The Day My Hope Returned

Yesterday was the day my hope returned. Since General Conference, I have been discomfited. I don’t think I’ve ever used that word before, but it means to be made uncomfortable, uneasy, agitated, disoriented, or unable to be consoled. My heart has been aching because I have a deep investment in and commitment to The United Methodist Church, having chosen The UMC as my church home as a young adult.

I became a United Methodist because I was intrigued by the interplay between social and personal holiness and the necessity of living out our faith through mission and outreach. I was inspired by John Wesley’s teachings to reform the nation and spread scriptural holiness across the land. And I was encouraged by Wesley’s words to his preachers, “You have nothing to do but to save souls. There­fore spend and be spent in this work.” I have been discomfited from experiencing so many people in pain, believing that there is no longer a place for them in The United Methodist Church.

In the past several weeks, I have participated in numerous conversations at all levels of the church around the future. But it was not until yesterday that my hope returned. I woke up early to run on the treadmill before leaving for First UMC, Fort Dodge, a 90-minute drive.

It’s good I left earlier than I needed to because my GPS decided to send me down a dirt road that I soon realized was not going to take me anywhere. After getting back on track, I turned off the music and enjoyed the pre-dawn silence. I remembered the words that Abba Moses, one of the great Desert fathers, would say to his monks, “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”

There were almost no cars on the road at 6:45 a.m. I watched light emerge from the darkness and the sun rise in the east, although it only lasted a minute or so before the sun vanished behind the clouds. The landscape was surreal, stark, beautiful — and wet. The farther north I drove, the more water there was, with flooding continuing across much of Iowa and some towns have been evacuated. The fields were literally lakes because of heavy rainfall and snowmelt, and I prayed for our farmers and all those affected by this historic flooding.

Arriving early at First UMC, Fort Dodge, there was plenty of time to wander around the gorgeous hundred-year-old sanctuary and also prayer-walk around the neighborhood. Pastor Andrea Kraushaar is an outstanding leader for this amazing downtown congregation that is heavily involved in outreach and mission at the local, national, and international level. Many of the laity that I met asked about General Conference. It’s on everyone’s hearts. Encouraging them to continue to reach out to their community and be welcoming of all people, I began to feel some glimmers of hope myself, especially when I sat with the many children in the chancel, we talked about what it means to be a difference maker, and each child received a difference maker button.

After worship, North Central District Superintendent Carol Kress, District Administrative Assistant Alanna Warren and I drove over to Trinity UMC, the other larger church in Fort Dodge, where the district middle school/confirmation youth were gathering for the afternoon. Almost eighty youth and adults showed up, and we had to ration the pizza! Meeting with these passionate and enthusiastic youth began to renew my hope. What fun it was to hear their questions.

  • Are bishops’ church services longer than most worship services? (Hmmm. We do tend to be long-winded.)
  • What did you want to be when you were in high school? (professional athlete or church musician)
  • How many marathons have you run? (22)
  • Have you ever been on a mission trip in another country? (Cuba, Haiti, Zimbabwe)
  • How did you leave the Mennonite Church for The United Methodist Church (combination of a lack of opportunities for women pastors and my husband being a United Methodist pastor)
  • What is the hardest thing about being a bishop? (having to make difficult decisions that may harm others)
  • How many countries have you been to? (30? Not sure.)
  • What is the best thing you have done as a bishop? (I was assigned to Iowa!)

After lunch, we went to Fort Frenzy, a Family Fun Center, where I played my first game of laser tag. At least I did not come in last! The joy and enthusiasm of the youth was infectious. My hope increased as I knew that the future of The United Methodist Church is in good hands with these youth, who were so caring and accepting of everyone and readily made friends with kids from other churches.

From Fort Frenzy, we drove back to Trinity UMC for the third and final General Conference gathering. The sanctuary was full, the spirit was good, and the comments were heart-felt. Folks wanted to know the details of the Traditional Plan that passed, asked about the punitive nature of some parts of the plan and wondered whether we will lose our young people, for most of whom human sexuality is not an issue. They also reminded me that 15,000 signatures of young people under age 35, advocating for full inclusion, were gathered overnight and shared on the last day of General Conference.

Honest questions were raised about how the Traditional Plan would be enforced, what the timetable is for when the plan will go into effect, and whether the 2020 General Conference can bring new petitions for restructuring (yes). One person wondered how the UMC is structured globally and why the United States can’t be its own Central Conference and make its own decisions the way the Central Conferences can. Still another asked how they can stay informed about what is happening at the denominational level. I recommended that they subscribe to the United Methodist Daily Digest for the latest news.

When participants asked what they can do right now, my best wisdom was to encourage them to be the body of Christ in the world. Keep loving, keep serving, keep including, keep reaching out, and keep connected. Keep making a difference in your context and show grace to all. And if you have an idea, submit a petition to the 2020 General Conference!

I was both surprised and deeply moved that so many people acknowledged the difficult position that our bishops are in as we attempt to lead with grace and integrity for such a time as this. We covet your prayers. As I made the long drive home, I suddenly realized that I am no longer discomfited and that my hope has returned. My hope returned in Fort Dodge yesterday because of a vital downtown local church; eighty active and faith-filled youth; and United Methodists from across north central and northwest Iowa. They are young and old and of varying theological positions who are convinced that God is yet not done with The United Methodist Church and that something new is about to emerge. Is God done with us yet? I hope not.

P.S. Because of a denominational meeting in the Philippines, the next Leading from the Heart will be published on Monday, April 1.

Erring on the Side of Grace

When I have some time at home over the weekend, I like to watch a little golf on TV. I love to golf but have only been able to play one round since moving to Iowa two and a half years ago. My favorite golfer is Phil Mickelson, largely because he’s a lefty, as am I. Phil is an exciting player to watch because you never quite know where he’s going to hit the ball! This past weekend, after playing well in the first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando, Mickelson failed to make the cut because he was too wild in the second round.

Another player I follow is Matt Kuchar, who is currently ranked #22 in the world. Kuchar has had a tough few months, however, after an unfortunate incident at the Mayakoba Golf Classic in Mexico last November. Kuchar played exceptionally well and won the tournament, raking in $1.3 million. The trouble began when Kuchar hired a local caddie, David Giral Ortiz, because his regular caddie could not be there. Kuchar paid Ortiz $5,000 for his services. However, if his normal caddie had been present, he would have received 10% of Kuchar’s winnings, or $130,000.

The Mayakoba Classic was Kuchar’s first win in more than four years, and he called Ortiz his “good luck charm.” Ortiz reportedly told Golf.com’s Michael Bamberger, “Matt is a good person and a great player. He treated me very well. I am only disappointed by how it all finished.” You see, Ortiz had asked for what he thought was fair, $50,000, rather that Kuchar’s $5,000.

Things were quiet for a few months until mid-February, when news got out that Kuchar had stiffed Ortiz. After receiving considerable negative publicity, Kuchar admitted that he had goofed, issued a heartfelt apology, and gave Ortiz an extra $45,000, for a total of $50,000.

Mind you, Matt Kuchar is not poor. He has earned more than $46 million in his career and as much or even more from endorsements and appearances. What fascinated me was the backlash against Kuchar on social media. Some said Kuchar only paid Ortiz more money because he “got caught.” Others claimed that Kuchar was racist, ignorant, insensitive, or simply an “ugly American.” Still others had compassion for Kuchar, saying that he should be commended for ultimately doing the right thing.

At first, Kuchar, who is well liked on the PGA Tour, tried to rationalize his decision by saying, “For a guy who makes $200 a day, a $5,000 week is a really big week.” Certainly, Ortiz has never made that much money in a week and most likely never will again. At the same time, Ortiz originally received about $125,000 less than what a regular caddie would have received for that week’s work. It also didn’t help that Kuchar was quoted by Golf Digest as saying, “I certainly don’t lose any sleep over this.”

Finally, Matt Kuchar made things right, three months after the tournament. On February 15, in a formal statement, Kuchar said, “For my fans, as well as fans of the game, I want to apologize to you for not representing the values instilled in this incredible sport. Golf is a game where we call penalties on ourselves. I should have done that long ago and not let this situation escalate.”

Kuchar’s situation reminded me of a prayer that I say almost every day. “Lord, when I err, may I always err on the side of grace.” Every day, I make mistakes. Every day, I fail to live up to God’s hope for me to be kind, tender-hearted, and forgiving of others. Every day I keep moving on to perfection. Whenever I have to make important or difficult decisions, I pray, “Lord, please help me to see all people your precious children. When I make a mistake, may I always err on the side of grace. May your unfailing love always live through my words and actions.”

It’s so easy to lose our soul, isn’t it? Even in The United Methodist Church. Matthew 8:34-36 says, “After calling the crowd together with his disciples, Jesus said to them, ‘All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me and because of the good news will save them. Why would people gain the whole world but lose their lives?’” (CEB) The Message translates verses 36 and 37 this way, “What good would it do to get everything you want and lose you, the real you? What could you ever trade your soul for?”

Why are we so willing to trade our souls for being right and getting the upper hand?

Why are we more fond of taking up the battle than taking up the cross? When is erring on the side of grace and losing our lives the right thing to do in a pluralistic world that is populated with an amazing variety of human beings, every last one created in God’s image?

On a social media site, an individual wrote this to Matt Kuchar before he decided to err on the side of grace, “Matt, you can still salvage this situation. It was unfortunate and handled badly. Time for you to make a grand gesture — Public and Personal. Invite Mr. Ortiz to America for a round of golf at your course, then compensate him an amount that leaves him smiling. The nation has an enormous capacity to forgive. And this is what they will remember — you being kind and generous.”

I wonder. When the national and international press has published countless stories in the past several weeks about the state of The United Methodist Church, is it possible for us to make a grand gesture to the world in the midst of our divided body of Christ? Can we salvage our beloved church if we all covenanted to make erring on the side of grace our default mode?

  • What if we sought to understand before insisting on being understood?
  • What if we welcomed before rejecting?
  • What if we forgave before judging?
  • What if we loved before fearing?
  • What if we repented before asking others to repent?
  • What if we lost our lives for the sake of the gospel before trying to save them?
  • What if the world could say of The United Methodist Church, “What an enormous capacity they have to forgive and embrace the beauty of God’s creative diversity!”
  • What if we were kind and generous to others before even thinking about what we believe to be rightfully ours?
  • What if we devoted our lives to bringing people together rather than simply lamenting the partisanship and divisions of our country, world, and church?

What grand gesture – public and personal – is God calling you and me – the body of Christ – to make right now?

Untied

I did it again last week during the 2019 General Conference. In a draft of one of my communications with the Iowa Annual Conference, I mistakenly typed “Untied” instead of “United” Methodist. It’s easy to do, especially if you aren’t the best typist, which I am not.

When I was growing up, I never learned how to type. I always wrote longhand because, inexplicably, typing classes in my high school were not encouraged for students who aspired to go to college. I wrote all of my papers in longhand. Finally, in the summer before I graduated from high school, I and another friend took private typing lessons. It was a godsend, but it wasn’t enough.

For my whole adult life, I have continued to “hunt and peck” on the keyboard, and one thing I discovered after I became a United Methodist is that it’s really easy to type “untied” rather than “United.” I’ve done it literally hundreds of times!

As I was prayerfully pondering the results of the General Conference over this past week and wondering how we had become so untied as a denomination, I pulled out a book that changed my life more than forty years ago. At the time, I was definitely untied. I had just come back home to the U.S. after studying sacred music in West Berlin, Germany, for thirteen months as a junior in college.

I grew up in the General Conference Mennonite Church in Pennsylvania, was very active in our congregation, and had a deep faith in Christ. I attended a Lutheran College to study music and also participated in chapel activities. When I arrived in Germany, however, I had no spiritual support system, and my faith lagged. It seemed that no one went to church except for the elderly. In many ways, my time in Berlin was the best year of my life, except for my faith.

Perhaps you’ve had the same experience. You know what faith is intellectually, but that faith hasn’t moved from head to heart. In the summer of 1975, I was trying to adjust back to life in the U.S. and also come to grips with who I was as a person of faith who “wasn’t feeling it.” Then I came across a book called Communicating Good News, published in 1972 by David W. Augsburger, a Mennonite writer.

As I read these words, my heart was tied in knots. “The gospel is a word of forgiveness. “The gospel is a word of forgiveness. The gospel is a word of power. The gospel is a word of new life. The gospel is a word of loving relationships.”[i]

“All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory.” (Romans 3:23) None of us has a perfect faith, including me. I yearned to reconnect with the Jesus who has forgiven me and wants to accompany me throughout my life, although I could not always see it.

I’m not ashamed of the gospel: it is God’s own power for salvation to all who have faith in God, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” (Romans 1:16) I remembered my baptism at age fifteen, knowing that I needed to reclaim the Holy Spirit power that surged through me as my pastor laid hands on me.

“Nicodemus asked, ‘How is it possible for an adult to be born? It’s impossible to enter the mother’s womb for a second time and be born, isn’t it?’ Jesus answered, ‘I assure you, unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, it’s not possible to enter God’s kingdom.’”  (John 3:4-5) I recognized my need to reattach myself to the vine of faith from which I had become untied.

“Dear friends, let’s love each other, because love is from God, and everyone who loves is born from God and knows God. The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love. This is how the love of God is revealed to us: God has sent his only Son into the world so that we can live through him.” (1 John 4:7-9) I realized that if I am a disciple of Jesus, I am required to love everyone, not just those who love me or those who are easy to love.

I continued to wrestle with these words of David Augsburger that cut me to the core. A month after I returned home from Germany, my family drove to a fishing camp in Canada. I was so untied one night that I could not sleep. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel, I wrestled with my faith, my life, and my future. Finally, in the middle of the night, I could do no other than to say, “Here I am, Lord. I am completely untied. I have nothing but you. I offer you my life. Do with me what you will.” Accompanied by this conversion experience was a physical healing that I have never experienced before or since.

I’ve never been the same after that night many years ago, despite moments of uncertainty about vocation; despite being told that women cannot be pastors; despite hearing others being told that because they are LGBTQIA, they cannot be pastors; despite my sadness when Christians do not exhibit the same grace and compassion that Jesus modeled for us; and even despite the divisions in our beloved United Methodist Church.

At the same time, I confess that I still become untied today. I become untied and disconnected from Christ and the church when my own unwillingness to live with differences and consequent judgmentalism becomes holy arrogance. I become untied when I am exclusive, lacking in grace, inwardly focused, and believe that following rules is more important than being open to the movement of the Holy Spirit. I become untied when I despair that The United Methodist Church will ever be able to live out the words of John Wesley, who quoted his own sermon on “The Circumcision of the Heart” (January 1, 1733) in the work A Plain Account Of Christian Perfection (Edition of 1777).

“‘Love is the fulfilling of the law, the end of the commandment.’ It is not only ‘the first and great’ command, but all the commandments in one. ‘Whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, if there be any virtue, if there be any praise’, they are all comprised in this one word, love. In this is perfection, and glory, and happiness. The royal law of heaven and earth is this, ‘Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength’. The one perfect good shall be your one ultimate end.”

Yes, The United Methodist Church is untied right now. We are adrift, unmoored from our Wesleyan heritage, unable to come together as disciples of Jesus Christ committed to our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Can anything bring us back together? Could the untying be a prelude for the Holy Spirit to do a new thing in our midst? Could it be that God is not done with us yet? I pray so. All I know is that in order to go from untied to united, we have to untie ourselves from everything (and I sincerely mean everything) that prevents us from seeing Christ in each other and welcoming the gifts and faith of every person who claims Jesus Christ as their Savior.

Because all things are possible, I will continue to serve humbly, lead passionately, communicate good news, and encourage us to move from untied to united. The world needs The United Methodist Church. The world needs our witness and our passion. The world needs our personal and social holiness. It’s not too late to recover the tie that binds.

[i]Communicating Good News, David W. Augsburger, Herald Press, Scottsdale, PA, 1972, p. 13.