From Everywhere to Everywhere (2.0)

This Sunday, I was making my way back from our bi-annual Global Ministries meeting and so took the opportunity to do a brief rewrite of the message I preached at Ingathering:

This quadrennium, I have the honor of serving on our General Board of Global Ministries:

Last fall, in our opening worship, we read the names of the missionaries who have died in the last four years, like we do on All Saints day.  It was holy and humbling to think about all of those people who had spent their lives serving God wherever they were sent.  But I also noticed that they almost all had very white, very Anglo sounding names.

That evening, and since then, I have met missionaries who remind me that the focus of our global ministries has truly shifted.  Katherine fits that traditional model and is from California. She has served through Global Ministries in a variety of far flung places including Japan, Iowa, and now Nepal.

But Alina is a native Bolivian and she is serving in Nicaragua on behalf of Global Ministries.

Luis is from Brazil and will be heading up the new regional Mission Center in Buenos Aires.

Another leader from Brazil will work with the new regional Mission Center in Africa focusing on Portuguese speaking countries.

There is an African American who speaks Japanese who will serve in the new Mission Center in Seoul, South Korea.

And we heard about a missionary from Zimbabwe who is heading to Canada to serve an African refugee community there. 

Our Executive Director of Global Mission Connections was just elected a bishop in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but last year, Bishop Mande wrote:

“Mission used to be thought of as coming from the center (churches in developed countries) and going to the peripheries (people in developing countries). But our sense today is that there isn’t a center anymore—that doing mission lies in mutuality, looking at each other as equal partners and learning from one another. Our heritage from the Wesleyan movement tells us that God’s grace is everywhere and everyone shares in it.” (http://um-insight.net/in-the-church/umc-global-nature/no-center-no-periphery-a-regional-approach-to-mission/)

 From everywhere… to everywhere…

 

Fundamental to the shift in our global ministries is the recognition of prevenient grace.

The idea that God is moving in our lives long before we know who or what God is.

The idea that grace and truth, beauty and holiness, forgiveness and love are not gifts we enlightened people bring to the heathens, but that we can discover God’s work in the midst of people we meet… whether or not they know God, yet.

 

I think the shift we are experiencing in mission is paralleled in Paul’s ministry in Athens.

As we start the scripture reading today, he is preaching and sharing the good news of Jesus on the streets. And the people don’t get it and they don’t get him.

Some translations say they take him, or brought him, others that they asked him, but if you look to the original Greek the word is “epilambanomai” – to lay hold of or to seize. 

The Common English Bible translates this passage… “they took him into custody.”  The people REALLY don’t get him.  Paul is trying to shove something foreign down their throats.

This is the same word used when Simon the Cyrene was forced to carry Jesus’ cross as we remembered on Good Friday.  And it’s a word used twice to describe how Jesus grabs hold of someone to rebuke or challenge and heal them.

Paul is not taken to Mars Hill by choice.

He is brought to the council and placed in the middle of the people…

 

And then something in Paul shifts.  His language changes.  

He realizes that speaking of foreign things isn’t making and impact.

He starts to contextualize the good news of Jesus Christ.

He recalls an altar he saw, “To an unknown God” and uses that altar… in a city filled with idols… to begin explaining the God he has come to know.

What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you… God made the nations so they would seek him, perhaps even reach out to him and find him.  In fact, God isn’t far away from any of us.  In God we live, move, and exist.

 

In our Wesleyan heritage, the idea of prevenient grace is that it goes before us.  God’s grace is all around us. In God, we live, move, and exist.  Even if we don’t know it yet.  And by grace, some of us reach out and find God.

 But there is another side to prevenient grace… that God doesn’t just sit back and wait to be found, but actively seeks us.

God enters our lives and our stories.

God takes on our flesh.

God speaks our words and breathes our air and tells stories about our lives.

The incarnation was as much a part of the good news as the resurrection.  

And so Paul, at Mars Hill, adopted an incarnational ministry and spoke the words of the people, pointed to their objects, entered their stories, and showed them where he saw God.

Or as he writes in 1 Corinthians: “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews… to the weak, I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” (1 Cor 9:20-22)

 

Alan Roxburgh and Scott Boren, in “Introducing the Missional Church,” claim this is the same type of ministry Jesus commissioned the disciples for – sending them out in pairs into communities, inviting them to live deeply in the midst of strangers… eating what they eat, relying upon their customs and hospitality. It was incarnational ministry.

It is the life so many of our United Methodist missionaries take on – going from everywhere to everywhere.

 

In my work earlier with Imagine No Malaria and now with Global Ministries I am so proud of the fact that we do not seek to impose our ways upon communities, but partner with people and seek mutuality.

We no longer fly into a community and drop off bed nets then leave… we work with local leaders and partners and build community health workers who can help us explore best practices, share with us their customs, and ultimately be that incarnational presence on the ground long after an initial distribution of nets has occurred.

Those same community health workers were also then in place when the Ebola epidemic struck so many Western African countries and we were positioned to make a difference because of the relationships we had already established.

And now, we are applying that same model to our disaster response through UMCOR – not sending in support, but nurturing local leadership to be the disaster response coordinator in places like Mozambique.    

 

Our Global Ministries Board of Directors only meets twice a year to evaluate and govern the work of the staff who do this ministry daily.   And in these past three days when I was in Atlanta, I learned that the biggest challenge and blessing facing our work today is Global Migration.  

65.3 million people today are forcibly living outside of their own country.  

65.3 million.

And while about a quarter of these are refugees fleeing from conflict in their homelands, we are also seeing increasing numbers of people who are being forced to migrate because of climate change.

One of our United Methodist communities in Fiji has been forced to leave their island home because of rising sea waters.  

Changing weather patterns contribute to droughts and immense hunger and poverty that cause others to flee.

But other severe weather events like hurricanes and cyclones are also increasing, both numerically and in strength, sending many from their homes.

So not only are we needing to listen to the people in local contexts, but we are also learning how to listen to the world around us and are positioning ourselves to be in place to respond and be proactive for the disasters that we know are coming that will impact our ministries.  

 

The work of Global Ministries is from everywhere, to everywhere.

The only question I have for you is… why do we leave it to the work of our missionaries?

Why are we not living out the gospel in our communities in the same way?

Because if our call is really from everywhere to everywhere, then we become aware of the reality that our neighborhood is a mission field, too.

Corey Fields writes, “today, in the attractional model, the church expects the opposite. We program and advertise and try to do just the right thing that will compel others to come to us as the stranger on our turf. It is the church that is to go, however, taking on the flesh of its local context. In the words of Lesslie Newbigin, “If the gospel is to be understood…it has to be communicated in the language of those to whom it is addressed.”  (http://soapboxsuds.blogspot.com/2013/05/taking-on-flesh-incarnational-theology.html )

Our neighborhood is filled with people from nations all across this world.  And it is filled with people who have been in the United States for generations, but for whom the good news of God has become a distant and unknown reality.  

Our churches need to learn more than we teach.

We need to listen more than we speak.

We need to go out into our neighborhoods more than we sit back and wait.

Like Paul, we need to start paying attention and figuring out how to speak in the languages of the people we encounter.

 

Because only by being present with our communities will we ever see how God is already present and how the people of this place live, move, and exist in God.

 

From everywhere… to everywhere… God is present, God is living, God is breathing new life and hope.

 

What God Has Sown

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In this past month, I have found new appreciation for the Apostle Paul.

You see, on top of being an apostle and a scholar, a writer and mentor; in addition to the work he did as a tanner to pay his own way through ministry; he was also a fundraiser.

I think that tiny detail skipped my attention for so many years, because I didn’t know what it meant to be a fundraiser. I wasn’t aware of the strategies and the prayer and the faith that goes into soliciting money from perfect strangers.

But I do now!

I have spent my entire life hearing that phrase, “God loves a cheerful giver” out of context… and you probably have, too.

While Paul has many other topics to cover in this letter to the people of Corinth, chapters 8 and 9 represent a sort of “stewardship letter” much like many of you received in the mail last week.

Corinth was a rich and powerful city in Greece. The ports had made them wealthy beyond measure. So it is natural that they had resources to spend and to invest and to, yes, even donate to the church.

Paul was encouraged by the apostles in Jerusalem to remember the poor and needy in the city (Galatians 2), and he wanted to honor those who had sent him out in ministry by sending back gifts that could support their work. Much like our apportionments today, the funds he was raising would be used for ministry in the other places the apostles had influence. And Paul knew Corinth would be the place where gifts could be abundant.

In his letter to them, Paul first of all talks about these poor people in Macedonia who have absolutely nothing but the love and grace of God, but somehow managed to pull together an incredible offering to send with Paul. He writes that though they were impoverished and struggling, they heard his plea for money to help the needy in Jerusalem.

From chapter 8: 3-4: “they gave what they could afford and even more than they could afford, and they did it voluntarily. They urgently begged us for the privilege of sharing in this service for the saints.”

And Paul says, all the while, I was telling them about YOUR generosity, you people of Corinth. I was telling them about how much YOU had promised to do. They wanted to be a part of that… part of this incredible opportunity we have to care for the needs of others. They gave out of their poverty, and now it’s your turn.

Paul asks the Corinthians to carefully consider their obligations and to take note of where their resources are needed and then to give cheerfully and jubilantly out of their abundance to the Lord. He wants them to give only what they know they can. Paul didn’t want them to make a commitment they couldn’t fulfill. He wanted them to give freely, and not out of obligation. He wanted them to think long and hard about what they could give and then to do so generously.

I was in Paul’s shoes many times over my work with Imagine No Malaria. And I know what a fine line it was to walk between challenging people to give more than they thought they should and yet not more than they actually could.

On one occasion, a well-intentioned person filled out one of our pledge cards and sent it in with an extraordinary commitment to give over three years $5000. I added the donation to our totals and celebrated reaching a milestone! But then they called me a few weeks later when reality set in and told me, “I want to support this project so very much, I see how much good it is doing and I am so excited about being a part of it, but I simply can’t afford to do so at the level I told you I could.”

And you know what. That’s okay. I told that person we were so thankful for what they could share.   We were overjoyed that they felt called to give and worked to make the adjustments they needed.

In chapter 8 of his letter, Paul writes that he wants the Corinthians to give what they can afford. If they can make some adjustments to their life and want to make a sacrifice here and there – great. If they have great resources at their disposal, then by all means, they shouldn’t look upon this call and drop in a few dollars. They need to give what they can actually afford to give. The goal is not to make them suffer or create financial difficulties. The goal is to prayerfully ask what God has blessed them with that they can bless others with.

Not one of us should feel guilty about what we can afford to give. We shouldn’t feel pressured to end our support of other good things in order to give here. Every one of us should hear the call, look at the needs, and then joyfully respond from our resources… whatever they might be.

In the early eighteenth century, a scholar and pastor Matthew Henry wrote: “Money bestowed in charity, may to the carnal mind seem thrown away, but when given from proper principles, it is seed sown, from which a valuable increase may be expected.”

Paul asks the Corinthians to think of their gift as an investment. To sow whatever seeds they can so that the Kingdom of God might bear fruit in the world… and so they might personally experience the joy and grace and abundance that come to us when we freely give.

Our commitment to give financially to this church might not make a lot of sense to the larger world. But we do so because we have seen the good it can do.

In the United Methodist Church, we understand that our gifts not only provide this wonderful space for ministry in this neighborhood, but also help to support Women at the Well and help to build churches other parts of the world. Our gifts help our children to learn more about Jesus, but they also help educate communities about diseases like Ebola and Malaria so that every child has the chance to grow up and live an abundant life. Our gifts raise up leaders among our youth here in Des Moines, but they also are providing scholarships for new pastors in Eastern Europe and the Philippines.

Every dollar given to the church is an investment in the gospel. It is a seed planted. And in time, God will reveal how Faith Hall and our children and the women in Mitchellville and communities like the Bo District in Sierra Leone… how all of these investments and seeds will bear fruit for the Kingdom of God.

That is why we are here, after all.

We are here, in this place, for the Kingdom of God.

We are here to worship and to praise God… the source every breath and snowflake and every good thing.

In our passage from Deuteronomy this morning, Moses encourages the people to remember the long road they have been on… the road that was sustained every step of the way by the grace of God.

God was the one who rescued them from Egypt.

It was the Lord who led them through the desert.

It was God who fed them and gave them drink out of rocks and manna.

And he wants them to remember when they get to the promised land… when their lives settle down and they find good work and have food on the table every night… he wants them to never forget who it was that God them there.

Everything we are and everything we have is a gift. It is grace. It is a blessing.

We are here today because God spoke and light and life came into being.

We are here today because God wanted a relationship with us.

We are here today because God moved in the lives of people like Abraham and Sarah, Moses and the Israelites, James and John and Paul and the Corinthians.

We are here because of the faithful people who were led by God to turn a farmhouse into a church in 1925. We are here because the Holy Spirit moved and breathed life into this congregation.

Today, we are the beneficiaries of God’s grace and love and power that moved through countless generations before us. All the resources and abilities we have are gifts from our Lord and Savior.

And like the Israelites, we should never forget that simple fact.

It is not our own strength that has produced our abundance. No, it is the strength of God that has brought us here.

And God has sown his power and blessing in our lives SO THAT we might bear fruit for the Kingdom.

You see… God made an investment, too. God planted gifts and resources into our lives. God has nurtured this church and helped us to grow so that we might in turn be a blessing. As Paul tells the Corinthians, “God has the power to provide you with more than enough of every kind of grace.”

Grace for living.

Grace for giving.

Grace for working.

Grace for singing God’s praise.

God has made sure that you have what you need in order to serve him.

The Macedonians gave out of their poverty.

The Corinthians gave out of their wealth.

But each gave because they believed they were sowing seeds for the Kingdom of God. And each gave out of joy and thanksgiving for the abundance of what God has planted in their lives.

So today, as we make our commitments to the Lord, may we always remember where our abundance comes from.

May we commit without hesitation.

May we commit without guilt.

May we commit what we have and trust that as God has blessed us, so God will bless others. Amen.

Unimagineable…

I think in some ways, I’m still in shock. Or exhausted. or both.

At 2:45 on Monday afternoon, we announced that we had raised $2,009,907 for Imagine No Malaria as the Iowa Annual Conference. 

I had spent my lunch break sitting on the floor of the treasurer’s office counting the dollars that districts had raised by passing bags and hats and buckets that morning.  And as first one district exceeded a thousand dollars, and then another, and then pledges of a thousand dollars and more came rolling in, I knew we had done it.

I couldn’t wipe the grin off my face as I tried to casually stroll to the Diakanos area (our youth who serve as pages for conference).  I needed their help in updating our tally boards so we could reveal the new total to conference.

And even as we were recording that unbelievable number, the Iowa Foundation announced a $6,000 match of the afternoon’s donations.  They believed we still needed about $12,000 to go over the top and were willing to get us half way there.  And the East Central district announced over $1500 in pledges for our rider in the North Central Jurisdictional Ride for Change.  Even before we had made it official, our tally was inadequate. Our success was still growing. The gifts were unbelievable.  We couldn’t keep up with the outpouring of dollars and cents and checks and pledges. 

I strode up to the microphone… flipped on the yellow light… and imperceptibly shook as I shared the good news.

What that number represents to me is not simply money that was raised by folks in Iowa.  It represents all of the lives that will be saved because of the work of United Methodists.  It represents the churches that were transformed and started to think beyond their walls in this past year and a half.  It represents the youth who were given a voice and ran with a cause they knew was making a difference – whether it was with their feet on the pavement, on the ballfield, or by dyeing their hair.  It represents moms and dads in places I have never been like Sierra Leone and Angola and Nigeria who have hope their children will live.  It represents the effort of communities who have rallied together to educate one another and hold each other accountable. It is the pennies of children and the pocketbooks of millionaires.  It is diversity, and beauty, and joy, and sacrificial, and empowering, and far beyond anything I ever asked or imagined was possible.

I believed we could raise the money.

Don’t get me wrong.

I got involved in this whole wonderful mess in the first place because I knew that if every United Methodist in Iowa gave only $10, we would have raised nearly $1.8 million dollars.

It was weird for people to come up and congratulate me after the big announcement, because this was OUR success and not mine.  This was OUR effort and I simply had the honor of being the midwife.  The resources were there for this to be a successful campaign.  Of that, I had no doubt.

But I never imagined how it would transform the people of Iowa.  I have been blown away by the stories of individuals and communities which have been transformed by Imagine No Malaria in Africa.  And I never imagined how this whole experience would transform me.

Hopefully I’ll have time in the next few weeks to process some of what I have learned and some of how God has moved in my life. 

But for now, I simply say: God is Good.

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Expectations and Realities

Sermon based on Luke 1:39-55 and Matthew 11:2-6

About a year ago, I began working with Imagine No Malaria here in the Iowa Conference, and I have to tell you… since then, I can’t look at a pregnant woman the same way again. 

In our scripture this morning, we actually have two pregnant women – Elizabeth and her cousin Mary… both unlikely mothers… both full of hopes and expectations about what that pregnancy will bring.

Treatment6WEBOne of the first things I learned about malaria, however, is that it is a disease that overwhelmingly affects pregnant women and their new born babies.  Women who are expecting produce more carbon dioxide than a typical person, which attracts mosquitos and makes them more likely to be bitten.  Add that to the fact that they have a compromised immune system trying to protect and care for the new life growing inside of them and it’s a deadly combination.

Malaria is one of the leading causes of death in pregnant woman globally.  In fact, 85% of the deaths from malaria are children under five and women who are expecting. A woman who has malaria while pregnant is likely to have a miscarriage or a child with low birth weight and other medical problems.  And even if a baby is born healthy, children under five are not strong enough to fight the parasite that causes malaria if it attacks them. Eevery sixty seconds, we lose a life to malaria. Over half a million deaths every single year…

The joy… the hope… that comes with the promise of new life …

And the devastation of loss when a precious life is lost.

Expectations and reality…

They aren’t always the same thing, are they?

In our two gospel readings for today, as we encounter these pregnant women, we also experience the hopes of John the Baptist in relation to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Luke tells us that before they had even been born… while they were still in their mothers’ wombs… John was jumping for joy at the promise of what Jesus was bringing to the world.  His expectation poured out through the words of his mother, “God has blessed you and the babe in your womb… why am I so blessed that the mother of my Lord visits me?”

But by the time the two are grown up and have gone their separate ways, John the Baptist starts to question the reality of the promise.  In Matthew’s gospel, John finds himself in prison and sends word through his disciples… ‘ Are you the one to come?  Or should we look for another?”

This is not the little baby leaping for joy.  This is a man who is tired, who has worked long and hard for the Lord and right now is a little bit jaded.  He doesn’t want to waste the time he has left on unfulfilled hopes. And right now… what he has seen and heard about Jesus hasn’t lived up to the expectations.

Expectations and reality…

In 2006, the United Methodist Church launched an extraordinary effort to help end death and suffering from malaria in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Speaking of expectations… we expected Nothing but Nets to be a six month long project… but the reality is it has continued to this day.  In fact, this past NBA season, Stephen Curry with the Golden State Warriors promised to donate nets for every three point shot he made… and then proceeded to set the NBA record for the most 3-pointers in a season!

But as United Methodists, we heard God asking us to do more.  And in response, we expanded our work to include not only preventative efforts, but also a focus on treatment, education, and communications around malaria.  There were such expectations built up around the beginning of this work and our dream to raise $75 million dollars to put our faith into action.

Bill Gates, Sr. was there as we kicked off our work at General Conference in 2008 and he claimed: “You are 12 million people armed with the conviction that all the world is your parish. That makes you the most powerful weapon there is against malaria.”

Five years later we are still engaged in this work. But here in Iowa, we are far away from where the real work is taking place.  It is hard for us to see the reality on the ground in Africa.  Like John the Baptist, we might be tired from our own ministry and struggles.  We get a bit jaded sometimes.  We wonder if maybe we shouldn’t have focused our time and energy and efforts somewhere else.  Is this the program that is going to save lives and transform our church?  Or are we still waiting?

Maybe the problem is that we just haven’t done a good enough job telling the story about what is really going on.

That’s what Jesus realizes as those disciples from John arrive.  They just haven’t heard the stories yet.  So Jesus responds by simply telling them what is really happening:

Healing abounds. Lives are being changed. Faith is poured out in action. I am bringing salvation in all of its forms – release from captivity, healing, new life.  Go back and tell the good news.  That the blind see, the deaf hear, and the wretched of the earth are learning God is on their side.  The Kingdom of God is here!  Go back and tell John the good news.  Go and tell what you have seen and heard.

That is what my job is… to be a witness… to share with you the good news of what is happening through Imagine No Malaria.  Because friends, God is doing amazing things out there.  God is using the ordinary gifts of people like you and me to heal the sick and to transform lives.  Our actions are a beacon of hope to those who struggle, our words a life-line to those who despair.

In just the past three years, we have distributed over 1.5 million bed nets.  We are working to empower communities by training over 5,800 community health workers who are the hands and feet of Christ in this battle against malaria.  And we have worked to improve the infrastructure for health in general by establishing health boards in 15 countries that will help provide treatment and accountability for the work we do.

I could probably share with you for hours about the lives that have been affected by this work… about Juliette in Zimbabwe who literally jumped on her bed for joy when the bed net was installed… or John, who carried his sick baby 15 miles to the rural health clinic and found life-saving medication for his little one.  But frankly, we don’t have that much time today. So I’m going to tell you just one story about a woman named Muriel from Sierra Leone.

D1411Muriel was already struggling to maintain her home and put food on the table for her family.  I don’t know where her husband was… perhaps he died in the conflict a few years ago in Sierra Leone or from malaria… or maybe he had just taken off not to be heard from again.  But Muriel was doing the best she could.  Until her children all became sick with malaria at the same time.  She had seen the symptoms… she knew what it was, but without the resources to afford a single dose of medication for herself or her children, she felt completely without hope. In desperation, she tried negotiating with a government health worker to purchase drugs on credit, but to no avail.

Can you imagine her situation?  Can you imagine sitting there, trying to comfort your sick children and not being able to do anything to help them?  She knew that without the medication they so desperately needed, it was simply a matter of time before they began to die in her arms. Her expectations were bleak.

It was then that one of our Community Health Volunteers, trained by the Saving Lives Sierra Leone/ Imagine No Malaria team at the UMC health center found Muriel.

Tiaima reached out to Muriel and took the family to the United Methodist Clinic.  There, the staff welcomed them with open arms and before Muriel knew it, the children had been tested and were already receiving their first dose of medication.  Tiaima sat down with Muriel at taught her about how to prevent malaria in the future, gave her a net and instructed her how to use it, and made sure that she knew the correct dosages and timing for the medications that needed to be taken at home.

All of this happened in a heartbeat, and as the family was being sent on their way, Muriel turned back and offered to come back with one of her goats in exchange for the care.   A goat that might have been the only thing providing income for that little family… the promise of security in the future…  The nurse assured her that the services for malaria were free. It was then that Muriel broke down in tears and asked again and again if it was true or if she were dreaming. She had been praying for someone to help her family.

Muriel’s family is now healthy because of the work of United Methodists in Sierra Leone.

But even more than that.

Surprised by the grace she found through our work, Muriel went back home to her community to tell the women there about how they can work to reduce malaria and she has signed up to become a Community Health Volunteer herself.

She has become a witness, inviting others to experience the reality of the joy of salvation she herself experienced.

No matter what our expectations, we have a God who can surpass them beyond our wildest dreams.

The very name, Imagine No Malaria, comes from Ephesians 3:20:  “Glory to God, who is able to do far beyond all that we could ask or imagine by his power at work within us.”

Expectations… and reality.

John leaped for joy in Elizabeth’s womb because of the promises of God.

Mary was so overcome and filled with hope and praise that she couldn’t help but sing out the words we know as the Magnificat… words of longing for healing, for justice, for salvation.

Later, John’s disciples would rush back to tell him the good news that the Kingdom of God was becoming a reality.

Muriel did not hesitate to shout with joy as she experienced the healing power of God in her family’s life.

Friends… the Kingdom of God is breaking in all around us.  What do you hope for?  What do you expect?  And are you ready to be surprised when God does far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams?

In my work with Imagine No Malaria, I have been blown away by what I have experienced.  We are not simply handing out medicine and nets.  Through the grace of God, we are welcoming people as our brothers and sisters, treating them with love, and building relationships with them. In the process, we empower them to be agents of change in their communities and the world. That is salvation in action. That is the kingdom of God springing forth!

I have to tell you, I have HUGE expectations about what the United Methodists here in Iowa are going to do to help in the fight against malaria.  We have set a goal to raise at least $2 million dollars here in our state to help provide the vital resources needed as we live out our faith.  And I have been wonderfully surprised and blessed by the generosity of my brothers and sisters.  God is doing far beyond what I could ask or imagine.

You can be a part of this Kingdom work.

Just $10 is all it takes to put up a bed net in a home and save a child’s life.  Just $10 can provide a full course of medical treatment for a pregnant woman who is ill.  Just $10 can make a difference…

But think about what $100 could do.  Or $1000.  A gift to Imagine No Malaria means that you are putting resources into the hands of doctors and nurses, community health volunteers, and educators who are going to bring healing and hope to a whole continent.

I don’t have children myself.  I have never been pregnant like Muriel, or Mary, or Elizabeth… but I do know about the joy of children.

I am the proud aunt of four nephews and a neice and they bring light to my life every single day.  And so when I thought about how just $10 could be the difference between life and death for a precious child half a world away, I knew I had to help.  I knew I could be the answer to a prayer of a mom or a dad or an aunt or a grandpa in Africa.

So I am giving $1/day for each of my nephews and my neice to help save lives in Africa.  100 lives for each of them. A gift of $5000 over three years.  I know you hear these appeals from the pet associations and from the hunger organizations… but with Imagine No Malaria, a $1/a/day really does save lives.  And EVERY dollar you give goes directly to those who need it.

You can answer that call, too, and commit to helping us save lives… whether it is $10 or $10,000 you can make a difference.

Donate NOW! 

We have talked a lot today about our expectations and about how God realizes them… but I want you to talk for just a minute as we close about God’s expectations for us.

God has given us a song to sing and a story to tell.  He has given us strong faith to live out and has blessed us with many, many things.  Like Mary, we could declare that we are the most fortunate people on earth.

But God also expects us to take those gifts and those blessings and to share them with the world… to participate in the coming Kingdom of god.  To witness to the good news when we see it. To feed to poor. To heal the sick. To bring hope to the hopeless.

Will we go and tell what we have seen today?  And will we actively join God’s kingdom work with our hands and our hearts and our whole selves?

Let’s pray:

God of justice and joy, hope and healing,

we give thanks for all the ways you work for wholeness and right relationship in our own lives and throughout the world.

When suffering arises, let our hearts find joy in you, and fill us with courage to bear witness to what we have seen and heard.

May our lives always testify to the good news of your love, and may we lift up those who are bowed down so that your joy may spread throughout the earth.

We pray in the name of Jesus, who opened the eyes of the blind and proclaimed good news to the poor. Amen.

More than we can ASK or IMAGINE

On the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, a lot of people are talking about dreams today.
Dreams for racial equality.  Dreams for unity.  Dreams for access to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Dreams for our children.  Dreams for reconciliation.  Dreams for a future with hope and freedom, love and peace.
As I read Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech again today, I was struck by how focused on the American experience it was.  Never before in my reading had I noticed how every word is intertwined with a sense of national identity and a prophetic reality check on our history and at the time, present conditions.  Or rather, I had always taken that piece of the address for granted.  The American experience encompassed my worldview.  This country is my country.  It is the place of my hopes and dreams.  This is the place where they are realized.
martin-luther-kingOnly, in the last year, my eyes have grown wider.
I’m dreaming different dreams.
I’m looking beyond borders to the needs of my brothers and sisters half a world away.
And so I read those words in a new way today.
Today, I’m thinking about the injustices of a world in which WHERE here we live determines IF we live.
In my work with Imagine No Malaria, I’m constantly trying to figure out how to get my friends and colleagues and brothers and sisters in Iowa and the United States to think about the lives of folks who do not live in this place.
I am trying to help them understand the “fierce urgency of Now” – the need for action, the need to take the momentum in our global fight and step on the accelerator so we can truly overcome this global disease that is taking so many lives.
Our fight is not necessarily against racial injustice, but we are battling a disease of poverty. We are working desperately to overcome systemic problems of access to care and education and resources.  We are working with those whose very fight with the disease keeps them trapped in the poverty that puts them most at risk.
In our work with Imagine No Malaria, we have placed our feet firmly in the promises of Ephesians 3:20… that God will do far more than we can ask or imagine by his power at work within us.
So we are raising our voices and dreaming prophetic dreams, too.
We imagine a world in which WHERE you live doesn’t determine IF you live.
We imagine a world where mothers tuck their …children in at night under bed nets and no longer worry for their safety.
We imagine a world where 655,000 deaths a year are prevented because we have taken action against malaria.
We imagine a world where illness and death do not keep families from fulfilling their dreams for education and work and stability.
We imagine a world where United Methodists from every nation stand together, united, to overcome disease by putting God’s abundant resources into the places where they are needed most.
Our work does not end with our imagination any more than the dream of Dr. King ended with the words said on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
God works through us… in us… God accomplishes great things because we stand up and speak out and choose to turn our words into actions.
Just as his speech was a call to action and solidarity, a call to “never be satisfied” until the dream is fulfilled, I am spurred on to keep going, to keep preaching and speaking and working until we watch those deaths from malaria diminish to zero.
The work of the United Methodist Church in Imagine No Malaria is not the same challenge as overcoming oppression and injustice.  It will not lead us into clashes of power  and the resistance we find will not be water hoses and dogs and hatred… but we still have to work together.  We still have to be willing to step out of the comforts of our position in order to give sacrificially to make the dream a reality.
We still have a kingdom dream, a dream of brothers and sisters of all hues living full and abundant lives, working together, praying together, struggling together.
We dream not of a nation, but a world, united by God’s love and sustained by God’s redeeming power.

Imagine 31 Birthdays…

A gravedigger walks among dozens of fresh graves in the children's section of the Penga Penga Cemetery in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Only one in five children in this city of 3 million survives to age five due to malaria. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.
A gravedigger walks among dozens of fresh graves in the children’s section of the Penga Penga Cemetery in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Only one in five children in this city of 3 million survives to age five due to malaria. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

Today is my thirty-first birthday.

My work with Imagine No Malaria has introduced me to the faces and stories of children all across the continent of Africa who will never live to see their fifth birthday, much less thirty-one.

In fact, of the 655,000 lives lost each year, 85% of those who die are children under the age of five.

In this photograph, a man walks through a graveyard in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  This community has a practice of not giving their children names until they reach the age of five… in part to keep from forming attachments to children who are so unlikely to survive.  Those tombstones that are simply empty wooden crosses… those are the graves of children who died without a name.

What if you could do something to change that picture?  What if you could help a child to have another birthday?  What if you could buy a bed net to prevent them from getting this terrible disease that will take their life?

It’s as simple as giving $10.  Ten bucks saves a life.

For my birthday, I want to help save the lives of thirty-one children.  I want to help provide a future, hope, life, and health for these little ones.

Will you help?

Visit Imagine 31 Birthdays…  to celebrate my birthday this year by helping 31 children to have another.

Good News and Good Works

in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.I’ve had some conversations recently about the work of Imagine No Malaria from folks who are concerned that we are doing good, but we aren’t sharing the gospel.

My first response to that question is to seek out and share more stories about how lives are being changed and, yes, saved, because of the work we have done.  We are seeking more of these types of stories from those who work in the field and can tell us about how and where the word of God is being planted and bearing fruit through the work we are doing with Imagine No Malaria.

My second response is to push back against the divide between the good news and good works.  The book of James reminds us they are like two sides of the same coin, that we can’t have faith without works.  Matthew 25 reminds us that our faithful response is to care for the least of these.  The good news Jesus preached was about more than simply eternal salvation – it was about release for the captives and recovery of sight for the blind.  It was both now and later.  Salvation is already and not yet.  When we share food and shelter and health with those who do not have them, we are sharing the gospel… we are showing them that God loves them, that we love them, and that we love because we were first loved.  We begin the relationship that plants seeds and waters sprouts and eventually bears fruit.

One reality of our missionary work over the last 160 years in Africa is that we have often built churches and clinics and schools side-by-side.  We have not necessarily made strict separations between good works and good news… they are one and the same.  We are focused on saving lives in all sorts of ways – through a relationship with Jesus, through literacy, through health, through empowerment, through justice, through hope, through the scriptures, through systematic change.

Today, I came across this blog post from a young man who I believe helps to put into words what has been on the tip of my tongue… when we heal the sick and empower the poor and are in relationship with those who are struggling – we aren’t just sharing the gospel, we are living it, we are making it known, and others will see.

I encourage you to read Greg’s story here, but the highlights for me and for our work:

…What is more important is to communicate the message of our faith, the Gospel (hint: it’s about more than just being a sinner).

But unfortunately, we haven’t been taught how to communicate the Gospel. We’ve been taught how to lead Bible studies and have fellowship, how to run prayer meetings, and draw the bridge diagram.

But we haven’t learned to communicate the Gospel.

Why do I say this? Because the Gospel is not only communicated through words, but also how we live our lives. And when I was faced with the opportunity to live according to the Gospel, I felt obligated to abandon it on the street, on my way to being a good Bible study leader…

…So that’s why I quit being a Bible study leader. Not because it’s the wrong thing to be, but because it kept me too busy to do the right thing. Because while I participated dutifully in Christian activities, a homeless man sat outside in the cold and ate popcorn. Because Shane Claiborne reminded me that Jesus would have quit being a Bible study leader too, to sit alongside that man, if for no other reason than to ask him his name and eat popcorn together.

And because Eboo Patel taught me that you don’t have to do that alone. Even if you’re the only Christian eating popcorn with a homeless man while your fellow believers sing songs and socialize upstairs, if you invite them, there are Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, Jains, and Buddhists who will join you. And the funny thing is that authentic dialogue begins to happen in these sorts of situations – you build relationships and you share stories, simply because you all agree that no one should have to eat popcorn alone in the cold.

And even though you might not observe the conversion experience your evangelism training taught you to expect, your actions have communicated something deeper than your words, and your stories have taken on fuller meaning. And there’s a good chance that you’ve convinced them all of something about the Gospel.

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Our work on the ground is often done in partnership with other faith communities who share our concern for saving lives.  In a story written in 2010 about our work in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sheikh Usseni Faray talked about the importance of local congregations standing together in this work:

Government can only start things once and they stop. But us, we are the community representing the people, and we preach and work with the people all the time. So if they keep the church people involved, I think it will be a lasting program and many people will benefit.

We do these good works because we are people of faith and because Jesus sends us out to heal the sick and preach the gospel.  That gospel is shared through our actions, through every dollar we raise, through every net that is hung in a home, through every relationship built, and every life that is given a reason to hope.  Sometimes we are speaking and singing and praising the name of Jesus.  Sometimes we are simply present. And sometimes that is enough.

Photo: (top) in Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose. (right) A United Methodist church choir welcomes visitors to Kamina, Democratic Republic of the Congo. A delegation of United Methodist church leaders and public health workers visited Kamina in observance of World Malaria Day. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

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I am a United Methodist Conference junkie. I love the debate and worship, interaction and holy conferencing.  I love getting up to the microphone to speak. I love friendly amendments and the crazy insane process… at its best. I know there are times when it gets out of control and is painful and frustrating.  There are times I probably have forced myself to forget because they were too ugly. But I’m a metho-nerd and I’m sticking with it.

This Iowa Annual Conference was very different for me, however.  As the coordinator for Imagine No Malaria,  I had a booth to run and shirts to sell and a District Giving Challenge to coordinate.  I ran back and forth between my seat and the booth and the treasurer’s office. I sometimes forgot to eat. I helped put together a last minute silent auction and touched hundreds of dollar bills and got to stand in front of the body of our Iowa Annual Conference and testify about why I am saving lives… and they should, too.

It was an amazing weekend. We raised over $100, 000 in gifts and pledges.  Churches were inspired and energized.  Everywhere I looked, I saw green and brown INM shirts dotting the crowd.  We had 38 individuals pledge their commitment to save lives… some giving $10 month, some $100!

But I did miss some of what I love about our conference.  I “missed”  all the debate on resolutions,  only to find out most got tabled u til next year. I was present for about 10 minutes of the hours of budget presentation, questions, and debate ( ha… but I did manage to sneak a question in!).  I missed three worship services… which I’m hoping to catch via the recordings.  Above all, I missed the fellowship of time with colleagues and friends, long lunch breaks and late night conversations.  I didn’t have time to go out and I was too exhausted for the after hours camaraderie. 

The one legislative discussion I did make sure I was fully present for was our strategic priorities conversations and then legislative perfection.  After working for countless hours on listening,  reading, writing, responding,  revising, we brought a document to the conference and prayed with all of our hearts that God would move us to embrace some clear priorities for our future. And when it finally came time to vote, after a number of friendly amendments,  we overwhelmingly approved the vision, mission,  and priorities.  Now, we need to commit to living them out in every way possible.