The Zeal of Coming Clean

What a glorious privilege it was to spend last week in Cambridge, England as part of a training around Reflective Supervision. There were nineteen of us, including five bishops; our Iowa Director of Clergy Excellence, Lanette Plambeck; leaders from several conferences in the US.; and staff from the British Methodist Church and the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

The training took place at Wesley House, which was founded in 1921 as a Methodist theological college at the campus of the University of Cambridge on none other than Jesus Lane!

Wesley House is a member of the Cambridge Theological Federation, which is a consortium of eleven theological institutions, comprising over three hundred students from twenty-five countries, with the University of Cambridge conferring the degrees.

Today Wesley House is a “gateway to theological scholarship” for clergy from around the world in the Wesleyan tradition. It was a joy to be immersed in the theology and practice of reflective supervision, which, in the Methodist Church in Britain, is an “exploratory and reflective process in which a ministry practitioner meets together with a trained, resourced and approved supervisor to reflect on their vocation and practice.”[i] We were led by Dr. Jane Leach, principal of Wesley House.

Our hope was to learn from our Methodist brothers and sisters in Britain a different way of supervision of clergy that is a collaborative process between supervisor and supervisee. Reflective supervision is a means of grace that includes both support and accountability. This sacred conversation is directed toward the well-being of clergy, the good of those they serve, and the health of the Church as the body of Christ.

Last Tuesday evening, our group had the privilege of eating dinner at nearby Westminster College, which was founded in 1899 as a theological college for the Presbyterian Church of England and is also part of Cambridge University. What a joy it was to share in this Advent time with our ecumenical friends. As we explored the chapel of Westminster College, we were led to a stained-glass window of none other than John Wesley, a beautiful symbol of the ecumenical relationship we have with our Presbyterian friends.

At the entrance to the chapel we also found a small prayer room with chairs in a circle and seven sheets of paper on the floor with these phrases: Quiet Our Hearts; Make Room for His Word; Come Clean; Invite Our Saviour to Come In; Ask God to Heal Our Broken Places; Remember What He Has Done; and Ask God To Renew Our Hearts. An accompanying handout explained each of these Advent spiritual practices in more detail. It was deeply moving to know that this holy space was making room for all who wished to “come clean” and deepen their walk with God during Advent.

After a wonderful banquet, which included foods uniquely British, Dr. Andrew Stobart, who is the Director of Research for Wesley House, gave a talk about John Wesley’s sermon, “On Zeal.” Wesley begins the sermon with a scripture from Galatians 4:18, “It is good to be always zealously affected in a good thing.” Zeal is usually described as a passion or enthusiasm for something. When we are zealous, we are motivated, energized, or committed to a particular cause.

Then Wesley sets the stage, “There are few subjects in the whole compass of religion, that are of greater importance than this. For without zeal it is impossible, either to make any considerable progress in religion ourselves, or to do any considerable service to our neighbour, whether in temporal or spiritual things. And yet nothing has done more disservice to religion, or more mischief to mankind, than a sort of zeal which has for several ages prevailed, both in Pagan, Mahometan, and Christian nations. Insomuch that it may truly be said, pride, covetousness, ambition, revenge, have in all parts of the world slain their thousands; but zeal its ten thousands.”

How interesting that John Wesley clearly differentiates between zeal that does great good and zeal that can cause great harm. It is misplaced zeal for the wrong things that has resulted in untold suffering and grief in our world over the centuries. Wesley called it “inhuman persecution.”

Dr. Stobart focused his remarks on Wesley’s phrase, “comparative divinity,” which Wesley uses to describe how we can best live with zeal in love of God and neighbor. Comparative divinity helps us to differentiate how we practice the Christian life. Stobart called it a “topographical map of grace.”

  • The outer ring of the circle is a zeal for “the Church” and the communities in which we live and practice our faith. Wesley speaks of the necessary zeal a Christian should have for the church in general and their own society in particular. Our prayer should be that this circle keeps ever growing, enlarging its borders to embrace more and more of God’s world.
  • The next ring consists of what Wesley calls “works of piety,” means of grace which include prayer, fasting, scripture reading, and the Lord’s Supper.

  • The third ring toward the center of the circle is “works of mercy,” acts of kindness and generosity that are even closer to the heart of God. Wesley writes, Even reading, hearing, prayer are to be omitted, or to be postponed, ‘at charity’s almighty call’; when we are called to relieve the distress of our neighbour, whether in body or soul.”
  • The fourth ring Wesley calls holy tempers, which include lowliness of mind, meekness, gentleness, longsuffering, contentedness, resignation unto the will of God, deadness to the world and the things of the world, as the only means of being truly alive to God. For these proofs and fruits of living faith we cannot be too zealous.”
  • In the fifth and final ring, we arrive at the heart of our zeal as followers of Jesus Christ, which is nothing more than love. Wesley writes, It is most sure, that if you give all your goods to feed the poor, yea, and your body to be burned, and have not humble, gentle, patient love, it profiteth you nothing. O let this be deep engraved upon your heart: ‘All is nothing without love!’”

In Romans 12:11, the apostle Paul writes, “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.” (NIV) During this season of Advent, I yearn for a deep personal faith that is zealous to “come clean” about my failure to perfectly reflect the grace of Jesus Christ in my words and actions. I also pray that this zeal will be reflected in my giving as well as my loving and serving. As we prepare our hearts to receive the Christ child once again, may there be a zeal deep in our all of our hearts for sharing Christ’s love, saving souls, and coming clean through acts of justice, mercy, and love.

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

[i] Grace and Responsibility Course Materials, Wesley House Cambridge, 2019.

The Most Expensive Gift Ever

Advent was supposed to begin yesterday, but for many people in the US, the lights went up in mid-November. At least they did on my street in suburban Des Moines. We have a lot of young families in the area, and some of the displays are pretty creative. By contrast, we have only a simple wreath with white lights over our garage (we won’t win any awards for Christmas decorations).

The run-up to Advent is admittedly daunting. First, there is Thanksgiving, which is our uniquely American holiday. The next day is Black Friday, which is said to have its origins in the context of shopping in 1950’s Philadelphia, where disruptive pedestrian and vehicle traffic jams resulted from tourists who were in town for the Army-Navy game. On Black Friday today, people line up overnight outside of stores to make sure they can find the best deals on appliances and other major purchases.

Three days after Black Friday is Cyber Monday (TODAY!), which was initiated in 2005 to compete with Black Friday and encourages people to do their shopping online. And then there is Giving Tuesday (TOMORROW!), often marketed as #GivingTuesday. Giving Tuesday was started in 2012 by the 92nd Street Y in New York City and the United Nations Foundation as a response to commercialization and consumerism between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The movement to create an international day of giving has caught on, and many United Methodist ministries promote Giving Tuesday as a way to make charitable contributions in addition to or in lieu of Christmas gifts. Click here to read about the many ways in which you can make a difference on Giving Tuesday in The United Methodist Church.

There’s yet another tradition that helps us mark the days leading up to Christmas, and that is the Advent calendar. Many of us have Advent calendars where we open a different “window” each day. Gary and I purchased an Advent calendar every year for our children when they were growing up, which was a lot of fun.

Advent calendars date back to the 1800’s when Protestants in Germany would make a line in chalk for every day in Advent. Some families lit candles, and others would hang pictures on the wall for each day. The first Advent calendars with little doors to open appeared in the early 20th century. The popularity of Advent calendars spread around the world, but the tradition stopped for a while during World War 2 when cardboard was rationed. Advent calendars filled with chocolate became available in the late 1950’s and continue to this day.

When we use Advent calendars to celebrate the advent or coming of Jesus into our world, we are reminded that the greatest and most expensive gift of all was God’s gift of Jesus. For many of us, the words of John 3:16 are the first ones we memorized as children. “For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (KJV)

The lectionary epistle lesson for yesterday, the first Sunday in Advent, reminds us of our call to “put on Christ” in our lives. The apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Romans (13:11-14 CEB), “As you do all this, you know what time it is. The hour has already come for you to wake up from your sleep. Now our salvation is nearer than when we first had faith. The night is almost over, and the day is near. So let’s get rid of the actions that belong to the darkness and put on the weapons of light. Let’s behave appropriately as people who live in the day, not in partying and getting drunk, not in sleeping around and obscene behavior, not in fighting and obsession. Instead, dress yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ, and don’t plan to indulge your selfish desires.”

How are you going to live in the light of Christ’s love this Advent? How will you dress yourself with the Lord Jesus Christ? Jesus encourages you to put on Jesus by your words and actions, by how you treat other people, and by how you respect those who may look, think, speak, or act differently than you do. Each one is a precious child of God. The most expensive gift we could ever receive is Jesus.

YET … the luxury jeweler Tiffany is advertising the most expensive Advent calendar ever this year. At $12,000, it’s one of the most extravagant and egregious example of consumerism that one could imagine. Tiffany’s “Ultimate Advent Calendar” is contained within a hand-illustrated drawing of its Fifth Avenue flagship store and is painted in “Tiffany blue.” The calendar container, consisting of blue boxes on 24 shelves, is almost five feet tall, weighs 355 pounds, and will be delivered to your door by Tiffany’s “White Glove Service,” which will assemble everything upon arrival.

The twenty-four goodies contained in the Advent Calendar are understandably unique and include, among other things:

  • Tiffany T Extra Large Smile Pendant in 18k Rose Gold with Diamonds
  • Tiffany HardWear Link Bracelet in 18k Rose Gold with Diamonds
  • Tiffany T Two Hinged Bangle in 18k Rose Gold with Pavé Diamonds
  • Tiffany Victoria® Earrings in Platinum with Diamonds
  • Tiffany T Square Bracelet in 18k Rose Gold with Pavé Diamonds
  • Tiffany & Love Eau de Parfum for Her, 3.0 Ounces
  • Everyday Objects Sterling Silver Tiffany Box
  • Rocking Horse Ornament in Sterling Silver
  • Everyday Objects Sterling Silver Harmonica
  • Tiffany 1837 Makers 22 mm Square Watch in Stainless Steel with Diamonds

Most important, however is that there are only four Tiffany Advent calendars available, so be sure to order yours now and beat the crowds. At least you wouldn’t have to battle Black Friday shoppers and could simply wait for the White Glove Service to deliver your treasures.

So here’s an alternative. For the 24 days of Advent, I would humbly make several suggestions for how you and I can “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” in a way that is more affordable, useful, and faithful for Christ followers.

  • Send Christmas cards to those who are shut-in and who will cherish what you write.
  • Match every dollar you spend for Christmas gifts by donating to worthwhile organizations, including the United Methodist ministries in Iowa and around the UM connection.
  • Treat your co-workers with kindness, even when they do not reciprocate.
  • Make a batch of Christmas cookies and take a plateful to your doctor’s office, your hair stylist’s salon, or the staff of your church.
  • Call your mother and/or father just because.
  • Ring your neighbor’s doorbell and simply ask how everything is going.
  • Vow not to post anything mean-spirited on social media during Advent.
  • Offer to babysit for your neighbors’ children so they can finish their Christmas shopping.
  • Engage in a mission project or organize Christmas caroling in your neighborhood.
  • Commit to attending an Advent/Christmas Bible study at your church.
  • Invite a few unchurched families in your neighborhood to attend worship with you on Christmas Eve.

Most of all, I encourage you to remember that the most expensive gift we will ever receive is not a Tiffany Advent calendar but the Lord Jesus Christ, the light of the world, who invites us daily to share his love with all those whom we encounter on our journey of faith.

Unfolding the Kingdom of God in the Here and Now

Gratitude. It was the first word that came to my lips. A week ago yesterday, I attended worship at Storm Lake United Methodist Church, which is in the Northwest District of Iowa. The first thing I noticed was the young drummer warming up with the band. How wonderful that a youth is part of the praise band, I thought. 

“His name is Joseph,” a church member said. “When Joseph started attending church, someone asked him, ‘Do you want to play the drums?’ He eagerly said, ‘Yes!’” The member continued, “Joseph is one of nine children, and his father has been deported back to Africa. We are so grateful that he has found a home with our church.”   

Just over 45 years ago, then Iowa Governor Robert D. Ray opened the doors of Iowa to refugees from Southeast Asia. At the time, a number of families settled in Storm Lake. Over succeeding years, the Latino population came, followed by East African refugees. What is now the Tyson plant for turkey and pork processing has long employed those coming to find a new life. Over the past forty years, the small idyllic town of Storm Lake, located along a beautiful body of water, has been transformed into a multicultural community fueled by meat processing plants. 

According to Storm Lake pastor Phil Webb, “It is a wonderful thing that local business leaders, faith leaders, law enforcement, and the schools banded together with new immigrants to make the influxes of immigrant communities feel welcome and a part of Storm Lake. It was a deliberate choice, and the intentional steps taken have made this a truly vibrant and welcoming town, with opportunity and joy for its inhabitants.”

88% of Iowa is white, yet less than half of Storm Lake is white. The 2019 population of Storm Lake is 10,458. In fact, 85.2% of the public school population is non-Caucasian. Of the 62.7% of the students who are non-English learners, 76.2% are on free or reduced lunch. The poverty rate in Storm Lake is 17.9%. This past spring, a new school bond referendum was passed to enlarge current school buildings for this rapidly growing school district.

Asian, African, Mexican, and Central American individuals and families have converged on Storm Lake to work in beef, pork, and egg plants. Walmart looks like a United Nations. It is estimated that 30 different languages from 35 nations are spoken in Storm Lake, including Amharic, Arabic, Burmese, Burmese Cebuano, Central Khmer, Chinese, Ckuukese, English, Filipino/Pilipino, Gujarati, Hmong/Mong, Karen Languages, Lao, Mayan Languages, Nilo-Saharan Languages, Panjabi/Punjabi, Pohnpeian, Russian, Spanish/Castilian, Sudanese  Languages, Thai, Tigrinya, and Vietnamese. That number does not even include a variety of regional dialects and tribal languages that are not specifically listed. 

Storm Lake United Methodist Church is located in the heart of the town and has many outreach programs to the community. Nancy is a leader in the church who builds bridges between the congregation and the immigrant community, where parents are very protective of their children. Children often have no beds, blankets, or pillows, and when asked, are often reluctant to accept help. When Nancy asks, “Do you have siblings who need something?” she often receives better results. Most of the immigrants make regular money transfers back to their native countries, which, in turn, makes their own financial situation even more precarious.  

The homepage of the church website says, “All lives matter to God.” Storm Lake UMC is an inclusive church where they are always asking the question, “How can we be Christ for others? Wednesday night is church night and is a huge draw because the church gym is a safe place for immigrant children. 80% of the middle and high school youth are not from the congregation, and most are unchurched. 

Wednesday night includes a meal and separate activities for different ages. “I don’t know what I would do without the gym,” said one youth. Wednesday night is meant to create fellowship and build trust with the immigrants. There is no divide between the races at Storm Lake United Methodist Church. The youth even went on an overnight to one of our Iowa Church camps. But there’s more.

  • The backpack program at Storm Lake is truly amazing. Storm Lake gives away hundreds of fully loaded backpacks to children and youth every September. Backpacks as well as many other useful items are stored at the church in what is called “The Blessing Room.” 
  • The Methodist men support scholarships for youth, reminding us that God is not done with us yet!
  • The church has a free clothes closet and a free food pantry.
  • One week each summer Storm Lake UMC sponsors an English Language Camp. Students attending this program begin each morning at 9:00 a.m. with a hot breakfast. Transportation to and from the church is provided for some of the students. On the last day, the parents are invited to attend a program where students present nursery rhymes, plays, songs, and readings that they had learned during the week.
  • Every fall at Iowa United Methodism’s Mission Ingathering, Storm Lake UMC makes school kits for Nigeria. Word got back to Iowa several years ago that the students who receive these kits in Nigeria call them “Iowa’s” because they learned that they were sent from Iowa by people who love Jesus. “This is my Iowa,” the students say because they know that someone in Iowa cares enough to prepare and invest in their education. Storm Lake is unfolding the kingdom of God in the here and now.

Police and public officials in Storm Lake are deeply committed to community outreach, especially because some of the immigrants come from countries where the police are not to be trusted. They do their best to help the immigrants get settled and feel at home. In an October 5, 2019 Washington Times article, Storm Lake Police Chief Mark Prosser said, “My attitude has always been our organization had to serve the people the best it can. I realized we had to broaden our outreach.” 

Prosser mandates that, “During every shift they work, officers must interact with at least one person they don’t know. Responding to a police call doesn’t count… I don’t know if street officers or local police chiefs ever have an impact on immigration reform, but we can have an impact on the people we serve,” Prosser said, making sure that his officers receive credit for their efforts. Several weeks ago, Chief Prosser was honored in Washington D.C. with the “Keepers of the American Dream” award from the National Immigration Forum for his work in helping the assimilation process of immigrants in Storm Lake.  

Along with the radical hospitality that Storm Lake residents have extended to the many immigrants in this community comes inevitable growing pains, including a lack of affordable housing and uncertainty about the future of DACA. In addition, the immigrant communities themselves are adjusting to what a new life in America means for traditional customs and languages. At the same time, there are some politicians and activists who spread disinformation and are not supportive of assimilation. Police Chief Prosser is outspoken in countering the assertion that it is the immigrants who are always involved in crime.

Meanwhile the congregation of United Methodists in Storm Lake continues to visibly demonstrate their gratitude for the diversity of their community and the opportunity they have to make a difference. “God is not done with us yet,” I can hear them saying. “God will write God’s love on our hearts to love without fear because whenever the will of God is done, there the kingdom unfolds.”