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.

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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!

What is a Service of Hope?

It started as an ordination project.

Two years ago I had to lead a “fruitfulness project” to fulfill one of my ordination requirements. The project is intended to demonstrate a pastor’s effectiveness in leading a ministry that seeks to make disciples. That is the simplest way of defining the project.

I had a couple of ideas for my project – a study on the Book of Revelation, a youth ministry intern, etc. – but my heart settled on this worship service I had heard about. It was called a Blue Christmas or Longest Night Service.

A Blue Christmas Service or Longest Night Service typically takes place on the first day of winter – the longest night of the year – and recognizes how many of us struggle during the Christmas season. The service is intended to offer hope and expressions of peace in the midst of our struggles. Continue reading

Christmas Eve Message: Ordinary Day and Extraordinary Hope

It was just an ordinary day in the City of Bethlehem.

The population, in those days, was around 1,000 people. That is a little more than double the latest Census estimate for Salvisa. All of those 1,000 people and more were gathered in Bethlehem on that day. The people were under the authority of the Roman Empire, which had no problem throwing its weight around. On that particular day, the people under Rome’s authority were required to return to their hometown in order to be counted. This was an ordinary occurrence for the people in Bethlehem, because Rome made it a habit of doing things to reminded people of their authority and power.

It was also an ordinary day for those outside of Bethlehem. Residing around the hillsides outside of Bethlehem were a group of shepherds. The shepherds were doing their job. They were keeping watch of their sheep to make sure they stayed safe from intruders. Shepherds were not the most beloved group of people. Some tolerated them as those who performed a needed task in society, but the people had little use for them. Others viewed them as thieves, because they would do what was needed in order to survive even if it meant taking from others. On that day they were just trying to live and survive. Continue reading

Keep Persevering

There is nothing better than baseball in October. The thrill of the playoff chase. The tradition of the World Series and hoisting the Commissioner’s Trophy at the end of the season. The tradition that the Cubs will lose.

At least, that is my yearly hope. You see, I am a St. Louis Cardinals fan which means that cheering for the Chicago Cubs is one of the worst thing you can do in sports. Some friends of mine who share my opinion have gone as far as to say we are “NeverCubs.” My few Cubs friends tell me this is the year. That this is the year the curses will be lifted and that a championship will return to Wrigley Field for the first time since 1908 William Taft was preparing to make William Jennings Bryan the Chicago Cubs of presidential politics. Look it up and you’ll see what I mean.

My few Cubs friends tell me that all their troubles center around a goat named Murphy. Legend has it that a storeowner, Billy Sianis, tried to bring his goat to Game 4 of the 1945 World Series. When he was asked to remove the goat, Sianis became irate said that the Cubs would never win another World Series. The Cubs were up 2-1 in the series and would eventual lose the series.

Truthfully, though, as much as I cannot pull for the Cubs I do admire the perseverance of Cubs fans who continually believe, “This is our year.” Even when things seem too difficult to believe or the season does not go as they would hope they never give up. They continue to believe that something good, another World Series title, is coming their way. 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.

The Apostles: Where Are You Looking?

We continue, today, our journey through the Books of Acts by picking up right where we left off last week. To refresh your memory, we looked at how Jesus called the Apostles, the group who had followed him throughout his earthly ministry, to remain in Jerusalem and wait for the promise of the Holy Spirit. We even said there are times when we need to wait on God as we go out to share the message with others.

We pick up the story still as the Apostles and Jesus are still in Bethany at the Mount of Olives. Jesus is giving his final instructions, but he is preparing to leave them soon. This Sunday, which we affectionately call Mother’s Day, is, this year, also the day we celebrate as Ascension Sunday. It focuses on an event 40 days after Easter when Jesus ascended to heaven to return to his place at the right hand of God the Father. This day anticipates the celebration of Pentecost, which is next Sunday, when we will celebrate the church’s birthday when the Holy Spirit came upon the Apostles.

For now, we are on the mountaintop receiving these last words from Jesus. He tells them that they will receive power from God and that they would be the witnesses of God’s love to all people. And then he ascends into the clouds.

After this moment, the Apostles cannot help but to stare into the sky looking at the clouds. Maybe they are thinking to themselves that the cloud is a sign of both the heavenly realm and God’s presence. But, most likely, the Apostles are staring into the clouds waiting for Jesus to return. Continue reading