Understanding Our Perspective

A few days ago I went to a lecture by John Pavlovitz. He spoke passionately about the church’s need to embrace an expansive hope, to keep extending the table, because the table belongs to Christ, not to us. I think a lot about extending the table, in part because I drive past a restaurant renovation every day on my way to and from town. The restaurant will be called “Sawhorse” because the new owners grew up in a family that used sawhorses to expand the table, to welcome guests for any meal. It’s an approach to hospitality and abundance that is inspiring. After the recent General Conference vote to add more punitive measures to LGBTQ exclusion in the UMC and the mosque shootings in Christchurch, NZ, I needed to hear words of hope and inspiration to continue living into the way of Christ the peacemaker. I’m grateful for the work and ministry that John is doing.

One thing he said caught my mission-oriented ear however, and it is an all-too-common thing I hear from people who have been on mission trips. “They had nothing.”

Pavlovitz was describing the joy and warmth of the young people at a school in Kenya, where he and his wife were visiting. By the way he described it, the village must have been in a rural area and likely one struggling with poverty. It is shocking to US citizens who travel to discover the depths of poverty that affect the majority of the world’s citizens. It is shocking for US citizens to discover that poverty affects so many people right here in our own country. Sometimes it takes a short-term mission trip to push us beyond our familiar streets, neighborhoods and stores to see the reality of poverty and how it affects our neighbors. Yet, we can be restricted in how we view our neighbors because of our perspective.

Our perspective is the set of unconscious lenses we wear when we look at the world. Dr. Cate Denial is a historian who recently described an exercise she used to help her students understand the perspectives they bring to the study of history. She had students pair up, with one describing a set of objects to another whose back was turned away from the objects while they drew what was described to them. Student pairs were scattered around the room, with the objects on the desk at the front of the room. They shared their drawings and discussed the differences between them. Great questions were raised about primary sources (the persons who were describing the objects) and perspective. The students began to consider other lenses that affect our perspective - cultural background, education, ideology.

In short-term mission, our perspective is impacted by the unconscious lenses we wear. Our cultural background affects how we think about money. Our education colors how we think about other people and governmental systems. Our own political views are a lens. When we travel, we bring our perspectives with us, and these affect how we think about and talk about our neighbors in other places. The common phrase “they had so little” or “they had nothing” can be a perspective that comes from our affluence. We may not realize that we understand “what we have” in material terms, while the people who are welcoming us understand “what we have” in terms of hospitality.

When Pavlovitz visited Kenya, the young people who greeted him likely welcomed him with joyful songs and cheerful smiles. Their perspective was that they offered him their best hospitality, which is what they had in abundance. What if when we return home from mission trips we talked about our hosts in terms of what they had instead of what they lacked, which came from not unpacking our perspective? What if we took off our lens of materialism and consumerism to see that our humanity is what we share and judge people from a perspective of hospitable generosity? Then we can say “they gave us their very best”.

Unpacking our perspective and understanding the unconscious lenses that we wear on mission trips is important, because how we talk about our neighbors matters. How we talk with them matters. How we talk about them when we return home matters. The concept of Ubuntu means “I am because We are.” I am more fully human, more fully who God created me to be because we are in relationship. I am, because we are. How we talk about our neighbors matters, to us and to our shared humanity in Christ.

Asking For a Seat at the UMC Table

The United Methodist Church is in the news.  NPR, New York Times, Washington Post, Houston Chronicle, and many others.  They have been meeting in General Conference, where elected delegates from the global church debated whether to maintain prohibitions on LGBTQIA+ people in the life of the church, or to eliminate some of those prohibitions, or to put into place further restrictions and prohibitions.  By a slim margin the further restrictions and prohibitions ruled the day. 

This morning I awoke to a message from a family whose children were in the Christian education program I led several years ago.  When the news came late yesterday about the UMC General Conference decision, they called their local church and withdrew their names from the membership.  They refuse to be part of a church that excludes people.  They want to be part of a church that invites everyone to the table, that embodies grace for all people.

I was raised in the United Methodist Church.  I remember clearly my baptism in 1969, just a year after the denomination was formed through the merger of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church.  I remember clearly my Confirmation classes.  I remember clearly the Sunday school teachers and choir directors who taught me the songs and scriptures of the faith.  I remember the mission projects of the United Methodist Women and our youth group.  I remember worship with the Spanish language congregation in our town.  I remember hearing the words of resurrection hope at my father's funeral in the same United Methodist Church, his coffin at the rail where I knelt to be baptized, where I knelt for communion, where I first heard the call of God into ministry.

Bible studies with diverse groups of people have played a key role in my ongoing formation as a disciple.  More times than I can count, I have been in studies on the book of Acts.  Always we ponder the diversity and differences in the early church, and how the church began to understand itself and its mission.  In Acts 10 there is the story of Cornelius, a Gentile who worshiped God.  His prayers open him up to receiving a vision, in which he is told to send for Simon Peter.  Peter meanwhile, has a vision of his own, in which all kinds of food are lowered by a sheet before him.  He refuses to eat, citing his adherence to Jewish purity laws.  A voice from heaven said: "What God has made clean, you must not call profane."  Before he can puzzle out the meaning of this vision, he gets the call from Cornelius.  When he enters Cornelius' house, full of Gentiles worshiping and praying, Peter tells them that it is unlawful for a Jew to visit or even associate with a Gentile, "but God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean."

Every time I study the book of Acts, this passage causes me to ask myself - who have I put into that category of profane?  Who am I refusing to associate with or visit?  Who do I refuse to invite to sit next to me at the table?  Examination of my own heart is an essential practice, a way to open my heart to the work of sanctifying grace, the movement of the Holy Spirit.

God's table is open to all.  When LGBTQIA+ persons call to the church, they are like Cornelius, faithful in their prayers and asking to have a seat at the table.  When the church refuses to recognize them, they are closing a door that the Spirit holds open.  The church throughout history has often closed doors, treated people as less-than, ignored the cries of those who want to be welcomed around the table.

At the World Missionary Conference of 1910, the majority of the delegates were men from Western Hemisphere nations, men who controlled the missionary agencies.  Of the 1,215 delegates only 19 represented non-western countries.  One was Vedanayagam Samuel Azariah.  V.S. Azariah was one of the founders of the National Missionary Society in India.  Azariah was one of the few non-western speakers at the Conference.  His words have proven to be a conviction of the missionary movement, and its inability to see where it ignored the cries of those who wanted to be welcomed as equals around God's table. Azariah's words regarding racism in the missionary movement still call the church today to examine itself, to see where it does not invite everyone to sit at the table.

"The exceeding riches of the glory of Christ can be fully realised not by the Englishman, the American, and the Continental alone, nor by the Japanese, the Chinese, and the Indians by themselves - but by all working together, worshipping together, and learning together the Perfect Image of our Lord and Christ.  It is only 'with all the Saints' that we can 'comprehend the love of Christ which passeth knowledge, that we might be filled with all the fullness of God.' This will be possible only from spiritual friendships between the two races.  We ought to be willing to learn form one another and to help one another.  Through all the ages to come the Indian Church will rise up in gratitude to attest to the heroism and self-denying labours of the missionary body.  You have given your goods to feed the poor.  You have given your bodies to be burned.  We also ask for love.  Give us FRIENDS!"

Dr. Brian Stanley comments on Azariah's speech:  "...the riches of the glory of God will be appropriated by the Church only if all the saints inter-relate in Christian fellowship.  No one ethnic group acting in isolation from other Christians can discover the full riches of Christ.  If the church is not multi-racial, its Christology will actually be distorted."

No one group acting in isolation from other Christians can discover the full riches of Christ.  By cutting out a group of people who are begging to be given a seat at the table in the UMC, we are distorting our image of Christ.  We are denying ourselves the opportunity to discover more deeply the glory of God.  We are cutting off the opportunity to learn together, to make room for the Spirit to move in our hearts as sanctifying grace.

If the political structure of the UMC closes a door, then it is time for the missional movement of the UMC to open more doors.  Through prayer, we can be open to the leading of the Spirit, we can be ready like Cornelius and Peter to see and hear where God is calling us to meet with others, to form Christian friendships.  It is time for the mission-minded people of the UMC to seek out diverse ways in which to pray together, sing together, worship together, work for justice together.  It is time for the mission-minded people of the UMC to be the church that Azariah calls us to be, united in Christian fellowship, offering space at the table to all people, listening and learning from each other, looking for the glory of God.  It is time, mission-minded United Methodists.  It is time. 

 

Stanley, Brian. The World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh 1910. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Grand Rapids. 2009.

Quotations from page 125

John Allen Chau and the Assumptions We Carry

Today as I sat down to write about John Allen Chau and the distance between opposing viewpoints, I realized that the moment to comment on this subject passed back in early December.  Many articles and posts were written just after the news hit that Chau had been killed as he tried to land on North Sentinel Island, in the Bay of Bengal.  I wanted to write in mid-December, but it felt reactionary.  Reflection and careful thinking take time.  That time means that jumping on the bandwagon while the topic is hot is not an option.  While I may be late to the subject, it is still important to consider what happened between Chau and the people he attempted to reach, and what happened between those who saw him as reckless and those who saw him as a martyr.

In last week’s post, I argued for love as our guiding ethic.  Looking at the conflict between the Covington Catholic School boys and the Indigenous Peoples’ March, I suggested that the entire situation could have looked very different if the boys’ chaperones had guided them to listen to the people they disagreed with, to hear what Nathan Phillips and the other Indigenous Peoples’ marchers were communicating with their songs and drumming.  What would that situation have looked like if everyone in that situation held space for questions, listening and learning from each other?

 The Obligation of Christians

In that same vein, I printed out two articles regarding the actions of John Allen Chau.  One was an opinion piece by a professor of religious studies posted at Religion News.  The other was a piece posted by The New Yorker.  Dr. John Stackhouse argues that how a person thinks about the actions of Chau depends upon how one understands the obligation of Christians to fulfill the Great Commandment – Jesus’ parting words to the disciples in the gospel of Matthew to “go, therefore” and make disciples of all nations.  The New Yorker article describes the conversation amongst missionaries and mission agencies regarding the approach taken by Chau – direct proselytizing – in contrast to relief and development work.

Dr. Stackhouse presents the case for proselytizing in stark terms.  Chau believed that the people of North Sentinel Island were in imminent danger of losing their eternal lives, as though an asteroid was approaching their homes and his faith required him to preach Jesus to them.  Despite Chau’s study of linguistics and missionary anthropology, and despite not knowing the language of the Sentinelese people, Chau “contravened the express wishes of the islanders” and attempted to land on their island.  Chau would have learned through his study that gaining the trust of people in order to show respect for their culture and to learn their language takes time.  The people he was attempting to reach have no immunity from modern diseases, and despite his efforts to quarantine himself he would have presented an infectious risk to the very people he wanted to reach with a message of salvation.

 The Assumptions We Carry Into Mission Work

The assumption behind Dr. Stackhouse’s argument is that without verbal proclamation by a Christian the Sentinelese people can never know God.  If people have not heard about Jesus from a Christian or had the Bible preached to them, then God cannot have revealed God’s self to them. 

The assumption that God cannot save God’s own creation without human intervention is one that needs unpacking.  The assumptions we bring to any mission work should be examined.  Dr. Stackhouse asserts that Christians simply have to decide if they believe those persons who have not heard a verbal proclamation of Christ are going to hell or not.  If you agree, then Chau is a martyr, and if you don’t, well then let’s just “agree to disagree on this basic point”.  Further, he asserts that Christians have been disagreeing with each other since the time of Christ, so it’s all good if we disagree.

 Not Agreeing to Disagree

My argument is that if we simply “agree to disagree” then we are not unpacking the assumptions and biases we bring to our mission work.  Holding space for each other, listening to each other, asking ourselves difficult questions, these are the ways in which we dismantle our own prejudices and cultural blinders.  We may continue to disagree, but without listening to each other and continuing the conversation, we will not learn from each other.    An ethic of love guides us to listen to each other and work through our difficult questions.

The New Yorker article quotes Dr. Ed Stetzer, professor of mission and evangelism at Wheaton College: “The history of [mission] is filled with stories of bravery, martyrdom, and positive change – but also filled with mistakes, colonialism, and cultural errors.”  Dr. Stetzer’s description of mission history reveals that scholars of mission have examined assumptions and biases, working through difficult questions and learning from the past. 

Wycliffe Bible Translators is mentioned in the New Yorker article as well, due to their policy of only sending translators when they are invited.  This is also the policy of United Methodist Volunteers in Mission.  An invitation from a presiding bishop of an area is required for a team of volunteers to go to a mission project.  Policies like this have developed after mission sending agencies carefully considered difficult questions and listened to those they aimed to serve.  Waiting for an invitation means that a volunteer team is not in charge of the mission project.  The host country or church decides when or if they want outsiders to come. 

 Building Bridges of Understanding

So this brings us back to learning how to listen.  As I’ve said before, learning how to listen requires vulnerability and willingness to change.  Rather than simply agreeing to disagree, which means we do not have to face our vulnerability or change, Christian love makes it possible for us to hold space for each other.  Christian love is the guiding ethic which makes it possible for us to hear each other and build bridges of understanding.  When our brothers and sisters in countries that had received missionaries during colonialism spoke out against the assumptions underneath decisions by mission agencies or denominational leadership, it took Christian love to guide those mission and denominational leaders so that they could change.  Through listening and building bridges of understanding, we have an opportunity today to improve our mission practices.

I don’t have an easy solution for the conversation about John Allen Chau’s approach to the Sentinelese people.  I would defer to those with experience in the region, both local church leaders and mission organizations that work in the region.  I firmly believe in and trust the work of the Holy Spirit.  I believe that God can work in ways well beyond my imagination.  I believe we are better when we pray, think, and work together.  May we all continue to hold space, listen, learn, and build bridges of understanding and grace. 

Love Is Our Guiding Ethic

When I was young, I read to my little brother.  We had an extensive collection of children’s books, but as children often do, we read our favorites over and over.  One of them was a collection of Dr. Seuss stories.  I was always puzzled by the story of The Zax.  The north-going Zax walks straight into the south-going Zax and there they argue.  Each one demands the other move aside, and each one refuses to budge.  So there they stay, through wind, rain, snow, and eventually a city grows up around them and they stand, refusing to budge, under a freeway interchange.

The Zax is a story about not listening to each other, about refusing to learn or change.

 Outrage and Refusal To Budge

A friend of mine shared a blog post about the exchange between Omaha Nation elder Nathan Philips and a group from a Covington Catholic School in Kentucky.  The blog post suggested that the high school boys should return to school and “be educated” about why their actions were viewed as disrespectful to a Native American elder and Marine Corps veteran.  Education efforts are to be commended, but they are a minority voice among all the shouting and outrage since videos of the exchange hit social media.

This incident follows another one just a month ago, in which a young American man persisted in traveling to visit the Sentinelese people despite Indian laws forbidding any outside contact with these people.  The laws exist to protect the Sentinelese from the risk of contracting modern disease, and to protect visitors from the violent response of the Sentinelese which meets anyone who tries to cross their shores.  This exchange also caused an immediate reaction on social media, again resulting in strident voices standing firm in their opinions.

They were racist.  They weren’t racist.  They were provoked.  They weren’t provoked.  They should be punished.  They were just kids.  They were victims.  They were mocking.  He was wrong.  He was faithful.  Mission is colonialism.  Mission is a calling.  He broke the law.  He was a martyr.  North-going Zax refusing to budge.  South-going Zax refusing to budge.

 Holding Space For Listening and Learning

While the full range of reactions to these incidents included moderate voices, those who were angered and those who were defensive were the loudest.  In such an exchange – outrage or indignation followed by defensiveness – there is not room for listening and learning.  What is critical is to hold space in which people involved can reflect upon what happened, listen to each other, and learn new ways of living out our call to be people who are known by our love.

The person who wrote that the Covington Catholic School boys should be taught history, sociology, cultural intelligence and morality has the right idea, but the process of education takes more than stating “people should learn”, and more than just a classroom.  The process of education requires that we stop shouting past each other as though we are the Zax, refusing to budge.  Listening to each other and learning from each other requires that we set aside outrage and defensiveness.  This is not easy.

What the exchange between the Catholic high school students and the Native Americans at the Indigenous Peoples March shows us is that humans tend to stand firm in their opinions rather than listening to each other.  Dr. Seuss was really on to something about our human tendency to refuse to budge rather than listen.  Jesus told his disciples that people would know them simply by the witness of their love for others.  Love is the guiding ethic that drives all of our encounters with others.  Love requires that we set aside our self-defenses and listen to each other.  Love requires that we learn from those we meet – and in mission love means that we learn from those we hope to serve.

 Love Is Our Guiding Ethic

The exchange between Nathan Phillips and the Covington Catholic School students could have been quite different.  What would it have looked like if teachers, parents, mentors, chaplains and chaperones had instilled in the students the guiding ethic that love guides every encounter with another person?  What if the students had simply walked a short distance away from another group of protestors who were yelling at them?  What if love had determined how the school viewed student chants at athletic events?  What if love was the fundamental ethic that guided discussions about other cultures?  About our history?

Learning takes time and it takes vulnerability.  Learning requires that we ask hard questions and listen to the answers.  Learning requires that we open ourselves to the possibility that we need to change.  Consider how I learned about a particular racial slur.  My high school French teacher was near retirement age and often drifted off topic.  When he taught a lesson on the French national anthem, he went off topic and discussed his experience as a soldier in World War II, culminating in a brief and muttered commentary about Japanese people.  He used the word “Japs”.  I’d forgotten this incident until I turned on a classic movie channel a few days ago and Clark Gable appeared on the screen using the same word.  The movie must have been filmed around the same time as my teacher was enlisted in the war.  The term was in common use, no one thought anything wrong with it.  But to my ears in the early 1980s, it was shocking (as it was again this week).  I asked my older brother’s best friend about it.  His father was American and his mother was Japanese.  My brother’s friend was over at our house quite often and I thought of him as another brother, so I asked the difficult questions – and listened.  Yes, he said, that’s a racial slur.  Don’t repeat it.  After all these years I don’t remember all the details of our conversation, but what I remember is that we held space for each other to listen and to learn.  It was uncomfortable.  A bit like a Zax stepping to the side.  But worth it.

Learning how to listen requires vulnerability and willingness to change.  With Christian love as our guiding ethic, we can admit when we need to change and build bridges of understanding.

I’ll write more about the young missionary and his encounter with the people of North Sentinel Island soon, and how listening to each other is what is needed at this moment in mission practice.

Training Season

 

Last Sunday my town was hit by an ice storm.  The weather forecast had called for some snow, but all we got was rain, sleet and freezing temps.  That added up to a layer of ice on trees, power lines and roadways.  Many area churches canceled their regular services or moved them to a later time.  For large churches, a notice on the local TV station got the word out.  Others used Facebook.  My congregation includes many folks who don’t have computers or smart phones, so we relied on our landline phone list and prayer chain. 

Sometimes things are as simple as A plus B plus C equals success.  Other times things are R plus S plus F equals Sunday morning scrambling around coming up with alternative plans. 

A friend of mine asked last week if I had any information for his new leadership position at his church.  I found an old copy of a booklet from the United Methodist General Board of Discipleship that had information for his job in his church.  While I was looking, I remembered that January is a time when many United Methodist districts will offer leadership training.  Last week I saw that there was a training session happening in my annual conference for mission volunteers.  It seems that January is “training season” for volunteers of many kinds in the church.

My friend had a look at the information booklet and said “there’s a lot there”.  It can be overwhelming when you’re suddenly in charge, and you know that the church is important to people so you want to get it right.  In fact, the information booklet for leaders in charge of mission at their church has this interesting quote:  “There is no magic formula for a perfect mission program.  Don’t think that 2 mission trips + 50 UMCOR Health Kits + 1 mission study = success!”

That is SO right.  There is no formula for a perfect mission program or a perfect mission trip.  I’ve been on mission teams that used the pre-trip team meetings to decide the schedule, the vacation activities, and who would bring the Vacation Bible School project supplies in their second suitcases.  However, those meetings didn’t spend any time on learning the language our hosts would speak, learning about our destination’s history and current context, or considering what problems we might encounter on our trip.  There are always problems to encounter on a mission trip.  The group might have had a better experience if we’d been a little prepared for difficulties – or at least hadn’t expected perfection.

My work as a mission consultant would be a snap if I could advertise it as “Four Easy Steps To The Perfect Mission Trip!” or “Three Easy Steps To Revitalizing Your Mission Outreach!”.  Truth is, there is no magic formula.  But there is joy in the journey.  Each mission team or outreach committee is made up of dedicated people who are ready to put their hands and hearts to work, to be involved in disciple-making for the transformation of the world.  When they feel a bit overwhelmed like my friend, then I’m ready to come alongside and guide the mission team or outreach committee through the work of discerning their particular goals, to help them prepare for their trip, or to have a post-trip retreat to unpack all their feelings and questions about their experience.  It really helps to have someone walk with you through your work in local church missions, beyond a booklet or an hour-long workshop at the district training session. 

If you are new to mission team preparation or you’ve just accepted a role on your church’s outreach team and you’re not sure what to do, contact me for a phone consultation or a video consultation.  We can create a plan to help your team be ready for missions and avoid the last-minute scramble.

Waters of Baptism

This week as I’ve been preparing for Baptism of the Lord Sunday in my local churches, I’ve been reading a lot about water, about Methodist understanding of baptism, and as always, mission. What does mission have to do with our baptism?

Baptism is one of my earliest memories, watching my brothers being baptized in our childhood church. What I didn’t realize as a child was that being baptized meant that we were being incorporated into the body of Christ. A four-year old child has a limited capacity to understand such an abstract concept. To be honest, most of us no matter our age, struggle to really, deeply understand what it means to be incorporated by the Holy Spirit into God’s new creation, which is the body of Christ for the world.

In the United Methodist liturgy for baptism, these are the words the congregation says to the newly baptized person. “Through baptism you are incorporated by the Holy Spirit into God’s new creation and made to share in Christ’s royal priesthood. We are all one in Christ Jesus. With joy and thanksgiving we welcome you as members of the family of Christ.” This is the thing that we all work to understand as disciples. Our experience of baptism is not private. It is personal, but it moves us beyond our selfish interests and helps us to become part of the body of Christ, given for the sake of the world. We are saved, not for ourselves, but for others.

This brings us to mission. When we go out on a short-term mission trip, we likely have been moved by empathy and compassion for those who struggle and suffer. We want to help! This is clear by the United Methodist Volunteers in Mission response to the needs in Puerto Rico. Devastated by hurricanes, the people of Puerto Rico need help to recover. The Methodist Church in Puerto Rico reports that there are already 125 teams signed up to work there in 2019 - that’s more than two teams of volunteers per week on average. Our baptism means that if our brothers and sisters are suffering, so we suffer with them, and some folks are able to travel and put their compassion into sweat and work.

For our worship on Sunday, we’ll use water imagery. We’ll sing about baptism, we’ll talk about baptism, and we’ll dip our fingers in water to remember our baptisms. A clergy friend of mine has a family coming to be baptized on this special Sunday. I love water imagery. But everyone has a different experience of water, and for me, this includes growing up on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Hurricanes were an annual threat. I’ve lived through several hurricanes, some with rain and wind, and some with flooding. Water is a powerful image and it is helpful to remember that although we have the water of baptism as one of our sacraments, we need to remember that water imagery can be helpful or painful for people.

I worshiped with a group once that loved to sing a contemporary worship song that talks about God’s love being like a hurricane. The first time I heard it, I was stunned into silence. That song did NOT help me to sing praise to God or to consider more deeply God’s love for me. All I could think about was the destructive power of hurricanes. Surely the songwriter did not know what it was like to live through a hurricane, right? And then I learned that the song was written by a Houston-based Christian band leader. Is it possible that a person living in Houston would not know the destructive power of hurricanes? Yes, it’s possible.

This is the point at which we find the opportunity to learn together through mission projects. All those United Methodist volunteers going from the US to Puerto Rico to help with hurricane recovery have the opportunity to worship with their Methodist brothers and sisters, to listen to their stories, to learn about their faith, and how their faith has sustained them through it all. While the work projects are critically needed, so are the connections and relationships between people. All those mission teams have the opportunity to listen to the faith of the people of Puerto Rico. It can take a lifetime to understand what it really means to be incorporated by the Holy Spirit and to share in Christ’s royal priesthood.

If you have a mission team heading out on a hurricane recovery trip this year and you are interested in having a post-trip team retreat to debrief and talk about how baptism shapes our mission work, contact me! Dates are open now for summer and fall 2019 retreats and workshops.

A Mission for the Methodists

Happy New Year!  2019 is underway!  I love fresh starts, new calendars, and looking ahead to good things to come.

I started this year by reading a book by Dr. William B. Lawrence, who serves as professor of American Church History at Perkins School of Theology and is a research fellow at Duke Divinity School.  The book is A Methodist Requiem: Words of hope and resurrection for the church, and was published just last year.  Because I'm a United Methodist, I read a lot about our denomination and our upcoming special General Conference on human sexuality.  I think some of the best wisdom is from our church historians, who put our current crisis into perspective.  Dr. Lawrence and Dr. Ted Campbell are two of my favorites, probably because they are also pastors, and their dual lenses offer a great deal of hope for the future of the United Methodist Church, as opposed to the cynicism I see in so many of the online articles and commentary. 

Dr. Lawrence asserts that while the United Methodist Church may be working through conflict and considering various options for division, hope for the future actually lies in a refreshed vision for mission as a church.  Rather than each individual person having a mission, or each individual congregation having a mission, Dr. Lawrence suggests that Methodists have in the past understood themselves to be a people who are connected globally through a shared vision for mission. 

In this understanding of the United Methodist Church, hope for the future comes not through our rules and structure, not through sending pastors to only the right seminaries, not through a formula for church growth, but through a shared vision for mission.  What is that mission?  Proclaiming the good news of the grace of God.  Here's how Lawrence states it:

"The answer...is that we Methodists are a body of Christians who insist that the message of salvation applies as fully to this life as it does to the life to come.  We celebrate the gospel of Jesus Christ as a message of death and life.  We offer good news in confronting death, whether that is the biological death that comes to all God's creatures or other forces of death such as the suffering, hunger, injustice, hatred, and slavery that deprive human beings of the freedom for which Christ has set us free.  We proclaim the good news that death - in all of its forms - has been overcome by the power of God.  In this age and for the age to come, Methodism's mission is to proclaim the good news as a matter of death and life.  And we have the theological perspective to do it."

This missional vision for the church - to proclaim the good news of grace for all people, that no matter what kind of death is holding us back we are freed to life in Christ - this is the vision that drives my passion, drives my work and my ministry.  What I love more than anything is to be with a group of people who are out in the world doing good work so that others will know the grace of God.  I love to listen to folks who are sharing breakfast, dressed in work clothes and ready to head out to work on a porch, to build a classroom, to make lunch for the community, to worship in a language other than the one they grew up speaking.  I love to sit in a classroom with folks who have just come back from a mission trip, hearing their deep joy, listening to their questions, studying the scriptures together.  Dr. Lawrence is correct that it is in a vision for mission that there is hope for the people called Methodist, and I plan to be part of that mission!

 

Quote from page 115; A Methodist Requiem is published by Wesley's Foundery Books, an imprint of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, The United Methodist Church.

Favorite Hymns for Mission

It is November, and many of my friends on Facebook are posting gratitudes.  Each day they post words of gratitude for family, friends, joyful events, fond memories.  This all is done in a spirit of Thanksgiving, expanding the attitude of giving thanks for more than just a holiday weekend.

One of the people who I am always grateful for is Janice, a member at a church I served a few years ago.  Janice is the kind of person who loves holidays and is always cheerful and ready to serve others.  For her, worship services near Thanksgiving needed to include the hymn “We Gather Together”.  Thinking about singing that hymn with her today, I began to think about the role hymns play in our worship and formation.

Hymns help us to worship God because they help us praise.  Hymns help us to describe who God is and how we understand God’s grace.  Hymns help us to ask for God’s help, and they help us pledge our discipleship to Christ.  In that last sense, discipleship, hymns that we sing often can help form us as followers of Christ.  The words we sing over and over shape how we understand how we are to live in the world.  Some hymns inspire our participation in mission.  During November, we’ll use this space to consider hymns that inspire us in mission.

Back in the 1980s, I was a member of a United Methodist church in central Texas.  I was a young adult and figuring out what it meant to be a Christian on my own.  I’d attended church throughout childhood and some of my adolescence with my family, but when people become adults they need to figure out their faith on their own.  One way I did this was to join the choir.

I don’t remember much about the choir.  I can’t remember anyone’s name, the color of our robes, or where we sat.  In fact, I don’t remember any of the worship services in which we sang.  I do remember choir rehearsal, and the laughter we shared.  I remember being asked to sing once in a quartet, just one hymn as a special anthem.  We sang “Freely, Freely” from the United Methodist Hymnal.  Perhaps it was a special anthem from the “new” hymnal at that time, I don’t recall.   What I do recall is how the words of that hymn impacted me.

“God forgave my sin in Jesus’ name, I’ve been born again in Jesus’ name, and in Jesus’ name I come to you, to share his love as he told me to.”

The language of “born again” wasn’t much used in the United Methodist congregations where I grew up, but this seemed different.  This hymn wasn’t interested in the details of when, where, how I was “born again” but rather the responsibility that it placed on my life.  I’ve been born again, but not for me.  I’ve been born again to go and share.

“He said, freely, freely, you have received, freely, freely, give.  Go in my name and because you believe, others will know that I live.”

This hymn didn’t say that I had to speak a certain way, memorize a certain speech, but rather to demonstrate my belief in Christ through my life.  As a friend said recently, I was to “show them resurrection” through my living.  It was much less about “go” and far more about how I would live out my faith.

This hymn (number 389 in the United Methodist hymnal if you’re interested) motivated my faith and my participation in mission work for many years.  Even today this hymn comes to mind quite often, despite the fact that I can’t recall singing it in worship since that one Sunday back in the 80s.

What hymns inspire you to participate in God’s mission?  Let’s compile a list of favorite hymns for mission!

Reading with Missional Lenses

As I write this, the remnants of hurricane Michael are right over the area where I live.  The trees are swaying in the wind and the rain comes in bands.  I’m familiar with this kind of weather because I grew up on the Texas Gulf Coast.  I just never expected it would be part of the weather in the southern Appalachian Mountains.  We have a cold front coming through later this week that will drop the temperature and hopefully the leaves will finally turn and show their autumn beauty.

While all that weather is happening outside, I am studying the book of Job in preparation for Sunday worship.  I use the Revised Common Lectionary in Sunday worship.  I find it helpful because the three year cycle of scripture covers most of the Bible.  One preacher I knew said that he used the Lectionary so that his congregation could come to church for nine years in a row and never hear the same sermon.  The Lectionary gives us the opportunity to grapple with scriptures that we might otherwise skim over.

Not Just The Gospels

It would be easy to focus only on the gospels when considering the mission activity of the church.  In fact, one of the key motivations for Christians to be involved in mission projects like hurricane relief is the mandate of Christ to love our neighbors as ourselves and to care for those on the margins.  It’s more difficult to discern the missional focus of scripture when we are reading texts like Job.  However, Christopher JH Wright in The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative says that “mission is what the Bible is all about.”  In his view, all of scripture helps us to see God’s mission in, to, and for the world. 

In Job chapter 2, Job is suffering from the tragic loss of his livelihood, his family, and his health.  His friends hear about the trouble Job is in and they come to be with him.  “When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud; they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads.  They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.”  Job’s friends offer compassionate presence.   In his suffering, his friends provide the ritual of lament and companionship. 

Early Response Teams

Many UMC early response teams have been hard at work in areas impacted by the flooding of hurricane Florence, and more are at the ready to go and help now in the Florida panhandle as hurricane Michael moves out.  These teams are trained to muck out flooded houses, to clean up debris, to clear out dangerous damaged areas on houses and put up tarps and temporary outer walls.  Even more important than that, these teams know that sometimes their work will not be the mucking out or clearing out.  These volunteers know that what is most important is to be a compassionate presence to those who are suffering.  They know that sometimes what people need is someone to sit down, share a cup of coffee and just be still.  People who have suffered a tragic loss may not have the words to explain how they are feeling, but volunteers in mission can be a compassionate presence in the silence.  Just as Job’s friends sat with him for a week without speaking, so too can volunteers in mission sit and offer silent lament and companionship in the worst of times.

When we read scripture, one of the things that people who are active in mission should always look for is the ways in which we see God’s mission revealed in the text.  This is reading with missional lenses. As the body of Christ, any mission work or activity we do is not our own mission but participation in God’s mission in, to, and for the world.  What scriptures are you reading now that help you to see the mission of God?

Quote from page 29, “The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative” by Christopher J.H. Wright, published by InterVarsity Press 2006.

Come and See!

Earlier this week I was in a meeting, studying the demographics around two churches in neighboring towns.  Someone stopped by to pick up information from the person I was meeting with, and while we were all talking the person who stopped by invited me to join him on his next trip to the town where he has been organizing hurricane relief work for over three years.  “You should come and see the work we’re doing, join us!”  It hadn’t been but a few minutes earlier in the demographics meeting that I’d told someone “come and see, join us” myself! 

When Methodists (and I suspect this is true for most short-term mission projects, no matter what the faith convictions of the people) come back from a mission trip, they are often enthusiastic as they tell others about their experience.  Telling someone about the trip usually includes stories about the people you’ve met, the work done and left still to complete, and the worship services.  Telling someone about the mission trip with enthusiasm isn’t the same as experiencing it, though, and that’s why people say “come and see” or “come and join us!”

Taking vacation time to work on someone’s house isn’t glamorous.  Taking time away from work to clear brush and clean out overgrown lawns isn’t an easy decision.  Taking time away from family and the comforts of home to help with disaster recovery isn’t easy because it means facing our own vulnerabilities and fears of disasters.  There aren’t witty TV or internet ads for mission work like there are for posh beach resorts or action-packed amusement parks.  The way people choose to go work instead of vacation is that they’ve been invited to “come and see” by someone who’s already gone to join in the work.

Restoring Homes, Recognizing Dignity

When we go on trips like these, we are participating in recognizing the human dignity of another person.  When we meet someone whose home has been damaged in a fire or torrential rainstorm, when we listen with compassion to their story and then work beside them to re-build their home so they are safe and dry, then we are living into the command to love our neighbors as ourselves.  When we consider the question “what is mission?” we include activities such as mission trips to work on homes as well as the work of establishing churches in places where there are no churches.  Both are necessary to live out the gospel.  “Love your neighbors” doesn’t require going to another country, as the thousands of United Methodist mission teams within the U.S. prove.  These are people who don’t seek their own glory, but just to help someone even if briefly.  Many people just volunteer their labor for a week or two.  Now and then there are people who commit to a project long term, such as the man I met this week.  He’s organized different churches and teams to work on North Carolina hurricane recovery for several years.  There are others who still go to New Orleans, to New Jersey, to places affected by wildfires, to Houston. 

A hundred years ago mission work didn’t look like teams going out from every church for disaster recovery work.  The church must always reconsider the needs of the world in light of its call to live out the gospel.  The words of Fred Pratt Green’s hymn “The Church of Christ, in Every Age” speak to how the church must always pay attention to the needs of the world.  When we sing this hymn and ask others to “come and see”, we are being God’s church in mission:

The church of Christ, in every age beset by change but Spirit led, must claim and test its heritage and keep on rising from the dead.

Across the world, across the street, the victims of injustice cry for shelter and for bread to eat, and never live until they die.

Then let the servant church arise, a caring church that longs to be a partner in Christ’s sacrifice, and clothed in Christ’s humanity.

For he alone, whose blood was shed, can cure the fever in our blood, and teach us how to share our bread and feed the starving multitude.

We have no mission but to serve in full obedience to our Lord, to care for all, without reserve, and spread his liberating word.

 

Hymn found in United Methodist Hymnal #589

What is Mission?

Last month I attended the Wild Goose Festival and had the opportunity to hear a presentation by the hosts of the Failed Missionary podcast and the author of The Very Worst Missionary.  The conversation revealed a lot of pain and questions around the practice of mission, in particular, evangelical short-term mission and mission placements of a few years.  To be up front, my experience in short-term mission is in the United Methodist Church structures, not the evangelical church, and there are some differences.  However, I am familiar with a wide variety of texts on theology of mission, and the conversations I heard spurred me to look closely at the questions raised.

Questions From Experience

To begin, I started listening to the Failed Missionary podcast.  A number of things struck me, but one has echoed in my mind for days.  At the end of one episode, one of the guests asks “well, what is mission?” struggling to put a definition to their experience as a missionary.  The person being interviewed and the host had all spent a few years outside the U.S. in a missionary placement, yet they had never been given a solid theology of mission that provided a framework for their ministry.  This led to frustration and disillusionment, and ultimately, theological dissonance and abandoning of their work in missions.   

Because each of the people being interviewed acknowledged that their initial foray into mission work began with an experience in short-term mission, I felt that this blog would be a good place to explore the question “what is mission?”  What is this thing we call mission?  What are we doing when we enter into the practice of Christian mission, whether that is a two week trip outside the U.S., a one week trip to help with disaster recovery, or a Saturday helping at the local food bank community garden?  What is mission?

The question of what is mission is one that deserves to be wrestled with by people as they seek to faithfully live out their discipleship.  In United Methodism, the question of what is mission might be answered differently depending on who was asked the question.  For example, long term missionaries will take into consideration their context and the struggles of the church where they work, those trained to work as part of Early Response Teams might answer keeping in mind the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster, and short-term mission teams may answer in the context of the places and people they have served, whether far from home or just across town.

 

Wait, What’s a Missiologist?

Two missiologists I have found to be helpful in beginning to answer the question “what is mission?” are Rev. Dr. J. Andrew Kirk and Prof. M. Thomas Thangaraj.  First, a missiologist is someone whose work is the disciplined study of mission and theological reflection on the practice of mission by the church.  

Second, the definitions presented by these missiologists are presented as provisional, and part of a larger academic conversation on theology of mission.  They do not present their arguments as settled, but as furthering the discussion of the church’s practice of mission.  I am always interested to hear what people who are engaged in short-term mission think when they hear these definitions, and learn together how these might inform their understanding of mission going forward.  So now, the tentative definitions.

 

Definition of Mission

Kirk asserts that “mission is, quite simply, though profoundly, what the Christian community is sent to do, beginning right where it is located.”  This grounds mission in the words of Christ at the ascension to the disciples, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem…and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8).  Mission, in this definition, is not just something that Christians do in other places, but is something they do right in their own communities.  Kirk also states that while mission is “fulfilled in different ways according to particular local circumstances, the obligations of mission are the same wherever the community is established.”  The obligations of mission are to bear witness to the “meaning and relevance of the kingdom”, which means that the church is to show in its life, worship and work the call of God to do justice, love kindness and live in humility. 

Thangaraj helpfully defines mission as something that is more than an activity of the church.  He states that while mission does mean being sent, “this ‘sent-ness’ is not… spatial. It is rather a quality of being”.  That we are sent to be the church in mission does not mean that we must travel, but our being sent as the church in mission defines how we are to live, beginning right where we are located.  Thangaraj and Kirk are clear that mission does not require travel, but a new understanding of the church community.  What we must understand about ourselves as church, then, is that “mission happens in a network of relations.”  Thangaraj describes mission as happening in the context of relationships between people.  Mission, therefore, requires that we are to consider deeply how to act in mission with responsibility, solidarity, and mutuality.  Responsibility means we listen deeply to others and acknowledge our responsibility to care for them as beloved children of God; solidarity means that as we listen deeply to the other we are mindful of how we are interconnected; mutuality means a recognition that mission is something we share with fellow Christians, both giving and receiving, not something that we do FOR others.

 

What Do You Say?

These tentative definitions of mission are quite dense, and may be explored more deeply in future posts.  But for now they are a good start as we consider the question of “what is mission?”  Whether a person has just signed up for a short-term mission trip and is wondering what they’ve gotten into, or if a person has just come back from their annual summer mission trip and want to reflect again on their experience, the question of “what is mission?” is a good place to start the conversation.  How do you answer the question “what is mission?”  Join in the conversation!

 

 

Quotes from:

Kirk, J. Andrew. What is Mission? Theological Explorations.  (Minneapolis: Fortress Press. 2000), 24, 36

Thangaraj, M. Thomas. The Common Task: A Theology of Christian Mission. (Nashville: Abingdon Press. 1999.), 48

Joined By Grace

I found an old box a few days ago.  It had some old paperwork that I no longer need, but I thought it would be a good idea to sort through and make sure nothing of value was tucked in between pages.  I found two CD envelopes, stuffed with five CDs, each one marked with a different day of the week.  I couldn’t remember where these had come from, so I turned on the CD player (yes, I still have one) and put in “Monday”.  To my surprise, an old favorite worship song poured out of the speakers.  And then a Backstreet Boys song – and then a song from a Disney movie!  I realized that these were the CDs a friend of mine had made for a youth mission trip, one CD for each work team for each day of the week.

Conflict and Collaboration

That mission trip was fraught with conflict.  There was a major difference in how some of the adult leaders understood the overall purpose, and this meant that they came with very different motivations and expectations.  When it became clear during the first adult meeting that this was the case, the adults tried to work it out between themselves, and everyone made sure that the youth who were there to work and help people were not aware of any discord within the leadership.  It was an amazing week of work.  Porches were rebuilt, several wheelchair ramps were constructed, new flooring was laid, houses were painted and lots of yards were cleared up.  The worship services each evening were meaningful, and youth shared how they were moved by the love of God to grow deeper in their journey with Christ and continue to help people in their home churches.  That mission trip was a blessing.

In the midst of conflict and in the midst of disagreement, Christians can still work together to participate in the mission of God.  Long term missionaries in the late 1800s and early 1900s often discovered that denominational or doctrinal differences at home were trivial issues on the mission field.  Missionaries learned how to collaborate and support each other, to embody unity with diversity for the sake of the gospel. Out away from home, away from the intense focus of local issues, people were able to look beyond their differences and work together.

Be Imitators of God

Working together for the sake of the gospel, finding unity in diversity, working to overcome conflict for the sake of those who are working in mission, these are the ways in which Christians live out the call to speak the truth in love, to forgive, to remember that we are members one of another.  Ephesians 4:25 – 5:2 was the lectionary passage in worship last Sunday,  reminding us that from the very beginning of the church, humans have needed to be told again and again that we belong to each other.  We are not to be Christians in isolation from one another, even if we disagree.  We are to work together, forgiving each other, living in love and being imitators of God.

What an audacious thing to say!  To be imitators of God!  And yet this is the gospel call, to work through our conflicts and live out God’s love for all creation together.  Perhaps especially because of our work in mission, we must learn over and over how to build each other up in the love of Christ.  Charles Wesley’s hymn “All Praise to Our Redeeming Lord” describes the joy that can come from working together in mission:

“All praise to our redeeming Lord, who joins us by his grace, and bids us, each to each restored, together seek his face.

He bids us build each other up; and, gather into one, to our high calling’s glorious hope we hand in hand go on.

The gift which he on one bestows, we all delight to prove, the grace through every vessel flows in purest streams of love.

Even now we think and speak the same, and cordially agree, concentered all, through Jesus name, in perfect harmony.

We all partake the joy of one; the common peace we feel, a peace to sensual minds unknown, a joy unspeakable.

And if our fellowship below in Jesus be so sweet, what height of rapture shall we know when round his throne we meet!”

 

Post Mission Trip Retreat

Fading into Fall

Recently I’ve seen several people posting photos of their mission trips this summer.  Their teams worked in the heat of June and July, and now they are home and preparing for back-to-school.  The stores are fully stocked with pencils, paper, markers and folders.  Saturday the stores in my area were packed with parents and children with the supply lists, choosing new backpacks and lunch kits along with new crayons and reams of paper.

It is easy for people to get caught up in the busy-ness of everyday life once they are back from a mission trip.  The mission trip was a great time away, a time to deeply connect with friends from church, a time to offer sweat and service to others, a time to worship with new friends and sing praise to God in a different language.  But once you’re home, the joys and deep connections that you experienced on the mission trip get pushed to the back of your mind as the demands of daily life take over.

Mission in Three Movements

Mission theologian Anthony Gittins describes mission in three movements: Homeland, Wonderland, Newfound land.  What Gittins describes is that we begin our mission adventure from home, where we know the area, we know our neighborhood, our church, our home.  We are known by our family, our friends, our church.  Then we travel to the Wonderland, a new place, where we meet new people and have new challenges.  Sometimes when we are in the Wonderland we have experiences that help us to see with fresh eyes where God is at work in the world.  Then we come home, and we experience our place with fresh vision – we see it anew, as if for the first time.  And we may have questions – questions about our experience on the mission site, questions about things we saw there, questions about the needs we see now at home. 

Post-trip Questions

One of the deep questions people often have after a mission trip is about mutuality.  1 Corinthians 12:27 says that we are together members of the body of Christ, and this guides our understanding of mutuality in mission.  But how is it possible for us to really be in relationship with each other and express that mutuality as the body of Christ in a few days work together?  A post-mission trip retreat can offer time together as a team to consider questions like this, and to dig into resources that can help your church continue to be faithful in mission practice, and to help you plan your next mission trip.

Sister of Hope Ministries has dates available to lead mission team retreats this fall.  Contact us today and schedule your consultation.  We want to hear about your experience in mission!

Food for the Soul, Fed for the Work of the Church

Life happens. 

Sometimes it happens with routines.  School schedules, regular work days, afterschool activities and such.  Sometimes it happens too fast, when all the normal routines are crowded with business trips, conferences, additional meetings and activities.  Other times it happens with focus on a single important event – a dear friend in crisis, a family member with a serious illness, the grief after the death of a loved one.  Life happens, and we are swept along.  No matter the season, no matter how rushed, weary or worried we may be, there is a place where we can find rest and companionship.

In recent weeks, my life has been rushed and full of meetings.  It’s a bit like that cartoon snowball that begins at the top of the hill as just a speck but is soon speeding downhill, picking up steam and more snow, larger and faster, rushing along!  I’ve managed to keep up until just recently.  Normally I am fairly active on social media, but lately I’ve barely checked Twitter, much less posted.  I’ve started Instagram posts and gone back days later to find them still unfinished.  I’ve taken photos and composed posts in my mind and weeks later they still aren’t posted.  Two days ago I checked Facebook, finally able to look beyond whatever the algorithm thinks is most important, only to find that two dear friends are reeling from the death of family members.  I’ve nearly forgotten meetings, lost my planner (yes, I still use a paper planner in addition to the digital one), and my to-do list is no longer a single list but several pieces of paper stuffed into my Everything Notebook.

“Crazy Busy” Threatens to Overtake

My Everything Notebook is a disaster at this point.  In the last two months I’ve had more inspiration and more spontaneous meetings than I was able to keep up with, and the ideas are all crammed in there – a book proposal, notes from an article I’m certain is about to be due but I’ve lost the deadline info, notes on the wedding I’m to officiate in a couple weeks, notes on the study I’m leading next month, notes on the study guide I’ve been asked to write, notes on the workshop I agreed to teach.  I long to shut the door on the world and focus on this work, but there are other demands on my attention.

Normally I keep up with the news cycle, but lately I’ve been lost in thought, praying how to respond.  Most of my colleagues who blog and the other blogs I follow were quick to respond to the latest news about immigration in South Texas, but I have held back from writing.  The situation has never been far from my mind.  I grew up on that border.  I know many pastors, church members and missionaries who work along the border.  One of my friends from high school works for the Border Patrol in the area near our hometown.  Caught between concerns for both viewpoints, and caught up in my own picking-up-speed-snowball-down-the-hill moment, I held back.  I prayed but did not blog.

The Temptation to Retreat

It would have been easy, and perhaps it was a temptation, to retreat inward yesterday.  I’ve been to five church related events/conferences in the two months.  These have included inspiring worship services, with amazing choirs, a wide variety of music styles, carefully planned themes and elaborate altars, many different scriptures and sermons.  It would have been easy to say to myself that I’ve had enough church lately.  Saturday evening I was in a lengthy worship service that included five bishops!  That should count as worship enough to cover Sunday morning too, shouldn’t it?

But my soul was still hungry.  And so I went to worship with the Church.  I did not shut the door to the world.  I did not turn off my phone.  I did not sit quietly working on one of the things on my list.  I went to Church.  Capital “C” Church, where I was reminded through the connection with my local congregation that I am part of the Body of Christ, and my soul was fed, nourished for the work of the Church.

Shauna Niequist writes in Bread and Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table about how our souls are fed through the fellowship we find around the table:  “We tend to believe that what we’ve done is too bad – that our sins and mistakes are beyond repair, and our faults and failures too deep and ugly.  That’s what shame tells us.  But if we take a chance and come to the table, and if when we are there we are treated with respect and esteem and kindness, then that voice of shame recedes, just for a little while, enough to let the voice of truth, of hope, of Christ himself, get planted a little deeper and a little deeper each time.  The table becomes the hospital bed, the place of healing.  It becomes the place of relearning and reeducating, the place where value and love are communicated.”

A whisper of shame that I’m not able to keep up, and a dash of pride that I had “church enough” lately, and I nearly didn’t come to the table yesterday.  I nearly didn’t go and sing about God’s grace, hear the psalmist’s praise of God, hear the proclamation of the good news.  I nearly didn’t go to the big party later, celebrating our pastor’s recent ordination.  I nearly didn’t go and share in laughter and conversation, marvel over the bounty of the pot luck side dishes, laugh as we all crowded in the house as a thunderstorm crashed around us, found matches to light candles because the power had gone out.

Niequist describes how in these moments, both in the church and out, we find the presence of the Spirit:  “When the table is full, heavy with platters, wine glasses scattered, napkins twisted and crumpled, forks askew, dessert plates scattered with crumbs and icing, candles burning down low – it’s in those moments that I feel a deep sense of God’s presence and happiness.  I feel honored to create a place around my table, a place for laughing and crying, for being seen and heard, for telling stories and creating memories.”

Feasting Prepares Us For The Work

Yesterday was full of these moments.  People shared joys – adoptions approved, retirements celebrated,  ordinations honored.  People shared new adventures – house renovations, young adults learning about vocation and mission, new jobs, new relationships.  People shared sorrows – jobs lost, surgeries scheduled, loved ones with terminal illnesses.  People simply shared – laughter and connection over the table, loneliness eased, burdens lessened.

We come to the table and our souls are fed, we are refreshed to go out again.  The words of Fred Pratt Green’s hymn “When the Church of Jesus” came to mind this morning – refreshed by the fellowship around the table at church and beyond, I am so glad that I did not retreat into myself yesterday.  Table fellowship refreshes us to live into being the church, the Body of Christ for the world.

“When the church of Jesus shuts its outer door, lest the roar of traffic drown the voice of prayer, may our prayers, Lord, make us ten times more aware that the world we banish is our Christian care.

If our hearts are lifted where devotion soars high above this hungry, suffering world of ours, lest our hymns should drug us to forget its needs, forge our Christian worship into Christian deeds.

Lest the gifts we offer, money, talents, time, serve to salve our conscience, to our secret shame, Lord, reprove, inspire us by the way you give; teach us dying Savior, how true Christians live.”

Life happens – and we can retreat or we can gather around the table and be fed.  Gathered around tables yesterday, my soul was able to praise with the Church, to pray with the Church, to be refreshed for mission with the Church.  Reproved, inspired, taught, we are ready to live with awareness of the world around us, to do the work of justice for all people, to proclaim God’s care for all people and creation, to be witnesses to the love of Christ that is good news to the poor, release to the captives, freedom for the oppressed.  May you find table fellowship that is a feast for your journey as a witness to this mission of Christ.

 

Quotes from Niequist found on e-reader location 3111, just before a great recipe for bread.  Try it!  Invite some friends over for dinner, ask them to share a dish, and enjoy the joy of shared live around the table.

The Church’s Response to Suicide

Last week’s news of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain taking their own lives was shocking.  In the news reports for each one, either friends or family members said “we had no idea”.  Persons closest to them did know something, but they didn’t know how urgent and present the threat of losing their loved one was.  In the days since, I’ve had hushed conversations about the suicides.  Adults at church were hesitant to say anything out loud, not wanting to explain what suicide is to the young children in our midst.  A few folks have shared the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on social media (800-273-8255 for voice, 800-799-4889 for TTY, live chat for military vets, LGBTQ+ persons, or those who prefer text based communication available online here )

Suicide is a personal issue for me.  It’s personal because people I love have suffered the agony of losing a parent, a partner, a beloved family member.  Every single time there is news coverage of a death by suicide, my heart aches for the survivors.  The children who have grown into amazing young adults without one of their parents.  The widow and widower, left with the chaos of life and the overwhelming financial burdens, all which cannot be ignored despite their own grief and confusion.

Waves of Emotions

The swirling emotions and grief that follow a suicide death are troubled waters.  Walking with my friends and family members through this storm, I have come to no clear answers.  I only know that when the darkness surrounds a person’s mind and seems to blot out all hope, the best thing to do is to walk beside them.  To hold faith when they have none left.  To bring a meal.  To listen without judgment.  To know that love and anger can exist together, and that emotions roll like waves, and that my role is to stand with the person even as those emotions wash over us both.  To know that even years later, grief can come crashing back, triggered by a news report, a photograph, the scent of a favorite meal.

Once during a ministry internship when I was feeling certain of my call by God and yet uncertain of my abilities, a chance conversation reminded me of God’s unfailing love.  After our worship service I was shaking hands with parishioners at the far door.  Normally I stood with the senior pastor at the main entrance, but on this day I was alone at a door that few people used.  A person stopped and asked through tears what our denomination had to say about people who had committed suicide.  They were upset because something in the worship service had triggered a memory of a dear friend.  During the friend’s funeral, someone had said that they would not be welcomed into heaven because of the manner of death.  The words of Romans 8:38-39 were a great comfort, that nothing can separate us from the love of God – not death or life, not angels or rulers, not what we face in the present or whatever may come, not the powers that be, not our achievements or our despair – none of these can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The Reassurance of Grace

The person who asked me that question was a visitor to that church, and did not attend church in their home.  Most of the survivors I know do not attend church.  Well meaning people in church have too often said insensitive things (“haven’t you grieved long enough?  You should be over this by now” for example).  Their hearts have been wounded so deeply and the church hasn’t helped.  They need to have companions on the journey.  They need to hear the reassurance that nothing separates us from God’s love.  This is the antidote to “we had no idea”.  We do not offer answers we do not have, but we offer the reassurance of God’s grace and the companionship of friends.

When we consider the role of the church as the embodiment of God’s grace for the world, we think about how Christ encouraged us to love our neighbors, to care for those on the margins, and to always be discipling each other.  Being the church in mission is sometimes about loving our neighbors right where we live.  Being the church in mission means that people whose hearts are surrounded by darkness can find in us partners on the journey.  Whether that means standing quietly by a person as they work through the waves of emotions, or sharing meals together, or listening with respect to people as they grapple with the confusion of a loved one’s suicide – these are ways we can be the church in mission to our neighbors.  I pray that your local churches are brave enough to offer love and acceptance to those who need to hear a word of hope.

Formed in Community Over Brunch

How do you gather with your friends?

Last night I attended a monthly dinner as part of a group that is considering living together in Intentional Community.  We’ve been gathering weekly for prayer and have added a meal on the first week as part of our formation.  During the table discussion, we were reflecting on a reading from  Always We Begin Again, which is a translation of St. Benedict’s Rule of Life.  I was trying to remember a particular word (centered or clarity, I couldn’t remember the exact quote and stumbled through the point I was trying to make) and my friend who had the book asked if it was the bit about “sacrificing our self-centered goals” which actually made my point quite clearly while at the same time making me laugh at myself because that is EXACTLY my struggle but I was obviously not seeing my own point well enough.  I’ve got a to-do list, I’ve got the next steps laid out, I’d much rather prefer to organize the chaos, put labels on things and gosh it would be great if God could see that my way works great!  My struggle lately has been how to lean into the mystery of the Spirit, to trust the wisdom of the Spirit and to remember that we make the path by walking.

The path that is being made now for me is the joy of being known deeply.  We laughed and laughed last night when my friend asked me that question.  He had a smile on his face, and I knew instantly that he and I have forged a friendship over prayer and tacos.  It takes time to be known well.  It takes time and intention to know another person and to be vulnerable with each other.  This bond of Christian fellowship is a source of deep spiritual joy.

Brunch as Community Formation

As I reflect on last night’s dinner and prayer, I think also of the group of people who sat near me in a local restaurant Sunday.  They were gathered for brunch, with lots of laughter and conversation.  Someone arrived late, just from the airport with suitcase still in hand.  He  was welcomed with hugs and guided to the place saved for him.  Small conversations between two or three people were held at different corners of the table.  It was clear that brunch is a long-standing tradition with this group of friends, and brunch is how they make intentional time to connect, to listen deeply, to share life with one another.

Several months ago I was visiting one of my daughters and participated in this kind of Sunday brunch gathering.  The friends texted each other, setting the place to meet.  As they gathered, the conversations happened in twos and threes outside.  Waiting 45 minutes for a table? No problem, the gathering was already happening.  Sometimes the full group would share a story, sometimes a pair would step aside for a quieter word.  Sharing life, sharing conversation, knowing each other deeply.  Gathering to share burdens, joys, hopes.

The Problem of Brevity… and Meals as A Step Toward Community Formation

Deep connections and relationships take time and intention.  A quick visit allows for introductions, but the deep joy of being known takes time.  Relationships formed on short-term mission trips may give us immediate joy but because they are short, there is not time to gather in ways that allow us to be formed into Christian fellowship deeply.  We long to be known.  We long to have the kind of relationship in which people will save a place for us at the table and welcome us seamlessly into the conversation.  We long for the kind of relationship in which someone listens to our hearts and can point us back to God when we step off the path.

As much as I love short-term mission trips, there are limitations to how well we can know our brothers and sisters in Christ who live in another state or another country.  We must accept the responsibility to learn the language they speak, the responsibility to learn their culture, the responsibility to be aware of our impact beyond the project we do.  As short-term missionaries, we are guests and those we hope to serve with our work are our hosts.  It is our responsibility to be mindful of how we gather with our hosts.  Do we share meals?  Do we take time out of the work day to sit and talk over a cup of tea?  Are we listening carefully to their stories, their hopes, their joys?  How we gather while on a short-term mission matters.  Gathering separately for all our meals and devotionals means we maintain a barrier between us and them.  Gathering together makes space for sharing life together.  How do you gather when on a short-term mission trip?

Of Spelling Bee Championship Words and Culture

This morning I was listening to NPR and heard about the young man who won the U.S. National Spelling Bee championship yesterday.  When they announced the word that Karthik Nemmani spelled, I thought “Hey! A word I know and can spell!”

But neither of the NPR Morning Edition hosts knew the word.  Later in the morning, I saw that none of the hosts on ABC Good Morning America or CBS This Morning knew the word.  Every one of these morning news hosts was completely unfamiliar with the word “koinonia”.

To be honest, I wouldn’t have been surprised if they were unfamiliar with the previous word in the competition (Bewusstseinslage – what a word!) but I was surprised at how the media are unfamiliar with a word that I hear all the time.  Bustle’s article says that koinonia is just as hard to say as to spell.  People’s article is headlined “That’s a Word?” (and the web header is “crazy winning words”).

As I went through my morning, these reactions of unfamiliarity with “koinonia” stayed with me.  I began to realize that a term with which I am very familiar, a term which I’ve heard used in multiple professional settings, a term which I often read in the professional books I buy, is a word that is specific to a culture.  Koinonia is a word that is used by theologians, who often are not writing for the general public.  It is sometimes used by church groups, often followed by a brief explanation.  It is a word that describes something that people understand, but they use other words for it.  Fellowship, family, connection, spiritual family.

There are words that we use in our cultural groups, words that mark who is an insider (those who know the term and use it appropriately) and who is an outsider (those who don’t know the term, who mispronounce it or misuse it).  In the United Methodist Church we have terms that are specific to our denomination – Annual Conference, for example.  I recently had to explain to one of my cousins why I couldn’t just skip an annual meeting (which is what she understood the term to mean) in favor of a family gathering.  United Methodists have acronyms too, and knowing them indicate who is a long time member of the group.  Older generations of United Methodist Women know their mothers were part of the WSCS (Women’s Society for Christian Service), for example.  If you happen to be Facebook friends with Methodist clergy and you go on that website on May 24th, you’ll probably hear comments about hearts being strangely warmed – a reference to John Wesley’s moment when he knew deeply that he was saved by God’s love, he was assured of God’s saving grace.  I’ve got a coffee mug that says “May your heart and coffee be strangely warmed” which is only funny to me and my family who’ve heard me go on about Wesley and his “strangely warmed heart” for many years.

Sometimes the way we talk amongst ourselves with our insider terms can leave people outside of the group.  My Christian friends who have experienced Christian fellowship want others to know this same spiritual connection.  We wouldn’t intentionally talk in a way that shut others out.  But we might unknowingly exclude people when we use insider terms.  As a Christian insider – one who has been Christian for many years, one who knows the terminology – it is my responsibility to be mindful of how I communicate with others.  It is my responsibility to be mindful of my assumptions.  Even if we share the same language, we might not share the same familiarity with words and their meanings in specific contexts.  As mission-minded persons, it is our responsibility to be mindful of how we use words so that others can hear the welcome of Christ.

Consider the words and terms that you use in your local church.  What assumptions have you made about what those outside the church think about your church?  How can you be more open as you share the good news of Jesus Christ in your own neighborhood?

Prayer As Preparation

Are you planning a vacation?  Memorial Day in the U.S. traditionally marks the beginning of summer and vacation season.  There was a news report recently about the cost of air travel and how many people are expected to fly this summer, with Memorial Day weekend being a peak travel period.

I’ll be flying this Memorial Day weekend, but not for vacation.  The annual gathering of all churches in the Texas Annual Conference begins on Sunday evening, and I will be  there to worship, fellowship and learn about the business of United Methodist churches in the Houston/east Texas area.  I’m excited about heading to the place where I was formed as a pastor in the United Methodist Church.

However, this will be the third trip away from home in the last three weeks.  I’m a little weary.

In Luke 4:42 we read about a weary Jesus.  He had just been baptized, spent 40 days in the wilderness resisting temptations, went on a teaching tour and began an intensive healing ministry.  My recent participation in mission work, worship, workshops, and seminars is nothing in comparison to what Jesus did in Luke 4.  But there is a key lesson in how Jesus handles being weary.  He withdraws to a place where he can pray.

Prayer is our preparation.  Just as we prepare for vacation with careful plans for travel, packing the right clothes for the weather, searching out activities to do, choosing a book to read, so also can we prepare for our daily lives as Christians through prayer.  Through prayer we open ourselves to hear from God, to allow the Spirit to prepare our hearts for the work before us.  Before we choose a mission trip destination, before we decide what work we are willing to do, before we pack our suitcases, we open ourselves in prayer and listen for the Spirit.

God’s purposes can be made evident to us through prayer, and God’s purposes for us can be made evident through prayer.  Jesus withdrew to pray in order that he would be ready to live out his purpose (verse 43).  Prayer is preparation.  Prayer helps us to know why we go out in mission.

Janice Virtue, in teaching a seminar on leadership in the church says “When you know your why, your what becomes more impactful.”  When we prepare through prayer, we will know more deeply our “why” – the reason why we go on mission trips, the reason why we pack clothes that can get dirty, the reason why we bring an extra suitcase full of medical or school supplies.  The “what” – the actual work that we do on mission trips – doesn’t matter unless we know deeply our “why”.  Our actual work will witness the grace and love of Jesus if we take the time to prepare through prayer, and know more deeply our “why” behind our mission work.

Even though I am not at home and in my usual routine, I rely on Pray As You Go, which has a website and an app.  No matter where I go or how busy I am, time away for prayer is available.  Less than 15 minutes a day is all it takes to hear scripture proclaimed, to be still and listen for the leading of the Spirit.  I encourage you to find time each day so that your hearts are opened and you come to know the leading of the Spirit more deeply.  If you have a favorite app or website, please share it below.

S

People Behind the Scenes

Last week I was in Columbus, Ohio for United Methodist Women Assembly.  Over 6,000 women gathered for worship, study and workshops on how to put our faith, hope and love into action.  This week I’m at a required training for pastors.  Next week I’ll be at the Texas Annual Conference in Houston, Texas.  It’s a season of travel!

It’s easy when traveling to miss how many people work behind the scenes.  For example, I rode on a bus with other women from my state to the UMW Assembly.  For that ride alone there was a whole team of people who made that possible.  First, the woman who organized the group also called the bus company.  The people at the bus company had staff who answered the phone, who input our data, who scheduled the drivers, and the drivers themselves.  There were the people who worked at the Walmart where we stopped for coffee and the restrooms.  There were the staff who work for the state rest areas where we stopped for breaks.  Staff of the restaurant where we stopped for lunch.  Staff of the restaurants where we ate dinner once we arrived.  Staff of the hotel who checked us in.  Hotel staff who received the food delivery, staff who prepared the breakfasts, staff who cleaned our rooms, staff who answered all our questions.  Conference center staff who worked for months prior to our arrival.  City staff who set out welcome signage for UMW.  Conference center staff who received deliveries, staff who prepared lunches, staff who prepared and set up coffee stations, staff who cleaned the bathrooms.  Delivery drivers for all the display materials, all the food, all the a/v equipment.  Technicians who set up all the a/v equipment, translators and those who set up their equipment.  And all these people worked before we even had the opening worship!

United Methodist Women participated in an action at the Ohio state capital grounds for a Living Wage for All People.  Standing there in the rain, singing and praying and advocating for a living wage brought to mind all those people who work behind the scenes when I travel.  It is really easy to miss just how many people are working to make things smooth when we travel.  The housekeepers who make our rooms clean and comfortable so we can rest between sessions, for example.  Housekeepers work when we are out of the room, so we don’t see them.  Some wise women taught me years ago (at another UMW Assembly!) to leave a cash tip for the housekeepers every day that they clean your room.  Always saying thank you to people during travel is a good practice as well.  No matter how frustrated or tired I may be, extending thanks helps me to remember how many other people I won’t see that also deserve my gratitude.

An attitude of gratitude when traveling reminds me that all these people working behind the scenes are made in the image of God.  They are beloved.  They deserve to have a living wage.  People deserve to have equitable compensation for their work so that they have enough food on the table and a safe place to live.  The current minimum wage in Ohio results in a full-time annual income of just $17.264 – and many people working for minimum wage struggle to be given enough hours for full-time employment.

As you make plans for travel, whether for conferences, seminars or short-term mission trips, consider all the people who work behind the scenes.  Prayerfully consider how hard people work to make sure your experience happens smoothly, and do some research to find out what the living wage and the minimum wage are in the area you visit.  Remember to thank the people who you see, and offer a prayer of gratitude for those you do not see who make your travel possible.

 

Bold Women in Mission

In 2003 I took an evangelism class at Perkins School of Theology. We were assigned David J. Bosch's "Transforming Mission" which is a rich, dense text on mission and evangelism. Little did I know then how that book would enrich my understanding of mission. 

Fast forward to Wednesday morning this week. I got on a bus in the early morning dark, meeting new United Methodist Women friends.  We drove through the rain to meet more women, and drove more through the rain to meet yet more women. Two bus loads, driving over 12 hours in the rain to Ohio for United Methodist Women Assembly 2018.

Thousands of women are gathered to worship, pray, listen and learn. These women began with a Day of Service, partnering with United Methodist organizations and nonprofits in Columbus. The theme for Assembly is The Power of BOLD.

Our gatherings each emphasize an aspect of bold. Called to Bold - Mary was called by God to say yes and trust the Spirit's leading; Bold Dreams - we named the ways we are each gifted by God to answer God's call; Cost of Bold - living out our call to seek justice and liberation for all God's people can be risky, some have been mocked and silenced due to their faithful witness; Bold Action - encouraging us to speak up and to invite others to join us on this journey.  These are the Power of Bold. 

On the bus, Betty Leitzig gave our devotional. She reminded us that Mary took a risk in saying yes to God. Through uncertainty, danger, struggle, sweat and grief, Mary remained faithful. As Betty spoke, I recalled the words of David Bosch about acting with humble boldness in mission. We step out in mission, through uncertainty, through struggle, through danger, always remembering that God's faithfulness will carry us through. We act with BOLD Humility. Bosch's words capture well the hopes discussed at UMW Assembly - collaboration, partnership, action, justice:

 "...we do not have all the answers and are prepared to live within the framework of penultimate knowledge, that we regard our involvement in dialogue and mission as an adventure, are prepared to take risks, and are anticipating surprises as the Spirit guides us into fuller understanding.  This is not opting for agnosticism, but for humility. It is, however, a bold humility - or a humble boldness. We know only in part but we do know. And we believe that the faith we profess is both true and just, and should be proclaimed.  We do this, however, not as judges or lawyers, but as witnesses; not as soldiers, but as envoys of peace; not as high pressure salespersons, but as ambassadors of the Servant Lord." 

I am blessed and inspired by Bosch's words and by the dedicated mission and witness of United Methodist Women, who have been organizing for mission for nearly 150 years. May their vision and commitment for continued mission with all God's people be a blessing to all. 

 

Bosch, David J. Transforming Mission: paradigm shifts in theology of mission. Maryknoll, NY:Orbis Books. 1991. 

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