Humility & Gratitude

At least 16 or so of you know about my moving trials and tribulations that began around Thanksgiving and came to an end on December 21st.  I wrote about how even the most positive change – moving into this community – was a good illustration of the challenges of change. I learned some other important things from the experience; namely humility and gratitude and the relationship between the two.

I am by nature and life experiences a very independent and self-reliant person.  I know that one of the important characteristics of the Christian life is that we recognize that we are the opposite: inter-dependent. Our life is supposed to be a life together, a shared experience that including bearing one another’s burdens. Understanding that we are children of God and part of God’s family is supposed to help us embrace and celebrate that we do not have to be self-reliant; that we are God-reliant. Christ’s teaching that we are to love God and neighbor is itself a statement about relationships: our relationship with God shapes our relationship with others; our relationship with others testifies to our relationship with God.

Wow! Did I ever learn that I had to walk that walk and not just talk it.

When first faced with what had to be done in the move, I thought I would just have to “suck it up” as they say, and do it.  There were some persistent voices – and I mean that literally – who kept telling me that I needed help and that there was plenty of it. I have to laugh at how difficult it was for me to accept that help initially, and to realize that I had to grow in humility to receive it.

Why? In this world, we are taught that there has to be reciprocity.  We have to balance the ledger regarding what we give and receive.  If we can give back as good as we get, we are comfortable.  If we cannot repay the debt, we are uncomfortable.  We have been taught that this is what self-respect is made of: pride based on the illusion of self-sufficiency.

I know that to be a true follower of Christ that we have to live “on the vine” connected to one another through Christ.  Dr. Philip P. Kenneson’s book, “Life on the Vine: Cultivating the Fruits of the Spirit” taught me a lot about this. We are to nurture one another. Being able to “pay back” isn’t the point. Most everyone who has done a mission project knows something about this.  We go to the MidWest Food Bank or to Honduras to help other people and find that we are the ones that come back blessed. The trick is to realize that this same principal applies to the folks we know right here at North Fayette UMC; not only for people who are “out there.”

I have often chided others to not take away another person’s blessing by refusing their help.  It was convicting (to say the least) that I was not practicing what I preached! I had my own pride getting in the way of admitting that I really did need help and accepting the help with joy.  I had to learn that humility is one of the first blessings of being a Christ follower.

Humility is not confirmation that you are less but rather that you are worthy, that you are loved; and that being blessed by others is part of being a blessing to others.  Humility allows us to recognize one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, children of God. It opens our hearts to receive, but also to give … not to balance the scales but to open the way to abundance for ourselves and others. It puts us in our place, so to speak, in a good way … where we belong, together with each other and God, Our Father.

I have learned that humility makes gratitude not only possible, but amplifies the blessings for ourselves and others.  We are able to receive and rejoice in the love and grace received because we are freed from the chains the world puts on our hearts because it teaches us to shun our better, God-given nature to live in community, in relationship. We are able to give freely because we are not constrained by the idea that there is only so much to go around, that we must be careful not to be “beholden” or endebted; but rather that there is abundance in the family of God. We are all indebted and beholden to God, and since we cannot repay God, we give to each other.

Which gives me the opportunity to provide a mini Bible study interlude to help us understand that Jesus was preaching a message of community and relationship that was intended from the beginning …

In Genesis 2:18 the Lord God says, “It is not good for man to be alone” and begins by forming wild beasts and birds as possible helpers. The Hebrew word adam does not mean a male person, but rather a human being.  Specifically, a human being made out of dust. Many English translations put the article “the” in front of man in this verse, but the original Hebrew does not.

Looking at Genesis 1:27, we read, “And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” The him in this sentence does not mean that the created man was a male as the following phrase clarifies by saying “male and female He created them.”  In this creation story, both male and female genders were created at the same time and they were human beings (adam). It is confusing to many English speakers because English common nouns do not have a gender as they do in Hebrew, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish among other languages.

For example, the Hebrew word for book (sefer) is feminine and the Hebrew word for door (delet) is masculine.  That means that articles such as “the” are different: a feminine article is used before sefer and masculine before delet.  Also, if a pronoun is used it is feminine (she, her, hers) or masculine (he, him, his), respectively.  The common noun adam using masculine articles and pronouns does not mean it is a man.

So, from the beginning human beings were not meant to be alone.  We were to be in relationship: mutual relationship.  We are to be helpers. Our fall was not about simple disobedience alone because we know that God has other ways of dealing with disobedience. This was disobedience that led to the breaking of relationships: between God and humans, between human and human, and between humans and the rest of creation. As followers of Christ, our commandment to love God and neighbor as self was a guide to fulfill of what God created us to be: in relationship with God and each other.

We can’t be self-reliant … as in, not needing anything or anybody … and be in relationship.

We can’t really love our neighbor as ourselves until we see our neighbor as ourself …which means being in relationship.

That we need each other, and that is a very good thing.

I am grateful for every loving heart that gave so freely to me. I am grateful that my independent, self-reliance did not deprive me or anyone else of the abundance that our life together gives us.

Thanks be to God for you!

A Way Forward

As you know, we will be holding a Special Called General Conference February 23 – 26 in St. Louis to find a way forward from the quagmire of the past decades regarding the sexual orientation and the United Methodist Church.  We are not the first denomination to tackle these issues and won’t be the last.  Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Lutherans have already made their decisions, had some rough times, and seem to be coming out on the other side. We know this is survivable, but we want it to be more.  We are striving to find the best witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ in our decision.  We want to maintain the diversity that has characterized this church.  We want to face a difficult situation that we have danced around and set a course to the future.

Last year had a special newsletter with information about the commission, the plans and the upcoming conference. I gave a presentation on these things during the Sunday School hour, and heard that a number of you wanted to hear more, ask questions, and talk. So, we will have opportunities for discussion on January 24th and 31st with sessions at 10:30 am and 7:00 pm.

There are a couple of things that I have in mind to share with the hope that we can ask questions and share our thoughts. You may have questions about the different plans and what they mean for us here at NFUMC.  We will cover this as needed.

You may want to talk about how to come to your own personal understanding of the issue, and if that is the case, I want to share the traditional Wesleyan approach that we call the quadrilateral. As mentioned during the Sunday School presentation, John Wesley never used the term quadrilateral. Albert Outler, a Weslyan scholar, coined the term as a short-hand for the method Wesley advocated. Basically, this approach affirms that scripture is paramount; and that we use three lenses to understand and apply scripture: tradition, reason and experience. I will attempt to bring tools from these three lenses so that you can use them in your thinking and praying about these issues.

I also have a sermon that Rev. Bert Gary preached to his Owl Rock UMC congregation.  Our DS, Rev. Susan Landry, shared this with the district.  Bert is Susan’s brother and an author of “Jesus Unplugged.” It contains some really good information that I thought you would appreciate.  Just click here to read.

Reviving Advent for the Twenty-first Century

For as long as I can remember, Advent has been crowded out by the secular season of Christmas.  These days, you no longer have to wait until Thanksgiving is over, but can go “Christmas” shopping even before the turkey is cold. Never mind Black Friday,” Christmas” is everywhere the day after Halloween, and Cyber Monday is THE day to shop.

The secular season starts so early that the tree – which goes up Thanksgiving weekend – has to come down the day after Christmas Day, just when the actual season of Christmas begins. Originally, this was necessary because live trees become big dry bundles of kindling in a few weeks. Never mind that church tradition had been to decorate the tree as part of the Christmas Eve service, and that it would remain the entire twelve days of Christmas, being taken down after Epiphany on January 6th. Somewhere, someone came up with the excuse (aka superstition) that it was “bad luck” to keep the tree up past December 31st … go figure.

The larger issue is that this season of the church that we call Advent has pretty much lost its meaning for us church people.  Oddly enough, this may be truer in the Bible Belt than anywhere.  Some protestant denominations were and remain so anti-Catholic, that many of the ancient traditions of the church were discarded along with the positive changes brought about by the Reformation. You might say that the baby was thrown out with the bathwater.  It was not until 1985 that the United Methodist Church began to revive many of the long standing traditions of the church as part of what became known as “liturgical renewal.” A new hymnal and Book of Worship came out of that movement as did a reclaiming of other spiritual practices.

That does not mean that there was a ground swell of support for recovering our discarded traditions such as defining the “Christian Year” as beginning with the Frist Sunday of Advent, keeping a holy Lent and Advent, recovering the Christmas Season (those 12 days from Christmas Day to Epiphany), or returning to the practice of communion every Sunday. It has taken quite a few years for some of these things to begin to take hold. We even struggle to get some of our pastors to surrender their old Book of Worship, so the process has been slow. The publicity surrounding the release of Mel Gibson’s  Passion of the Christ on Ash Wednesday is responsible for the rediscovery of Ash Wednesday and Lent than anything we had tried.

 I have tried a number of approaches over the years to reclaim the Advent-Christmas-Epiphany season for the church from ignoring the secular as if it were not everywhere, to going head-to-head with it. Neither are particularly constructive strategies being either too “out of touch” or too shrill and bitter. So, after much thought and prayer, I have a notion that (perhaps) we can live alongside the secular.

That’s why we started Advent two Sundays early, and increased it from four to six Sundays.  Lest you think that I am introducing something new, in my study of the season, I learned that Advent was a six Sunday season for orthodox (aka the oldest) churches. This made it more like the 40 day period of Lent, and therefore an equivalent period of preparation for the two most important events for the Christian church: the birth and the death/resurrection of Christ.  Six weeks give us time to read the preparatory texts that call us to make the path straight, straight from the manger to our hearts. This leaves us with two Sundays to sing all the Christmas Carols we can. Two Sundays to gather around the manger before we move on to the temple, the magi, and the second temple trip when Jesus drives his parents crazy.

More than ever, I think we need manger time. We need time to journey with Mary & Joseph, time to kneel with the shepherds, time to sing Christmas Carols. We need time to rekindle hope, peace and joy in a world that seems short on all three.

We are gradually decorating the nave and sanctuary this year. The season of anticipation seems to call for this gradual unfolding.  The characters in this story will move toward the stable each week – and soon the life-size nativity will be a dynamic picture as well. By Christmas Eve all the Advent candles will be lit and all the decorations in place, and we will have sung Christmas Carols and walked the long road again to kneel in Bethlehem.

Even with the expanded Advent, we are still able to use the lectionary texts because the texts continue to work well for the first four Sundays when the emphasis is on preparation (especially for the return of Christ).  The standard lectionary gives a year each to Matthew (Year A), Mark (Year B), and Luke (Year C, so as we move through the three year cycle, the last two Sundays can naturally follow along with Matthew’s emphasis on Joseph (Year A) and Luke’s emphasis on Mary (Year C).  You might say that Years A & C allow us to look at the story of Christ’s birth from the perspective of men and women, respectively.  Since this is Luke’s year, the women in the story will be emphasized.

Now, some of you (I hope) will be wondering what to do with Mark’s year.  If you aren’t wondering, take out your Bible and have a look at the beginning of Mark. So, what do we do during year B, Mark’s year?

During year B, we will take a look at the genealogies found in Matthew and Luke as a way to further delve into an understanding of the two audiences for Jesus’s message: Jews and Gentiles. Each genealogy provides insights into the message of Christ as presented to and understood by Jews and Gentiles of the time. The great variety of Bible characters included in one or both of these genealogies should provide fertile ground for our spiritual imaginations. This will be a third way to view the advent of Christ into the world.

Will this help us engage with the season? Could it be an antidote to all the shopping? Will it draw us closer to the manger, to the baby Jesus?

What we do in worship is less than half of what is required for us to engage, spiritually prepare, and draw closer.  The larger portion is whether or not each of us is willing to pay attend and prepare, to anticipate and approach the manger with hope and the knowledge that there we will find what makes for peace and good will toward all humankind.

Blessings,

Thanks!

I want to thank you all for your prayers, cards, food and understanding as I recover from PCL surgery. Thanks also to Rev. Koetje for filling in for me the Sunday after. The surgery was more complicated and recovery much longer than anticipated. Things have run a bit behind, and I appreciate everyone who has pitched in, including folks who took their time to help out with preparing the yard for getting the Conyers house on the market.  I hope that my next doctor appointment will be to approve physical therapy. God is good and I thank God for this church.

Now,  we have to get moving because the busiest and most exciting season of the church is upon us.

Pastor’s September Message

You are going to see a lot  this month in the Articles section on the upcoming Called General Conference. As you may already know, the world-wide United Methodist Church meets every 4 years – in Methodist-speak that is every quadrinnieum – to fellowship, worship, celebrate, plan and pass legislation for our denomination. We are schedule for our regular General Conference in 2020.  The called conference will be in February 2019.

The reason for this special conference is to discuss and vote on one set of issues: sexual orientation. (This has nothing to do with transgender individuals.)  People differ on what is most important about these issues, and what is at stake for the church as a whole. Some have stated that they must have a specific outcome or they cannot remain in the denomination. According to polls taken at annual conferences this year, a majority are seeking a resolution that will allow us to remain together, and find a way forward together.  The outcome will impact each local church and conference in one way or another. The decision will also impact all of our global ministries like UMCOR, and the hundreds of other ministries supported through The Advance.

What I learned from talking about these issues with my Bible study class is that studying scripture and applying our reason, tradition and experience to the texts was not especially helpful.  I had hoped that it would aid everyone in understanding where they stand and why, as well as where someone of a different opinion stands and why. We examined scripture that addresses who can marry whom, divorce in Hebrew scripture and the Gospels, circumcision, purity laws, definitions of sin, and even killing as ways to talk about what we think scripture says or doesn’t say, and whether or not we are still following or moving away from what scripture meant at the time it was written and what it means applied to us now.

I am not sure that there were any major breakthroughs. Our experience was pretty consist with what others have shared with me from other churches. So, how do we decide what to do? It doesn’t seem to be based on the answers to questions like these:

Is having a particular understanding of scripture that condemns this particular sin (sexual orientation) at the heart of what it means to be a united, holy and apostolic church? 

Should scientific and psychological understandings of different sexual orientations as normal variations from birth be accepted or rejected?

Is anything other than heterosexuality either a disease or a choice; both of which can and should be cured or changed, respectively?

So perhaps what we should ask is what is really most important about the decision we make?  Our decisions will define who we are as a church and what it means to be a disciple as well as who can make disciples.

Maybe we need to change the questions, and ask what is at stake? Obviously, the future of the UMC is at stake; but what does that mean?  Asking what is at stake as the church as the body of Christ (rather than the institution) really gets to the heart of the matter. I know this is very simplistic, but here is what it boils down to for me:

Is being open to all sinners what it means to be a united, holy and apostolic church? Or, is being united, holy and apostolic based on specific definitions of what is immoral such as homosexuality which has been stated as incompatible with Christian doctrine?

What decision is a better witness to the good news, the gospel, of Jesus Christ?

What impact will our decision make upon our ability to fulfill our mission as the church to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?

I will be participating in training to prepare for discussions with you, and we will be picking dates and times to have these important dialogues. 

In the meantime, please read the materials provided here, and view the videos and other information provided so that you will have the best understanding you can of where we are and how we have been striving to find a way forward. Otherwise simply pray for God’s will to be done, and do not worry.  Not worrying is a very Biblical teaching no matter your opinion on this issue. And remember, too, that the church is almost always in crisis of one kind or another; always under threat from one direction or the other; and that we struggle with each other and the Bible all the time if we are truly striving to be witnesses to the Gospel and imitators of Jesus.  He did argue quite a bit with people he cared about, didn’t he?

I pray that we will all listen, really listen, to each other; and courageously and humbly take the next steps after we hear and are fully heard, whatever those steps turn out to be. Maybe this is the most important thing no matter what the decision.