Unity, Liberty & Charity

Music by LuAnn Latzanich to accompany your reading

Two weeks ago, the Board of Ordained Ministry of the North Georgia Conference conducted examination of candidates for commissioning (provisional membership) and ordination (full connection) in the orders of elder or deacon. I have been a member of the board for eight years; that’s two terms (quadrennia in Methodist terminology). Serving on the board has been a sacred responsibility: one of the hardest and most rewarding assignments I have had.

Both laity and clergy are members of the board. Some of our lay members are quick to say that clergy are best equipped to evaluate theology and doctrine, but I have found that many of them are well versed in this area, too. Together we evaluate sermons, Bible studies, call to ministry, leadership and other aspects of the called life. After all this we must say whether they pass, are deferred (which means they have to come back because of a deficiency) or are denied (discontinued). We are asked to use our best judgment and our collective discernment. Sometimes it is easy and other times really hard.

The chair of the board, Rev. Glenn Etheridge, stepped down this year as he continues to fight cancer; and Rev. Julie Boone stepped up a year early to be our chair. Usually the vice chair has a year to learn from the chair before taking over; but Julie had to assume this responsibility without a transitional year. She did a great job, but we all knew that she needed us to be especially supportive if for no other reason than the details of Robert’s Rules of Order. She asked for our grace as she learned. Our guiding principle for the entire time was intentionally that of grace.

It helped all of us accomplish our difficult tasks. Whenever we became a bit too engaged in our discussions, someone would simply shout out, “Grace!” That made us all laugh at ourselves and reengage in, let us say, a more grace-filled manner.

Grace is always a part of the process of the board as we strive to be faithful to the call placed upon the lives of the candidates and our evaluation of their readiness for commissioning and fruitfulness for ordination. It was more important than ever this year as division and strife seem to permeate so many aspects of our lives. Our ability to work together without regard to non-essential differences has been a huge blessing to me, and I think, to all the board members.

Those that we interview are a diverse group: age, gender, background, ethnicity, country of origin, etc. We need this diversity to serve all the people within the denomination. Wesley said that the world is our parish, and if we are to reach others for Christ, we need many different kinds of pastors who can relate to and converse with the diversity of people we find in our parish.

Candidates are always very nervous. Speaking for myself, it was hard not to feel like a deer in the headlights, when I came before the board. And, we know that controversies in the church and divisions in society can contribute to nerves. Candidates cannot help but wonder if the position of the board or individual members of the board in such matters will influence their decision to pass, defer or even deny/discontinue them.

We worship together before each set of interviews and our chair addresses the candidates to assure them that we have no other agenda than determining their readiness for ministry (commissioning) or fruitfulness in ministry (ordination) in the UMC. There are some things that are not part of our discernment. This year, the chair made it a point to assure the candidates that they would not be asked about the upcoming General Conference, the proposals before it or their position on these proposals.

A part of the chair of the board’s address to the candidates every year goes something like this:

We are here to engage you in conversations about theology and doctrine, and to examine you in that area as well as the areas of leadership, practice of ministry and a called and disciplined life. If you are theologically conservative, you will leave here thinking that this is the most liberal group of people you have ever conversed with; and if you are liberal, you will think that this is the most conservative group ever.

We are not here to determine if you are progressive or conservative, liberal or orthodox; or to approve you based upon these. To use an analogy, if you say something is white we will ask why it isn’t black. If you say it is black, we will ask you why it isn’t white. And, if you say it is gray, we will ask why you are so indecisive. Our purpose is to push you beyond quotes from The Book of Discipline into deeper conversations, and to see if you can think on your feet. After all most of the most important conversations you will have with people as a pastor will require you to think on your feet.

This is an application of the historical position of the Methodist movement. In the Book of Discipline of the UMC, it is stated in this way:

Beyond the essentials of vital religion, United Methodists respect the diversity of opinions held by conscientious persons of faith. Wesley followed a time-tested approach: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things charity.” (The essentials are clearly detailed in the The Book of Discipline, ¶ 104, section 3)

The spirit of charity takes into consideration the limits of human understanding. “To be ignorant of many things and to be mistaken in some,” Wesley observed, “is the necessary condition of humanity.” The crucial matter in religion is steadfast love for God and neighbor, empowered by the redeeming and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit. (The Book of Discipline, ¶ 103. Section 2)

This is a counter-cultural position, and one that is not easy to hold as it seems our culture demands that every position/opinion be essential. It is hard to practice tolerance much less charity. Yet, if the church and its leadership cannot evidence this, we have missed somethings that are central to the gospel: the actual example and teachings of Christ. Jesus was a Jew who ate with sinners (non-believers, tax collectors, people of ill repute), talked to a Samaritan woman and responded to the pleas of a Roman officer.

The UMC is a denomination that has always sought to preach the gospel of grace in daily life to the ends of the earth. The sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit is to grow in love, and to make love of neighbor our guiding principle and visible evidence of our love of God; however we have often failed to achieve and sustain Wesley’s vision for an inclusive church.

The UMC is a denomination that has spawned many others such as Wesleyan, Nazarene, and Pentecostal over doctrinal matters and worship styles. Shamefully, the Methodist Episcopal Church split into northern and southern denominations because the southern bishops were slave holders and would not concede such was incompatible with Christian doctrine and free their slaves. The Christian Methodist Episcopal (CME) and African Methodist Episcopal (AME) churches came into being because of racism in the north because people of color were not allowed to sit with whites, and were required to receive communion only after the white congregants were finished. The sin of the original designation of a Central Conference to which all non-whites were segregated was not lifted until we became the United Methodist Church. This happened because the United Brethren would not agree to the merger with the Methodist Episcopal Church until that happened. We are still dealing with the harm that was done because of this segregation.

Overall, the history of the Christian church demonstrates that we have often failed to be united and allow for differing opinions of any kind, much less extend charity. Church trials, labels such as heretic, and schisms have marked our history. We have fought with each other over orthodoxy and reformation; and have had regular bouts with science as if God is not responsible for this amazing and orderly creation as well as the human brain that has been gifted to examine, and often, figure out biological and physical laws. The apostle Paul might well have accused us of being too much of the flesh (the human world) and too little of the spirit (the kingdom of God) in these matters.

Some denominations believe that they are the only ones to get it right, and will state that only their members are heaven bound. The rest of us are crispy critters in the hereafter. This fear-based theology misses a really big point: it is not our ability to get it right or even to be righteous enough that earns us a heavenly reward. That was done by Christ for us.

So, when we examine those who have answered the call to ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church we are examining them on the essentials. That is how we have what we have referred to as a big tent. That is why Methodists have claimed a position in the extreme center. We have always recognized that we could be wrong, others could be right and none of us have all the right answers … as Wesley said, we acknowledge that we are “ignorant of many things and … mistaken in some.”

It is harder than ever to remain true and faithful in these ways. Some of our brothers and sisters want us all to think alike about something that many of us think of as non-essentials, and have now come to the point that they want to separate from the UMC. This group calls their position orthodox which leaves everyone else in the heterodox (aka heretic) category. This possibility of schism is heartbreaking to many of us, as we still ask ourselves if this is the only way.

There is a story in the Acts of the Apostles about the apostles teaching in the temple after the resurrection. They are arrested, and once freed go right back to teaching in the temple, much to the aggravation of others who view them as heretics and want to put an end to this by putting an end to them. I believe this story should call us away from conflict and toward liberty and charity because of who is really in charge:

But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. Then he said to them, “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (Acts 5:34 – 39)

Something to think about.

 

 

 

 

If you have any questions about the ordination process, what deacons do, or even (deep breath), The Book of Discipline, do not hesitate to e-mail me pastor@nfumc.com. You can find a free version of The Discipline and The Book of Resolutions on this Cokesbury site. The latter contains the documents that the General Conference passes stating our positions and actions on a wide range of subjects.

 

More Than A Miracle

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.

I once was lost, but now, I’m found.

Was blind, but now I see.

The story of the man born blind (John 9:1 – 41) is the text for this, the 4th Sunday in Lent, and the basis of the hymn Amazing Grace. It is a long text, but the lectionary reading ends before John is finished relating all there is to see and hear. Jesus does not stop talking in verse 41, but continues to 10:21.

Before you read on here, read John 9:1 – 10:41. Darkness and light. Blindness and sight. Hearing, recognizing and following. These central themes of the Gospel of John playout in this sign story.

Jesus is in Jerusalem for the Festival of Booths (Succoth). As a faithful Jew, Jesus will not stay away from Jerusalem during this festival even if it is dangerous (7:1 – 9). He just won’t go with his brothers, perhaps for more than one reason.

Jesus has been busy in Jerusalem, and is walking with his disciples when they come upon a blind man. We are told that he is blind from birth, and Jesus’ disciples immediately want to know who sinned to cause this. Jesus dismisses this, and that is our clue to move on as well, to the revelation of God’s presence in, and work through, Jesus in what happens next.

Jesus has to work while there is still light … before it gets dark. The light of the world (8:12 – 20) has work to do, more to make visible about who he is – who God is – before his hour comes (8: 21 – 30).

This blind man does not ask to be healed. We may assume that the man overheard Jesus’ conversation, but are told only that Jesus immediately makes a mud plaster. Made with his saliva no less.

Jesus addresses the man only after putting the mud on the man’s eyes, giving him instructions but nothing else, not even anything about what will happen. The man does what he is told, receives his sight, and Jesus removes himself from this brief encounter.

There is a huge temptation to focus on the failings in this story primarily as a contrast to the man. It is true that everyone is in the dark about what has happened to the man, seeking an explanation that makes sense to them. Actually, the man himself is clueless about what happened or who did it. At least at first, but let’s pay more attention to him.

Blind from birth is blind for life. That is what anyone, everyone would know; including the man himself.

Despite this, he allowed a stranger to put mud on his eyes. He listened and followed instructions. He may well have had no expectation that something would happen. Yet, he listened to an unknown man’s voice. Did he have only a foolish hope without any real reason to think something would happen? Probably, but he was willing to listen. Did he have faith? We don’t know that either, only that he was willing to ‘step out.’

The once blind man knows how he had always been and how he is now. The change – the before and after – is what is important to him. He seems baffled that no one else thinks that receiving his sight isn’t the big thing to be excited about. Everyone is missing the point.

The only other thing that is central to him is the stranger who performed this miracle, and what this miracle says about who this man is. While he doesn’t understand it, for the newly sighted man, this man is special.

In the course of things, the man is asked over and over about what happens, and he recounts the little that he knows about the specifics; which isn’t much. As he retells the experience over and over, he thinks more and more deeply about who did this and how. His ability to ‘see’ becomes more clear: he has met a man who has to be powered by the divine, whoever he is. When he sees Jesus for the first time he is ready to listen again, and believe. (Meanwhile, everyone else keeps asking the wrong questions and remain ‘in the dark.’)

Now, you know from reading the text that sin is a big topic in this story. Sin is of great concern to most people in the story, but not to Jesus and not to the man born blind. Neither sinfulness nor piety or merit play a role in this story. Rather, the power of God to overcome sin and to bring about radical transformation in every individual’s life is the thing.

The blind man is not described by Jesus as in special need due to sinfulness or of being especially worthy because of merit. The man doesn’t even ask to be healed. He is only willing to respond and receive. That is his only contribution to the miracle. After that, everything changes.

This comes to know who Jesus is, and to understand God in a new way. It is not a matter of having enough faith, of being worthy or anything else that humans establish as criteria. It is all about God’s love and the incarnation of that love in Jesus. It is a free gift that is priceless. A gift that we simply have to receive. After that, everything changes as we listen to the shepherd’s voice and follow.

The transformation is noticeable. And, even today, the noticeably different way of being in the world by followers of Christ can be unnerving to others. It begs for an explanation if for no other reason than the world views it as illogical to be known by love – love of God and neighbor – rather than by material achievements. (And, that’s before we get into the definition of neighbor Jesus teaches.)

Yes, it is all about God’s grace, and it is amazing.

Do No Harm & Do All the Good that You Can

Our lives have been disrupted in most every way, and we know that this will go on until the end of March. It feels as if everything is out of control.

Actually, by following CDC guidelines – staying home, avoiding crowds if we do go out, washing our hands, wearing masks, etc. – we are doing a lot. We are following the first of the three simple rules John Wesley advocated: do no harm. We are doing our part to protect vulnerable people and support the response of our health care system.

Rev. Chris Barbiere and his wife, Dr. Jennifer Barbieri recently wrote an open letter to clergy encouraging us as we have to cancel services and are unable to be with our congregations. Jennifer is a pulmonologist who is on the frontline of care of individuals with the virus, and Chris is a hospital chaplain. Chris and Jennifer have two daughters who Jennifer cannot be around due to possible exposure.

Here is an excerpt from their letter, with things we could do to support the medical community:

  • Please pray for hospital employees and their families. Your prayers are appreciated! Consider a 24-hour prayer vigil in which people sign up for specific time slots.
  • Write a note or card of encouragement, either for a specific healthcare employee you know or for any healthcare employee. Please check with your local hospital to ensure they can receive and deliver these before doing this.
  • As a church, write a message of encouragement for your medical community. Post it on social media and have your members share it.
  • Give blood. Social distancing has resulted in a large decrease in blood donations. In NW Georgia, Blood Assurance provides the blood products for all the hospitals in our region. Last week, there were 800 cancelations in Rome, Cartersville, and Dalton. This decline in donations is likely occurring state-wide. If that trend continues, the blood supply could reach critical status quickly. Our local Blood Assurance donor center has extended its hours and is using extra screening protocols for staff and donors to keep everyone safe. Please check with your local donor center and make an appointment (we don’t want long lines!)
  • Individually wrapped snacks might be appreciated. Many hospital staff are working long shifts and cannot break for meals. Please check with your local hospital to ensure they can receive and deliver these before doing this.
  • Childcare is a concern raised by a number of staff in our Floyd County medical community. This is admittedly a difficult problem to solve but be aware this may be one of the greatest current needs in your community.

Again, the most important thing you can do is to encourage your congregations to practice social distancing and to avoid crowds or gatherings (and practice good handwashing.) Helping slow the spread of COVID-19 is the greatest gift you can offer to the medical community (and your whole community!)

Here is a graph (from CDC posted on Univ. of Michigan site) that shows how much good we can do (the second of Wesley’s three simple rules) if we slow down this virus:

Our Methodist heritage and a theological emphasis places an emphasis on the practical: the role of the church in the daily life and needs of people. We know that prayer feeds our souls and makes a difference; but we have never been a denomination that believes that this is all we are called to do as the Body of Christ. It is our tradition to combine spiritual practices with concrete, practical actions. Even our hymnal has a section on social holiness as well as personal holiness.

The beginnings of Methodism did not separate the physical needs of people from the spiritual, but sought to minister to both. After all, this is what Jesus did when he healed the sick and when he admonished some of the Pharisees and Saducees, who made much of their personal piety, to care for widows and orphans. This is what Torah teachings and what the prophets preached, too.

We can bless others and ourselves with this practical theology. We are called to do this. With God’s help, we can do this.

Who Do We Think We Are?

It has been a long time since I posted anything to my blog.  We have just been too busy doing things around here! It has been wonderful being a part of an active church with an energetic and joyful spirit, but it has left little time or energy to write. I need to do better!

When our Lagrange District Newsletter arrived, the article written by our District Superintendent, Rev. Susan Landry, both touched my heart and made me think about the coming year and who we will be as a church as we continue to move into the future that God has for us. I wanted to share this, so that you can reflect on this as well:

Who Do They Think We Are?

One cold December evening, several hundred people gathered at a large downtown church in Winston Salem, NC to celebrate the Christmas season. Bishop Ernest Fitzgerald, one of our Bishops here in the North Georgia Conference, (the same bishop who ordained me Deacon in 1989 and Elder in 1991), was present that evening.

As the story goes, Bishop Fitzgerald had gone down a long hallway to help a small boy who was pushing against massive oak doors trying to get outside. The little guy was only about 2 years old and as he pushed, he was crying as if his heart would break.

The Bishop picked him up, thinking he belonged to someone at one of the Christmas parties. On impulse, he opened the doors and looked outside, spotting an old-model car speeding away in the darkness. Gradually, it dawned on him that the boy he held in his arms had been abandoned.

Phone calls were made, and soon the church was filled with people wanting to help in any way they could. Within moments, the local TV stations interrupted their usual programs to ask if anyone knew the identity of the little boy. The next morning, one of the city’s newspapers put the child’s picture on the front page.

Under the picture there was an article describing the events of the evening before. The article began with this striking line:”Someone trusted the church last night, and the church came through!”

Bishop Fitzgerald shared that story with the Michigan Christian Advocate back in 1997, because that phrase from the paper didn’t leave him. And he wondered more and more, if the church is still seen that way by the world.

Some 20 years later, I can’t be sure that I know what the world expects of the church. But I think it is important that we ask the question. Who are we going to show them that we are? I hope that we are still the place that someone can trust, the place that “comes through.”

I will always work beside you to make that true.

May Peace, Hope, Joy and Love be yours in this season.

Merry Christmas!
Susan

A Season of Renewal

September will be a Season of Renewal for NFUMC. Yes, we will be making commitments of time, talents, gifts, service and witness for 2020; but renewal is so much more than that.

According to the Oxford Dictionary a renewal is

  • an instance of resuming an activity or state after an interruption,
  • the action of extending a period of validity, or
  • a repair/replacement of something that is broken, run down or worn out

Synonyms of renewal include resumption, renovation, restoration,  improvement, reconditioning, rehabilitation, regeneration, overhauling, redevelopment, and rebuilding.

All of the definitions and synonyms can be applied to our renewal in September 2019. We will be renewing, so that we may resume, expand and extend our mission as a part of the body of Christ into the future.

During September we will be fostering renewal in worship and fellowship; and even in a meeting or two to chart a new and exciting path for fruitful ministries.

On Sunday mornings we will explore renewal from the perspective of a gardener or farmer. Since it is September, it is appropriate to talk about what happens after the crops are harvested. If you aren’t a gardener or farmer, you might not realize that the soil needs to be prepared for the next growing season; but there are things that are necessary to keep the soil and crops healthy and the harvest plentiful.

  • Trees and vines are pruned.
  • Weeds burned off of fields.
  • The soil must be nourished and protected.
  • Stones that seem to work their way to the top every year are removed.
  • The hard earth of a new or neglected plot of land is turned and made ready to receive the new seeds and plantings.

On three Wednesday evenings we will meet for services of prayer. Change is scary and hard, and often involves pain. This pain can be inflicted by the process of change itself, or by people who – despite their better natures – destructively resist change. These realities make it doubly important to provide times of communion with God for healing and wholeness as well as for strength and direction. I hope and pray that everyone will be a part of these special services, and please, let me know if you need transportation.

There will also be two sessions explaining our move to the One Board Accountability Model of church administration during the Sunday School hour. This model isn’t just about reducing the number of administrative meetings – which it will – it involves changing our way of doing administration so that we are more focused and fruitful in mission and ministry, building upon what we have already begun.

In the past year:

  • We have gained new members who are engaged in service.
  • The 2018 5K day was the largest we have ever had, and 2020 should be bigger with more going on and more members involved in meaningful ways.
  • The Firecrackers of Faith team made a record amount for Relay for Life in 2018, and has already exceeded that amount for this year.
  • We have reached out to the community with a life-size nativity on our front lawn, and engaged members who had not found a way to become involved before.
  • The Peachtree Wind Ensemble now makes their home with us, and together we are reaching out to our community with concerts that are standing room only. The July 4th cook out was fun and joining them for their “friends and family night” performance and covered dish was great.
  • Grow Camp got off to a strong start, and we are on the list for 2020 because our members supported this new ministry in amazing ways.
  • Our Girl Scout troop is growing with girls ages K – 9th grade in the existing group, and a new group (K – 2nd) that is forming now.
  • Our support of Narcotics Anonymous now includes area gatherings and fellowship for families.
  • We will be doing local missions again, beginning with service days once a quarter; continuing what we first experienced last year at the Mid-West Food Bank.
  • We began a clothing ministry that addresses the needs of homeless people and support the efforts of clothing ministry from down the street to downtown Atlanta.

And yes, we have had losses. Some losses were people who supported the ministries of the church with their gifts and service, so they will be missed as fellow servants as well as friends who we saw most Sundays.  Some moved to be closer to their grandchildren, worshipping with them on a weekly basis. Some are heart breaking, because their motivations for leaving were never shared with me, and so there were no opportunities to reach out, or attempt to mend or heal; even if their decision to go was firm.

Do you know of a book called A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens? The book was actually about two cities – Paris and London – and set during the period leading up to the French Revolution. The opening line is almost a cliché, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, …”

When a church begins to change and turn outward, especially after a long period of anxiety and stasis, you have all of these contrasts and more within a single church; within the same congregation. The choice is which direction it will take, which one of two futures it will envision and move toward.

There are way too many things over which we have no control to fret about. There will always be bad things, patches of darkness, foolishness and doubt even when wonderful things are happening, the light is bright, and wisdom and faith are growing. It is the nature of living in this world; of being human.

There is one thing we can count on:  we do not walk this path alone.  We have a God who is always faithful, and we have each other. We have the teachings and example of Christ and the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit. Our choice is whether we recognize and cooperate with the divine; or not. God leaves it up to us, but God never loses hope or walks away.

You are invited to be renewed next month: renewed in your spirit, renewed in your devotion, and renewed in your commitment to be a member of the body of Christ in union with Him, and in ministry to the world here at NFUMC.

May the blessings of light and hope be yours, Pastor Beverly

PS – Did I mention that there will be food? A Love Feast and a covered dish fellowship meal. Yum!