Love Never Ends, For God is Love

“You can travel in a way that brings people closer together and builds understanding, or you can travel in a way that exacerbates the differences between the rest of the world and us.” Those words are from a 2011 interview with well-known travel writer and Christian, Rick Steves. I am writing this blog as I fly home from the Philippines after ten days of fruitful meetings, prayerful encounters, and transformative spiritual experiences. As a bishop, I am on the road more than I’d like to be, but every time I leave home for another adventure, I remember Steves’ insight, “I believe in traveling as a way to get to know God’s family. God made this great creation, and it’s peopled with all sorts of interesting cultures and ways of life.”

The purpose of this trip was to meet with representatives of various groups in The United Methodist Church around the creation of a General Book of Discipline. It is hoped that the GBOD will contain the essential beliefs and practices that apply to the entire denomination, leaving the other parts of our doctrine and polity able to be adapted to specific contexts.

What a beautiful experience it was to worship and dialogue with United Methodists from across the globe about what binds us together as people of faith with a common Wesleyan heritage. At the same time, we celebrated the uniqueness of different ethnic and spiritual traditions.

After several days of meetings in Manila, Gary and I had the opportunity to connect with United Methodists in different parts of the Philippines. In this and next week’s blog, I hope to share with you the embodiment of a sign in the chancel area of a United Methodist church high in the isolated mountains of northern Philippines, “Love Never Ends, for God is Love.”

Everywhere we drove, we saw the familiar cross and flame of the United Methodist Church. The names of the churches were unique, among them Solid Rock UMC and Blessing UMC. What a wonderful sense of how our mission outreach extends to the far corners of the earth!

It also reminded me of a favorite travel quote from Maya Angelou, “Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”

Methodism was introduced to the Philippines after the Spanish-American War and the beginning of US colonial administration. The first Methodist Episcopal worship service was held on August 28, 1898 for US soldiers. United Methodism has grown over the years because of the commitment of Filipinos to evangelism and church growth. Other areas of Southeast Asia are home to autonomous Methodist churches.

Today, there are approximately 1,400 churches in three episcopal areas in the Philippines, led by Bishop Peter Torio, Bishop Rudy Juan, and Bishop Ciriaco Francisco. Within the three episcopal areas, which include seven thousand islands and fifty language groups, there are twenty-four annual conferences.

Education has also been an important gift of United Methodists to the Philippines. Last week, Gary and I were privileged to hear the President of Wesleyan-Philippines University speak. An active lay person, Judge Benjamin D. Turgano brings to his role a passion for faith-based education in the Wesleyan tradition.

We also visited Aldersgate College in Solano (founded in 1965). As the only United Methodist college in the north, Aldersgate now offers a new Master of Divinity degree as well as a Christian education program for diaconal ministers. What a privilege to speak with several students about their experience.

One of my hopes for this trip was to meet the parents of three United Methodist clergy siblings in Iowa who contribute immensely to the vitality of our conference: Southeast District Superintendent Lilian Gallo Seagren, Pastor Gideon Gallo of Gladbrook UMC, and Louie Gallo of Williamsburg St. Paul’s UMC. Knowing that Rev. Luis and Jacinta Gallo raised and nurtured three of their children to be clergy, I eagerly anticipated spending time in their home, which is located near rice fields and a river, with the Caraballo mountains in the distance. What faithful role models Pastor Luis and Jacinta are, so well respected, wise, and grace-filled.

On Sunday evening, the Blessing UMC held a vespers service in the Gallos’ home, which can accommodate about fifty people in a large room on the ground level. What pure joy it was to share God’s word with these faithful disciples! The young pastor was a wonderful presence among the congregants, and the prayers and singing were a foretaste of the God’s reign, where people from every nation will live together in peace and harmony.

A week ago today, several of us, including Pastor Luis, Jacinta, and District Superintendent Lily Bett, took a trip on a Jeepney up into the Caraballo mountains to visit a few United Methodist churches. In 1990, a 7.7 magnitude earthquake struck north of Manila, devastating villages and killing 1,621 people. Among the buildings destroyed was the Pinayog UM Church. After the earthquake, church members made the difficult decision to move across the valley and relocate the remains of their wooden church building.

 

Inside the simple building is a green sign, God’s Never Ends, for God is Love. Today Caritas UMC (caritas means charity or love) is served by a lay pastor, and Rev. Bett travels up the mountain to train other lay leaders to care for the congregation. After a recent typhoon significantly damaged the present building, church members have decided that they need a new sanctuary built out of concrete instead of wood.

The men of the church were working on the new sanctuary when we arrived, but the DS told us that progress is slow because of a lack of funds. Entire families, with many young children, came out to greet us as we arrived, and we prayed together in the church. They plan to use the old church for children’s activities after the new sanctuary is completed. It’s a huge commitment for a village where there is much poverty, and we hope to help them.

We then made our way to MACDU UMC, which is located in one of the larger mountain villages. This church is pastored by a young woman who is married to a farmer in the village and has a little girl. When Rev. Machika arrived, she had to learn the indigenous language of the village. Machika, who is clearly beloved by her parishioners, said that stewardship is a challenge at MACDU because all the farmers have is their produce. They give the produce to their pastor to take to town to sell. She gives the money back to the farmers, who then return a portion to the church as their offering.

As with Caritas UMC, everyone came outside to greet us when we arrived, and we prayed together in the church. O that those of us who live in comfortable surroundings would find inspiration from Caritas and MACDU UMC’s, located high up in the Caraballo Mountains of the Philippines.

At a time when many United Methodists wonder whether we can possibly stay together after the result of the 2019 General Conference, traveling to the Philippines has given me new eyes to see that we are more alike than different. We have the same hopes and dreams for our children across the globe, and we have the same desire to make a difference by exhibiting charity (caritas) toward one another by singing, praying, working, laughing, and worshipping together as one body in Christ.

It’s all quite simple, isn’t it? Get to know God’s family by loving God and your neighbor. There is no other commandment greater than these (Mark 12:28-31). Love Never Ends, for God is Love.

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?