On my third trip to St. Louis, a mission trip, I remember hanging out downtown–where the old train station had become a downtown mall—the 90’s analogue to today’s “food halls”. The only thing that really sticks in my mind is that this was the first place I saw a shop where they “made” the fudge in front of you. A few of things I reflect on:

  1. You’ve got to pour it all out of the bowl before you start.
  2. You’ve also go to work quick before the fudge cools, otherwise it doesn’t fold. It just breaks.
  3. If you do it right, you’ll wind up with something yummy.
  4. The culinary arts are more of an art than a science.

For us in the Church and those at General Conference:

  1. I don’t think the average United Methodist, lay or clergy, realize the amount of politicking that has gone on in the run up to St. Louis and will happen. Informal sidebars, strategy luncheon, and daily briefings. They’ve already started and the conference doesn’t begin until Saturday! Rather than invite only meetings, secret deals, and strategizing why don’t we do all of our conferencing out in public, before the body of General Conference and the world? Get it all out on the table. Sure, go into executive session if you want but “the light shines in the darkness and darkness has not overcome it.”
  2. Four days is not a long time to conference—three when you realize that Saturday is a day of prayer and preparation. Three days to try to get 50% + 1 to agree to a way forward for The United Methodist Church. Just like the fudge will cease being malleable and foldable once it cools. The closer General Conference gets to Tuesday night’s adjournment, the more rigid I think folk will become.
  3. This is a precious opportunity to truly discern how the Holy Spirit is guiding us. I remember reading about the year General Conference voted to ordain women. It came as a surprise to the General Conference and when it came to the floor, no one thought it would pass. It wound up passing overwhelmingly.
  4. There has been a lot of time and energy spent trying to read the tea leaves—straw polls, surveys, and research performed. I’ll let others proclaim the gift of divination but it seems to me that there are ways for the people called Methodist in America (and the world) to stay united and do faithful ministry in their various contexts. We just need to trust God and each other, believe that God is in the midst of all this, and have the courage to lead and let others lead, as well.

My second visit to “The Gateway to the West” was an ecumenical college student gathering. It was a great event but the one thing frustrated most is that when it came time for New Year’s Eve worship with Communion, we had to gather as different branches of Christianity. The Orthodox and Roman Catholics gathered in their respective spaces. The Episcopalians and Lutherans gathered in another space. Everyone else–including United Methodists–were herded into the “Reformed” worship service.

Reformed!

Someone didn’t do their homework. We are the spiritual children of Wesley, not Calvin and Zwingli!

So more than of few of us United Methodists crashed the Episcopalian/ Lutheran service–the service that represented better which branch of Protestantism we descend from.

I remember talking with some fellow “crashers” of that service and they talked about how uncomfortable they felt in that worship service. I think that was the first time I ever felt a sense of mourning that we as a tradition were drifting away from our uniqueness and into , as the military calls it, “General Protestant” territory. We have an amazing story, and wonderful tradition, and have added much to the mosaic of Christian strains. Do we mourn the fragmented nature of the church? Of course. At that event where we did everything as an ecumenical body but the brokenness of the humanity meant that we could not gather around the same table to celebrate the Eucharist–the very symbol of our oneness with Christ and each oher.

Reflecting in that event all these years later two thoughts come to mind:

  • We need to remember our roots–we are the spiritual children of the Wesley’s. We are, at our roots, a renewal movement within the broader stream of Anglicanism–the home of the via media, a church both Catholic and Protestant. We will spend the next week as a denomination trying to do what no other denomination has done: maintain a global denominational structure, embrace representative democracy as a valid expression of collective wisdom, and find resolution to questions of unity and ministry with people identifying as gay or lesbian. To successfully navigate this next week, we’ll need to lean into our roots and origins.
  • I still reflect on the yucky feeling of the brokenness we felt as we gathered around our various denominational tables for that closing worship service. How many people would come to a relationship with Christ but because of an impoverished visible witness of unity in Christ, they think the Church is nothing but a room full of hypocrites? How many times do folks leave church because we seem to do too good of a job fighting over things that do not ultimately matter instead of practicing hospitality in Jesus’ name and encouraging one another in practicing our faith?

Well, General Conference is drawing nigh. Three years of prayer and hard work (and angst-ridden discussion and let’s not forget the politicking and posturing) all draw to a close… or at least find their next articulation… this next week.

In preparation, I’ve been thinking about the other times I’ve been in St. Louis–a family vacation, a mission trip, and an ecumenical young adult conference. From these, several images come to mind. Here’s one. I’ll reflect upon the other ones, later.

Gateway Arch

Of course, the first time anyone is in St. Louis, they are transfixed by the arch. It. Is. Big. How does it stay there? How does it keep from tipping over or sinking into the banks of the Mighty Mississippi?

Traveling with my family as a 5th grader, I could not fathom how to get to the top… to those windows. Who knew that there was an elevator that could move diagonally! I remember laughing with my mother that I thought I could see the Rockies from that outlook. Of course, I couldn’t. But I remember these childhood images and fragments of conversations. The span of years makes them begin to blur. But a question I had then, I still have:

Why is the Arch of St. Louis the gateway to the west and not a stylized bridge spanning the river? This seems to fit better the story of westward expansion.

A gateway is a break in a fence or wall. Anywhere anyone can cross the Mississippi River could be considered a “gateway to the west”. Why not make the arch across the river–a modern day Pillars of Hercules? If we were trying to tell the story of westward expansion wouldn’t a bridge be a better symbol?

In my mind, I’ve been thinking about church and the metaphors of gate and bridge. Do we think of the church as a gate… a guardian… of faith? Or do we think of the church as a bridge… that which connects a someone to a life with Christ?

Gates can be good–when well marked, they provide clear points of entry for people seeking a way in or through. But they can also be considered control points–keeping people out unless they pass muster. This begs the question–does the Spirit and Christ’s Church need check points and bottlenecks that regulate entry and exit? In some sense it seems the answer is “yes”. We have Scripture and the Creeds that create a well delineated boundary for us. They tell us what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Where the metaphor of gate fails the church is when we place ourselves in the position of the gatekeeper. It is powerful temptation to feel it is our ultimate power to decide who is in and who is outside the Body of Christ. Yes, 2,000 years of Spirit-guided tradition has given us what Wesley would say are the “usual” ways God and the Church operate .I find it precarious and not a little bit dangerous to put myself in the role of ultimate arbiter of who is in, who is out; who can pass through the gate and who cannot.

Bridges seem a little bit different. Yes, bridges are located in specific places, thus they are their own point of control. But the metaphor is that of helping someone get across a chasm, not blocking someone from passing. Sure, there will be more than a few trolls under bridges that try to exact a price in order to cross but at its best, bridges are just there silently serving their roll as people pass. If we think of the church as a bridge of faith–helping someone get from where they are to where they need to be in their walk with Christ–then we are not the gatekeeper as much as we are the conduit for the Spirit to move.

Looking forward to this called General Conference, one of the things that has kept surfacing in my prayers has been this–how are we helping to connect people to a life with Jesus and how are we inhibiting it? Yes, I direct that towards questions before the General Conference but I also direct that at all of us and our demeanor, at our motivation, and at the way in which we view one another. In social media, in news accounts, in public and private conversations–can we be the bridge and not the gate? Can we be the conduit of God’s love and grace and let God be God?

One of the promises we make at baptism in The United Methodist Church, either our own or that of our children, is to “accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves”. Our imaginations flock to common themes–sin, the devil, and temptations that lead down the broad road to hell (paved with good intentions, to boot!). Racism, sexism, and xenophobia come to the mind of many, as well. I imagine another place many’s minds might lead them are the seven deadly sins.

Having spent 18 months in the ministry of connecting our Conference’s Child Welfare ministry with the ministry of local churches, baptism–the vows we’ve made–has become the key lens through which I see this ministry, especially this vow. Caring for children in the midst of trauma represents a form of resisting evil, injustice and oppression.

In my current place of ministry, I get to spend every day asking congregations how we can best come alongside and join what they are already doing–being in ministry with children and families. In some ways, this not unique. Many churches make this kind of request of each other. Churches join together in VBS during the summer, they might try to share children’s ministry staff, or they might collaborate to support the local schools. There are unique qualities to this invitation, though, when the invitation comes from a child welfare agency, namely:

  • We have no idea how long the relationship between church members and each child might last. Maybe it lasts for a day. Maybe it lasts forever. Realistically, it is somewhere in between–usually about a year.
  • The rules we have when in ministry with a child welfare agency take what we already do to safe guard children and place those rules on steriods. Not just any background check will do and not just any time-passing conversation is appropriate. Probably most awkward for me is this: when a family or individual applies to be a foster parent, the veil of confidentiality falls into place. There are easy trainings to be done and common-held best practices. Definitely nothing to scare anyone off, though.

As we think about it, the above is true for almost any child a church gets the privilege of ministering with children. We don’t know when a parent’s job might cause them to move. We don’t know what’s going on at home. These are only more apparent when the child is in care of the State.

Because of this….

I think about the vows I made at my own baptism. Every. Single. Day. Before being appointed to UMCH, I never had a “grown up” job that wasn’t in the church. Even though my job does involve engaging churches each and every day, it is not ministry in a parish. There’s no sanctuary down the hall, no bulletin to get finished, no trustee to call about whatever kind of maintenance is needed. Most churches have a theology around a sense of place. This is not always true in an office. I never realized how much the implicit symbols of ministry in the church shaped my faith until now. A certain degree of intentionality compensates for this. For example, I lead our Wednesday morning staff prayer time. When I’m next appointed as pastor, I’ll be a little more empathetic about the folks and their workplace.

I think about the vows made at my child’s baptism. Every. Single. Day. Her granddaddy and a dear friend baptized her while Susan and I got to be parents on that day. Also present were friends, family, and loved ones. There were also two congregations that took on the vows that they knew they were not going to see through to her confirmation. They took on the vows for others who are guiding and teaching Joy today. Whether or not a child has been water-washed and Spirit-born, the church has a responsibility to care for other children and provide safe space. It is true for my child as well as any other.

I also think about the vows made at my ordination. Every. Single. Day. Though Sunday mornings usually find me doing something in a church somewhere, no, I don’t get to preach every Sunday. This season of ministry does not have me standing behind the table or at the font on a regular basis. I am not the person charged with bringing order to the life and ministry of a congregation. That said, I do get to live out the Word in action and in deed–and I get to equip pastors to do this meaningful work as they order the life of their church. I’m also understanding at a deeper level what it means to live a sacramental life. Yes, in response to baptism and invigorated by the Eucharist but also a life that is one of thanksgiving and seeking to embody the life and teachings of Jesus.

I don’t know the names of the kids our ministry serves and I most certainly do not know their backgrounds. I do not know if their family ascribes to a faith and, if so, which one. But I hope that in every situation we act and respond with the love, compassion, and grace implicit in the vows made on our own behalf, those we took on, and those we have made on behalf of our own children.

 

Saturday night.

Preacher, you hurriedly rewrite your sermon, your heart breaking yet one more time.

Frantic fingers desperately seeking to follow as the Spirit guides.

The temptation is Real. The allure is real to let God’s prophetic Word be watered-down, diminished, altered, made more palatable all because of fear. Fear of loss. Fear of diminished influenced. Fear of accusation of preaching politics instead of preaching Jesus.

Take courage, Preacher. You do not stand in the midst of your people alone. You stand with God present, the great cloud of witnesses supporting you–Martin, Theresa, Dietrich, William, Harry, Frances, Mary… and countless others who preached such a word in their time.

Tomorrow, stand among God’s precious people and offer hope, not some cheap-grace-infused imitation of hope that reinforces status-quo or leaves us with a thin, shiny veneer or would-be happy.

Give people the hope they seek that only comes from Jesus.

Give people Jesus–the Jesus who calls us into the Light that casts out Darkness, the Jesus who draws all to him, the Jesus who calls us to live in his example, the Jesus who calls us to recognize God’s image present in all.

Yes. Do call us to confession.

Help us, Preacher, understand and feel God’s call to stand up and say “no more” to hatred, injustice, and oppression.

Call them what they are–sin.

Call out our complicity, individually and collectively, in this sin.

Help us to hear the invitation from Jesus to us, anew, to seek the present of God’s renewing, forgiving Spirit. Then, tell us the story of God’s amazing love, complete forgiveness, and clarion call to Receive the Spirit that restores and transformed each and every one of us.

Preacher, I know this is not easy. The easier path is to demure in the face of such atrocities.

Please, Preacher, take one more step. Find some way to share the Word God is giving you beyond the four walls of the church. Let the people who think the Church is sitting feckless on the sidelines hear what God is saying through you.

Be a beacon. Be Light. Offer hope. All will be well–Jesus promised us.

I’m praying for you this night.

 

At the risk of perpetuating the stereotype of me seeing much of life through the lens of an anglophile, I’m sharing this video that recently came across my inbox:

I’ve always read Scripture–and experienced God–through the lens of hospitality. Be it Zaccheus being suddenly thrust into the role of sharing a meal with Jesus, Paul finding hospitality as he traveled (except when that hospitality was the jailer’s), Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, or Jesus telling the person next to him that they would be together in paradise, the practice of welcoming people threads throughout Scripture.

It makes sense, then that the Holy Family’s narrative would involve the question of who, exactly is going to provide a place for the birth of the Christ child.

What Does Your Stable Look Like?

All of our sweet Christmas pageants, creches and live nativities domesticate our presumptive theater-of-the mind narratives and associated images. I’m complicit as I have enjoyed watching my own daughter graduate from role to role. There was thee year we had the “flash mob” nativity where participants wound up with two Mary’s and no Joseph’s, she was a sheep. The year of the dramatic monologue, she was a dove. This year, she simply sang in a choir. Before long she’ll be in the running for Mary. Those precious images captivate us, and rightfully so. They also numb us to the realities:

  • The stables and mangers we spend so long creating and festooning supplant the reality of a hollow place in a rock cliff we call a “manger”.
  • An older child portraying Mary might be more realistic than we would like to think.
  • The Holy Family had experiences very similar to immigrants or refugees, needing to rely upon the generosity of strangers for safety and shelter.

This season has seen many memes referencing race, immigration status, and even religion when it comes to who all was present at the first Christmas.

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Retrieved from Clergy Coaching Network’s Facebook Feed

 

jose-y-maria

“Jose y Maria” by Everett Patterson

There’s a Song in the Air

There’s something about this season when we celebrate the Incarnation, when we cannot help but practice hospitality. We welcome family and friends into our homes. We exchange gifts. We seem to all want to be a little more generous. I do no think this comes from small schmaltzy sentimentality. This is simply part and parcel of who we are as children of God.

The Incarnation, in all of it’s deep, profound, and complex theologies is also profoundly simple. God comes to be with us. That affirms the innate worth of humanity–a narrative that begins in the Creation Story and continues to this day. But it finds it’s clearest articulation by the birth of a child in need of parents to love, care, and feed him–a child that would be in peril were it not for Mary and Joseph’s willingness to continue saying yes to God’s invitation.

I guess there have always been children in peril. The images from Syria prove that.

wright-aleppo-children3-1200

Retrieved from New Yorker website.

Regretfully, it seems this is always the case.

What surfaces, though, is this poetic symmetry–God loves us enough to come and be with us. It came to pass that the most fitting way to do this was with a poor, homeless family in dire circumstances. In response to God’s love for us in Jesus, we are called to be tangibly present–incarnate–for others, especially all of the Mary’s and Joseph’s of the world.

Who’s In Peril in Our Community?

This feature on GPB references foster care in Georgia and specifically points to methamphetamine addiction as a contributing factor for the rise of children in foster care in our state. A friend who works in this field in Virginia said the same thing in this interview.

These parents and these children are the exact people whom we need be incarnate for, the exact people who need someone to come alongside, provide hospitality, and abide for a while. Every children deserves a loving, compassionate, and nurturing home.

I’m honored that I get to serve the church by inviting congregations and individuals to serve, to love, to restore children from trauma. This Christmas, as our family reads the Christmas story, it will take on an entirely new facet because of this work.

Merry Christmas.

I’ve spent the past several weeks driving, literally, the width and breadth within the confines of the North Georgia Conference. I’ve seen a lot and even eaten some pretty good barbeque. I’ve learned a lot. Here’s just a few:

  • All the Superintendents really do appreciate the work of their clergy. I saw support, compassion, respect, and encouragement. They’ve got a tough job, they work hard,  and I respect them even more.
  • All the Superintendents do things a little bit differently. This is to be expected. Between personal preference and the context of each district there’s a variety of ways to lead. And it all seems to work out.
  • There’s a wonderful diversity of churches, clergy, styles of ministry in this Annual Conference. Small town, intown, suburban, county seat, circuits, part-time, full-time, station appointments, family chapels, roadside chapels, churches in the middle of a community and churches with no community. I’ve seen a few and listened to a lot of clergy share of how theyand their people try to impact lives for good.
  • Vital Churches look different from one place to the next. There’s no one way to do church and there’s definitely no one way to do church well.
  • But they all seem to have a few things in common–a focus on the people not-yet in the church, a trusted partnership between clergy and laity, and an abiding sense of joy in the tasks of ministry.
  • Respect people’s hard work, listen, and encourage where you can–this is what I’ve learned about myself.

I’m thankful for the journey and looking forward to the next time I get to head out on the road.

And if you want to ever talk about foster care ministry in your community, give me a call.