Enough…

“Enough” by John van de Laar

Worry and stress are not hard for us, God,
We do them without thinking:

There is always the potential of threat
To our security,
Our comfort,
Our health,
Our relationships,
Our lives.
And we foolishly think that we could silence the fear
If we just had enough money,
Enough insurance,
Enough toys,
Enough stored away for a rainy day.
It’s never enough, though;
The voice of our fear will not be dismissed so easily.

But in the small, silent places within us is another voice;
One that beckons us into the foolishness of faith,
That points our gaze to the birds and the flowers,
That in unguarded moments, lets our muscles relax.
And our hearts lean into loved ones.;
In unexpected whispers we hear it,
Calling us to remember your promises,
Your grace,
Your faithfulness;
And, suddenly, we discover,
That it is enough.
Amen.

A week or two ago as some of us came into church on Sunday morning, you might have noticed a police car here at Immanuel.
Overnight, the garage in our yard was broken into and a snow blower and set of tools had been stolen. They weren’t fancy or terribly expensive, but they were ours. The garage door was damaged in the process and our amazing and excellent Trustees have been working since then to secure the garage, increase a bit of our security, and help keep us all safe.

The neighborhoods around our church are changing.
We have had quite a few shootings recently and we are not the only ones who have experienced break-ins. Whether it is cars, or garages, or houses, there has been an increase in crime.
Our neighborhood is also becoming more diverse. Economic inequality is growing. We see more people of color and more languages are spoken in our midst.
I hesitate to correlate these things, but they are all part of the fabric of what is changing around us.

I think about this reality as we start our new worship and stewardship series: Moving Out of Scare City.
Des Moines is a fantastic place to live and work and grow. It was named the #1 city for young professionals a few years ago.
Yet, we were also in the top 10 list of worst cities for African-Americans in the nation.
We have had a higher murder rate this year than we have in a long time.
More of the students in our schools are on free and reduced lunches.
One in five children in Polk County are hungry.
There are some things about our neighborhood and city that feel less safe and more scary.

I think about the poem by John van de Laar that I shared with you and our temptation to silence that fear through money, insurance, security, gadgets… by clinging ever more tightly to what we have.
When it feels like death, hunger, and the overwhelming struggles of the world loom all around us some of us think about moving out. We want to separate and wall ourselves off from the problems and focus on taking care of our own.
Some churches around us have done that.
They moved out to the suburbs.
Or their church no longer looks like the neighborhood it is situated in.
Their beautiful sanctuaries and people in fancy clothes who walk into them on Sunday mornings stand in stark contrast to the needs of the people that surround them.

In many ways, I think that was the impulse of the people we follow in Genesis this morning.
In chapter 10, we find a listing of all of the descendants of Noah as they developed into the nations of the earth. One of his great-grandsons, Nimrod, began his kingdom with Babel.
While we don’t know of the threats or dangers that surrounded them, the scripture tells us in verse 4 that they wanted to make a name for themselves.
The promise of God that came to Noah was that he and his sons would “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” They were meant to spread the knowledge and blessings of God across the planet.
But this group of descendants feared being scattered over the face of the earth. They feared falling apart.
The potential threat of losing their identity, their status, their place in the world caused them to foolishly throw themselves into building a tower.
They believed that if only the tower were strong enough…
Rich and famous enough…
High enough…
Nothing would threaten them.

But this is not God’s desire or intention for our lives.
God doesn’t want us to worry about getting more and more or protecting only ourselves.
In fact, God knows that if we live our lives that way it will never BE enough.
We will always be unsatisfied and fearful.

Instead, God calls them… and us… to turn our attention away from ourselves.
God tells them they don’t need a tower – they are already enough.

And then God confuses them, scatters them, diversifies them.
Like the bloom of a dandelion becomes a thousand seeds that drift away to far flung places on the wind, God caused the people of Babel to be scattered to the winds – speaking different languages, practicing different customs, becoming different people.
In whatever place they found themselves, they began to look like the ones they were surrounded with.
They allowed the blessings of that new place to transform them.

When we look out on our neighborhood, it is tempting to see the diversity as a threat that might cause us to lock the doors of our building even tighter.
We might turn inward and stop reaching out, stop making connections, stop inviting others to join us.
OR
We could listen to that still small voice that beckons us out into the neighborhood.
We could open our doors to those who are yearning to find a relationship with God.
We could reach out in love and grace to even those who would rob us.
We could find ways to allow ourselves to be transformed and blessed by people who don’t look like us.

When I think about the legacy that Immanuel is building, I don’t see us building up a monument to ourselves, but I think about the ways we have opened our doors to welcome others in.
Not only do we gather and collect food for our neighbors through DMARC, but our front lawn is an invitation for our neighbors to come and take a book or what they might need for an evening meal.
Our building is available for other groups like Bikers Against Child Abuse to gather and plan so they can do the important work of ministry they feel called to.
We realized we had more than enough space to allow a small group of African refugees to come in and worship with one another. Under Pastor Joshua’s leadership, they became a congregation that now has a building of their own!
Our space was empty for just over a year, when this summer, a new friend called the church, looking for a place to worship.
Her name is Mu and she is one of many folks from southeast Asia, Myanmar in particular, who have built a community here. They were looking for a place where they could worship in their own native tongues… but also where they could build relationships with others.
Over the last few months, we have gradually been exploring what this new relationship might look like. Our Fireside Room was sitting fairly empty and on Sunday mornings their group has been gathering in that space to worship and pray.
They don’t have a pastor, but a volunteer from another church has been teaching in Burmese. Mu then translates into another language, Karenni. Their children are joining our children in Wednesday night activities and children’s church and we are navigating multiple languages at once!
On this day when we celebrate World Communion Sunday, I remember that while the people of Babel sought to make a name for themselves, God calls us to share the divine love with all people and to celebrate and delight in the diversity and abundance of all we share this neighborhood with.
Young and old. Rich or poor. Black, Hispanic, Asian, White.
This is what church looks like.
This is what blessing looks like.
And as we join and share and break bread, we remember that we don’t have to fear that we will not have enough.
With God’s help, there is always enough.

Unity, Diversity, and the Body of Christ

Format Image

Over the past week, I’ve been working to get my garden prepped a bit for spring and to start some of the seeds that will be set out after Mother’s Day.  And I was reminded as I dug my fingers into the dirt that soil is so incredibly diverse and complex.  That just one handful of the stuff contains more living organisms than there are people on this planet.   

And in every part of the soil, every one of those organisms has a part to play, impacting chemical and physical properties.  And all of these living organisms live off of and feed off of one another.  It is their interaction that makes soil healthy and thriving and good.

In his book, The Third Plate, Dan Barber describes two ways of seeing what is happening in the soil that surrounds us.

One, is a class system… or a battlefield…

We’ve all seen those videos of a tiny fish being eaten by a bigger fish, being eaten by an even bigger fish… that’s some of what happens in the dirt beneath our feet.  One way of looking at all of the interaction beneath us is to focus on how microbes are eaten by protozoa, which are eaten by centipedes, ants, and beetles.

 

 

But another way of thinking about all of that diversity in the soil is as a system of checks and balances. 

 

Fred Magdoff is a soil scientist and he thinks that “When there is sufficient and varied food for the organisms, they do what comes naturally, ‘making a living’ by feeding on the food sources that evolution provided… What you have is a thriving, complex community of organisms.”

And all of that diversity and interaction in the soil is what makes our food taste good. 

Magdoff says, “Taste comes from a more complex molecule that gets eaten, taken apart, and put back together in a different way.  The plant takes this, and all the other molecules, and catalyzes them into phytonutrients.  Taste doesn’t come from the elemental compounds (like calcium or nitrogen).  It comes from the synthesis” [The Third Plate, Dan Barber, page 85]

 

That’s really why you and I want all of that diversity in the soil after all.  Because we want the things we grow to thrive and taste good.  We want it to bear tasty fruit! 

In musical composition, unless it is a solo piece, it is the interaction of the various instruments each playing their part, yet working together that create harmonization.  

And in the church, it is the way that we each utilize our various gifts and we each play our part as hands or tongues or livers that allows the Body of Christ to make a difference in this world.  

 

But sometimes, the church acts more like a battlefield than the Body of Christ.  

When Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians, he was responding to the way factions and power and pride were tearing the community apart.  

Corinth was a port city and as such it had incredible diversity.  Ideas from across the globe all mingled and freed slaves lived amongst wealthy entrepreneurs.  The church reflected this diversity… but that created a power contest between the believers who argued with one another about which ideology or status was better than another.

At every turn, Paul reminds the people that their diversity should be seen not as a source of division, but as a blessing.  Because of their varied gifts and perspectives, they could do far more together than any of them could do on their own.  

 

We’ve experienced this as a church, haven’t we?  We have incredible diversity as far as our age and our political and theological perspectives and yet look at the amazing things that we have done together.

We raised over $5000 for Joppa in a weekend with a garage sale last year that brought so many different people together.

We built on Faith Hall and paid it off in record time because every person did their part.

We successfully launched Children’s Church because of the incredible work of so many different volunteers and people who were willing to try something new.  

Today is the last day of Third Grade Bible, which is an amazing way our more experienced folks help our young people learn about this amazing book that guides our faith journey.  

 

None of that could happen unless the various parts of THIS Body of Christ were willing to step up and play a part.  

You might be a foot or an eye or a spleen, but you play a part in this church.   We all play a part.  You might think that you are too young or too old or too busy to make a difference, but Paul says you are wrong.  You are an essential part of making the church work!  

Or you might think that church would be a whole lot simpler if everyone was just like me, but again, Paul says we are wrong.  It takes all of our different perspectives and experiences… even when they make things more complex… to be the Body of Christ God has intended for this community.

 

In the United Methodist Church right now, we are divided.  We are different.  And we feel differently about human sexuality.  We can’t always agree about how we should be in ministry with those folks on the margins, whether they are refugees or poor or elderly or tattooed or whatever else marks them as different from the majority.  And underneath all that disagreement is that we don’t all read the scripture in the same way.  

And sometimes, that diversity feels like a war.  It feels like the battle described the soil beneath us or in that clip from Minions.  We are chewing each other up and spitting each other out. And I hate the way my brothers and sisters are hurt and damaged by actions and words that cut to the core of their very being.  And I’ve watched as some people have walked away from the Body of Christ because of it.

When you focus on the conflict that diversity creates, you want to strip out everything that is different to protect yourself and others.  We want simple things.  We want unity, which means, we want to all be the same.

But I believe, and Paul believes, that to be healthy, we need diversity.  We need difference.  We need checks and balances.  We need reminders of the importance of the scripture and justice and mercy and love from people who don’t see it the same way we do. 

We need to listen. 

We need to hold one another accountable. 

We also need to challenge one another. 

We need to be willing to speak the truth in love.

And together, the interaction of all of our different parts creates something beautiful and mysterious and powerful.

John Wesley claimed the Moravian Motto: “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, love.”

There are key things that are pretty essential to who we are as not only United Methodists, but as Christians:  ideas like believing in the Triune God, and understanding that grace plays a role in our lives.  Core things, without which we simply could not be the Body of Christ.  

But there are other things that are non-essential.  What style of music or which translation or scripture or if we prefer percolator coffee or ground coffee or whole bean pour over. In those things, we are called to allow the freedom of diversity and expression and to give room and space for our siblings in Christ to be different and to share their varying gifts.

But no matter what… in all things, we are called to love.  To respect each other.  To listen.  To disagree without being disagreeable.  To be open to the moving of the Holy Spirit.  

In all things, Love.

It is not a coincidence that this chapter on what it means to be the Body of Christ comes right before the chapter on love.  Because the only way we make this kind of community work is through love.  We’ll talk more about that next week.   

 

In the same way the soil beneath our feet thrives on diversity and competition and interaction and synergy – this church thrives because we are different AND because we love one another.  And through God’s grace, that means we can do more than any one of us could accomplish on our own for the Kingdom of God.

Amen.

 

a billion organisms and the Body of Christ #iaumc15

Format Image

Did you know that soil is incredibly diverse and complex?  It might look like simple dirt, but one handful contains more living organisms than there are people on the planet.

 

And every part of the soil, every organism has a part to play.  They affect chemical and physical properties.  There are a billion bacteria in one gram of fertile soil that consume what is produced by green plants… there are fungi that decompose materials, there are soil animals that consume and decompose and feed on one another and leave channels in the soil that increases infiltration of minerals and water and oxygen.

And all of these living organisms live off of and feed off of one another.  It is their interaction that makes soil healthy and thriving and good.

In his book, The Third Plate, Dan Barber describes the “war” that is going on in the soil we walk upon.  It is a class system where:

Jack pointed to the soil. “There’s a war going on in there…”

first-level consumers (microbes), the most abundant and miniscule members of the community, break down large fragments of organic material into smaller residues; secondary consumers (protozoa, for example) feed on the primary consumers or their waste; and then third-level consumers (like centipedes, ants, and beetles) eat the secondaries.  The more Jack explained it, the more it started to sound like a fraught, complex community…

Fred Magdoff, likened the process to a system of checks and balances. “To me there is real beauty in how it works,” he said. “When there is sufficient and varied food for the organisms, they do what comes naturally, ‘making a living’ by feeding on the food sources that evolution provided… What you have is a thriving, complex community of organisms.”

I have been thinking about the immense complexity of dirt and what it means for us as the church.

We have been inundated with a move towards “simple church” and we talk so much about unity and yet I wonder what would happen if instead we embraced the incredibly complex, diverse, thriving nature of soil as a metaphor of our life together.

It is actually what we find in the Body of Christ as described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12. We have feet and hands and eyes and hearts and livers and spleens.  We all play a part. We might look at others and think, “I don’t need you,” but Paul says we are wrong.

In our Iowa Annual Conference right now, we are divided.  We are different.  We don’t read scriptures the same.  We feel differently about human sexuality.  We aren’t sure what we should do about those folks on the margins, our brothers and sisters, who are gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender or still discovering. Underneath it all is a different understanding of how we understand the scriptures.

And sometimes, that diversity feels like a war.  It feels like the battle Jack described the soil beneath us.  We are chewing each other up and spitting each other out. And I hate the way my brothers and sisters are hurt and damaged by comments that cut to the core of their very being.  Especially as I watch them walk away from the Body of Christ.

When you focus on the conflict that diversity creates, like Jack did, you want to strip out everything that is different to protect yourself and others.  We want simple things.  We want unity, which means, we want to all be the same.

But to be healthy, we need diversity.  We need difference.  We need checks and balances.  We need to remind each other of the importance of the bible and scripture and justice and mercy and grace and love.  It comes from both sides.  We need to listen.  We need to hold one another accountable.  We also need to challenge one another.  We need to say things that are difficult to hear.  We need to be willing to speak the truth in love.

And together, the interaction of all of our different parts creates something beautiful and mysterious and powerful.

Friends, we might look like United Methodists, but a little deeper under the cover of our identity, we are incredibly complicated. We are men and women, people of all sorts of shades of skin, languages, eye colors, theological perspectives, ideas, gifts, skills, ages…

I need you.  All of you. And together, God wants us to be amazing.

Listening to the Earth

Format Image

Our entire world is greening up this time of year, isn’t it. The trees are leafing out. The grass is vibrant. Shoots of green spring out of mulched patches of wood and earth.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

And as we walk through the springtime here in Iowa, our hearts do feel at peace.

It’s like we take one big gigantic sigh of relief that winter is over.

He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.

This world is amazing.

And in the midst of the green and purple and white and yellows of this time of year, we carved out space in our civic and religions calendars to celebrate this world. To honor the earth. To plant some trees. To remind ourselves once again of our need to care for this planet.

In the beginning, God made the heavens and the earth and declared them good.

And then, that very same God formed us from the dust of the earth and gave to us a precious task… to care for the world God had made.

From the ancient Israelites to the earliest followers of Christ, caring for the Earth was an important means of honoring and praising our Creator.

The General Board of Church and Society put out a resource a few years ago that remind us that ancient cultures worshipped a whole realm of Gods that each controlled a different part of nature. And so as they sought to control the world: to produce a harvest or stop torrential rains, they would honor and worship this God or that.

But we believe in one God, and we believe this world is not fragmented but interconnected. We believe every part of this creation is in the hands of our Creator and that every piece of the earth tells of God’s goodness. As Jesus noted in our gospel reading this morning – the stones themselves shout God’s praises.

And the ancestors of our faith saw that this interdependent world works well when it is cared for and that it fails when it is damaged or neglected. “In response to their understanding of God and the natural world, they created an ethos for living in healthy relationship with God, the Earth, and one another.”

Today, we refer to this as stewardship.

At our leadership retreat this spring, we talked about how stewardship was a core value of who we are here at Immanuel United Methodist. We believe we are called to the thoughtful and prudent use of God’s blessings.

One of those blessings is this earth. The earth that sustains and gives us life. The earth itself speaks God’s praises.

Yes, the rocks would cry out with shouts of joy if we were silent. And if we quiet our lives just a little and pay attention, we can hear the dirt speak.

This year, I wanted to feed that part of my soul that likes to play in the dirt, so I am currently taking a year-long continuing education course called “Organic Ministry.” I have been surprised by how many times I discover something new we should be learning… or we shouldn’t have forgotten… about our world. It has been a wonderful opportunity to listen to the earth and hear what it is telling us about God’s glory.

The first thing I’m hearing the earth speak is that everything truly is connected. We simply cannot sustain ourselves on our own. And God has provided this rich world of resources to give us life.

You see, good soil isn’t just something that farmers and gardeners care about. Soil makes our lives possible.

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. God our creator has provided.

This is not something that we often think about, but one little clump of dirt can hardly do much. All by itself, that clump of dirt would become dry and would not have the room for anything to take root within it.

But when one clump of dirt is surrounded by millions of other little dirt particles, then, it is something to be reckoned with! We know that the outermost layer of our planet is soil… but did you know that five tons of topsoil spread out over an acre of land would only be as thick as a dime? We need soil and lots of it to have abundant life.

How many of you slept on soil last night? Well, where do you live? What is your home built on?

How many of you are wearing soil today? Cotton grows in soil! Just check the label on your clothing.

What about eating soil? Just think about all of the foods that you have eaten this week that were grown in the soil, or medicines that were taken from the ground, or water that we have drank that has flowed through and been cleansed by the soil.

The second thing the earth is trying to tell us is that whether we are aware of it or not, is that we have a relationship with the earth.

It is not simply a stockpile of resources that we can use, but our actions impact the health of our world and its ability to continue to sustain us. The soil itself is like a living and breathing organism we must care for.

We think about dirt as dead matter, but in reality it is organic – full of both living and dead organisms. Fungi and bacteria help break down matter into soil and animals such as earth worms churn and nurture the earth. Without all of that living and breathing of the soil – life as we know it would cease.

Now, as a farm girl, I thought I knew this truth well. The soil that we faithfully plant our grains in each spring needs thoughtful and prudent care. We can’t simply plant corn in the same field every single year and expect our harvests to increase. A simple practice like crop rotation insures that vital nutrients like nitrogen are returned to the soil. That describes a relationship we have with the earth, where we listen to what it is telling us and we adapt and act in a new way so that all benefit.

But if we pay better attention to the earth, we begin to see that it thrives on diversity. It is often said that a handful of soil has more living organisms than there are people on the earth. Like the body with many parts that Paul describes in First Corinthians, every part is essential to health.

Yet we gradually strip out the essentials when we plant fields upon fields of only corn or beans for the sake of convenience and production.

As we listen to the earth, conservationists and farmers and gardeners are rediscovering the benefits of companion plants, and smaller scale farms with greater rotation. We are rediscovering that if we care for the soil, the soil will take care of the things we want to grow.

The last thing we hear from the earth today, is that it needs rest and renewal just like we do.

We look out this morning and we can see the flowers budding and hear the birds chirping the sun is shining… and it all sings God’s praise precisely because just two months ago the earth was brown and dormant.

Those of us who experience all four seasons are not doubly blessed, but blessed four times over because in each transition, we witness the hope and the promise and the love of God. We see life bursting forth. We watch things die and have the opportunity to rest, to find Sabbath in the cold winter months… holding fast to the promise the new spring of resurrection is just around the corner.

The world is a miracle.

It is a treasure.

When the Ancient Israelites noticed that everything in this world is interdependent, this is what they are talking about. The dirt and the air and the sun and plant life and our lives are all interconnected and this beautiful system God created works – as long as we take care of it.

Rules for a Global Church

For the past five weeks, we have used the visual reminder of small rocks like this one to help us live into our scriptures.

We have seen them lined up as a dividing line between us and them, and as a recreation of the body of Christ.

We felt their weight as they added up one by one in the way we keep track of wrongs.

We wrestled with what is fair and unfair.

We have talked about family and forgiveness.

 

Today, our rocks are piled up here on the communion railing. All together, they have created a sort of barrier or fence in the space.

If they were larger, the rocks piled up in this way would remind me of the ocean walls that break up the waves in front of the beach, or the stone fences that keep sheep and cattle from wondering off the property in some idyllic pasture.

 

As I began thinking about the ten commandments this week, I remembered that one of my favorite authors, Wayne Mueller, once described them as a fence, just like this.

He had learned the hard way the benefits of a fence when he was gardening. He could plant lots of good things, but the rabbits kept getting in and eating all that would grow. It was only when the fence was erected that the tulips and daffodils he had planted finally bloomed.

Mueller writes, “The fence was a simple prohibition against harmful activity.”   Instead of thinking about all the shall nots contained in the 10 commandments from exodus, what if we saw them as a garden fence? What if we came to see them as “a useful boundary that keeps out those things that would bring us harm?” What if the 10 commandments actually create a safe space in our lives, a holy space, that allows us to live together with one another in love?

 

In our final week of this series on difficult relationships and our need for forgiveness, we back up just a step and remember who we are.

As Genesis 1:27 reminds us, “God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.”

And as the first people of God built relationships and multiplied and moved, they found themselves living in new places and among people who no longer looked or thought like them.

And so as God worked to cultivate God’s people, to create space for them to grow and flourish and mature, God put a kind of fence around their lives.

God gave them, and us, these commandments to help us live the best and most fruitful lives possible.

 

When God commands us not to steal, God is setting us free to live generous lives.

When God commands us to honor our parents, God is caring for the aging.

When God commands us not to lie, God is helping us live lives of honesty.

Each command helps us turn our energy and our love toward one another and toward God. Each command creates the conditions for our best possible life, not as individuals, but as a community and as a world.

I believe that if each of us truly lived within the protective fence of these commands, there might be no need for forgiveness at all.

Can you imagine a world without slander and murder? A world where people worshipped only God and not their borders or their pocketbooks?

Can you picture how our planet might be different if we were not constantly striving for what someone else possesses, or hoarding our own belongings, but made sure that each of our brothers and sisters had enough?

 

Today, we celebrate World Communion Sunday. On this day, Christians across the world break bread in remembrance of Jesus Christ. We celebrate the entire body of Christ on this day, gathered in countries near and far. The gifts that we offer in the special envelopes in your bulletin help to train students from many backgrounds and cultures so that we can discover unity even in the midst of our diversity.

And I think the primary thing that unites us is the love of Jesus Christ.

The love of Christ reminds us we are all sinners in need of God’s grace.

The love of Christ shows us what grace and mercy are all about.

The love of Christ is sacrificial and bends down in service to others.

The love of Christ gives life to others.

Love seeks the good of others, no matter who they are, even if it is at our own expense.

 

We are not all the same. Across this great wide world we worship in different languages and eat different types of bread. We sing different types of music. We live in various political and social and economic realities. But as the people of God and followers of Jesus Christ, we are all have the same calling: to love.

When Jesus summarized all of the law and the prophets, he basically took the ten commandments and boiled them down to five words:

Love God. Love your neighbor.

That’s it.

These laws are all about the relationships we have been talking about these past few weeks.

Love is the fence that guards us from harmful activity. Love is the standard for how we are to behave. Love defines who we are.

 

Does that mean that we will always perfectly follow these commands? Does it mean that we will always be safe from others who would seek to harm us?

No, of course not.

This world is full of broken promises and imperfect people. We will make mistakes. We will sometimes forget the imperative to love. And we are surrounded by people who simply don’t care about our laws and our faith.

But our response to those who have harmed us or who challenge us should always and everywhere come from the same love that defines us as people of faith. Our response should always be love.

And loving our enemies and strangers means forgiving them and seeking peace and reconciliation.

 

During these past few weeks, one of the songs we have heard in both services is called “Forgiveness” by Matthew West. West wrote this song based on the story of a woman whose daughter was killed by a drunk driver. The young man who killed her was sentenced to 22 years in prison for his crime, but the mother wrote that she felt like the one who was a prisoner because of the anger and hatred she had towards the young man.

So she decided to forgive him. She built a relationship with this young man and asked God to help her show him love and grace and mercy. And today, they are both free because she chose to love.

 

This fence of God’s love frees us to be in relationships with other people, no matter how different we are, how broken we might seem, how challenging that might be.

Today, as we celebrate our unity, may we also celebrate the love that guides us every step of the way, the love that surrounds us and frees us to love others in return.

Church Whiplash

In the past six weeks, I have preached at some RADICALLY different types of churches.

My latest traveling marathon began with the invitation to be the official Imagine No Malaria spokesperson at a 5k event in Lakewood, Ohio.  As part of the festivities, I preached at the Cove and Lakewood United Methodist Churches.

Cove and Lakewood are beginning a new mutual partnership.  Lakewood essentially hired a third pastor, a deacon, who serves part time at Lakewood and part time as the pastor at Cove.  In reality, all three pastors preach and rotate between the two congregations.  They are building new relationships, drawing upon gifts to enhance one another, and I really hope it will be successful for all involved!

Worship at Cove UMC was in a beautiful sanctuary with dark wood and nautical themes and a huge anchor at the front of the sanctuary.  The choir was rowdy and fun and provided most of the energy for the service.  The crowd was sparse and folks seemed to tumble in at various times.  The church itself is shared between the United Methodists and the U.C.C. folks and so it was easy to see the overlap in the morning activities.  Before the service was over, I was rushed out the door to make it to Lakewood to preach at their traditional service.

Lakewood UMC’s traditional service is in a strange L shaped sanctuary. The choir and pulpit sit at the corner of the L and it makes for a really interesting preaching venue.  They are in the process of renovating so the space is less awkward and they can add some technology like screens and powerpoint and better sound.  I arrived most of the way through the service, just in time to get to the altar area and begin preaching.  Large choir, beautiful stained glass, very traditional style of worship… with the exception of that weird layout!

Then I preached at their contemporary service in the fellowship hall.  A band played along the right side of the worship space with screens at the front.  It was strange to have a very traditional altar and decorations in between high tech televisions, but it worked.  That service was very casual, seated around round tables, and it was nice to be able to look every person in the eye as I preached and shared.

When I got back from Ohio, I had a weekend off and then I preached another three service – this time at a three point charge in South Central Iowa.

Decatur City is a small little church and most folks don’t actually live in that community anymore.  The ten of us gathered for worship not in their sanctuary, but in the kitchen/fellowship space – with the altar as the kitchen counter.  The group was really close-knit and you could tell they looked out for one another.  The music was played on an old piano and they sang their hearts out.  It was informal and holy and the type of service where if someone interrupted with a question, you just went with it.

Davis City felt very different in comparison. While it was also a tiny little church, the sanctuary they worshiped in was for a much larger congregation.  The stained glass, the dark wood, felt very heavy in that space because there were so few of them.  In reality, no fewer than the previous church, but they all sat spread out at the back of the church.  Music came from the Hymnal on CD which added a different element to the service.  My favorite thing about worshiping with this group was the little girl who bounced here and there and everywhere.  You could tell they all loved her very much and as she took the offering, she clicked this little thing around her neck as a “thank-you.”

The third church in this cluster was Lamoni.  The building was newer (maybe mid 70’s), lighter, and fuller.  Young people were everywhere.  The music was blended, there was a screen and powerpoint, and the tiny sanctuary was packed with folks who were excited to be there and excited about the possibilities in their community.

The next weekend, I also preached at three services, but this time in one congregation – Grace in Des Moines. I started with their Saturday night service and made an assumption it would include a praise band and contemporary music and was pleasantly surprised to find a small chapel area, a good crowd, and jazz stylings on the piano with Taize selections from The Faith We Sing.  No screens, but good coffee and treats afterwards.  I could pass around a picture to illustrate my sermon and have great impact with the group.

The early morning service on Sunday was in the same space – a fellowship area they are trying to convert into a chapel of sorts.  It was a traditional service, stripped bare, with a good community feeling.  This was the early bunch and afterwards everyone rushed off to Sunday School so there wasn’t a lot of deep community in that worship service that I could sense… you could tell it might be worship for the folks who want the traditional worship from Grace but might have things to do that day.

The main worship service was very different.  Large sanctuary, three choirs, over three hundred in worship with long deep aisles and the balcony above.  No screens… just the music and the words. Lots of folks young and old. Very traditional and formal type of service. Preaching from the pulpit, I felt far away from the people, but also had the sense that all eyes were on me.  But worship extended beyond that space, it wasn’t necessarily the crowning jewel in that church, even though it was a highlight.  You could tell as they left the space, they went to gather, drink coffee, join in mission opportunities, go to lunch together, etc.

The next weekend, I was at another church for three services, but not to preach this time.  At Altoona UMC, they were in the midst of a series and so I shared for about five minutes as part of the sermon at each service.  Their traditional service was so different from what I think of as “traditional.”  There was a choir, the songs were all standards from the Hymnal, but the format of the service itself was very contemporary – front loaded with music with a long preaching/teaching time at the end.  Lighting changed the mood between prayers and message and songs.  Blues and reds lit up the stage and the audience was dimmed for the teaching portion.  The choir left after their music was finished and then a chair and a table was set in the middle for Pastor John’s message.  Technology is a huge part of how this church worships and it added to every single detail in a way that was seamless.

The second two services were similiar to one another.  Traditional, praise band, in many ways the exact same format as the first service, but with very different music.  The church is growing fast and every service had a sense of life and energy to it.  Pastor John did a great job of making some kind of personal reference with people in every service, calling someone out and showing how the point in the message impacted them personally.  It was a nice touch, and you can tell people know one another, are open about where they struggle and what they celebrate.

In the next few weeks, I have to fill out my Pastoral Profile form and indicate what type of community I feel called to serve in the next year.  Come July, I will be in a new appointment, because my work as the Imagine No Malaria Coordinator will be finished.  I thought knowing the diversity of what is out there might help me to check some boxes and not others, but to be honest, all of this moving between churches has given me whiplash.  I think if I had to think about the places where I felt the most grounded and connected, it was those services/congregations where there was a sense of community and support.  Not only for one another, but for what was happening in the world, too. I want to serve in a place where there is a willingness to think connectionally – both with other churches and with the wider world.  I want to serve in a place where they come to be fed so they can feed others.  And I realized in my whirwind preaching tour that it is not the size or location of a church or even they style of worship that determines whether or not those things happen.

home #gc2012

The processing of what exactly happened these past two weeks will take time.  My brain is still too full and jumbled to even begin to dig deep. 

But in response to some initial thoughts by the chair of our Iowa delegation, I started to think about some things that I am bringing home:

1) a reminder that we cannot legislate trust
2) the amazing experience of working together with people who are so different from myself and loving one another
3) knowing that all of the things we do… in the grand scheme of things what really matters is that people have a place at the table in our local communities. 
4) a desire to learn French
5) a deeper understanding of the process and the people who lead our church – and a recognition that we are all just people… people who care, who make mistakes, who put make-up on in bathrooms and drink coffee and say the wrong things and the right things, who deeply desire what is best for our church and yet might disagree on what that is.  It is humbling and inspiring and beautiful and messy.

truth and repentance #gc2012

Last night, our General Conference participated in an act of repentance toward healing relationships with Indigenous Peoples.  I’m not entirely sure what I expected from the service of worship, but it was more somber and prophetic than I had imagined.  There was less imagery and pageantry and more thoughtfulness and truth-telling. And the language used was much more radical than I had expected.

As people of this world, we have perpetuated crimes against our brothers and sisters.  We have taken land, forced our perspectives, and destroyed cultures.  We have not only committed sins of omission for not helping, but we have actively resisted the peace process and we have have gone into places as a violent force. We heard stories about the role of  Methodists in slaughter in the Phillippines, in the Sand Creek Massacre, in the Trail of Tears, in Africa, in Norway, in places all across this globe where we have done damage in the name of Jesus Christ for our own personal and corporate benefit.

It was hard to hear.  It was hard to relive.  It was hard to dream that reconciliation is ever even possible, that damage could be reversed, that wounds could be healed.

And it was a powerful witness by our leadership that this was not a time OF reconciliation.  This is merely the first step.  We have to know what we have done and we have to feel pain about it.  That pain leads us to repentance.  That pain leads us to weep at what we have done. 

In the service of worship, there were not celebrations or even folks there who we could apologize to.  Rev. Tinker made it very clear that others are not at the table because we cannot just say we are sorry and move on.  We are not at a point of reconciliation yet… but he is walking with us because he knows how difficult it is to repent and he is walking beside us in the process.  That point was driven home again and again and it was important to hear. 

Our call now is to be in repentance.  To be continually repentant.  To take a step forward every day. To work for harmony and balance in all that we do. 

One step forward. 

May we not take two steps back…