Thursday, December 20, 2018

On Dark Days

It comes without fail every year. December 21…the shortest day of the year…or the longest period of continual darkness. It falls just a few days before “the most wonderful time of the year.”  I think we are often tempted to ignore the darkness, as if that will make it go away quicker.

But Christmas does not exist apart from darkness. It is placed very strategically in the darkest days. Not so that we can ignore the darkness. Not so we can busy ourselves with erasing the darkness. 

It is placed here so that we know. It reminds us that in the throes of depression…or grief, or pain…whatever darkness is yours…that you do not walk that lonesome valley alone. Christmas is for reminding us that when there was only despair, God came with hope. It is to remind us that when there was only violence and unrest, God came with peace. It is so we know that when we can’t find happiness, God comes with joy. It comes so that we know God loves us not when we love him, but when we need his love the most.

It is not by accident that in the midst of darkness, Christ comes. Christ comes precisely when we need him most. He comes to sit with the depressed. He comes to quiet the anxious. He comes to cry with the grieving. He comes to comfort the suffering. He comes not when we are at our best, but when we are at our most desperate. When darkness invades our days.

If you find yourself this day…this week…this month…consumed by the darkness, fear not. The light is coming into the world. Jesus, the light himself, has not forsaken you. He sits with you. He listens. He holds you. Allow his light to fill your darkness.

Don’t forget. December 21st is the darkest day, because tomorrow it will be brighter. And even now, Jesus is with you.

Monday, December 17, 2018

What Christmas is All About

In September we began a youth group for elementary kids. As it started, I expected four kids. My two, and two others. We just moved here this summer and my kids had no friends to invite. Those two others invited their friends though, and some of those friends because as consistent as the pastor’s kids. Then one of those kids invited one of their friends who started coming regularly. We were growing slowly but surely.

As we began to approach Christmas, a retired teacher saw the potential of the kids who came to worship. We began working on lines for a Christmas play. Our regulars to junior group committed to coming on Sunday morning to practice alongside some kids who came to worship every other Sunday.

Then, on our very last practice the mom of these little boys brought their friend who had started coming to junior group. Could he be part of the play? Yes! We found him a spot.

Yesterday was the day. I got up early and headed to church nervous for them. Guess who was the first family through that door? Yep, it was that little boy who had joined the cast at our last practice with his dad and two younger brothers. As the rest of the cast arrived, they went into the nursery to make sure these little brothers had someone to play with. Another dad joined them to make sure the dad was welcomed too. Then two wonderful women joined them to watch the boys until the play began.
Siblings, grandchildren and cousins all filled the pews to watch the good news shared by our kids. They did great as they shared what Christmas is all about. But before worship even started, they had already shared what Christmas is all about when they invited their friends and made sure new people belonged.

My husband, reflecting on this Sunday, shared the truth that for most of these kids, they wouldn’t have had this chance at a mega-church. Sure, some of them would. But for those who are not theater geeks, whose parents work on weekends, who didn’t become part of the cast until the last practice, this chance to welcome their parents into their church wouldn’t have happened. These kids needed a church flexible  enough to make space for them.

I am really proud of our church kids. Not because of their acting and singing skills (yes they were great!) but for the way they welcomed people into their church family and for their willingness to do scary things for God.  I think that if they keep on doing those two things, God will keep giving them new kids to welcome. I pray that us adults can do those two things too. I pray that we can help these kids’ parents belong at Tanner Valley UMC. I pray that we can do scary things for God. If we can do those two things, we may find we too have room to grow. We may discover what Christmas is all about.  

Monday, December 10, 2018

Turn on the Light

Advent is a time of year when we talk a lot in the church about light in the darkness. It is at this, the darkest season of the year that we talk about God coming to a dark world bringing light.

I love light. The first thing I do in the morning is to go through the house and turn on lights. There is something about light that wakes us up. It doesn’t just help us see what is there, but helps us biologically to move.  I don’t just do this for me, but for everyone in the house. It seems to pull the kids out of their beds and get the house up and going.

Jesus is talked about over and over again as The Light of the World. I believe that seeing God has that same effect as light in our homes. God helps us to see the world, and even see the dangers in it. But God also gives us the energy and courage to face that world.

Yesterday, once again I found myself at a clergy thing. Once again, I heard hopelessness and grief of churches struggling to go on. I heard fear about the UMC’s future.

 I just want to remind all my colleagues that we are called to walk through the dark house each day, a flip some switches. We are called to say, “Did you see what God just did there?” We are called to help others see the light. As we flip switches, we find energy and we find energy in others to try again this day to make the world better. We may see the dangers in our way, but we can also find the ways around them.  Our calling is to help others see the light. Not to just talk about the darkness surrounding us.

So I want to encourage you to flip the switch today. Where do you see God’s light in the world? Where this week has God made a way where one did not exist before. What dangers are you able to face because you have The Light to guide you? We have a sacred calling to flip switches, not to just complain about the darkness.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

A Sermon Introducing A Commission on the Way Forward

This is the written manuscript I preached from October 28th. While I preach from this document, I do not claim this is word-for-word.

Micah 6:8
With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly[a] with your God.

          God, through Micah, tells us exactly what he wants from us.  Do Justice. Love Mercy. And walk humbly with Me. That’s it. The secret of life. The will of God for you. In fact, Jesus even seems to restate it to the Pharisees:
23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. [1]

So lets quickly talk about these 3 things.
      The first thing God wants from us is to do justice. Now justice tends to refer to punishment in our nation. That’s not what God means when he says do justice. God was talking about fairness, equality for all people. Just look what God says before this passage about the state of the country:
11 Her leaders judge for a bribe, her priests teach for a price, and her prophets tell fortunes for money. [2]
Justice means righting the wrongs of those who came before us, and recognizing the wrongs in our midst. It means stopping oppression in all its forms.

We are to love mercy. If justice is making sure people are not wronged, Mercy takes it a step farther. Mercy says we are to help those who haven’t earned it. One bible translates it “Kindness.” It is helping those who don’t have the ability to help themselves. And Jesus was all about loving mercy.  Miracle after miracle were acts of mercy:
Healing the lame, the blind, the lepers, the demon filled, raising the dead. Not because any of these people deserved, or earned, or had a right to be healed. Simply as an act of mercy, of kindness. He helped those who couldn’t help themselves.

The last requirement God gives us is to walk humbly with him. The first 2 were focused on other people, but this one is about God.  And I love the way it describes what we do with God: we walk humbly. When we walk with God, we catch a glimpse of his heart for this world.  “Humbly” is not put there as an accident. It is as important as what we do. Humility means seeing ourselves rightly. Not less than what we are, and not more than what we are. And when we walk with God, we are forced to humility. We are forced to see our worth through God’s eyes, and to see our smallness. We are not all powerful. But even so, God can use us to transform the world.
John Wesley has these 3 rules to live by, that really sound Micah: First, Do No Harm. 2nd Do Good. 3rd. Stay in love with God.

Ok, now for one way we can practice those three things as a church.  (hold on to them for a minute and we will come back to them.)
At our last Methodist General Conference in 2016, a special commission call “A Way Forward” was created to talk about possible plans for changing our stance on homosexuality. This happened because for decades, we as a denomination have been divided on our interpretation of Scripture and God’s will on this subject. It comes up at every General Conference and takes over the meeting, keeping us from talking about making new disciples and transformation. Over the years, We have written in more accepting language, and then reacted with more limiting language.
In February 2019, a special called General Conference will be voting to change the language currently in our Book of Discipline and our stance as a denomination on homosexuality. Right now, this is what we as a denomination say: Everyone, regardless of orientation or practice, is welcome in our churches and can become a member.  However, practicing self avowed homosexuals cannot be ordained.  UMC clergy cannot officiate over same-gender weddings nor can those weddings take place in UMC churches. Pastors who break these rules can be stripped of their ordination. 

So there are 3 Plans that A Commission on the Way Forward have brought forward. As I share those plans with you, I will tell you what that means for us as a congregation.
One Church Plan. This plan, preferred by the majority of the Council of Bishops would remove restrictive language from the Book of Discipline that prohibits same-gender weddings in UMC properties and ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals.” It would add language to protect churches and pastors who choose not to allow same-gender marriages. 
In this plan, each church would decide their policy on hosting weddings. Each pastor would decide their policy performing weddings. Each Conference, would decide their policy on ordination. A church would let the Conference know their stance, so a pastor that best fits your position would be appointed.  That all means that you as a church would have to figure out if we would want to host weddings and if you would be okay with a homosexual pastor.
Connectional Conference Plan. This plan would replace the current jurisdictional conferences with three connectional conferences based on affinity: Progressive, Traditional, and Unity. All three would use a general Book of Discipline with the ability to adapt other portions to their context for ministry. In this plan, each church would have to pick which of the 3 new conferences we belonged to. So again, we would have to know where we stand as a church.
Traditional Plan. This plan, developed more fully toward the end of Commission on the Way Forward process, broadens the definition of “self-avowing practicing homosexual”; puts penalties in place for disobedience to the Discipline; and requires bishops, pastors and annual conferences to certify adherence to the Discipline. This would most likely mean an exodus of churches that welcome homosexuals. It was decided largely unconstitutional (the Methodist Constitution) by the judiciary council. 
There is also the possibility that nothing will happen.

If any of these are chosen in February, it means we will need to have conversation as a church about who we are. Now, I haven’t been here long, so I don’t know where you are, individually or as a congregation, or what conversations you have already had. So I am coming in with some assumptions based on the 4 other UMCs I have served. The first assumption is that we are not all in agreement.  The second is that this is personal for some of us. In every church I have been in, no matter how conservative, there are family members who are homosexual.  In some of the more conservative ones I have served, there have been LGBTQ+ people who attend those churches. So, we are not discussing some hypothetical group of people we haven’t met. We are talking about people we know and love. People who may well be in our congregation.

So with that said, I want us to start talking about this following God’s expectations in Micah. To do justice/do no harm. To show kindness/do good. And to humbly walk with God. In our conversations with each other. And I pray that we use those expectations or John Wesley’s Rules to also guide us in our position within the church.
      This makes me nervous, but also really excited. Because anytime we do something that is tough, it gives us an opportunity to grow.And we can demonstrate to our world how to have respectful conversations even in the midst of disagreement. And our world desperately needs that right now.

Poem by Mary Bowen:
How shall we worship our God?
We have heard what the Lord requires of us.
Leave empty talk and pride behind.
We must walk the walk.
Prepare to step out in faith, even into troubled waters.
Only God knows where we might need to go.
Don't be afraid.
Jesus will guide our steps along the way,
Teaching us to walk humbly,
To love boldly,
To serve God with body, soul, mind, and strength.
Let us pray for the humility and courage
To follow where the Spirit leads.

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2001 (Mt 23:23). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
[2] The New International Version. 2011 (Mic 3:9–11). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

We Pray With Her

                Before. Before I knew God’s love for me. Before I loved him back. Before I followed his call to pastoral ministry. Before all that, I wanted to be an author when I grew up. I loved books and the places they could take you. I loved how they could make you feel something. I loved how they could break the secrets of the world open. I wanted to be a creator of those worlds. I wanted to tell the secrets of the universe.

                I am blessed that each day I get to do a little of that in my job. I get to dive deep into not just a book, but The Book, and unlock its mysteries. I get to take those hidden treasures and share them through written language. Each week I get to write about an invisible God who wants us to see him. Each week I write. I write sermons and newsletters and Bible studies and devotions and even an occasional blogpost. And I share those words with my little bit of the world. I pray that they would take people places and make them feel something. I pray that through them the secrets of God would break open.  

                Every day I write. But I am not an author. There are no published works. I have never been recognized as worth reading. Other than a stray comment here or there, mostly, I’m not sure if I am even worth reading.

                Until now. Today I became an author. Today, I received a copy of my first ever published writing. It’s about one page in a book of over 200 pages. But it is my writing. In a published book.

I couldn’t be prouder to become an author through We Pray With Her. More than 70 United Methodist clergy women share these pages about leadership. We write about being called by God. We write about struggle. We write about courage, resistance, and persistence. While the title says it’s for women who lead, my husband said men could easily read it too. It is smart, strong, encouraging, and a little vulnerable. It is really well written.

As I hold this book in my hands, I thank God. I thank God that one of those things I gave up to follow him, he has given back. And I hear the words from Jesus in Luke anew:  

Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.

*To purchase your own copy follow this link:  We Pray With Her

Thursday, May 24, 2018

A Reckless Love

“Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God
Oh, it chases me down, fights 'til I'm found, leaves the ninety-nine
I couldn't earn it, and I don't deserve it, still, You give Yourself away
Oh, the overwhelming, never-ending, reckless love of God, yeah”
–lyrics to Reckless Love of God

The kids and I were listening to this song last night, and my son asked about that lyric, “leaves the ninety-nine.” It’s a strange text without a little context. The Ninety-Nine refers to a story Jesus tells in the gospel of Luke. Jesus is being criticized by the temple leadership for wasting his time with what they would consider faithless people. Jesus tells three stories in a row, all with similar plot lines. In one, he tells of a farmer who leaves 99 of his sheep in open country to go rescue one lost sheep. Jesus says this is how God’s love is. Jesus doesn’t look at these people as riffraff, but as people who don’t yet know how much God loves them and desires them to be part of God’s family. Jesus chooses to love them, to spend his time and energy on them, even if it means sacrificing time at the temple. It is a reckless act to those in the temple. It after all is not how ministry is done.
               As I explained this to the kids, we ended up talking about some of the “reckless” ministry our family has been part of in La Fontaine. Ministry that wasn’t always approved of, but was vital to reach those who didn’t know how much God loved them.
               Then as we were going to school this morning, we heard another song on the radio that took on a whole different meaning. 

I wish somebody would have told me babe
Someday, these will be the good old days
All the love you won't forget
And all these reckless nights you won't regret
Someday soon, your whole life's gonna change
You'll miss the magic of these good old days
-lyrics to Good Old Days

            This morning a line popped out in this song. I bet you guess which one, right? “And all these reckless nights you won't regret.” It felt like a heavenly confirmation that those nights of recklessly loving people outside our church doors won’t be regretted.

With every move, there are things that are hard to let go, but there are moments when God whispers, “I’ve got this.” When you know that the risks you took for God’s kingdom really were worth it. When you know no matter what the future holds, God has transformed hearts and minds through your offering of love.

If we are really doing what Jesus did and loving people, people who are often hard to love, we are going to have some reckless nights. We are going to take some risks. We are probably going to have some people tell us we did it wrong. But God tells us,  we won’t regret those reckless nights when we go looking for that one lost sheep.