Archive for the 'Lent' Category

OUR TENT JUST SHRUNK!

Folks who follow this blog have heard me describe myself as a “prenatal Methodist”. My parents met through Epworth League, a church-related youth/young adult group. The Methodist Episcopal Church nurtured my parents’ growing faith and social conscience through “big tent” faith communities that embodied founding father John Wesley’s vision for the Methodist movement: “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.”

That “big tent” welcomed my father and other conscientious objectors to military service as World War II dawned, as well as my uncles who served in the US armed forces. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, persons of Japanese descent,  many of whom were US citizens, were interned (imprisoned) in camps for the duration of the war. My mother served in the church’s ministry to those folks who lived in very difficult conditions. Some folks opposed this ministry because it felt to them like “giving aid and comfort to the enemy”. But the church’s “big tent” made space for folks with all those diverse viewpoints. Some of my mother’s Japanese intern pen pals became lifelong family friends-and Methodists!

Maynard Memorial Methodist Church, the church that helped raise my sisters and me, was located in the city of Los Angeles. Across the street was Culver City, a suburb where many church members lived. During that time (the 1950’s and ’60’s) Culver City realtors shared an unwritten “covenant” not to sell homes to African Americans. As the Civil Rights Movement grew, some church members recognized the racist nature of this practice. Our pastor at the time led the church to begin getting acquainted with an African-American congregation. That process began with an annual pulpit and choir exchange. Not everyone approved. But our Methodist “tent” had room for whites and blacks to worship together, and also for those (both black and white) not yet ready for even that step.

Maynard was about a mile away from Palms Evangelical United Brethren Church. The Methodist and EUB denominations were working toward a merger in 1968. A few years  before, the two pastors began intentional preparations for that event. They took time to build their own relationship. Then they led their two congregations to share events together and begin praying and dreaming toward their common future. Ultimately the two congregations merged as Culver Palms United Methodist Church. They sold both church properties built a new facility in a far better location. The process was not without its ups and downs. Sometimes folks struggled to “…be of one heart…” But they persevered and built a roomy, spacious tent where they could welcome their new neighbors. Almost fifty years later Culver Palms continues to serve a diverse urban congregation. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of congregations have their own unique “big tent” stories of learning to …,love alike…” even though they don’t always “…think alike.” That’s who we United Methodists are.

This week in St. Louis our United Methodist “big tent”  was rudely and drastically remodeled. Politically skilled and very hard-working conservative delegates won the day at the specially-called General Conference (the denomination’s global legislative body.) . Their “Traditional Plan” prevailed by 54 votes out of some 800+. This action reaffirmed the official denominational stance adopted in 1972: “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” (2016 Book of Discipline Par. 304.3). LBGTQ+ persons have been ineligible to serve as clergy or to be married in church facilities, and UM clergy have been forbidden to perform same-sex weddings. As adopted, this legislation continues those provisions and adds draconian sanctions for anyone who violates the rules–clergy, congregations, even bishops and annual conferences.“Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?

That loud noise you heard last Tuesday may have been the UMC’s well-advertised “Open Doors, Open Hearts, Open Minds” slamming shut! Many now see the UMC not as a “big-tent” church where all God’s people are welcome, but as a church that treats LGBTQ+ folks as second-class Christians at best. This prenatal Methodist struggles in vain to recognize the perpetrators of this action as heirs of Wesley’s movement: “May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?” This faction apparently wants to shrink the UMC’s “big tent” to fit only the “one heart” and “one opinion” acceptable in their sight. They reject the last fifty years of growing scientific, psychological, theological, and cultural understanding of human sexuality. They reject the experience of countless Christians who have moved beyond fear and literalism. Bible study, prayer, scientific progress, and simply getting to know our LGBTQ+ brothers and sisters in Christ has convicted more and more followers of Jesus that we can no longer exclude these brothers and sisters. God’s love in Christ embraces them, just as they are, as it does all of us.  

It will take some time to understand fully the impact of this action. The new legislation is scheduled to take effect January 1, 2020. First it will be reviewed by the Judicial Council, the UMC’s “Supreme Court. Some or all of it may well be declared unconstitutional. The church’s regularly scheduled General Conference in 2020 will almost certainly address these issues. Clearly we are headed in a new direction, but it’s far from clear exactly what that direction is.

Meanwhile Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, arrives next Wednesday, March 6. I invite you to lay aside church politics for Lent. Let’s dig deep into our faith. Let’s focus on the basics–Love God and love your neighbor as yourself–all your neighbors, especially the ones easily within your reach. Regardless of where we stand on this issue, let’s invite God’s Spirit to form us anew into the people and the Church of God’s dreams. May we grow into a people whose loving, welcoming spirit overcomes both the perception and reality of closed doors, hearts, and minds. Let us lay aside our anger, disappointment, bitterness, and resentment. Regardless of where we stand on this issue, let’s invite God’s Spirit to form us anew into the people and the Church of God’s dreams. Let’s dare to ask God to make us a living example of Wesley’s vision: “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion?”

A colleague suggests that we treat this transitional time like Holy Saturday, the day between Good Friday and Easter. It’s eerily quiet. Death seems to have the upper hand. But we hope against hope toward Resurrection! On Saturday the full force of Resurrection Life energy is let loose–until the power of evil is overcome once and for all. Whether we see it or not, transformation happens in the deepest depths. Death is dying. Life is rising. Good blossoms from what we believed was unredeemable evil. A door opens where we’d seen only a dead end. God’s new day dawns for all God’s people!

 

 

Praying for the Other Side

Please don’t click away without reading and praying this prayer. While it’s titled “…for Mr. Trump”, I believe it speaks to all of us caught up in this bitterly contentious election. If your political perspective doesn’t match the author’s, pray for the politician on the opposite side of the spectrum–you know, the one who makes your blood boil! Feel free to lovingly adjust some of the specifics accordingly.  This prayer reminds us that even those on “the other side” are human beings created in God’s image, just like ourselves. We can’t self-righteously “aim” this prayer at “them” when it’s equally about “us”: “Let all of us see the same suffering Jesus” and “God who set aside all comfort”. It invites all of us equally to repent of giving in to the temptation to “look strong” and “mask our weakness”. It points toward deep, authentic unity as we pray beyond all that divides us,

“We need to make ourselves less again,
So that you can be Great.”

A Lenten Prayer for Mr. Trump

[Reposted with the author’s permission]

Father,
We’ve been astounded, frustrated, angry, resentful, defensive.
We’re feeling indignant, maligned, misrepresented.
We, as Christians, have reacted to the brand of “Trump.”
We confess it keeps us from praying for the man, Trump.

We bring your son before you, this man who claims your name.
We can’t understand him.
But you know his heart, you know his deepest thoughts.

Father, In his efforts to look strong,
You know where he feels weak.
You know the parts of himself he works to protect.
You know his defense mechanisms.
You are not fooled by them.
You are not limited by them.

Let your Spirit find those places of shame, of pride, of emptiness.
Meet him there with your grace, your kind challenge, your fullness.
Reveal to him the power of asking forgiveness.

When Mr. Trump goes to church this Easter
Let him see the suffering Jesus.
Show him the way Jesus laid aside his rights,
The way he defended the oppressed,
The way he listened, welcomed,
The way True Power was revealed in nakedness,
The way True Fullness came through emptying.
In church, reveal to our brother, not a comfortable institution,
But a God who set aside all comfort.

And when we go to church this Easter,
Let us see the same Jesus.

We confess that the news has shifted our attention.
We confess our hope has not been in your power.
Regardless of how the primaries go,
Who the candidates are,
What happens in November,
Our hope lies in You.
 Use this prayer, birthed from frustration, to change our hearts.

Let us see the ways we are also tempted to look strong.

We repent from our own efforts to mask our weakness.
We repent, as your Church, from our desire to protect an institution.
We don’t need to make America great again.
We need to make ourselves less again.
So that you can be Great.

Amen.

Our Lenten Journey–Who’s Walking with Whom?

“I Want Jesus to Walk with Me” is a tune we’re hearing each Sunday in Lent where I worship. It’s part of a “Centering Time” at the beginning of the service, in a different instrumental arrangement. The spiritual certainly sounds “Lenten”—“I want Jesus to walk with me…In my trials, Lord, walk with me…When my heart is almost breaking…When I’m troubled, Lord, walk with me…When my head is bowed in sorrow, Lord I want Jesus to walk with me.” Of course we welcome Jesus’ presence with us on this difficult and demanding annual road trip. Calvin Earl writes of this song and others like it: “…the spirituals were a path to freedom for the slaves…as they sung to God through a moan and groan, the cry was so deep God heard, and His comfort gave the slaves strength, courage and the grace to go on in the fight to free the label of slaves for themselves and generations of their children not yet born.”  Perhaps not to the extent of those African-American slaves, but we’ve been through our own trials, heartbreak, and troubles that leave our “…heart …almost breaking…our head…bowed in sorrow…” Of course “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me”.

Walking together

This past Sunday another “walking with Jesus” song started playing inside my head: “I want to walk as a child of the light, I want to follow Jesus…” It’s hardly a slave’s “moan and groan” toward freedom.It’s a joyful song written by a well-off young white woman musician on the staff of a large, affluent church. It’s in the Advent section of our United Methodist Hymnal. Its rich use of light imagery also fits the Epiphany season.

But I hear it helping us along our Lenten journey with Jesus. You see, “I want Jesus to walk with ME” can become a slippery slope before we know it. We start at “I want Jesus to walk with me because I’m overwhelmed by life and I can’t do this by myself.” Sometimes we get too comfortable. We like it here. We’re moving in for the duration. The next verse becomes “I want Jesus to accompany me on my stroll through life so he’ll insulate me from all the bumps and smooth out all the rough spots.” When I ask Jesus to walk with me, I get to decide where we’ll go, how fast or how slow, who we’ll stop and talk to along the way, and when we’ll cross the street to avoid “those people”. Suddenly we’ve asserted our will over God’s and life’s dangerously out of balance. Hardly the first time that’s happened. Way back at our very beginning (Genesis 2-3) God welcomed Adam and Eve to enjoy the fruit of every tree in his garden—except one. Naturally, on that one off-limits tree hung the fruit they couldn’t live without. And the rest, as they say, is history!

Lent is a season of reflection and repentance (re-direction) in which we may refocus our lives and refresh our relationship with God. That process may include clarifying just  who’s walking with whom on this Lenten journey: “I want to walk as a child of the light, I want to follow Jesus.”  We’re with him. We go where Jesus goes, sleep where Jesus sleeps, eat where, when, what, and with whom Jesus chooses, meet, greet, serve, and love the people to whom Jesus leads us along the way. Our annual “Lenten journey” invites us to reaffirm and deepen our response to Jesus’ simple life-changing invitation: “Follow me.” We join him on his journey as we say, sing, pray, and live, “I want to follow Jesus.”

Each of the four gospels tells its own story of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Many congregations re-live that journey in their worship during the weeks leading up to Easter. You can follow Jesus’ journey on your own through a daily Bible reading plan. This one covers all four gospels. If you’re starting now (almost two week into Lent), feel free to adjust and adapt. Pay close attention to the places Jesus goes, the people he meets, and how he treats them. “Following Jesus” in daily life means at least going where he’d go, helping the people he’d help, caring most about what he cares most about, doing what he’d do if he were living among us today. And remember–WE NEVER HAVE TO FOLLOW JESUS BY OURSELVES! Discipleship is a team sport. The moment I say “I want to follow Jesus” I am linked to every other person now and throughout history who has made that same transforming choice. If following Jesus is new territory for you, or if you just want some companions to walk along with you with Jesus,  invite a friend or a few to share the journey.

Who’s walking with whom? Am I walking with Jesus, or is Jesus walking with me? Sometimes life gets hard. We’re pushed beyond our limit. We just need Jesus to walk with us through a dark valley or a difficult time. In the midst of those situations we often discover that he was closer than we knew sooner than we knew. When “I want/need Jesus to walk with me”, he does—as long, as far, as closely as necessary. Many people testify that they have come through such an experience stronger, more able to endure hard times, and more focused and willing to follow Jesus’ lead step by step. And the closer we follow, the more we discover his presence in all of life, especially those places we thought he’d never  go or could never reach us.

Let’s walk on together. At any given moment some of us are strong and confident, ready to move forward. Others are going through trials, heartbreak, our heads bowed in sorrow. The more we focus on following Jesus, the more we’ll discover how closely and surely he’s walking with us. In those times when we just need to lean on him (and our brothers and sisters) for strength and comfort, his strong constant presence brings us through and empowers us anew to follow wherever he leads us.

The road leads through Lent and Holy Week to Easter and God’s New World. The refrain of “I Want to Walk” keeps before us God’s ultimate dream for all He has created and loves: “In him [Christ] there is no darkness at all. The night and the day are both alike. The Lamb is the light of the city of God. Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.” [cf. Revelation 21:23, 22:5]

 

 

 

 

 

We Are What We Eat

“It takes more than bread to stay alive. It takes a steady stream of words from God’s mouth.”  Jesus, Matthew 4:4 (MSG)

Self-feeding is a key developmental task for us humans. Our older grandchildren (18, 20, and 22) learned healthy eating habits from their parents and their own involvement in athletics. They enjoy an occasional junk-food splurge, but overall they feed themselves well. “I’m not being fed” is no longer a complaint we expect to hear from them. They’d be told, “Fix yourself something. You’re (almost) an adult.” They’ve mastered the developmental task of self-feeding. Our younger grandchildren Lucas and Amelia have moved from milk to baby food to solid food. Now they’re learning to make their own healthy food choices. 5-year-old Lucas knows he’s allergic to nuts. He also knows he needs to consume some protein soon after he wakes, or else HE’S A GROUCH! 3-1/2-year-old Amelia lives for dessert, especially chocolate! Her folks work hard to help her balance her food intake. [As I wrote, No. 2 son David sent me this picture of lasagna he’d just taken out of the oven. He’s also clearly mastered self-feeding!]DavidH Lasagna

Yet one of the most common exit whines in church life is, “I’m not being fed.” It comes from sheep church members looking to leave their current congregation for pastures that appear to be more lush and green. “Not being fed” is an all-purpose complaint that might mean: “Pastor never talks about my favorite things;” Pastor drags me outside my comfort zone too often and I wish (s)he would quit it.” “Pastor and I disagree about nearly everything.” “Pastor doesn’t interpret the Bible the same way I do (and therefore with questionable accuracy).” Pastor keeps raising hard questions when all I want is easy answers.”

“I’m not being fed.” I heard it periodically during my forty-plus years of active ministry. So did most of my colleagues. More often than not it filtered up through third parties after the sheep parishioner had already wriggled through the fence and wandered off. The goal was rarely dialog, learning, and mutual understanding. It was more often assuring a steady diet of one’s favorite “foods” that wouldn’t upset a tender spiritual tummy.

These developmentally-delayed disciples live their whole lives expecting someone else to feed them–the pastor, the Bible class teacher, the TV preacher, the online Jesus guru. Paul wrote to some early Christians: “I gave you milk to drink instead of solid food, because you weren’t up to it yet.” (1 Corinthians 3:2 CEB) Newborn infants have to start with milk. But very soon young bodies and minds want and need much more. Strength and health come with “solid food”, not junk food. “If we’re not growing, we’re dying” is true not only for our physical bodies, but for spiritual, intellectual, and professional growth.

Our Lord freely offers us “the Bread of Life”–but we continue to choose junk food. Spiritual junk food is as easily available as the physical junk food in convenience stores and fast-food outlets. Junk food is full of empty calories. Its intentional overdose of fat, sugar, and salt overwhelms our bodies with excessive carbs and minimal nutrition. Spiritual junk food tastes good and satisfies immediately. But it leaves us empty. It provides little or no lasting nourishment. It doesn’t build us up. The empty calories of physical and spiritual junk food do us far more harm than good.

Spiritual junk food is self-centered. It’s all about what’s in it for you. It’s about what you can get out of God, rather than about what you can give to God and God’s purposes for God’s world. The seminary professor who taught us worship showed how “junk food” hymns overflow with first-person singular pronouns—“I, me, my, mine” etc. When it’s all about me, God gets squeezed out of the picture. That’s a toxic recipe for sure.

Spiritual junk food is exclusive rather than inclusive. It tells us, “Thank God we’re not like “those people”—Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Mexicans, Japanese (WWII), conservatives, progressives, poor folks, immigrants, etc. If the dish set before you consistently divides humanity into a good “us” and an evil “them”, it’s almost certainly junk food: “[Jesus said]…The Pharisee posed and prayed like this: ‘Oh, God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, crooks, adulterers, or, heaven forbid, like this tax man. I fast twice a week and tithe on all my income.’ Meanwhile the tax man, slumped in the shadows, his face in his hands, not daring to look up, said, ‘God, give mercy. Forgive me, a sinner.’ Jesus commented, ‘This tax man, not the other, went home made right with God. If you walk around with your nose in the air, you’re going to end up flat on your face, but if you’re content to be simply yourself, you will become more than yourself.’ (Luke 18:9-14 MSG)

Spiritual junk food offers too-easy answers to hard questions. Those easy answers may satisfy us initially. But we’re hungry again in an hour. Too-easy answers ignore the consensus of contemporary knowledge. They close discussion and foreclose the possibility of additional learning. They reinforce the status quo and excuse us from the responsibility of living out our faith day by day in the real world.

Worst of all, spiritual junk food takes a too-simple approach to the Bible. Truly “nutritious” Bible reading takes seriously Scripture’s character as an inspired complex collection of writings produced over many centuries. When Jesus went into the wilderness prior to beginning his public ministry (Matthew 4:1-11), the Tempter tried to trick him into a bumper-sticker approach to the Bible–“God said it, I believe it, and that settles it”. Jesus wouldn’t bite. ”It takes a steady stream of words from God’s mouth,” he replied. Scholars have wisely suggested we do well to take the Bible seriously rather than literally (another post for another day). What did a passage say to the folks who first heard it? What was their world really like? When we go a little deeper, Scripture becomes truly Bread of Life for us.

My Methodist roots remind me of John Wesley’s term “Means of Grace”. That was his term for spiritual disciplines and practices that open spaces in our lives for God’s unlimited love to nourish and shape us. You can read his sermon on the subject here. These personal and public practices help us be sure we’re  consuming good solid food, not junk food. This illustration shows how these disciplines support our focus on the Great Commandment (Mark 12:28-34) and balance both personal and public discipleship. No junk food here. More than enough solid, body-building nourishment to get us through the wilderness of another Lent.

meansofgrace diagramThis year let’s clear out all the spiritual junk food that clutters our lives and our churches. Let’s covenant together to feed ourselves well and to offer hearty, nourishing “solid food” to all the hungry folks we meet as we grow together in Christ.


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