Monday, August 27, 2018

Yes, you have enemies; You also have grace.

For many people, it’s easy to say, “I do not have any enemies” without thinking too hard about it. We tend to think of “enemies” in geopolitical rather than in personal terms. I get that.

However, when I am too quick to dismiss the idea that I have enemies, it alters my reading of the 23rd Psalm, in which God “prepares a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” If I have no enemies, then does God not prepare the table? Who are these “enemies” to which the Psalmist refers?

The word is not uncommon, appearing over a dozen times in the Psalms. It is one of the terms used to describe one of the two groups of people in the Psalms: the “righteous” and the “wicked.” Broadly speaking, the “righteous” are those whose relationship with God is characterized by abiding trust and utter dependence. The “wicked” (or “enemies”) are those who oppose God’s call to completely trust God and depend upon divine grace.

And so we might paraphrase Psalm 23:5 this way - “You keep providing grace for me, right when I need it the most.” For it is precisely in the presence of “enemies,” meaning those things that keep us from experiencing the fullness of a relationship with God, that we need grace the most.

God doesn’t give up on us. Ever. And God especially doesn’t give up on us when we need grace the most. In fact that’s when God doubles down on grace, pouring it out in abundance.

Someone reading this right now may very well feel like God has given up on you. It’s not true. I promise. And because God hasn’t and won’t give up on you, I won’t either. I promise. God is preparing a table before you, right in the presence of your enemies, right when you need it the most. And I would love to join you for dinner!

Monday, August 06, 2018

Love Disruption

I stood next to the communion table in the middle of the chancel area, holding an extra loaf of bread in my hand, ready to re-supply one of the serving stations when needed.

The man approached me from the congregation, passing by one of the serving stations as he did so. My first thought was that he had misunderstood the serving instructions and was coming forward to get a piece of bread from the loaf I was holding. So I stepped forward to meet him, indicating that he should return to the serving station.

However, he actually wanted to talk. To me. Full voice. Right there and right then. And so he did.

He was not pleased with the day’s sermon content, and one of the illustrations in particular. And he wanted to let me know that he was not pleased and to ask me if he could address the entire church to express this sentiment.

My first response was to ask him if we could discuss the matter at a more appropriate time. I told him I would be happy to talk with him after worship, if he wanted to. This was insufficient.

And so I then shifted to answering his concerns, assuring him that I heard him, I understood his opinion, and that the illustration in question was used to give an example of the larger message of the sermon. (The message, by the way, was that Jesus asks his followers to love one another as he loves us.) I asked him about the other illustration that had been used, and if that one also bothered him. He said, “No that one was fine.”

It was at this point that I realized that the man was suffering. He was experiencing some kind of crisis, and was not fully engaged with reality. I do not know exactly what the nature of his particular pain was, but it was evident that it was governing his words and actions.

And so I again shifted gears, gently suggesting that we could talk about his concerns at another time.

Through it all, communion was being served. The three serving stations were going, people were receiving the sacrament, the steady sound of “the Body of Christ, the Blood of Christ” was the background of my conversation, people were kneeling in prayer all around us. #ThisIsChurch

My approach wasn’t working, and I was beginning to weigh other options, when Debi came up toward the table.

Debi had just received communion and spent time in prayer, and now she was walking up onto the chancel area and approaching the man and me. We made eye contact. In that unspoken moment, she said, “Do you want me to see if I can encourage him to come with me?” And I said, “Yes please, and thank you. And God bless you.”

Debi then spoke gently and graciously, but firmly to the man, saying, “Let’s go out into the hall and you and I can talk about this. I want to hear what you have to say.”

At about the same time, Matt stepped up into the chancel area as well. Matt echoed Debi’s words, and reached out to the man to walk out with him. At first the man acted as if he was going to resist, but decided to go with them. He stumbled a bit going down the steps, but walked out calmly between Debi and Matt.

Several church folks met him at the door of the sanctuary, and stepped out into the hallway with him. It was all very quiet and calm. Communion continued to be served at all three serving stations for the entire duration of this event. I watched through the windows in the back of the room, and saw several people gathered around the man.

Just before we sang the final song, he came back into the sanctuary. He went to his seat, and stood for the final song.

And then I witnessed one of the most beautiful, grace-filled moments of worship I’ve ever seen.

Here at Campbell, we have the practice of joining hands for the closing prayer. The people in worship were invited to join hands, as usual. And they did.

And not only did the people right around the man reach out and join hands with him, people literally crossed the aisle to make sure he had people to connect with. They surrounded him with grace. When I saw it, I knew I was witnessing the work of the Holy Spirit. I knew I was seeing the sermon come to life in that room, as these amazing followers of Jesus chose to love this man, just as Jesus loves us. This. Is. Church.

I have heard through the grapevine that later in the day the man was still talking about what had upset him from the sermon at Campbell. Someone told me that as he left he took his nametag off, threw it down on the table, and declared that he was not going to be coming back. We are planning to do what follow-up we can with him, to make sure that he is in fact okay.

But here’s what I saw on Sunday. I saw a disruption of love. I saw the church of Jesus Christ being the church of Jesus Christ. I saw grace in action. I saw the sermon we had just heard become incarnate. I saw an authentic outpouring of love for one struggling person. I saw the core values of Campbell UMC come to life with grace, inclusivity, authenticity, and truly selfless service.

A guest on Sunday asked me after worship if she could see our safety policies and procedures for a Sunday morning disruption, “since you obviously have them!” Imagine her surprise when I replied, “Actually no, we do not have any written procedures for Sunday morning disruptions like that. What you saw this morning was authentic; it was just Campbell being Campbell.”

It is far more important to know who you are than to know what to do.

I’m not opposed to having written security policies mind you, but what happened last Sunday was not the result of any kind of policy. Debi and Matt and all the others did what they did because that’s who they are. They did not stop and say, “Now what is our policy for 'Sunday Morning Disruptions'?” They simply and selflessly responded with grace.

They made sure the man knew that he was being heard; they made sure he and others were safe; they made sure he knew that he had people around him; and ... they prayed with him.

And they did all of this not because they “knew what to do in a situation like this.”

They did it all because they know who they are. And it was beautiful to see.


Saturday, August 04, 2018

Way Forward Report - Initial Thoughts

“Which plan are you going to vote for?”

Since the “Commission on a Way Forward’s Report to the General Conference” has been published, several people have asked me that question – “How are you going to vote?” or “What plan do you like?” or some variation thereof.

The truth of the matter is, at this point we have no idea what we will actually be voting on. Our United Methodist General Conference is a bureaucratic morass, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. After the petition process, the debates, the amendments, the motions to do this and that and the other obscure parliamentary procedure, who the heck actually knows WHAT we will be voting on, much less how we will end up.

As I’ve said before, our United Methodist system performs exactly as it is designed to perform. Suffice it to say that our denominational structures and processes are not conducive to sweeping, dramatic transformations.

In their report, the Commission lays out three plans – One Church, Connectional Conferences, and Traditional. (My very sketchy summaries are below, and I’ll also share the link to the report itself. Click this.)

There were thirty-two people on the Commission, and they were asked which of the three plans they would publicly support. (Feel free to check my numbers on this, by the way, and correct them if I have miscalculated.)

18 support One Church. 12 support Connectional Conferences. 9 support Traditional.

That is to say, there are that many names listed on each plan. If you are good at math, you will already have noticed that is 39 names. (If not, you will now be going back to add them up.) 39 names - from a 32 member commission. So … It’s a riddle!

Actually it’s not a riddle. Some people put their names on more than one. And one put their name on all three. And some didn’t put their names down at all. As near as I can tell…

Of the 18 One Church people, 6 also publicly support Connectional Conferences, and 1 supports all 3.

Of the 12 Connectional Conferences people, 6 also publicly support One Church and 5 also support the Traditional plan, and 1 supports all 3.

Of the 9 Traditional people, 5 also publicly support the Connectional Conferences plan, and (as I have mentioned) 1 supports all 3.

There are 6 commission members who did not take a public position. All 6 are bishops.

So what, right? Well, to me it is noteworthy that the “Connectional Conferences” plan is the only one of the three that has zero people who publicly support only it.

There are 11 who support only One Church. There are 3 who support only Traditional. All 12 who support the Connectional Conferences plan also support one of the others.

I’m not sure what that means exactly, but it may mean that none of the commission members are really champions for the Connectional Conferences plan, and I think that says something in and of itself. It also seems like the Commission on a Way Forward as a whole is itself in favor of the One Church plan, which may say something or not.

As I said above, at this point in the incredibly long and complicated process, there is nothing to vote on.  Any General Conference delegate who tells you how they will be voting is being a bit premature. We need to wait until we get “in the room where it happens” and see how everything unfolds and what things may be added or withdrawn or changed. Where we end up on February 26, 2019 is anyone’s guess.

Please continue to pray daily, and if you might be able to pause from 2:23-2:26 each day, you would be joining thousands of Methodists praying at the same time. Pray for grace and peace and love. Pray for guidance and focus and patience. Pray for an awareness of the Holy Spirit’s presence.

And please pray, as I do each day, for a bright, hopeful, faithful future for the United Methodist Church.

Sketchy summaries:
One Church - Pastors are free to, but not forced to marry same-sex couples. Conferences are free to, but not forced to ordain gay people.
Connectional Conferences - Creates 3 new subdivisions within the United Methodist denomination based on theological perspective, one on the conservative end of things, one in the center, and one one the progressive end. Conferences, congregations, and pastors choose with which of the 3 to affiliate.
Traditional - Reinforces restrictions on marrying and ordaining people who are gay, and strengthens the penalties for doing so.