God Created YOU

We are launching into a trilogy series called “Chosen.”

Part One: Running to You

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July 8th – “Chosen:  Running to You” God Created You.

July 17th – “Chosen:  Running to You” God chooses us just as we are.

July 24th – “Chosen:  Running to You” God chooses us FOR something.

Part Two: Choosing You

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July 31st – “Chosen:  Choosing You” We choose to follow Jesus.

August 7th – “Chosen:  Choosing You” We choose to step out.

August 14th – “Chosen:  Choosing You” We choose to be restored.

Part Three: Chosen to Act

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August 21st – “Chosen to Act” Chosen to share the Good News.

August 28th – “Chosen to Act” Chosen to bring light.

September 4th – “Chosen to Act” Chosen to love the world.

Psalm 139

The Inescapable God

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.

Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light around me become night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.

13 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
15     My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
17 How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.

19 O that you would kill the wicked, O God,
and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—
20 those who speak of you maliciously,
and lift themselves up against you for evil!
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
22 I hate them with perfect hatred;
I count them my enemies.
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
24 See if there is any wicked way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

This passage is titled “The Inescapable God.”

inəˈskāpəb(ə)l/

adjective

adjective: inescapable

  1. unable to be avoided or denied.
synonyms: unavoidable, inevitable, unpreventable, ineluctable, inexorable;

assured,sure, certain, guaranteed;

necessary, required, compulsory, mandatory;

rareineludible

“meeting the future in-laws is inescapable”

Meeting the future in-laws is definitely inescapable and I’m glad that I have good ones.  God’s love is unavoidable, compulsory, unpreventable….Do you find comfort in this or discomfort?  It sort of depends on how you see God or the nature of God.  If you see God as an all loving, omnipresent (all present), and omnipotent (all knowing) that’s our strength and our shield and a very present help in times of trouble, you are comforted by this Psalm.  You realize that even though God knows all you’ve done and said and the things you’ve hidden away and the deepest recesses of your heart, God loves you anyway.  Jesus scatters your sins from the east to the west and they’re not held against you anymore by grace alone.  Christ is the victor over all evil and injustice in this world and we work with the Holy Spirit to bring God’s kingdom to earth.  If your view of God is a task-master, one that checks off like Santa if you do this naughty thing, or that, or if you simply don’t trust God because what you see God doing in the world seems so unfair, unjust, and unfathomable, then you have an entirely different picture of who God is.  Scriptures abound painting with  all kinds of different strokes about the nature of God, but if you take the full picture, the full painting, you begin to see that God is longing for us to return home.  Just like the father in the familiar prodigal sermon.  God’s longing for us to come home so that God can throw a party just as the father did in the story.

This points to what United Methodists call prevenient grace.  God woos us to God’s self, even before we knew, even before we are aware of it.  God seeks each of us out to have a relationship with God.  God calls us where we are, in all of the mire and muck of sin, and as Jeremiah 18:1-4 says, “18 The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.”  God, as the potter, has the power to make all things new.  As Isaiah 64:8 says, “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”  God creates each of us and calls us each by name.  God cares about each of us.  God seeks the heart of each of us.  To give us hope and a future.

8th grade was a very difficult year for me.  My dad was a United Methodist pastor so we moved the summer before my eighth grade year.  The exact wrong time to move if you’re a 5 foot 11 ½ inch girl and none of the guys at your school had hit their growth spurt yet.  I grew to this height in seventh grade, but we had been in the Hartsville schools for 7 years, but when we moved to Cheraw I was fresh meat.  My nicknames abounded that year:  giraffe, Olive Oil, stick.  They made fun of me for my long fingers and after a dance where some people had gone through my purse, I went home crying and being oh so dramatic and yelling at the top of my lungs to my parents, “I hate this town and everyone in it!”  I wanted to go “home” to Hartsville.  I felt out of place and wanted my old friends, old church and the familiar status quo.  Have you ever felt like an outsider?  That you didn’t belong?  Like Dorothy did you realize there’s no place like home.  It’s easy for adolescents to feel that way.  To hope that some day they will find a place where they fit.  As a teenager I always searched for this mythical home.  Even writing about it when I was 17 in a poem titled “My “Ganny’s.”

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This place has been my haven, through life’s many storms

A constant place of refuge, where things are close and warm

It’s seen my tears, it’s seen my smiles, and it’s picked me up each time

The one place that has never changed in the journey of my life

When I have felt lost – no real “home” – and confused

Or when I thought my heart was broken and my soul had been stripped bare

I go through life as a little child trying to keep on her disguise

But in these walls my face lights up for this is where my strength and hope lies

Things are brighter, life more precious, feelings really matter

Here I find my true self, amidst the family’s chatter

This place is not a castle, a mansion, or a dream

What makes it great is not itself but the things that are unseen

The simple words full of wisdom, lack of pretense, and genuine love for people and each other

Are the things I admire and respect about my grandfather and grandmother

Although I can’t say I have the pleasure of living here from day to day

This place is my strength and my rock and in my heart it will stay

A place given from God to me, to help me light my way

A place where I can dance and sing, a secret hiding place

Everyone needs a refuge, a place to feel free and loved

There’s always a light, open door, some chocolate cake and a hug

People need a “Ganny’s” to escape our stress-filled world

A home that shows the love and grace of Jesus Christ our Lord

Everyone should have a safe space, where they can simply be.  Simply relax.  Simply to take off the armor we sometimes carry around in our day to day lives.  Whether it is a societal shield or a learned behavior, to protect us from further wounding or to hide our hurt.  Why do we remember only the negative things years later, but we forget the praises in a heartbeat?  Why do we carry around our wounds?  When the great God of the Universe created us and calls us for a purpose.  God created YOU.  God created Me.  With all of our persnicketies and peculiarities.

We have to LET IT GO, as Elsa sings, or as Taylor Swift sings, SHAKE IT OFF.  We have to stop all of the negative tapes in our heads that we’re not good enough, we’re not worthy, we’re not strong enough, we’re not….enough.  Because that’s just Satan trying to keep us silent and feeling bad about ourselves.  Our baggage is the stuff we carry; the stuff we can’t shake.  At times, we carry it so long it becomes a part of us.  We begin repeating it in our heads in our litany of why we can’t do something.  It holds us back.  It holds us down.  It enslaves us, keep us in bondage, preventing us from being who God truly wants us to be.  Who God truly created us to be.  It can either be mistakes we’ve made or things that we’ve been subjected to be others.  Nevertheless, it’s a pain festering inside of us, an open festering wound. It’s time to let go and let God.  That’s where the healing begins.

It’s time to lay them all down at the feet of Jesus and he can play new words on the tape players of our hearts.

You are chosen.

You are beloved.

You are my beautiful creation.

You don’t have to DO anything to have my love.  You don’t have to BE anything to have my love.  I’m your home.  The place you belong is is resting in my love and grace.  You can hang out there forever.

If you’ve been carrying around these wounds, this baggage inside – take a moment and consider freedom from those things.  If you know someone carrying around this baggage, pray for them and that God will give you the courage and the words to ask them to lay their fears, worries, tapes, baggage at the feet of Jesus.

I’m reminded of the words from Paul encouraging Timothy in 2 Timothy 1:6-10.  “For this reason I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God, who saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works but according to his own purpose and grace. This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, 10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”

God doesn’t give us a spirit of fear.  God wants to take away our burdens.  God wants to be our refuge.  A very present help in times of trouble.  Don’t let anyone tell you who you are.  Tell them Whose you are and rest in that.  I know what I’m saying is easier said than done.  Some of us hold tight to our woundings like familiar, old security blankets.  Ask God to work on that with you.  God created your inmost thoughts, God knows everything about you, and God desires to give you abundant life in Christ.  Not a half life.

We cannot love our neighbors with God’s agape love until we first love ourselves with God’s agape love.  That sacrificial love that is exemplified as Christ dying for our sins.  So whatever your burdens are….Whatever separates you from feeling the love of God….ask God to reveal it to you….whatever baggage you carry with you….ask God to free you from it in Jesus’ name.  As Mother Teresa says, “When you know how much God is in love with you then you can live your life radiating that love.”  I want us all to radiate the love of God.  I’m praying as it says in Micah that we all seek to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.  Aberjhani, in Journey through the Power of the Rainbow says, “Love is our most unifying and empowering common spiritual denominator. The more we ignore its potential to bring greater balance and deeper meaning to human existence, the more likely we are to continue to define history as one long inglorious record of man’s inhumanity to man.”

I will tell you if you let go and let God in, God doesn’t promise to take the pain away, God doesn’t promise it will be easy, God doesn’t promise you will not be challenged and face all that the world throws at you, but God promises to be with you.  In Psalm 139:18, “I come to the end – I am still with you.”  These are the words of David, but they could express the emotion and commitment of Martin Luther King Jr. as well. The “end” nearly came sooner than later.

The year was 1968. The place: Memphis, Tennessee. Elvis Presley is living at Graceland with his wife Priscilla and newborn daughter Lisa Marie, and is enjoying the Grammy he has just won for his second gospel album, “How Great Thou Art.” In the minds of many, he is “The King.”

Another King comes to town on April 3, 1968. Several death threats have been directed at King, and tension is high, but he feels that it is important to press ahead and speak at a rally on behalf of the sanitation workers. In the course of this address, he tells the story of an earlier attempt on his life, one that brought him perilously close to death. According to Ralph Abernathy, his friend and successor, Martin Luther King stood up that night and just “preached out” his fear.

“You know, several years ago, I was in New York City autographing the first book that I had written. And while sitting there autographing books, a demented black woman came up. The only question I heard from her was, “Are you Martin Luther King?” And I was looking down writing, and I said yes. And the next minute I felt something beating on my chest. Before I knew it I had been stabbed by this demented woman. I was rushed to Harlem Hospital. It was a dark Saturday afternoon. And that blade had gone through, and the X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery. And once that’s punctured, you drown in your own blood, that’s the end of you.

It came out in The New York Times the next morning, that if I had sneezed, I would have died. [Some time] after the operation, after my chest had been opened and the blade taken out, they allowed me to move around … and to read the mail that had come in from all over the states and the world. Kind letters had come in. I read a few, but one I will never forget. I had received telegrams from the president and vice president, but I have forgotten what those messages said. I received a visit and a letter from the governor of New York, but I forgot what was said.

But there was another letter that came from a young girl at the White Plains High School. And I looked at that letter, and I will never forget it. It said simply, “Dear Dr. King: I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School.” She said, “While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I am a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing to you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.”

And I want to say tonight, I want to say that I [too] am happy that I didn’t sneeze.”

In his autobiography he wrote, “If I demonstrated unusual calm during the attempt on my life, it was certainly not due to any extraordinary powers that I possess. Rather, it was due to the power of God working through me. Throughout this struggle for racial justice I have constantly asked God to remove all bitterness from my heart and to give me the strength and courage to face any disaster that came my way. This constant prayer life and feeling of dependence on God have given me the feeling that I have divine companionship in the struggle. I know no other way to explain it. It is the fact that in the midst of external tension, God can give an inner peace.”

He died the next day after giving that speech in Memphis.  In the course of his life, Martin Luther King walked through many dangers, toils and snares, but through it all he knew that God was walking with him. He had the very same faith as the writer of Psalm 139, the ancient poet who said to the Lord, “You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.”

After this week of unspeakable tragedy in our nation, “sides” being picked in our offices, homes and especially on social media, and children being afraid to go outside and play in their yards, we can draw comfort from the knowledge that God made each and every one of us, God is with each and every one of us, and God works all things together for God for those who love God.  God was with those who were shot, God was with the people at the rally in Dallas, God is with the ones that are recovering, God is with their families, God is with each of us as we grapple with the who’s, why’s, and how’s, as we explain such events to our children. Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy.

I will close with this prayer that Beth A. Richardson wrote after the awful tragedy and deadly violence in Orlando.

The news is bad.
We are outraged and horrified.
We are shocked and afraid.
We are overwhelmed and numb.
How many more times will we awake to such news?

Some of us sit in front of the television,
Search the internet for stories,
Watch, listen for something
That will help make sense,
That will soothe or comfort,
That will bring order back again.

Some of us can’t bear the words, the images.
The press conferences and scrolling news feeds
Freeze our brains, our hearts, our guts.

Some of us pray.
Some of us escape.
Some of us rage.
Some of us cry.

God, have mercy on our world.
Have mercy on the powerless and the powerful.
Have mercy on the first responders and those in ministry to the brokenhearted.
Have mercy on the victims, their families, their friends.

Sit with us in our terror, our sadness, our hopelessness.
And let us hold the space for others as we
Sit or cry, light candles or pray,
In solidarity, in hope, in love.
Amen.

You are chosen.  God created you in God’s image.  God created all of us in the image of God and freely forgives us no matter the baggage, no matter the doubt, no matter what.  You are loved.  Don’t let anyone or anything wrestle that fact away from you.  You are a beloved child of God, a fearfully and wonderfully made creation.  May we all feel , after this particularly hard week, God’s tangible love for each of us that calls us to a new, higher way, when we will all journey home.

Community at General Conference

One of my absolute favorite parts of being able to advocate for campus ministry for two weeks at General Conference 2012 was getting to know amazing campus ministry colleagues from around the connection as we lived together in two homes in Ybor City.

First of all, if you’re with people for 24 hours a day for two weeks – eating together, sharing living space, driving back and forth together, taking breaks together – you get to know them really well. In the midst of legislative committees and watching debate you find out really quickly where people stand.

We had specific legislation that we were tracking that related to campus ministry and advocating was a lot of what was on our agenda as members of the United Methodist Campus Ministry Association (UMCMA). One of the other things that was a goal of ours was to make campus ministry visible and to tell a positive collective story. We did this by handing out awesome buttons, cards, creating a prayer station for delegates, helping staff “Higher Education and Ministry night,” and overall telling the story to anyone we saw. When we first arrived at the Tampa Convention Center we were constantly being stopped by someone that one of us knew. I might not know that person from Cal-Pac but chances are that Rob or Alissa did. I might not know that person from Iowa, but there’s no doubt in my mind that West and Paul did. By ourselves we have our own contacts, but together we handed out buttons to people from all over our church.

It was beautiful.

It was amazing sharing in the Monday night Higher Ed reception and getting to talk to our African brothers and sisters about campus ministry, while spreading the word about all of the critical and necessary work that our general agencies do on behalf of those of us that don’t look quite like a typical local church.

Our collective voice is so much stronger when we come together.

This is not to say that we didn’t have some disagreements. I realized quickly those first few days in the house that I was the only one from the SEJ (Southeastern Jurisdiction) or SCJ (South Central Jurisdiction) and we are not always the rest of the church’s favorite group of people. Yes, my name is Narcie and I’m a member of the SEJ but I don’t want to squash your voice, I’m not an old white man, and I can jam and have a good time right along with the rest of you. Just having that back and forth dialogue about perceptions was critical in all of us knowing and understanding each other better. I’ll never forget Alissa, a Clairmont graduate, and Richard, an Asbury graduate, getting to know each other and bonding saying that they should stand up on the floor of General Conference, say where they went to seminary and that they are friends, and then drop the microphone. I’ll never forget my mom as I drove her to the airport saying that getting to know everyone and talking to everyone helped her understand so much more about campus ministry and our connection, and her then sharing that she now understood why sometimes people look at our name badges that say South Carolina and they don’t have the happiest look on their faces.

You see as we all have learned, have said, and know it to be true that – it’s all about relationships. It’s a heck of a lot harder to try to demonize someone if you’ve shared a meal with them. It’s a heck of a lot harder to shut your ears and ignore someone if you’ve been living with them for a week and you have a whole other week to go.

The reason we handed out so many buttons and had voices at many of the tables is because we had formed relationships with many of these people and in our crazy world of Methodism there’s not many a time when you can’t figure out some kind of connection with someone. That’s one of the beauties of campus ministry – we know it’s all about relationship. We know that this most sacred “work” and journey comes out of community. We have seen students that fundamentally disagree with each other on many levels come together around the communion table. We have seen people join together in a common cause whether on a mission trip, local service, or outreach. We know that’s where transformation takes place.

So those two weeks – although they were crazy and I still have a hard time articulating the insanity – were a gift. They were an absolute gift from God. Because whether we agreed or disagreed or whether our “side” won or lost, we all came together at the end of the day as one and we all were hopeful and ready to start the next day as we piled into the cars to head back over.

My campus minister during his retirement speech said that the only way to live life is in community and I couldn’t agree more. What if instead of living out of hotel rooms for two weeks, delegates lived in community with each other or with others in the local community? What if instead of just sitting at tables together and making quick introductions, committees and sub-committees actually shared meals and got to know one another before lines are drawn? What if we could re-create the schedule of General Conference completely and the focus not be on the “business” but on building relationships with one another so that the work and ministry flowed naturally out?

I hope that the community built in two lovely little homes in Ybor continues to bridge into the rest of our church. I know one thing for sure – we’ll be getting some houses for Portland. After this special time with colleagues and the perspective of being a little bit out of the bubble – I wouldn’t have it any other way.

General Conference and The Avengers

After spending two weeks at the United Methodist General Conference in Tampa, Florida, I took a much needed date night with my husband on Monday night. We watched The Avengers. And because my brain is still in United Methodist land after two intense weeks of watching, listening, tweeting, and engaging – I couldn’t help but think about GC2012 in light of The Avengers.

While at General Conference I had many a friend and colleague talk about GC2012 in relation to The Hunger Games. And I get that. I get that in some ways it seemed like people were just out for themselves trying to slaughter the opponent so that they could move on to be the victor. I get that those references came from a place of frustration, of anger, of fear, of disillusionment.

One of the joys of this General Conference was the effect of social media and multiple voices being lifted up in a type of call and response. It was powerful and gave great voice to many. But in kind, one of the great hurts of this General Conference was social media. It’s easy to be snarky and give one-liners when you’re not face to face with people. And it’s easy to jump on the wave of criticism and complaint even in the midst of prophetic voices as people sharpen their favorite knives of choice.

Part of the beauty of The Avengers is that they’re all superheroes in their own right. They’re each bringing gifts to the table. The hard part is to get them to work together, valuing not just their own power/place in the world.

In describing General Conference to a clergy friend this morning, it’s hard to explain. There were times when you could visibly see the presence of God and the beautiful tapestry that is our church. There were other times when there were so many power plays and undercuts and self-interests that it was hugely discouraging.

I don’t doubt any of these people’s conviction. Captain America in the movie talks about each of the Avengers’ conviction and it’s not that they don’t have it, but sometimes it’s different. They believe strongly in something, but that something is not always the same. We each have those non-negotiables. We each have those things that are hard limits. I’ll agree to restructure, as long as… I’ll agree to support this piece of legislation, as long as these words are used…

It’s not that they lack conviction, it’s just that they’re not on the same page because they’re bogged down in their own egos, opinions, hang ups, and contexts.

No matter which restructure plan you were for, where you stand on language on homosexuality, or your thoughts on pension, guaranteed appointment or a set-aside bishop, there’s no doubt in my mind that the people at General Conference love The United Methodist Church. There would be no reason to come and be in the hard work of holy conferencing if you didn’t care. Whether we agree all the time or not, whether we acknowledge or gloss over some of our divisions and cracks, whether we shout and point fingers or just wash our hands of it, we should all be committed to at least some of the same things.

I don’t like using soldier/fighting language, but what united the Avengers, was a common cause – something they each believed in as a whole. What are those things that hold us together? Do we believe as Wesley said, “In essentials, unity…in non-essentials, liberty…and in all things charity.” What are our essentials?

I know it may be a crazy place to find hope, but watching The Avengers made me feel a lot more positive about the future of our church – and more than that – the kingdom of God. Over the past four years we’ve heard a lot about death tsunamis, the cancer of the church needing oncologists to come in and diagnose us, and other doom and gloom, and I don’t know about you, but scaring people and taking our ball and going home has never worked to inspire people in my mind. My dream for the UMC is that we don’t spend the next four years wringing our hands and talking incessantly about our decline or the lack of relevance, but that we actually start preaching and living the Gospel and let the rest come. It can’t just be a structure for a few big church pastors or vocal bishops or a handful of radical church plants or even awesome campus ministries that try to “save” our church. It has to be each of us – each pastor and lay person – not just looking out for our own interests or own needs, but actually living as Christ in the world.

So maybe you’re mad about how things went down at General Conference this year. Go for it. The whole add a sticker to the 2008 discipline that says “2012” is funny and snarky and there’s a bit of truth in there. Use that frustration, disillusionment, and unsettled feeling to get started with you. Don’t just point at particular conferences or jurisdictions or parts of the world and lift them up or tear them down. Start with you. Because we each have a common heritage, not just as United Methodists, but as children of God. Sometimes this heritage calls out for prophetic witness and sometimes it calls out for some non-negotiables, but even in the midst we have to remember the things that unify us. And we can’t just wait for the general church to give us permission to grow because of the latest nifty research or plan.

May we come together as one – all of us – with our gifts and graces and instead of hurling critique and distrust may we be intentional in actively asking the Holy Spirit to pour down on all of us – our communities, our churches, our world. May we unite not just against a common enemy, but for a common purpose.

The Cycle – Suffering, Poverty

Music Space at Rebel Diaz Arts Collective

The United Methodist campus ministries went on our annual trip to New York this past week.  It always a rich time with students getting to make new friends and see and learn so much from the city.  It is also a blessing to be able to stay at Metropolitan Community UMC in Harlem.  Their hospitality has always been a huge gift to us and a shining example of the United Methodist connection.

This year the United Methodist Seminar Program led by Jay Godfrey and Jennifer McCallum outdid themselves, scheduling 3 parts of our group in 3 different areas of the city for 3 days to learn about the communities, culture, and social action taking place.  We were divided into groups going to the Bronx, Lower East Side and Harlem and had one day of service at a meals on wheels sort of thing where we actually walked to apartments and delivered meals to the elderly, one day of learning about cultures in our particular communities, and one day of seminar focusing on some of the issues in our communities and what organizations in those communities are doing to combat them.

I had spent some time doing seminars in Harlem and the Lower East Side so I was particularly interested in the Bronx.  What a huge area and diverse group of people the Bronx includes.  In all of the stops at museums, art collectives, a Yankees game, community action groups – each area of the Bronx was really different.  They were all so proud to be “Bronxites” that their enthusiasm for their borough was infectious.  We all felt like Bronxites to an extent at the end of our time.  Did you know that the Bronx has more green space than any other burrough in New York?  Me either.

What we heard from a lot of people and I would think the other groups would say this to, was people saying that they grew up dreaming of moving somewhere else and starting a new life, but that through whatever experience, education, epiphany moment, they decided to stay in their community and try to bring about change and keep fighting for chances and opportunities for the children growing up behind them.  Many of the speakers we talked to were born and bred in these communities and the passion, devotion and pride that they felt for these places was evident in everything they said whether the good or even the challenging issues that they are still battling.

It was good for the students and me to see these people standing up for what they believe in using real, practical, and change-bringing principles to their every day, bringing voice to the voiceless.

The divide I feel when I’m talking about us going to a living wage rally or fighting on behalf of the poor versus some of the questioning looks I get from people back home, has a lot to do with people’s questions about justice and righteousness.  We say we don’t believe all of the malarky about people who suffer having done something wrong or may not have lived right and have caused their suffering.  We say that we need to support our mentally ill, veterans, the widows, the orphans, those that can’t help themselves.  But then again, when it comes to our wallets and our own comfort, it seems easier to say and assume that if people were just working hard enough, if people just did what it takes to succeed, they would somehow pull themselves up out of these places of poverty.

We just witnessed a royal wedding where a commoner who descended from coal miners and criminals married a prince.  As much as I like the fairytale and as hard as her family worked and as many names they have been called for “social climbing,” I think it paints a somewhat unfair picture of what the cycle of poverty really looks like.  To say that it is hard to break that cycle is such a rough and belittling use of an adjective that it feels wrong to say.  To stand up in the face of corruption, in the face of not just people but entire systems that abuse you, to demand the same rights that others enjoy when you’ve never gotten a fair shake – that is scary, it’s terrifying, it’s intimidating.

I am constantly amazed at the voices that do stand up though.  I was glad to hear of a student from the Bronx talk about students in the Bronx organizing a walk out of thousands of students when the government was going to take away their right to a student metrocard to get to and from school.  I was inspired listening to Intikana from Rebel Diaz Arts Collective talking about how they’re using art and music and film and all sorts of creative outlets to give people in the Bronx a way to express themselves in non-violent and constructive ways.  It’s great to see young people working to bring about a new day.  It’s good for all of us to see that we can make a difference, whether through our churches doing a soup kitchen, clothing closet, food pantry, or other social action.  In the midst of the sometimes uphill climb and little defeats in the battle, it’s good to know that none of us are alone in this battle and that we have folks journeying with us all over the world.

From a faith perspective, we are clearly called to the poor, to the wounded, to those that need to feel that love and wholeness and new life.  This isn’t just the obvious poor among us, but it’s also the single mom trying to make ends meet, it’s also our cranky next door neighbor who’s as lonely as heck, it’s also our friends, our family, the people we see at the office or grocery store or school.

One of this past week’s lectionary texts was 1 Peter 2:19-25 and it talked about suffering and following in Christ’s footsteps.  Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t ask God for suffering.  If you suffer, you suffer, but Christ suffers with you, I get that.  But I’m not asking for it like the lovely Mr. Wesley in his new year’s service.  There’s two things I like in particular about this text – one that Christ suffered for us and so God knows what suffering feels like – for real without a doubt not even his fault suffering.  There’s a song in the new Broadway musical, The Book of Mormon that’s called “Man Up.”  I am NOT endorsing or saying you should go out and watch Book of Mormon or get the soundtrack.  The story is about two Mormon missionaries in Africa and needless to say, one of them is seeing that he has a challenge before him and he’s like, hey – Jesus had to man up, so I need to too.  I’m not saying that we all have to man or woman up, but the song is right in that Christ did suffer and die and he’s been there.  He knows what it’s like to feel alone, tired, hungry, beaten, ridiculed, and tortured.

The other thing is that he did the suffering for us, that “by his wounds you have been healed” and he is our Shepherd leading us home.  To me, this calls us in two different directions – one to realize that we realize that this LOVE and sacrifice was for us.  The other is to realize that we have to share this LOVE and sacrifice with the world.  We can’t say, that’s not my problem, it’s a problem over “there” with “those” people in “that” place.  Nope, it’s something that we all must wrestle with as we share the light and love of Christ.  This cycle of poverty only ends as we all jump into the fight, pool our resources, and leave our pride, self-protection, and rationalizations at the door.

We learned a ton in New York.  It was a great trip.  The thing I like about these trips is that it’s not just something we leave in New York, in this far away place, but these are things we learn and do and bring home to make a difference where we are, not just in a nice, greeting card kind of way, but for real.

How do we break the cycle of poverty in our communities?  How do we break the cycle of unbelief and fear and doubt?  How do we break the cycle of people believing that Jesus would just look at them with contempt and say that they deserved it because of what they did?  What are our churches saying about the cycle of poverty and suffering?  Anything?  What message are we telling?  What inner soundtrack are our lives rocking along too?

A nice, tame song by JJ Heller, “What Love Really Means.”

Man Up from the Book of Mormon – (don’t forget this is a satirical musical written by the creators of South Park and Avenue Q so listen at your own risk…this is your disclaimer, seriously.)

If someone was going to write a satirical musical about our faith?  our denomination?  our churches? what would it say???

Info about Rebel Diaz Arts Collective:  http://rdacbx.blogspot.com/

Info about the United Methodist Seminar Program:

http://www.gbgm.umc.org/UMW/work/mission-education/seminar-program/

What would our logo be?

Last night during the Ash Wednesday service there were many funny occasions as I caught Erica (our volunteer sign language translator extraordinaire) giving me and others looks like – what!!?  how am I supposed to translate that???.  But one thought-provoking moment stood out.  She had asked Mary earlier in the evening what the sign for the word forgiven is and so when I said as part of the liturgy, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven” she thought she nailed it.  The irony came when she found out afterwards that the sign she was doing was punished not forgiven.  Mary of course knew what she meant and I am as always hugely grateful that Erica puts up with us, but I’ve been chuckling and musing about this since last night.

In the name of Jesus Christ, you are punished. 

This morning at Wesley we hosted a district meeting for the clergy and Kathy James our Congregational Specialist talked about generational divides and opportunities for our churches.  How do we minister to all of these different groups and spek their language in the midst?  We talked a lot about images.  We could easily recognize the logos from products or stores whether there were words or not.  We’re a visual society and the shorthand that our communication has become in many ways has bled over into the images that we see and know even if the actual writing is explicit or not. 

Then came the wise question of what image or icon or logo does the church have?  How does society recognize us?  The cross and flame wasn’t mentioned although I do think that’s one of the images for the UMC, but do people on the outside actually get that?  The cross in general, buddy Jesus, a traditional picture of a church, a pair of hands praying….none of those came to mind for us this morning discussing it.  What our motley crew worried about was that the image people might have of Christians right now is of people protesting funerals or others condemning and judging people.  So seriously, what would our logo/image/picture/icon be?

When I think of the “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are punished,” I can’t help but think of some of those images and icons that people may recognize us by.  Are they images of hate?  Are they images of middle class complacency?  Are they images of frowny faced people in suits and Sunday dresses?  What do you think?

I was happy to see people sporting their ashes on ESPN and Colbert last night.  There’s a fun witness.  Will you watch them differently?  Hold them to a different standard?  Expect more?  I had no problem taking the students to IHOP last night while we were still “ashed,” but I must admit, that it did give me pause about how we acted or how we were perceived by the folks working there or others eating.  When we have that sign/image/icon of the cross on our foreheads, people are watching.  We know people can see it.  We represent something and someOne when we wear our faith.

In our every day, we don’t wake up every morning and put our cross on our forehead.  Heck, the Matthew passage last night (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21) actually speaks out against practicing your piety before others and I completely agree.  I’m not saying you go stockpile ashes to begin this process every morning, but I am saying we shouldn’t just try to “act right” or live out our faith just when we have the sign of the cross on our heads.  We should dig deeper and show the world by our words, our acts, and our love that in the name of Jesus Christ they are FORGIVEN.  This crazy thing called Christianity is not a battle for Super Christian of the ages, but it’s a recognition that we can’t do it all by ourselves.  It’s a knowledge that we mess up, boy do we sometimes, but that there is One who walks with us and gives us new life. 

This forgiveness is available for each of us whether rich or poor, black or brown, lefty or righty, insider or outsider.  It’s a free gift unlike the Clinique bags that get quickly given out to the first wave of customers.  This is a free gift that never runs out and doesn’t expire.

So on this day after Ash Wednesday when our crosses have been washed away, what remains of our commitment to repentance and renewal?  What does God have in store for us this season?  What kind of visual do we as Christians offer the world?

If you could pick a universal picture or image to represent the church what would it be?  (No this is not a branding meeting where we’re going to put millions of dollars in and take the airwaves, but I’m curious as to what you name.)  Punishment or forgiveness?  Peace or hate?  I’m not saying that all of our images will be pretty or nice or clean, because I don’t believe that being the body of Christ is all roses and butterflies.  But I am saying that the images we project need to be real and they need to reflect the Gospel, not just what we’ve made it into.

this is every worship picture these days...wowzers...

Do we care enough to pray?

One of our small groups is reading Shane Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution right now and it has brought about a lot of interesting discussion.  I often feel like I’m defending young adults to the church and the church to young adults.  As someone who was nourished and formed in the United Methodist Church who has seen the good, the bad, the ugly and the awesome as a preacher’s kid, and as someone who has felt called to lead and be apart of this church, there’s part of me that wants to defend it until I’m blue in the face.  At our recent small group talking about the book, it was me and another student who is a PK who were defending the established church in the face of students that don’t necessarily align themselves with a particular denomination or group, but are serious about their spirituality.  And before some of you reading think, that it’s just young people that feel that way, it’s not.  Yesterday we had someone stop by Wesley giving us a donation to help with painting and repairing some of our windows around the building.  Is this guy a United Methodist?  Nope.  Had I ever met him before?  Nope.  Was he young guy?  Nope.  He simply said he didn’t really believe in all the denominations but that he was a Christian and he wanted to help us out by doing the repairs and help the guy doing the work out, by giving him some work in this hard economy.  There’s something about some of our denominational structures that people find intimidating or they’re just mistrusting.  Who can blame them?

In a world where not just young people, but many relate sincerely to the statement, “I’m spiritual, not religious,” what role do we play as the church?  There’s something about living out our faith and actions that speak louder than words that my students and many of us find refreshing in books like Shane Claiborne’s.  Even the biggest of mega churches are starting to realize, you have to have that service and outreach component for people to buy in to what you’re offering.  I’m not at all saying that our older generations aren’t socially conscious and don’t where their faith on their sleeves.  Quite the contrary.  I see the amazing folks of Bethel UMC rocking the soup kitchen week after week.  I see many of our “great generation” as Tom Brokaw calls it, being the ones that give to our churches, to our missions, and to our campus ministries with their time and money.  These folks are our bedrock.  They are our foundation.  We have relied upon them in our attendance, giving, and mission reports for years and years.  I honestly have no idea what our church is going to look like a decade from now.

For years I’ve heard people rally around sayings like, “Our young people aren’t the future of the church but are the church today.”  I also have heard very clearly that in the next ten or twenty years our church is going to change radically.  At a recent District Superintendent gathering of the SEJ, Lovett Weems talked about a “tsunami of death” expected to happen by 2018. A new body is going to have to step up.  Even more than that, a collective body needs to be formed and shaped and nourished as we go into this new territory together.  And it needs to be something new…and thank God we believe in One that makes all things new.  What worked in the 50’s and 60’s in our hayday is not going to work now.

I think most people would agree that we want our churches to have young people.  I can’t imagine anyone actually admitting out loud in front of people that they really don’t want to give up their space or their community or that they want to keep it solely theirs and nobody else’s.  Most people would also probably agree that we don’t really want to see our average age of clergy or congregant creep any higher. We want these young people to join our churches, but how often do we really try to plug them in to the life and leadership of the church?    We think that a college Sunday school class is the answer to everything, like somehow these young adults are going to smell this addition out in the atmosphere or its like batman’s bat light is going to shine forth from that particular church and young adults will automatically flock to it. 

I hear pastors say that campus ministry is a great place for college students and young adults but it’s hard to get them invested back in our local churches.  You’re right about that.  It is hard for young adults that have been fed, nourished, and empowered in campus ministries to go back to local churches where they don’t always feel heard or like they matter except in the “we really want you here because you’re young, but we don’t want to give you any kind of say-so over anything.”  It’s not that you should be pandering to young adults or any one else in this consumerist crowd, but if some of the keys of the kingdom aren’t gently handed over it’s going to be hard to pry them out of the cold dead hands of our churches a decade from now.

So what does this mean for us?  Where can we go from here?  How do we bridge this divide?

A wise beyond words former student of mine posted this on facebook in reaction to some of the assumptions in the Call to Action report.    This quote comes from the top of the page talking about vital congregations (http://www.umc.org/atf/cf/%7Bdb6a45e4-c446-4248-82c8-e131b6424741%7D/PROPOSEDVITALCONGREGATIONSPLANNINGGUIDE-2-14-11%20(2)%20(2).PDF) “The United Methodist Church is called to be a world leader in developing existing churches and starting new vital congregations so that we make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Then he writes, “But what if we’re not?  How do we know? How do we know we’re not called to repent of our sin of desiring worldly influence that has resulted in our church functioning to bolster war, imperialism, eugenics, and the like over the past two centuries? How do we know we aren’t called to use all our buildings to feed the hungry and house the homeless? How do we know we’re not meant to shrink and become even more marginal before our comfortable church learns what being the body of Christ is about? I’m unimpressed with the presumed triumphalism.”  I want to give a huge amen and shout a loud PREACH BROTHER!

Yes, things are changing.  And like I said before, I have no idea what the church is going to look like in the next 10 – 15 years, but instead of being sad and angry and depressed and bitter and cynical as is so easily slipped into, why don’t we intentionally pray, discern and vision, call on the Spirit to lead, get totally excited about the possibilities of what can happen if we let the old paradigms fall away and we revision anew.  A “revision” of a paper, isn’t writing the whole thing over again, even though some paragraphs and parts, some sentences and words, sometimes even some of the critical parts are tweaked, corrected, and changed.  We don’t have to throw the whole thing out, but we do have to imagine again what this church is called to do and to be in this world and what that means for us.

This is representative of where we are in campus ministry right now, trying to offer the Good News in the midst of people being pulled in different directions, trying to articulate that “church” isn’t just always those brick and mortar buildings with the steeple but that it can be community and justice and discipleship and nourishment too.  As we stand on the precipice of something that’s going to change and happen whether we like it or not, we need to all be intentional in our prayer, in the Gospel that we share, in the asking of the Spirit to lead and guide us in ways that we can’t even imagine. These aren’t times to be afraid or hold even tighter to our fear and control, but this is an exciting time in the life of our larger faith community.  How are we going to set the tone?  How are we going to shape the conversation through the power of the Spirit?  How are we going to step out in faith?  What do we keep and what needs pruning? 

I don’t know about y’all, but I haven’t decided what I’m adding or giving up to help me draw closer to God during this Lenten season yet.  I still have til tomorrow night so I’m fine.  I’ve heard of pastors intentionally praying for everyone in their congregation – love that idea or adding times of fasting and prayer.  I think though one of the things that I would like to do and I would like my students to do, is to pray for our church.  And not just little c church, but also big c Church.  Instead of watching all of this unfold and getting swept to and fro in the midst, why don’t we actually ask the Spirit to steer the ship and blow and move?  Why don’t we ask for guidance and discernment and illuminating instruction to be given to our church leaders, those lovely people we call the bureaucrats of the church, and not just them but to all of us – lay and clergy alike?  Would you care enough about the present/future of our church to intentionally pray for 40 days?  Do you think it’s inevitable doom and gloom or is there hope in the midst?  I choose hope.  And I choose to pray.  And I choose to believe that God will shock our socks off with all that’s in store.  We’re right on the edge of a powerful movement.  The signs are there.  It could happen.  We can choose to see this as a wonderful opportunity or as the last death nail….let’s choose life.

Evy and Enoch at a recent youth event...what will the Church look like when they're young adults?

Frustrated but Humbled in a Good Way

Do you get frustrated when things don’t go the way you think they should?  Or even more than that, do you feel frustrated when people consistently don’t live up to expectations or react in ways that you feel are hurtful or uncaring or selfish or self-centered?  There’s such a balance in giving grace to people and loving them as who they are and holding people accountable and really encouraging growth.  Jesus gave us an awesome example with that, but wowzers is it hard to figure out how to live that.

When someone messes up it would be really easy just to ignore it or get over it or forget about what has happened, and of course there are times and places for that, but if we’re talking about Christian community – it is not okay to shut people down, to take things for granted, to not welcome folks, to constantly talk about inside jokes that keep people on the outside, to belittle and criticize in ways that are far from constructive and are much more destructive.  Negativity is so contagious.  And for some reason instead of the church being in sharp contrast to that, it seems that it’s easier for it to happen here than not.

At our district clergy meeting on Thursday we talked a bit about the challenges and hostile environment that some encounter.  In a conversation with a colleague about the church politics of the church kitchen, it amazed me how territorial, rude, and close-minded people can be when they’re the ones on the inside/part of the club and someone else is looking in.  And if you think that “we’ve never done it that way before” is a phrase just used in local churches and not campus ministries, I wish you were right – but sadly, it’s not the case.  I think back on my dad’s talking about what it takes to get to real community – the chaos and conflict involved – and I get that.  But can’t we be different?  Or at least can we try to not be as self-centered and hostile as the rest of the world?  How can we worship and have solid fellowship with someone on a church retreat or on Sunday mornings and then turn around and not speak to them in the aisle at the grocery store or the local Target?  It’s so unbelievingly frustrating.

Not that I’m the “are you being a good enough Christian” police?  Not by any means.  It actually usually make me  wonder if I have been a bad “shepherd.”  Do we as pastors really lead by example?  And what is that example?  Yep I know we are called to offer God’s love to everyone.  I get that.  But I also don’t remember Jesus talking to the Pharisees in a lot of flowery rainbows and butterflies language.  Sometimes it was harsh and hard to hear.  He was straight up with them.  This thing – this discipleship – is not just about insiders.  This is not just a club for you that have figured out how this things work – when to stand for the apostle’s creed or sit for the prayer or whatever.  This isn’t about who can complain and criticize and attack people the most because you think you have the inside track or power.  This isn’t about who has the most friends or knows the most gossip.  This isn’t even about the pastors, the singers, the musicians, the people in charge.  This is about something different.  Thank goodness!

Our theme verse for Wesley this year comes from 1 John 3:17-18 from The Message, “If you see some brother or sister in need and have the means to do something abot it but turn a cold shoulder and do nothing, what happens to God’s love?  It disappears.  And you made it disappear.  My dear children, let’s not just talk about love; let’s practice real love.”  I really like the text.  But it’s really scary to put that on all the Wesley shirts and the posters because if we put that out there and if people walk in and they’re not welcomed and people keep to themselves and are doing their own thing – it’s a bit of a contradiction, right?  A sort of significant one.

How do we practice real love?  How do we live that out?  As pastors or leaders in the church, how do we not take it personally when this is such a challenge in our congregation?  Are they “getting” anything that we are saying or are people tuning in and out and just not catching on?  Maybe.  Or maybe we’re lacking in our preaching and teaching.  Could be.  Do you at some point say forget numbers, forget statistics, forget all of the nit-picking – we are going to try to live out this love of Christ and the heck with the rest of it?

As you might read between the lines, it’s been a pretty frustrating week.  And discernment and reflection in the midst of being tired makes things all the more personal, hurtful, and accentuated.  But the scripture this morning from the Upper Room was a good word in terms of where we are,

“Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the LORD for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”
                                                                                                                     -Isaiah 55:6-13 (NRSV)

You know what that tells me?  That sometimes we just don’t know.  It’s not about us or our ways or what we’re doing or not doing.  God’s purposes are being carried out.  God is sowing seeds all around us.  We can prepare the bread, but the yeast is what mysteriously makes it rise.  I don’t think that lets people off the hook in terms of how we are to be in the world if we claim to be disciples of Christ – not by any means.  But I do think that God says that God is bigger than all of that.  God will work, and is working in spite of all of us folks that mess it up.  It’s not about us – at least not all about us.  That is a relief.  Even if we’re expecting a bunch of thorns (and it sure feels like that sometimes in ministry), there will come a cypress.  A couple of those would be pretty awesome!

So yes things may be frustrating when they don’t move or grow or change or act according to what we may think is right.  True.  And I may expect a heck of a lot out of people when I may not have a right to – remember that whole plank in your own eye thing.  But before I throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Before we sit down and say all is lost – it’s good to know even when I don’t measure up or when I feel like I must be the most gigantic hypocritical mess of them all – God is in the mix – bringing beauty from ashes.  May we seek and know God and be challenged to live it out.  For real.  Not just kidding or just during small group or children’s sermon or Sunday school or Disciple group or on a retreat.  We are called to live out this love all the time – a la Wesley’s – “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

When you claim you’re a Christian whether saying it, wearing it, on your car, whatever – you’ve got to back it up.  We’re not all going to be “perfect” all the time but that beauty of sanctification is that we don’t have to constantly stay in the low pit of negative, critical, spin cycle of sin.  Change can happen.  And God still moves.  Even in the midst.