Thursday, December 31, 2020

"New" Year?

To turn a page on a calendar from one year to the next is often an act of hopefulness. Resolutions are made, slates are cleaned, and new beginnings are … begun. It is an opportunity, albeit an arbitrary one, to breathe deeply and recenter ourselves for what lies ahead.

This year, to turn the page on 2020 and into 2021 feels nothing short of triumphant. We made it! We are through with this most weird and miserable of years!

Of course as we do so, we have to be mindful of those who cannot make this claim. There is something rather myopic about celebrating “making it through” a year in which 1.8 million people (and counting) died in a global pandemic. There is a certain sensitivity required of us this year, a certain empathy. 

So this year we celebrate and lament simultaneously. “New Year’s Eve” 2020 includes both grief and relief. We are able to feel more than one thing at the same time, and this year we feel them all.

And this year, we are more aware of the mundane truth of this “New Year” celebration. Namely, that there is nothing magical about it. There is nothing contained in the January 2021 page of our calendars that will miraculously erase our struggles.

Nevertheless, we resolve. We persist. We recenter and take another step. Even though we know it is just an arbitrary number on a calendar page, we embrace the opportunity to become something more. Alfred Lord Tennyson said, “Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come, whispering, ‘It will be happier.’”

It is a weird feeling, this knowing and hoping anyway. At times we pendulum swing toward one or the other, alternately drifting toward despair then becoming nearly giddy in the next moment. Weird, isn't it? So it goes.

And so we turn the page. Happy new year everyone! Embrace the relief and the grief, the hoping and the knowing. Let’s figure out what the next step is, and take it together.

Thursday, September 03, 2020

Tendrils: A Foster Care Transition

Some of the them work their way more deeply into your heart than others.

Which means that when they leave, it hurts that much more. It is an extraction. 

Tendrils have entangled and pulling them apart is work. In botany, a tendril is a specialized stem or leaf shaped like a long thread that a plant uses for support and attachment, generally by twining around suitable hosts. These hosts are found by touch.

In foster care, it is much the same. By twining around suitable hosts. Used for support and attachment. Very often found by touch.

And then they need to move on, to be transplanted in new soil, and the tendrils have to be removed from the hosts. Some of them release gently. But some of them don't. They're stubborn; they hang on. Some of them rip off and remain. Still connected to the host. Dangling.

Baby C, there are so many tendrils.

We met you in the hospital, where you had spent the first two months of your life. Such a little chubbers. Cheeks for days. Fluffy brown hair. Bright, happy eyes. Your nurses had long since fallen in love with you, and we very quickly followed suit.

We watched you grow through all the "year one" stages. From a bottle, to baby food, to solids. From random movements of your arms and legs, to rolling yourself over, to crawling, to toddling around like a pro. Your first smile. Your first belly laughs. The first time you started mimicking our voices. The words you were learning: "What?!" "Ball." "Gabe!"

You wanted to be so fierce, with that little growl. (You were not fierce.) Sometimes you would sit at the table and just ... yell. No reason. Just yell. You would often grab a single piece of food from your tray, throw it carelessly onto the floor, and then grab another piece and eat it. Again, why?

You were learning to throw the ball, but every time you tried to throw it, it ended up somewhere behind you, which really cracked us up. One of your best moves was your "double take" look, looking away and quickly turning back with a gleam in your eye and a little smile on your mouth.

Speaking of smiles, you smile with your entire face. It is the most amazing smile ever in the history of smiles. When people would see you smile, it just makes them happy, and we smile with you. Don't lose that, C. That quality will come in handy.

You cried when you were sleepy or when you needed changing. And that was pretty much it. I mean, you got a little crabby after dinner but we took care of that by stripping you down to you diaper, which tended to keep you happy until bedtime.

And when we would rock you to sleep, you had a habit of reaching up your little hand and touching our faces, your curious fingers exploring mouth, chin, cheeks.

Tendrils. Twining for support and attachment. 

Around whose heart though? Who is the trellis here?

And now, you are gone. We were careful with you; we tried to be gentle with your fragility during the process. Tried to protect the roots, the leaves, the tiny tendrils. We think the family you are with now (your family, after all) will be good soil in which you are going to take root and grow into ...

Into what? 

We might be lucky enough to see. To be a part of your life in a new way and watch you keep growing and learning and becoming. To see how you will blossom. Maybe. It's just that whether that happens or not is not really up to us. So maybe. 

All we know for sure is that we did our best. We loved you as best we knew how. We still do. And you are loved by so many people, C. So, so very many people. What a lucky kid you are, to have so many people who love you so much!

A foster family's job is to help a kid learn how to attach. And having learned that skill, they will then be able to attach more easily to the people in their forever family when they transition. 

In other words, once they've figured out how to grow tendrils, to touch another with tender dependence, to find a suitable host to twine around for support, taking root in new soil will be much easier for them. 

It's just that some of them work their way further into your heart than others do. And Baby C, you were in deep. 

I love you Lito. I think you are neat-o.

Oh, inconvenient heart. So quickly filled. So easily broken.

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

The Good Samaritan, Covid-19 Edition

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he contracted an illness that left him with a compromised immune system.

“Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he wore no mask and did not maintain six feet of distance. ‘I’m not sick,’ he thought, since he clearly had no symptoms, ‘So there’s really no need.’

“So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, wore no mask and did not maintain six feet of distance. ‘Since I am free to choose how to live my life, I can do as I please,’ he said.

“But a Samaritan while traveling with a mask on did not come near him; and when he saw him, he greeted him with a wave from a safe distance. He asked how the man was feeling, and if the man needed anything. Then he did not put him on his own animal since that would have violated distancing guidelines, but rather walked along the road with him a while, always staying a minimum of six feet away.

“The next day he took out two denarii, donated them to Doctors Without Borders, and said, ‘Thank you for taking care of so many people; and when I come back, I will donate whatever more I possibly can.’

“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

He said, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

Monday, June 01, 2020

The Comfort of Chaos

“...the earth was a formless void…”

This phrase, in the well-known first verses of the Bible, engages the imagination, and is worth a pause for contemplation. We may want to quickly rush to the part where God turns on the light, but maybe it’s okay for us to linger in the liminal space of the darkness that covers the face of the deep.

Many of us are “fixers;” we want to identify the problem, develop a plan to correct it, implement the plan, and move on. A “formless void” needs to be formed, it needs to be filled in, it needs structure and substance. Nature abhors a vacuum, right?

Our impatience is a product of our sinfulness. We want things done on our time, in our way, by our own calculations. We forget that we are we and God is God. 

This impatience turns us into our selves by prioritizing our own impulses and thereby away from one another. When we turn away from our neighbors, we fall short of the vision God has for this world, that we love one another as Christ loves us. When we turn away from our neighbors, we are unable to hear them. When we turn away from the world around us, we lose sight of the Gospel.

When things feel particularly chaotic, as they do these days, I take comfort in these first lines from Genesis. “The earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” The comfort comes from the next phrase: “...while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”

In the formless void, the Holy Spirit sweeps. Within the impenetrable darkness, the Holy Spirit broods. In the chaos of the season, the Holy Spirit hovers among us, within us, and in between us. Therein lies our hope. We are in a liminal space. We are in a wilderness season. A time of uncertainty and weirdness. And we may be in a hurry for someone to just turn on the light so we can get out of this mess. 

To be sure, we must not sit passively, but rather we must actively engage the liminal space of this moment. We must be fully present to the formless void. We have to become fully aware of the darkness. We need to look into the face of the deep in order to see the sweeping presence of the Holy Spirit.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Tipping Into Grace

Things feel precarious these days.

It is the end of May, 2020, and we have been living with a global pandemic for three months now. Even longer, actually. It feels to me like we are at a tipping point. It feels to me like what happens in the next few days and weeks is going to set the next few months in motion, and maybe years. And it feels to me that it could tip either way.

Put simply, we will either tip into fear and frustration, solidifying the divisions among us, or we will tip into love and grace, drawing us closer together than we have ever been.

Already angry protestors carry automatic weapons to capitol buildings to threaten government officials. Frustrated customers berate store clerks trying to enforce simple, easy to follow rules. A stylist with Covid symptoms shows up to work with dozens of clients, and when the story breaks she receives death threats. And decisions that should be guided by reason and science are guided by political party affiliation. And so it goes.

It feels precarious, like we are tipping toward fear, anger, and divisiveness. I just hope it isn’t too late for us to tip back the other way.

I get the idea we’re feeling it personally, as well. The weight of these three months is grinding us down. We are sad, tired, and grouchy. It is hard to focus. Our relationships are strained. Our hearts are heavy and a weariness has settled into our bones. And so just at the moment we as a society are hanging at this precarious tipping point, we lack the personal fortitude to do anything about it but succumb.

It’s no wonder though, is it? The pressure cooker of this pandemic has slowly increased over time, squeezing our anxiety until we have reached a point where it either has to be released or it will explode. Many of us, feeling this pressure build up, are rushing to restaurants and bars and gyms, foregoing masks and physical distancing guidelines. Or expressing caustic bitterness on social media with no empathy or understanding whatsoever. Or eating too much unhealthy food. Or drinking too much. Or… pick your poison.

It is as if we just need a pressure release, and we don’t care how unhealthy it is.

My prayer is that we will figure out a way to tip into love and grace, and become closer over these next few weeks than we ever have before. And it will take intentionality, cooperation, and determination to do so. It will take honesty and good communication and a level of vulnerability not many of us are naturally comfortable with. It will take trust, lots and lots of trust.

And most of all, it will take the Holy Spirit. It will take us surrendering ourselves to God’s desires and yielding our own wills to the divine. It will take a renewal of our commitment to our calling to be the church.

I refuse to think that it is too late, that we have overbalanced into fear and anger with no hope of correcting things. I continue to hold on to faith in the human capacity for love, which is far greater than we sometimes imagine. I continue to hold on to faith in God’s capacity to redeem and reconcile. This is a precarious moment, a tipping point. With God’s help, may we choose wisely, and discover ourselves tipping into grace.

(And yes, this song is on my mind a lot these days.)

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Pandemic Pedagogy

Things I have learned during the Season of Weirdness:

1 - We can change. The idea that the church is incapable of change is a myth. Suffice it to say that myth is thoroughly busted.

2 - It is all us. People are the church, not the building or the pastors or the staff or the membership roll or the budget or the policies, processes, and procedures. The church is us and there’s no them. Every congregation is now and forevermore a “multisite” congregation.

3 - Belonging is more important than believing. Non-essential beliefs, like non-essential activities, have faded into near obscurity. For the past six weeks, the church has been all and only about “God is with you no matter where you are” and “God is love” and “Love your neighbor as yourself” and other such foundational truths. Isn’t it interesting that in a time during which the term “essential” has become so prominent, the “essential” doctrines of the church have also?

4 - We need each other. The categorizing labels of the church are all but meaningless any more. The lines separating “Evangelical” and “Social Justice” and “Liturgical” and even “Conservative” and “Progressive” have become permeable. Individual people and congregations will still lean into a particular perspective, but those who lean into another are no longer demonized. We have seen just how interconnected we are, and it will change how we interact.

5 - Who we are is more important than what we do. It has been tricky to “do what we do” as the church, and working to figure all that out has given us pause to consider why we do all the stuff we do in the first place. Asking the “why” question leads us inevitably to finding out who we are. It peels away the layers of irrelevance and reminds us of what truly matters at the core of our identity.

I cannot help but think that the church will emerge from this “Season of Weirdness” in a better place. “Stay at home” orders that limit gathering sizes, define essential activities, and establish personal spacing minimums have compelled the church to do some deep self examination. I am hopeful that we will have learned a few things in the process.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Tech Support Evangelism

Evangelism these days looks more like tech support.

Helping people get connected with Jesus in a time of “stay at home orders” looks like helping people get internet access. Inviting people to church looks like “Liking” and “Sharing” social media posts or creating “Watch Parties.” Sharing the love of God with a neighbor looks like helping them create a Facebook profile or walking them through joining a Zoom meeting.

As the Easter Season continues, the call to share the abundant life of Christ with the world is a call to help those who may not be “tech savvy” become so. Buying someone an electronic device is the equivalent of driving them to church these days. Having reliable access to the internet is a social justice issue now more than ever. The skillset to navigate online content is a spiritual gift. 

One of the things we have done at Manchester UMC is divvy up our list of phone numbers among our Stephen Ministers, the entire database, and they have been calling each and every person connected to the church. For some, who are very well connected, these calls have been a really wonderful “extra” point of connection. For others, those who are not online, these phone calls have been a Godsend, the only way they have felt connected to the church at all.

So take a minute and ask yourself: Who do you know who needs some “tech support?” Who do you know who may be feeling disconnected right now? We are beginning our sixth week of a “stay at home order” in St. Louis County. Although there is some talk of a plan to relieve the order, it is likely it will not happen for quite some time. Who can you reach out to this week to get them connected to the life of the church, and thereby connected to the resurrection life of Jesus?

In the “Season of Weirdness,” evangelism looks like tech support. Our mission is to make a difference for Christ by transforming church and community, and a specific way each of us can “transform the church” is by helping others get online to get connected.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Covid-19 Letter to Manchester UMC

Dear Church,

Manchester UMC is a part of the St. Louis County community and the health and safety of all community members is deeply important to us. In this unusual time, we are thinking especially of those who are more vulnerable. Our concern is for our health care workers, who are overwhelmed. We act out of compassion for the elderly, who are at risk. We seek to offer grace for those with compromised immune systems, for whom this is a time of high anxiety.

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, St. Louis County is banning gatherings of more than 250 people for the time being. By law, the government cannot prohibit a religious group from meeting. However, churches have been encouraged to follow the guidance of this ban.

Manchester UMC is going to do so. This weekend, there will be online worship at 9:30 and 11:00 via the congregation’s Facebook page. There will be no onsite worship. In addition, Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning non-worship activities (including Sunday School) are cancelled. Other non-worship activities, groups, and classes are welcome to meet if they would like to, and will do so at the discretion of the group leader.

Here are some thoughts about how your smaller group might operate:
- Rule one: If you have symptoms, please stay home.
- Rule two: If you are concerned about getting sick, please stay home.
- Rule three: If your group meets, wash your hands before and after meeting and greet one another with a wave rather than a handshake.
- Rule four: Wash your hands … a lot. And then wash them again.

During this outbreak, things are moving very quickly. For a number of very complicated reasons, reaction to this particular outbreak has been widespread and frankly, a bit mind-blowing. It feels to me like a lot of decisions are being made based on fear and panic, rather than reasonable, prayerful, and level-headed consideration.

I am hopeful that we will continue to be the church in the midst of this chaos. The calm assurance of the Holy Spirit will ease our fears and guide our actions. We will pay attention to medical professionals and follow the guidance of sound science. We will neither overreact nor underreact to the circumstances around us. We will witness to the love and grace of God in all we say and do.

Friends, we are stronger together. And this is a time for us to especially look out for one another. Call your loved ones to check in. Invite family and friends to worship online with you this Sunday. Think about how school cancellations will affect families and offer support and care. Share your stockpile of toilet paper with your neighbors. Think about whom you could bring groceries to, if they are unable to shop themselves.

You know, stuff that people who follow Jesus would do!

And remember, in this time and always, 
But now thus says the Lord,
    he who created you, O Jacob,
    he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
    I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
    and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
    and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
    the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. (Isaiah 43:1-3)

Grace and Peace,
Andy B.

Monday, March 09, 2020

A Reformation Season

There are some occasions, albeit rare, when one is aware that one is witnessing history. These are the times when we are able to step back from the events of the day and think, “Our children’s children will study this time.” Coming to that realization allows us to more deeply appreciate the moment as it happens.

What if the Church of Jesus Christ is experiencing such a season right now? What if the church is moving through a time of reformation on par with reformation moments of the past? What if the last few decades of the 20th and the first few decades of the 21st centuries are studied by future historians as a truly pivotal moment in the life of the Gospel?

There are scholars who believe as much, and have done the work to back it up. Several church historians have pointed out how the Church tends to cycle in 500 year periods of reformation, and the last one was (you guessed it) about 500 years ago. That was when Martin Luther famously mailed a letter with his “95 Theses” enclosed to his bishop, beginning what we now know as “The Reformation.”

Just think a minute - what if we are living through a similar season? What if we are witnessing a reformation period that our children’s children will study in their church history classes?

If we are willing to entertain that thought, the question then becomes one of response. How will we conduct ourselves in this season of reformation? Will we see changes as threats, or embrace them as opportunities?

Remember, reform doesn’t mean that everything old is worthless and needs to end immediately. Reform means that “everything old is new again!” Reform breathes new life into ancient traditions. Reform recreates meaning in ancient practices. Reform reminds us of the “why” of following Jesus in the first place.

I am hopeful that the church embraces this season of reform and allows the Holy Spirit to move us into a bright and vibrant future. By God’s grace, I know that we will not only make it through this season, but we will flourish for the sake of the Gospel as we do so!

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

A Season to Shine - My Initial "Protocol" Thoughts

On Friday, January 4, news broke of a new proposal to be presented to the United Methodist General Conference. The proposal came from a task force of sixteen United Methodists from a diverse array of groups within the denomination. The people were not necessarily leaders of the groups, or even representing the groups per se, but they were certainly members. The groups in question reflect the theological diversity of our denomination, from conservative to progressive and everything in between.

The proposal, known as the “Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation,” will be presented to the United Methodist Judicial Council for a declaratory ruling as to its constitutionality. Then it will be presented to the General Conference for consideration, potential amendment, and a vote. And so, while the content of the Protocol sounds quite dramatic, as of now it is a vision, not a plan of action.

The vision is a way for the United Methodist Church to remove our prohibitions on marriage and ordination for our sisters and brothers who are LGBTQ+. In doing so, the Protocol creates a way to leave the United Methodist Church and start a new denomination that would neither allow same-sex weddings nor ordain people of the LGBTQ+ community.

Following this separation, the United Methodist Church would convene another General Conference for the purpose of removing the prohibitions on same-sex weddings and ordination of people in the LGBTQ+ community. Everything else that the United Methodist Church does will remain the same at this point, though all acknowledge that further reform is required in order for the denomination to flourish as God intends.

Importantly, everyone would remain in the UMC unless choosing to leave, and the Protocol calls for the Annual Conference to decide first. In other words, if an Annual Conference wants to stay in the UMC, no vote will be required. At an Annual Conference session, if 20% of the delegates want to vote, we will. Then, if 57% of the delegates want to separate (obviously a number reached by compromise) we would do so. Annual Conferences would have until July 1, 2021 to make this decision.

After the action of the Annual Conference, congregations would respond. If the congregation aligns with the decision of the Annual Conference, no vote is needed. (For example, if Missouri decides to remain United Methodist, then all of our congregations remain United Methodist.) However, if a congregation wants to affiliate with a denomination other than the one chosen by their Annual Conference, the church council would determine the vote threshold required, and a church conference would be convened to hold the vote. Congregations would have until December 31, 2024 to make this decision.

At this point, we are all asking questions about the implications of this proposal. It is good to prayerfully and faithfully speculate about the future, as long as doing so does not make us fearful or anxious. The Holy Spirit is on the move within us, around us, among us. God is truly doing a new thing. Seasons of uncertainty are also seasons of great promise and possibility. The words of Jesus give assurance: “Remember I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Manchester UMC is in a position to be a leader in the denomination for such a time as this. Again I hear Jesus saying to us, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

This is not a time to dim our light, Manchester. This is a time to shine even more brightly. To shine with the God-given light of the Holy Spirit reflected in our lives. To shine with the light of our vision, to be an inclusive community of people who love deeply, worship passionately, and serve boldly. To shine through our mission to make a difference for Christ by transforming church and community.

Church, this is a season to shine!