It was a Monday afternoon, in Marengo, and a young woman walked into the church and asked to use the telephone.

Not a problem, I said.

And while she sat in the office dialing numbers and getting no response, I sat at my desk trying to pick out hymns for worship the next Sunday. Are you stranded? I asked.

I learned that Maria had just been released from the county jail, was far from home, and no one was coming to get her.

She finally got a hold of a friend or a neighbor… someone she thought might help and was chewed out over the phone.

She hung up in frustration. Maria had no options.

She was seven months pregnant, in Marengo with no vehicle or ride, and needed to get home to the Quad Cities to her kids.

In Isaiah chapter 40, the prophet is moved to share God’s compassion for the people of Israel in exile. He gave them words of comfort in the midst of their trial and tribulation. And then Isaiah hears a voice:

In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.

He was to tell the people that EVERY obstacle that came between them and their salvation and their home was being removed.

In this time of worship, let us listen once again for the cry of the prophets.


I think about that woman often.

I thought about her as a group of us gathered in Ankeny about a month ago for the “Right Next Door” Conference and as we were surrounded by all of these people.

They represented those we knew, and people we have yet to come to know, who are impacted by addiction, domestic violence, incarceration, human trafficking…

We were invited to open our eyes and our minds and our hearts to see them… and us… in a new way.

Because, let’s be honest: we, too, have been impacted by these things.

We are not immune to the realities of alcohol or drugs, abuse, crime, or sex.

But we often leave those parts of our lives outside of the church.

Friends, those realities are deeply part of who we are and ignoring them or pretending they don’t exist can keep us from relationship with God.

Those people in exile saw an immense gulf separating them from their home and their God. Valleys of sin and mountains of guilt lie between them and the Lord.

We face those obstacles, but I’m increasingly aware that some of the mountains and valleys that keep people from the Lord include artificial barriers we put up to “protect” the church.

It is not just their past that keeps people like Michael or Maria from walking in the doors of the church.

So my question for us to ponder is this: What are the barriers we put up as a church? What keeps people who are struggling from having a relationship with God in this place?



A voice is crying out in the wilderness:

Prepare the way of the Lord!

Make it easier for people to come to God!

Help clear out a path!

Make a smooth and straight road for the Lord to come.


Maria found the courage to walk across the street to the church and ask to use the phone.

And I’m going to be honest, there are all sorts of mountains and valleys that might have kept me from helping her.

  • I was there in the building alone and I had been fighting the suggestions that I keep the doors locked when it was just me there.
  • I was in the middle of trying to get some work done and I was really busy.
  • She had just been released from prison.
  • I didn’t know if she was feeding me a line or if she was telling the truth.
  • I didn’t know if she was safe to be around.

Prepare the way of the Lord!

The door was open and I invited her in. I sat with her as she made her phone call.


Make it easier for people to come to God!

I passed the box of Kleenex when she felt betrayed and abandoned by her friend on the phone. And, knowing she was at the end of her rope, I asked if she needed a ride.


Make smooth and straight the road for the Lord to come!

We gathered up her bag and I set aside my work, and on the way out the door, she asked if she could have one of the bibles on the shelf. We got in my car and drove 90 some miles to get her home.


Some of you might be thinking that I am incredibly naïve and too trusting.

But I think that we, as people of faith, aren’t foolish enough.

We are called to prepare the way of the Lord – and that means knocking down barriers and building up gaps in this world.

We are called to take up our cross and follow Jesus wherever he leads us.

We are called to take risks in order to care for the least and the last and the lost of this world.

We are called to walk through the valley of the shadow of death and to eat in the presence of our enemies.

We are called to be vulnerable with one another and admit our faults and our weakness.

Over and over again, we hear God tell us: Do NOT be afraid, for I am with you.


And perhaps what is more naïve is to imagine that sin and danger exists only outside the walls of this church.

There are people in this room who are in recovery or who love someone who is… just as there are people in this room who are in denial about needing help.

Some people in this church have experienced abuse as a child or a spouse… and there are people in this room are abusers.

Our congregation has members who have been in prison or who love people who are in prison.

In this room, there are those who have visited pornography sites and probably even men who have frequented prostitutes.

We just don’t talk about it.


We are entering the season of Advent and the first character we discover is a prophet named John the Baptist.

He wasn’t afraid of what others thought.

He wasn’t afraid of what might happen to his own life.

He wasn’t afraid to tell the truth.

And He prepared the way for countless people to let go of their old lives and embrace God’s love.


He prepared the way of the Lord by calling people out to the river… to a space carved out for people to be honest about who they are… a space where they could name and repent of their sins… a space where they could receive forgiveness and new life.


He carved out a clear path for all people… no matter who they were… to come and be in God’s presence.


Isn’t that what church is supposed to be all about?

One step behind

I have been part of the Lewis Community Leadership Fellows this past year and this week we are gathering for another seminar… This time on public health.

I feel utterly blessed to be in this community of colleagues at this point in my ministry. To deeply reflect with other pastors is always good. However, it is also wonderful to connect with pastors who are in similar places as I am, or are one “step” or church ahead… Who have just moved from a church my size, grew a church my size, or are serving churches a little bigger.

It is one thing to serve a church as it is… It is another to lay the foundation for it to reach new people by building deep community relationships and a capacity for empowered lay ministry. As I listen this week, I see my own growing edges, but I am also thankful for others who can look back and provide some advice for these next few years.

Sitting REALLY close #NaBloPoMo

Yesterday morning in worship, I had the opportunity to sit in the pews at the first church I served. While I had a part to play, I also got to sit back and worship with the people.

A toddler was next to me and at one point, he leaned in really close, and propped up against me. He sat there for some time, flipping through the hymnal upside down, completely unaware of the fact I was a total stranger to him. The lack of boundaries spoke to a sense of safety and comfort in the walls of the building we were celebrating.

This morning, I was on a flight and the entire time, my leg and arm and side touched the person next to me. Seats keep getting smaller and we keep getting bigger, after all. Perhaps it is the assumed loss of personal space on a flight that allows one to sit, so utterly close, and not be uncomfortable.

But I am also aware that there is something profoundly human about touch. It is real connection. You cannot ignore the other exists when you are touching.

At a meeting on Saturday, we expressed the prayers of our hearts as we remembered our baptism. Each had the opportunity to come to the font, touch the water and speak.

Yet, I also recognize now, a loss of an opportunity to touch another’s head or hand in the process.

Some of our prayers were so personal and deep that we needed to touch one another to offer comfort, strength, hope, solidarity. Unprompted, we neglected to do so.

How can we share such physical proximity with strangers and not do so with those with whom we are treading this journey of faith?

I found myself fighting an urge to get up and embrace a friend as she prayed, unsure of why I refrained. Our vulnerability in those moments begged for touch, for human connection. When I finally did so, rushing towards her, pulling her in my arms, even if for a brief moment, I felt like even though things in this world are utterly broken, all shall be well. Not in a pie-in-the sky naïve way, but in the hope and coherence that allows us to take one step forward.

Today, I gather with colleagues to talk about the role of religion in public health. Our bodies, physical touch, acknowledging the dignity of another person have to play a role.

Hold someone’s hand today. Touch their shoulder. Make eye contact. BE the BODY if CHRIST to one another.

Praying for Peace in Honor of our Veterans

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine;
this is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine:
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.


To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations… – President Woodrow Wilson

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine:
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.

Whereas the 11th of November 1918, marked the cessation of the most destructive, sanguinary, and far reaching war in human annals and the resumption by the people of the United States of peaceful relations with other nations, which we hope may never again be severed, and

Whereas it is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations; – U.S. Congress resolution recognizing the end of WWI. 

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a prayer that peace transcends in every place;
and yet I pray for my beloved country —
the reassurance of continued grace:
Lord, help us find our one-ness in the Savior,
in spite of differences of age and race.

As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them. – John F. Kennedy

May truth and freedom come to every nation;
may peace abound where strife has raged so long;
that each may seek to love and build together,
a world united, righting every wrong;
a world united in its love for freedom,
proclaiming peace together in one song.

-This is My Song, stanzas by Lloyd Stone and Georgia Harkness

Reproducing in the Church #NaBloPoMo

I was sitting at a conference with some friends and the speaker kept lifting up the decline in membership of the United Methodist Church.

One of the reasons cited was United Methodists were having less children than we used to.

And the four of us all stole a glance at one another.

The speaker was talking about us.

We represented three couples that were intentionally choosing not to have children.


Of course, making babies isn’t the only way to make new Christians.

And, even if we had babies, that doesn’t mean when they grew up they would choose to carry on our faith.


So what does “reproduction” really look like in the faith?

One of the first things I thought of was the “each one, reach one” campaign in my district about 10 years ago.

The idea was simple:  Every person should try to bring one person to church in the next year.  If everyone took the time to bring one friend or family member or neighbor to church, we would quickly double in size.

Which is essentially the process of mitosis.


We learn, grow, build our own faith, and then we pass it along to another person.

No, we don’t actually split ourselves in two, but the “each one, reach one” concept has the potential to multiply the church in the same way.


There is another important reproductive parallel here.

Because our role along the way, as we nurture someone into the faith, is to act like a spiritual midwife for them.

Midwives today are there to support during the entire pregnancy, but also provide care and advice months after a child is born.

And we can help guide someone into faith in the same way.

We can first make the invitation to church, but we have to be prepared to answer whatever questions they have in a non-judgmental way.

We need to not just invite them, but be there in a real and incarnational way: offering to pick them up, walk with them through the doors, sit next to them at whatever worship or church event or small group it is.

If we are taking ownership for truly nurturing someone into faith, then we can’t forget about them as soon as they have shown up once.  It’s a continual  process of support and encouragement.

As a pastor, I am actually probably more like a doctor who is called into provide medical assistance when necessary. Most of the work of bringing someone to the faith is done by the lay people, the midwives, who actively support and care for people as they become Christians.

(and, parents, this is how you help nurture your babies, too)


In my own church, I’m watching as our confirmation students go through the process with a mentor.  And what I’m discovering is that the personalized attention really impacts their growth, and the mentors are growing, too.  They are building new relationships and becoming stronger and more confident in their walk with God.

What if every one of us took on the work of inviting and mentoring one person in the faith?

We’d become a completely different church.


Near the Beginning… (NaBloPoMo)

This morning, let’s go back… to nearly the beginning of the story… and do some genealogy.

Pastor Todd and I are going to start us off this morning with Matthew chapter 1, verses 1-6… from the Voice translation:

This is the family history, the genealogy, of Jesus the Anointed, the coming King. You will see in this history that Jesus is descended from King David, and that He is also descended from Abraham.

It begins with Abraham, whom God called into a special, chosen, covenanted relationship, and who was the founding father of the nation of Israel.

Abraham was the father of Isaac; Isaac was the father of Jacob; Jacob was the father of Judah and of Judah’s 11 brothers; Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah (and Perez and Zerah’s mother was Tamar);

Tamar was Judah’s widowed daughter-in-law; she dressed up like a prostitute and seduced her father-in-law, all so she could keep this very family line alive.

Perez was the father of Hezron; Hezron was the father of Ram; Ram was the father of Amminadab; Amminadab was the father of Nahshon; Nahshon was the father of Salmon; Salmon was the father of Boaz (and Boaz’s mother was Rahab);

Rahab was a Canaanite prostitute who heroically hid Israelite spies from hostile authorities who wanted to kill them.

Boaz was the father of Obed (his mother was Ruth, a Moabite woman who converted to the Hebrew faith); Obed was the father of Jesse; and Jesse was the father of David, who was the king of the nation of Israel. David was the father of Solomon (his mother was Bathsheba, and she was married to a man named Uriah);


As Matthew prepares to tell us the story of Christ’s birth, he feels compelled to share with us this family tree.

An unexpected family tree.

It includes widows and adulteresses and prostitutes… and those are just the women!

So let us listen today, for how God moves through unexpected people and in unexpected ways to bring to us a redeemer…




Our scripture for this morning comes from the book of Ruth. It is the story of Naomi and her husband Elimelech had two sons and they lived in Bethlehem.

But a famine took over the land so they became refugees. They fled from hunger and made their way to Moab, which was enemy territory.

We might see their faces in the images of refugees from Syria and Iraq and northern Africa today… Camping in muddy fields, clothes wet from the journey, their only possessions what they could carry, completely unsure if they will be welcomed wherever they arrive.

When they finally get to a place of relative safety, Elimelech dies, leaving Naomi and her two boys, Mahlon and Kilion.

Years pass and they grow up and they each marry Moabite women… Ruth and Orpah.

But then one son after the other die.

Naomi has lost her homeland, her husband, and her two sons. There is no one left to carry on her family line or to bring her protection.

In this culture and time, when one son died and left the family childless, a brother or relative would provide security by marrying the daughter-in-law and preserving property and lineage. This kinsman redeemer would save the family by doing whatever it took to protect them.

But Naomi was far from home, no relatives to speak of, her situation was desperate and hopeless.

She plans to return to Bethlehem, to live as a widow… she is content to beg for the rest of her sad and bitter life.

And she tries to send her daughters-in-law away… to give them the opportunity for a fresh start, a new life.

But Ruth sticks with her.

Ruth refuses to leave Naomi’s side.

And Ruth makes the journey back to Bethlehem with her… not knowing what the future would hold, but determined to play a part in making sure both of them would be taken care of.


Think about a time when you felt like Naomi… when everything around you was falling apart.

Turn and share with your neighbor this morning:

What got… or is getting you through it?

Who do you turn to for help?


Naomi had reached rock bottom in her life.

Everything was gone, everything was lost.

As she and Ruth make the journey back to Bethlehem, she begs people to call her Mara – The Bitter One.

She is grieving, lonely, and depressed.

But Ruth is there to act.

Ruth takes the initiative to provide for them by gleaning grain from the fields.

And while she is out working, a man named Boaz sees her, treats her kindly, and seeds of hope are planted.

That is where our scripture picks up today.


Naomi realizes that Boaz was a relative, someone who could marry Ruth and redeem their family property and provide an heir.

She lays out a plan for Ruth to present herself to Boaz as a potential wife.

He is intrigued and after going through all the proper channels, Boaz is please to marry this Moabite woman to protect her family. They give birth to a child, Obed, and Naomi is redeemed.


None of us would be sitting here today if it were not for Ruth.

A fellow pastor, Jennifer Andrews-Weckerly, writes:

“Ruth is called a woman of hayil – a Hebrew word usually reserved for men – meaning strength, power, warrior-like capabilities. Though by our modern standards Ruth seems be subservient, in actuality, given the text and the time, she was an amazingly powerful woman. She refuses to take no for an answer (from Naomi or Boaz), she secures the livelihood of her family, she boldly takes on a new life in the face of seeming destruction, and she births the grandfather of David…”


Without Ruth, there would be no King David… no 23rd Psalm… no continuing lineage that will take us all the way to Joseph and Mary and Jesus in Bethlehem.

She is a foreigner in a strange land.

She lost her own husband and then gave up everything she knew to support Naomi and work to provide for her.

Ruth did whatever she needed to do without question or complaint.


In my bible, the heading for the final section of our reading for today says “Boaz redeems Ruth.”

And technically, according to the rituals and traditions of the time, by buying the family property and marrying her, he has fulfilled the role of the kinsman redeemer and has protected their family.

But even the women of the town see clearly that Ruth is the true redeemer.

“Blessed be God! He didn’t leave you without family to carry on your life…” The Message translation reads… “This daughter-in-law who has brought Obed into the world and loves you so much, why she’s worth more to you than seven sons!”


As we head into the Advent and Christmas season, we discover that this love of Ruth for Naomi is echoed in the story of Jesus.

It is sticking by someone even when we didn’t have to… like Joseph with his pregnant fiancée Mary.

It is taking a risk and traveling to a strange land… like Mary and Joseph did when they fled from the wrath of Herod.

It is giving hospitality to strangers and looking to see what gifts they might bring.

It is waiting patiently for God to move in our lives, as we continue to take steps forward in the direction we think we should be going.

Love is not passive. It is hard and risky and a scary thing.

Love takes work.

And today we give thanks to God for Ruth, who near the beginning of our Savior’s story, near the beginning of OUR story, chose to love and in doing so, played a part in redeeming us all.

Amen and amen.

The Wheat and the Tares on the Micro-Level (NaBloPoMo)

In September, Bishop Ken Carter visited the Iowa Annual Conference and helped us to have a holy and grace filled conversation about leadership, change, mission, and the elephant in the room: human sexuality and the lives of LGBT persons.

One of the pieces I really appreciated is that he was careful to note that the macro level questions we have as a denomination shift when we turn to the micro or local church level.  Especially when we consider ethos and practices.  Using Acts 15 (The Jerusalem Council) he shared how the experiences of individuals who received the Holy Spirit (namely Gentiles), caused the church to think more about whether practices like circumcision were what defined the followers of Jesus.  How should leaders interpret law in light of a shifting missionary field?  What is essential and what can be laid aside?  What can be let go of for the sake of the gospel… for the sake of making new disciples? There is a big picture missionary focus to these questions, but there is also a very pastoral and personal shift that occurs in the local church.

It is the local church pastor who determines readiness for membership.  It is in the lives and experience of individuals that we start to ask: is the Spirit moving?

A great example is how John Wesley believed that the scriptures were against the preaching of women, but he believed some were “under an extraordinary impulse of the Spirit” and near the end of his life ordained Sarah Mallet and Sarah Crosby as Methodist preachers. Because of that personal experience of the Holy Spirit, ethos and custom were set aside.  It wasn’t a shift for everyone… it was a micro-level change.


As Bishop Carter continued the conversation, he talked about how our current division needs a healthy dose of patience.  He used Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares to describe how we long for a church full of people like us and are tempted to purify the field and kick out everyone who doesn’t agree with us. As he shares in point 6 of this blog post:

I would encourage Christians who cannot accept gays and lesbians, in orientation or practice, to place the judgment of them (and all of us) in God’s hands.  As the Apostle Paul asks, “Who is in a position to condemn?” (Romans 8)  And I would encourage gays and lesbians to be patient with their brothers and sisters in the church who have not walked their journey.  This is not a justification for continued injustice.  And yet it is also true that sexuality itself is a mysterious, complicated and emotionally-charged subject, and rational conversation and dialogue will emerge only if those who disagree come to the table hearing the admonition of James:  “be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger” (James 1).


But, I wonder is if this is another place where there is a difference between the macro and micro levels.

And I ask this question knowing that Bishop Carter has stated that patience “is not a justification for continued injustice.”

On the macro level, denominationally speaking, patience and understanding and agreeing to wait it out and disagree in love makes some amount of sense.  I find my heart there on many days – wanting us to find some way forward together, knowing it will take time.

But then I turn to the micro level, to the local church level, and patience feels very different.

It feels different because I hear stories of young men and women being kicked out of their churches or homes because they are incompatible with Christian teaching. I hear stories of shame and abuse.  I hear stories about bullying. And telling these individuals to wait and be patient isn’t an answer.

20-40% of homeless teens on the street in our country are LGBTQ.

LGB youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide as their straight peers.

Do they have a place in my church, your church, or not?

For some of these youth (and adults), our wrestling with ethos and practice is a life or death issue.

Some local congregations have decided that they can’t be patient any longer. They need to firmly and unequivocally state who they are. Either way.

EVERY local church needs to wrestle with this question, just as the micro level conversation had to happen about women preachers or circumcision.  In our midst are people this impasse affects, people we might not even recognize yet, and  maintaining the status quo and not rocking the boat while we wait for wheat and tares to grow is no longer an acceptable answer in the local church.  Our decisions, to stand in one place or another or to not stand anywhere at all impact the life and calling and discipleship of individuals who sit next to us.

They need to know if they are welcome or not… so they can embrace their discipleship in that place, or shake the dust off their feet and hopefully find another home.