Finding Places of Joy

The Third Week of Advent always stands out to me. On Sunday, we will light the pink candle of Advent as it is Gaudete Sunday.

Gaudete Sunday refers to the Latin translation for the word “rejoice.” The pink candle of Advent is lit to represent the places where we can find joy in our relationship with Christ and how our souls rejoice in the Lord. It stands out in a sea of purple candles.

Just as joy stands out in our world today. We don’t always see places filled with joy. What we often find instead are places of frustration, anger, and sadness.

That is what we easily focus upon when we look back on the year. Our end-of-the-year reflections are often geared towards the struggles and hardships that we have faced or the disruptive forces in the world. When we think of 2018, we might think of the chaotic and anger-filled midterm election. We might think of the disruptive political atmosphere and the divisions we are experiencing as a nation. We might, even, look at it a little closer to home and think about lower offerings and church attendance.

I think we focus on these things – these challenges – because our hearts are often set to a posture of fear and disharmony than it is to live with joy. In reality, to feel and express joy is counter to our natural inclinations and desires. Fear is a natural emotion for us, but joy is not. Fear leads to agony, which leads to distrust, which leads to separation, and, then, anger.

Joy does just the opposite. Joy is about an inner sense of hope and longing for the Lord and having that desire be at the core of our response for the world. Paul writes in Philippians 4:4 that we are to “rejoice in the Lord always.” We are to live with an uncommon joy that is found in knowing God and living for God.

It is a joy that is filled with inner peace. When we rejoice in the Lord, we are able to recognize that our sense of self-worth comes in knowing God’s redeeming and eternal love for us. It does not come from a posture of living up to people’s expectations, filling our calendar with too many things, or even trying to do it all. It comes in knowing that we are a child of God and a person of sacred and holy worth. That joy of knowing a peace that leads to wholeness and connection.

We are able to rejoice in God, because we know God’s love for us is not measured upon what we do. Our reactions to love are often based upon what we get out of the experience. We will love someone only if they return those same affections to us. That is not how God’s love works. God’s love is based upon the primary characteristic of who God is: love. We cannot earn God’s love. We cannot get God to love us more than the Lord already does. God’s love is there for us regardless of how we may respond. That leads us to an experience of true joy.

Let’s be clear, though, that joy is not an empty emotion. What often hinders us is we think that if we are to be people of joy then we should never get upset or angry. We may even think we will never experience challenges or sorrows.

That is nowhere near the truth. I often remind people that Jesus experienced the fullness of life, which means that he got angry (read John 2 and the story of Jesus turning the tables over), got upset (at religious leaders), and experiences challenges (to his authority and disciples not living up to expectations).

What living with joy means, though, is an acknowledgement that when those moments happen, we are not going to allow it to affect our desire for God. That deep sense of joy in knowing God’s love, then, affects how we respond to these challenges and difficulties. We may not respond as the world would, but we are motivated to be guided by the love of Christ and the joy of our heart.

That might mean that our joy for the Lord leads us to fight for justice and equal treatment of all people. It might mean that our joy for the Lord will lead us to seek forgiveness and reconciliation. It might mean, too, that our joy for the Lord will lead us to offer care to people who have experienced the same sorrows we have experienced.

Joy truly stands out. In a world of self-focused living joy reminds that as we are connected to God, we are able to make a deep and impactful difference in the world.

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Moving Forward from 2018

The day after Election Day is always for process stories.

Why did the Democrats win the House of Representatives? Why did Republicans maintain control of the Senate? What does this mean for 2019 in Kentucky? What does it mean for the presidential race in 2020? What does it mean for (insert your favorite cause here)?

Process stories are important. They help us to understand what took place during an election, especially an election as highly contested as yesterday. Turnout was high across the nation and in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. In Caldwell County, more than 50 percent of registered voters went to the polls.

I’m not as interested in who won or lost, as a follower of Christ, as I am in how we can build move forward beyond the divisions we are experiencing today. How can we move forward as the body of Christ as a response to our political realities?

I believe that is the question that is comes out of our recent conversation about having a Christ-like political engagement. If we truly are to be of Christ and live in the world, then our actions within the political realm – the words we say, the decisions we make, and the actions we take on behalf of others – must reflect the love and hope of Jesus Christ. There must be practical steps to our belief that Christ calls us to be citizens of God’s kingdom who reflect kingdom values in the world.

One of the most important things we can do is pray for our leaders. As we’ve mentioned before, praying is one of the most basic values of a disciples of Jesus Christ. In prayer we call upon God’s blessings, discernment, and wisdom to be upon the person. We are not praying for our agenda to be heard or enacted. What we do pray for is for our leaders to be protected, cared for, and to know that they are a child of God.

At the same time, though, we should be willing to engage those politically different than us. Jesus gives us the model for this. None of his core disciples came from the same background. Some were fishermen. Some were tax collectors. Some were pious. Some were zealots. What brought them together were common values and a desire to follow Jesus wherever he went.

Too often, though, our friendships are limited to those who hold the same affinities as we do. It is why we often hear this line after an election: I don’t know why (insert candidate won) none of my friends voted for them. Much of our political divisions and rhetoric would be eased, I believe, if we were willing to make friends and have conversations with those who come from different backgrounds than us.

This is true not just in the political arena. One of the most glaring divisions in America today is the urban and rural divide. I do not believe the issues and needs in these two areas of the nation are understood by those beyond those areas. That creates a situation where we talk past one another instead of with each other and, at the same time, have a battle for resources and attention. A willingness to understand comes forth from a desire to engage and converse with those from a different background.

Finally, I believe Christ calls us to keep the main thing the main thing. That is to make disciples of Jesus Christ of all nations and people. That is our most important work and a mission that we often neglect to gain the acceptance of those in political power. Our primary purpose is to make disciples who are empowered and equipped to transform their corner of the world for Christ. We are not called to make Republican Christians or Democratic Christians. We are called to be disciples who are Christ-like in our words, actions, and deeds.

We cannot get distracted by political power in absence to the mission of sharing the love of Christ.

Pray. Engage. Keep to the mission.

If the church does that, then we will lead a revival of love and care into our communities that will share the love of Christ in the midst of our divisions.

A Christ-Like Political Engagement

Every Election Day is special for me. It ranks as one of my favorite days of the year. As I’ve mentioned before, the day for me includes voting as early as possible and, then, staying up until the last vote is counted or the election is determined. Sadly, the day no longer includes the customary pizza as it did during my journalism days.

I’m fascinated with not only elections. I love trying to discern how different races will affect the entire narrative of Election Day. I love looking at how various precinct returns can determine the outcome of an election.

I am a political nerd.

While I love Election Day and following elections, what I’m also intrigued by is how we, as followers of Christ, engage the public arena. I believe we have an important role to play in the public square, but we must be Christ-like in how we live this out. Our engagement must always be guided by the foundations of our love of Christ and not by our partisan desires.

I do not believe it is God’s desire for the church to be a sounding board for our favorite political party. The church, as well, should not be a place where only those of a particular political ideology are welcome. Just as the church is welcoming of people of different races and cultures, so too should the church be welcoming of those from all political ideologies.

This is a cornerstone value for me and my ministry. I believe the church is at its best when we are a large community made of people from different walks of life, urban and rural, black and white, Republican and Democrat. Throughout my ministry, I’ve been blessed to provide pastoral care and leadership to Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, and those who never get involved in elections. They have each taught me something about the church and our engagement in different issues.

What I desire is to truly model our witness in the public square after Jesus’ own engagement, because, yes, Jesus was political. He was never a partisan in the terms that we would use today, but he was, in fact, willing to engage the public square.

The very nature of his birth was the first such engagement. In Luke’s account of the Nativity, the angels proclaim a message of “good news” to the shepherds of Jesus’ birth. This connects to a practice within the Roman Empire to announce the birth of a new Caesar as “good news.” The birth of Jesus stands and Jesus’ life stands against any claim to kingship and authority.

As well, Jesus’ earthly ministry was filled with encounters that challenged the accepted practices and custom of the time. The testimony of women, for instance, was seen as unreliable, yet Jesus often invited women into discipleship and called the women in the garden to be the first to announce the message of the resurrection. Children in Jesus’ time were often ignored and mistreated, and yet Jesus embraced children and said they had a place in the kingdom of God. Jesus’ own death came because he was seen as a political threat by the Roman powers in Jerusalem. Jesus was political.

Followers of Christ should be willing and able to speak to the issues of the day. Our engagement in policy matters must come out of our faith in Christ. This is helped by interpreting what Scripture says on an issue through the help of tradition (what has the church said about an issue throughout time), reason (what do we know about an issue), and experience (what is our shared experience on this topic).

We should never shy from being a voice of hope, peace, joy, and love in the public arena as a response to our faith in God. In doing so though, our primary allegiance is to God and not to our partisan loyalties.

On November 6, I encourage you to vote but also to pray for those who are seeking elected office. I know from personal experience how hard and demanding the campaigns for any office is, and so we give thanks to God for those who put themselves in nomination for elected responsibility. As well, let us ponder where God leads us to be a voice of hope, peace, love, and joy through the issues that face us.

We are not a political party, but we are a church. Thanks be to God for that!

Lessons for the Church at Sears

My grandmother has this fascination with buying Christmas presents early. I want to appreciate that in her, but something has always made me shrug my shoulders when in August and September she lovingly asks, “What do you think Noah wants for Christmas.”

Now, take me back to the days of getting the Sears’ Wish Book in the mail and I can promise you I had a different reaction. We looked forward to receive the catalog each year. When it arrived, we would turn through the catalog’s pages as if it we were on a shopping spree filled with endless wonders. We would circle our desired items and eagerly wait for Christmas morning.

I still have never got the electronic football field game.

On Monday, a part of the American experience came to an end. Once the nation’s largest retailer, Sears Holdings filled for bankruptcy protection in a move that was long expected for the struggling commercial giant. The filling sets in motion a series of developments that will lead to the closing of 142 stores and other changes.

While business writers and economists will talk about what Sears’ bankruptcy filing means for the economy or, even, the upcoming midterm elections, I’m left wondering what lessons the church can take from the bankruptcy. There are warning signs for the church within Sears’ bankruptcy.

For one, at the root of Sears’ struggles is a legacy of trying to maintain its current business model without much adaptation to reach new people. Since Sears’ lost the title of “America’s top retailer” to Wal-Mart in the 1990s, the company has been trying different approaches with the same goal in mind: Get back to its once lofty position in the American consumer market.

What Sears failed to realize was how the market was changing, especially with the advent of online shopping and retail stores that were more targeted to specific segments of the economy. It struggled to adapt and maintained a large presence in the “big box” store mindset of having people come to them.

The church, especially in the United States, has a similar problem. One of our struggles is how to adapt to the world around us. We are in the midst of a historic seismic shift in the way people think and approach religion. At the same time, we are seeing changes in the culture, especially in how people receive information and engage with one another. This is a 500-year shift in how we think and approach community life that is the equivalent to the changes that took place prior to the Reformation.

In response, we are struggling to appropriately adapt to the changes. Many of our activities with the culture are centered around a mindset of “doing the things we’ve always done … but better” mindset. We are more concerned with maintaining the status quo, and often believe that if we do so that we will also reach new people. The two cross each other out. We cannot continue to do the same things, especially if they are not working to reach people, and expect them to work.

What adaptations Sears did undertake, in the last 20 years, was centered on consolidation and assuring loyal customers would remain loyal. There was limited outreach to gain new consumers for their stories.

One of the biggest decisions for Sears in that time frame, beyond today’s announcements, was the acquisition of Kmart in 2005. The merger was intended to promote a larger outreach and a renewed vitality for the retailers, but in time only led to a weaker product. Sears was left to deal with under-performing stores in bad locations. The move led to the company beginning a slow process of closing stores, while also trying to maintain its customer base.

It didn’t work.

The church struggles with the same temptation to try new things that only end up reaching the same people. A merger, for instance, of Sears and Kmart only benefited those who favored shopping at those stories. It wasn’t going to move people who didn’t like shopping in giant stores to come their way. It was an internal move that led to disastrous internal responses.

Many of our conversations in the church only pertain to those who are already part of our communities, especially when it comes to outreach. When we talk about reaching new people, often what we really mean is we want to encourage those who have left to come back home. While that kind of outreach is important and needed, what we often forget about is the important bridge-building work that needs to be done to share the love of Jesus Christ with those who believe there is nothing for them in the community of faith.

Like Sears, what often hinders us from having those conversations are concerns about resources and money. The church, today, spends a large amount of our resources making sure we have enough money in the offering plate to support our work. The conversation, though, is about maintaining what we are doing, because by the time we get to doing missions and outreach there is seldom enough time, because our focus is on making sure the church doesn’t close its doors.

Jesus doesn’t call us to a Sears-type ministry. In fact, Jesus calls us into a ministry and mission where the harvest is plentiful. To reach the generation that is in front of us will require us to adapt our missional engagements to be more effective. The message of Jesus Christ never changes, but how we reach people and share that love may need to look different in order to share that love.

If we are unwilling to make the necessary adaptations, the stories written about the church in the future may be the same written, today, about Sears: A once mighty cornerstone of the community that was never able to keep up with the times.

How Should We Respond to Sexual Assault

Perhaps like many of you, I sat glued to my television and live stream on my computer as Christine Blasey Ford testified about an alleged sexual assault that took place while she was in high school. The accused person in the assault, Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh, would testify later that day.

It was a moment that recalled the Anita Hill testimony in 1991 regarding then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. It was also a moment that brought up pain for those who have been the victims of sexual assault, their families, and others.

Personally, I cannot imagine what it must have been like for Ford or Kavanaugh in that moment. I cannot relate to their pain, because I have not experienced that for myself. Yet, their testimony and the conversation regarding sexual assault – not just in the past week but, truly, in the last few years – has been on my mind. The question I keep thinking about is this: How does God call us to respond to these moments?

Statistics tell us that more that one in five women and one in 71 men will be sexually assaulted in their lives. The vast majority of these assaults, more than 60 percent, will never been reported to the authorities. Only a handful of the reported assaults, between 2-10 percent, are deemed to be falsely reported.

Those numbers tell us that we likely know someone, whether they have told us or not, who has been the victim of either a sexual assault or an attempted assault. This is something that is close to home for us all.

However, our primary response is often to politicize or demean the accusations. I know this from first-hand experience.

In 2006, I was a reporter for what was then known as the Pope Center for Higher Education Reform in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. My role was to cover higher education issues and stories for a libertarian-leaning organization. During that time, the Duke Lacrosse case began to make national news. As a refresher, members of the Duke lacrosse team were accused of sexual assault, only to be exonerated after a lengthy political and judicial process. One of my editors wanted me to push hard on the story, because it was what people were talking about and it was in our backyard. There was a faint connection to higher education policy, even though we largely dealt with public institutions.

I felt uncomfortable with the story. It didn’t feel like it reached the standards of what our organization was about – discussing policy and classical liberal arts education. The editor won, and I found myself at Duke University covering protests related to the case. It was not a story I look back on fondly. I am left with the feeling that we covered the story simply to play “gotcha” journalism with Duke University during a time of deep confusion and anxiety. It was a bad situation.

That moment reminds me of other reactions to sexual assault allegations. We will often use “boys will be boys” language to dismiss allegations that we deem to be unfair or unnecessary. The language casts boys and men as sexually-focused individuals who cannot control their inner needs. At the same time, we will tell girls and women that “if you wouldn’t dress that way” nothing would happen to you. This language dismisses women as mere objects instead of God’s beloved. Neither response is what God calls us to be about, but these are often the reactions we see expressed in the moments after a sexual assault allegation is raised.

We can, and must, do better.

I believe God calls the church to do better in our care for people regarding sexual assault. The Great Commandment teaches us to love God and to love others as ourselves. Our love for others comes out of the commitment and unconditional love God shares with us. We are to love others and value people in the ways we would want to be treated. This is especially the case when it comes to hearing the pain from those who have dealt with sexual assault.

The church, and those who seek to follow in Christ’s footsteps, should be a safe place where we give a listening ear to victims of sexual assault. We should be a place where victims can express their pain and have a community of support who will listen to them, comfort them, and support them unconditionally. The church should be a place of love, and grace for victims of sexual assault.

As well, the church should and must be a place of grace and hope for those accused of sexual assault. We must be willing to offer the accused a chance to express their story, to offer repentance, and redemption. We are, after all, a grace-filled people who seek the resurrection’s hope of second chances for all people.

In all situations, though, we must be willing to pray for the victims, the accused, and their families. At the same time, we must do a better job expressing grace-filled sexual ethics that start at the basic desire of love, respect, and treating each other as we would want to be treated. We must take leadership in creating places of safety and grace, so that our communities will be a place where all people are treated and valued because of their sacred worth in God’s eyes.

This is an important time for our nation, but I believe it is also an important time in our witness of God’s love in these areas. May we share the kingdom ethics in treating others as we would want to be treated.

Claiming Our Values

Throughout September, we have shared our values at Ogden Memorial UMC. It has been an intentional process of prayer and discernment as we have sought to work on claiming the five central values for our church.

Each of our five core values – love, discipleship, prayer, worship, and community – are the essence of what it means to be the people of God. Keep in mind we claim that these values are the foundational principles that define our mission as we seek to be a living witness of Jesus Christ and make disciples here in Princeton. They are unchangeable and permanent. Ministries may change, but our values stay as what will always define who we are and whose we are.

As we move forward, we will ask our ministries and missions of Ogden Memorial to consider how their work is defined by these values. How are we being people of love? How is what we are doing leading people to a deeper walk with Jesus? Are we living a life of prayer? Are we doing everything with a sense of worship? Are we living in true community with one another?

These are important and holy questions that we will consider and live into over the coming months. To answer any of these questions we will need the value we will discuss Sunday, and that is prayer. To be honest, without prayer we cannot be the people of God or live out our mission to be a witness of Jesus Christ. Prayer is everything.

On Sunday morning, we will talk about how we view prayer as a central part of not just our life together at Ogden Memorial but our life in Christ. You’ll hear from a member of the vision team about how prayer has impacted their life. Most importantly, though, you will have the opportunity to begin to live out this value of prayer.

During worship, you will have a time to pray for one another. In lieu of the pastoral prayer, we will have a time of congregational prayer where you will be invited to get into a group of 3-4 people to pray and encourage one another. We hope that you will find someone who is not related to or, even more, someone that perhaps you need to seek forgiveness or healing from.

Following worship, we invite you to stay after for a prayer walk. Members of our vision team will lead us into the community for a time of intentional prayer. For those who are unfamiliar with a prayer walk, you will be invited to pray in silent reflection as we walk to our destination, paying attention to what you see around you, and lifting the people, places, and our entire community to God. We will stop at specific places for an intentional time of prayer.

We are looking forward to Sunday. This is an important time at Ogden Memorial, and we believe God is up to something here. We hope you will be a part of that excitement on Sunday.

 

Love Your Enemy: How Christ Calls Us to Love People We Disagree With

One of my favorite television shows is “The West Wing.” The classic Aaron Sorkin drama about life in the White House was one of the best written dramas and more than 10 years after its last episode aired it still fascinates viewers with its impressive dialogue and storytelling.

The show is one I turn to when I want to get away from the world. Abbi in her loving kindness gave me the entire series for Christmas one year, and life has never been the same for my viewing habits.

The other day I had an episode on in the background while sitting in my home office. It was an episode I’ve seen dozens of time. A Republican lawyer outwits the deputy speechwriter on a national public affairs program. This led to the president wanting to hire her, which led to the frustration of key staff members. At the end of the episode, she is in the chief of staff’s office waiting to give her response to the job offer when she meets the deputy chief of staff and the same deputy speechwriter she debated. Their conversation quickly turned to one of the issues discussed in the episode – gun control in the aftermath of a presidential assassination attempt. After a lengthy discussion, the lawyer ended the conversation by saying the problem with their position was that they didn’t like people who who like guns.

I mention the story not to talk about guns or even gun control, but to reflect upon the meaning of that line. She essentially said, “You don’t like people who disagree with you.” Something about it, even though I’ve heard it time and time again, stayed with me. I believe it is because I see it in our conversations today.

We don’t like people who disagree with us.

It shouldn’t take us long to recognize this issue. We struggle with loving and respecting anyone who disagree with us.

This is something I pay a lot of attention to, both as a pastor and also someone who is interested in public theology (how Christ moves us into the public square to be a faithful witness of Jesus Christ in the world). We are experiencing the rise of what I call “acceptable anger” towards those we disagree with. What I mean is that we find it within the boundaries of normal behavior to demean or ridicule personally those who have a different view than what we may hold. Our actions and words are intended not to discuss the issues, but to dismiss those who would dare to see things from a different perspective. We find it acceptable, because we believe that if we are right then it makes our response towards others automatically virtuous and righteous.

One of the places “acceptable anger” is displayed is on social media platforms. Facebook groups and posts that deal with various issues are often highlighted by resentment towards the people who have a different view. We write in such a way that we seek to separate ourselves from those who offer another perspective.

It is easy to dismiss this as a social media problem, and in some ways, it is because we are unable to personally interact with someone through the words we type it is not. Social media is a user-generated platform, which means how we engage social media is often a reflection of who we are and who we have become.

Where I notice this being especially bad is among fellow United Methodists as it relates to conversations on human sexuality and the upcoming 2019 General Conference. I am a member of several clergy online groups. The intent of these groups is to seek practical advice, discuss issues, and encourage one another in ministry. What often happens is that these platforms can be used by people to demean those who disagree with an interpretation of Scripture, perspective on the future of the church, and the issues facing the global movement of God’s kingdom. Posts quickly turn towards name calling towards anyone who has a different perspective.

These posts and comments are from pastors. If the shepherd of a congregation – the pastor – is dismissive towards others, how can the sheep – the flock of a congregation – know the way to truly loving others as God calls us to love?

I have always been struck by how Jesus’ words to love your enemies from Matthew 5:43 is one of the hardest to apply to our lives. An enemy is more than someone who seeks to do harm towards you. An enemy can be someone you disagree with and do not value because of their opinion. So, how do we love our enemy if our enemy is someone we disagree with?

Perhaps it is found in living out the Great Commandment: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves. Love means we give of ourselves in deep connection and commitment to God. This is our response to God’s love towards us, which is reflected in God’s creation and presence in our lives.

Our love of God, then, shapes how we respond to one another. We are called to treat each other with the same love we would want shown towards us. That means we value people for who they are and meet them where they are. We can only do this when we see the imago Dei – the image of God – in those we disagree with. Genesis 1:27 reminds of how each person was created in the image of God to reflect the very character of God. Every person is of sacred worth, even those we disagree with, because they are beloved by God.

This changes our response to people. To treat people with love is to see them as someone of worth. It changes the conversation from seeing someone as an enemy, but as a person God loves in the same ways God loves us.

Richard Mouw, a Christian ethicist who wrote the book “Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil Word.” In the book, he shares how kindness and gentleness should be the defining mark of our relationship with others, especially with those we disagree with on certain issues. Mouw writes, “When Christians fail to measure up to the standards of kindness and gentleness, we are not the people God meant us to be.”

He is right. Our calling as Christ followers is to be above the practices of the world, especially as it relates to our conversations with one another about what it means to be the church. Being people of holy love doesn’t mean we cannot disagree with issues nor does it mean we ignore real issues so as not to offend anyone. What it means that in our conversations about the serious issues that face the church and, truly, the world, we must be ever mindful that within the person we disagree with is the imago Dei.

How different would our world be if we enter into them remembering that God’s image is in the person we disagree with?