Around Every Corner

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This summer I have harvested quite a bit of produce from my garden.
Tomatoes and peppers and cucumbers in particular.
I put up 7 quarts of salsa, 4 quarts of spaghetti sauce, 8 quarts of dill pickles, 4 quarts of sweet and spicy pickles, some pickle relish, and I’ve frozen 10 bags of roasted tomatoes.

My pantry is literally overflowing with the bounty from my garden, and you want to know what thought crossed my mind after this week?

Pickles and salsa won’t feed us if there is a disaster.

As I thought about all of the folks in Puerto Rico who are struggling with access to food and water and electricity, I tried to imagine what my family would do in that situation.
As the rhetoric has continued to rise with North Korea, I wondered what you actually could do to prepare for if the unthinkable happens.
As I sat and listened to colleagues at a Creation Care conference in Indianapolis yesterday, I heard them say that the UN no longer talks about climate change mitigation or prevention, but climate change adaptation… I began to think about how I personally need to start adapting.

If you turn on the television or scroll through your facebook feed or listen to the radio, there are a thousand threats to our health, safety, and security.
We lost 59 people last Sunday to a violent rampage from a man whose only motive appears to be that he wanted to shoot as many people as possible.
Our hearts began to race when a traffic accident in London outside of a museum yesterday was initially thought to be an act of terrorism.

The simple truth is that we have no clue what might be lurking around the corner. We can’t see what the future might hold and sometimes we allow fear to be the defensive mechanism that either keeps us from moving forward or which guards our hearts from those around us.

We aren’t the only people in history to have been afraid.

The scripture that Don read as a part of the drama just a few minutes ago comes from the 41st and 42nd chapters of Isaiah.
The people of Israel had sinned against one another and God and the prophet was called upon to bring judgment.
And for 39 chapters, Isaiah lists the sins of the people and names all of the things that would happen to them as a result.
And they did.
Everything they feared came to pass.
Jersualem was destroyed.
The people were carried off to Babylon.
Life as they knew it ended.
And they weren’t quite sure what to make of their new life.
But then Isaiah speaks into their midst once again:
“Comfort, comfort my people!” says your God.
“Speak compassionately to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her compulsory service has ended.”
The turnaround from chapter 39 to 40 is abrupt and stark. Christopher Seitz notes that this is because “ a word is being spoken from the void, against all hope and all expectation, by God.” (NIB – VI – 328)

Against all hope and expectation.
When everything appeared to be the darkest.
With the future completely up in the air and uncertainty around every corner.
God speaks:
Do not be afraid, I am with you.

God is inviting the people of Israel to not only trust in God’s presence in the midst of a difficult time… but God is inviting them to transform their fear into curiosity and purpose and assurance.

First, rather than be afraid of the things that is happening, the people are invited to become curious and inquisitive and to allow God’s power and majesty fill them with awe.
In fact, if you read through chapters 40-48, you will find God asks a heck of a lot of questions!
Who measured the waters in the palm of a hand or gauged the heavens with a ruler? (40:12)
To whom will you compare me, and who is my equal? (40:25)
Who has acted and done this, calling generation after generation? (41:4)

I think one of the ways we can respond to the fears that creep into our lives is to be curious as well.
In the midst of a changing neighborhood and world, instead of walling ourselves off in fear, we can ask questions about what is happening and why. We can get to know our neighbors and read up on the roots of conflicts that we experience.
One of the things churches often struggle with is finances – always fearing that we will not have enough for the next year.
That fear can stun us into silence or it can keep us from taking risks and stepping out in faith.
So one way that we can turn that fear into curiosity is to look deeper into trends in giving and learn about ways to reach new people and we can invite one another to think about stewardship in new ways.
Curiosity, learning, exploration – these are all antidotes to fear.

Second, God gives the people purpose in the midst of their fears.
As our reading continued into chapter 42 of Isaiah, God tells the people that he has a job for them to do.
“I have called you for a good reason… I will give you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations, to open blind eyes, to lead the prisoners from prison.”

When we look out at all of the things in this world that might cause us to be afraid – it would be easy to hunker down in our homes or within the walls of this building.
But God has given us a vision and a purpose, too!
God is calling us to engage deeper, to build partnerships and get to know our neighbors, to live a life of love, service, and prayer…
And just like the Israelites were not only supposed to be a light, an example, but were supposed to get out and heal and set others free… we believe God is calling us to help heal the lives of our members and friends and neighbors and community.
God wants us to be a part of restoration right here in this place.

Finally, God gives the people assurance.
Don’t be afraid, for I am with you.
You are not alone.
No matter what you are going through, I’m right here beside you.

I think this is perhaps the most important part of this message.
Because you know, fear can keep us from a lot of things.
It could keep us from visiting museums or hanging out in public places.
It could keep us from going to concerts.
It could lead us to build bunkers in our basement and never leave them.
It could keep us from doing the work of God in this world.

Every so often, folks stop in here to Immanuel and ask for some gas. We take them up the street to the Git-n-Go and fill up their tank.
Now, I’m a young woman, who doesn’t know much self-defense, and one of our previous Administrative Assistants was always afraid for my safety as I walked up the street to the gas station.
She was worried that the person might do something bad to me, or kidnap me, or some other unknown thing.

But you know what?
God is with me.
God has given me (and us) work to do.
And disaster and tragedy and violence might strike any person, at any moment, in any place.
It is all completely out of our control.
What is in our control is the work of Jesus Christ in this world.
And if something happened to us while we were trying to live that life of love, service, and prayer… well, God is with us.
God will be with us if the unthinkable happens.

Do not be afraid, I am with you.
I have called you each by name.
Come and follow me.
I will bring you home.
I love you are you are mine.

We are God’s.
And we have work to do.
In fact, in the midst of a world filled with fears and brokenness, we have even more work to do.
God has called us for a good reason…
We have the work of healing and wholeness and hope to do.

Rising Strong: Failing and Falling

In this “Rising Strong” series, we have remembered a few things so far about what it means to live as children of the resurrection.

First – we have to be ourselves.  God has uniquely created us with gifts and skills and has put us in this place for this time.  We shouldn’t spend our days trying to be someone we are not.  We need to learn to love and embrace who God has made us to be. 

Second – we should wholeheartedly put ourselves to work for the Kingdom of God.  If you are a fisherman – go out there and fish for people.  If you are an accountant, go out and count people for Christ.  If you are a mom or a dad or a grandparent, love every person you meet as a child of God.  Take the life God has given you and use every minute of it to serve the Lord. 

We are called to take both of those things and put them into practice.  So, if you haven’t already filled out or turned in the “Gifts and Talents” booklet that we handed out last week – this is your opportunity.  It is one way you can let us know here at the church what are some of the ways you are willing to be yourself and go all in for God.    There is a box at the back of the sanctuary to turn them in, or you can drop them off in the office.  There are also some blanks there, as well. 

 Today, we are going to ask what happens next…

What happens when you figure out who you are and you give it all to God? 

 

Let’s pray:

 

In the past six weeks, I joined a gym… a “transformation center”… and spent some intentional time focusing on my own health and well-being.   I’m now twenty pounds lighter and trying to figure out how to keep up the effort without the strict diet and accountability of the group I worked out with.

One of the things that we talked a lot about during those six weeks was failure.

Every week, there would be at least one exercise where our goal was to do as many as possible.  Whether it was sit ups or planks, a dead lift or overhead press, the goal was to increase either the weight or the duration of the exercise so that you physically could not do one more rep. 

Now, this was not how we were supposed to exercise every muscle every time.  But the general idea was that if you weren’t pushing yourself and trying to really grow, you wouldn’t.

Arnold Schwarzenegger once said, “the last 3 or 4 reps is what makes the muscle grow.  This area of pain divides the champion from someone else who is not a champion.  That’s what most people lack: having the guts to go on and say they’ll go through the pain, no matter what happens.”

What most people lack is the guts to go on.

We lack the drive to be willing to push ourselves to failure.

 

In our gospel reading this morning, the disciples of Jesus Christ are in a boat.  They have been sent by Jesus to head off and get ready for a new ministry adventure, but they have been kept up by everything that is going on outside of the boat.  The wind is blowing, the waves are strong, and they are a bit fearful of what lies ahead.  They really don’t know if Jesus will be on the other side of the lake in the morning. 

We are a lot like those disciples.  We are all here, because at some point we responded to the call of Jesus Christ in our lives and we showed up.  We heard the call and got into the boat, even if we didn’t quite know where this boat was headed. 

But, like the disciples, we also really want Jesus to come with us, to be with us, and we are afraid to push off from the shore out into the world. 

In some ways, I think that is where our church is right now. We are hanging out in this boat that has kept us safe. You’ve been kept your heads above the waters and have navigated lots of storms. But the winds of the spirit have been blowing and have been moving among us, and I think that in many ways, we are now finding ourselves in uncharted waters – we are just a little ways from the shoreline that we are used to.

Right out there with the disciples.  They found themselves in stormy waters, in unfamiliar territory, in a place they thought Jesus couldn’t possibly be.  So much so, that they didn’t recognize Jesus when he showed up in the middle of the night. 

 

Only Peter was brave enough, courageous enough, only Peter had the guts to go on and seek Jesus out there on the water. 

He remembered who he was and who God was.

He remembered the ways that Jesus had called him to follow and the amazing things that could be accomplished in God’s name.

And he took the risk to step out of the boat… to be foolish and daring and to trust where the Spirit is leading.

He didn’t let his head tell him “no” when his heart was screaming “yes”. 

And he walked on water.

 

Well, for a minute.

He got scared. He stumbled.  He started to fall.

 

By all accounts, Peter failed.

But the thing is, he took the chance where no one else had. 

He pushed himself far enough that he could fail, that he might fail, and while he did – it also meant that he was the only one who was in a place to grow from that experience. 

 

In his book, Failure: Why Science Is So Successful, neuroscientist Stuart Firestein points out all the ways the scientific process guarantees failures and flops.

There are very few eureka moments or big discoveries compared with the thousands of failures and flops that happen along the way. 

But every one of those failures is an opportunity to learn, tweak, grow, and do something different.

Every one of those failures allows you to learn a new limit or boundary and to push past it. 

 

As a church, maybe we should embrace not only the art of ministry, but also the science of ministry. 

We should take big enough risks and have the guts to try new things if the Spirit is leading us.

And we should not be afraid to fail and to fall flat on our face.

Because every time we do, we have the chanced to process, evaluate, and make adjustments.

When you turn in your Gifts and Talents booklet, here is the thing I want you to remember.  You don’t have to be perfect in order to offer your gifts to God.  None of us are.  You will make mistakes.  You will need others to help you and teach you.  And you might even discover that something really isn’t for you.  But you will never know what your limits are and how God might stretch you unless you offer yourself!

As a community, that also means that we need to be open and ready to surround people with love when they offer themselves and work for God’s kingdom, fully expecting that there will be mistakes along the way.

Innovation and discover take time, patience, grace, and a familiarity with failure.  Holy failure.  The kind of failure that means you are constantly moving on towards perfection – without judgment for where you have been.

 

God isn’t done with us yet… so may we have the courage to be ourselves, go all in, and make a whole lot of holy failures… knowing that Jesus (and this community of faith) is right here, ready to catch us.   

Amen. 

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.

 

Lots to Brag About

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Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy wrote this letter of encouragement to people who desperately needed some good news, and my prayer for today is that the word of God heard this morning might be encouragement for our troubled souls, too. 

Let us pray:

Holy God, speak into our midst this morning.  Fill us with hope, grace, and peace.  May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts and minds honor You this morning. May they be worthy of your calling and accomplish your faithful work in our midst.  Amen.

 

I thank God for you.

I do.  I really do.

I thank God for you, the people of Immanuel United Methodist.

I thank God for the way that the love you all have for each other and the world is increasing.

 

That love is born from a common struggle. 

And as we gather today… not only in worship this morning, but also at our charge conference later this afternoon, we reflect upon another year of ministry. 

This year, we did some hard things…

Some of them were challenges that we set before ourselves:  like raising money for Joppa or purchasing brand new books for every student at Hillis Elementary.

Some of them were difficulties that arise out of the reality of earthly life:  the illnesses, the injuries, the loss of treasured members of our community whom we will celebrate next week with all the Saints. 

And some of the struggles we have faced together in the last year, like trying to discern and implement new times for worship, are born out of a reality that the world we live in is changing and we as a church are trying to adapt and provide opportunities for new generations and new people.   

But we did these things together… and they helped to form and shape us as the people of God. 

Robert Dunham wrote that “common struggle often forges an uncommon unity and love for one another.  Like the peace that holds the community fast in turmoil, love for one another and congregational unity are best received and celebrated as gifts.”

 

The love we have for one another is a gift… the bonds formed in the midst of common struggle are a blessing… and they should be celebrated as such. 

Thank you, God.

[the numbers represent images that were projected during the worship service]

 

[1] Thank you God for the deeper relationships we formed with our neighborhood elementary school, Hillis, as we brought books for so many children and we have more and more people taking just an hour a week to read with those who need some extra help.  

[2] And Thank you for helping us to continue efforts like Donuts for Dudes and Muffins for Moms where we can be present in our neighborhood and share God’s love with breakfast.

 [3] Thank you God for the ways that young people and their mentors here at the church bonded through hard work, study, and recreation through confirmation this year.

 [4] Thank you God for the impact you had on children in our church and community as we worked to help them learn more about your powerful and never-ending love.

 [5] Thank you God for the ways that members of our community show up to support the work of each other… even when their efforts aren’t related to Immanuel… like these runners did in supporting the Clover Dash organized by one of our youth.

 [6] Thank you God, for calling our leadership to deeper faithfulness and helping us to have hard conversations about your calling for our church in this world.

 [7] Thank you God, for bringing together men of all ages in fellowship and for new relationships formed over barbeque and basketball.

 [8] Thank you for challenging us to stretch beyond our own teams and ministries to build new partnerships with others, like the Interfaith Green Team Coalition.

 [9] Thank you God, for those who give so faithfully of their time and energy to create this amazing space for us all to worship and learn about you in.

[10] Thank you God for the faithfulness of our predecessors like Mrs. Simser and the bibles we give our children and the faithfulness of bible partners and teachers.

 [11] Thank you God for a seven year partnership and relationship with Imani church

[12] and for blessing both us and them as they moved to a new location and continue their ministry there.

 [13] Thank you God for the ministry of Joppa and the relationships we are creating with the homeless in our community as we go out to where they live and bring them items they need.

[14] and thank you for challenging us to expand our ministry to provide new resources… and in the process helping us to build new and deeper relationships with each other through the MASSIVE garage sale. 

 [15]  Thank you God for sending our VIM team back to Milwaukee to build new relationships and work again in familiar places

[16] and for the deep connections that are created when we labor together for a common good.

[17] Thank you God for those who not only prepare meals for us every week, but who care for and minister to one another in good times and in bad.

 [18] Thank you God for those who knit and purl and crochet and create blankets and shawls that we distribute to those who are experiencing transition or loss or health problems… extending the love of Immanuel to those who need it the most.

[19] Thank you God for life groups that push us to try new things, including leaping off of cliffs

 [20] Thank you for our nursery and for Wendi and Pat, Gretchen and Zach.

 [21] Thank you for our staff

 [22] Thank you for the youth and volunteers and chaperones who go out and represent us so well in the community.

 [23] Thank you, God. 

Thank you. 

 

You know, I started out just trying to find a few highlights of the amazing work God has been doing here among us and the list just kept going on and on and on. 

As Paul and company write to the church in Thessalonica, there really is so much to brag about.  There is so much to tell about.  There is so much to give thanks to God for.

 

But I also don’t want to gloss over the challenge that is presented within this text. 

I chose our passage for this morning because it is part of what we call the Revised Common Lectionary.  And each week, four texts are assigned for Sunday morning worship – something from the Old Testament, something from the Epistles, something from Psalms, and a gospel reading.

 Over the next few weeks, we’ll be focusing on the Epistles… the letters to the early church… and looking for all of the ways that we are called to be grateful and to give thanks in this writings. 

Today’s assigned scripture skips a section of the text, however.

And the more I thought about what we have been learning over these past few weeks about discipleship and the more we lean into a life of gratitude over the next few weeks, I don’t think we have the luxury of skipping those passages.

 

This is the text in its fullness… without skipping the hard parts: 

Brothers and sisters, we must always thank God for you. This is only right because your faithfulness is growing by leaps and bounds, and the love that all of you have for each other is increasing. That’s why we ourselves are bragging about you in God’s churches. We tell about your endurance and faithfulness in all the harassments and trouble that you have put up with. This shows that God’s judgment is right, and that you will be considered worthy of God’s kingdom for which you are suffering. After all, it’s right for God to pay back the ones making trouble for you with trouble and to pay back you who are having trouble with relief along with us. This payback will come when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his powerful angels. He will give justice with blazing fire to those who don’t recognize God and don’t obey the good news of our Lord Jesus. They will pay the penalty of eternal destruction away from the Lord’s presence and away from his mighty glory. 10 This will happen when he comes on that day to receive honor from his holy people and to be admired by everyone who has believed—and our testimony to you was believed.

11 We are constantly praying for you for this: that our God will make you worthy of his calling and accomplish every good desire and faithful work by his power. 12 Then the name of our Lord Jesus will be honored by you, and you will be honored by him, consistent with the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

 

We are reminded in this text that the journey of faith is not easy. 

As Robert Dunham puts it, “the Christian calling is seldom to a vocation of ease and comfort, but to a unity with Christ in suffering.”

 And this isn’t the suffering of aches and pains, of loss and difficulty that every person experiences… it is the suffering, the harassment, the struggle that comes because we claim to be people of God. 

 

As people of faith, God is continually calling us to do hard things. 

God is calling us to take unpopular stands on important issues.

God is calling us to stand with the poor and the marginalized.

God is calling us to leave our comfort zones go and be in ministry with the least and the last and the lost.

And maybe the hardest of them all… God is calling us to be honest and real about our own vulnerabilities, our own brokenness, struggle, and pain, so that this community can walk with us, can love us, can remind us over and over again about the love of God in Jesus Christ that can transform even our broken souls. 

That’s what church is all about.  Growing in love for each other and in love for God.

May we continue to do hard things. 

May we continue to hear and be faithful to God’s call.

May  we continue to be formed in love born of our common struggle to truly be disciples of Jesus Christ in this world. 

Amen. 

The Blue Couch #NaBloPoMo

In my sophomore year of college, Brandon asked me to take a road trip with him.  We drove to Madison, where his sister was living, to rescue a big blue couch before it went in the dumpster. She called because she thought it was an awesome couch and couldn’t believe her office building was just going to throw it away.

At first, it lived in his dad’s house in Cedar Rapids, but before too long, Brandon was at Simpson College with me and the blue couch came along, too.  We lived in a co-ed theme house and the blue couch had center stage in our living room. Debates, drinks, friendships, and gamers sprawled all over that couch.  It was our senior year… a time of making decisions, finding new directions, and going different ways.

Brandon moved back home and his dad had long since replaced the furniture. So, the couch, our couch, came with me as I made the trek to Nashville for seminary.  It lived in the middle of my living room in my duplex on Poston. It was where we held Jeopardy Style study sessions, where my friend came out as Jewish, where we kept a long-distance relationship alive through phone calls…  And then the couch moved with me to the townhouse I’d share for a couple of years.

Brandon moved to Nashville too.   The couch was there… for the start of my obsession with Grey’s Anatomy… for the conversations with Glen where he kept reminding me I’d make a good pastor… for the night Brandon and I broke up (but just for a night) because we weren’t sure how ministry and marriage wedded together.

And then we did get married. We moved that blue couch into our first, little, one bedroom apartment.

Before the year was up, we moved again. Back home, to Iowa.

My first church, our first real house, and the blue couch.

Oh, and cats. We added some kittens when we arrived home.  And the couch was never the same. Claw marks, stuffing coming out on the ends.

I got up early on Sunday mornings and wrote sermons on the couch. I reconnected with old friends, and we made new ones on that couch.

It moved with us one more time to Cedar Rapids… tattered… grungy… and sat in a room we barely used.

So when the time came to transition again, to Des Moines, we thought about leaving it, for good, in the dumpster.

But that couch still has life in it.  This summer, I bought some new fabric and if I ever find time, I plan to reupholster the whole thing. The cats are declawed now and that couch has too many damn memories in it.

An Examen for Ministry #NaBloPoMo

Too often, we simply don’t stop to ask questions, to examine our lives.

We do things without thinking about the consequences or implications.

We do it because we always have.

We do it because everyone else is.

We do it because it seems like the best option in the moment.

And we do it in ministry, too.

An unexamined life is not worth living (Plato, quoting Socrates)

Well, maybe, unexamined ministry is not worth doing.

We should always be mindful of the implications of our words and actions.

We should take time to pause, reflect, and see if we really are acting according to our values and goals.

 

I really started thinking about this after having a dialogue with Rev. Bill Cotton on Monday of this week.  We were out at Taproot Garden for “Organic Ministry.”  One of the big themes of our classes is that we need to pay attention… to the soil, to the water, to the microorganisms, to the weeds, to everything!  It’s all related. And what happens to one has implications to everything else.

One of our guides for “Organic Ministry,” Tim Diebel,  shared with us the nautical terming “kedging.”  When you run aground with your boat, it is a method for getting back to where you want to be.  You throw or take your anchor to where you actually WANT to be, and then you winch yourself there. Taking time to examine your life (ministry) is like asking if we have gone off course and tossing the anchor into deeper waters.

The next morning, I sat down with a congregation member who is concerned about the potential addition of lazer tag to our nearby UMC camp.  As she paused to reflect upon values and goals, she is troubled that in a culture of so much violence, so many deaths of children via firearms (7 every day), as we prepare for a day of praying for peace and the end of gun violence as a conference, we want to install a recreational option at camp where we give kids toy weapons to point at each other for fun. And her words hit me like a ton of bricks. We had taken our youth to play lazer tag at a local business and hadn’t even paused to wonder about the underlying messages, the glorification of violence… it was simply for fun.  We just didn’t think about it.

So we are now talking about the values of our ministry and whether or not this type of activity is in line with the ends God has in mind for us.

Then, in Covenant Bible Study, we were exploring Paul’s writings to the Corinthians and I kept running into the idea that freedom means everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial. The only way we can live into the freedom of Christ is to ask, in every situation, if what I’m doing is beneficial for myself AND for the community/world.

 

 

So here are four questions that I want to start incorporating into “an examen for ministry” in my church.

 

Could this be a bridge?

Is this ministry/event/class for insiders of the church only? What are the possibilities for transforming it into a “bridge event”? There are so many things we do as a church without every imagining they could be bridges for us to go to the community or the community to come to us.  For example: we have a Veteran’s lunch coming up: we have always done this special lunch after church for our veterans to thank them for their service. What would happen if we sent invites to local American Legion or VFW groups and invited them to come for a free meal so we could stay thank-you?

 

Who could this impact?

Who could this ministry/event/class impact? How do we reach them? What would it look like if every ministry in the church asked this question?  If they thought outside their current make-up to share what they have experienced with others?  We get so comfortable with our groups we often don’t think to expand.  Or maybe we do, but we neglect asking how to reach them.  We need to be reminded that what we are doing isn’t reaching them… or they would be there.  Do we change how we promote something? Do we change the event itself – day, time, format? For example: we have a monthly senior fellowship that hasn’t been able to get newly retired folks to attend.  One of the realities is some of these newly retired are the children of active attenders! We are starting to imagine how the event might need to change so all feel welcome.

 

Does this fall within our vision frame?

We have been using a tool called a vision frame this past year. Does this support/enhance our vision and mission? Is it in line with the core values of our church? Is it part of our strategy? Will it help us to reach the measures we have set?   Our mission at Immanuel UMC is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  Our vision: In Christ, live lives of love, service, and prayer.  Our core values: hospitality, caring community, stewardship, missional outreach, worship/music, and growing in discipleship. Our strategy and measures include the goals we set at charge conference. This one seems fairly obvious… but how often don’t we stop to ask the question. This frame allows us to truly zoom in on our calling from God in this time and place… and it means we won’t do some things so that we can do these things well. This next year, our two main areas of focus will be children and seniors and it means we will shift away resources and attention from other things for this season.

 

What kind of world does this create?

What kind of world/community does this event/ministry/class create or support? What are the implications for the neighborhood; for the generations that follow; for the world?   And this question asks us to think long term about the consequences of any particular ministry.  One of the tensions of ministry is that what might be needed in the short term isn’t always what is best for the long term. Asking this question allows us to weigh options as we seek God’s future. It invites us to think about the values of the world we are implicitly supporting by our actions or inactions. As United Methodists, we have social principles and resolutions because we believe that we can and should have an impact on the world.  The conversation we have begun about lazer tag as staff is one example of how we are starting to wrestle with this question.

 

What questions would you add to this examen?

Competing Goals

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One of my goals for this renewal leave was to cook more meals in the evening for myself and my husband.

It is something I love to do, and I use about two more pots or utensils than I need and make a lovely delicious mess every time.

But I love to cook. I love to discover new flavors and adapt recipes and buy fresh ingredients based on one meal and take a few hours in the kitchen.

I can honestly tell you I have made exactly zero of those big fancy meals. Last night, I made a one pot casserole while Brandon was at the hardware store. We’ve had frozen pizza twice this week. Our fridge has never been emptier.

Even though making dinner was my goal, it was connected with the goal to spend more quality time with my husband. And when either of us cook, we get in each others way.

He is also in charge of the dishes (my responsibility is the cats and the garbage), and so my kitchen messes stress him out.

He is a much pickier eater than I am, too.

I realized I had competing goals, so I have ended up cooking very little this past month.

Sometimes churches have competing goals, too.

I was part of a church in Nashville that wanted to both provide excellent child care AND be open to people off the street.  We couldn’t do the second effectively because we needed to keep doors locked and building access limited for child safety.

Denominations have such competing goals and priorities as well. My own annual conference is balancing budget reduction/apportionment reduction AND the goals to reach new people/better equip leaders. To be honest, they don’t co-exist very well.

As I thought about my own competing goals, a few questions came to mind that might help churches discern as well:

1) Where do my goals intersect or overlap? Do they mutually benefit each other? Or detract?  A simple evaluation can bring to light places of competition or cooperation.

2) Is this goal something I want, or something we need? Especially in churches, it is sometimes hard to let go of goals you are personally excited about. But, if it doesn’t fit with the overall direction or priorities of the church, it is easier to let them go.

3) Who benefits from these goals? Who is harmed? This can be a tricky question, especially if you are dealing with multiple vulnerable populations (like children/homeless, or small churches/campus ministries). Yet, sometimes we make assumptions about who is benefiting from our goals or who becomes more at risk. Taking the time to evaluate in this way clears the waters.

4) Can a different goal, or a different ministry do the work just as well? Can you better equip local homeless

ministry and work there, rather than do it in your building? Can you focus on stewardship and helping churches pay their share instead of reducing the payments for everyone? Can you go out to eat more, instead of cooking g at home? We simply can’t do everything and realizing what our options are helps us shift our goals.

Delegate!

These are the jobs we are assigned to do as the Church Council, according to the Book of Discipline:

  1. Plan and implement all the programs of nurture, outreach, witness and resources.
  2. Administer the church organization
  3. Envision, Plan, Implement and Evaluate the mission and ministry of the church.
  4. Act as the administrative agency of the charge conference.

That is a lot to accomplish for a group that meets for 90 minutes once a month. Yet, according to the Discipline, all of this is our job to provide for.

So, how is it possible?

 

Exodus 18 (MSG)

13-14  Moses took his place to judge the people. People were standing before him all day long… When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What’s going on here? Why are you doing all this, and all by yourself…?”

15-16 Moses said, “Because the people come to me with questions about God. When something comes up, they come to me. I judge between [them] and teach them God’s laws and instructions.”

17-23 Moses’ father-in-law said, “This is no way to go about it. You’ll burn out, and the people right along with you. This is way too much for you—you can’t do this alone. Now listen to me. Let me tell you how to do this so that God will be in this with you… Your job is to teach them the rules and instructions, to show them how to live, what to do. And then you need [to appoint competent people as leaders over smaller groups]… They’ll be responsible for the everyday work of judging among the people. They’ll bring the hard cases to you, but in the routine cases they’ll be the judges. They will share your load and that will make it easier for you. If you handle the work this way, you’ll have the strength to carry out whatever God commands you, and the people in their settings will flourish also.”

24-27 Moses listened to the counsel of his father-in-law and did everything he said.

 

The advice Jethro offered Moses was to delegate.

He didn’t have to shoulder all of the responsibility himself. He didn’t have to do it all on his own. And by delegating responsibility and sharing authority, both Moses and the people would flourish.

First, he had to train those additional leaders and equip them… you can’t be responsible for something if you don’t know what the expectations are.

But then Moses had to get out of their way. He didn’t have time to micro-manage. They didn’t have time to continually come back and ask if they were doing it right.

They all needed to trust one another.

As a result, Moses could periodically check-in and evaluate his leaders. And, he was available when there were big issues to discuss.

 

As the Ad Council, we could look at our purpose statement as defined by the Book of Discipline and try to shoulder it all ourselves, as Moses did at first.

Or, we can delegate.

When we delegate, we make clear the expectations by setting goals and strategy and communicating our vision and mission. Then, we need to empower our committees to do the work of ministry.

We give them a budget, we make sure they understand our vision as a church, and then they have the responsibility and authority to do whatever they need to do, within those parameters, as their work.

This means the council is freed up to truly handle the big picture and major decisions. We are freed to hold the church and committees accountable for living into our mission and vision.

“If you handle the work this way, you’ll have the strength to carry out whatever God commands you, and the people in their settings will flourish also.”