Monday, November 23, 2015

Refugees Among Us

Okay, let’s talk about refugees.

A refugee is one who is seeking refuge. Their home is not safe anymore, and in desperation, they are running for their lives. Most have been forced out, they are powerless, all control over their lives resides in the hands of others.

There are literally millions of them around the world.

From a security perspective, there is an ongoing public debate about whether or not to accept them into any given country. It is a question of resources, of public safety, of basic sanitation. These are legitimate questions.

From a Christian perspective, there is really no debate. There ought to be no question. Followers of Jesus will say “Yes” to every refugee, everywhere, at any time. The only questions would be the logistical ones pertaining to how, not the philosophical ones pertaining to if.

But with that said, how might an individual follower of Jesus say “Yes” to a refugee in the world? Tweet about it? Share a pithy meme on the Facebook? Write a nice articulate “statement” and put it on a website somewhere?

I’ll tell you how. I guarantee you there are dozens of refugees in YOUR town right now. If not hundreds. People who are seeking refuge. Forced out of a home that is no longer safe, if it ever was. All control over their lives taken violently away. They are desperate, powerless, scared.

They are children in the foster care system, and they need you. No, their pictures are not spread all over your newsfeed. They do not make headlines. But are they not refugees, as much as the ones fleeing the violence in Syria?

Foster kids only become foster kids if they’ve been hurt - abused or neglected. The home that they know and love is not safe for them. They are removed by strangers, taken to a place they’ve never seen before, every decision made by people they don’t know, people that they do not trust. They have no home, no foundation, all is chaos.

Do you really want to help a refugee? Do you actually want to do something that will make a real and noticeable dent in the world’s suffering? Do you really? In “Fiddler on the Roof,” a revolutionary young man named Perchik asks, “Why do you curse them? What good will your cursing do? You curse and chatter but you do nothing. You’ll all chatter your way into the grave.”

The point is - DO something. Enough chatter. There is no try. Do.

Now I confess, honestly and openly, that foster care is our particular calling. My family has opened our home to sixteen refugees over the years, and we’ve given one of those sixteen a forever home. I’m passionate about foster care, and very, very biased on this issue. I’ll own that.

And furthermore, of course the refugees from the middle east should be welcomed, sheltered, fed, given refuge. The same goes for any refugee anywhere in the world. It clearly is not an either / or proposition. I have very little patience for the “no refugees until all American homeless people are cared for” position. That’s a false dichotomy, hardly worth refuting.

My point is just this. If you actually want to help a refugee, you can. Become a licensed foster parent. Open up your home to a child who needs refuge. Do it now. Use the anger you feel about “this refugee situation” as motivation to do something courageous and noble and (dare I say it) … Christlike.

Do you want to talk about refugees? Do you really? Do you want to help one? Do you want to meet one? Because there’s a list. In every town in every county in every state in this great nation - hundreds of kids. They are no less refugees than the thousands of people whose images are currently scrolling on the news. 

And they're not going anywhere.


(Foster families, thank you for everything you do. Respite providers, thank you. Case workers, therapists, lawyers, judges, and all the rest who devote your lives to foster kids, thank you. Agencies whose mission is helping foster kids, people who give support to those agencies, thank you. It doesn’t take a village; it takes a world. You are the world for some of the most vulnerable refugees among us. God bless you all.)

"Be the Gift"

This Advent season, our congregational theme is “Be the Gift.” We’ll be thinking about how can we “be the gift” that God is giving to the world.

(I realize of course the possible negative connotations here. It is often said of someone, “Well he thinks is just God’s gift to humanity!” And when that is said, it is NOT meant as a compliment! But that’s not how we are using the idea; there is another way to think of it.)

I saw a TV commercial last week that featured a guy shopping for Christmas gifts. He bought a bunch of electronic gadgets and walked out of the advertised store full of confidence. The tagline of the commercial was, “They’ll not only love it - they’ll love you.”

My jaw dropped. My stomach rolled. I may even have uttered an incoherent grunt of disgust.

The implication is not even subtle. “You have to buy love.” No! No! No! A million times NO! Christmas gifts are not given in order to earn someone’s love. Christmas gifts are given to honor the greatest gift ever in the history of gifts - the gift of Jesus himself.

Jesus embodied God’s love; that’s what the incarnation was all about. He was and is the gift that God was giving to the world. The church is the body of Christ in the world today; the church ought to be a continual embodiment of God’s love, the ongoing incarnation of God’s gift.

Simply put, we should be the gift. You - me - us together. What if we thought less about buying someone a gift and more about being a gift in their life? Be a gift of presence, a gift of hope, a gift of joy, a gift of love. Be a gift of encouragement, a gift of friendship. Be a gift of grace to someone.

That’s what we’re about this Advent season, being gifts for one another and for the world. May God bless our holy season, a season not of greed but of giving, a season not of presents but of presence, a season not of crass consumerism but of sacred celebration.

Happy Advent, everyone!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Thessalonian Top Ten - Are you in?

The apostle Paul is really good at lists. His first written list was likely the one that ends his first letter to the Thessalonian church (5:12-22).

But since Paul is sometimes kind of "Bibley" in his writing style, I have re-written this list, to make it a bit easier to read. Here it is:

1) Respect people.
2) Try to get along with each other.
3) Help people who need help, in they way they need it.
4) Always try to do good to all people, even the jerks.
5) Find the joy in every situation.
6) Consider every moment to be a prayer.
7) Say “thank you” a lot.
8) Let God's light shine through you.
9) Listen closely and don’t take anything for granted.
10) Do good stuff.

Not bad advice, huh? Imagine what it would be like if every follower of Jesus actually did all these things.

Well, how about it? It has to start somewhere, right? I'll give it my best shot - how about you?

Are you in?

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

"To Resist Evil, Injustice, and Oppression"

“Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” (The United Methodist Hymnal, p. 34)

I asked a young couple this question among others as they brought their infant forward for baptism last Sunday. As I asked it, images of “evil, injustice, and oppression” flashed across my mind: images of death and destruction in the streets of Paris, a lifeless toddler lying on a beach in Turkey, infants held by exhausted and desperate mothers in refugee camps, grimy children walking the demolished streets of Damascus, and on and on and on.

Do you accept … no, do I accept the freedom and power God gives … to resist evil … in whatever forms … ?

To resist evil. What does that even mean? And how is it a “freedom” exactly?

Every member of every United Methodist Church has answered that question in the affirmative. We had to, in order to become members. And having answered thusly, now what?

In the simple questions of our church membership, people who are United Methodist have made a solemn vow, witnessed by God and spoken in the midst of the people, to resist evil, however it appears in the world.

If the agenda and actions of the Daesh group are not evil, then I do not know what is. So in the face of such atrocious acts, what does it mean to “resist” evil?

The word “resist” is from the Latin word resistere, which meant “to remain standing.” It means to withstand or strive against or oppose. It means to take a stand against something, to make an effort in opposition.

We use the word frivolously, as in “I just couldn’t resist eating that delicious cupcake.” But I’m pretty sure the baptismal vows do not mean it in such a shallow way. The word is also used to described armed opposition to an occupying force, as in the French resistance to Nazi forces during the 1930s and 40s. Is that more aligned with what is meant in our United Methodist question?

The scripture I’m preaching on this week includes the following advice: “See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all” (1 Thessalonians 5:15). So whatever “resist” means, it seems it cannot mean “repay,” and certainly our response to evil should not involve even more evil. That will get us nowhere fast.

Sometimes, to be honest, I really wish Jesus had included a few escape clauses in the Gospel. Don’t you? Like wouldn’t it have been great if he had said, “Hey guys you should welcome strangers and eat with them, unless of course you think there’s a chance they may hurt you, then you’re totally fine to just keep them as far away from you as possible.” But he didn’t say that. And you know why? Because that’s not just. That’s oppressive. That’s actually kind of evil, in my honest opinion.

We are “to remain standing” in the face of evil, injustice, and oppression. We are to remain standing in the values of the Gospel, the doctrines of love and peace and justice and grace and incarnation and resurrection and everything else that the church is supposed to be about.

Only by “standing” in these places will our response to Daesh and Boko Haram and al-Qaeda and Al Shabaab be grounded in a faithful Christian response. But true resistance must be more than metaphor. To truly resist, we must act.

Only a very few of us who live in the United States can actually go to the places most impacted by the current violence. But by the virtue of our amazing democratic system, we have access to the people who can. We can contact our political leaders and encourage them to stand against evil, to act for justice, to speak with love and compassion for others.

And by the virtue of our amazing connectional church, we are a part of an incarnate Christian presence that is already at work all around the world. We can contribute the United Methodist Committee on Relief, which has a fund designated specifically for refugee response. The full list of projects UMCOR does is impressive.

Resisting evil is global, and also very local. We resist evil every time we take in a foster kid. We resist evil every time we back a food box for a hungry family. We resist evil every time we confront discrimination in our community. We resist evil every time we challenge homophobia and racism and sexism in any of the mealy, insidious forms they show up around us.

And here’s the thing - this resistance is liberating! God has offered us both freedom and power to resist. That means, quite counter-intuitively, that not resisting is actually captivity. Going along to get along is a prison. Allowing evil to continue is a chain, a burden, a weight on our lives that prevents us from becoming who God wants us to be.

In the act of resistance, we are set free.

And so I return to the question. “Do you accept the freedom and power to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” If so, please respond, “I do.”

And if you do, then for God’s sake … do.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Why Do We Do What We Do?

What matters more - what you do or why you do it?

C.S. Lewis writes about this question in his book “Mere Christianity.” He thinks that motivation matters. For example, if a person takes your seat on the train to be rude, that’s different than if a person takes your seat on the train because they didn’t know it was your seat. We would be inclined to be angry at person number one, and more understanding of person number two, even though they did exactly the same thing. Why would respond differently? Because of the difference in their motivations.

And if we expand that idea to apply to congregations, we might ask a similar question. Congregations do things; we do ministry - hospitality, worship, service, generosity, faith formation - and if we are honest with ourselves, sometimes the things we do become more important than the reasons to do them.

When we forget our reasons for doing what we do, our actions become empty and shallow. The things we do may have the very same result, but purpose begins to deteriorate. And when we do increasingly meaningless things, even if the results are very similar, our energy level decreases and we begin to burn out. Ultimately, we either stop doing them altogether, or do them begrudgingly and with a chip on our shoulder.

But it is possible to renew purpose, to reclaim the meaning behind our actions. We need to remember the “why” of our Christian discipleship. And having remembered and reaffirmed this “why,” suddenly we find our actions infused with meaning, purpose, and energy again. We may even be doing the very same things we’ve always done, but now they are a joy.

And so yes, what we do matters. But I think knowing why we do it may matter even more.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Jurisdictional Delegate Meeting Wrap-Up

The South Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church met this week in Oklahoma City for what we called a “Delegate Meeting.” It wasn’t the actual conference, but rather a training event designed to get us prepared for the work ahead. Here is my reflection on the event, for any who may be interested.


We had a chance to meet the candidates for bishop. Alphabetically, with their Annual Conference:
- Bob Farr, from Missouri
- Janice Gilbert, from Texas
- Ron Henderson, from North Texas
- Morris Mathis, from Texas
- Jimmy Nunn, from Northwest Texas
- Ruben Saenz, from Rio Texas
- Erradio Valverde, from Rio Texas
- David Wilson, from Oklahoma Indian Missionary

These are the people who are currently in the mix for election, though there may be more who emerge. I am not 100% certain how many we are electing, but the number I have heard floating around is three.

It was good to see them, to have a face to go with a name (except for Jimmy Nunn who was not present), but we didn’t have much chance to speak with them at this meeting. That will come next Spring when each delegation has a chance to interview each candidate one on one.


A couple of topics of discussion were centered on the global nature of the United Methodist Church:

Bishop Patrick Streiff of the Central and Southern Europe Conference presented some work being done to create a “Global Book of Discipline” that would identify parts of our polity that are universal across the denomination, and parts that could be adapted for particular contexts. They will bring no specific proposals to General Conference, but ask the Conference to affirm the direction their work has taken and continue it for the next four years.

We received information about a related proposal coming to General Conference. This idea would create a “Central Conference” for the United States which would be the equivalent of the seven other Central Conferences around the world. The rationale for this proposal is to create a forum for discussing those issues that are unique to the North American context, in the same way that the other Central Conferences can in their own locales.

I am in favor of both of these ideas, which are aimed at keeping the global identity of United Methodism while at the same time trying to find ways to be more flexible in our mission in various contexts around the world.


A significant rule change is being proposed that would change the way the General Conference talks about all of the petitions that pertain to human sexuality.

The basic idea is to break the entire Conference into small groups of 15 people to discuss the petitions. The small group leaders would then report to a Facilitation Group. The Facilitation Group would then create the petition or petitions that the entire plenary would discuss and vote on.

This would replace the way it is done now, which is to discuss sexuality petitions in a legislative committee (Church and Society 2), who go through the regular committee process and then make their recommendations to the entire body. The thought is that the new idea would allow for every single participant in the Conference to have input into the decisions made on this one issue. It would also be a model for handling any contentious issues that may arise in the future.

Here are some process points: Small group leaders would be nominated from each delegation and selected by the Executive Committee of the Commission on General Conference. The Facilitation Group members are nominated from each Central Conference and US Jurisdiction by the Leadership Discernment Committee of the Council of Bishops. These 24 are then given to the Executive Committee on the Commission on General Conference who propose a slate of six for the entire General Conference to vote on. Conference members may also nominate others from the pool of 24 when the slate is presented.

I applaud the attempt to do something differently around the questions of same-sex marriage and ordination of people regardless of sexual orientation. Clearly the status quo processes are not working. However, it seems to me that there is an awful lot of power in that group of six called the “Facilitation Group.”

While the conflict and controversy may shift away from the legislative committee process, it will not go away altogether. There will be a great deal of scrutiny on the people serving as small group leaders and in the Facilitation Group. That’s where the controversy will reside, if this rule change is approved.


Speaking of homosexuality, there were a couple of specific proposals discussed. Adam Hamilton talked about the Connectional Table proposal, and Chappell Temple talked about a resolution coming from the Texas Conference (I could not find it online).

The Connectional Table proposal lets pastors decide if they will marry couples, and lets Annual Conferences decide what people will be ordained. Adam strongly implied that he would propose an amendment that would let congregations decide what weddings can happen in their buildings.

The Texas proposal completely rewrites paragraph 161f of the Book of Discipline. In their own words they want to do something that “maintains our position but is more gracious in tone.” No longer is the phrase “incompatible with Christian teaching” used to describe homosexuality. In fact, it doesn’t use the word “homosexual” at all. The phrase they use is, “In our historic understanding of the scriptures, sexual relations are to be affirmed only when practiced within the legal and spiritual covenant of a loving and monogamous marriage between one man and one woman.”

It is notable that the petition also calls destructive a list of activities, including “promiscuity, infidelity, bigamy, multiple or serial marriages, pornography, human trafficking, and all attempts to commercialize the gift of human sexuality within our societies.” I do not know if it is intentional or not, but to me it seems to imply that they think same-sex marriage ought to be on this list, even though it is not explicitly stated. (It also seems to strongly condemn divorce, for what that is worth.)

For the record, I am a strong advocate for the amended version of the Connectional Table proposal for local autonomy in these decisions. It seems to be a “no brainer,” in fact. Of course local churches should be able to set their own wedding policies. Of course pastors should have the authority to decide whom they will marry. Of course Annual Conferences should determine which candidates they will ordain. The United Methodist Church’s officially sanctioned obsession with gay people is embarrassing, hateful, and counterproductive to our mission.


We also talked about divestment proposals that are coming to General Conference. Dave Zellner from the General Board on Pension and Health Benefits did a wonderful job of explaining the situation. The essence is social justice; there are many who want the United Methodist Church to pull our investments out (divest) of companies that profit from injustice and from destruction of the environment.

Essentially, he told us that the General Board is deeply committed to social justice and sustainable business practices. They are active in the companies in which we invest, raising awareness and encouraging changes as needed. They invest in community development projects and projects that help those in poverty, making positive social impact.

I’m not really an expert in financial matters, but I trust our General Board here. They are guided by some pretty clear principles and policies, and I’m convinced that telling them specific companies they cannot invest in would not be helpful. They are as transparent as they can be with their investments, and if anyone ever has any concerns, they do indeed listen. But elevating our particular divestment ideas to the level of general church policy is not a good idea.


One of the most astonishing things I learned was the process by which we elect people to serve on the Judicial Council. It is not a good process, to say the least.

The Council of Bishops chooses a slate of candidates that is three times larger than the open positions. The slate is presented to the General Conference one day before the vote, and then we vote on them. That’s it! No time to get to know the people or hear what their ideas are or try to understand if they have the mission of the church as their highest priority or anything like that. It’s just – here they are, pick some.

We have five positions to choose this year, three laity and two clergy. So, we will see the names of nine lay people and six clergy, literally from all over the world, and then in 24 hours we will vote on them. And these are people who will have enormous power in our denomination. They are the “Supreme Court” of Methodism, and their decisions are not reversible without action from the General Conference, which as you know meets only ever four years.

Again this isn’t really my area of expertise, but it seems like a pretty strange way to elect some pretty powerful people.


There was some more stuff, but I think I’ll stop there. If you actually read through all of that, congratulations! You are a Metho-Nerd for sure.

I am honored to serve as a delegate for at Jurisdictional Conference and as first alternate to General Conference. I want to be available to anyone who has questions or concerns or insights, and so I covenant with you to be as transparent as I can.

Please contact me if I can be helpful to you in any way.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

New Vision November - Turning the World Upside Down

How do you respond to the thought of “turning the world upside down?”

Like if somebody said to you, “Those people are turning the world upside down,” would you think it was good thing or a bad thing?

Well, that’s what some Thessalonians said about the followers of Jesus that Paul was leading. And when they said it, it definitely wasn’t a compliment! See, the Christians in Thessalonica were upsetting the status quo; specifically they were “saying that there is another King named Jesus” (Acts 17:7). And that ruffled more than a few feathers.

Now, I don’t think their goal was feather ruffling. I think their only goal was to follow Jesus. It’s just that the act of following him faithfully was so counter-cultural, so counter-intuitive that it was jarring for the city leaders. Following Jesus challenged their base assumptions and called their priorities into question.

Reading the story of Paul and the Thessalonians got me to thinking … is the church today still “turning the world upside down?” Are we still upsetting the status quo and ruffling feathers by proclaiming allegiance to a King named Jesus?

Over the next month, Campbell United Methodist Church is going to reflect on who we are, what we do, and why we do what we do. It is going to be called “New Vision November,” and by the end of the month I hope we have a renewed sense of our identity, an exciting vision for the future, and a deepening commitment to our patterns of discipleship.

Our entry point into “New Vision November” is going to be the church Paul started at Thessalonica. What can we reclaim from the early church? How can we draw upon the energy they felt? How might we translate the simple gospel message into language that makes sense for Springfield, Missouri in the year 2016 and beyond?

There is more information in this newsletter about the upcoming month so be sure to check that out. It all starts in worship Sunday morning, so I’ll see you then!

Let’s turn the world UPSIDE DOWN!!!

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Ecclesial Ethics of Google Ads

Technology advances faster than ethics. We are often confronted with the reality of being able to do something thanks to a technological achievement without being given sufficient time to consider whether or not we should. And though there are examples with significant social impact, there are smaller instances that are worth considering.

For example: Should a congregation purchase a Google ad? We are able to, but should we?

A congregation can pay Google to bump their website to the top of the list when someone searches for a church in a particular area. And since Google is the place almost everyone goes to find stuff in general, it is going to be the place we go to find a church, also. So I move into town, I’m looking for a church, I just google “churches in such-and-such” and take a look at the list. Top of the list hits tend to get more attention, so a congregation can pay Google to get that extra attention.


- Is it good evangelism, a wise use of congregational resources?

- Is it bad ecclesiology, infusing an attitude of competition into the church’s mission in the world?

- Is it actually bad practice, since there are many who intentionally skip the “paid for” hits in a Google search?

- Is it an act of hospitality in that it makes it that much easier for a newcomer to find the “front door” of the congregation?

- Is it an unjust practice that favors large, wealthy congregations over small, struggling ones?

I’d love to read your thoughts. It may not even be that big of a deal, but it’s something I’m thinking about this morning, so I thought I’d put it out there.

What do you think about a congregation purchasing Google ads?