Sunday, August 12, 2012

Sin Kills Kids

Scripture for Sunday, August 12th:


This song comes in the second acts of the musical “Into the Woods.”  The characters in the musical selfishly seek after their own wishes- even when it tramples over the rights and needs of others.  At the end of the musical, when so much has gone wrong and tragedy ensues, the now-dead wife of the lead character returns to her husband to give him one last piece of advice now that he must raise their child alone-  “Tell their child the story of the Woods; actions have consequences — even for future generations.”

Actions indeed do have consequences, sometimes expected, sometimes not, for our children and our children’s children.  As we have followed the narrative arc of King David’s life this summer, we’ve reached the point where he is no longer the young shepherd boy, or the fair haired king-  he is now the grizzled, battle-scared King whose accomplishments and failings are largely behind him.  David now has many children from several different wives.  And then this tale comes- a tragic story about 3 of his children- Amnon, Tamar and Absalom.

This is a story that can rival the most outrageous of soap opera plots.  Amnon lusts after his half sister Tamar.  So he sets a trap.  He lures her in.  And against her will, he rapes her.

I’m not sure that there is a more debilitating, disgusting crime described in the bible then the one in this story.  And yet, this happens in the house of David!?!  The house of the king associated with peace and justice-  with the most glorious reign of Israel.  How could such things happen here of all places?

“actions have consequences — even for future generations.”

For the last two weeks- we’ve grappled with David’s most profound sin-  using his power and influence to have sex with Bathsheba- the wife of Uriah.  His sin is revealed to the world, and he confesses.  You would hope the tragedy could end there.  But I believe the author of 2 Samuel intentionally connects the story of David and Bathsheba with the story of the rape of Tamar.  

You see, Amnon is in many ways just repeating the sin of his father.  David and Amnon both saw a woman they desired.  Both wanted to have sex with a woman that all of society and God clearly decreed were off limits.  And then they abandoned right and wrong and forced their way.  Then they threw their victim away afterward.  Immediately after the rape, scripture says that “Amnon was seized with a very great loathing for her; indeed, his loathing was even greater than the lust he had felt for her.”

Amnon rapes her sister and throws her away just as David a generation before threw Bathsheba away.  Now granted, David later takes Bathsheba as his wife.   He pleads with God for forgiveness.  But he can’t take away the consequences of his actions.  His children have seen how David treated their mother (or step mother).  And this story lays bare that despite David’s plea for forgiveness, something in him remains broken.  Perhaps he thought he had put it all behind him-  but when he hears of his sons actions, when he hears of his daughter’s rape-  he did...nothing.  Sure- he got a little angry, but ultimately he did nothing.

David’s sins destroyed his children’s lives.  His actions with Bathsheba set the stage for Amnon’s rape of his half-sister.  His inaction further compounded Tamar’s tragedy when she found her own father wouldn’t lift a hand to protect her or care for her.  By doing nothing, the violence spun out of control as Absalom took vengeance into his own hands and killed his brother.

So what then are we to learn from David this week?  How is it that we can draw what it means to live in God’s kingdom from this tragic story?  This story serves as a warning, a sign pointer saying that if you want to live in God’s kingdom, stay away from this one.

But unfortunately, sexual violence does not stay away.  Its estimated that 20-30% of women have experienced some form of sexual abuse in their lifetime.  That likely means that some here have experienced that too.  Know this-  if you faced or are facing sexual violence, if you have had a David in your life who saw what was happening and did nothing, know that someone cares.  God loves you.  We as a congregation love you.  Seek someone out; seek me out.  I’ll meet you anywhere and work with you to find resources to right this wrong and find healing.

But if you are among those whose life has not been touched with sexual violence, (be grateful), then what can you draw from this story?  I think it highlights the grave responsibility that we as parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, those making vows at the baptism today, have toward the children in our lives.  In the second commandment, it is written that “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

I don’t think God actually punishes children for parents wrong doing, but this highlights, and the Tamar story demonstrates, the way that sin passes from one generation to the next.  

So how do we break the cycle?  If we are David, and all of us here, to a greater or lesser extent, have sinned in a way that affects children around us, how to we change the dynamics?

David sinned.  David pleaded for forgiveness.  David was forgiven by God.  But, it appears he didn’t take the last step- he did fully acknowledge and repent from his sins.

It appears rather than addressing his sexual sin head on, David buried it.  Scripture doesn’t show where he sat down with his children, confessed his sins, and showed them the tragic consequences of it.  He didn’t seem to speak to them about valuing women, about remembering to see God’s grace in each and every person.  And, when confronted by that same sin, he chose to ignore it rather than aggressively confront it.  Perhaps he was ashamed at how it reminded him of his own sin.  But folks, our kids see our sin.  Saying nothing about it doesn’t make it invisible.  We have to speak up about our shortcomings if we hope to see our children go a different way.  We have to stop pretending to be so pious in church and admit the faults that we have and are still working on.

After acknowledging our shortcomings, we then have to do something.  Work to repair the damage our sin has done on relationships.  Look to God rather than your battered or damaged family as an example of how to lead with grace and forgiveness.  Follow the humility of our Savior Jesus Christ.

And take our baptismal vows seriously.  We gather here today to baptize Jason.  Many of you may not yet know this family.  But when we baptize Jason- we acknowledge him as God’s child, and is therefore consider him one of our children too.

Come up after church and get to know this family.  Invite them to lunch.  Volunteer to babysit.  Help to entertain Jason during a service.  Volunteer to help in Sunday school to ensure we have enough adults to keep everyone safe. This congregation has rallied well around families before.  Let us do it again.

Let us make our vows to care for this child, and for all children, vows of actions as well as words.  Don’t allow there to be a Tamar in your midst without that Tamar knowing your would fiercely fight for her if she was abused.  Take action in your volunteering, in your giving, in your voting, in your advocacy, to take real steps to love and care for all of God’s children.

When we sin and fall short, our children see it.  But when we seek to strive in our faith, to live into God’s grace, children see that too.  The good news is that God will use those acts of goodness to break the cycle and show love to the thousandth generation.  But only, if we, God’s children, will listen.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Seeing Sin

Scriptures for Sunday, August 5th

2 Samuel 11:26-12:13a

Psalm 51


Francine is a beautiful young lady with a soft spoken voice and a shy smile from the Walungu territory in eastern Congo...Francine begins her story by saying, “Sometimes when I think of these things, it makes me sad in my heart.” One night, Francine’s husband went to bed while she stayed up to bathe her sick baby girl— the youngest of four— when she heard a knock on the door.
Eight men entered, and they asked where her husband was. She claimed he was traveling, but they quickly found him under the bed. They lined them up against the wall and had them remove their clothes. The invaders told them to look at each other, and they said this is the last time you will ever consider her your wife because she will now become our wife.
Francine’s husband begged for mercy and asked what they could give as a bribe. The men said, “Give us two picks, a radio, and clothes,” and then they went through the house looting, ultimately demanding a further $100.
“We don’t have $100, only $5,” Francine told them. They told her it was not enough and asked her to lay down.  She refused and her husband said he wouldn’t abandon her even if she were raped. But one of the men forced her down and raped her.  (Reporting from the Enough Project)
The part of the Congo Francine is from is considered by some to be the rape capital of the world.  Bordered by the countries of Rawanda and Uganda, the people who live in the Northeast portion of the Democratic Republic of the Congo suffer under brutal oppression due to the competing militias of this region.  When a militia moves into an area, they intimidate the villagers through violence that often includes rape.  This violence can be meant to punish the villagers from providing harbor to a different militia, to extract cooperation or food, to encourage villagers to flee, or simply because they can. 
So why do these people suffer?  Why are the women here so unlucky to live in the rape capital of the world?  Its because they happen to live near one of the worlds largest deposits of Coltan- a black tar like mineral found in the region.  Over 80% of the Coltan in the world is found in this small region. (Read more about Colton)
“You’d think that having such a rare, expensive and plentiful mineral deposit would be a wonderful find for a poor country. But what if your neighbors, who are also poor and desperate, also knew of this mineral and wanted to profit from it also?” (Source)
And what if international companies were willing to look the other way when it comes to buying Coltan?  What if it didn’t seem to bother them that militias in Rawanda sell Colton by the ton even though the country has no known reserves of the mineral?  And, what if consumers didn’t seem to care about where the mineral came from?  What if they just wanted more and more of it while paying less and less for it?
The net result- rape, pillage, murder.  Who could let this happen?  Who could look the other way when it comes to rape and murder?  What kind of just people would let a thing go on day after day?
You are the people.  Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel:  I have placed you in a prosperous country.  Given you wealth beyond much of the worlds wildest dreams.  I have largely shielded you from violence and despair.  You eat and drink everyday with ease.  And yet, each and everyone one of you with a cell phone, with a lap top, GPS, playstation, hearing aid and more exploit these poor people.  You take their minerals, but don’t seem to care where they come from.  Sure, some company does it on your behalf, you never see it, but it is you, wealthy in technology and gizmos, who cause these peoples pain.
Yea, I bet it was a really long pause after Nathan said something similar to David too.  Perhaps the worlds longest pause in scripture.  David is caught dead to rights.  He can’t deny it. There is no question that he slept with a married woman.  No reasonable doubt that he had a man murdered.  And in fact, David in his indignation has already declared what should be done-  “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die” David’s righteous anger has to be hanging in the air.  The death sentence he proclaims rebounds on him.  Suddenly the anger drains from David’s face.  The burning red checks fade to a pallid white; his indignant posture becomes hunched over in grief.  
Nathan the preacher has delivered one heck of a sermon- a Gospel message designed to incite the listener to get out of his seat and work for God’s justice in the world.  That message was perfect, that message is always perfect, so long as its about somebody else.
In the book Leap Over the Wall, Eugene Peterson writes- ““The gospel is never about somebody else; it’s always about you, about me...It’s both easy and common to lose this focus, to let the gospel blur into generalized pronouncements, boozy cosmic opinions, religious indignation.  That’s what David is doing in this story, listening to his pastor preach a sermon about somebody else and getting all worked up about this someone else’s sin, this someone else’s plight...With each additional word in Nathan’s sermon, David becomes more religious- feeling sorry for the poor man who lost his pet lamb, seething with indignation over the rich man who stole the lamb...And then the sudden, clear gospel focus:  you are the one- you!”
I can’t say I’m the preacher Nathan is.  Unlike David, many of you probably saw the twist coming.  And admittedly, the sin proclaimed today is a little more indirect.  But what was your reaction?  When I rose up and declared full throated that it was you who sinned, you who exploited, you who condoned rape and murder (of course, its also me who does and has done all of these things), how did you respond?  With anger?  Denial?  Indignation?  Rejection?
How many of us could honestly respond like David-  by saying “I have sinned against the Lord.”
Its a simple sentence.  But it requires something profound.  It requires us to look our sin full in our face.  And lets be frank- we have designed our society so we can be blind to as little of our sin as possible.  We move from the cities to the suburbs to avoid poverty and violence.  We move into suburbs where a legacy of discrimination means that most people are of the same race and religious affiliation.  We buy our products prepackaged with our eyes closed to all that goes into making it.  Are the people who pick our vegetables paid a fair days wage?  Are the animals we eat treated humanely?  Are the products we buy the product of human slavery?  Who knows?  Who wants to know?  Don’t we just want to buy some stuff and not worry about it?  That’s certainly easier.  Can’t we just live in our city and let some other city worry about itself?  That seems more peaceful.
Seeing sin, our sin, is painful, ugly and raw.  It cuts us to the core.  And really and truly seeing our sin requires something-  it requires our acknowledgement.  It requires us to ask forgiveness.  And, most importantly, it requires us to do something to change.
Our God is such a gracious God.  Some might even say too gracious.  God forgives the murderer and adulterer David.  But David’s remorse appears genuine.  David takes steps to bring what justice he can do the equation.
Our gracious God waits for you.  Our loving Lord is ready to scrub away your guilt, to soak you in laundry till you come out clean, to set your broken bones to dancing.
God has taken the first step.  God’s grace allows your eyes to be open.  God’s grace gives you the strength to come clean.  But you have to accept the challenge.  You have to come forward and be open to that grace and forgiveness.  
That’s what this table is for.  That’s why we come forward and eat and drink of the bread and juice, the body and blood, the grace and forgiveness of our lord.  We come because our eyes have been open to sin.  We see it now Lord.  We want forgiveness.  We want to be made new.
Like David, you’ve been asked to confront your sin.  You even get a pause to give an offering. 
But after that pause will be a chance to take and eat of God’s grace.  
However the gospel has called to you today, seek God’s forgiveness in communion today.  Be washed clean.  And take from it the strength to change.  Amen.

Monday, July 9, 2012

You want me to love whom?!?

Scriptures for Sunday, July 8th 2012
Chris Simpson is an intimidating man.  
At 6 feet and 245 pounds, he fills out clothing with authority. He does not think his tattoos draw notice, but they are hard to miss.
"PURE HATE," is tattooed across his knuckles. His forearms read "BLOOD" and "HONOR." There are four battle-axes in the shape of a swastika on his left shoulder with the words "Supreme White Power" over them. There are several wolf's hooks, a Nazi symbol. The iconic lightning bolts associated with Nazi Germany's Schutzstaffel, the SS, are above his right wrist. There's a Nazi war bird on his chest. There are tattoos of a Valkyrie, a Viking, and Thor with swastikas drawn in his helmet. There are 42 in all, he thinks. 
Simpson was a member of Battalion 14, a white pride group with supporters in Michigan. His involvement in the white pride movement began in a place of pain, frustration, anger, and confusion. On April 28, 2000, Chris and Misty Simpson lost their first child, Alexis Nicole.
Born with open spina bifida, a buildup of fluid in the brain, clubbed feet, and no intestines or stomach, Alexis lived only two and a half hours.”
Recently married and struggling to scratch out a life in Danville, Va., Alexis' death sent Simpson reeling.
"I was feeling a lot of anger and hatred, and I was confused," Simpson said. "I just built up this hatred, or what I thought was hatred."
Hate consumes.  It burns like a wild fire- consuming the good and the bad, trash and treasures, mansions and mobile homes.  Its power is devastating- once unleashed, almost unquenchable.
And yet, hate seems like almost a natural reaction to things.  If we are wronged, does not society implicitly tell us that the righteous thing is to strike back?  Even as we are appalled at the manifestation of Chris Simpson’s hate, even as we object to his choosing to hate black people after the tragic death of his infant daughter, don’t we get at some level his desire to release himself in rage?  
Letting things go, on the other hand, is a mark for cowards and push-overs.  Hate.  Anger.  Never letting go.  These seem like the hallmarks for strength in our society.
So, here we have David.  He hears of the death of his rival- King Saul.  Saul tormented David.  Ruined his life really.  Drove him into exile.  Hunted him like a dog.  Tried to kill him numerous times.  And David morns his death.  He weeps and cries 
“How the mighty have fallen!..You mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew or rain upon you, nor bounteous fields!...Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and in death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.”
This doesn’t seem fake.  This seems like real, legitimate grief.
But- how?  How does David mourn for the very man who tormented him?
In Eugene Peterson’s Leap over a Wall, he writes- “Saul hated David.  Saul chased David.  Saul defrauded David.  Al those wilderness years, David lived in a world sovereign with Saul’s hate.  Or so it seemed.  Danger, hardship, loneliness, loss- all because of Saul.  But there was something else going on that was more significant that Saul’s hatred of David, and that was God’s anointing of Saul.  What God did for Saul far outweighed anything that Saul did to David.  And that is what David chose to deal with.  David chose to be influenced by and shaped under that sovereignty.  God’s grace in Saul’s life, not Saul’s hate in David’s life, is what gave content to David’s prayers and decisions.  Saul made life difficult for David, but he didn’t destroy him.  If David had allowed Saul’s hate to determine his life, he would have been destroyed.  He maybe wouldn’t have been killed, but he certainly would have been damned- reduced, cramped, and constricted by vengeance.”
In other words, David chose to see the world through God’s grace instead of Saul’s hate.  He wouldn’t give up seeing Saul as one of God’s beloved creation.  He held on to that as a sort of antidote to allowing hatred and despair from overwhelming his life.
Did not give in to the temptation to take revenge
One day when Saul was chasing David in the desert, David and his men hid in a dark cave.  As Saul and his army passed, Saul entered into the cave alone to relieve himself.  The cave was so dark that he had no idea that David and his men were so close.  David crept up to Saul.  The temptation to finish it there, to kill Saul and end this conflict must have been so great.  In the story, David instead chooses to cut off a bit of Saul’s shirt.  After Saul leaves, David calls out, holds up the fabric to Saul, and demonstrates that he has chosen mercy over hate, peace over violence.  This is the path of the great King David.
But what happens if you don’t quite have the strength of David?  What happens if you have already given in to the hate?  Chris Simpson gave himself over to the white pride movement and yet was able to emerge out of it  What led Simpson to renounce this hate?  It was in finding a loving savior, and being nurtured by a church community, that gave him his release.  Six months after joining the church- he was baptized.
“In April, Simpson stood in the baptismal pool at New Horizons Community Church. He wore a white tank top and white shorts, tattoos on full display for the congregation.
Pastor Jerry Lyon placed his hand on Simpson.
"God I know that there are things from his past life that need to be buried. And God, today we enjoy the opportunity. We take glory in that opportunity to bury that old life and to say to you God, I am a new creation in Jesus Christ," Lyon prayed.
With Simpson holding his nose, Lyon lowered him back into the water. The congregation applauded. 
"Any kind of burdens I carried before, I let them go. There's no need to carry things that happen in the past," Simpson later said. "I forgave all those who have wronged me and asked for forgiveness from those that I have wronged."
The waters of baptism washed away his sin.  But that doesn’t mean it was suddenly easy.  There will still scars to deal with.
Chris Simpson’s hate was literally written on his body- it was in his tattoos.  Removing that hate was going to be a long process that was very painful.
“Tattoo removal takes years. A single tattoo can take several treatments to disappear. 
Simpson wanted Amy Sowers, a nurse with the clinic, to blast off all the tattoos from his arms. When she was done there, he wanted her to start on his stomach, his neck and his legs.
Sowers started on the "H" of "HATE" scrawled across the knuckles of Simpson left hand. Twenty-four seconds later, the first pass was done. The skin instantly swelled up pink.
Simpson said it felt like someone poured acid on his skin. 
"I don't care if you're a Marine, that right there will break you," he said.”
But, we believe in a God who is stronger than hate.  A savior who can heal that hurt in our heart.  Our Gospel lesson today proclaimed a Jesus who brings the dead back to life- surely that same Jesus can heal the deadness in our own hearts.
Chris Simpson saw the destructive influence hate was having on his life.  And he was led to Jesus to find healing and hope.  That same healing and hope is available to you no matter what has happened in your life.  The grace of God still shapes the world, even if your life has seemed to be surrounded with human hate and misery.  The bad news is that working on those issues- being healed of hate so you can honestly grieve the death of one of God’s children, will be painful.  But the good news is that with Christ, we can find our way through to healing and wholeness.  If we are faithful, we’ll find that it is not hate, but God’s love, that abounds.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Annual Conference Report - Thursday

Our final day of annual conference was quite brief as it only ran to lunch.  Thus- this report will be much shorter!
The first major issue of the day was a report on what the minimum salary for pastors would be in 2013.  The original formula (you don’t want to know!) called for pastors at minimum salary to receive a raise of $245 in 2013.  Charlie Yost, pastor of Church of the  Savior in Cleveland Heights indicated that this seemed almost insulting to those pastors who make the least (He is not one).  He proposed that pastors instead receive a 2% raise and this was adopted.  This will make the minimum salary in $33,047.
A second presentation of note was from the president of Guidestone (formerly Berea Children’s Home).  We recently had a presenter from this agency so I know you know the vast amount of social services this Methodist agency provides.  However, did you know that they are creating a new charter school in the Central neighborhood of Cleveland?  Called Stepstone, the academy will offer a blended learning model (incorporating classroom and online work) with the full resources of Guidestone to offer support for the entire family.  This seemed like a wonderful model for me and they will be looking for loving people to volunteer on their boards and with the kids.  Anyone interested?
With this, our 2012 annual conference drew to a close.  They focus quite a bit on our leadership will launch us into new ministry opportunities in the future.  Are you ready?

Friday, June 22, 2012

Annual Conference - Wednesday Report

Every other year, we devote a good chunk of a day to a guest presenter who will present to us on a critical aspect of ministry.  Two years ago, we talked about holistic ministry that attends to the needs of the body.  This year, we had as our guest Bishop Scott Jones of the Kansas Episcopal area.  He is an expert on John Wesley and was talking to us about the key aspects of Methodism we need to be grounded in as we seek to lead the church in the future. 
Bishop Jones indicated that “One of my deepest fears is that we UMC’s are in the profess of forgetting who we are.”  Too often, we don’t know what to do as pastors or as congregations.  But John Wesley was very clear about who God was and what God was doing.  Wesley had at first thought that holiness was at the heart of the Gospel so he started by committing himself to be more and more holy through spiritual discipline.  However, in interacting with Moravians (a type of Lutheran), Wesley began to realize he was a sinner and sought a personal relationship with God.  Thus, the core of the Wesleyan movement is both about personal relationship (salvation) with God and a continued drive toward personal and social holiness.   At the core of both beliefs is the idea that God’s grace proceeds all of us and seeks to draw us close to God.  Thus, Wesley’s message of inclusiveness is a deep part of our inheritance.
Bishop Scott indicated that April 2, 1739 should be perhaps the most important date for those of us who want to follow Wesley.  Prior to this date, Wesley believed it was a sin to convert someone outside a church building.  His friend, George Whitfield, tried to convince Wesley to go beyond the local church but Wesley was resistent.  Rather than dismiss it entirely, he decided to take it to his small group.  By drawing lots (not recommended) he confirmed he should go out the church.  As he put it, he decided to be more “vial by preaching to people in the fields.”  However, thousands flocked to him and he saw the importance of getting beyond the doors of the local church in seeking to find converts.
Bishop Scott indicated there are four crucial lessons we can learn from our history about how to lead today.

1.  Be clear about your values  

We must remember that grace is extended by God for all people.  Furthermore, we need to leave the church to bring people into a converting relationship with Jesus.  We then need to all work to bring about holiness.

2.  Align your practices-  
Everything we do must be in pursuit of the above.  Thus, “If there is something in your church that is not serving the need to make disciples or transform the world, then stop doing it!”

3.  Flexibility in our communication standards.
Methodists weren’t doing much with German speaking people, but Otterbein decided they needed to do communicate to people.  So they began to reach people where they were- in German- and the Evangelical movement flourished.  We cannot insist people come to us in our way, we must meet people on their terms.

4.  A willingness to sacrifice.
John Wesley traveled thousands of miles on horseback.  Early Methodist pastors did not marry and went via horseback whereever their bishop sent them.  Yet today, we have an appointment system that too many pastors view as there HR department that will place them where they want.  He declared that we as pastors should go to our bishop and say we would obey our bishops no matter where we are sent.
Sacrifice is part of who we are.  Scott argued that We preachers are settling for mediocrity when God deserves excellence.  Furthermore,  too often we pray for God to bless what I am doing.  We ought to be praying to be a part of what God is blessing.  These are the sacrifices pastors need to make.
However, pastors are not the only ones, or even the primary ones, who must sacrifice.  Scott argued that Too many UM churches see the appointment process as the bishop sending them a savior and then blame the bishop when it doesn’t automatically turn around.  In the early church, it was the laity who were the evangelists.  It was the laity who were inviting people to do God’s work.  Scott challenged- “If you are depending upon the preacher as the servant of your local club to bring in more members so that the budget will be better met, you’ve forgotten who you are.”
One way that that sacrifice should happen is be re-envisioning what it means to be a member of a local church.  Bishop Scott related that when he was serving in a new church start, he would tell the following to anyone who expressed interest in joining-
"Membership has no privileges here- you can participate in anything. So there is no reason to join 
But if you want to join as part of your spiritual development, then 

We expect you to be in worship every week and we are going to track it
We expect you to belong to two small groups- one where you are spiritually fed, one in which you feed others
We expect you to tithe. The leadership of the church is  going to know it and track it."
I find this to both intriguing and challenging.  How would you react to a pastor who said this to you?
Bishop Scott concluded with his favorite scene in a Disney movie.   In the Lion King, after Simba leaves his family and travels, his father comes to him in a dream:

We need to remember who we are.
The afternoon session was marked by the debate and adoption of two resolutions.  Resolutions are statements of position taken by the conference on various issues.  While they express the will of the body, they are not binding.
The first resolution, adopted without debate or objection, is entitled “A Call To Advocate Anti‐Harassment, Anti‐Intimidation and Anti‐Bullying”
The full resolution can be seen on page 49 of the pre-conference workbook (click to access).
The resolution calls on all levels of the conference to among other things- 
categorically oppose the practices of adult, youth, and child harassment, intimidation and bullying; and 
urge our churches, General Boards and Agencies, Campus Ministries, and the Council of Bishops to create safe space for each and every child of God, including those but not limited by the following enumeration – age, color, creed, national origin, race, religion, marital status, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, physical attributes, physical or mental disability, ancestry, socioeconomic status or familial status; and 
endorse a zero‐tolerance within their sphere of influence for harassment, intimidation and bulling in any form;
The second resolution proved to be more controversial.  Entitled “An Affirmation of Open Table Worship”, the resolution declared that:
The East Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church affirms the availability and efficacy of the holy sacraments to all people.
We encourage all of our congregations to welcome into community and membership all persons, regardless of race, gender, physical or mental ability, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic position.
We believe such inclusion and openness offers the greatest hope, through faith, that the power of God may change all lives, forgive all sin, and make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
One delegate asked whether this was essentially endorsing homosexuality by allowing “unrepentant sinners” to join the church when we have declared “homosexuality to be incompatible with Christian teaching.”
In response, I pointed out that our book of resolutions calls war incompatible with Christian teaching and yet we do not require people to forsake war before joining the church.
The resolution was altered and adopted with the final version reading- “We encourage all of our congregations to welcome into community and membership all persons”
A resolution calling for the enforcement of Human Trafficking Laws was also adopted.  These resolutions can be found in full on pages 49-52 here.
The remainder of the afternoon was a series of reports from various annual conference committees.  The finance committee indicated that apportionment payment to the conference had increased over the past year and that the 2013 apportionments would either be held steady or reduced by approximately 1%.  The Congregational Vitality team reported they were working on various strategies to help make congregations more vital.  One that caught my eye was the Healthy Church Initiative.  It allows congregations to apply to bring in a consultant who would do a top to bottom evaluation of the congregation and offer five recommendations to make the church more vital.  Though this interests me, they highlighted that churches must be prepared to make change to be considered for this program.  Do you think we are ready?  Can we make the plunge and step out in faith?  Let’s pray on it!

Annual Conference - Tuesday Report

We began the day with a rousing worship service led by Bishop Woodie White.  Bishop White was an African American pastor in the segregated Central Conferences before the walls of segregation were broken down in 1968.  He risked his own life for justice no numerous occasions.  He told the story of trying to visit one particular white Methodist Church in New Orleans in the early 60s.  The ushers turned him away.  When he explained he was a Methodist pastor and simply wanted to join them for worship, he was arrested and thrown in prison for three days until the $1,000 fine for trespassing and disturbing worship were paid.  However, as a mark of how far we have moved, when Bishop White returned to New Orleans as a Bishop recently, he choose to preach in that very same church.
Bishop White preached on the disconnect Christians sometimes have on the issues of mission, seeking justice and evangelism.  He indicated you need to do all three to truly follow God.  All too often we do one or two of those three and thus we live out an incomplete Gospel.  Some highlights of his sermon-
“It’s not good enough to know the scripture and recite scripture.  You must do it!”
“I’m struck by the number of people who love Jesus, but don’t like what he taught.”

“Definition of prophetic preaching-  Saying the right thing at the right time in the right way in the right place.”
“I often wonder how God’s heart must break when He sees how is children treat one another.”
In concluding his sermon, Bishop White altered a traditional blessing with the following words:
“May the Lord torment you, may the lord disturb you, may God keep the faces of those in need in front of you.  Only after you have done your best to do God’s will may God give you peace.”
Are we bold enough to believe and follow a God who will constantly agitate us to grow in grace?  After the good Bishop’s address, I think many of us were.
The day continued with some business sessions and the episcopal address.  Bishop Hopkins indicated they were going to focus on several bright spots and the type of leadership that is necessary to bring ideas and dreams into reality.
In the Canal district, a lay person, Dave Catrell, started a ministry with skate boarders.  Many in the church had complained about kids using the parking lot to skateboard.  Dave, who had skateboarded a lot as a youth, saw them in the parking lot and thought the proper response was to invite them in.  He formed a bond with the youth and began driving them to skate parks throughout NE Ohio.  While the kids still skateboard in the parking lot at times, they have also been introduced to Jesus and often attend church.  Dave indicated that the most important thing was to connect to the youth right where they are.
In the Mahoning Valley district, one pastor shared about the life of his church by talking about all of the individuals who had been transformed.  He told us about Victor- a man who had recently been incarcerated and was living in transitional housing.  One day, Victor made a decision for Christ and came to the church wanting to join.  He know takes it on as his ministry to be the first one to greet everyone as they come in the door for worship.  
Judy had confessed that though she always went to church, she had never personally heard from God.  (I think many of us can echo that!)  She prayed to hear from God and felt strongly that God was calling her to lead mission trips.  No one in the church had been on a trip before, but Judy and her husband Jerry began organizing them.  In the few years since, they have led 16 mission trips with hundreds of members of the congregation.
Sue came on Christmas Eve, made a decision for Jesus and now leads the recovery ministry and works in the food pantry.
George and Nancy never had children of their own but adopted the children of the community and now serve breakfast to them each and every Sunday.  Joe started attending small group in 2004 and has now been the director of 4 of the Alpha classes and leads the prayer team.  Through these many individuals and their leadership, the church has come alive.  
A church in New Washington committed themselves to seek to serve the people that no one else wants and no one else sees.  The pastor said that they want the folks who have been abused and the people who are abusing.”  They have committed themselves to live radically in community with those who are hurting so they can be part of God’s transforming love.  
Church of the Savior, in Cleveland Heights, discussed their Upward Basketball program.  They have launched a basket ball league in the community where each game starts with devotions and bible study and testimony is offered at half time.  Of the hundreds of people who have participated, 31% have had no church affiliation and several have since joined the church.  
All of these churches have the following in common-  they saw a need, prayed about it, and had many lay people come together to launch new ministries that their pastors supported and blessed.  This is the type of leadership that is necessary for real transformation.
In the afternoon, the district superintendents and the bishop announced the new appointments and “fixed all the pastors in place” for the next year.  I was officially appointed back to Independence UMC.  
Other Notable appointments-  
Orlando Chaffee will be stepping down as DS.  After his personal leave, he will become the pastor of Bedford and Maple Heights United Methodist Churches.
Peggy Streiff was appointed as superintendent for the North Coast district to replace Rev. Chaffee.  She served as DS in the Mid-Ohio district for 6 years prior to retiring in 2011.  Her husband is the pastor of Norwalk First United Methodist Church.  For the first time, the cabinet will have an equal number of male and female District Superintendents.
Sade Davis-Reynolds retired but has been appointed back half time to Seven Hills UMC for the next year.
Prior to announcing the appointments, the bishop indicated that many people ask “How are appointments really made?”  He invited Karen Oehl and Jim Winkler, the two newest district superintendents, to give their thoughts on the issue.  They said-
Karen Oehl- Consultations matter.  The meeting the SPRC has in the fall and shares in their hopes, dreams and goals really matters.  That information is what we then have about the churches and how we make the appointments.
Jim Winkler- Consultations matter.  It is our job to get to know our pastors well.  We want to know who they are, what their hopes and dreams are as they have served faithfully.  We try to faithfully and accurately profile each pastor as we seek to find the right appointment for them.
The bishop and the cabinet spend considerable time praying about each appointment. The cabinet prays until they make a unanimous decision about which pastor should be appointed.  The pastor is then taken to meet the SPRC committee and the appointment is then confirmed.  It is then announced to both the departing and receiving congregation on the same Sunday.
For dinner that evening, I had the privilege of attending a presentation but on by the East Ohio Board of Church and Society.  The presentation was focused on the issue of Modern Slavery.  It is estimated that there are move people held in slavery today than at any time in our history.  There are currently 27 million people held in slavery, included an estimated 800,000 people right here in the United States.  Tina Flores, a slavery survivor from Toledo Ohio, gave a presentation talking about how vulnerable individuals are taken by force, fraud or coercion to perform labor or sex acts against their will.  It is difficult to summarize this important topic in a paragraph, but if members of the church would like to learn more, please contact me.

Our evening concluded with a service of Commissioning and Ordination.  The highlight of the evening was the sermon by Bishop Elizabeth Eaton of the Northern Ohio Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.  She preached about just how difficult it was to be a Christian in a society that celebrates glorification.  She said that “we are sinners serving sinners following a Lord who took on the sin of the whole world.”  All too often, Christianity is reduced to a “Name it and Claim it theology” in which all the world’s problems are wrapped up neatly through prayer.  However, we experience too much tragedy to proclaim such a glib understanding of God.  The truth is that we follow a crucified savior in a fallen world- this results in considerable pain and requires deep commitment.  All too often, we want the benefit of faith without any of the sacrifices it requires.  “The cross comes not to relieve this tension, but to highlight it as we realize just how far we have fallen and how far we need to go” as individuals and as the church.    The real question that challenges us as Christians is this:  “Is it possible to stand with the marginalized, even those marginalized by the church, and still sing hallelujah?”  I firmly answer yes- but only with considerable effort and faith.  We have to give up our desire to seem and project perfection and instead just try to hold on to each other and the hurting in the world with love.

With that challenging and yet inspirational message, we concluded day 2.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Annual Conference - Monday Report

Good day church!  As we go through Annual Conference, I hope to keep you in the loop about the days events.  Please note- many of the worship sessions can be streamed live.  Worship is the best part of conference so I encourage you to tune in.
The theme of this year’s annual conference is 
Planted in the Past, Rooted in the Future
This theme comes to us from Psalm 1:3-
“They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.”
This year marks the 200th anniversery of the first Annual Conference of Methodists held in Chillicothe in 1812.  The meeting was poorly attended due to the raging 1812 War, but indeed Methodists gathered to organize themselves for ministry.

Each year, we begin our annual conference by joining together in communion and remembering those clergy, clergy spouses and conference lay leaders who have entered into the life eternal in the past year.  We celebrated our connection to saints who have served the church for well over 90 years.  I’m humbled to know that one day I too will be read amongst this list of names.
Bishop Hopkins sermon was entitled “Being Strong in our Broken Places.”  It highlighted the way in which we are called to "become strong at the broken places by turning to god for healing so that his love may shine through in your brokenness.”  Too often we are lured into believing that it is through our strength that God works.  We think we have to pretend all is perfect and project that strength.  We have to aggressively pursue our dreams and our wants and desires.  But ultimately, Christianity is about “losing the life we dream of for the life Christ intends for us"
He shared with us our Max Cleland declared that his life truly started the day a grenade took both of his legs and one of his arms.  He was forced to confront his weakness and it led him to a life of service.  Former BW president Mark Collier shared his own struggle with stuttering.  He said that he discovered that his stuttering became his teacher- forcing him to learn to be patient and to be open toward others.
Engaging in ministry through our weakness rather than our strengths can be a difficult concept to grasp.  Bishop Hopkins used an analogy of healing to describe how this works.  When a bone is broken, all that doctors can do is line up the pieces and allow healing to happen.  If you try to force the process, you only make it worse.  Ministry is the same way-  you cannot force people to change or force transformation on their lives.  You instead have to line people up in the right direction and then let go.  Allow transformation to happen.  But that can’t happen until we admit and acknowledge our own brokenness.
Our first business session was for the clergy only.  In it, we approved the commissioning of 17 provisional elders and 3 provisional deacons.  We need to lift these 20 individuals up in prayer as they begin their first steps into ministry.  We also approved 4 people to be ordained as elders and 1 as a deacon.  These individuals have served in ministry for a minimum of 3 years.  Ordination means they have taken on a life long sacrament in which they will serve God in this special calling.  I hope to join them next year as I first become eligible for ordination.
One difficult moment came when one pastor was placed on involuntary leave due to administrative charges.  While the nature of the issue is confidential, we want to lift this pastor and his family up in our prayers as they seek new direction.
After the clergy session, we had a series of reports about the state of the church.  Our jurisdiction (which stretches from Ohio to North Dakota) will have one less bishop during the next four years.  This reduction was made to help fund the placement of new bishops in the Democratic Republic of Congo- our fastest growing area of Methodism.
The Youth Annual Conference reported that their theme this year was “In Christ we are set free”   They showed a video of all of the fun they had over the previous three days and announced they had passed 2 resolutions.  The first was to encourage every church to hold a youth night for ages 5-18.  In addition, they voted to require that all events sponsored by CCYM must have gluten free bread for communion.
In the treasurer’s report, Jessica Vargo indicated that in every major statistical area regarding participation, we declined.  This means that we had less people in worship, less members, less baptisms and fewer people in Sunday School.  However, the financial state of the conference is strong.  Apportionment payments are up, our Emergency and Health Care reserves are solid, our Pension and Health care obligations are funded and we have paid our full general church apportionments for the 6th year in a row.  Together, this means we have an opportunity to grow, but we need to seize it now by focusing on creating vital congregations.
To do this, the conference is focusing on the following 5 areas:
Clergy Leadership

We hired a recruiter and are looking for ways  to help pay for their education of new young clergy.

Lay Leaders

We tend to recycle lay leaders, but we are not grooming lay leaders and creating a new generation.
We need to leverage technology to allow for better access to meetings for laity.

Church growth

We need to better track our numbers so we know where we stand

New church starts

Vital Mergers (2 or more churches come together and start something new) have been successful.

Shift Resources

We need to shift away from propping up dying congregations and toward investing in  areas of growth.  For example, when a church doesn’t pay apportionment in full, we are essentially supplementing their ministry.  Thus, non-payment of shared ministry will be taken into the equation when churches apply for grants
We concluded the day by celebrating several bright spots.  In the Tuscarawas district, the celebrated the charting of Crosspoint UMC, first church chartered in 20 years. This means that this new church has moved from infancy to fully mature and active status within the conference.  They were planted in 2005 by Church of the Lakes UMC and continue to grow and bloom.
In the Three Rivers district, 20+ churches teamed together to build a house in less then a year.   By the end of the summer, one family will have a new home and can celebrate the work of God.  
It was a busy day!  May God watch over us tomorrow and in the days to come as we continue to invest in the future of the church.

Update:  Of Special Note- Sade Davis-Reynolds, pastor of Seven Hills UMC, celebrated her retirement last night!  However, her work will continue on a part-time basis as she returns to Seven Hills on a part time basis.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Take me to your leader

Scriptures for Sunday, June 10th


If you have been reading the paper, particularly the business session, you may be aware the Greece is the center of a European financial crisis that dwarfs anything we are experiencing in the US.  Greece is currently experiencing massive unemployment, bank runs and unserviceable debt.   The government has been forced to massively cut back on public services and the economy has only gotten worse.  In the midst of this crisis, the Greeks held a national election.  The results showed that the people had lost faith in the two main political parties and were looking for anyone, and I mean, anyone else to lead the countries.  
So they turned from the main centrist parties to those of the extreme right and the extreme left.
In the midst of crisis, needing rapid action to unify the country and make important decisions, the people elected both communists and neo-Nazi’s, central planners and anarchists, and said go fix this.  There was a video going around last week of one of the neo-Nazi’s slapping several of the communist party members.  How do you think that’s work out for them?
You see- in the midst of crisis, the temptation is to do anything, try anything, follow anyone who comes along in the hope that someway, somehow, you’ll get through.
This is not a new phenomenon.  The tendency to panic in the midst of chaos may be one of our most ingrained responses-
Fight or Flight
This can be helpful when trying to dodge a lion in the wilderness, but less so when it comes to discerning new leadership, new direction, the new movement of the spirit.
Back in the time before the first Kings of Israel, we find the people in the midst of chaos and concern.  Their long time leader, Samuel, is beginning to get up there in years.  He has led the people well and has helped them to prosper.  However, he feels it is time to step down and appoints his sons to rule in his place.
Up until now, the people have been governed by a series of Judges.  Not judges in the way we might think of it, no, these judges were often Holy people, sometimes warriors, sometimes political leaders, who would be elevated to lead the people.  The Bible tells us that these judges were like people-  some of the time they followed God and did good, some of the times they did evil and the nation suffered for it.
So, the Israelite people have a real crisis moment-  Samuel has handed over the reigns of leadership to his sons.  And, unfortunately, his sons are corrupt.  They take bribes, they pervert justice, all in all- a terrible choice for leaders.  It seems like everyone knows it but Samuel.  
So the people panic-  and they look to their neighbors.  “Everyone else has a king.  Why can’t we just get one?  Surely, that would solve all our problems, wouldn’t it?”
Samuel’s response?  He gets angry.  He declares that not only have they rejected him, but they have rejected God.  He proceeds to warn them of all of the dangers of having a King, and yet, the people don’t listen.  They respond-  “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, 20so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”
They panic.  And, as panic often does- it creates blind spots all over.  Samuel can’t see his own culpability in installing his corrupt sons into a position of power.  But that leaves us with the people.  There is no doubt that they have a legitimate grievance.  They are afraid of the injustice that Samuel’s sons will inflict on society.  But- if they think the real problem is injustice from above, calling their leader a king hardly seems like a solution.  As the people switch from a judges-based system to a king-based one- they have good kings and bad.  Just kings and corrupt kings.  War and peace.  Order and chaos.
The leadership has changed- the condition?  Not so much.
This is an ancient problem folks- and one very much alive today.  Chaos happens.  We face turmoil and distress in the world.  the real issue is- what do we do next?
The ancient Israelites panicked.  The modern Greeks panicked.
So what all does this mean to us?  My friends, I think the church in the US in general, and our church in particular, has realized that we have a problem.  Membership is declining across the country and here at IUMC.  Worship attendance is down.  Somehow, the church has failed to be compelling to the next generation.  As we who are inside the doors, we who have been helped in so many ways by the church, see the decline around us, we rightly see a problem.  And- having fully realized the extent of the problem-  we panic!  I think the church as a whole has been in panic mode for almost a full generation.  We have alternatively blamed theologies, structure, the terribleness of current generations, and a myriad of other scapegoats.
We rightly recognize the problem.  And like our ancestors before us, we don’t quite know what do to.
Let’s look at where the ancient Israelites go wrong?  After all, they rightly saw that there was a problem!  After Samuel explained all the problem with Kings- lets recall again the response of the people- “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”
They want a king.  Why?  Because everyone else is doing it!!!
Is this a nation of teenagers?  These are supposed to be God’s people.  Special!  Holy!  A city on a hill.  The shining light that will bring salvation to all peoples.  And they just want to be like everyone else.  Ordinary.  Normal.  Just give us the day to day corruption- at least we know that.
My friends- the Israelites-  the church today-  we aren’t called to be normal!  We aren’t called to be ordinary.  We have had a heavy task laid on us-  we are supposed to be God followers.  We are supposed to be the medium through which God works to bring salvation to all!
Thats a heavy task.  And its a task we are not going to accomplish if we keep turning to corporate business models, more modern marketing technics, or even, and you know this hurts my heart, Facebook as the answer to all our problems.  We are called to be more than ordinary.  
We need to look to Jesus, to scripture, and to the Holy Spirit as it moves through each other, to see who and what we are to become.  One way we are going to do this this summer is spending a lot of time on the figure of David- the great and flawed King of Israel.  He, like us, was a somewhat ordinary person called to be extraordinary.  And he, like us, had many flaws.  And yet, seeming without miracles or direct divine intervention, God used David to do amazing things.  Perhaps in David we will find a bit of ourselves and find God’s will for our own lives.
Other than wanting to be ordinary, I think there is one other big problem with the Israelite’s response-   “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”
They want the king to go fight their battles for them.
We see a problem.  Now you- go fix it for us.  The church is struggling- hey you-pastor, get on that.  Our community is crumbling- hey you, Mayor, do something, will you?  When the community has a problem- no individual leader is likely to solve it.  It is the community itself that will need to do some soul searching, organize to fix the problem, and go forward and make change.
My friends, when faced with a crisis of corruption, of having lost their way, the Israelites thought they could solve the problem by being ordinary and changing leaders.  They were right- the particular leaders they were faced with were corrupt.  But- good and bad leaders come and go.  When you look closely at scripture, what was consistent was the peoples desire to follow anyone but God.  They ignored that the core issue was themselves- so they never solved the problem.
As we the church, both universal and particular, struggle with losing relevance, we have to stop pointing the fingers outside of ourselves.  We have to discern what the core issue is.  I’m not claiming its our own corruption and lack of faithfulness (though we have to consider that too), but I am saying before jumping to solutions we have to discern the real core issue-  Why are we here?  If we believe God is going to transform the world, our community through us- what is the issue that needs transformation?  
God is calling us to do some extraordinary things.  But first, I think God call us to answer a question- 
“What do you experience in the world and the church that calls for urgent action?”  
As you pray over that question- look around at your community through God’s eyes.  Talk to some other people.  And come back and talk to me, to your lay leader Judy Perry or any of the other church leaders as we seek to find together the will of God for our church.  As we begin to discern the answer to that key question- as we really articulate the problem- it is only than that we can find our way forward.