#BeUMC!

Do you want to #BeUMC? I do! Count me in! Last week, at our virtual Council of Bishops meeting, we approved a document that offers The United Methodist Church a future filled with anticipation, hope, and possibility. A Narrative for the Continuing United Methodist Church shares who we are as United Methodists and how God is leading us to be united in Christ as we witness to God’s love into the farthest corners of the world.

I am excited to share with you the document, along with brief comments in each section that are bold italic. A Narrative for the Continuing United Methodist Church can be read here.

“United Methodists all over the globe are liturgical, contemporary, charismatic, social activists, urban, suburban, small town, rural and much more. We are children, youth, young adults, senior adults, new Christians, and mature Christians. We are present on four continents, in more than 45 countries, and we comprise an unknown number of cultures and languages. We are a holy communion of different races, ethnicities, cultures, and perspectives united by the Holy Spirit, driven by the mission of Christ, and bearing the good news of an unmerited grace that changes lives and transforms communities.”

The UMC is one of the most diverse religious bodies in the world, yet we are bound together in love.

“Christ’s prayer for our unity and command to gather all to the table, to make space for one another, appreciate one another, and look for Christ in each other, prohibit us from creating individual tables only for those who think, act, look, and perceive the world like we do. We cannot be a church that fractures its identity and commitment to Christ by aligning itself to political parties. We cannot be a traditional church or a progressive church or a centrist church. We cannot be a gay or straight church. Our churches must be more than echo chambers made in our own image, arguing with each other while neglecting our central purpose. This is the way of the world.”

Christ calls us to be one. We are aligned with Jesus and not with political parties or different theological understandings around human sexuality. Jesus sees each one of us as whole persons, made for good works, and chosen to share Christ’s love to the farthest corners of the world.

“Instead, we must be one people, rooted in scripture, centered in Christ, serving in love, and united in the essentials. It is hard work. It is sacred work. It is the ministry of reconciliation that Christ gave to each of us. Our best witness is to love each other as Christ loves us, to show the world the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit to bind us together despite our differences. This is living out the gospel.”

Jesus entrusts each one of us to a ministry of reconciliation – calling out evil, oppression, and racism, but also working to bring justice and hope.

“We are a church:

  • Confident in what God has done in Christ Jesus for all humankind
  • Committed to personal and social salvation/transformation
  • Courageous in dismantling the powers of racism, tribalism, and colonialism

“All of our members, clergy, local churches, and annual conferences will continue to have a home in the ‘Future United Methodist Church’, whether they consider themselves liberal, evangelical, progressive, traditionalist, middle of the road, conservative, centrist, or something else. We hold on to our Wesleyan heritage that ‘the living core of the Christian faith is revealed in Scripture, illuminated by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason’”.

As United Methodists, we believe that everyone has a place in the church. God excludes no one. We are also keenly aware that United Methodists live and serve in various contexts and will practiee their faith in different ways.

“We are longing for a United Methodist Church that will move toward new forms of being a connectional church, a General Conference focused on global essentials, and an empowerment of regions for contextually relevant forms of living our common mission mandate. Deeply rooted in the Doctrinal Standards of the UMC, we pledge to exercise our episcopal role in ways that enable as many United Methodists, lay and clergy, as are willing to remain in the UMC and – together – to continue in making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. And because we are part of the Church Universal, we seek to be united visibly and in ministries with other parts of the Body of Christ in God’s mission for the human family and creation.”

We are better together. Each part of the body is essential and contributes to the whole. The table of the Lord is open to all.

“We are committed to strengthening every local church, where the word is preached and Christ is offered, and where the table is set before all who hunger and thirst for righteousness, confident in the prayer we have learned to say and share:

  • Make us one with Christ – this is faithfulness.
  • Make us one with each other – this is unity.
  • Make us one in ministry to all the world – this is fruitfulness.

This is the United Methodist Church we love and serve!”

My prayer is that you will use this document in the teaching ministry of your local church. I also hope that you will take advantage of the many communications resources that are associated with the document and the People of God campaign.

Do you want to #BeUMC? I do! Count me in!

Every Day a Little Death … and Life

“Thanks so much for helping me out. You’re a saint!” Has anyone ever said that to you? Today, November 1, is All Saints Day. It is a time when Christians in The United Methodist Church as well as in other denominations remember and honor our loved ones who have gone before us. In religious traditions such as the Catholic Church, saints are people who have been formally recognized as being especially holy or virtuous.

Each year on All Saints Day I take time to remember all of the saints, whether living or having died, especially those who have made a significant impact upon my life. Perhaps it is the poignancy of All Saints Sunday, as congregations around the world remember and celebrate the lives of loved ones who died over the past year. It could just be the fall, a time of stripping bare, of letting go, of accepting the changing seasons of life. Or maybe it’s the cumulative effect of officiating at many funerals and graveside services over the years. There is a song that comes back to me periodically, Every Day a Little Death, from Stephen Sondheim’s 1973 musical A Little Night Music. It’s not a particularly religious song, but it reminds me that “Every day a little sting; every day a little dies in the heart and the head.”

It was a rainy, dreary day, eleven years since Jayne died. Her son and daughter-in-law, two grandsons, and the other grandma stood with me under an awning over the site of the burial of Jayne’s cremains. “It seems like just yesterday,” her son said. Jayne died far too soon, just sixteen months after a diagnosis of ALS.

Each one shared a few words about how Jayne had made a difference in their life. Her pot roast; her smile; how the grandsons looked forward to spending every Monday with Jayne; the way she was the life of the party; her determination as a single mother; the times spent up north at the family log cabin. It all came down to love.

Jayne’s son and two grandsons, one in middle school and one in high school, gently lowered the box with the ashes into the grave and shoveled the dirt back in the hole. They placed flowers over the grave, and we sang Jayne’s favorite hymn, “Here I am Lord, Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night. I will go, Lord, where you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.” Then we departed, taking Jayne’s legacy with us back into the world.

Every day a little death… and life. For all the saints.

Camilla was in perfect health. Then, all of a sudden, she developed pancreatitis, which attacked her entire body. Camilla spent five months in intensive care, battling one complication after another, with her sister and family by her side urging her to keep fighting. Finally, her doctors said there was nothing more they could do. As her sister and brother-in-law shared the news with her, Camilla, unable to talk or move, could still feel. As tears rolled down her cheeks, I gently wiped them away. How unfair is this?

“The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.” (Psalm 90:10 NRSV) We prayed for peace and thanked God for the grace and love shown by each one of Camilla’s caregivers. Every day a little death… and life. For all the saints.

Harry and his wife were on the trip of a lifetime, driving from one National Park to another in their camper, Harry taking hundreds of pictures. Then, in a moment, everything changed as Harry died tragically, a rich and full life cut short. “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.” (Romans 14:7-8 NRSV)

At his memorial service we celebrated the amazing witness of Harry’s life, including his advocacy for diversity and inclusiveness; a love of learning and adventure; and his desire for people of all ethnicities, religions, and countries to live together in peace and unity. Then we renewed our commitment to live out our own call and carry on his legacy. Even in the most barren of places, every day a little death… and life. For all the saints.

In her 2014 book Small Victories; Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, Anne Lamott tells about a friend she met twenty years ago who went through round after round of treatment for leukemia. Finally, there was no hope left, so Carol decided to throw a party for several hundred friends who had helped her along the way. She wore a red velvet dress and was the life of the party.

Lamott writes, “Some people seemed stricken, uncomfortable at having been invited to come say good-bye, as if this were very bad manners…  But mostly people seemed to stretch enough to be able to open up to the fearful thought that Carol would probably die pretty soon. In all of this shadow, she was glowing, giving off softness.”[i] Every day a little death… and life. For all the saints.

How is God calling you to live your one precious life? Never doubt the importance of who you are and what you do, for God calls you to this time and place to be a living example of the amazing grace of Jesus Christ. Today is all we have. Just today.

Is today all you want it to be? Is today filled with love and laughter? Have you found peace with your past so that you can live fully in the present? What do you need to let go of?  What deaths do you need to experience in order to fully live? To whom can you reach out in love? For today is all we have.

Prayer for Autumn

Lord of the seasons,

there is a time for dying and a time for new birth;

a time to speak and a time to keep quiet.

Help us discern your will for us now.

Lord of autumn leaves and warm berries,

help us to let go gracefully

and to rejoice in the color and fruitfulness of this moment.

Wrap us in the shawl of eternity

and teach us to await with wonder

the new shoots of your love.[ii]

Every day a little death… and life. For all the saints.

[i] Anne Lamott, Small Victories; Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, New York, Riverhead Books, 2014, p. 265-266.

 

[ii] Mary Hanrahan, Acorns and Archangels, digital version, Wild Goose Publications, Iona Community, p. 152.

 

Overwhelmed

It’s been my favorite word for the past 28 years. In 1993, when Gary and I were introduced to the leaders of First United Methodist Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, as their new co-pastors, I said to myself, “Oh, my. I hope we can do this!” Having served several small and medium-sized churches before that, I tried to prepare myself for the enormity of this large downtown congregation. At the same time, we had three elementary and middle school-age children who also needed our attention and encouragement.

I learned a new word during those thirteen years. Overwhelmed. Have you ever been tempted to sweep everything off your desk in frustration and stomp out of the room? Have you ever felt as if you could not keep up with the demands of your job? Do you yearn to connect with God’s peaceable kingdom?

Overwhelmed. The word has accompanied me like a shadow throughout my ministry. I don’t think I have ever not been overwhelmed in ministry. Much of that is due to my own nature of always wanting everything to be done well and in a timely way. But life often interferes. Babies are born, children stray, jobs change, illness forces us to slow down, and we say “yes” to too many things, some but not all of which are beyond our control. The expectations of congregations can seem unrealistic at times, and balance escapes us.

Since the beginning of COVID in March of 2020, I have heard many of our clergy also talk of being overwhelmed, feeling swamped, crushed under a heavy load, or overcome by too many demands and unrealistic expectations.

As a bishop, one of my primary roles is to be a pastor to the pastors. I did not fully realize how critical that aspect of my call was until our clergy were faced with completely reinventing their ministries when in-house worship was not possible because of COVID. I cannot begin to express my deep appreciation to our clergy and laity for the creative ways in which you have continued to witness to the love of Jesus. You have continued to reach out to those needing care and discovered new ways to come alongside those who have lost all hope. Still, in the midst of faithfulness and creativity, so many of us feel overwhelmed.

In a recent article titled In the Grip of Overcome, Consultant Susan Beaumont writes, “Overwhelm is a spiritual condition. It results from striving for control and is rooted in an attitude of scarcity. Overwhelm stems from too many needs that we believe we alone can satisfy, uncertainty about our future, fear about our own capacity to succeed, and too much energy invested in particular outcomes.” Beaumont’s article prompted the following thoughts around what it means to be overwhelmed and how we can celebrate hope.

1. Let go and do the things you love to do.

How do you resist the impulse to “fix” everything that seems to be broken at this moment? Can you focus on what is most important for you to address in your work or personal life, let go of unrealistic demands placed on you by others, and make time for the things that give you life?

2. Become silent/still.

One of the most difficult tasks of being human is knowing when to step away from enslavement to your to-do list and focus on the invitation to “be still” and know that God is God. Taking time for meditation, prayer walking, and spiritual reading and writing connects us with God’s intentions for our life.

3. Set priorities.

In order to live fully and serve faithfully as Christ-followers, we must prayerfully discern how God is calling us to set parameters around our service. The apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 7:17 (CEB), “Nevertheless, each person should live the kind of life that the Lord assigned when he called each one. This is what I teach in all the churches.” With God’s leading and the encouragement of family and friends, we can all use our unique gifts to make a difference in the lives of others.

4. Speak truth to power and maintain inner peace.

Jesus understood the stress and pressure of everyday living, As he went about his ministry, Jesus no doubt experienced overwhelm, aware that he could not help everyone, nor please everyone. Yet Jesus was able to minister to the least, the last, and the lost by speaking truth to those in authority and maintaining an inner peace in the assurance of his belovedness.

5. Stay connected.

Right now Gary and I are spending a week in Arizona with my three siblings, their spouses, a cousin, a nephew’s wife, and one of our children. Every year at this time we gather together to play golf, hike, run, swim, eat, and maintain a connection with one another. We started this tradition after my parents died. They had traveled to Arizona for many years on vacation and were always thrilled when other family members joined them. We spent a wonderful evening together last night, reminiscing about my mom and dad, telling stories, and thanking God for the gift of family, even in the midst of so much “overwhelm”.

6. Acknowledge your need for control.

Beaumont writes, “Overwhelm is essentially about trying to be in control of things that you can’t control. Most of our control needs stem from the ego-self or false-self, the self that is invested in looking good. A desire to look competent, to avoid being blamed for bad outcomes, and to appear strong, good, and wise. Acknowledging this, we are free to shed the false self and step more firmly into thinking with our true self, the self that is grounded in God.”

7. Celebrate hope.

Is it any coincidence that hope is what will finally see us through? What do we do when we are feeling overwhelmed? And how do we balance the needs of our congregation with the necessity of caring for our own physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual health?

We’ve all had times in our lives of being overwhelmed. Yet, among all those experiences, these last two years of Covid-induced fear and isolation have been one of the most intense. We have had to reflect upon our personal spiritual practices and take inventory of our resources and means of coping. Through it all, I trust that we have been thrown back upon the root and source of all our strength and hope: our God revealed in Jesus Christ, the one who is the source of our faith, our hope, our love. Time and again, I’ve thought of this old and always-true hymn:

His oath, his covenant, his blood, Supports me in the ‘whelming flood;
When all around my soul gives way, He then is all my hope and stay.

On Christ the solid rock I stand,

All other ground is sinking sand. All other ground is sinking sand.