I Repent in Dust and Ashes

Early Thursday morning last week, I was awakened by huge rolling claps of thunder and the sound of torrential rain beating against our house. As I lay in bed, knowing that I would likely not be able to get back to sleep, I marveled at the fierceness of the storm and this hymn immediately came to mind, “O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the worlds Thy hands have made; I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, thy power throughout the universe displayed.”

I am going to come clean, however, and say that, “How Great Thou Art” is not my favorite hymn. In fact, I wrote a blog in 2008 on my love/hate relationship with this hymn. It was a reaction to the time when I was leading church conferences as a district superintendent, and I asked each congregation to pick two hymns. Almost half of the churches chose to sing “How Great Thou Art.”

It wasn’t surprising because, in a 2010 survey on The United Methodist Church’s Facebook page, 1,500 people answered the question, “What is your favorite hymn in the United Methodist hymnal?” “Here I am, Lord” came in first, and “How Great Thou Art” came in second.

Writing in my blog, I said, “I don’t have any complaint with the words of ‘How Great Thou Art.’ They’re a wonderful witness to the majesty and power of God. It’s the music that often drags me down. Accompanists tend to play the hymn so slowly that I just want to close my eyes and take a nap. I even timed it once. It takes five minutes to sing hymn #77 when it pokes along.”

I confessed my bad attitude about “How Great Thou Art” a long time ago and made my peace with the hymn, although it was still not a favorite. Then, in the summer of 2018, I had the opportunity to hike with my husband Gary and son Garth in the Canadian Rockies of Banff National Park. We decided to tackle the challenging 11.6-mile roundtrip hike to Healy Pass. We even purchased the recommended bear spray, but, fortunately, did not need to use it.

It took almost three hours of steady climbing to reach the pass, and when we emerged from the woods it seemed as if we were on top of the world. It literally took my breath away to see such a vast array of snow-capped mountains. It was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever witnessed. We took our pictures and just sat at the top for a while, pondering the majesty of God’s handiwork.

As we began the long journey back, which took us on a different path, I turned a corner, and there it happened. A huge expanse of mountains and meadows that we had not seen before emerged, and I was filled with a deep joy that could only be described as ecstasy. Snow-capped mountains, flowers, trees, rocks, and a stream. I prayed, “I am fully alive, God. I am completely connected with nature and with you. This is my true self, hiking high in the Rockies, walking in harmony with nature and my Savior.” And then, inexplicably, a song arose from the depths of my being,

O Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made.
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

I remember saying to myself, “Wait a minute. I hate this hymn! I dislike the tune and the way we often sing it so slow.” Yet this is the song that God placed in my heart as I gazed out over the most gorgeous setting I have ever been in my lifetime.

As I continued walking, a prayer spontaneously came from my heart, “I repent in dust and ashes. I repent in dust and ashes.” I prayed that phrase continually as I repented of my bad attitude toward “How Great Thou Art.” Having sung the hymn hundreds of times over the years, I realized perhaps for the first time how the beauty and goodness of God’s creation and God’s gift of Jesus Christ is expressed so eloquently in word and music. The hymn was written by Carl Boberg in Sweden in 1885 and is based on a Swedish traditional melody and poem.

When through the woods And forest glades I wander
I hear the birds Sing sweetly in the trees.
When I look down From lofty mountain grandeur
And hear the brook And feel the gentle breeze.

Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, how great Thou art.
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, how great Thou art.

If you want to experience a unique setting of “How Great Thou Art” I invite you to listen to the last time Elvis Presley sang this great hymn live, just weeks before he died on August 16, 1977.

I repent in dust and ashes. The hymn that I came to dislike so much was the first one on my lips in the beauty of the Canadian Rockies and then again as I lay in bed listening to the thunder and rain last week.

  • How often does pride prevent you and me from experiencing the wholeness that God yearns for us?
  • How do our preconceived notions about God and others get in the way of claiming God’s grace?
  • When have past experiences or even sheer stubbornness tainted our ability to be reflections of God’s love?

When Christ shall come, With shouts of acclamation,
And take me home, What joy shall fill my heart!
Then I shall bow In humble adoration
And there proclaim, “My God, how great Thou art!

Then sings my soul, My Savior God, to Thee,
How great Thou art! How great Thou art!
Then sings my soul, My Savior God, to Thee,
How great Thou art! How great Thou art!

I repent in dust and ashes.

A New Creation in Christ

World Communion Sunday was yesterday, and I couldn’t wait! I never received the sacrament of Holy Communion until I was 15 years old, so I’m still catching up. I was raised in the General Conference Mennonite Church and attended church every Sunday from my birth until I went off to college.

It never dawned on me that communion could be for all people because children and youth in my church could not participate in communion until they had professed their faith, were baptized, and joined the church. And we could not be baptized until we had gone through two years of “catechetical class” in 9th and 10th grade. The equivalent would be confirmation class, although it was much more comprehensive than many confirmation classes in United Methodist churches today.

The Mennonite church practices believers’ baptism, as distinguished from infant baptism. Rather than see baptism as a sign of God’s grace, given to all free of charge, Mennonites want to make sure that those who are baptized understand the meaning of and freely choose baptism. I feel fortunate that I remember the day of my baptism and how powerful it was for my pastor to place his hands on my head in front of the Holy Spirit stained glass window.

I also remember with chagrin when a new family came to our church when I was in junior high, and I saw my new friend taking communion. “Why can Jane take communion and I can’t? It’s not fair!” I lamented. My mother responded, “Well, Jane came from another Mennonite Church where youth go through catechetical class at a younger age.”

Looking back on my childhood, I wish the communion table had been open to me from the time I was very young because it is so important for our children to know that God’s love is for everyone, including them. One of my greatest joys as a local church pastor was offering the bread and the cup to children.

As the years go by, I yearn for communion more and more, knowing that it is only by God’s grace that I can represent that grace to others. Every time I receive the sacrament, I remember these words from 2 Corinthians 5:7 (CEB), “So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!” I am reminded through communion that I am not only a disciple and Christ-follower. I am a new creation in Christ.

A few weeks ago, at a meeting of the North Central College of Bishops and Assistants to the Bishop in North Canton, Ohio, our devotions included these words from Bishop Francis Enmer Kearns. Bishop Kearns was elected a bishop by the 1964 North Central Jurisdictional Conference of The Methodist Church and was assigned to the newly created Ohio East Episcopal Area, where he served for twelve years.

In August 1968, Bishop Kearns reflected on the April 23, 1968 formation of The United Methodist Church through the merger of The Methodist Church and The Evangelical United Brethren Church and the abolishment of the Central Jurisdiction. It was a time of coming together after many years of division, including the 1939 segregation of African-American Methodists into what was known as the Central Jurisdiction. The words that Bishop Kearns wrote in August of 1968 bear an uncanny resemblance to our world today.

“We are living in a new world characterized by technological advance, increasing urbanization, a growing gap between the ‘have’ and the ‘have-nots’. The tendency in this world of accelerated change is to dehumanize, to underestimate the worth of the person, to grow callous toward human need, to allow millions of our citizens to live in ghettos without a genuine concern for them.

“A new church is one that has become ‘a new creation in Christ’ and that is responding to ‘the ministry of reconciliation’ given to it by its Lord. The new church finds itself in a world where social structures, racial prejudices, economic orders, and international relations threaten human dignity and freedom.

“Our new church must find new ways to minister to people, in both urban and rural areas, who are living in frustration and without hope of breaking their bondage. The summons is for us to discover new forms of Christian community in which the love of Christ will become a reality. The Uniting Conference summoned the new church to be ‘a dramatic sign of hope and a symbol of compassion.’

“A new church will be the fruit of the Spirit of God, alive and active in the lives of the church members. Our sensitivity to human need will grow as we listen to the message of Jesus, who will give us directions in our daily living and kindle his love within us. The Sermon on the Mount will engage our attention in which Jesus’ words confront us with the irresistible demands of social justice rooted as they are in his intuitive awareness that God’s love is all-inclusive. The clergy will have the opportunity to exercise their teaching function as they seek ‘to equip the laity for the work of ministry.’

“An understanding of ‘the Word’ at its deepest levels by church members will enable the church to be more effective in its planning and participating in mission. In The United Methodist Church each local congregation will be given greater flexibility and freedom to determine and carry out its own particular mission in the community and in the world. Every church member is called upon to become involved in the mission of the church, to work for constructive changes in society and to be a witness for Christ in his(her) daily life and work.

“More creative worship and more effective leadership development will be needed if every Christian is to fulfill his (her) potential in the life and mission of the new church.

“The problems which confront The United Methodist Church are common to all Christians. If we are to fulfill our mission, then we must make an ecumenical thrust in which Christians of all communions demonstrate that ‘we are fellow workmen for God.’ A new church will bear witness that through Christ it has become ‘a new creation.’”[i]

Fifty-one years after Bishop Kearns’ wrote those words, are they not still relevant today? During those years, Methodists have continued to wrestle with what it means to be a new creation, both individually and collectively. After all, the history of the Methodist movement has always been one of “moving on to perfection.” When you and I are “in Christ,” we are not only a new creation, but we are continually seeking out the marginalized and the excluded. We are continually moving out of the comfort of our churches into our communities to meet people where they are and offer hope and grace.

What is the new creation that God wants to birth in you? What new creation is God birthing in The United Methodist Church right now? How are the millions of United Methodists around the world who received communion yesterday making a difference today? How will you offer Christ to your neighbor and your co-worker as well as to the one with whom you differ around immigration, gun safety, health care reform, or human sexuality?

Can we become a new church, a new creation in Christ, that responds to the ministry of reconciliation given to it by our Lord?

“Eternal God, we give you thanks for this holy mystery in which you have given yourself for us. Grant that we may go into the world as new creations in Christ, to give ourselves for others, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.” Amen.

[i] The Bishop Writes; The Monthly Messages of Bishop Francis E. Kearns, Volume II.

The United Methodist Church in 2032

Last week, at the Leadership Institute sponsored by the Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, I was invited to be one of several bishops to articulate their vision of what The United Methodist Church might look like in the year 2032. I am sharing that vision on my blog today, knowing that, while specifically referencing the conference I serve, the anchor principles of this vision could well apply to other areas of The United Methodist Church. These principles have already been part of cabinet discussion.  

As we begin to live into a new future for The United Methodist Church, I envision a church thirteen years from now that is fully engaged in contextual ministry around the Iowa Annual Conference and in every other conference. Iowa is a farming state, and we are highly dependent on the weather and our crops. We have corn and soybeans; corn and cattle; corn and pigs; and corn and dairy products…and we have approximately 150,000 United Methodists in 750 churches.

The first thing many Americans think about when Iowa is mentioned is the Iowa caucuses. In fact, a week ago Sunday in the Des Moines church I attended, I met one of our presidential candidates who is a United Methodist and was in town to campaign. 

Iowa has also been home to immigrants since the 1830’s when settlers started moving west across the country. Our fertile farmland topsoil, also known as the “black gold” of Iowa, was a huge draw. Immigrants from around the world are woven into the fabric of Iowa and are an integral part of our churches as well.

Unfortunately, farming is a difficult and often stressful profession, highly dependent on circumstances beyond the farmers’ control. This has been an especially challenging year because of severe flooding, tariffs, and the shutting down of ethanol plants. And in our rural communities, suicide rates are increasing. Two years ago, I talked with a pastor who said that the first three funerals in their first year at a new church were suicides. 

The closing and consolidation of schools and hospitals in our rural areas has also had a deep impact on our economy and our churches. At the same time, it has opened doors for United Methodists to be a spiritual presence to communities in crisis and engage around things that really matter, including environmental and racial justice and class disparity. 

There are three things I want to share with you about my vision for the church in Iowa in 2032. First, in 2032, relationships will be more important than theological convictions.

In Iowa, we’ve been pretty evenly split around human sexuality, but the landscape is changing. Do you know what I’ve learned? Our rural farming communities tend to be more theologically conservative than our bigger cities. However, in smaller churches, there is usually someone who is either lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, or queer. Or they know someone who is. And our LGBTQ friends are accepted for who they are because, after all, they’re part of the church family. They belong. In 2032, human sexuality will be a non-issue because long before then we will have recovered our heart—that we are all connected with one another in love. 

People from other parts of the country often don’t know that from its creation as a state in 1846, Iowa has had a long and proud history of being on the cutting edge when it comes to justice and civil rights. In 1851, Iowa eliminated the ban on interracial marriage. In 1934, the first permanent mosque in North America was constructed in Iowa. And in 2009, Iowa was the third state in the U.S. to legalize same-sex marriage.  

I envision a church in 2032 where our faith communities may be smaller, but they will also be more agile. Our churches will find their own niches in ministry. At the same time, they will also open the doors to everyone who desires to know who Jesus is and deepen their own spiritual lives, at the same time as they participate in mission and justice ministries. Iowa Nice is not just a phrase. It’s real!

Consider Grace Ottumwa UMC. Until this year, the large town of Ottumwa had three churches: Wesley, Willard Street, and First. Last December, they all voted to merge, with a 2/3 majority from each church. They’re selling all three facilities and are now worshiping in the high school cafeteria. There is a new young pastor, and the church’s long-term goal is buying property in the next three years. In the church of 2032, relationships will be more important than theological convictions.

Second, in the church of 2032, innovation, creativity, and imagination will be more important than stagnation, rigidity, sacred cows, and the status quo. In 2032, Iowa congregations of all sizes will be birthing new faith communities and Fresh Expressions of Christianity. They might revolve around ethnic or interest groupings, or they might be simply small groups who choose to worship in homes on a weeknight around the dinner table. 

New ministries will evolve organically from folks who have a particular passion. Our congregations will become twenty-four hour a day saving stations that host various community groups. All ideas will be welcomed, discernment of the gifts of laity will be a priority, and the enthusiasm and vision of new young leaders will be encouraged and celebrated rather than squelched. I envision a church that throws open its doors, not just so all people can come into taste and see, but so we can all go out to serve.

Consider First UMC in Des Moines, formed in 1835. By 1906, it had a thousand members—after it had birthed eleven other churches in the city! Like many downtown churches, First Church, Des Moines, has experienced decline in recent decades, but at the same time, the city has changed and is very multi-ethnic and multi-cultural. 

In addition to the primary congregation, there is also a South Sudanese Mabaan congregation worshipping in the church and partnering with FUMC. In July of 2019, a new lead pastor who is Hispanic was appointed, and a new Hispanic worshipping community held their first service was yesterday! In the church of 2032, innovation, creativity, and imagination will be more important than stagnation, rigidity, sacred cows, and the status quo.

And, third, in the church of 2032, our primary focus will be on the Great Commission and the Great Commandment: to go out into the world and make disciples of Jesus Christ and to love God and our neighbor in all that we do. 

In 2032, we’ll have fewer elders and more local pastors, bi-vocational pastors, and Certified Lay Ministers (CLM). But we’ll also be able to do more with less, as we unleash the power of the laity. The days of expecting the pastor to do everything are over. There will likely be fewer district superintendents, so they will supervise the elders, and selected elders will supervise local pastors and CLM’s. This will free superintendents to be the missional strategists of the districts. 

Our larger churches will become teaching churches, and we will recommit to our Wesleyan heritage of class meetings for education and encouragement. I also envision clusters of churches, yoked together with larger county seat churches that become hubs. In 2032, staffing will be creative and contextual. At the same time as we focus on creating vital congregations, we must also care for the health of all our clergy and work with them around effectiveness, physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being, and self-care.

And then there is appointment-making. By 2032, the days of entitlement will be long gone. Clergy will no longer be guaranteed that each successive appointment will include a higher salary and a larger church. We will deploy according to gifts, graces, and effectiveness.

In the church of 2032, we’ll be looking at appointments through missional eyes and will seek the right leadership with the right skills in the right place at the right time. When a church becomes open, we’ll ask the SPRC Committee, “What are the three most important things that your new pastor needs to do for your church to thrive?” With that information, we’ll announce open churches and invite clergy to indicate their preference and why they would be a good fit for the church’s priorities. Our cabinet will be as transparent as possible with appointments so that we can place the best possible pastor for a particular church to thrive. 

Consider our kid preachers at Broadway UMC in Council Bluffs. Broadway has a “kid pastor” program where they teach children as young as pre-schoolers how to pray and be in ministry. Who says kids can’t lead in prayer or teach a class or create a new mission? In Iowa, we have a lot of after school programs in our county seat towns and rural churches. Children and youth, as well as adults, are hungry to learn, to participate in hands-on mission around immigration, racism, climate justice, and mental health, and to create programs that minister to the unique needs of their community. 

In the church of 2032, our primary focus will be on the Great Commission and the Great Commandment: to go out into the world and make disciples of Jesus Christ and to love God and our neighbor in all that we do. 

The good news is that Jesus is at work in communities all over Iowa. What an exciting time it is to be the church! 2032 will be here before you know it. Are you in? Are you all in? Let’s do this together!