God is good!
Happy Tuesday. It’s a rainy day here in Old Hickory, but also a good day for a grand experiment.
God is good!
Happy Tuesday. It’s a rainy day here in Old Hickory, but also a good day for a grand experiment.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
One of the unique characteristics of our Christian tradition is our belief in one God in three persons — Father, Son, and Spirit. The “Trinity” (as we call it) recognizes that Jesus was not only the Son of God but that Jesus was, in fact, the same God that created all the world, and that the Holy Spirit is likewise one and the same as the Father and Son. Honestly, the Trinity is a mystery that can boggle the mind at times, and while there are all sorts of ways of trying to explain it, it is something that we ultimately have to recognize as unexplainable and something that we affirm through faith.
For me, the central truth of the Trinity is that we believe in a God who at the very core is relational. Our belief in the Trinity should (if we really reflect on it) should help us see that Christianity is never something that is individual but rather always about relationship. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, understood that an individualistic approach to faith was dangerous to the church and God’s Kingdom. He wrote, “I shall endeavor to show that Christianity is essentially a social religion and that to turn it into a solitary religion is indeed to destroy it.” He would later say that “Holy solitaries” is a phrase that no more consistent with the gospel than holy adulterers. The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness.”
We live in a time when there is a great focus on individualism — both in the secular world and in the church. We talk about Jesus as our “personal” savior and folks will talk about how they don’t need the church because it’s all about “me and Jesus.” But to make the message of Jesus about personal fulfillment without being part of a relationship is to miss out on the relational God who created us for connection.
A friend of mine recently told her story of coming back into the church after being outside for a while. She had developed a friendship with a Presbyterian pastor who didn’t hit her over the head with a bible or tell her how sinful she was, but rather simply loved on her. At one point she looked at him and told him that she was “spiritual, but not religious…” (a phrase I often hear among younger folks these days). He looked back at her and said “That’s like saying I play football, but not on a team.”
During the month of October, we’re going to think about what it means to believe in a God who is relational, and how we are called to be in relationship to that God, to one another in the church, and to the world. I really believe that Christianity is a religion that is all about relationships. Our calling as Methodist people is to proclaim a faith that absolutely believes that we are interconnected to one another, that we called to seek after God in community, and that the church is a place where Christ can be seen and experienced in a very real way, for the church IS the Body of Christ.
For sure, we are broken humans who often disagree — but in a world so polarized as what we experience today we have an even greater responsibility to model that we are still one body, even in the face of our disagreement. What is more important than our right belief (orthodoxy) is making sure that we maintain right relationships with God, with one another, and the world.
I hope you will join me this Sunday morning at 8 or 10 a.m. as we think together about what it means to follow a relational God.
This morning, the scripture focus in my devotional time was from Luke 6. In particular, verses 20-21 jumped out at me:
Then [Jesus] looked up at his disciples and said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
“Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Lukes version of these “beatitudes” (blessings) differs a bit from Matthew’s in the Sermon on the Mount, and Luke is careful to not overly spiritualize them. Given Luke’s focus on the poor and marginalized, it’s likely that he is talking about folks living in poverty, those who are hungry, and those consumed with grief. In Luke’s vision of God’s kingdom, there is a special relationship between God and those on the margins and there is always a word of hope for folks for whom life is a struggle (as well as a word of warning for those whose riches are built on the backs of the poor).
However, in my reading this morning, I found myself reading these verses in the context of our church, specifically the City Road Chapel congregation to which I’ve been sent to lead. As all of you know, City Road is a place that experienced great success in the past, but in recent years has struggled as the community and the world changed. While compared to some places we are a place of great riches, our current reality is that doing ministry in our context is hard and that we have challenges in maintaining that which God has given us. We have the riches of a wonderful facility, but as our Bishop likes to say, “…we are building poor…” in that the facility is larger than what we need and expensive to maintain. We have dedicated members committed to ministry in Madison, but it’s been hard to bring a new generation of folks to join us in the journey of becoming disciples of Jesus Christ. There are even times when we are brought to tears over the loss of what we were are we are heading toward an uncertain future.
And yet, as I read Jesus’ blessings this morning, maybe that place of poverty, hunger, and weeping is just where we need to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. You see, Jesus says clearly that it’s when we are poor we fully experience the riches of God’s Kingdom, when we are hungry that we begin to find satisfaction with the most basic things, and when we are weeping that we will be moved to joy and laughter.
I think this raises some important questions for our church:
We all will likely have different answers to these questions. None of them are right or wrong, but they are still important to think about as we pursue the goal of proclaiming and bringing forth Gos’ Kingdom here on earth.
The first question can be the most difficult in some ways because it’s easy to find ourselves with a list of things we are missing or ways that we fall short of our desires. Yet, one of the interesting things about folks who seem to thrive in the midst of poverty is their ability to see beyond what they don’t have and instead focus on the blessings that they do! We begin to experience the amazing bounty of the Kingdom of God when we are able to recognize the smallest of blessings as signs of God’s blessing and providence. These are lives of gratitude, thanking God that we are alive and seeing the smallest things as great gifts. To be “poor” and know the Kingdom of God is to live lives focused on abundance rather than scarcity.
The second question, how are we hungry, is important to think about as we consider what we do together as a church. For far too many years we have been churches focused on “programs” rather than understanding ourselves as a place called to feed the hungry – both physically and spiritually. Addressing spiritual hunger is absolutely as important as addressing true hunger, for it is the spiritual hunger that we carry with us throughout our lives whether our stomachs are growling or not. Many of us in the church rarely (if ever) miss a meal but give short shrift to thinking about and addressing our spiritual hunger. How are you hungry and are you taking any efforts to get fed, or are you simply sitting outside the gate grumbling at how hungry you are.
Finally, what are we weeping about? What are the things in our community that are bringing us to tears?
In my own life, there are many things that I see today that break my heart:
I’m sure you have your own list, and I hope you will share it in the comments below. I simply hope and pray that there are things in the world that are bringing you to tears, things that make you hungry for finding a solution that is worthy of the one who created and loves us.
Blessed are the poor, the hungry, and the weeping.
May we be those people together.
Recently, I was asked to be the “Chaplain of the Day” and offer the opening prayer for the Tennessee State Assembly by Representative Bill Beck, who is the House member for our area. I was honored to have this opportunity and hope that I represented City Road Chapel well. Several folks have asked me for the text of my prayer and I am happy to share that below.
Creator of all things,
whose steadfast love is everlasting,
we gather tonight as a people
called and elected to the task of leadership
in the service of our neighbors.
May we come without the illusion
that we are people of power,
but rather come with the humble knowledge
that we are servants to all who live around us.
Help us this night O God,
to remember especially those
whose voices are often muted in our society:
those who are struggling to make their way;
those who are just trying to make ends meet;
those who, through no fault of their own,
are judged as less deserving of our consideration.
Never let us forget
that we are no more special than they are,
and that their voices are just as important as ours.
As we debate our positions tonight,
help us to have the humility to listen,
the grace to speak carefully and kindly,
and the knowledge to recognize
that we work for the common good;
striving to make our state a place
in which ALL are welcomed,
in which ALL are kept safe,
and in which the vision of a place
dedicated to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness
is open to ALL people.
Help us to remember that the conviction of our beliefs
does not mean that those who disagree with us are our enemies.
Help us to never forget
that your call for love and justice
applies to every part of our state,
from the river bottoms in the west,
to the mountains in the east;
along the Tennessee River in the south,
and the Cumberland as it travels through the Big South Fork.
Remind us daily,
that you are present in our large cities
and in the farms and hamlets far off the main road.
And may we always recognize
that the citizens of this state,
people of varied backgrounds,
genders, ethnicities, and nationalities
shall always carry with them
the volunteer heritage
that says that we help when we can,
serve when we must,
and respect all as people created in your image.
As we deliberate tonight,
may we remember the teachings of our forebear, John Wesley
to avoid doing harm,
to do as much good as we can,
and to stay in love with the one who created us.
Speak tonight, O God,
and give us your light in the midst of the darkness
that we will see your way
and carry out your desires.
We ask this in the name
of the one who created us in the beginning,
who reconciled us to you when we tried to do things our own way,
and who sustains us and empowers us to be people of light and love.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: The following is the work of the author and does not reflect any official opinion of the Tennessee Annual Conference nor the City Road Chapel United Methodist church.
We are not far from the yearly gathering of the Tennessee Annual Conference and I have been thinking quite a bit about what that meeting might look like in light of the 2019 General Conference in St. Louis this past February. If nothing else, that international meeting made clear the things that divide us, leading to even more polarization between the various factions of the church. Given that divide, it’s not a far stretch to worry about the tone of our Annual Conference this year. We differ on the interpretation of scripture. We differ in our understandings of the history and tradition of the United Methodist Church. We differ in where we see God calling the church into the future. And, as we talk about those differences, our valid passion around our interpretations, understandings, and calling can easily denigrate into something that seems far, far away from Christ’s desires for his church.
Recently, I had the chance to join with pastors from the Memphis and Tennessee Conferences for a retreat led by Emory professor Gregory Ellison based on his book, Fearless Dialogues: A New Movement for Justice. Fearless Dialogues creates unique spaces for unlikely partners to engage in hard, heartfelt conversations that see gifts in others, hear value in stories, and work for change and positive transformation in self and others. The event led people into experiences that helped us see with new eyes and challenged us to recognize the fears that keep us from truly understanding one another. As we debriefed at the end of the event, person after person felt that the experience had changed us, and we longed to apply what we had experienced to the Annual Conference session.
As I reflected on the learnings, I was reminded of the recovery communities that I visit regularly. These groups are in many ways, the successors to the Wesleyan Class Meetings in that they provide a small covenantal community in which to experience personal transformation. Hundreds of thousands of people gather in rooms each week in a safe space in which people are vulnerable with one another and honest conversation happens. There are many reasons for the success of these groups, but as I’ve entered “the rooms” I’ve noticed that each meeting begins with a recitation of 12 Traditions which guide and informs the work of those groups. Those traditions are the values around which the groups are organized, and clearly lay out a plan for how the groups should function.
In conversation with some colleagues, I began to wonder if we might not need our own “12 Traditions” to guide and inform our time together at Annual Conference. In my thinking, these would be 12 affirmations drawn from the Scriptures and our traditions which layout some common values that would center us and ensure that we treat all with love and respect in the midst of our differences. These are not rules for judgment, but rather reflect a covenantal understanding by which we affirm common beliefs that facilitate loving and gracious dealings with one another. After knocking out some possibilities (drawing on the Bible and our Book of Discipline), I ran them by some colleagues who offered input and affirmation, and now I am sharing them with all to see if we might be willing and able to come to a common agreement regarding our time together this June.
I recognize that we are all moving onto perfection and that these affirmations are aspirational at best. I share them in the hope that God is calling us to a different way of functioning in the world, and that we might possibly be able to demonstrate God’s love in our business together. Certainly, as we saw at the General Conference, Robert’s Rules aren’t enough. Would you be willing to join me in affirming the statements below as a guide for our work together?
As we come together at the 2019 Session of the Tennessee Annual Conference we recognize that emotions are raw in the wake of the decisions made at the 2019 General Conference. Many of us were broken by what we saw happening in St. Louis, no matter our positions on the issues at before us. Unfortunately, just as the delegates at that conference were divided in their beliefs, we too are divided in our understandings. Yet, we believe that God has joined us together as brothers and sisters in Christ to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
The following guidelines are our affirmations by which we agree as the people called United Methodist in Middle Tennessee to support in ensuring that we engage in faithful Christian conferencing during our sessions together:
|Jeremy Squires||Cumberland River District||Full Member (Elder or Deacon)|
|Matthew Kelley||Harpeth River District||Full Member (Elder or Deacon)|
|Terrance Davis Sr.||Cumberland River District||Local Pastor|
|Jefferson Furtado||Cumberland River District||Provisional Member|
|Jodi McCullah||Caney Fork River District||Full Member (Elder or Deacon)|
|James Cole||Stones River District||Full Member (Elder or Deacon)|
|Phil Ross||Red River District||Lay Member or Alternate Lay Member|
|P.J. Shaffer||Red River District||Full Member (Elder or Deacon)|
|Erin Racine||Cumberland River District||Full Member (Elder or Deacon)|
|Ann Cover||Cumberland River District||Full Member (Elder or Deacon)|
|Jay Voorhees||Cumberland River District (TN)||Full Member (Elder or Deacon)|
|Zach Moffatt||Cumberland River District (TN)||Provisional Member|
|Debra Tyree||Red River District (TN)||Full Member (Elder or Deacon)|
|James Cole||Stones River District (TN)||Full Member (Elder or Deacon)|
|Sandy Shawhan||Caney Fork River District (TN)||Full Member (Elder or Deacon)|
|Rev. Dr. Douglas Norfleet||Mississippi River (Memphis)||Full Member (Elder or Deacon)|
|Harriet Bryan||Red River District (TN)||Full Member (Elder or Deacon)|
|Edward Murrey||Harpeth River District (TN)||Local Pastor|
|Brian Marcoulier||Red River District (TN)||Full Member (Elder or Deacon)|
|Steven B Angus||Stones River District (TN)||Full Member (Elder or Deacon)|