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As that short film reminded us, there 65 million refugees and forcibly displaced persons in the world today.

That is roughly thirty-two times the number of people who live in Iowa.
In fact, if you added up the populations of the whole North Central Jurisdiction of the UMC – both Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio – you’d only reach a population of 57 million. You’d have to also throw in Nebraska and Missouri.
65 million people across this planet have had to leave their homes in order to survive… and I thank God that the United Methodist Church is responding in love and compassion towards these people – providing support, health, welcome, opportunities, and hope.

But I must admit that I am challenged by our Advent texts for this morning that ask a very difficult question.
Welcoming the stranger, the migrant, the refugee is one thing…
How are you going to help clear the way for your neighbors to someday return home?

You see, when Isaiah proclaims his words of comfort to the people of Israel, he is not simply talking about making a way for God’s presence to be known…
No, a way, a literal path, is being made for the exiles in the land of Babylon to go back home.
After being forcibly removed from their homes and carted off to a land of strangers, Isaiah was proclaiming that the time had come to return.
And all obstacles were being removed… the mountains were being leveled, the valleys being filled… anything that might keep the people from finding their home once again would be swept away.
Perhaps one of the most visible group of refugees in the world today are Syrians. We are haunted by the images of those little ones on the beach and moved by the gratitude of those whose families make it to the shores of a distant land.
This weaving that usually sits outside of my office is made from life jackets and clothing that have been collected along the shore line in Greece. Refugee women put their entrepreneurial spirit to work in making these beautiful creations that are a powerful reminder of their journey.
In this season, as we think about how not only people, but the entire planet longs for Christ to come once again and usher in the Kingdom, I am reminded that the roots of the Syrian conflict that led these families to leave their homes started with a drought.

Syria is a region that was the birth of human civilization. It is known as the Fertile Crescent, a land of rivers and agriculture and the flourishing of life. But from 2006 – 2009, the region experienced an extreme drought… the worst seen in a millenia… the culmination of “a century-long trend toward warmer and drier conditions.”
This drought was a catalyst for the conflict, because as many as 1.5 million people fled from rural to urban areas after failed governmental policies to mitigate the damage and crop failures, adding to social stresses and anger at government leaders.

In fact, the United States military has now classified climate change as a “significant strategic threat” or a “threat multiplier” that leads to instability in various parts of the world.
We now are in the sixth year of a violent conflict that has left nearly half a million dead and has forced 11 million from their homes.

Climate scientists see two potentially permanent shifts in the climate of this region that contributed to the severe drought – “a weakening of winds that bring moisture-laden air from the Mediterranean and hotter temperatures that cause more evaporation.” Natural causes cannot account for such a drastic shift… only when you factor in the human impact on the environment can you make sense of the data.
When I hear John the Baptist standing on the banks of the River Jordan, crying out for us to prepare the way of the Lord… I also hear him calling for us to repent.
For too long, we have considered this planet as a resource to be plundered, instead of as a gift to be protected. We have allowed our desire for convenience to change our habits as consumers and we buy and throw away material goods at an alarming pace.
Instead of leveling mountains and raising valleys, places like Cedar Rapids are literally creating mountains out of our trash…

Someday, I pray to God, when peace comes to Syria and the conflict ends, the reality of a changed landscape and climate patters still has to be reckoned with.
So the question for us today, is how do we need to repent… how can we help clear the way and change our practices, so that these places might once again be fertile and sustain life?
How can our actions today help prepare the way for future generations to return home?

When I think about how the world has banded together through the Paris Climate Accords, our efforts to curb global warming are not an effort to bring about restoration, but merely to prevent the worst from happening. And even then, the goals are only aspirational.

What we truly need is to repent, change our ways, and work to restore creation.

In past years, I have listened to the wisdom of a group called Advent Conspiracy. They believe that Christmas can change the world if we focused on four simple things:
1) We need to worship fully. We need to dive into our scriptures and these texts from Isaiah and Luke in order to remember the one who has called us to live differently in this world.
2) We need to spend less. We need to let go of the endless need to consume and buy that is wreaking havoc on our planet. 99% of everything that we purchase will end up as waste products within 6 months. 99%!
3) So their third call is to give more… not of stuff, but of presence – relational presence. We need to spend more time with one another rather than money.
4) Lastly, we need to love all people – and remember the poor, the forgotten, and the marginalized

In all of these things, we can make a significant impact on creation around us. We can stop putting money in the pockets of the most wealthy and stand on the side of the oppressed. We can work for the restoration of relationships, rather than buying happiness. And we can answer the perennial call to live differently upon this world.

In many ways, this is what Mary is proclaiming in her song as well.
She glorifies the Lord who chose her… a young, poor, female servant.
She cries out God’s praises for pulling the powerful down from thrones and lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty handed.
She sees in the new life that is growing within her the possibility that all who fear, all who are oppressed, all who have not will be able to find a way to thrive in God’s kingdom.

This Advent and Christmas is an opportunity for you and me to repent and change our ways.
We can take stock of our endless consumerism and instead seek to live more faithfully and gently upon this earth.
We can advocate for policies and practices that help us to reduce our impact upon this world.
We can personally do our part to reverse environmental harm – whether it is in our own backyards or halfway across the world.
And someday, as a result of our actions, we will have helped make a way for all of God’s creation to return home…

Home. #umcgc

Each evening, when deliberations are done, it’s time to head home.

While for most delegates, that has been to a hotel room, sometimes shared with one other person, I am sharing a home with a small group of folks.

We found a place through AirBnB not too far from the convention center. It is a Victorian, in a lovely neighborhood, close to stores and transportation.

And it has been amazing to have a home to come home to.

In college, I lived in intentional community with folks through our “theme house” system. We shared interests and ideals along with milk and bathrooms. Common spaces were where ideas were freely exchanged, debate was encouraged, and at the end of the day we had to figure out how to get along because for the most part we were stuck with each other.

Our living arrangement these two weeks is temporary, but we do have relationship with each other. And it has been wonderful to have common space to reflect and process what each day has brought… And sometimes talk about anything but.

The conveniences of a house are nice… But home really is about who you share it with… And for those folks these past two weeks, I am grateful.

God Changes Minds

I change my mind all the time.

I like variety. I learn. I grow. I experience new things. I’m in a different mood.

And my understanding and beliefs change as a result.

All. The. Time.

Most recently, we have been doing some work on our backyard.

Early this spring, we removed a few trees. And the morning the workers came to take the trees down, I thought I wanted the pile in one place.

Today, I want it somewhere else.

I changed my mind.

My initial decision was one that had to be made in the moment.

And at the time, I thought I knew exactly what I wanted.

I also thought I understood how much wood there would be.

Now, I’m the first to admit, I was completely and utterly mistaken.

 

woodpileWhat we were left with when the tree company left was an enormous wood pile.

I didn’t have all the information.

I didn’t understand the scope and breadth and depth of what this pile would be. Or how it would block the view of my barberries and take up the entire first level of our retaining wall.

I hadn’t thought about the best way to store said wood in order to help it cure.

I couldn’t see in that moment the bigger picture.

And now, I’m going to build some muscles moving all of those logs… because now, with more information and some experience, my mind was changed.

 

In our reading from Acts today, Peter changed his mind, too.

Or rather God changed Peter’s mind.

Like me, Peter couldn’t see the big picture.

 

He was living his life as a faithful Jewish man and thought he knew exactly what God was about and what God wants from the people. He presumed to understood the rules of faith.

But his knowledge was limited.

He didn’t see the scope and the breadth and the depth of God’s love for all people.

In the prelude to our scripture reading from Acts this morning, Peter has been sent on a missionary journey to the home of Cornelius… a gentile.

A Gentile is anyone who is not Jewish, someone who was not a part of the family of Israel, someone who was an outsider as far as the faith was concerned.

While the scripture describes Cornelius as a God-worshipper, Gentiles had limits on their participation in the Jewish temple.

Second Temple Model, JerusalemThe temple had many different courts, and the requirements to move further and further into the temple, towards the holy of holies, left many out. The big open area you see in the photo is called the Court of the Gentiles. That was the only part of the temple Gentiles could enter.

They were excluded from the rest because they were unclean.  They were different.  They were not welcome.

But many faithful god-fearing folks like Cornelius continued to show up. They continued worshipping God from those outer courts. In spite of the exclusion, they wanted a relationship with God.

 

And God wanted a relationship with them. So God prepares Peter’s heart for a transformation in thinking. Before God sends Peter to Caesarea and the home of Cornelius, he gives him a vision of the clean and unclean joining together.  Peter receives a vision of a new sort of body of Christ.

Then he is summoned to the home of Cornelius, and although he was not allowed by Jewish custom to enter, he did. He went in and ate with the family and he shared with them the good news of Jesus Christ. And as he preached to Cornelius and his family, the Holy Spirit descends upon them and they receive the gift of faith.

 

Peter’s world has just been turned upside down.  Those he thought were outside of God’s love and power have just had it poured upon them.  And exclaims: “These people have received the Holy Spirit just as we have. Surely no one can stop them from being baptized with water, can they?”

No one could deny their gifts. Water was brought and Cornelius and his whole family were baptized on the spot… they were part of the family of God.

 

When my husband and I decided to take down some trees at our house, we thought we understood the parameters of the proposal. They take down the trees. We keep the mulch and the wood. End of story.

But what exactly are we going to do with all of that wood?

How are we going to store it?

What do we do with the plants that were once in a shady area that now need to be moved?

And what happens to the family of bunnies that has now made their home in the wood pile in its current location?

As soon as a new, unexpected element enters the equation, it is natural that there is some anxiety, some wheel spinning, and chaos.

 

And that is precisely what happened in the aftermath of Peter and Cornelius.

You can take down a tree or two. You can baptize a Gentile family.

But there are going to be repercussions.

Things just won’t be the same.

 

Peter is summoned back to Jerusalem. He is called back to the apostles who heard about what happened and who aren’t so sure they like what has happened.

They start with criticism. They launch into accusations. They read off the rules. I can imagine their frustration growing as they start to wrestle with the implications of what has just happened.

 

The leaders of the early church, like Peter, believed that faith meant one thing, and God was trying to show them it meant something else. But we cling to our traditions, to our rules, to what we know and understand.

I think the number one way God changes our hearts and minds is by helping us experience the world in a different way.

That’s what happened with Peter. God moved him to the right time and place and put Cornelius in his life to give him an undeniable experience of grace and power and Holy Spirit led transformation.

 

But the number two way God changes hearts and minds is by calling those who have had these life-altering experiences to tell their story.

 

The apostles were furious and demanded an explanation.

And Peter gave them one.

 

He told them about his vision.

He told them about how God led him to the house of Cornelius.

He connected what he had experienced of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit with what he witnessed first-hand in Caesarea.

In chapter 11, verse 16-17 he testifies: “I remembered the Lord’s words: ‘John will baptize with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If God gave them the same give he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, then who am I? Could I stand in God’s way?”.

 

Seventy five years ago, I probably would not have been welcomed in this pulpit.  As a woman, ordination was out of the question.  A combination of tradition and a patriarchal society and a way of reading the scriptures precluded the church from welcoming women as preachers and pastors.

But here I stand… robed, ordained, my calling from the Holy Spirit confirmed by the church.

At various points throughout our history, faithful folk stood up and exclaimed about women:  These people have received the Holy Spirit… just like we did – How can we stop them from being baptized?  How can we deny them a place at the table?  How can we stop them from being ordained when God has so clearly spoken in their lives?

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism was against women preaching in principle… until he witnessed the Holy Spirit working through the lives of women like Sarah Crosby, Grace Murry, and Hannah Ball.  He relented and licensed them for preaching in the circuits across England.

God changed his mind.

God changed the mind of our church.

God helped us to see a different vision of what the church and our community could be, just as God had done for Peter.

As a young woman, I have always lived in a church that ordained women.  I have always been a part of a church that valued the contributions women made in ministry, in leadership, and in the world.  It has been a given.

But I often wonder where God is going to change our minds next.

 

“I really am learning that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another,” Peter says.

 

When I was in Washington, D.C. last week for a leadership fellows training, the church we spent our days at had welcome signs plastered throughout the building.

 

“We love single people, divorced people, widowed and married people,” it says.

“We love people who have not been to church in ages and those who never miss a Sunday.”

“We love people who are in recovery and those who are still addicted.”

 

The list went on and on, but it reminded me that God shows no partiality to one group of people or another.

God wants to be in relationship with all of us.

With the whole of creation.

With you and me.

With black and white and brown.

With young and old, and gay and straight,

with those struggling with mental health and those who love them.

With life-long Americans and with people who have just arrived in our country.

 

When you start to make a list, all of a sudden the people we are supposed to love and share the good news with starts to overwhelm us.

Like the woodpile in my yard, it truly seems incredible and awesome.

The question that’s before us is: what are we going to do about it?

How will this knowledge change our practice?

And if we are going to let God change our hearts and minds and church, where do we need to start moving around the woodpile to make room for everyone to thrive and find a place here?

Life on the Road

When I accepted the position as a coordinator of Imagine No Malaria, someone asked what it was like to no longer be serving a church.  My response back was that I’m not serving one church… I’m serving nearly 800 of them!

It is exciting to be working with so many new people and communities of faith.  I am learning a lot about how different churches operate and what they expect of the conference… both as far as what they can give and what they receive.  I am finding creative new possibilities, folks who are eager to serve and who have profoud stories to share.  I hear those familiar, tired, overworked and burnt out voices, too… the ones who are hungry for a new injection of life and/or for fresh blood to come in and lend a hand.  I’m witnessing the church with all of its glory and warts.  It is beautiful.

But I am also spending a lot of time on Interstates 80 and 35 and Hwy 20.  My butt is carving out a dent in the driver’s seat of my car.  My trunk is full of flyers and training materials and my backseat is littered with McDonald’s bags.  (I really need to work on finding more out of the way, hometown, local places to eat).  In three days, I’ll be in five different cities doing the work of Imagine No Malaria. It is exciting, but as I type up this post, I’m sitting in a hotel room far from home.  I found myself last week fully expecting to see my cat sitting on the edge of the bed, only to remember I was all by myself.

The trainings I have been leading have been good. I’m learning a lot even as we are building some connections and support in each district.  The more we do, the more I realize how far we have to go.  There is a lot of road left in front of us!

Time flies when you are surrounded by cardboard

Six weeeks ago: I said yes to my Bishop and began hunting for a place to live.

Five weeks ago: I announced to my congregation that I was accepting the invitation to a new adventure in ministry.

Four weeks ago: we began to pack and say goodbye and let things go one by one.

Three weeks ago: I found myself in Nashville for training for my new position with Imagine No Malaria at UMCom.

Two weeks ago: Frantically handing over ministries and leaving instructions, I find myself down for the count with the worst sinus infection I’ve ever had and I start my new job.

One week ago: I said good-bye to my church family and began to transition to the next with new colleagues and new phone numbers and new emails and new everything.

Today: I’m sitting in our new home, directing conference calls, settling in, and starting a very different life for a short stretch of time.

I tried blogging through some of the chaos near the beginning, but then I didn’t have the time I needed to really process all of the change.  I knew I needed to, but I kind of bottled it all up and have bits and pieces of thoughts saved as private posts here and there.  As I get the time to look back through them, I’ll see if there is anything “salveageable” in them.

I think for today, however, the best metaphor for what my life has been in the past few weeks is to think about my kitty cats.

My cats Tiki and Turbo are shy.  They are extremely loveable and very nice, but they are introverts.  They don’t do well around people and would prefer to hide under the bed… at least for a few hours or until people have left.

They have traveled and spent time in other houses before.  Mostly my brother-in-laws house, where they spent most of our two week vacation hiding behind a chair where they thought no one could see them.

As soon as we arrived in the new place, we put them in the laundry room where they could have some space, but wouldn’t have to see all of the people moving all of the stuff.

The problem was, they didn’t want to come out when the chaos was over.  We found them hiding behind the dryer, huddled together, just hoping that no one would see them.

As my husband and I eventually dragged them out of their little cozy corner (who am I kidding, it wasn’t cozy – it was dark and dusty and a little dank, too), they were tramautized.  Hearts pounding, heads bobbing back and forth, not sure of what to do or where to run and hide.

I carefully cradled one cat, Brandon the other, and we showed them the house.  We took them through every room and set them lovingly on their familiar pieces of furniture.  And the whole time, their heads bobbed and weaved, sniffing and smelling, trying to take it all in, overwhelmed by the differences and yet the familiarity.  It was dizzying to watch them… and yet I knew how they felt.

So many things have changed in the last few weeks, and yet so many things have remained the same.  It’s like the world is upside down, but it’s the same world.  It’s not better… it’s definitely not worse… it’s just disorienting.  I’m still craning my neck and peeking around corners and “sniffing” out what all this new life entails.  I’m still unsure, and yet starting to get situated, excited, full of anticipation.

I knew the cats would be fine when Turbo hopped into bed with us last night and found “his spot” right between our pillows.  And even though Tiki never made it up the stairs to our master suite the night before, he found his own way and pounced on our feet… right on schedule as the sun started to rise.  They seem to be enjoying new places to run and hide, new adventures around every corner… and yet they also seem to be a little bit more cuddly and cozy – wanting to be closer than before.

Change makes you think about what is really necessary and what is really important.  It brings your life into focus.  It makes you want to be cozier with the ones you love and cherish the home you have.  It has been a whirlwind of a month, and we are still surrounded by cardboard… but everything is finally starting to settle into place.  Tiki just used all of the boxes as an opportunity to leapfrog from one pile to the next and perch a top the highest one so he could survey his new territory.  I feel like even in the chaos, I’m on top of the world, enjoying the view, and ready to tackle anything.

Making Room

Funeral Meditation based on Luke 2:1-7

As Christmas approaches, we are reminded that a very pregnant young woman and her patient fiancé were once left out in the cold. They made their way to the town ofBethlehemhoping and praying that someone would have a place for them to stay… but there was no room.

As Luke tells us:

Joseph went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. She gave birth to her firstborn son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.

There was no place for them in the guestroom.

Notice… it doesn’t say that they were full. It doesn’t say that there wasn’t room. It says that there was no place for them.

Your mother and grandmother was someone who always had a place in her heart for others.  She took great care to make sure that everything was just right for people and that they knew how loved they were.

Wilma was born in 1925 here in Marengo to John and Carrie Ehrman, she graduated from the Marengo High School.  She worked in the office of Byron Goldthwaite and also as a Deputy Clergy for the county… but you know best that her true love and her true vocation was to be a homemaker.  She greatly enjoyed cooking for her family and you enjoyed eating her fried chicken and other wonderful meals.  She made many of her own clothes with her skills as a seamstress… and some for you too, although Jean, you would have preferred to wear the store bought clothes =)  She kept an exceptionally clean house and cared about the details.  And she did it all for you.

She made a place for each of you in her lives and made sure that you were taken care of and that you were loved.  She made a place for you.

Luke reminds us as we approach Christmas that the Lord of Lords crept into this world on a quiet evening and that there was no place for him. There was no place for his unmarried mother. There was no place for the man who would be his earthly father. There was no place.

I hear in that statement that there was no welcome for them.

Who wants to take in a pregnant girl in the middle of the night?

Who wants to deal with these strangers who didn’t have enough sense to plan ahead?

Who wants to give up their spot?

In some Mexican and Latin American communities, the tradition of Las Posadas reminds folks of the absence of hospitality Mary and Joseph recieved.  In the days before Christmas, processions go from house to house and request lodging.  The host for each evening turns the people away… until the final night, Christmas Eve, when Mary and Joseph are finally allowed to enter and the people gather around the nativity to pray.

So many times in our actions, we too, can tell other people: There is no place for you here.

But I imagine your mother and your grandmother would have loved being the host for the last night of LasPosadas… That she would have opened up her home and said – yes, there is a place for you.  I will make room.

The God that your mother and grandmother believed in, crept into this world to make sure that we all had a place. He came as a child to make us children of God. He came and was rejected so that we might never be rejected again. He died so that we might live.

Before he died, Christ reminded his disciples and reminded us:

Don’t be troubled. Trust in God. Trust also in me. My Father’s house has room to spare. If that weren’t the case, would I have told you that I’m going to prepare a place for you? When I go to prepare a place for you, I will return and take you to be with me so that where I am you will be too.

There is a place for you. That is what Christ tells us. That is what Christ shows us. That is what Christ gives us.

Wilma knew that her job was to make a place for you in this world.  May you let her life and her memory live on by carrying in your hearts the desire to serve others… to love others… more than yourself.

Amen. And Amen.

tea and danish

I’ve blogged before about how church visitation makes my skin crawl.  It gets me all weirded out for no good reason at all.  It is one of two places that my “introverted” side really shines through – the other being the sheer exhaustion that comes over me when I finally get back home after a morning spent at church on a Sunday.

I think part of the reason visitation is so awkward for me (and not the actual visits… and not hospital visits or nursing home visits… its working up to the visit and actually arriving on the doorstep that is hard) is that I don’t want to intrude on people’s lives.  I don’t want to show up unannounced.  I don’t want to butt in.  I know lots of people who would prefer to simply be left alone.  Frankly, when someone shows up on my doorstep – even if I’m kind of expecting them – and I’m wearing my fuzzy red pajama pants and my glasses are on and my hair is hastily in a ponytail – I would rather not answer the door.  And I’m certainly not going to invite them in.

SO.

big problem if you want to be a pastor who tends the flock.

Big problem that I think I have solved.

I now invite folks to invite me over.  Or invite them to stop by.  Or invite them to let me know where/when we can meet for coffee.

I’m sending out these little postcards to folks, one chunk of the alphabet at the time.  And they have the chance to mail them back or drop them in the offering plate and give me some feedback:
Sure- come on over to my house, and here are the times that are good for me.
How about we meet for coffee or lunch somewhere?
I would love to come into the church and visit with you in your office.
Thanks for the offer, but I am not interested in a personal visit at this time.

Just making that decision, to put the ball in my members court, was liberating.

Today, I had my first visit in someone’s home as a result of using these cards.  And it was awesome.  I got the grand tour of her house.  We had danish and cups of tea in the kitchen.  She sent me home with some apples from the tree in her backyard.  We talked about her family and the ways that she had served the church and she had the opportunity to ask me questions about a new position she was taking on for the next year.  And it was because she knew I was coming, and I knew she was expecting me, and because we both wanted to get to know one another better that we had such a wonderful time.
In some ways, I felt like by using this new method I was cheating just a little bit, but after talking with my superintendent, he helped me to realize a few things.
First – this allows my congregation members to respond as they feel comfortable.  This is a german community and folks are pretty private.  They don’t let you into their personal lives easily.  We would rather put on a proud face than admit we have problems and while we are quick to help out, we resist help from anyone else.  This method allows those who want to visit the opportunity to do so – in their own way.
Second – it takes the pressure off the cold calls.  It allows me to be more comfortable, because I already know that this particular person or family is expecting me.  They aren’t worried about what their home looks like, because they invited me to come over.  They aren’t rushing out the door for a soccer game, because this is a time that is good for them.  They are prepared for me to show up.  Or we are meeting somewhere at a specific time and have the chance to grab a cup of coffee and we both know that this time is set aside for a conversation.
Third – It lets folks know that I really do care about them, that I’m willing to make the effort to get out and see them… even if they are people that haven’t been to church in ages.  Most of those folks are not going to return the cards.  And so the question that I’m struck with is – do I call and follow up?  Or do I respect their decision not to reach out?  I think the sentiment we ended on was that if I continue to make these kinds of efforts – not right away – but every once and a while – they’ll know I really do care.  That I’m not pestering.  And that when they are ready – I will be too.

absent

I’ve been away… yes, I realize this.

life has been far too busy to blog. But tonight I cleaned my desk off in my home office and I might actually have a place to blog in comfort again =)