General Conference 1956

Today starts General Conference 2016. For months, years maybe, I have heard our church, my church, the church I love so much is broke. That we are weak and lost and maybe beyond repair. I have heard all the negative awful stories of decline, seen them with my own eyes, and felt it in my heart. In the days leading up to today, I have felt, like so many of my friends and colleagues, a tremendous pressure on my heart, a pressure we are laying very firmly on the shoulders of 864 delegates.

This morning however, I woke up praying. I hardly ever wake up praying as I am not a morning person and I do not have the peace of mind to talk to anyone in the morning, much less God. But this morning, before I even knew I was awake, I was forming words of prayer around General Conference. And I was lighter.

As I came in to the office, the thought struck me that perhaps, just perhaps we are wrong. Perhaps, the United Methodist Church is not worse off today than it ever has been. Perhaps we are not in as terrible a place as the ubiquitous “everyone” wants us to believe. Perhaps, just perhaps, it is our own panic and need to have things the way we want them that has made us forget how to hold in perspective where we are now with where we have been. I am not saying we don’t need to improve. I am not saying that there are not changes we as a church need to make. There are. But maybe we are making death inevitable by seeing only death instead of celebrating the death we have cheated to get to where we are today.

When I came into the office, I pulled out my 1956 copy of the Book of Discipline. (I was given this by a male colleague when I started in ministry who told me every clergy woman should own this BOD. I think there may soon be more UMC clergywomen then there are copies of the 1956 BOD. What a thing to celebrate!) Sometimes I like to just hold this book in my hands and remember how far we have come.

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In 1956, as General Conference prepared to meet, there was no United Methodist Church. There was a very divided Methodist Church. There was a Methodist Church. There was a United Church of the Brethren. There were African Americans who were segregated into the “Central Jurisdiction”, regardless of where their churches were located geographically. There were no clergy women in full connection. Sure, we had pastors who were going to new Methodists who move into the community and making sure they stayed Methodist. Sure, had a million committees that did a bazillion things that reported at a quarterly conference so everybody better look busy. There was way more accountability that, at least on paper, seems better. But we also has trials for church members who bought, sold or made liquor. Shaming people for their sins was the order of the day. Excluding people, lots of people, was accepted and expected, not just in the church but in the world.

In 1956, I don’t know what the delegates were feeling or thinking. I am not sure what pressure was on them. We don’t have blog posts or tweets or emails to tell us their every thought. What we do have is a forward thinking decision to include women as full members of the clergy. What we do have is a courageous decision to remove the Central Jurisdiction and allow African American Methodist churches to join the geographical jurisdictions to which they should belong.

Are we a better stronger church today? I believe so. When I can name more women clergy that I know than men, I say so. When I see the global reach of the United Methodist church, not as missionary outposts but as churches that are part of the communities where people live, I say so. When I listen to former church member tell me how much her Korean pastor has changed her life, I say so.

Do we have much work to be done? Yes.
Are there more people to be included? Yes.
Do I pray that the General Conference of 2016 will be as courageous and bold and visionary as the General Conference of 1956 was? Yes.

In all things God works. Whatever our delegates leave us with, our church, my church, will remain the church through which God worked and works in my life and in the lives of many people I know and love. We cannot let the work of Christ stop. It goes on, regardless. And I am convinced with God and with the people of God committed to doing kingdom work where they are at, the church will only be better each year than the one that has past.

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Dirt Under the Nails

 

 You know it is Ash Wednesday when the nail clippers come out and my thumb nail gets cut down as short as I can handle it. This is not only so that I don’t stab people in their heads while putting the cross on their forehead but because after my first Ash Wednesday I was bothered by the number of days the ash stayed under my nail. Really it does not matter how long or short my nail is, the black of the ashes stays for days.

I dislike dirt. I especially dislike dirt under my nails.

I was the kind of kid who wanted a washcloth outside with me…I would have done really well as a child of today with the baby wipes and handsanitizer.

I want things to be clean and tidy and as much as I can control them to at least have the appearance of perfection.

And yet.

Life is not clean or tidy or perfect.

God does not use clean or tidy or perfect people as much as dirty, messy, on the verge of death people.

I am struck that in Isaiah 58, God’s people fast, thinking that as long as they appear to do what God wants of them they will make God happy. They miss the point. We miss the point.

The dirt is important. The ashes are important. Looking death in the face, feeling our own mortality, our weaknesses, our failures, the messiness of our life is important. It is only then we call out “Help me.” It is only then we hear God answer “Here am I.”

Only in the ashes, in the dirt, in the stains, do we move away from appearances and into truth.

God offers us a life that is more than “the yoke of oppression with the pointing finger and malicious talk.” We are given love. Grace. Help in the midst of our very real, very messy, very broken life.

Leading with Dyslexia

As part of my preperation for ordination, one of the workshops I attended at a provisional retreat was on cultural barriers. I don’t remember much about the workshop except that the person teaching it gave us all a copy of a long passage of scripture in Spanish and told us that we were to all read it aloud. I asked if I could pass, as reading aloud unprepared that amount of English in front of fellow preachers is intimidating but to read in a foreign language is terrifying. No. At 25 years old, I struggled through a lengthy peice of Spanish scripture. It seemed no one else did. I certainly was the only one who had tears of frustration as they read.

In college, I learned that not everyone had to read a sentence three or four times before they understood it. I learned when I was 18 that it was not normal to start reading in the middle of the sentence or have the letters all of a sudden make no sense on the page or be really sure you know how to spell a word but also sure that it doesn’t “look right”. I was blessed in some ways to grow up in South Carolina where the educational system was not so stringent. I was never identified as anything but a poor speller and weak math student. I had great teachers who worked with me. Unlike many people with dyslexia, I was never put in special education classes or identified as unable to learn.

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I worked hard. I never wanted anyone to treat me differently because of the way my brain absorbs information. Really I never wanted anyone to know I had a “disability”. I had to read my books twice in seminary. I had to listen to lectures on the road to and from school. I didn’t have straight A’s but considering the two babies I had in seminary and the toddler I had at home, plus the two churches I was serving at the time, I feel fortunate both to have accomplished what I did but also to have learned what I was able to.

It does not matter how intelligent you are, when you announce hymns and you flip the numbers you feel dumb. Or when you are reading a passage of scripture and the words suddenly don’t make sense, you feel like the biggest idiot in the room. Every time my brain freezes when I am in the role of pastor I think of Bishop Kammerer saying to me “Take thou authority” and I wonder if I should have really been entrusted with that authority in the first place.

It is a vulnerable and scary place to lead with a learning disability. Because I learn the way I do I think I know something, I am so sure of it, and then I find out it’s true of one thing and not the other. That is so confusing in church polity. It’s embarrassing to always have to look things up but I cannot recall either paragraphs from the Book of Discipline nor chapter and verse from the scripture. I have to talk things out. And sometimes I talk through are ideas that are crazy and make no sense but I usually get to a simplified version that does make sense. It just takes me a little longer. I constantly have to apologize because time glides away from me and I don’t know where it goes expect that I do because it takes me so much longer to do brain tasks than it seems to take everyone else. And I always have to apologize because I miss things, or I think I know something and I don’t, or I “take my authority” on something I know to be best for the church but the change is not communicated in the clearest way.

Leading with dyslexia has taught me humility. It has taught me to be willing to step back and examine my shortcomings. It has given me the art of the apology. It has taught me how to shake of the dust from my feet.

I also suspect that like me there are a number of clergy and laity who struggle every day with a “hidden” challenge that makes them feel limited. The more I have talked about being dyslexic the more I have heard not only surprise but others struggles with learning disabilities, ADHD, depression, and more. Things we try to keep silently in the background that profoundly effect how we lead and who we are.

I think if I can claim the uniqueness of how my brain works and celebrate it, instead of constantly apologizing for how God made me to be I can focus on the many blessings it brings. Even more, I can help those whose journeys with dyslexia have led them to believe that the church, and perhaps even God, could never call them as a leader because they have nothing to offer.

I long for the day that I stop being ashamed because I was sure of something and I didn’t pour over the BOD or the history books or the whatever to triple check it. I long for the day I do not feel less than because I “cannot” like someone else but instead can celebrate the things I can that are unique to me because I was fortunate enough to have a brain that sees the world differently than everyone else.

Where there is no rainbow filter…

There is a  meme that has been born in various manifestations in the last 24 hours.  It may not be entirely true on your facebook feed but I suspect it is at least half true. The skittles half. 

                                                      

If you happen to be my friend, you will notice my face is the same Irish pale it usually is. I invite you not to read too much into this. Or maybe read alot into this but read into it specifically.

Last week, when I returned home from Annual Conference I was joyful to learn that our last written ballot results were:  

 Results of voting on Petitions 2, 11 and 14
Petition 2 calls for “Additional Definition for Self-Avowal.” Petition 11 asks for a “Mandatory Penalty for Violation of Par. 2702.1(b).” Petition 14 states: Therefore, be it resolved that the Virginia Annual Conference petition the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church to delete the sentence found in ¶ 161F of the 2012 Book of Discipline that states, “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”
The results are:
Petition 2 — 838 yes; 961 no; 96 abstentions. (1895 total)
Petition 11 — 811 yes; 994 no; 96 abstentions. (1901 total)
Petition 14 — 989 yes; 868 no; 40 abstentions; (1897 total)
Four ballots were ruled to be invalid.

I say I was joyful because Petition 2 made no sense to me. I did not see a need for it other than to cause more chaos and division. Both  of which are frankly not the work of Christ. Petition 11 asked for mandatory penalties to essentially force Bishops who are not currently punishing clergy to punish them. Clergy in conferences such as the Virginia conference who violate church law by marrying same gender couples are being punished. Two have been punished here in Virginia. Again, I see that this is merely going to cause more problems and I do not see those Bishops who are not currently enforcing church law being willing to enforce this anyway. More time, more money, more heartbreak for our church. Why would we do this. 

The last, petition 14 is where all the real debate lies. This is a sentence I long to see gone from our Book of Discipline. But before I tell you why I want to go back to the rainbow colored filter. Bear with me while I jump around.

When I was ordained, I realized something that I did not take so seriously in my ministry to that point. There was something about Bishop Kammerer asking the historical questions in front of a room full of clergy that included clergy that I both admire and am challeged by that made me stop and consider that I am no longer my own. I have thoughts and opinions. Those come out more than they should. But as much as I am able I need to be able to minister to all God’s people. In a public arena like facebook, we are asked to splash rainbow colors across our faces or share news articles of controversial subjects. And we can assume when someone does or does not do the same it is because they do or do not feel the same. 

Sometimes I do not “take a stand” because taking a stand means I do not know how I will be able to minister to those whom God has entrusted to my care who do not feel as I do. Because sometimes my personal opinion, all the time in this calling, my personal opinion must matter much much less than the ability to love as Christ loves. I have to set what I think aside, so that I can minister to those who see the world as I do and those who do not. My liberal friends have sometimes accused me of being too conservative on issues I am truly liberal at heart on and my conservative friends have accused me of being a liberal when I am truly much more conservative than I appear. The gospel at times calls us to stand with love, not law and love will lead us to some interesting places. 

I don’t think its just the calling of clergy to do this, but the calling of all Christians. But as a clergy person I certainly have to do a better job of modeling it. 

Which brings me back to petition 14. And why I so hope it is removed at General Conference. I am ashamed as a United Methodist it is in the Book of Disipline. These words “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” are beneath us. If we want to know the truth the whole of the human condition is incompatible with Christian teaching. There are so many parts of me that are incompatible with Christian teaching that I cannot begin to look at the speck in my neighbors eye. If this sentence were to say, gossip or not feeding the poor, or refusing the children, or neglecting the widow, or rejecting the outsider, all practices Jesus himself says are incompatible with Christian teaching we would not bat an eye at their removal. 

Apart from Jesus Christ and his saving grace, the whole of the human condition is incompatible with Christian teaching. There is nothing in us apart from God that desires love, or truth, or grace, or goodness. All that Christ teaches us that brings us to a new life in him, comes not because we are compatible but only because Jesus Christ offers it freely to all.

Remove the language. Removing the language does not open the flood gates to every church pastor performing same gender weddings, or ordaining openly gay clergy in married relationships. Those are debates we still have to have. Removing this language simply affirms that there is a place in the church and in God’s heart for all of his children. And if there is a facebook filter for that I would be all over it. 

The journey of Ashes is a Call Deeper

Right about now…7:12ish PM on February 18th, I ought to be standing in the pulpit of Crewe UMC with a cross of ashes on my forehead to reflect on the words we should have just heard. My favorite words, the words I most often choose to say are “from dust you came, and to dust you shall return. Repent and believe the Gospel.”

The call in Joel 2 to blow the trumpet call to the community for repentance.

12“Even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.”
13Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God,
for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity.
14Who knows? He may turn and relent and leave behind a blessing—
grain offerings and drink offerings for the Lord your God.

As people of faith we are called to not only a pointing to the positive, speaking to hope, encouraging others (and ourselves along the way) but we are called to a life that is honest in all regards. The only way to return to God often is with fasting. With weeping. With mourning. With recognizing that we are far less the individuals than God desires us to be and that we can only be saved, not by our own heroic efforts but because God in his mercy and love has saved us. At some point we have to start with honesty about our own need for saving and the distance we really truly are from God because of our sin.

Along with the call to repentance, and I would argue equally important, Joel reminds us that God calls us not just to a right relation with Him, but His call is also a call to assemble.

15 Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly;
16 gather the people. Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber.

Too often we are ashamed of being repentant. Ash Wednesday is a nice break, a socially acceptable way to acknowledge our bent towards sinning. But the trumpet that blows on Ash Wednesday demands more of us than a ten minute ritual. It demands a willingness to be honest with ourselves about the distance we have put between us and God because of our sins and also the truth that God is asking us to assemble and walk with others who have less, as much and sometimes more distance than us. The call is not that we would journey alone. Ashamed that we are repenting. Ashamed that our sins have carried us so far away. Ashamed that we are more dust and mortal than holy and sacred. The call is that we would return, together. That our witness would help others and that their witness would help us. That the conversations along the way would bring us clarity in our journey and that we would be able to help someone else from turning back. We are not made to journey alone.

That is what Ash Wednesday reminds us. That while we are dust and to dust we will return, God has given us an incredible gift. His love. His Son. His community.

The Kingdom of God is like a pile of puzzle pieces

It was rainy day. We were sitting at our timeshare in Williamsburg, VA with nothing planned except enjoying each other. So we decided to break out a puzzle our eight year old has been wanting to do for awhile. Its a complicated one with pieces that are not exactly normal puzzle shapes. With 1500 peices, it is a doozy for an 8 year old so teamwork to get it done in two days was what it would take.

I have a deep love of puzzles. As a teenager, I would spend hours on my bedroom floor assembling any puzzle I could get my hands on. My grandfather taught me that you sort out all the edge pieces first and put them together, then you sort the pieces into like colors. When you do it this way you do not need the box cover to put the puzzle together. His advice was not to look at the whole picture but to look very carefully at the details of the piece you needed to find a match for. His wisdom was that very often the pieces that belong together do not look like they belong together if you are looking at the puzzle as a whole.

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Working on this puzzle as a family, made me realize that some are more gifted in seeing the details and putting them together than others. My eight year old, like her mother, can look at a pile of puzzle pieces and pull out just the one that is needed. My ten and twelve year olds threw their hands up in frustration because they just could not see the details in the shape of the piece, the minute variations in color and pattern. They would pick up a piece and try it over and over again only to have it go in a completely different part of the puzzle.

Leading a church to revival is much like putting together a puzzle. Leading a particular people to Christ is like matching puzzle pieces. The challenge for church leaders is that we do not get caught up in needing the big picture, the picture of what is going to be, but we spend time carefully considering the edges, the patterns and textures.

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At the Festival of Homiletics, one of the speakers suggested that we should continue to point out parables as a way of understanding God. The parable that came to me on that rainy day is this: The kingdom of God is like a puzzle without the box, its messy and chaotic and overwhelming at times. It calls us to patience and persistence. It demands we pay attention to tiny details: peoples lives and struggles, the churches history, the communities needs, the words of scripture, the hope of Christ which is found in the mundane.

The kingdom of God is like a puzzle, we can try to work it out alone but when we have help, the vision emerges faster and the burden of putting it together is filled with far more laughter and joy.

My eight year old and I discovered that we could put the puzzle together by ourselves very quickly. But we also discovered the joy of leaving the “easy” pieces for others to come along and add. It gave us more pleasure to hear squeals of excitement when the others came along and put in a piece that was waiting. The baby of the family put in the last two pieces (the only two she was able to fit together on her own), and we all rejoiced because the picture was beautiful; because the work was worth it; because we did not do it alone but helped each other along the way.

We have a pile of pieces in the church, locally and globally. We actually have a picture, a very clear picture, of what is supposed to emerge from a pile of believers and communities and opportunities that are very different from each other. The picture is that one day every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

It is going to take all of us, conservative, liberal, and inbetween. All of us, those who believe women should preach the word of God and those who believe women should use their gifts only to support men. All of us, random, seemingly unrelated, pieces. The ones who love high church organ music and those whose souls resonate with loud rock music. The ones who love color and texture and those who love stone and flying buttresses. The sinners and the saints. The ones who are absolutely certain about what they believe and the ones who have more doubt than faith.

I hope we will not stop working together. I hope we will continue to sit beside each other, examine tiny details, the curves and colors of the pieces, remembering that it is not for our own glory we labor, but so that Christ will emerge with love and grace. We might be tempted to toss aside the pieces that don’t look like us, the ones whose shapes seem a little off and whose coloring is not quite right, but if we do we will find ourselves with holes in the picture when we run out of pieces.

At the Bedside of A Wounded Church

 

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Often time, when a church member is struggling with dying, hospice, the nurses or I as the pastor, will coach the family to offer love and forgiveness and give permission to their loved one. Many times I have sat at a bedside telling someone it is okay to no longer fight, to go quietly to the place that has been prepared for them. I have been at bedsides where the family cried and wept and wailed. Where they told their loved one that they cannot leave yet, that they will not be able to live without them, that surely God is not yet calling them home. I have been at other bedsides where the family lovingly and without prompting, tells the person they love that they will be okay without them, that they want them to be at peace.

I have seen very sick individuals who have fought against dying because they could not let go of the living. I have seen those who medically might have recovered go peacefully into death. Finally, I have seen those who are sure to die, recover and live on.

We cannot predict death. But as people of faith, we have to believe and live into resurrection.

We are a church in hospice with a self inflicted wound.

I am horrified as I watch what is happening to the United Methodist Church. Not because we are dying. Not because I am afraid that I am going to lose a church I love before I have had enough time with her. But because there are factions on both sides of the bed screaming, “YOU CAN’T LEAVE US!!! WE CAN’T SURVIVE WITHOUT YOU!”

I don’t understand how people on either side think we can possible divide something that is United. We are the UNITED Methodist Church. We are the church that took risks, having to send lay leaders because the gospel was spreading so fast that we didn’t have enough time to prepare and ordain preachers for all the communities who were hungry for God’s word. We are the church that very early on let women be among the group of those lay preachers (even though ordination for women was hard and rocky). We are the church that sends Korean and African American pastors to churches where racism was so entrenched that property deeds often stated that whites only could be members and if a member of another race was permitted the property would be returned to the gift giver.

We are United. More than anything, we are the denomination that found a way to bring together people. We brought together city and rural people with a shared vision of transforming the world. We are the denomination formed from other denominations.

I am standing at the death bed, whispering quietly to our church, “its okay. we will survive without you. we will thrive without you. you are not the gospel. you are not the salvation. you are not the hope of the world. if it is your time to go, go and know we will keep doing your work.”

I know and believe more than anything else death leads to resurrection. I am not sure the United Methodist Church will survive because we are so focused on one issue, one pain, one political stance that we are not living or proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ and there are no churches that can survive without the Living Word of God at their center. We have forgotten our name. We have abandoned our rich history of doing what others said could not and should not be done so Christ can be lifted up above all.

I find myself with tears of grief and lose and hurt streaming down my face, trying patiently to hold in the screams that are building in me. I want to say to those who are focused on division, go…go away and do what God is calling you to do but do not call it United Methodist because it is not. I want to scream, “let our church have peace so that it can die and be raised to new life or so it can regain its strength to rise up and do what United Methodists have always done so well, transform the world through making disciples of Jesus Christ.”

I want to throw both sides out into the waiting room so that the church I love can hear me whisper, “its okay. you can go to the place God has prepared for you. we will not stop living or loving or following Jesus if you do. you are loved and your work will not stop with your death.”

Oh, I how I grieve. I will not go to the right or the left but will stay here, beside the church that has shaped and formed my understanding of what it means to be a follower of Christ. I do not think any good will come out of division and so I will stay United Methodist until that identity is no longer there to claim. Then I will turn, look to Christ, and follow Him from the death bed into the world, where His work is still waiting.