We’ve set all of the thermostats in our building except for our main office to reflect the emptiness of the building.
  • Essential staff are working, but can you do without overhead lighting in your office? I’ve got a good bank of windows behind my desk, and even though its stormy today, it’s enough light to work by.
  • Unplug EVERYTHING non-essential. This was the biggest one for us. We consolidated mini-fridge items and unplugged the empty ones. We unplugged lamps and stereos and microwaves and coffee makers and televisions. Did you know that if you never even turned on your tv at home, your cable box still consumes more energy in a year than the average person in Kenya or Cambodia does?  Aside from your copy machine and regularly used desktop computers, most office equipment can be unplugged too. The paper folder, shredder, laminator, etc. can be plugged when/if we need them. The number of charging cables plugged in to nothing shocked me, too. Don’t forget to check unused kitchen appliances, as well. Just because it’s not in use doesn’t mean it’s not drawing electricity.
  • Lights on timers for your interior or exterior? Don’t need those right now.
  • Check your water heater. Does it need to be turned up “that high” right now?
  • I’m sure there are more, but these seem to be the most practical at this moment.

These are things that we let slide in regular situations. Maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe we should always be this vigilant as we steward our financial and natural resources. But especially right now when many of us are preparing for a pinch, take a few moments and do a walkthrough.

After the Storm

There’s no denying it…there is a colossal storm wrecking havoc in The United Methodist Church right now. Battle lines have been drawn, political maneuvering abounds. Folks on every side feel disenfranchised, tired, and battle-bruised. And that includes me. If you’ve read blog posts I’ve made before, you know that I have been a constant voice of hope for the only denomination I’ve ever known. I have dreamt that there would be a way out of the gridlock we are currently caught up in, but now I’m not nearly as certain or hopeful.

The politics all across the Church have distracted us from our mission of making disciples so much that I am more and more convinced that the only way out of this storm is for a negotiated, amicable separation. And that pains me to say, it really does. I have considered myself a centrist who tends to get along with just about everybody, so the idea of schism hurts to even verbalize. But, I’m tired. This storm has taken a toll all over the denomination and it’s taking a toll on me.

And the idea of something new is exciting but terrifying all at the same time. I’ve asked myself several times, and I’ve heard other colleagues ask the same “What will we do after the storm is over?” Another way of putting it is “Where will we find ourselves after the dust has settled?”

I woke up really early this morning–whether it was a racing brain or a 4 year old knee in my back I can’t be sure–but I started rehearsing these same questions again. As I laid in bed questioning and praying, God reminded me of a storm story from my past.

In 2006, I spent my spring break doing hurricane recovery in New Orleans. I remember that we went in kind of blind, we didn’t know where we would even be sleeping, we just knew we wanted to help. The first night we slept on cots in the abandoned freezer of a meat locker.

The next day, we met Pastor Randy and did he ever have a storm story! His local church had just purchased and remodeled a former grocery store to be their new campus. The church was growing, everyone was excited about the new location, things were on the up and up. Then the storm came. The building was ruined, the congregation dispersed through evacuation and some of them would never return to rebuild their lives in New Orleans. Before the storm, Pastor Randy and his wife had just purchased their dream home. They were told that they did not need flood insurance since they were outside the danger zone. Then the storm came. The levees broke and all of St. Bernard’s Parish (even those outside the “danger zone”) flooded. Their dream home was destroyed.

Pastor Randy’s story was not uncommon as we met people throughout New Orleans. Their stories represented so many broken dreams because of the storm. It seemed like the storm had taken everything from them. brokendreamsAnd, I admit, it was really easy to feel sorry for them, especially our new friend Pastor Randy. I remember sitting on the floor in what was once his dream house, eating pizza, hearing his story. After the storm he found himself living in a van (his family evacuated and he stayed to shepherd his flock….whole different story) in the parking lot of an abandoned Wal-Mart. I remember holding back tears as he told us his story. Then, he told us that he was crying out to God (understandably) “Lord, what am I going to do now? Everything is gone. The storm took everything. What am I going to do?” Then he said what I didn’t expect to hear. He said that he heard the Lord ask him right back, “Son, what were you doing before the storm?” He answered “I was preaching your word, I was building your Kingdom, I was reaching out.” And he heard God’s reply “Why would it be any different after the storm?”

Pastor Randy was quite convicted by his conversation with God, but it motivated him. “Why should I be doing anything differently than I was before the storm?” Somehow he acquired a propane camp stove and started serving soup outside his van right there in the Wal-Mart parking lot. When other organizations began to gain access to the area, they saw what a good little operation Pastor Randy had going and they started setting up camp in the parking lot, too. By the time we arrived, there was a large circus tent supplied by Operation Blessing filled with food and clothing, trailers containing medical clinics, a food line, and a full blown worshipping community. M3361S-3033We had Sunday worship right there in the middle of that parking lot. We filled boxes with food and gave out clothing. We went out from the parking lot and gutted houses, trying to help people rebuild some of the dreams that were broken by the storm. In so many ways, the entire operation happened because Pastor Randy asked “What do I do after the storm?” After his moment of licking his wounds, he got right back to the important work he was doing before the storm: building God’s Kingdom, preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ, reaching out to those who were lost and hurting and broken.

I had nearly forgotten this story, or at least forgotten its significance. But as I laid in bed this morning I rehearsed all that I had experienced in New Orleans. And then I felt God ask me the same that God had asked Pastor Randy “What were you doing before the storm?” UGH, I hate it when God tries to shake me out of my comfortable whininess.

I don’t know what it will look like for the people called Methodist when the storm passes. I’m confident the landscape is about to permanently change, but I’m not at all sure what it will look like. Here’s what I do know, when the storm is over…I’ll still be preaching the Gospel. I’ll still be joining God in the advancement of His Kingdom. I’ll still be reaching out. I’ll still be on the frontlines somewhere. Because why would it be any different after the storm?

Who’s in?

General Conference Update: Shadows of the Past

General Conference Update: Shadows of the Past

I just arrived in St. Louis for the historic General Conference 2019. I’m not one of the voting delegates, I’m volunteering as a marshal. That’s become quite the joke amongst my church members…they think I’m the General Conference Bouncer.

Anyway, I just got my credentials…an all access badge. I checked out the Marshal room….interestingly enough it’s the locker room that used to belong to the St. Louis Rams, my childhood heroes. I don’t have any responsibilities until 6pm, just to jump in and help where I can until then. It’s pretty quiet right now. So I just took a quick look around the locker room and thought of all those heroes.

I walked through the tunnels that lead to the field (plenary floor for our conference). I had this really eerie feeling walking the floor. The dome looks so familiar to me, yet, at the same time so different. Several years have passed since the Rams left, and they stunk pretty bad those last few years.

lg_bruce_ap_bestgamesBut I remember…I remember the Greatest Show on Turf! I remember sitting in these seats watching my heroes tear up the opposition all the way to the Superbowl! Warner! Faulk! Holt! Pace! BRRRRRUUUUUCCCCCEEEEE! The playoff game against Minnesota en route to the Superbowl was the loudest I’ve ever heard any building. The ground shook as we cheered for our boys. My dad and I couldn’t hear each other speak during the car ride home.

But now, the Dome is quiet. All the excitement is gone. It’s kind of creepy if I’m being honest.52397722_2530218120339738_5060034111108808704_o

Slowly, delegates and volunteers representing United Methodists all around the world are trickling into this shell of a building. We’re gathering because our denomination is at a crossroads moment. We can no longer continue with “business as usual” when it comes to how we are to be in ministry with LGBTQ persons. There’s too much at stake.

We’re gathering, not for a fight, but because we love our Church. We love our Church despite years of institutional gridlock over sexuality. We love our church because we remember! We remember what we were taught about Wesley and Asbury and Coke and Cartwright and their tenacity when it came to sharing the Gospel. We remember the pastor or layperson who first shared with us the grace of our God. We remember the first time the fire of holiness crept into our hearts. We remember all that is good about this Church and can be again!

The world thinks we’re gathering here for a fight…but I’m praying for so much more. Yes there will be vociferous debate. Yes, there will be parliamentary posturing…but I’m praying that as we gather in a building that brought me so much excitement as a child that the Holy Spirit will show up, way more powerfully than the Rams ever did, and that we’ll leave this place not disgruntled and anxious, but excited for the future of the people called Methodist!

The Best is Yet to Come (Or, God’s not Done with Methodism)

Today has been a day of beautiful clarities. I’ve written in my last couple of posts (over a year ago at this point…whoops) about the special session of the General Conference that is coming at the end of February. I won’t rehash all of that here, because you likely know everything that is coming before the General Conference as we determine how best to be in ministry with the LGBTQ community. If you don’t, take a look at my linked post above. Also, my colleague Chris Ritter has likely written more about this than anyone else, pop on over and check out his page. If you’re a member of my local church, remember that I’m hosting a chat about all of this on February 10.

So rehashing all the General Conference chatter aside, I admit that I’ve been worrying quite a bit about what will happen next month. No matter which plan is passed (if anything at all) there will be large ripples throughout the entire United Methodist Church. Sure, I have my own preference as to what should happen (though that preference doesn’t count at all since I am not one of the delegates to the General Conference), but my heart hurts to think of any fallout.

I’ve made no effort to hide my love for the United Methodist Church. I’ve had church members tell me with a grin on their face, “Pastor, you’ve never seen a cross without a flame on it.” They’re not wrong. The UMC is the only church family I’ve ever known, I’ve been going to annual conference since I was 14 and I’m a total Methonerd. I worry that the Church I love is about to be ripped apart at the seams.

I have friends and colleagues who view human sexuality very differently than I do, but that does not change the love that I have for them. The idea that we may find ourselves in different denominations is a thought that I struggle with.

I worry about our church’s continued witness to the world. I believe that the world needs the Church, and I’m likely biased, but I think the UMC has something important to speak to that need.

Then there are the practical worries like, “If the United Methodist Church splits, where would I go? I don’t have the skills to do anything else.” Or “What about my pension?”

I’m embarrassed to admit how much I’ve been worrying about all these scenarios and more.

Then the clarities started to come.

I was wrapping up a vision sermon series this morning and preached from John 2, the miracle of water to wine. My title was “The Best is Yet to Come.” Here’s the basic idea: the miracle of water to wine points us to the reality that with Jesus, the best is always yet to come. Whether that be tomorrow or eternity, the best is yet to come. Jesus can and will turn any situation around if we 1) Invite him to be involved, 2) Do what he says and 3) Have Faith that He’ll see it through. Check out the story on John 2, and you’ll catch my flow. In the middle of the sermon I said something that caught me off guard:

“The best days for this Church are not behind us, and we’ve got some really good days back there that we shouldn’t forget and we should continue to celebrate…but with Jesus there is always more. More love, more power, more joy…the best is yet to come.”

I hadn’t written this exactly the way it came out, but I meant it. I serve an incredible local church with a proud history. I believe we are in for a breakout year in the midst of a turnaround. Attendance is up, we’re seeing new people every Sunday and it seems that weekly I’m having conversations with people about what it means to follow Jesus. Things are going great, but the best is yet to come!

As I sat in my office between services, gathering my thoughts, I felt the Spirit ask me “what if the best days are yet to come, not just for your local church, but for The Church?” I thought, “Ok, file that away for later.”

After worship, I attended a district event in Washington. Bishop Beard was teaching on prayer. In between his sessions, the Heritage Ensemble Choir performed. They ended their time by asking us to stand and sing together “We Shall Overcome”. As we sang, I was overcome with emotion. I thought of the deep history of the song and again heard the Spirit speaking to me “this is still true today, even for the Church.”

We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall overcome someday! Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome someday!

We are not afraid, we are not afraid, we are not afraid today! Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe we shall overcome someday!

“Okay, Lord, you have my attention.”

Our District Superintendent went to reintroduce the Bishop and said, “I know this man, and I know that the best is yet to come.” I chuckled. A couple of church members sitting next to me chuckled, too. That was our refrain all morning.

Then the Bishop said it, “I truly believe that the best days for the Methodist Church are not in the rearview mirror, they’re ahead of us.” So close to what I had uttered this morning.

I thought about all of this the entire ride home and I’ve come to a new clarity. I choose not to be worried about what will happen at General Conference. I will not be afraid. I choose to believe that the best is yet to come for the people called Methodist.

I’m taking my own advice from my sermon. I’m inviting Jesus to move at the General Conference, I want the Holy Spirit to fall so powerfully that they don’t know which way is up. And I have faith that Jesus loves the Church enough, that He’ll see us through.

I don’t know what everything will look like when the dust settles, but I do know that on February 27, Jesus Christ will still be Lord. On February 27, He will still be building his Church and the gates of Hell will not overcome it.

I don’t know what it will look like, but I believe the best is yet to come for us. It may be rebirth out of failure. It may be pockets of new life in the midst of an expiring institution, but I know that with Jesus it’s going to be good….he saves the best for last, and it’s not over yet…not by a long shot. The best is yet to come.

 

Consciousness After an Extended Absence

According to the date stamp, it’s been about 10 months since I wrote anything here. It’s certainly not for lack of desire or opinionated musings rolling around in my head. It’s because, well, life with two kids is totally different than with one. Our oldest, Marqui, just turned 3 in October. Selah is 17 months…and she’s something else. We had no idea what it was really like to be parents until she was born. Marqui usually maintains homeostasis pretty well. Selah…well…her equilibrium can be disrupted at the drop of a yogurt spoon. Life with two really is getting better, so don’t just hear that as whining.

So many times in the last 10 months I’ve sat down with the intention of writing an article…an idea for ministry, a commentary on the current state of the United Methodist Church, a rant that nobody warned us what having a second child would be like :-), but nothing ever moved beyond a draft.

Today I just happened to have some time to satisfyingly clack this out on my new macbook pro…upgrades are fun. So I feel like I’ve regained blogging consciousness.

In my last post, I wrote a bit about the Bishops’ Commission on a Way Forward:

Since 1972 there has been a statement in the Book of Discipline that states that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” The Discipline further forbids same-sex marriages from being performed by our clergy or in our churches. It also bars self-avowed, practicing homosexuals from being ordained as clergy. These provisions in our polity have been debated ad infinitum every four years at General Conference. In 2016, it seemed that the debate around this particular issue had reached a complete impasse. The Commission was called together by the Council of Bishops at the request of General Conference 2016 to help our Church find a way forward surrounding issues of human sexuality. At the time the Bishops were charged with the creation of the commission, I voiced my displeasure. We’ve had commissions before (3 come to memory) that have yielded no way forward. However, our Bishops asked that we all pause, take a deep breath, and let the commission do their work. I want to honor the voice of our shepherds and have decided that I will do what I can to support the work of the commission.

And I have done that. I have taken time regularly to pray for the members of the commission and their work. I’ve been encouraged by their regular reports highlighting how they were building trust and deeply engaging the issues (and there are several issues, human sexuality is simply a presenting symptom of a deeper level of disunity). The commission will eventually give a full report to the Council of Bishops, who will then make a recommendation to the General Conference. We now know that there will be a special “called session” of the General Conference February 23-26 in St. Louis, Missouri for the sole purpose of acting upon whatever proposal the Council of Bishops brings. I’ve eagerly awaited the reveal of the interim report from the commission. Last week, their report was given to the Council of Bishops at their fall meeting. In a press release, the Council of Bishops outlined three possible models:

  1. Affirm our current language with high emphasis on accountability.
  2. Remove restrictive language from the Discipline, but would not compel traditionalists to act against their conscience by protecting their right to not officiate same-gender weddings or ordain LGBTQ persons.
  3. Create separate branches of the Church while retaining unified doctrinal standards, liturgies, and a shared Council of Bishops.

My colleague, Rev. Chris Ritter, provides some in-depth commentary on all that happened at the Council of Bishops fall meeting here.

I must admit that my initial excitement over the release of the interim report quickly turned to disappointment. “Really?” I thought, “this is all the farther we are?” It seems to me that these three “sketches” are pretty well in line with what was already proposed and debated at General Conference 2016 when the Bishops called “time-out”. I felt disappointed because I thought all we had done was kick the can down the road a couple of years with no real clear alternative to the struggle that was already enveloping our Church.

The United Methodist Church in the United States is facing unprecedented numerical decline. We cannot afford the distractions that are before us. We need to decide whether we will remain a more traditionalist church or move toward being a more inclusive denomination; and if these are the same three options, couldn’t we have decided in 2016? Folks on all sides of this debate can agree that lives and souls hang in the balance.

Add that disappointment to a very real concern that I’ve had all along…do we really believe that anything will actually pass the General Conference? What if the proposal(s) brought by the Council of Bishops are flatly rejected and the delegates leave St. Louis on February 26 without any decision? Do we just maintain our current level of dysfunction? I know I’m not the only one who has this major concern. Over a month ago, I was listening to Rev. Adam Hamilton inviting people to join his co-exist model group which will launch this week. When talking about the options that could possibly be presented to the special General Conference he said something to the affect of: “I have hope. But I really can’t see anything passing the general conference.”

I have disappointment and concern because of a deep and abiding love for my Church. It makes my head spin, and could easily lead me to despair. The task ahead of us is so great and I don’t know if the Church that loved me into ordained ministry will endure. In several moments of desperation, I’ve been reminded of God’s promise to Zerubbabel.

Zerubbabel led the first group of Jews out of Babylonian captivity over 500 years before the birth of Christ. When they returned to Jerusalem, the priest Joshua and Zerubbabel were tasked with rebuilding the temple which had been destroyed. Can you imagine what a monumental, overwhelming task that was? They knew they were exactly where God wanted them, God had said He was coming again with compassion to Jerusalem, but rebuilding the temple…that’s too much for even a great leader like Zerubbabel. Very few seemed interested in rebuilding the temple with him. They had settled back into the land and started rebuilding their own lives and homes. The solution of the temple didn’t seem like a high priority, after all the temporary altar had become status quo over nearly fifteen years. Why disrupt that? I’m sure I can’t even begin to comprehend how desperate Zerubbabel felt, like he didn’t even know where to start. Then the prophet Zechariah received a vision just for Zerubabel:

“This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of hosts. What are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain; and he shall bring out the top stone amid shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!’” (Zechariah 4:6, NIV)

The temple would be rebuilt. Zerubbabel had laid the foundation and it would be completed. But it would not be by his own strength, intelligence, ingenuity, or ability to delegate tasks to others. It would be by the Holy Spirit working through Him.

It has occurred to me several times recently how much our current impasse in the United Methodist Church is like rebuilding the temple. We know it needs done, but the work is going to be really hard. For some, the status quo is just fine enough. We cannot vote our way to vitality. We cannot legislate our way to renewal. Those only come by the dynamic power of the Holy Spirit. Yes, the Spirit chooses to work through us–so I’m not suggesting that General Conference is no longer needed–I’m just being convicted again with the realization that our hope cannot be in commissions and conferences and councils. Our only hope is Jesus Christ. This is His Church and by His Spirit, the mountain before us shall become a plain. I can’t wait for the day we shout “Grace” again!

For Love Of Our Church

I love The United Methodist Church. Period. When I began to follow Jesus after he pursued me into relationship with himself, it was The United Methodist Church that welcomed me. Members of local UMC’s gave me my first opportunities to preach. I attended my first session of Annual Conference when I was 14 years old…and I LOVED it! I believe that the doctrine and polity of The United Methodist Church are in harmony with Holy Scripture. I have had the privilege of being paid to do ministry in The United Methodist Church since 2006. I have served under episcopal appointment since 2008 (I’m now serving under my fourth Bishop). On June 10, 2016 I was ordained as an Elder in The United Methodist Church.

I would not have spent over 10 years in preparation for ordination if I didn’t love the UMC. Even in the midst of numerical decline in the U.S. and the theological quarrels, I choose to believe that The United Methodist Church can be a vital expression of Wesleyan Christianity. I share that pedigree of love for my Church to lead into my thoughts on the Commission on A Way Forward.

Since 1972 there has been a statement in the Book of Discipline that states that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” The Discipline further forbids same-sex marriages from being performed by our clergy or in our churches. It also bars self-avowed, practicing homosexuals from being ordained as clergy. These provisions in our polity have been debated ad infinitum every four years at General Conference. In 2016, it seemed that the debate around this particular issue had reached a complete impasse. The Commission was called together by the Council of Bishops at the request of General Conference 2016 to help our Church find a way forward surrounding issues of human sexuality. At the time the Bishops were charged with the creation of the commission, I voiced my displeasure. We’ve had commissions before (3 come to memory) that have yielded no way forward. However, our Bishops asked that we all pause, take a deep breath, and let the commission do their work. I want to honor the voice of our shepherds and have decided that I will do what I can to support the work of the commission.

Now the commission has been named and is ready to begin its work which will ultimately culminate in a special called session of the General Conference where a resolution will be submitted that will suggest a way forward in unity (holding together The United Methodist Church) or a plan for amicable separation (breaking apart the denomination).

I will be watching the work of the commission with great interest. To start, each annual conference has been asked to take a week to pray for the work of the commission. This movement of prayer is to set the rhythm for the work of those named to the commission:

This prayer movement is a response to the Council of Bishops initiative called Praying Our Way Forward. We are called to a posture of prayer, praying for God’s leadership to guide us effectively in fulfilling the mission of the church. We invite you – clergy and laity, conferences and congregations – across the denomination to pray for God’s guidance.

umc_prays_logo_final-690x380The Illinois Great Rivers Conference has been assigned the week of January 22-28. I, along with many others throughout the conference will have set aside times of prayer during that week for the Church that we love. At the local Church where I serve, we are setting aside time during our Sunday worship services and Tuesday Eucharist service to pray for our Church and the work of the commission. Further, the sanctuary of our Church will be open each day for any wishing to come and cover the process in prayer.

I decided that I want to do something more, though. Brittney and I were talking about this the other night. We love our Church and our fervent prayer is that there be a way forward in unity. However, we don’t want to see us continue to rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic while foregoing our top mandate of making disciples of Jesus Christ. So what the commission brings forth, and what the general conference decides is very important to us. We made the decision to do something more in our prayer approach for the commission, and I wanted to invite fellow members of the Illinois Great Rivers Conference to do the same. From midnight on January 22 until 11:59pm on January 28, Brittney and I will be fasting from social media in all forms as we pray for the Commission on the Way Forward for love of our Church.

Will you join us?

 

Nineteen Questions-18: Are You in Debt so as to Embarrass You in Your Work?

Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in you work?

Every time I hear this question, I chuckle a little bit. It seems like a strange question to ask candidates for ordination. Most wish to keep their finances private. But then I start reading Scripture. There are many verses devoted to money and it’s place in our lives. The way one handles their financial house shows where their heart is oriented as a steward of what God has given them.

So am I in debt so as to embarrass me in my work? I used to be. Between the two of us, my wife and I have two bachelor’s degrees and one master’s. We’re all very aware of the cost of education in this country, and I’m certainly aware of the cost of a theological higher education. It’s part of the package deal when one enters the ordination process. For an elder, the Master of Divinity degree is required. I found places out there that would have saved me some money when it came to seminary, but Asbury Theological Seminary was my choice. ATS is certainly not cheap, but the quality of the theological education is second to none (in my humble opinion).

While we were in school, we knew that we were piling on the debt. When we completed our degrees it was scary to see how much debt there really was. We felt like we were drowning. We weren’t sure what to do and, frankly, it was embarrassing.

Then we took Financial Peace University.prioritizing-which-debt-to-pay-off-first.jpg I don’t agree with Dave Ramsey theologically on a few things, and there are a couple of things in his process that I don’t fully embrace. However, on the whole, his plan works. You can check it out for yourself here. Through working the process, we haven’t paid off our student loan debt, but we are paying it down faster than we ever could have imagined. We are in a much healthier financial spot than we’ve ever been in our married life. Thanks be to God.

As a Church, we need to be on the leading edge of helping our local church members get to a place of financial freedom. As far as ministerial educational costs, I’m glad to see that many conference Boards of Ordained Ministry are working to address the rising educational debt carried by those entering ordained ministry. We have to do a better job of supporting those who are committing themselves to lifelong service in the Church….they will have typical graduate level debt and enter the ministry at minimum salary. We must do better.

I’ll get off my soapbox now. Ordination is tomorrow!!!! AHHH!!

Are you in debt so as to embarrass you in your work? I am not.

Nineteen Questions-16: Will You Recommend Fasting or Abstinence, Both by Precept and Example?

Will you recommend fasting or abstinence, both by precept and example?

I just did some very quick research about fasting in Scripture. By that very quick search, I believe there are well over 70 references to fasting. To me this indicates a fairly common precept. fasting.jpg5_So it’s somewhat disappointing to know that this Biblical and Wesleyan exercise is not practiced widely in our church. Wesley himself recommended fasting and abstinence as a means of grace by teaching and pattern. Wesley often fasted once per week from sundown on Thursday through late afternoon/early evening on Friday’s.

I’ll admit that I’ve always struggled with the “example” part of this question. I do fast. I believe in the power of fasting and abstinence as a means of grace. I usually practice a weekly fast in the same way Wesley did from supper on Thursday evening until after dark on Friday. I always struggle somewhat with talking about it. I think part of it is that since fasting is foreign to so many people it comes across sounding like “look how holy I am.” I hear the Sermon on the Mount pushing against the temptation toward self-righteousness:

Matthew 6:16-18 (NRSV)

16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

I’ve continued to wrestle with this even as I reflect on this question. What I share here about my own habits of fasting and abstinence is not about my own glorification, but because I believe that God is glorified through the practice.

First, I think it’s important to say a quick word about the difference between fasting and abstinence. Fasting is limiting the intake of food or some other item (television, social media, etc.), while abstinence is abstaining from a specific thing entirely (think the Catholic practice of not consuming meat on Fridays during Lent….that’s abstinence).

In my own life, I’ve seen the grace-filled spiritual benefits of fasting an abstinence in the following ways (and I’m sure others….but hey, I’m writing this in a hurry….I’m still getting to know my brand new daughter).

  • Fasting and abstinence help us to seek God’s will. When I’ve approached fasting and abstinence with a specific intention for prayer in mind, I have often found clarity, discernment, and answered prayer.
  • Fasting and abstinence are a means of grace that overcome sin. Our heart felt fasting can be a way that we repent and defeat sin in our lives. Joel prophesied:
    Joel 2:12 (NRSV)
         12 Yet even now, says the Lord,
          return to me with all your heart,
    with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
  • Fasting and abstinence create a healthy rhythm of soul-tending. My weekly practice is a rhythm to my devotional life that I protect and hunger for each week. Fasting and abstaining from the things of this world makes me hungry for God! I know that no matter my intention for prayer is or even if I don’t have anything in particular in mind, that the Holy Spirit honors the sacrifice and moves in my life in life-giving, perfecting ways.

Very recently, Dr. Timothy Tennent, President of Asbury Theological Seminary (my alma mater), called the worldwide Asbury community (faculty, students, alumni, and friends) to a day of prayer and fasting. The day was set aside with several prayer intentions such as a budget shortfall and the seminary visioning process. Classes were cancelled and the entire day was set aside for prayer, fasting, and worship before a Holy God. I was privileged to gather with my Asbury family for this day of prayer. I’ve been blown away reading some of the things that God did during this day. You can read them here for yourself. In short, as the community sought the face of God together: $350,000 was raised to bridge the gap in the budget shortfall that very week. A student was convicted of their unconfessed sin regarding academic integrity and was able to confess and be reconciled to the professor. An international student prayed for God to meet her financial needs for the next school year, that very night she learned that all of her needs would be met by four people. Praise God!

Fasting and abstinence help us realize that it’s not about us. The sacrifice…the fasting, the abstinence, the worship is all about Jesus. The Asbury community was reminded of that. I’m reminded of that over and over. Fasting and abstinence is not a magic bullet…it’s a means of grace that connects us to the living God and aids us in focusing our prayer and our hearts deepest desires and needs (and checking those desires in light of God’s will). I will continue to teach and practice fasting as a means of individual growth for the Christian and as and hope-filled prayer for God to forgive and heal God’s Church.

Will you recommend fasting or abstinence, both by precept and example? I will so recommend.
             

 

 

 

 

Nineteen Questions-15: Will You Visit From House to House?

Will you visit from house to house?

My co-laborer Bruce and I took a much needed motorcycle ride yesterday afternoon. We enjoyed some of our areas beautiful scenery and winding highways. We stopped and hung out in the shade for some sweet tea. While we rested, we ended up talking about this question at one point. We talked about how this question, if taken literally, can be a really uncomfortable and even unproductive if not done in just the right way.

I do know pastors (of several denominations and non-denominations) who visit house-to-house quite literally. Personally, the idea of cold calling on someone’s porch sounds awful. About two years ago, I was sitting at my grandmother’s house when the doorbell rang. The young man at the door introduced himself as “the new pastor at [xyz] church and I’m going door to door in the community to introduce myself and invite you to Church.” The encounter was perfectly awkward and uncomfortable for everyone.

Even if the people were members of my congregation, I think it would be difficult to visit from house to house. First, most people work outside of the home and aren’t around when I would be visiting. Second, many people find a home visit to be an invasion of privacy.

So how is one to live out the spirit of this question in a way that is integrous? What I think it means is that pastors need to get out of their offices and be among the people! Make visiting a priority, especially those who are lonely, grieving, or ill. When someone is sick or in the hospital, don’t let your staff-parish relations team have to report that someone is upset because you didn’t go visit. In those moments, especially, people want a visit from their pastor. I know we’re not mind readers and people don’t always let us know that someone is in the hospital or having surgery or some other crisis….but when you know, make it a priority to be there. I remember when I took CPE that I experienced the priestly ministry of presence first hand. People to whom I was not and probably never would be their pastor welcomed my presence and prayers as a symbol of Christ’s presence and prayers. We represent Christ whenever we visit someone. This MUST be a priority for us.

Here’s some tips I have learned:

  • Especially with family’s that have young children, offer to meet them on neutral ground for a cup of coffee or lunch. My own house looks like a scene from Twister with a 19 month old running around (and soon a newborn). I’m much more comfortable meeting with someone outside of the embarrassment that is my home.
  • Always call ahead and schedule a time to visit.
  • Use the phone or texting to let people know that you are thinking of them and praying for them.
  • Have lunch in visible places where you know that you’ll encounter people.
  • Visit folks at work (by appointment, of course, and as their workplace allows).
  • Get into the community and go where people are: sporting events, school plays, concerts, etc.
  • Participate in community events.
  • Use social media (with cautiousness) to communicate with your people.
  • Personally get involved with a community project.
  • Join a community organization.
  • Coach a sport.
  • Substitute teach.
  • Join your volunteer fire department.
    People-Talking.jpg

The list could go on and on. I think the real intent of this question is “Are you willing to get out of the office and be among the people God has called you to serve?”
I know that we all (myself included) could do a better job of this, but time and time again I’ve found that the best relationships I foster happen outside of the walls of the Church.

Will you visit from house to house? This is my commitment.