Worship Around the World

This morning I’m reminded again of the global nature of the Church. We gathered for worship here this morning with well known hymns and praise songs and were also led in worship in Kiswahili, a Native American language, and other languages including English. Simultaneously my own church family, Christ United in Mobile, AL was gathered for worship. I fired up our live stream on my phone so I could see them gathered together. All of us are worshiping the same God. Of course that is happening in every time zone around the globe. People worshiping God in spirit and in truth.

I remarked in  a Facebook comment that the Spirit of this Conference already feels different than what I sensed at the General Conference in Portland in 2016. I’ve heard others say both verbally and online that they feel similarly. I was sort of dreading coming here, because I felt like the room would be heavy with anxiety and division. There is certainly plenty of that to go around here, however, there’s a Spirit of worship which feels good and right. The whole congregation here began to sing Siyahamba which is a South African hymn in the Zulu language. The English chorus goes like this: “We are marching in the light of God, we are marching in the light of God.” The whole group gathered was singing this at the top of their lungs. Many of our delegates in the bar of the Conference began singing and dancing. A conga line of sorts formed. Tears came to my eyes as I saw so much of what I love about the UMC in one view. God has done an amazing thing in the UMC. My tears were an emotion of appreciation for what God has done, but they were also tears of sadness of what we might lose here. There are some who believe that the worst thing that could happen here is the division of our church. I don’t think that would be the worst thing, but it would certainly a sad thing.

Today we begin “business.” The first Presiding Bishop, Bishop Christian Alsted, from the Nordic and Baltic Episcopal Area, reminded us that we are convening in what was once a football field, where teams battled one another to win. He said that we are not on a football field, we are now in a church. May God’s Spirit move in this place.

Home Sweet Dome

These shots were taken this (Saturday) morning of General Conference 2019 in St. Louis. We are meeting at The Dome at America’s Center, the former home of the St. Louis Rams (who are now the LA Rams). It’s pretty amazing to be meeting in such a massive facility. It makes it look like only a few people are here, though there are thousands here. We’ll see how things fill up as business sessions begin. I imagine more will be here for “business” than for worship and prayer. That’s too bad. I’m proud of our delegation. They are all here and engaged. There are also an additional 30-40 reserve delegates and members of the Alabama-West Florida Conference here. It’s a great showing.

The other pictures feature scenes from walking into the building this morning. General Conference is a magnet for protestors and those wanting to lobby the delegation. You can see some people holding up or wearing signs about human sexuality. There were also persons handing out gloves and bags of “hugs and kisses” (the Hershey variety). Inside the dome around lunchtime a large group of LGBTQ supporters sang hymns.

Much of today was devoted to reading Scriptures and singing. Representatives from the different global divisions shared about the missional opportunities and challenges they have in their parts of the world. I am struck powerfully by the global nature and reach of our church. It’s easy to get so focused on my own local mission context and community that I lose sight of the vastness of God’s work. I’m reminded of the many times I’ve looked around Jordan-Hare Stadium during an Auburn University football game and looked around at the 85,000+ people and thought, “Wow, God knows all these people as well as he knows me AND he loves them just as much as he loves me.” Of course, the world is a lot bigger than Jordan- Hare Stadium. God knows and loves every person on earth just as well as he knows and loves me. That is at the same time both inspiring and humbling.

As I look around this dome at all the different people, I see a dome with lots of people all known and loved deeply by God. We just experienced that love at the close of worship as we gathered for Holy Communion. This final picture is of the Bishops who served me communion. Two from The United States and another from The Philippines who anointed me with oil. A reminder of the vastness of God’s church and world.

We Agree on Barbecue

I plan to share reflections each day of General Conference…

After some small difficulty in getting here, our group arrived in St. Louis this afternoon and were able to settle into our hotel. We ran into Methodists everywhere we went. This morning we saw current members and former members of our church at the Mobile Regional Airport. From Dallas to St. Louis we met several fellow Methodist pastors on their way to GC2019 as well, including the former Associate Pastor of Christ United, Dr. Jim Kinder! Rev. Jean Tippit and I toured the Gateway Arch and behind us in line were some members of the Florida Annual Conference who I’ve met before. As we finally found the UMC entrance to the gargantuan America’s Center, we were suddenly surrounded by Methodists. In some ways General Conference (even a special session) is a little like a global family reunion. It’s one of the few places that United Methodists get a real chance to visit with their friends or make new friends in other geographic areas of the church.

I know that the stakes are high for this General Conference. The denomination that helped raise and rear me and so many others is at a critical point, and people who love her from all over the world have different ideas about what she needs to be or become. For the most part, like the vast majority of the UMC, General Conference is filled with people who are loving and kind, and want what they believe is best. We’re very aware of our differences, and deeply committed to our convictions. As a result, coming to this could feel like going to battle, but then you remember that the people on the other side are our brothers and sisters in Christ. One of my favorite songs when I was growing up was Sting’s “I Hope the Russians Love Their Children Too.” I spent more than a little bit of time worrying about the destruction of the world through nuclear war. This was just part of growing up in the 80’s before the end of the Cold War. I listened to the 45 of that song over and over until I convinced myself that there was no way the Russians would blow up the world…they love their children too. There’s chance that a lot of damage and hurt could be done to the church and others this week. I hope, that whatever side we may find ourselves on, we’ll remember that each side loves their church too.

Tonight our group met up with someone else from our Conference and we went to the delicious barbecue place right next to the convention center called Sugarfire Smoke House. There were obviously lots of Methodist people in the restaurant and volleyball tournament families (the other big convention in town). While waiting in line we saw that Dr. Jeff Greenway (former president of Asbury Seminary when I was there) and Rev. Keith Boyette were there enjoying the amazing barbecue.  Jeff and Keith are two key leaders of the Wesleyan Covenant Association who are advocating for a traditional understanding of Christianity when it comes to human sexuality. As we were finishing up our meal, after Greenway and Boyette had left, we heard a commotion near the door. A group of people were clapping for someone walking in the door of the restaurant. I looked over and saw that it was Bishop Karen Oliveto, whose election to the office of Bishop in 2016 created great controversy because she was openly gay. One of my friends leaned over to me and said, “I guess we agree on barbecue.” This moment of levity reminded me of our common humanity no matter which side of this issue you are on.

 

Waiting for Christmas

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People don’t really wait for Christmas anymore. My almost nine year old daughter Ella and I were in Wal-Mart on September 23rd and found a dancing animatronic Santa Claus.  We were both amazed that Santa made an appearance so early in the year, of course, Ella was thrilled. Christmas can’t come early enough for her. I think a lot of us are like Ella, we don’t really want to wait for Christmas. To be honest, I’m kind of the same way. I think we typically interpret this impatience as a bad thing, but I think there’s a good reason we don’t really want to wait for Christmas. When the world is beset by adversarial political campaigns, devastating natural disasters, and so many dealing with illness and disease who can blame anyone who is longing for some Christmas magic. I think our nation is longing for this together. Christmas music, Christmas movies, and Christmas decorations seem to come out earlier and earlier. We don’t really want to wait for Christmas.

Of course our only choice is to wait. No matter when I start wearing my new Christmas socks, or when our Christmas tree is lit, Christmas still comes only on December 25th. My daughter Ella, about the first of October wished that the next day be Halloween, then the next day Thanksgiving, the next day her birthday, and finally, to end the week have Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. My mom called that “wishing your life away.” No matter how much we wish, however, Christmas doesn’t come any sooner. So, we wait. The church has a special name for this season of waiting: Advent. This season recalls the long, often impatient wait of God’s people who longed for a savior. The word Advent means beginning and marks the beginning of the Christian calendar year. Christians begin their year with waiting. Like the Israelites we practice waiting with expectant hope.

At its best I think that’s what waiting for Christmas means: waiting with expectant hope. To be honest, I kind of like that much of the country can’t wait for Christmas to come. It’s a sign that everyone, even all creation, is groaning for something more and something better. Christmas is the day we celebrate the fact that God has heard the cries of our hearts and has given us a gift greater than we could ever imagine. During the weeks leading up to Christmas Pastor Jean, Pastor Jeremy, and I will be talking about Waiting for Christmas. Particularly we’re going to look at waiting for Christmas through the eyes of Elizabeth, Mary, Anna, and the many unnamed women who were longing for a savior. These women play a vital role in the story of Christmas, and their witness of faith in their waiting is inspirational.

By now the Christmas police have given you their full permission to deck your halls with boughs of holly. For some of us, our manger scenes will have been out for so long it may be time to dust them. Others of us may still be trying to find where we stored our ornaments. No matter how you’ve waited for Christmas, I pray that as you wait now, you wait with expectant hope. Jesus has come and is coming and for these reasons we have hope even in the midst of our broken world. As you know our church has so many special things going on this month : unique services, wonderful concerts, meals, studies, and gatherings all designed to help you wait with expectant hope. I hope you’ll take advantage of these opportunities and invite others to join you. I especially hope you’ll join us on Christmas Eve for one of our candlelight communion services, or if you’re out of town, that you will worship wherever you are. May God bless you as we all are Waiting for Christmas.

In Christ,

Rob

Overcoming Evil

Like most Americans I will never forget the morning of September 11, 2001. All of us were deeply shaken when terrorists hijacked planes that crashed into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and in a field in Pennsylvania. For Americans the world seemed to pivot that day. Suddenly we felt significantly more vulnerable and more afraid, and things have really never been the same.

The news of the massacre in Las Vegas has had a similar effect on me and likely many others. As Americans we believe that humans are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is difficult to comprehend how a lone gunman could take away the right to life for so many people in such a short amount of time.

With each of these horrific events, which have become disturbingly all too common, it feels like my faith and hope are being chipped away. It all seems too much to bear.

With each taking of innocent human life we see the face of moral evil and the deep darkness of human depravity on full display. Sometimes, in the face of horrible evil such is this it’s hard to have faith in a good God. Theologians call this difficulty “the problem of evil” or theodicy. Much has been written about this subject, and I am grateful for the wise and faithful persons who have wrestled with these issues over the centuries. One such person is St. Augustine. I learned in seminary that Augustine had difficulty in believing that God would create evil. We understand through the scriptures that God created everything and that God proclaimed that everything he created was “very good,” how could God create evil? It was Augustine’s belief that God did not create evil, but instead evil is actually the absence of good. Evil was not created, it is a vacuum devoid of good.

In Romans Paul writes, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good”(Romans 12:21). In the face of such dark evil as has been witnessed this week, I think this is the best response for people who follow Jesus. We must overcome the individual and systemic evil that led to this horrible event with overcoming goodness. In many ways we’ve seen the overcoming power of good through the stories of heroism, selflessness, and love coming out of Las Vegas this week. Everyday I’ve heard new stories of people risking their lives for others, people carrying wounded strangers to safety, and heroes literally laying down their lives to protect others. In this horrible vacuum of evil, you see goodness overcoming it.

It’s in this response of overcoming goodness and love that I am still able to find hope. With each act of bravery and love I’m reminded God didn’t create this evil, but it must be overcome by good.

Neighborhood Gatherings – A Great Way to Get to Know Your Congregation

All Things Charity

Over the years I’ve had pastors ask me about my process for getting to know a new congregation that I learned about first from Dr. Jim Jackson when he served as the Senior Pastor of Chapelwood UMC in Houston, TX. I’ve used this process in two different churches and a modified version in my current context. I hope you find it helpful.

Upon entering a new congregation a great way to get to know your congregation is to hold neighborhood gatherings throughout your new community. Here is a quick step by step process you can use to do the same.

  1. Find the persons best able to organize these for you. For me it was the church secretary in all three churches. You need someone who knows the community and the congregation well enough to figure out how to best do this.
  2. Ask this person to group the congregation’s members/prospects into…

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Neighborhood Gatherings – A Great Way to Get to Know Your Congregation

Over the years pastors have asked me about my process for getting to know a new congregation which I first learned about from Dr. Jim Jackson when he served as the Senior Pastor of Chapelwood UMC in Houston, TX. I’ve used this process in two different churches and a modified version in my current context. I hope you find it helpful.

Upon entering a new congregation a great way to get to know your congregation is to hold neighborhood gatherings throughout your new community. Here is a quick step by step process you can use to do the same.

  1. Find the persons best able to organize these for you. For me it was the church secretary in all three churches. You need someone who knows the community and the congregation well enough to figure out how to best do this.
  2. Ask this person to group the congregation’s members/prospects into neighborhood segments. This will be most easily done using a good database program which I hope your new church has. Some churches have access to MissionInsite which has some ways of doing this pretty easily. The groups should be about 20-30. Some may be more, and some less.
  3. Once the groups have been put together have the person assisting you choose a good host/hostess for the gathering. You’ll need to find someone who has a large enough home to accommodate the number of people and preferably find someone with hospitality gifts. Have your assistant (or you might be even better) ask this person personally to host the gathering. Find a time that is convenient to them.
  4. Scheduling: This is the hardest part of doing this method. You need to find the best times that you can commit to doing this. In one church I held nine neighborhood gatherings, so scheduling wasn’t too hard. In another church I held 25 of them, so it was much more difficult to put these on my calendar and spread them out. I had to change this process at my current church because I would have had to hold over 150 of them to accommodate all the members. Typically I scheduled two every Sunday: one in the afternoon and one in the evening. Then I scheduled two others on evenings during the week. These gatherings typically lasted about two hours (I’ll describe the schedule below). At this rate I could hold about four per week. Once you’ve decided when you can hold them and find hosts to host them, you’re ready to start inviting neighbors!
  5. I began the neighborhood gatherings in August and continued them through October. This is a good time to start. This may mean that you will have to spend less time doing other things during this busy season of the church calendar. Hopefully your staff and members will recognize how vitally important these gatherings are in addition to the other church events on the calendar. I did not preempt any church programming for these gatherings, but I did lessen some of my responsibilities as I added this to my plate.
  6. The Gathering: The gatherings have three main purposes. First, it is a way for you to meet the members/prospects of your congregation in smaller, more informal settings. A secondary benefit is that members of your congregation meet one another in a smaller, more informal place. At one neighborhood gathering two members met for the first time. I discovered they had been sitting 12 feet from one another in worship for several decades. It took a neighborhood gathering for them to finally meet! A second goal is for you to get a chance to truly listen to the members of your congregation. During the meetings I asked the members to briefly (you have to emphasize this) describe what first brought them to the church and when. For this question I go around the room and allow each person to speak. The second question I typically ask openly to the group, “What dreams do you have for our church?” Listening to how the members of your congregation answer these questions will tell you a lot. You’ll hear of the great past of the church, and you’ll hear their attitudes about the future. The final goal of the meeting is for your new church members to hear from you. This is a time to talk briefly about your life history and then share with them about your core values for ministry. It is also a good time to invite them to lean into their vows of membership. In my tradition persons commit to support the church with their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. This is a good time to define what those commitments are and ask them to renew their commitment to them. I prepared a small handout that outlined the things I wanted to share so they could take it with them. Jim Ozier, in his book The Changeover Zone, describes a similar process and suggests some other similar questions. I recommend his book for any transitioning pastor!
  7. The gathering schedule: Typically I allow 20-30 minutes of informal visiting and refreshments. You’ll need to ask your host/hostess to prepare some appropriate refreshments for the gathering. This time of gathering is important so that you can meet people informally and it sets the atmosphere as friendly and welcoming. Gather the group together for formal introductions. This is when you ask the two questions above. This will take 45 minutes to an hour. Reserve the last 15-30 minutes for your remarks. Conclude with a time of prayer for the church and it’s future.

Over the course of however long it takes you to hold these meetings you will meet, listen to, and share with a majority of the members of the congregation. In the church where we held 25 gatherings I met with more than 450 persons. Once you’ve done this you will likely know more about the church and its members than just about anyone else in the congregation. Beyond the actual knowledge you will gain, the congregation will discover that their new pastor desires to know them and listen to them, and you will have a head start on casting vision and shaping the culture of the church as their new leader.

This is hard to do. There are hundreds of reasons why you “can’t” do this. I modified it for my current context to make it easier, but it wasn’t as effective. Learning your congregation is one of your main tasks as an incoming pastor, this may be some of the most valuable time you will spend in ministry. I encourage you to give it a shot.

A Way Forward?

As most of you reading this will probably already know, yesterday our Council of Bishops put forth a plan for our Church to establish a commission to examine the paragraphs in our Book of Discipline about human sexuality, discuss these, and then bring back a comprehensive proposal to change the Discipline in hopes of maintaining unity in the church over this issue. The commission would be appointed by the Council of Bishops and is to be made up of diverse representation of the church. The Council of Bishops then may call a special called General Conference to deal with this issue or choose to wait until 2020 for consideration.

Some of asked why the business of the General Conference is so emotionally and physically draining. First of all the days are very long for delegates and our delegates have been experiencing long, grueling days since May 10th. The work of our delegates is very tedious and involves work that most pastors and laity don’t typically do. The long hours and the level of prolonged concentration makes for tiring work. Of course, many of the issues that have been discussed in legislative committees last week are emotionally sensitive which raises the level of tension, stress, and fatigue.

I believe there is another, less obvious reason for the great emotional fatigue experienced by General Conference delegates. I think much of it is caused by the extraordinary measures which are taken to avoid talking about the issues of human sexuality. In one way our differences about human sexuality dominate almost every vote, every nomination, and every parliamentary maneuver. Every day delegates and visitors are protesting the UMC’s stance on homosexuality, and it is being discussed around lunch tables, over coffee, and even on hotel rooftops. The one place human sexuality is really not being talked about is by our elected delegates on the floor of General Conference. The way this issue has been handled at the this year’s General Conference reminds me of a family in crisis that refuses to talk about the problem that EVERYONE knows needs to be dealt with. It is extremely stressful and fatiguing to avoid talking about something that needs to be dealt with.

I try to always be hopeful, especially about the church I love. I am hopeful that the process being led by our Council of Bishops will bring about the unity of our church and fidelity to our biblical, Wesleyan foundation. My concern is that this may ultimately be another avoidance strategy. Eventually the General Conference delegates will have an open debate about human sexuality. I know that this debate will be painful, difficult, and will bring about negative media coverage, however, it will eventually happen. The General Conference, however, has spoken. My prayer is that this will bring about the vital, open conversation we’ve needed to have for years. Perhaps a special called General Conference devoted to this issue will bring us all to the table to have this discussion.

Impasse

As we went to bed last night Twitter was a buzz about a surprise meeting of the Council of Bishops. Unconfirmed reports were suggesting that the Council of Bishops was going to put forth a plan of separation for the United Methodist Church and possibly have a called General Conference in 2018 to handle this plan. This morning Bishop Ough of the Dakotas Conference spoke on behalf of the church. He talked of the gravity of our differences and the need to be creative in our ways of moving forward, however, the Council of Bishops did not put forward any specific or conceptual plans of moving forward. He stated that the Bishops plan to preside and allow the delegates perform their legislative function.

In many ways there is a beautiful spirit here at General Conference. The worship services have been uplifting, and the diversity of the UMC is on full display. The people here love the church and want what they believe is best for her. There is, however, a clear and visible divide over issues of human sexuality. There have been many calls for “compromise” and “meeting in the middle,” however, the non-negotiables  of either side make any real compromise seem implausible. It is likely that the church’s official stance on issues surrounding homosexuality will remain unchanged or be made even more stringently against it. Many pastors, some Bishops, and some Boards of Ministry do not agree with the Book of Discipline and have stated and demonstrated they will not abide by these parts of the Discipline. Many in the church are frustrated that parts of the Discipline are deliberately not being followed by church leaders.

The church leadership seems to be at an impasse. There are proposals before the General Conference that might allow churches to more easily splinter from the connection and proposals which could facilitate a splitting of the denomination. I have held for a long time that the United Methodist Church is better together, however, it is getting harder to imagine how we can move forward together. Toward the end of the day influential delegates stood to request that the Council of Bishops bring forth some plan to move forward. Some delegates are looking for our Bishops to provide leadership. At the end of the day, however, it will be the delegates who must decide which course we will take.

Pentecost and Websites

imageLast night I was sitting in the Discipleship Legislative Committee meeting and turned around to behold what you see in this picture. Translators working to interpret the goings on of General Conference in (at least) six different languages. This was a powerful sight to me, especially on the day before Pentecost Sunday. It is an amazing sign that we are a global church telling of God’s works in many languages. It’s also a powerful reminder that this is what our church is called to do: communicate the great works of God so that every person can intimately understand it.

This morning I was looking for a church to attend, so I pulled up the UMC.org website to find UM churches near me. Several of the churches near me didn’t have websites, their information wasn’t updated, and I had trouble finding the worship time for those who did have websites. I don’t mean to be picking on Portland. This is a reality for many UM churches across the U.S. in every community. In a world that speaks digitally, most churches are still speaking analog. I know that decent, updated websites, are not the end-all-be-all that will ultimately transform the world, but a well used Facebook page, and a focused effort to speak to a world walking around with supercomputers in their pockets would go a long way.

The Pentecost fire is, of course, much more than websites and social media. It is the power of God to proclaim God’s good news to the nations. It is a consuming fire which I hope will fall upon all United Methodist no matter what language they speak!