In the Desert

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In these weeks before our season of Advent starts, we’ve been exploring the Psalms of our scriptures.
Rev. Andrea Severson joined us at the end of October to talk a bit about times of transition and journeying and the songs the Israelites wrote to accompany them on the way.
Last week, as we remembered our saints, Pastor Todd reminded us of how God walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death.
Today, we turn our attention to one of the Psalms of Lament. These songs of lament, frustration, and longing make up over half of the psalms within our Bible!
They are the words that we cry out when we are troubled, persecuted, frustrated, and hopeless.
“There’s got to be more than this,” we say. “There’s got to be more than this.”

This particular psalm is one written by David and the note in the scripture itself indicates it was during a time when he had fled to the wilderness. Likely, it was written after he had become the King of Israel. His very own son, Absalom, led an insurrection and David was forced to run for his life.
And there, in the desert, he cries out…
Not just for water…
But for the very presence of God.
Robin Gallaher Branch writes that “although his body wastes from dehydration, his spiritual longing for God takes precedence. Hunted and afraid for his life, the psalmist remembers God’s protection and loving-kindness… his soul longs for God.”

In the midst of our trials and tribulations, in the midst of the pain in this world, do we, too, cry out with the psalmist?
Do we believe “there’s got to be more than this?”
Do our souls hunger and thirst for God?
And can we hang on to the vision of God’s enduring love in the midst of our longing?

Last week, brothers and sisters in Christ gathered in a sanctuary in Sutherland Springs, Texas for worship. They were there to pray and to sing and to worship God… and twenty-six of them lost their lives.
Yet another mass shooting in America.
Yet another tragic loss of life.
And I feel like we are lost, wandering the desert, parched with our longing for the violence to end. Parched with exhaustion from debating types of weapons. Parched with weariness from trying to understand the motivations for such acts.
There has got to be something more than this.

And so, we are gathered here, today, seeking God… thirsting for God… turning our hands and our lips towards the divine…. Clinging to the one who has upheld us before.

What comes next?

Do we turn inward and lock the doors?
Do we get lost in debate about causes and solutions?
Do we stop loving and trusting our fellow human beings?
Or is there something else?

In some ways, I wonder if the lessons of Veteran’s Day are precisely the ones we need in the midst of a desert like this.
After the Treaty of Versailles was signed, the “Great War” finally saw peace on the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month. It was believed to have been “the end of ‘the war to end all wars.’”
The next year, President Wilson proclaimed November 11 as Armistice Day… a day commemorated “by paying tribute to the heroes of that tragic struggle and by rededicating ourselves to the cause of peace.”

You see, in the midst of all of that loss and pain and grief … in the midst of the desert of destructions and sacrifice… as they looked out upon that broken world and believed that there had to be something more than this… they named what they were longing for – peace – and they set it before them as a vision for what they would pursue.

In 1926, Congress officially recognized the date as a legal holiday – a “recurring anniversary of this day, commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations.”

And yet, even with that vision of peace before us, it was not the war to end all wars.
There was a second world war, and then the Korean conflict, and we know that since those days countless of our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, friends and neighbors have served our country around this world.
In 1954, aware of this reality, President Eisenhower proclaimed that we would expand this day to honor the veterans of all wars and to “reconsecrate ourselves to the task of promoting an enduring peace so that their efforts shall not have been in vain.”

In the midst of our own desert of perpetual war and violence, we believe there has got to be something more than this.
And so we cry out every year, longing and thirsting for God’s peace to prevail across this world.

Maybe the question is… have we truly reconsecrated ourselves to the task of peace?
Simply marking a holiday is not enough…
How are we called to live differently in order to help God’s peace to be known all across this world? How do we lift up our hands and call upon God’s name and allow the divine power and glory to shape our world?

This past week, a colleague wrote a reflection about the kind of preparation she plans to do in the wake of more violence. Instead of preparing her church for someone who might burst in with a weapon, she wants to prepare her church to work against violence in this world.
And friends, there are lots of ways we can do that.

We can mentor students in our schools who are at risk for joining gangs.
We can work to provide better mental health care for our neighbors.
We can respond to domestic violence and take seriously the stories of women who are assaulted and work to not only keep them and their families safe, but provide help for those who are perpetrators.
We can get to know our neighbors and become a part of creating a community where people have one another’s backs and look out for what is happening.
We can talk about the gospel stories that teach us how to respond to oppression and injustice and hatred – often by heaping on extra doses of love and compassion and working for justice.
We can be a church that helps our children, especially our boys, learn healthy ways to express their emotions and to play so that they don’t grow up to believe that anger has to be expressed through violence.

If in the midst of this desert of violence, we turned our eyes to God and allowed that vision of peace to quench our thirst…
if that was the deep well from which we as a church and as a community chose to drink from…
if in the midst of this barren and hopeless struggle we chose to turn our eyes to the Lord and to bless God’s holy name and to cling to the one who has been our help…
then like David, we might find our souls satisfied.

May it be so. Amen.

Reflections a week after General Conference… #umcgc

As Psalm 146 reminds us: human leaders and human institutions aren’t everything.  They won’t save us.

We are finite and we make mistakes.

Only God is forever faithful.

Yet, any denomination or tradition comes from God’s followers attempting to live out their faith and their discipleship together.

Fully knowing that we are not perfect, we nevertheless seek to do the best we can to respond to God’s movement and calling in the world in a given place and time… based on where our forefathers and mothers have led us and based on where the Holy Spirit is calling us anew.

That is what we tried to do at General Conference.  Over 10 days, we attempted to be faithful to God’s leading and yet we are not God and our plans are just that… ours.

Over these last two weeks, we very nearly split our denomination into pieces.  Our differences are stark. Our life together is marred by conflict as much as collaboration.  And I’m going to be honest… I’m not quite sure yet what comes after General Conference.

We asked our Bishops to help us find a way forward out of our predicament and that way forward is still vague.

So rather than making predictions, maybe it would be better to share who we are and how we got to this place.  I think fundamentally, there are three key things to keep in mind as we wrestle with what it means to be the United Methodist Church.


First, I think it is helpful to understand that the United Methodist Church is a global church. 

We are the only protestant denomination that is worldwide.  Our churches span from Manila to Legos to Moscow. And, while the church in the U.S. has been declining, the global church is growing exponentially.

In the last ten years, the U.S. has declined in membership by 11%, while the church in the Africa Central Conference grew by 329%!

42% of United Methodists now live outside of the United States.

One of the most important things we do at General Conference is listen to one another, try to understand more about our contexts, and find ways to help ministry flourish all across the world.  And that is not an easy task.

But because of our global partnerships, we can do amazing things like Imagine No Malaria and our United Methodist Committee on Relief is the first to arrive on the scene of disaster and the last to leave.

And we can learn from one another.

I remember listening to a committee four years ago debate the process for closing a church.  A woman from Liberia stood and said that she was extremely confused as to what we were talking about… not because of a language barrier, but because she simply couldn’t comprehend why we would close a church. The church in the United States needs that passion for the gospel that is growing so fast we can’t build enough churches!

As we continue to debate the inclusion of LGBTQI people in the life of our church, I also heard clearly from our African delegates, like my new friend Pastor Adilson, that their contextual struggle is not with homosexuality, but with polygamy. Rather than asking if same-gender marriages are allowed in their churches, they are struggling with how to welcome and include a man who has four or five wives.  Does the church ask him to divorce all but one?  What happens to the other wives?  Or the children?  How is the entire family welcomed?

We are also learning to reframe our conversations to be more global than United States centric.  One of our debates this year was about a resolution for health care that referenced the Affordable Care Act.  When 42% of United Methodists live outside the United States, these kinds of statements need to be broader in scope.  It was hard to be talking about a system that only applies to some of us, when so many people in that room had little to no access to care, much less health insurance.

One of the realities of being a global church is that multiple languages play a role in all of our meetings. While we have four official languages as the UMC: French, English, Portuguese and Kiswahili, we had simultaneous interpretation in Russian, German, Spanish, and many others.

An ever present reality is also that in many of these global areas Christianity arrived along with colonialism.  “Most Africans teach their children that Jesus and other biblical characters are muzungu (Kiswahili, “white”) notwithstanding the fact that Jesus would likely have been dark complexioned because he was born in the Middle East.”  (

We, as a church, have tried to combat colonial impulses by allowing the conferences outside of the United States to adapt our Book of Discipline to their local contexts.  However, that means that 42% of the church doesn’t have to abide by all of what we vote on… and that we need their votes in order to make changes to the rules only we follow.


Second, it is helpful to know how we make decisions.  

The roots of our church lie in England, but we were born during the American Revolution.  And our polity, our government is modeled upon our national government.

Just like the government, we have a judicial branch and a Judicial Council.

Our Bishops function as the executive branch.

And the General Conference itself is the legislative branch… just like Congress.

864 of us were elected as voting delegates to represent the worldwide church and we were half clergy and half laity.

The General Conference is the only body that can speak for the United Methodist Church and everyday people like you and me are the ones who make the decisions.

So those of us gathered there had the responsibility of pouring over legislation and making changes to our structure, rules, and positions… four years worth of work condensed into two weeks.

I believe that to discern the Holy Spirit, one has to be humble, empty yourself, and allow other voices to influence you.

The first week of conference is largely spent in legislative committees and in those smaller groups some of that discernment could happen.  I had truly transformative experiences in my committee and the work felt good and holy.

But all of those relationships and trust falls apart when an item comes to the floor of the plenary session.  There, the decision making process moves away from consensus building and instead creates winners and losers.

On the FIRST DAY of conference… we spent hours debating the rules that we would use in order to debate. We used and we abused Robert’s Rules of Order.

And when we were presented with an alternative decision making process (what you might have heard as Rule 44) to use for particularly contentious issues, we debated it for two days and then voted not to use it.

But we did accomplish some things.  We approved the creation of a new hymnal for our church.  We strengthened our process for the affirmation of clergy.  We created new pathways for licensed local pastors.  And we added gender, age, ability, and marital status to the protected classes in our constitution.


Third, it is helpful to understand that while it appears that our conflict as a church is centered around the inclusion of LGBTQI people, our division is deeper.

Our church is a very broad tent and the likes of both Dick Cheney and Hilary Clinton call our church home.  This is one of the things that I love about the United Methodist Church.

But I think what came into focus for many of us at this General Conference is that our disagreements may no longer be sustainable.

Perhaps fundamental to our conflict is how we interpret scripture. For some, scripture is absolutely central and the only tradition, reason, or experience that matters is that which scripture can confirm.  For others, scripture is absolutely central and yet we have to interpret scripture through the lenses of our tradition, reason, and experience.  That shift might seem subtle, but it can make the difference between allowing women to be ordained or not in our church.

We also fundamentally disagree about whether we are a church of personal piety or social holiness. Of course, John Wesley thought it had to be both… but where we place our emphasis determines how we engage with the world and the moral stances we choose to take.

All of this difference is floating beneath the surface of any conversation about how LGBTQI people are included or not in the life of our church.


If you asked me a month ago what was going to happen at General Conference I would have been full of optimism. You see, I’m a bridge builder.

And so I went to General Conference with all kinds of hopes about how we would make decisions to benefit the church all over the world and how in spite of our differences we would find a way forward together.

I don’t think it was naïve to believe this going in.

But in the midst of our gathering in Portland, something shifted. Something shifted in my own life and in the hearts and minds of countless other delegates.

We realized that we could no longer keep doing what we have been doing together as a denomination.

We realized that our differences were tearing us apart.

And in Portland, we made a very conscious choice to avoid the end of our denomination through our votes.  We voted to seek unity, to try to find a way to remain together for the sake of God’s mission in the world. But there is a phrase we kept using that I think is important.  Unity does not mean unanimity.

As we look at our differences, particularly in the three areas I named, for many, we avoided the end, but are only delaying the inevitable.

Maybe our global structure is unsustainable.

Maybe our decision making process has to change.

Maybe  our fundamental disagreements will only continue to allow conflict to rule our work together and we would be better to split amicably and allow each part of our church to be the most faithful it can be to God’s will.

The next four years as United Methodists will not be easy.  We have asked the Bishops of our church to lead us in discerning a way forward and that might mean that in the next two or three years we will call a special gathering to decide how to move forward… on what it means to be a global church, on our structure, on our polity, and on our stances regarding human sexuality.

I have about 45 more minutes of things I could share with you and I’m happy to continue to have conversations about our work.  But I want to leave you with this one request.

Pray for our church.

Pray for God’s will to be done.

Pray that we might follow the one who is faithful forever, who as Psalm 146 reminds us…

defends the wronged,     and feeds the hungry. God frees prisoners—     God gives sight to the blind,     and lifts up the fallen. God loves good people, protects strangers,     takes the side of orphans and widows,     but makes short work of the wicked.

In spite of all the good and all of the mistakes that we made at this past General Conference, I take comfort in the knowledge that God’s in charge—always.

Prayers from under a blanket

Today’s prompt begins with verse 6 of the familiar Psalm 139 (NRSV): “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.”

Look up today. Let the high places catch your eye and your imagination. Be full of wonder as you pick up your pen to pray.

Holy God, we turned up the thermostat tonight.

Outside our walls the wind is rushing and swirling and stirring up everything in sight.

It is a cold and bitter wind.

It is the kind of that makes you want to hunker down and drop your head and close the hood of your coat in tighter.

It is a wind that humbles you.

Brings you to your knees.

It moves with such power that it goes through your very bones.

Goes through the bones of the house.

Gets to the core even if you are wrapped up tight.

Sometimes, God, you blow like that in my life.

Your Spirit moves so fiercely through me that I have to back away.

I want to curl up in a ball.

I want to become small so that you won’t notice me.

But you do.

You get to me.

You get into the depths of me.

But instead of a cold and bitter wind, it is a touch of fire, a spark of movement, a calling to go and to do.

And when I hunker down and try to resist, you get me anyways.

You fill me up so that I can’t take it anymore.

And brought low to my knees I have to respond.

Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.

Prayers from the silence

Psalm 62:1 & 5 (NRSV): “For God alone my soul waits in silence; from him comes my salvation. For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him.”

After waiting on God, write a prayer that arises from the silence.

God, I’m trying to wait for you.
I’m trying to focus on you.
But I am so easily distracted.

The cats are playing in the bathtub. (yes, the bathtub)
My husband has fallen asleep watching an e-sports match and is snoring.
The screen is too bright and I should have shut it off.

For God alone my soul waits…
Heck, I can’t even get the silent part right.

I have a feeling, Lord, that you wait for me more than I wait for you.
I know you are my hope and salvation.
But I take it for granted.

Clear the chaos and the clutter
Clear my eyes so I might see
All the things that really matter
Help me be at peace and simply be.