Reflections from a Day of Prayer

For months, we waited for the Commission on a Way Forward to complete its work.

For months, we waited for delegates to gather in St. Louis for the called General Conference.

And as the General Conference began on Saturday, we waited for the work to begin as we spent the day in a time of prayer of worship and reflection.

We waited. And it was holy.

Delegates to the called General Conference here in St. Louis spent the majority of Saturday’s opening session in prayer for the church. Keep in mind delegates are only here until Tuesday and we spent a day praying for the church and its mission.

And it was holy.

There is a temptation, especially with the time limit facing delegates and the work before them, to rush right in to the petitions and the various plans before General Conference. We want to rush to the finish line without taking care of the important spiritual needs of the church.

We want to debate. We want to deliberate. We want to get on with it.

We seldom want to come together to pray, to be centered, and to hear about the needs of our brothers and sisters. This is not just a problem for General Conference. It is a problem for the entire church.

Our struggles with being the church comes when we want to do the work of the church without being the mission of the church. Part of this is because being is harder than doing.

What do I mean by this?

In doing, we feel like we are accomplishing something. Worship has been held. Food distributed to those in need. Bible Studies were conducted. We can do things for the Lord and on behalf of the church and feel good about ourselves without ever doing the hard things of being the church.

The hard things of being the church take places when we stop, slow down, and are centered to experience the presence of God. The hard things are enhanced when we pray, listen, and talk with one another.

So, today we did the hard things by praying for one another. We did the hard things by not debating the plans from the Commission on a Way Forward, but hearing about the needs that face the entire church. We did the hard things by asking for expressions of peace and forgiveness from one another.

Only time will tell about how today’s prayer session will affect the entire tone of General Conference. The delegates still have to work through difficult and challenging proposals.

The hope, at least for today, is that this called time began on the right foot by slowing down and being the church before doing the work of the church.

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Two Events, Two Moments for Hope

I’ve been looking forward to February for some time. It will truly be here before you know it. The month will be filled with opportunities for ministry, discipleship, and more than 13,000 miles on the road and air.

The two big events for February, as far as we are concerned, are our Holy Land trip and the called General Conference. In this week’s pastor’s note, I want to share with you about both of these important moments.

Holy Land Trip

We are excited to take approximately 20 people to the Holy Land from February 4-13. We will visit Tel Aviv, Nazareth, Bethlehem, Jericho, and, of course, Jerusalem. As well, we will visit the place where Jesus was born, where he was crucified and rose from the grave, and other important sites of our faith and spiritual heritage.

One of the holiest stops on the trip is praying at the Wailing Wall. This site is the most holy place in Jerusalem for Jews, as it is close to where the Holy of Holies – the symbolic place of God’s holy presence in the Temple – was located and is a place of deep prayer. Throughout the day, people will gather to this spot to pray and reflect.

Part of the custom at the Wailing Wall is to leave your written prayers in the cracks. Doing so is an act of giving your prayer. Twice a year, these prayers are collected and the papers are buried in the Mount of Olives.

We encourage you to send your personal prayers with us to place at the Wailing Wall. There is a basket outside of the sanctuary where you can leave your prayer. These will be prayed over at the wall and placed in the cracks. You have until January 27 to place your prayer cards in the basket.

During the trip, however, there will be several ways you can follow along with the pilgrims in Israel. We will provide a daily video wrap-up on our Facebook page and will post photos along the way. As well, our sermon on February 10 will come to us from Israel. You will not want to miss worship that day! We will provide time for those who went on the trip to share about their experiences as later date.

Please be in prayer for everyone who is going on the trip. One of the blessings of this experience is how this has become an ecumenical trip filled with people from various communities and churches in our area.

General Conference

February also brings with it the special called General Conference in St. Louis (February 23-26). As some of you know, I will be at General Conference assisting the work of the Kentucky Annual Conference’s Communications staff. You can learn more about General Conference, its importance as the only body that can speak officially on behalf of the United Methodist Church, and what will be discussed by visiting the Kentucky Annual Conference’s General Conference resource page.

My honest hope is we will continue to be a witness of Jesus Christ that is making disciples of Jesus Christ by how we honor both the Great Commandment and Great Commission. I have a great hope for the church and believe the church has a great future ahead of it, as I have shared with you previously.

As we prepare for General Conference, I invite you to attend the Concert of Prayer, sponsored by the Pennyrile District, on February 3 at 3 p.m., at Frist United Methodist Church in Hopkinsville. This event will focus on specific times of prayer for our entire church and provide opportunities for us to remember our connection with one another. The focus of our February 17 worship service will be on praying for the entire church as we enter this season.

Do Not Be Afraid

Both of these moments can lead to fear. Will everyone be safe in Israel? What will happen to the mission of the church? Please do not be fearful of anything. Jesus encourages us to be people who do not live in fear, but to live with a sense of hope. May that be who we are in these weeks to come.

A Prayer for Unity in Restless Times

One of the joys of being a United Methodist pastor is leading my congregation towards a deeper appreciation and understanding of the sacraments of communion and baptism. I firmly believe that each time we celebrate the sacraments of communion and baptism that it gives us a time to reflect on what they mean for us and how they call us to live today.

Our liturgy helps us in this. Each time we gather to celebrate communion, for instance, we do so through a prayer we call “The Great Thanksgiving.” It is a beautiful prayer that reminds us of God’s faithfulness, Christ’s passion, and the power of the Holy Spirit that equips us to be the church today.

There is one portion of the prayer that always seem to move me. A portion that reminds me of the difficult and challenging life that God calls us to in this time we find ourselves.

By your Spirit make us one in Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet. Continue reading

The Church Should Not Be a Place of Polarization

Like many Methodist pastors, last week, I followed from a distance the activities of the 2016 General Conference in Portland, Ore. I am not a delegate or an observer of the deliberations that will determine our structure, mission, and purpose for the coming four years and beyond. I am observing the activities through technology and social media trying to grab hold of the latest news and tidbits coming out of Portland.

What I have witnessed, thus far, has made me sad as a pastor, as a lifelong Methodist, but, more importantly, as a follower of God. I have seen the anger of division in our comments towards one another. I have seen the discord of bitterness reflected towards those who do not share the same viewpoint as we may have. I have seen the negativity of ridicule spoken towards those who may share another side of the discussion.

So far, General Conference has become the conference for the angry and the bitter. It has become the conference of the either/or. Our General Conference, which should reflect the best of who we are in our discernment as a community of faith, has become a reflection of the same polarization and disagreement we have witnessed in the public square of the political process.

This should not be a surprise to those who have paid attention to both society and the church in recent years. Society, especially in the United States, has become splintered along ideological and soci-economic lines. Anyone who does not share the same exact – and often extreme view of the world – is seen has the problem and should be defeated and disregarded. This has created the polarization of today. What this does is it pushes the sides further apart and creates a situation where the things we hold in common are less important than where we disagree.

In this, the voices of those who find truth in the middle are silenced. There is little room for moderating voices in our society today who seek to find truth in both positions and find a workable way forward. They are denounced as part of the problem.

I fear this same scenario is happening in the church, today, especially in The United Methodist Church. For several General Conference seasons now, groups representing all theological viewpoints have created a dividing line between “their” side and the “other” side. Only “their” side is true to the movement of the Holy Spirit, to the church, and the people we are called to walk with. It is the “other” side who are harming the mission of the church, its people, and are not hearing from God. Through this, much like society at larger, what we find in common with one another is silenced in the face of what we hold in disagreement.

There is not much room, in this current make-up of the church, for those who believe that the church and society should not be an either/or, but a both/and. Our theology and practice of ministry is at its best when we do not initially seek out polarizing responses, but responses that captures the heart of Scripture and God’s love for all. We are at our best when we hold together the truth of holiness and the call to justice.

The church should never be a place of the extreme. It should be a place that sits where Jesus comfortably sat. We often ascribe to Jesus as being on “our side,” yet Jesus often found himself in the middle of the conversations willing to challenge the extremes and to bring both sides together towards a deeper engagement of what it means to follow the Lord. We see this in how Jesus held firm on the importance of the law while holding to its deeper, and more difficult rendering, while also honoring the importance for seeking justice and caring for the least of these.

Jesus never called us to one side or another. He called us to a faith that is both/and and not either/or. Jesus calls us to honor both the need to be “holy as your heavenly Father is holy” while also seeking to care for others in the name of Jesus. When we try to say that the church has to be one or the other, and only that which is defined by our own viewpoint, we miss the depths of what Jesus calls us to be about as a church and a people who seek to follow the Lord.

There is no path forward for a church, so long as it seeks to be defined by the same either/or tendencies of our polarized society. There is a pathway forward to honoring God, reaching people, and sharing the same love of God that Jesus calls us to have on our hearts, if we seek to be the church of both/and, of both Scriptural holiness and the call to justice and mercy.

That is my prayer and hope for this General Conference as the second week commences today.

Reflections on the 2012 UMC General Conference

Later this afternoon, the 2012 General Conference of the United Methodist Church will come to a close. The two-week conference, which is held every four years, dealt with several important issues, such as restructuring, guaranteed appointment, and homosexuality. It also dealt with other issues that will not receive as much attention, which includes a change in the amount of money in the Ministerial Education Fund pool, a change in the apportionment formula, and a change in clergy pension.

While it will take some time to fully evaluate the impact these decisions and others will make on the global movement of the United Methodist Church, there is one trend that developed from General Conference that we must address.

That is we are more defined by political thought than we are by our faith in Jesus Christ. Continue reading

Social Media and the 2012 General Conference

I’m watching the 2012 General Conference from the extreme nosebleed seats: From the comforts of my office in Mackville, Ky., nearly 850 away. The blessings of a high-speed Internet connection and a capable laptop provides instant access through live streaming feeds of the plenary and worship sessions.

If that doesn’t provide enough access for someone interested in the decisions to be made at General Conference there is always social media. Facebook and Twitter were both active yesterday during the opening day of the conference. Perhaps anticipating this the church included an active feed of what was being said via #gc2012.

As with any conversation, social media has its benefits and distractions. This is especially noticeable during important  discussions and debates whether it is in the halls of Congress or in a convention center in Tampa.

The benefits to social media during General Conference should be obvious. It allows everyone to have a voice. With the “old media” forms, which I grew up with as a former journalist, only the “respected” voices would be heard on a television report or read in a newspaper’s account of an event. Social media’s involvement at General Conference allows for the voice of the marginalized and forgotten to be heard. Our leaders in Tampa need to hear from the entire movement of the United Methodist Church and not just those with political influence.

Social media also provides information on different issues. Recently I was informed through social media of an issue that will be discussed at General Conference. It is not one of the three major issues that will receive the most attention both inside and outside the church (reorganization, guaranteed appointment, and lifestyle discussions). Social media brings to light petitions “old media” would not have discussed. The large amount of petitions up for a consideration means not every issue will receive attention. Unfortunately, it also means important issues can get forgotten.

However, social media also has its drawbacks. This is true in regards to deep discussions about the future of the United Methodist Church.

The most obvious of these drawbacks is everyone has a voice. While we applaud that social media gives everyone a voice at the table we can also recognize its potential distraction to the process. The fact everyone has a voice does not guarantee that a person’s voice will be used in appropriate ways.

During the worship and plenary sessions, Twitter was filled with comments that were critical of whatever the given poster felt was inappropriate. During the opening worship, it ranged from the songs being used to the appropriateness of the style of worship. It was especially on display during the plenary session’s lengthy rules debate. Twitter was used to express frustrations with certain delegates and attempts to change the rules. Many of the frustrations came about if a rules change, especially regarding protests, would impact a person’s desires.

We would all be wise to be cautious about how we use social media to engage any process. Social media, and our 24-hour news cycle, does not offer time to provide appropriate reflection on important issues. We want to express things now. Often in the heat of the moment we are not taking the time to properly think through different perspectives. As well, the limit of 140 characters does not allow for appropriate discussions, so we must be wise on how we use this important forum.

As we go forward in General Conference, social media will be an important part of the story and will allow many to be a part of the process. It’s use can provide information and appropriate reflections, but let us hope that it does not become a stumbling block to hearing and doing the Father’s will.

My Thoughts as We Enter General Conference

General Conference begins tomorrow in Tampa. This is the quadrennial gathering of United Methodist from across the world that sets the agenda and mission for the church.

It is an important General Conference and perhaps the most crucial that I can remember in some time. Major issues such as reorganization and clergy appointments will be discussed. There will also be time for debate on other hotly-contested issues, such as the denomination’s views on  homosexuality. From the outset it appears that much rides on the outcomes and decisions at General Conference.

As we approach the start of General Conference, I have been thinking through some of the issues and want to articulate some of them. My purpose is not to take sides on any one discussion, but to express my thoughts as I have studied some of the issues that will face General Conference.

My thoughts center entirely on my asking this question: “What does it mean for us to be Methodist and Christian?”

Many of the discussions entering General Conference have focussed on our vitality as a movement. The Call to Action report and its legislative findings have come as a result of denominational decline in membership and worship attendance. In response, the United Methodist Church has taken a deep look within itself and asked if the way we are doing church can continue. Some have argued that we need to complete reorganize our structure so that growth can happen.

I applaud the work and service of those who have developed reorganization plans, whether it is Call to Action, Plan B, or the plan submitted by the Methodists for Social Action. One thing is for certain and that is there is a deep love for the church that extends beyond the United Methodist denomination, but all corners of God’s kingdom. No one should doubt the heart or the desire in these plans to seek the best response to create a place for vital congregations in our worshiping community.

My concern is that none of these plans address the core issues that faces the church.

We are not losing members and worship attendance because of how many organizations we have, the numbers on their boards, or even their responsibilities. There is a greater and deeper issue and that is we’ve lost our defining mission. We’ve lost our focus on Matthew 28:19 to “go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit ” (NLT). The mission of the church is that we are servants and proclaimers of the message of Jesus Christ. Our calling is to make disciples, to equip our laity to be in ministry, and in all ways proclaim the name of Jesus Christ. As Methodists, we have to get back to our focus on Jesus and allowing Jesus to be at the center of our discussions and faith.

There are some who argue we need to get back to our Wesleyan roots and doctrinal heritage as United Methodists. I agree with that, but we must go deeper. As Alan Hirsch pointed out in a discussion at Asbury University last week, we need to get back to our Christology and understanding of who Christ is, his mission, and his purposes for our lives. I believe when we do that we will find our roots in Christ, which will help to expand on our heritage as Wesleyans and Methodists.

Reorganization is necessary as we meet the challenges that face us today, but it is not the entire answer. What we need most is a revival of the Holy Spirit to direct, guide, and lead us in what it means to be followers of Christ known as United Methodists.