These are Complicated Issues

I watch from afar with great sympathy. The British royal family is in crisis. On May 19, 2018, Prince Harry (Duke of Sussex) married Meghan Markle (Duchess of Sussex), in a fairy tale wedding at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle in England. While Harry is not in the direct royal succession (he is sixth in line), he and his brother William have been in the public eye for many years, especially since their mother, Princess Diana, was killed in a car crash in 1997. William was 15 years old at the time, and Harry was 12.

I can only imagine what it must be like to marry into a royal family, especially if one is a “commoner.” The challenges are immense. Meghan was not born into royalty. Nor is she British, and she is bi-racial. Meghan’s father is Caucasian, and her mother is African-American. Unfortunately, the British press has been brutal to Meghan. She has been criticized for being an outsider and for her career as a successful actress, not to mention the racism, sexism, and classism that she has experienced.

Like millions of others, I watched the wedding of Harry and Meghan as Michael Curry, presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church, preached and officiated. Curry remarked in his sermon, Someone once said that Jesus began the most revolutionary movement in all of human history, a movement grounded in the unconditional love of God for the world. And a movement mandating people to live that love. And in so doing, to change not only their lives but the very life of the world itself. I’m talking about some power, real power, power to change the world.”

Harry and Meghan have a deep desire to use their fame as leverage to make a difference in our world. However, they also know how difficult it is to have the freedom to be themselves and also raise their son Archie in the midst of royal constraints.

After Harry and Meghan spent six weeks in Canada over Christmas instead of with the royal family, Harry made a statement on their official Instagram account that they intend to step back from the royal family and split their time between the U.K and North America.

On January 8, the Royal Couple wrote, “After many months of reflection and internal discussions, we have chosen to make a transition this year in starting to carve out a progressive new role within this institution. We intend to step back as ‘senior’ members of the Royal Family and work to become financially independent, while continuing to fully support Her Majesty The Queen. It is with your encouragement, particularly over the last few years, that we feel prepared to make this adjustment…

“This geographic balance will enable us to raise our son with an appreciation for the royal tradition into which he was born, while also providing our family with the space to focus on the next chapter, including the launch of our new charitable entity…” From Harry and Meghan

Buckingham Palace issued this statement in response, “Discussions with The Duke and Duchess of Sussex are at an early stage. We understand their desire to take a different approach, but these are complicated issues that will take time to work through.”

Since then, further conversation took place. Two days ago, on January 18, Buckingham Palace issued another statement, saying that a way forward had been reached where Harry and Meghan are “required to step back from royal duties” … and “will no longer receive public funds for Royal duties.” In addition, since they are no longer “working members of the Royal family,” Harry and Meghan will not use their titles. They will, however, continue to “uphold the values of Her Majesty.” In the Queen’s statement she said, “It is my whole family’s hope that today’s agreement allows them to start building a happy and peaceful new life.”

It’s complicated, isn’t it? And it’s not just a challenge for royals. Each one of us has been created by God as unique one-of-a-kind individuals with gifts and graces to be used in a world where everyone has the opportunity to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:2). God calls you and me as individuals to be Christ’s representatives, wherever we live.

At the same time, God also calls us to live out our faith as the church, the body of Christ. But that can be complicated, too, can’t it? The similarities between the challenges of the royal family and The United Methodist Church are interesting.

Prince Harry and the Duchess of Sussex seek more freedom to live out their call to establish a charitable entity and become more independent. But that will mean changes in the way the royal family operates, including a degree of geographic separation as well no longer using their titles. It will also entail more understanding, patience, and encouragement for all of the royals to become their unique selves, bless each other, and live healthy lives.

Meanwhile, United Methodists around the world are seeking to find a way to cooperate in ministry together despite differences around human sexuality. It has become clear that our denomination may need a degree of separation as well so that we can fully engage our world with the good news of Jesus Christ.

The newly published Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation offers The United Methodist Church the opportunity to engage in mission, evangelism, and outreach to our world in a more intentional way by opening a door to create two Methodist-related denominations. At the May 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis, United Methodist delegates from around the world will vote on the Protocol at the same time as other proposals are presented as well.

Yes, these are complicated issues for The United Methodist Church as well as for the royal family. I have much respect for Harry and Meghan. Even though it may seem as if they are swimming upstream, the royal couple is demonstrating courage by leading from their heart. They are discerning who they are called to be, how they want to raise their family, and how God desires them to use their power and influence for good.

I also have deep love for The United Methodist Church. Our common Wesleyan witness of grace, spiritual growth, evangelism, mission, and service has been hindered by our internal conflict. Complicated as the path ahead may be, God is not done with us yet. Perhaps God is asking us, too, to lead with our hearts through The Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation.

Near the end of Bishop Curry’s sermon at the wedding of Meghan and Harry, he quoted the late Dr. Martin Luther King, “We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love, and when we do that, we will make of this old world a new world.” Yes, it’s complicated, but Harry and Megan – lead the way! Yes, it’s complicated, but United Methodist Church – lead the way! May it be so.

We Meet You, O Christ

A week ago, on Epiphany Sunday, I attended worship at New Hope UMC in Des Moines where Rev. Dr. Lilian Gallo-Seagren is the pastor. And guess what? We sang hymn #257, which I had never sung or played before. Never! I was astonished. The hymn, which is called We Meet You, O Christ, was written in 1966 by Fred Kaan, who was a British minister in the United Reform Church. The hymn tune was composed by U.S. church musician Carl F. Schalk in 1987.

I thought that I knew virtually every hymn in our United Methodist Hymnal, which was published in 1989. Over the past 30 years, I have sung an average of three hymns from the hymnal every Sunday, except when I have attended contemporary worship services that don’t use the hymnal. We Meet You, O Christ is clearly not one of the top ten hymns among United Methodists!

  1. We meet you, O Christ, in many a guise;
    your image we see in simple and wise.
    You live in a palace, exist in a shack;
    we see you, the gardener, a tree on your back.

It was no coincidence in my mind that we sang this hymn several days after a press release from the Council of Bishops regarding a “mediation team” that had been working for the past several months to bring a proposal to the delegates of the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis. The mediation team was a diverse group of representatives from United Methodist advocacy groups with contrasting views and bishops from the US and Central Conferences. Working with a third-party professional mediator, their goal was to offer a solution for our impasse around human sexuality in The United Methodist Church. Click here to read the document, Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation. Click here to read FAQ’s about the Protocol document.

After reading the document, I met Christ. I had a vision of Methodists from across the globe, simple and wise, living in mansions and huts, old and young, speaking many languages, singing praise to God, and bearing a tree on our backs as gardeners and humble servants.

  1. In millions alive, away and abroad;
    involved in our life you live down the road.
    Imprisoned in systems, you long to be free;
    we see you, Lord Jesus, still bearing your tree.

Jesus, you live down the road from each one of us. You want to be a part of our lives, yet so often we turn away. Just as the wise men followed a star in the sky, so you are the light of the world, beckoning us to see you in those around us: in the prisoner; in the police officer and fire fighter; in the person working at the checkout counter; in communities of different nationalities, ethnicities, and religions; in the LGBQT community; in the weariness of clergy, day in and out giving our all to ministry by bearing our tree; in those who seem invisible: the homeless, the hopeless, the hapless, and all those imprisoned in systems; and in our common human yearning to be recognized, acknowledged, celebrated, and thanked.

  1. We hear you, O man, in agony cry;
    for freedom you march, in riots you die.
    Your face in the papers we read and we see.
    The tree must be planted by human decree.

After my initial reading of the Protocol document, I was both hopeful and deeply grieved. The very thought of separation, even if it is amicable, is anathema. Yet the more I prayed and pondered, I realized that faithful disciples who are in different places around human sexuality long to be free of a system that has unwittingly imprisoned others. What if there were a way that all of us could be free? Not free to continue hating, but free to bear our unique trees under the big tent of a Methodist movement that provides for a gracious separation that will reach more people with the gospel. The tree of life offers shelter for all living things.

  1. You choose to be made at one with the earth;
    the dark of the grave prepares for your birth.
    Your death is your rising, creative your word;
    the tree springs to life and our hope is restored.

It is the beginning of a new year. Jesus is born. Wise men from the east come to bring homage, following a star in the sky. They travel from pagan lands and are Gentiles, not Jews. Yet through this baby, God has now invited all people to enter the story of salvation. Something new is being created out of people who did not think they would be part of the story. Nations have been brought to the light.

Yet we know it won’t last. Yes, the baby has become one with the earth, but it is the dark of the tomb that prepares for his birth. The word is creative, the tree is alive, and we know how it will end. The grave looms. Yet love wins, and hope reigns.

It’s time to plant the tree of life so that all may experience its fullness. For it’s the tree that offers shelter. It’s the tree that provides a resting place, shade, and protection.

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is January 18-25. Every year at this time, Christians around the world pray for grace and reconciliation. The worship materials for this year center around the theme, Unusual Kindness (Acts 28:2, “The natives showed us unusual kindness”). They have been prepared by the Christian churches in Malta and can be found in the attached file. The following prayer spoke to me.

Prayers of the People

Gracious God, heal the painful memories of the past which have wounded our churches and continue to keep us apart.
Hear our prayer for Reconciliation.
Gracious God, teach us to fix our course on Christ, the True Light.
Hear our prayer for Enlightenment.
Gracious God, strengthen our confidence in your providence when we feel overwhelmed by the storms of life.
Hear our prayer for Hope.
Gracious God, transform our many separations into harmony and our mistrust into mutual acceptance.
Hear our prayer for Trust.
Gracious God, give us the courage to speak the truth with justice in love.
Hear our prayer for Strength.
Gracious God, dismantle the barriers, visible and invisible, that prevent us from welcoming our sisters and brothers who are in peril or in need.
Hear our prayer for Hospitality.
Gracious God, change our hearts and the hearts of our Christian communities, that we may be agents of your healing.
Hear our prayer for Conversion.
Gracious God, open our eyes to see the whole of creation as your gift, and our hands to share its fruit in solidarity.
Hear our prayer for Generosity.

Dare we meet Christ in each other with reconciliation, grace, and unusual kindness, even in the midst of the possibility of separation? Where will you meet Christ this week?

Two Prayers and a Hymn for a New Year

It’s affectionately called “The Merton Prayer.” Found in Thomas Merton’s 1956 book, Thoughts in Solitude, the preacher quoted it in the worship service I attended the Sunday before Christmas.

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,

and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.

And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,

though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

When I heard the prayer, which I know fairly well, it felt like a dagger pierced my heart. “That’s me!” I admitted to myself. Some days I just seem lost. I can’t see the road ahead for The United Methodist Church. And I’m not even sure where the next step will take us. I want to be attuned to God’s will, and I do not want to fear. Yet, at times it feels as if I face my perils alone. Like Thomas Merton, I’m not always convinced that I can even discern the Way.

The year 2020 has arrived! Whereas many people have already decided on their New Years’ resolutions, which are very specific, mine are rather amorphous. All I know is that the spiritual life is a journey, and I am called to travel that road as a servant leader.

Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and one of the foremost spiritual writers of the 20th century, believed that seeking God in the quiet places is foundational to the life of a disciple of Jesus Christ. As one who relishes the solitude of the desert, I resonate with Merton’s words from his 1956 book Thoughts in Solitude, This, then, is our desert: to live facing despair, but not to consent. To trample it down under hope in the cross.” I, too, am tempted to live facing despair, but I am not willing to consent.

Merton also addresses in his book the delight of a solitary life as well as the necessity for quiet reflection in an age when so little is private. “When society is made up of men (and women) who know no interior solitude, it can no longer be held together by love: and consequently it is held together by a violent and abusive authority. But when men (and women) are violently deprived of the solitude and freedom which are their due, the society in which they live becomes putrid, it festers with servility, resentment and hate.”

My prayer for all of us in 2020 is that we will first seek God’s will in solitude before we speak, act, or be tempted to draw lines in the sand. In the midst of self-doubt, Thomas Merton was able to look deep into his heart at the same time as he kept his eyes focused on Jesus. When you have no idea where you are going or cannot see the road ahead of you, can you remember that God will never leave you to face your perils alone?

The second prayer is recited in many congregations on the first Sunday of the new year. Just as we make New Year’s resolutions, so in John Wesley’s Covenant Prayer, we recommit ourselves to a faith that is authentic, humble, outer-directed, and yielded to God’s intentions for us as disciples. Did you pray it yesterday?

I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed by you, or laid aside for you,
exalted for you, or brought low by you;
let me be full, let me be empty,
let me have all things, let me have nothing:
I freely and fully yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be confirmed in heaven. Amen.

How are you being called to offer yourself completely to God, to have all things and yet to have nothing? How will you covenant with God in 2020 to let go of everything that prevents you from modeling the grace of Jesus Christ in a broken world?

The song is not sung as often as it should be in our local churches, but it has a powerful message for Christ followers in today’s world. On December 11, 1845, the New England poet and abolitionist James Russell Lowell published a poem in the Boston Courier that was titled Verses Suggested by the Present Crisis.

Until 1836, Texas had been part of Mexico, but in that year a group of settlers from the United States who lived in Mexican Texas declared their independence. They called their new country the Republic of Texas, which was an independent country for nine years before it became the 28th state in the Union on December 29, 1854.

The burning political issue in the United States, however, was whether Texas would be admitted as a slave state or a free state. Texas was finally admitted as a slave state, which occasioned anti-abolitionist James Russell Lowell’s poem.

Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide
In the strife of Truth with Falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever ‘tween that darkness and that light.
By the light of burning martyrs, Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calv’ries ever, With the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties, Ancient values test our youth;
They must upward still and onward, Who would keep abreast of truth. 

Part of Lowell’s poem was later included into a well-known hymn, Once to Every Man and Nation, which is found in our United Methodist hymnal and was also quoted by Martin Luther King, Jr. in his 1963 We Shall Overcome speech.

What happens when disciples of Jesus Christ are called to decide for truth or falsehood? What new occasions will teach us new duties in the year 2020? How is God urging us to move upward and onward and keep abreast of truth?

O God, I confess that I, too, can’t always see the road ahead of me. The way seems dark, and the future is uncertain. At the same time, you give me the strength and the vison to keep on loving you with my whole heart and model the grace of Jesus Christ wherever I may find myself. Grant that, in the midst of doubts and uncertainty, the sweetness and the power of your Holy Spirit will guide my thoughts and actions. Like your children, Thomas Merton, John Wesley, and James Russell Lowell, I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. Amen.

As long as I have 2 prayers and a hymn, I am good to go!