Allow me to introduce Naomi Hackman to you. Naomi is an 88-year-old great-grandmother who lives in Greenville, South Carolina. She turns 89 in September and for an early birthday gift, her family checked off a “bucket list” item for her—they arranged for her to skydive…Read More
The 2019 Tennessee Annual Conference met recently at Brentwood UMC. Approximately 750 lay and clergy delegates representing every church in Middle Tennessee were present. The theme for the conference was “WORD, WATER, & WITNESS.” We were all called to remember that our identities were formed at our baptisms. Here are some of the highlights:
We elected 20 persons to serve as delegates to the 2020 General and Jurisdictional Conferences. Sam McGlothlin was one of those elected to represent our conference.
We voted to merge with the Memphis Annual Conference. This conversation has been ongoing for many years. The actual merger will not begin until 2021. We will report to you on the ramifications of this merger at a later date.
The Board of Ordained Ministry recommended 28 persons for Ordination and Commissioning and another 19 persons to be licensed to preach. This is an unusually large class and represents a genuine hope for our future. The Service of Ordination took place on Wednesday, June 12th. Many of you were part of the packed church to witness Sam’s final ordination.
The Council on Finance and Administration (CF&A) presented 7 action items to the conference. Most importantly for our local churches was the recommendation and approval for a change in our apportionment system. Up to now, clergy health insurance and pensions have been an apportioned item. Beginning in 2021 or 2022, churches will now be directly billed for these two items. And with this “direct bill” system will come a significant decrease in the amount apportioned. When the new system goes into effect, the new apportionment amount—based on a churches reported revenue from the previous year—will be 11% and then graduated downward by a quarter of a percent for the next four years until we arrive at a flat 10% apportionment. For frame of reference, most churches are currently apportioned anywhere between 16 and 20%. Is the new system awash (for Belle Meade will the amount saved in apportionments be equal to the amount we pay in direct billing)? The short answer is no. Under the new system, Belle Meade will benefit financially from this system because larger churches have been “subsidizing” other churches for a long time. Again, we will bring more information about this change later.
The Conference passed an “Inclusion Resolution” that reads as follows:
It Is Resolved That - “The Tennessee Conference apologizes for the harm that actions at the 2019 Special Session of the General Conference has caused LGBTQIA+ persons, their families, their friends, and the body of Christ. We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God, and urge all in ministry, whether lay or clergy, to affirm that no human being is incompatible with Christian teaching. Be It Further Resolved that we urge all lay and clergy in the Tennessee Conference to make all reasonable efforts to address issues of LGBTQIA+ ordination and marriage in a manner so as to treat church trials and judicial processes as a last resort.”
There was debate around this resolution. A written ballot was taken and the Resolution passed with a 62% vote in favor.
There were numerous luncheons and dinners held by various organizations and seminary alumni groups. One of these gatherings was The Golden Cross dinner which recognizes and honors outstanding efforts by Sr. Adult ministries in local churches. This year our own MOSAICS group received one of only five such awards given for 2019. Congratulations to our Mosaics!
Belle Meade was represented very well by the following persons: Martha Brooke Martin and Marshall Brown, who are two of our elected lay delegates, and by Ashley Terrell and Kristy Westover, who were elected as Red River District at-large delegates, and by our three clergy delegates Sam McGlothlin, Gracie Dugan and Jim Hughes.
In early June, our Be45 Ministry students took a trip to the Heifer Ranch in Perryville, Arkansas for 3 days of experiential learning about the reality of global poverty and hunger. We learned about food waste, sustainable agriculture, global hunger, refugees and the causes and effects of poverty. During our three days together, we pondered this question: if there is enough food for everyone in the world to have 2 meals a day, why doesn’t everyone have enough?Read More
“When did we see you in prison and not visit you? Inasmuch as you did not do it for one of the least of these, you did not do it unto me.” That’s what Jesus says in the powerful 25th chapter of Matthew. These words from Jesus have always carried extra weight because they came near the end of his life.Read More
In her book, The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd tells of a teenaged character named Lily. One day her mother figure in the story asks Lily what she loves in this world. The young girl says she loves Coca-Cola and salted peanuts, the color blue, bees and honey. Her mother asks, “Did you know there are 32 names for love in one of the Eskimo languages? And we have just the one. We are so limited, we have to use the same word for loving each other as we do for loving a Coke with peanuts. Isn’t it a shame we don’t have more ways to say it?”Read More
As you read this, several members of our congregation—along with your three, appointed clergy—will be involved in the Tennessee Annual Conference meeting at Brentwood UMC. …Read More
Stuck in the Mud
Rev. Jim Hughes
It happened a couple of weeks ago. At about three o’clock in the afternoon, having been pretty much confined to my office for several hours, I ventured to the front lobby to find a woman sitting in one of the comfortable chairs. I asked her if I could help her and she began to explain her plight.
Her name was Donna. She was visiting Nashville from Florida. Seems her husband was in town on business and Donna came along for the ride—ostensibly to see what the “IT” city was all about. She said she was waiting for a tow truck to help pull her car out of what she overstated as a mud pit. Just east of the Post Road and Davidson Road 4-Way Stop, she had had a flat tire and pulled the car off the road. The car was a rental and so she called the rental company who promptly came out and put the spare on—one of those temporary “donut” spares that look like they are better suited for a bicycle than a car.
The rental car folks drove away leaving Donna just off the side of the road. As she began to try and reverse her car from off the road, the donut tire began to spin. It couldn’t get any traction. Pretty soon she had spun a solid track of mud and the car was immobile. There was simply no way that car was ever going to back out of that spot.
So Donna made her way across the street to us. She was warmly greeted and welcomed, I later learned, which came as no surprise at all. What I didn’t realize when I made my way to the lobby at 3:00 was that Donna had been sitting in the lobby for nearly three hours waiting for help. Robert came out of his office and we offered to walk down with her and assess her situation. Her car was, indeed, just a few feet off the road and pointing mostly toward the white fence out in front of her. That little stretch of land is basically flat with just a gentle slope from the road.
Donna was clearly frazzled by having to wait for so long. I asked her if I could borrow her keys. She responded, “Trust me, there is no way you can back that car out of there—I tried many times.” I said, “I’m going to try going forward.” Now, if you had seen her situation, you would know there was nothing “zen-like” in my response to her. I simply put the car in drive, rolled forward a few feet and then turned the car back up onto the street. It took all of 15 seconds.
The look on her face was a mixture of joy, surprise, and embarrassment. She was so very grateful and also dreading to explain to her husband what had happened. I suggested maybe that could just be our secret.
Afterward upon reflection, this was something of a living parable for me. Here was a person who found themselves in a situation for which they could only imagine one solution. When that solution failed, they became paralyzed. I’ve known countless people in my life who have been in that same boat (or car). I’ve been there, too. Maybe the “moral” of this parable is that when you feel paralyzed by your situation because the only solution you can muster has failed, maybe you reach out to someone else who has a very different perspective—someone who isn’t already frazzled by the circumstances.
The next day, Donna appeared at our door again carrying a large goodie basket for the staff as a sign of her appreciation. That, of course, wasn’t necessary, but then again it served to close the episode in a positive way for her. She needed to say “thank you” whether or not we needed her to say it.
Her last word to us before she left was, “your church saved me”.
There MUST be a parable in there somewhere, too.
Many of you are keeping up with the most recent ruling of our General Conference regarding LGBTQ+ persons and their full inclusion in the life of the church. By now you are aware that the General Conference meeting in February voted to retain the traditional language of the Discipline and to continue the limited inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons (i.e. ban on performing same sex weddings and ban on ordination for gay persons). Later, in May, the Judicial Council of the church was asked to hear arguments on the constitutionality of these rulings. The Council upheld the February rulings.
This has led to a genuine crisis within our denomination. The overwhelming majority of voters in the American Methodist church (2/3rds to 1/3rd) voted for what was known as the “One Church Plan, which would have opened the door for every local church to consider its own context and decide for themselves how to move forward as United Methodists. But because the General Conference also includes the global Methodists (like Africa, Asia, etc.) those voting blocs helped to defeat the One Church Plan by a 53 to 47% vote.
As a result, many are beginning to question how we can move forward as a global church. The African influence proved to be the most powerful. Homosexuality is not just taboo in most African areas - it is criminal and sometimes even punishable by death. At the same time, polygamy is widely practiced in African nations. Many found it difficult to reconcile the hard stance against LGBTQ+ persons while allowing polygamy.
The latest piece to all this is that a gathering of some 600 clergy and lay persons from every annual conference in the nation (a total of ten from each conference) met at Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City. This is the largest UMC in our connection and led by Adam Hamilton who is well-known among most us. This gathering was the first to try and determine how “centrist” and “progressive”- minded churches might forge a new future together - maintaining our Methodist heritage. We can discuss their initial findings at a later date.
For now it is becoming increasingly clear that we need to know where we stand as a church. Your Church Council will be shortly sending you a very simple survey which will give you a chance to weigh in on this conversation. One of the four questions asks simply, “Do you agree with the decisions made at the recent General Conference? And you may answer simply yes, no, or not sure. You may also expound on your answer if you wish. This survey will be done anonymously. Our goal is to learn, as the leadership of the church, how we can proceed together as a congregation.
Let me be clear - we are not at any kind of “decision point”. That may very well come later, but for now we are simply doing our best to know the mind and heart of our congregation. The survey will be self-explanatory when it arrives and how you can return it. The quickest, easiest way will be online. For now, I wanted to alert you that the survey is coming and how important it is to all of us that every member and regular participant in the life of our church take a few minutes to fill this survey out.
And finally please hear this - our ultimate goal is the same as it has always been: To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. As always, if you would like to speak directly with either Sam or myself about this, we invite you into conversation.
On Wednesday, June 12th, Sam McGlothlin will receive her ordination as an Elder in The United Methodist Church. This is the culmination of a long process in which the church examines a candidate to ensure that he or she has the gifts and graces required to serve as a pastor. This process is about ten years long beginning with undergraduate school, seminary and then a period of “residency” under supervision.
We are all thrilled for Sam and I hope you will do your best to attend the service of ordination at Brentwood United Methodist Church the evening of Wednesday, June 12th at 7pm.
This is a good opportunity to teach about our pastors and other leaders. Sam is to be ordained as an Elder, whose primary tasks are to Word, Sacrament, Service and Order of the Church. Elders are primarily responsible for preaching, administering the sacraments, and maintaining the general order of the church. The church has multiple ministry positions and various ways that people fulfill these roles.
Gracie Dugan, our Pastor of Children and Families, is ordained as a Deacon in the United Methodist Church. A Deacon goes through the same level of training and process as an Elder. However, the “calling” of a Deacon differs from an Elder in that they are called to ministries of Word and Service along with those of Compassion and Justice. A Deacon—whose name is derived from the Greek word “diakonia” meaning service—takes on the responsibility of serving the church and Christ in the world in particular ways. Gracie’s call is to serve and nurture children and their families. Deacons may serve the church in many ways including with children, youth, senior adults, music or missions. Some Deacons also live into their call to connect the church to the world as they lead outside the walls of the church in non-profits. Gracie can preach, which she did excellently last week, but that is not her primary call. Her passion is to introduce the faith to our children in ways that they can grasp - so that they continue to learn of the love God has for them and the whole world. She also works to partner with and empower families to bring spiritual formation and faith practices into the home.
Steve Stone is our Pastor of Youth and Families. Steve is also seminary trained, but did not pursue an ordination path. In fact, most people who choose a career in youth ministry are not seminary trained or ordained in any way. Steve’s task is to walk with our youth and their families through their important adolescent years and help them with their faith development. As our children mature and become teenagers, that period of time in their lives is critical as they form their faith. Steve is responsible to teach and to lead the youth to ask important questions and to provide missions and activities that will help form faith.
Our church is very fortunate to have these two additional seminary trained persons on our staff. The value of that seminary training, I believe, is a depth that others don’t possess. A more complete understanding of the Bible and Church produces a better equipped disciple. Gracie and Steve bring that level of expertise to the children and youth ministries of our church.
Maybe you can make the time to sit with Gracie and Steve over a cup of coffee/tea to get better acquainted and let them explain in more depth about their ministries.
Good People Are Built
Rev. Jim Hughes
I stumbled over a story this week--one that I had never heard. It came from the era of World War II. It takes place in a small village in the remote mountains of Central France--Le Chambon sur Lignon.
Between the years of 1942 and 1944, the 300 farmers who lived around this village organized a sort of underground railroad for families of Jews who were trying to avoid getting caught up in the vast machinery of the Holocaust. The villagers put out the word: come here and you will be safe.
The farmers hid the Jews in their barns, forged papers on their behalf, and helped them make their way across the Alps into Switzerland or over the Pyrenees into Spain. All in all in that three year period, they saved over 5000 lives.
When I first read this story I was filled with admiration--these farmers must have known that if the Gestapo ever caught them, they’d be executed. But they did it anyway.
There was more to this story, I discovered. It turns out these 300 farmers didn’t just decide one day to do this. They had quietly been preparing themselves to do it long before the war started. The catalyst was a Protestant pastor named Andre Trocme. He came to Le Chambon in 1932 and in his sermons, Sunday after Sunday, he taught these villagers that the way of Jesus was nonviolence. Week after week this community made themselves the kind of people who could rise to the occasion if the need ever came. They intentionally made themselves into a unique kind of moral actor.
I am aware of all the graduations taking place around us. I’ve been asked to speak at a few of these types of occasions. It isn’t easy--you want to tell young people everything they need to know to be happy and successful and difference-makers. And you quickly realize you just don’t have enough time to do all that. So if you could tell a graduating class one thing to help them along their journey, what would you say?
If you are like me, that “one thing” might change from week to week, but this lesson from those farmers might be a good place to start. You don’t just wake up one day and decide to be a good person--at least most of us don’t. Good people are built--they are trained by people who love them to become loving people themselves--they are trained by their parents, their teachers, other significant adults, and each other. AND they commit themselves to BE trained.
The next time you have a debate within yourself whether to allow your child to commit every Sunday to the travel team or some other activity rather than attend church, don’t forget to ask yourself what kind of person am I trying to help build? If you believe the travel team can produce a better person, then that’s what you should do.
For the building of moral people, my money is on the church.
I know we most of us don’t think like this, but there is a part of me that considers Easter like New Year’s Day - when we turn the page and make decisions to be better selves in some way.
For me, Easter is the celebration of starting over again - fresh from the knowledge that the God of Everything is truly on our side.
I came across the following poem this week written by David Whyte. In it, he suggests that our renewed journey through our lives should “start close in” - hence the name of his poem:
START CLOSE IN
Start close in. Don’t take the second step or the third.
Start with the first thing close in, the step you don’t want to take.
Start with the ground you know, the pale ground beneath your feet,
Your own way to begin the conversation.
Start with your own question, give up on other people’s questions,
Don’t let them smother something simple.
To hear another’s voice, follow your own voice,
Wait until that voice becomes an intimate private ear that can really listen to another.
Start right now, take a small step you can call your own.
Don’t follow someone else’s heroics, be humble and focused.
Start close in, don’t mistake that other for your own.
Start close in, don’t take the second step or the third,
Start with the first thing, close in. The step you don’t want to take.
From the mission field:
We received a thank you letter from our friends at Room In The Inn. Having just completed the season, we are told that 199 congregations across the Nashville area participated, making it easily the most ecumenical effort in Nashville. 7,000 volunteers provided 29,900 shelter beds, 86,000 meals, and 137,000 volunteer hours served. Our congregation provided 212 shelter beds, 424 meals, and 900 volunteer hours. Mike Voyles and Andy Braswell have been our Room In The Inn leaders for several years, and we are truly grateful to them for their leadership and compassion.
As I write this on Sunday morning, a crew of 20 plus folks from our church are working on a Habitat For Humanity house. This is a mission our church has been involved with for decades. You are probably aware that Habitat partners with deserving families who not only pay for these homes, but also have “skin” in the game by providing “sweat equity:” meaning that they assist in building their home. Our church provides not only the “human power” to help build the house, but we also help provide the funding to build the home. Brian Sipple has been our “straw boss” for these builds lately, and we are in debt to him for his guidance.
And then there was Cuba. You may recall that we collected medicine and eyeglasses for our partner church in Cuba, Vedado Methodist Church. What we didn’t realize was how difficult it was going to be getting these items into Cuba. You see, as a communist nation, the Cuban government has strict guidelines about what can enter the country. We learned last year with our team that any attempt to bring bulk items into the country (i.e. shoes, clothes, etc.) would be seen as an attempt to start a business which the government would not allow.
We collected nearly 200 pounds of over-the-counter medication and vitamins. Our intent was to locate a company that could ship these items into Cuba. However, we found that none of the companies we contacted could accommodate us for fear of damaging their own relationship with the Cuban government. And so a choice had to be made: find a new destination for the medication or take our chances by smuggling it into the country.
Reb Ferrell and I packed up two suitcases filled with the medication. I also packed a carry-on with eyeglasses, toothbrushes and such. We flew into Cuba a couple of weeks ago. I had done some research; it seemed the worst that could happen would be the medication could be confiscated. Even with that prospect, we knew that eventually Cubans would benefit from the medication so we felt it worth the risk.
Upon arrival, my carry-on was scanned, and I was pulled from the line and taken to different area where I was detained for a while and questioned. They found the eyeglasses and toothbrushes and informed me that I was only allowed to bring 5 of each into the country. They wrote up a lengthy report on me. However, they never asked to look into my luggage that was right beside me while all this was going on.
So the good news was I wasn’t arrested and the medication, all of it, made its way to the Vedado church. Their pastor, Lester Fernandez, tells me that a physician in his congregation is distributing the medication as needed.
There are many places for you to plug into a mission effort here. Every month we support Community Care Fellowship and Loaves and Fishes, two missions that help the poor in East Nashville. Our partnership with the local schools in our neighborhood, Hillwood High School, H.G. Hill Middle School and Gower Elementary, provide numerous opportunities to serve. And one of our Sunday School classes has begun a hunger effort in partnership with the West Precinct of the Metro Police on the west side of town; you’ll hear more about that later and ways you can participate.
This is church. This is what we do.
During Holy Week, my ten month old son, Lewis, started clapping his hands. Often, on our way to Church in the morning, I turn off the radio (unless he is singing with me) and listen to him talk. This morning I repeated, “Yayyyy!” for most of our ride, as he gleefully clapped his hands.
If you take it seriously, Lent is a long, hard road. I physically feel change as this forty day season moves from colder, darker days to longer, light-filled evenings. The earth begins to sprout again all around us. The birds chirp louder - or perhaps we hear them more fully. We drive with our windows down. We feel God moving through our bodies.
A friend of mine reminded me that the word “Lent” means “Spring”. Can we reflect on Lent and see what has sprung forth within us? Can we see how we have been pruned? Have we noticed what new thing God is doing in our life?
We are three days post-Resurrection. I am wondering if we are waking up and saying “Yayyyyy!” to life?
The Easter season (50 days; 10 days longer than Lent) is the time to soak in the lessons we’ve learned, to rest, to live freely and lightly, to relish in simple joys. This season is a gift from Jesus — all over again. Because of his death and resurrection, we are invited into abundant life; new life. I hope you feel it deep down in your soul. I hope you take time to turn off the noise and soak in the goodness
To put it another way: Mary Oliver writes in her poem “Sometimes”:
“Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.”
Pay attention to what God is doing in your life.
Be astonished by how Christ is redeeming you.
Tell your story.
Grace and peace,
I can hardly believe what I’m seeing on the screen. It just popped up, unexpectedly. Iconic Notre Dame Cathedral is burning. Not a small, controlled fire. The whole roof on fire and the majestic spire fallen. At this moment it is unknown to me whether or not the entire church will burn or not.
Have you been lucky enough to see it? Of all the beautiful architecture in Paris, nothing in my opinion surpasses the majesty of Notre Dame. I’m biased, I guess. Churches hold a special place in my heart. Sainte-Chapelle and Sacre Coeur are more intriguing churches for me, but Notre Dame has stood as a bastion of Christianity since it was completed in 1345. The build began in 1163. Imagine the dedication to building such an artifice for nearly 200 years.
If you’ve been inside that cathedral, you know the most prominent features are those enormous, rose-colored stained glass windows. And on the outside the famous flying buttresses.
Tari and I were there 5 years ago or so. It was a long line of tourists waiting to enter, but we felt like we absolutely HAD to wait and get inside. No, Notre Dame is not “holier” than any other church, but its beauty and history touch something deep inside.
If it does burn all the way to the ground, it’s difficult to imagine the French nation attempting to rebuild it as it was. I can’t conceive of the cost of trying to do so. But if it needs to be rebuilt, I hope they will. I’ll contribute to it. I would hope every Christian would. It is one of our “special places”.
Having said all that, we celebrate Easter this Sunday and if the Easter story tells us nothing else, it is that the love and glory of the risen Christ could not be contained in a tomb and it cannot be contained in a building - not even one as beautiful as Notre Dame.
Notre Dame may very well be no more. But the Christian story is very much alive. Jesus will be tried, beaten, and crucified this week. There’s no getting around the horror of that. But that’s not the whole story.
It wouldn’t hurt my feelings if this fire at Notre Dame is not the whole story there, either.
I read a colleague’s blog the other day and thought it was too good not to share with you. As we near the end of Lent, his message was an important one. I will share excerpts. By the way, my friend’s name is Jack Keller.
“I grew up hearing the homespun adage, ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’. My mother must have heard it often, too, since my brown bag lunches all through elementary school almost always included an apple, usually a Red Delicious or Golden Delicious.”
“I worked for a couple of summers while I was in seminary in Wenatchee, Washington, which billed itself as the apple capital of the world. There were thousands of acres of orchards. The soil was just right, and the four season climate was perfect.”
“But perfect soil and perfect weather are not sufficient to grow perfect apples. Apple trees require careful and constant pruning in order to bear high quality, abundant fruit. If you don’t prune, all the tree’s energy will go into root, limb, and leaf growth, instead of into apples. Without pruning, an apple tree will grow spindly, unproductive branches. If you don’t prune, dead and diseased branches become a drain on the tree’s capacity to produce.”
“You can prune an apple tree anytime of the year without hurting it, though late winter, just before spring, is normally best. Successful pruning is not a once-and-for-all kind of thing. After an apple tree has matured and begun to produce fruit, it is on the newest branches that the most fruit is produced. The older branches produce less and need to be pruned. It is the SAME TREE over time. It has the same roots and the same trunk. But it is a different tree, a renewed tree, that is reshaped over time.
Jack points out quite correctly that pruning apple trees is a fitting metaphor for the task we face as Christians during the season of Lent. Is there something in your life that needs to be pruned? It isn’t too late to consider why you may feel your life has become stagnant, no new growth. Can you see and name the fruit in your life? Lent isn’t over--there’s still time. And don’t forget what Jack said: you can prune an apple tree anytime during the year and you won’t hurt it.
I recently heard a person who had experienced a tragic event in her life ask “how could God let such a thing to happen?” I suspect most of us have heard someone say something like this when really bad things occur.
One of the bedrock theological tasks of any believer is the issue of “Theodicy:” is God all powerful? If so, where does evil come from? Does God “cause” bad things to happen? Or does God “allow” bad things to happen? How you answer this question likely has important ramifications as to how you view God and life on this earth.
The question of the origin of evil has perplexed humankind from the beginning. Even the Book of Genesis, not the first book written, but placed first in the Bible’s order, tells a story right off the bat about where evil originated. The story of the Garden of Eden and the fruit of that one, particular tree and the activity of that mysterious snake that talked and walked upright all figure in to a poetic attempt to locate the source of evil. The takeaway from that story is that disobedience was what led to all the calamity. That’s a pretty good place to start, then AND now.
That same story also introduces the notion of human freedom. Adam and Eve were free to roam the Garden, free to eat of any fruit they found. They were told not to eat the fruit of that one tree. But as it turns out, they were also free to disobey, and God did not attempt to stop it.
So one might say that God was “IN CHARGE” of the Garden, but not “IN CONTROL” of it. For reasons we will only learn when we met God face to face, God has made a deliberate choice NOT to interfere.
In charge, but not in control. I resonate with that and so does anyone who is a parent. I am in charge of my children, but not in control of them. Even as small children, we let our kids go out in the yard to play; maybe there’s a fence in your yard to be sure they don’t wander away. You don’t hover over them and tell them what they should play; they are free to play as they wish. You might warn them not to do certain things that might cause them to be hurt, but short of locking them away in your basement you can’t control the choices they make.
Is this how you view God’s relationship with the world? It is clear to me that we live in this wonderful Garden called Earth. It is filled with wonder and beauty. And people. When people treat one another well and with love and respect, this is a truly beautiful place. If people treat each other or the planet badly, life can be painful. God apparently does not step in to stop school shootings or epic flooding or cancer, etc. Either that or God decides to get involved directly only in very limited ways.
We have been given the freedom to roam and eat the fruit of this Garden. We have also been warned that there are certain things we ought not do if we want our garden to be a joyful, safe place to live. The choices we make matter very much. God is in charge, not in control. We are in control of our own choices AND how we react to calamity.
There was a preacher who once preached a funeral sermon for an elderly woman who lost her balance and fell down a flight of stairs and died as a result. After listening to well-meaning church members and neighbors say things like her death was God’s Will, this preacher titled his funeral sermon, “God Does Not Push Old Ladies Down Stairs.”
I read a story a few weeks ago about a woman who made a unique decision as to how she wished to live out her life. She and her husband were married for 43 years and the thing they enjoyed most was going on cruises together. They went on several cruises every year once they were both retired.
Her husband died in 2008. She was 76 at the time and not sure what she wanted to do next without him. But after pondering on it for a while, she made a decision. Since her greatest joy was sharing those cruise experiences with her husband, she decided to relive that joy every day.
She approached their favorite cruise line and made an inquiry: what would it take for them to allow her to live on the cruise ship? Say again?? Yes, that’s right. I would like to live on the cruise ship. I am selling my house and all the stuff I don’t need. I don’t really need much room. After all, the only thing you really do in your room on a cruise ship is sleep and bathe; you don’t need much room for that.
In her mind, having all her meals taken care of for life, having numerous opportunities for exercise and entertainment, and having a seemingly endless number of new friends to make sounded like a splendid way to live.
No such request had ever been made, but this cruise line made the decision to allow it. For $160,000 per year, she now has permanent residence in the same room on an enormous cruise ship. As you might imagine she is something of a celebrity for the crew, and they treat her like she was their own mom.
And by the way, she couldn’t be happier.
What is it that brings joy to you? Real joy? One of the things I recall from my studies in psychology is that most people live in one of two ways: they either live in such a way to avoid the things that lead to pain OR they actively move toward those things that bring them joy. Our time on this small, cosmic orb is brief. Do you believe God has placed us here for a reason other than living this life to its fullest? To find joy in all things, both large and small and to share that joy every chance we get?
So I ask again: what is it that brings you genuine joy? Do you know? If not, today is a good day to name it. And if you can’t name it, embark on a journey of discovery. In the movie The Shawshank Redemption, the character Andy Dufresne has been wrongly convicted of murdering his wife. He spends decades in prison with the knowledge that he is paying for a crime he didn’t commit. One day he decides he’s had enough. He will attempt an escape. The risk now seems worth the try. As far as he’s concerned, the worst thing that can happen to him is that he ends up right back where he currently is.
It is at this moment of decision that he speaks with his good friend “Red”. With the decision firmly made in his mind, he leans over to Red and says, “It really comes down to this: get busy living or get busy dying.”
Jesus once said, “I have come so that they might have life and have it in abundance.” Are you living an “abundant” life?
It’s hard to fathom. What could possibly cause a person to make a conscious, intentional, premeditated choice to enter a mosque, in which among the hundreds of worshippers are children, and indiscriminately open fire. 49 dead and dozens more injured. And then to also decide to live stream it all for social media. It’s hard to fathom.
Apparently, the attacker was from Australia and was a proponent of white supremacy. Every time I hear of such an attack in the name of “white supremacy” I want to lash out at such folks and ask, “exactly how does your action remotely resemble ‘supremacy’ of any kind??”
I recently read an article in which the National Academy of Sciences discussed what they call “motive attribution asymmetry” - the assumption that one person’s ideology is based on love while another’s is based on hate. For instance, their researchers have determined that the average Democrat and the average Republican suffer from a level of motive attribution asymmetry that is comparable with that of the Israelis and the Palestinians. Each side believes the other is driven by evil and motivated by hatred---and therefore an enemy with whom one cannot negotiate or compromise.
People often say these days that the level of incivility or intolerance is our biggest problem. Words matter and those words do not convey adequately what is happening here and around the world. Motive attribution asymmetry leads to something worse--contempt. Not just contempt for other people’s ideas, but contempt for other people. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer defined contempt as “the unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of another”.
This is at least part of what lies behind the tragedy in New Zealand. One man convinced himself of the worthlessness of others. And once you convince yourself of that, killing them in cold blood is suddenly a viable option. And in the mind of someone so thoroughly indoctrinated, such an act even feels “heroic”.
So what now? These types of attacks are becoming more, not less, frequent. Does anyone believe they are simply going to stop on their own? It doesn’t help that social media and the online hate community continue to breathe oxygen into the minds of such people. Can anything be done to stem the tide?
I believe there is. First, we who recognize the danger of all this must vow never to participate in it. We must never shy away from our responsibility to call out such hate when we see it or hear it. We participate in it when we fail to speak up. It was Edmund Burke who said, “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good (people) to do nothing.”.
One of the researchers in the article also gave another course of action. Some of us may want to find ways to disagree less. That sounds admirable, but the researcher points out that what we really need is not to learn how to disagree less, but rather how to disagree better. And, he says, that starts when you turn away from the rhetorical dope peddlers--the powerful people on your own side who are profiting from this culture of contempt. As satisfying as it can feel to to hear that your political or religious or social foes are irredeemable, stupid or deviant just remember that when you find yourself hating something, someone is making money or winning elections or getting more famous and powerful. In other words, unless a leader is actually teaching you something you didn’t know or expanding your worldview and moral outlook, then you are being used.
Finally, we must commit ourselves never to treat another with contempt - even if you feel somehow they deserve it.
We hear a lot about climate change these days. I suggest that term is not just reserved for the weather. We are in dire need of a climate change in our culture, too. For if we continue down this path of contempt, then we should brace ourselves for more events like New Zealand’s last week.
On Sunday, Pastor Jim had a line in his sermon that I have been ruminating on ever since. When talking about this season of Lent, which requires us to embrace the wilderness of life instead of run from it, he said: “what happens if you remove your painkillers?” Specifically, he was talking about taking away whatever we use to distract us from our feelings of pain, grief, anger — the emotions we have learned are “bad”, or not worth encountering, or are too hard to truly embrace.
I decided to get off of social media and one of the reasons is precisely what Jim named. I have been distracting myself, telling myself I do not have time to feel because there is too much to get done. In our society, it is incredibly easy to allow ourselves to be occupied every second of every day. But the kingdom way is different. Jesus teaches us by example that solitude and stillness lead to greater relationship with God, self and others.
Like me, you may avoid the silence because of the demons that come out to play when you are quiet. Sometimes I am afraid I do not have the power to defeat them — they are too loud, too strong. But as we saw on Sunday in Luke 4:1-13, no matter what the tempter threw at Jesus in the wild, he refused to bow down to the desires of the earthly kingdom. And the truth is Jesus was never alone in this battle. Dripping from baptism, he was driven into the wilderness by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus was upheld by his community — the oneness of his union with the Father and Holy Spirit. Mark even says, “He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him” (1:14). There was a heavenly, wild host indeed.
Our challenge is to stop letting the fear of utter loneliness, anger, or grief keep us from stopping. We need seasons where we practice setting aside what helps us go numb — tv, computers, phones, food, taking care of everyone else, work — so we can feel deeply and actually encounter the living God. The good news is that God does not look away from our cries, our lament. The good news is that we walk the hard path together. We are fellow travelers, a band of angels — or wild animals if you prefer.
I hope and anticipate that this season will birth something new in your life as you tend to the hard-to-look-at ways you have been hurt and have hurt others. Remember: the journey is worth it, and we are here to listen, to offer care, to speak words of encouragement. If you need an objective third party, don’t forget about our wonderful Counseling Center. You are not alone.
Grace and peace,
I feel a deep need today to unpack some of what took place at last week’s General Conference meeting held in St.Louis. A lot of this is very raw and I am alert to my own emotions surrounding the decision.
I grew up in the Methodist, and then United Methodist, Church. I was educated by the United Methodist Church and have had a 42 year career with my church that has blessed my marriage and baptized our children and sustained us and nurtured us all that time. The best friends I have had in my life came through the church. I have buried close family and friends with the help and love of the church. My life is infinitely better because of our church. To say that I love our church would be a gross underestimation.
The primary reason I love our church is that we are a diverse church. Sitting in our pews every Sunday are people with conservative viewpoints and liberal viewpoints and everybody in between. This is the genius of United Methodism when it is at its best. This is when we most look like the Kingdom of God--all of us together, even in our differing opinions and beliefs.
What took place in St. Louis is what our church looks like when it operates far less than its best. Please allow me to say this as succinctly as I know how. John Wesley gave the church 3 Simple Rules-the first of those rules was “DO NO HARM”. What we did in St. Louis caused harm. Whether or not you agree or disagree with the outcome of the conference, we must all confront the reality that this decision hurt a lot of people. Not just persons who identify as LGBTQIA, but also those who dream of an inclusive church as a genuine witness to God’s grace on this Earth.
What I also know is that there was not just one “resurrection” 2000 years ago--there have been and will continue to be deaths and resurrections in our church. God is still at work with us. There is much to be done.
I feel the need to say I’m sorry to those who have felt harmed by their church. God loves all of us. ALL of us. Let our prayer be for discernment as we move forward. Let our prayer be how to live more faithfully and how to be a more Christ-like church.
And let me offer once again the invitation to enter into conversation. I doubt it will surprise anyone that I was personally hoping for a more inclusive church. But I know not everyone agrees with me about that. Please hear me loud and clear--it is OK for us not to agree about this. Our disagreement over an opinion doesn’t make either of us bad people. So let’s talk about how we feel and find the common ground where we can meet.
I love our church--and I love you. And I know you love me. And I know we love each other. In the end, that’s what matters.
Wesley said, “Do No Harm, Do Good, and Stay In Love With God”. Amen to that.