Tag Archives: UMC

Council of St. Louis?

or What the Council of Jerusalem can tell us about General Conference 2019.


Introduction

After Easter, I’ve been exploring Acts with my congregation. The concept was ‘let’s see what people did with the news that Jesus rose from the dead’. The second understanding was that Pentecost gave the Holy Spirit-the fiery courage to take the gospel to all the world, but the resurrection of Jesus was the content of the Gospel. “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses,” Peter testifies on Pentecost (Acts 2:32).

God’s Invitation to the Apostles from the Gentiles

It’s interesting how Acts tells the story of the Gentile’s inclusion in the church. The notion that God is with Apostles is quickly turned on it head. It’s as if the Holy Spirit burst out of the Upper Room and the Apostles just couldn’t keep up.

God appears to Cornelius in a dream first before God says anything to Peter. And Peter has to be thrown into an hallucination before he would dare enter Cornelius’ territory. It is ultimately Cornelius who invites Peter. Peter testifies with aplomb. A second Pentecost breaks out and Cornelius’ household are all baptized. It’s as if this was for Peter’s awakening as much as Cornelius’.

Ananias was approached by God to relieve Saul of his blindness. Saul/Paul was chosen by God to be an apostle to the Gentiles. A vision of Ananias was given to Saul/Paul before their meeting. The testimony is that God is clearly acting on behalf of the Gentiles that God wants to receive the gospel.

The gospel gets to the Gentiles by accident again after the stoning of Stephen. As a precaution, the fleeing Apostles only taught in the synagogues. It was in Antioch that Hellenists heard the Gospel. By crossing a language barrier, the gospel inevitably crosses an ethnicity barrier as well. The swelling of the church in Antioch prompts Barnabas to go get Paul. The two of them minister in Antioch for about a year. God readies the Gentile people before Barnabas and Paul minister to them.

This issue of gentile inclusion leads up to the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) where leadership from the entire Christian planet gathers for a special general conference on inclusion of Gentiles in the church. By this time, God has on numerous occasions directly intervened to clear the way for Gentiles to be included. It would require a massive revision of Hebrew law.

Don’t Look Now, but the Quadrilateral gets Upended in Jerusalem

Not everyone was of one mind regarding Gentile inclusion in the church. A group of Pharisees insisted that Gentile Christians be circumcised. To us, that sounds complete preposterous. But the Pharisees had scripture on their side.

Circumcision as the emblem of the Covenant

Remember, circumcision was the sign that the Hebrews were serious about following God. Abram was 99 years old when the sign of circumcision was given. And it was ordered as a serious custom from early on. It was a law before there even was a law. Circumcision was the threshold into the family of God.

Did you know that foreigners were allowed to observe Passover in ancient Israel, but only if they were circumcised? “If an alien who resides with you wants to celebrate the passover to the Lord, all his males shall be circumcised; then he may draw near to celebrate it; he shall be regarded as a native of the land” (Exodus 12:48). You can’t have the promised land without the pain.

Circumcision was also a saving grace. Did you know that en route back to Egypt, Moses wrestled with God the same way Jacob did (Exodus 4)? But in a twist, God not only overwhelms Moses, but is on the brink of killing him. Moses’ wife Zipporah sees what’s going on and performs an emergency circumcision on their son. Touching the freshly butchered foreskin to Moses “feet”* (feet in the OT is often a euphemism for genitals) God’s wrath is satisfied. Moses then goes on to free the slaves from Pharaoh. Apparently God really cares about circumcision.

The biblical record (at least as Peter and Paul understood) was very clear on circumcision: it was required. The default setting in Jewish theology was that circumcision marked one as part of the family of God. It was the foremost symbol of Israel’s relationship with God. Circumcision and the covenant went hand-in-hand. Before Passover, before the Torah, there was circumcision. It identified. It saved. It purified. It marked you as God’s favored one.

On the anti-circumcision side, the only answer Peter has was what he observed. From Acts 15:

The apostles and the elders met together to consider this matter. After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, ‘My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.’

Paul and Barnbas testified to what they observed in Antioch. James added a prophetic interpretation. In all, the Council of Jerusalem concluded that circumcision was not required. A letter was sent the churches throughout the world to explain the conclusion and to encourage Christians to steer clear of sexual immorality. I wonder how an intercultural church would have interpreted “sexual immorality”. Certainly Jews and Gentiles differed greatly on this.

This is no small matter. Through experience and a touch of reason, a major biblical and traditional emblem was discarded. Paul later details in Romans how the Law was really great at convicting one of sin, but otherwise terrible at actually saving anybody (Romans 7:7-12).

A Revolutionary Angle

Since Advent, when I gave myself a crash-course in the Maccabean revolt, I’ve had an altered view of the Pharisees. The Maccabeans ousted the Seleucids who were formidable world conquerers in the centuries before Christ. The Maccabeans were able to set up their own miniature dynasty (Wikipedia actually has an excellent summary here) until the Romans came along. Part of the Maccabean success was attributed to their penchant for their legal purity. They studied the OT prophets and concluded that their demise was due in part to God’s unwillingness to protect them. They rededicated themselves to their food laws and only begrudgingly chose to fight on the sabbath. They were able to defeat a grotesque and terrorizing army through their dedication to the covenant (the Law) that God had with them.

The Pharisees are the heirs of the Maccabean way, even as the Hassmonean dynasty splintered into factions. Their dedication to the law was not just for greed or power, they had good historical reason to believe that this was the way to oust the Romans and have their land back. It worked in the days of Exile, it worked in the days of the Maccabeans, this is clearly the way God will save us. For Jesus and then Peter and Paul (a Pharisee even!) to say that the Law was no longer necessary not only thwarted God’s word, it risked the continued occupation of the Romans in the holy land. The stance made at the Council of Jerusalem had far-reaching radical consequences.

What does this Mean for Saint Louis?

I say ALL of this to get us to General Conference 2019 in St. Louis.

I don’t know what is going to happen. But I feel as though there is a contest not unlike the Council of Jerusalem. The black-and-white readers have the book on their side (kinda). I personally believe that what the Bible says about homosexuality is ultimately apples and oranges since the Bible doesn’t recognize that homosexuals can actually mutually love each other. The scripture conflates homosexuality with other matters like violence or wanton lust…or worse. And what we now know about genetics is not accounted for in scripture. Nevertheless, those who see the Bible as unquestionably right do have a few lines of prohibition on their side. (Though it seems portions of the early church had found fault with that thinking.)

But is the Holy Spirit done? This seems to be the rebuttal. The harm assumed by including LGBTQ+ people in the church is not born out by the evidence. The good is hard to account for since all LGBTQ+ contributions to the church are couched in their being marginalized. What if Jorge Lockward was not marginalized? We simply do not know all that we’ve lost as a denomination. When I observe LGBT+ clergy in other denominations being just, loving, compassionate–all the things Jesus was–I do two things: I celebrate the ministry and I mourn my church for being so stubborn. When I observe LGBT+ married couples being joyful, mutually sacrificial in their love, raising kind-hearted children–putting to rest the stereotypes against them–I have two thoughts: I celebrate their family and I mourn my church for not having the eyes to see what’s going on. It is not Christian to be so nose-down in the Bible that you can’t recognize the Holy Spirit at work in the world around you.

I don’t know what will happen in St. Louis. The ramifications are huge. But so too are the hurdles for change in either direction! How can members of a family that are fused in their positions find peace?

The Council of Jerusalem sticks out to me as a similar battle. The potential for a flood of losers seems high. Then again, Peter, Paul and the like were then able to go to their constituents and say “Yes, we recognize what the Holy Spirit is doing here. Let us break bread in peace.” Perhaps that day is coming when we in the UMC can share the bread of with our LGBTQ+ neighbors without prejudice or shame.

Martin Luther King, Jr: Sacramental Theologian

We aren’t going to let any mace stop us. We are masters in our nonviolent movement in disarming police forces. They don’t know what to do. I’ve seen them so often. I remember in Birmingham, Alabama, when we were in that majestic struggle there, we would move out of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church day after day. By the hundreds we would move out, and Bull Connor would tell them to send the dogs forth, and they did come. But we just went before the dogs singing, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.” [applause] Bull Connor next would say, “Turn the fire hoses on.” (Yeah) And as I said to you the other night, Bull Connor didn’t know history. He knew a kind of physics that somehow didn’t relate to the trans-physics that we knew about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out. [applause] And we went before the fire hoses. (Yeah) We had known water. (All right) If we were Baptist or some other denominations, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist and some others, we had been sprinkled. But we knew water. That couldn’t stop us. [applause]
–“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”; Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,
April 3, 1968; Memphis, Tennessee
I’ve been pretty obsessed with the last speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ever since Charlottesville. In preparing for yesterday’s sermon commemorating the baptism of Jesus, I reviewed our commitments as baptized United Methodist Christians (hub of resources here). We all agree to “resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves”. This has always sounded good to me.
If I’m going to be more active in the human struggles for freedom and dignity, actually, all I have to do is keep the word I gave at my baptism.

On Bishop Oliveto

Everything I’ve ever learned about loving my LGBTQ neighbors as myself, I learned through the United Methodist CHurch. Everything I’ve learned about fully including, welcoming and valuing LGBTQ people in the church and society at large, I learned through the UMC.

oliveto-wife-judicial-council-april-2017-dubose-3000-607x388
Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS Bishop Karen Oliveto (left) leans over to speak with her wife, Robin Ridenour (behind Oliveto) prior to a meeting of the United Methodist Judicial Council in Newark, N.J. The denomination’s top court ruled on April 28 that the consecration of a gay bishop violates church law. At right is Bishop Elaine Stanovsky.

This weekend, while the church was spinning from the Judicial Council’s decision regarding Bishop Karen Oliveto, I was with the United Methodist Women training to teach Mission U this summer. There was a wild convergence of my life in the church. This convergence of representatives from my life in the church intersected with this current matter of Bishop Oliveto’s consecration to provide an internal history lesson.

I saw people from my old conference, West Virginia there. That conference raised me and is a primary lens for my understanding of life, God, home, church and morality. I remember debating in UMYF whether it was okay for a gay person to be a parent. I argued yes, while still believing homosexuality was a sin (that assumption was never challenged).

I saw an old friend from my days at the GBGM who was a US-2 and is now with the Women’s Division. She reminded me of my own US-2 experience and the richness of knowledge that era gave me regarding gay and lesbian people. I had never encountered gay people in the church, much less leaders and activists. As a US-2 I encountered an openly gay clergyman who ministered to our class during mid-term and end-term conferences. He was gentle and heartbroken over what he saw among LGBTQ students on the campus where he ministered. He shared his wisdom and Holy Communion with us. I also had to confront internal biases I didn’t even know I had. I used the term ‘gay’ in a derogatory way one time and got seriously chastised by a classmate. I had to come to grips with the fact that I conflated homosexuality and pedophilia, which I now know is a horrendous charge. I came to realize that no one ever taught me that association. I have since concluded that I picked it up at college where Christian students often harbored strident views on purity. I witnessed the struggle for acceptance among LGBT youth where I served as a US-2. Another classmate debunked my immature understanding of genetics and sexuality. My classmates were an amazing bunch on many levels. On this matter, I am deeply humbled that they received and accepted me as their friend while I struggled to understand. I’m now 20 years older and I don’t see that happen very often.

I saw another friend at Mission U training who went with me when I lived in the UK for a year through the Time for God program. While there, I encountered for the first time a transgender woman in church. The congregation’s gentleness with her was natural and easy and a great lesson in acceptance for me. The pastor at the time was a very caustic personality in a very demanding church that had both extraordinarily gracious people and extraordinarily petty critics. Regarding the transgendered woman, the pastor displayed immense understanding and patience, even compassion. He was aware of how this woman was likely treated in many aspects of society and yet was at church regularly in search of God. I clashed often with that pastor. But his lesson on compassion to trans persons has stuck with me. My Time for God friend later joined that US-2 program while I headed to the GBGM. The GBGM was full of committed, gracious, non-straight Christian people operating this amazingly fruitful wing of the church. It was also during my time at the GBGM that I witnessed someone “come out” for the first time. I saw how painful and courageous such a confession could be. I also saw how the church itself-this thing I loved so much-was the sole source of this young person’s pain. Ironically, the church had grown me so much that I was able to see the dissonance of these two truths about the church: it could raise amazing servants of God AND it was perfectly willing to cast aside those servants based on an outdated, immature and ultimately false view of humanity and sexuality.

While with the UMW this weekend, we also sang a hymn by Mark Miller, professor of Sacred Music at Drew Theological School. Mark was commissioning the organ in Seminary Hall when I visited as a prospective student. We studied a lot of liberation theologies at Drew. Mark shared with one class his story of being a gay United Methodist. He shared about the overwhelming graciousness of his dad when he came out. He shared about being at General Conference as an openly gay United Methodist There were other LGBT faculty members at Drew who were each amazing scholars in their fields. Drew was where my ideas and beliefs about sexuality were finally deconstructed. Debating scripture, tradition, experience and reason with some of the best theological minds has proven to be fruitful training. It was while at Drew that Judicial Council decision 1032 came down. That decision stated that a pastor could deny membership to a person based solely on their sexual orientation. I recall an emergency meeting of UM students and the electricity in the air over 1032. I immediately recalled the story of Bishop Elijah Jones, who was a clergyman when the Methodist Episcopal church split over slavery. Jones was pastoring a black north church in New Orleans. When his DS came to visit, the DS who was white had to lodge with a white ME South clergyman in town. Jones’ decision to stay in the church has stayed with me. Why should I give ‘my church’ up to the forces of exclusion?

Furthermore, we sang another song that was arranged by Jorge Lockward. I had worked with Jorge at the GBGM. Jorge was the musician and worship leader for Annual Conference in WV after I had returned as a clergyperson. Jorge was well received and immensely effective. He was slated to lead another event when his sexual orientation was discovered. A controversy arose and many calls were made to rescind his invitation or boycott the event. I remember defending his ministry at a clergy picnic. We attended the event. Every time Jorge arose to lead a hymn, a section of people would leave. There was room in the church for adulterers, but not a homosexual. Also as a clergyperson in WV, I encountered numerous parents of gay and lesbian children and saw the agony they experienced from the church through their children. I heard the vitriol toward LGBTQ people at Annual Conference. It was after I had decided to move west that I finally was open about wanting LGBTQ people to be fully included in church and society.

Then, I met people from Oregon, where I served as pastor for 1 year. That church, Sunnyside-Centenary United Methodist Church in Portland, OR was the only reconciling church I’ve served. They were quite small at the time but were quite active in RUMs: Reconciling United Methodists of Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference. RUMNs held their annual meeting at Sunnyside on “What is trans?” a seminar educating people of issues relating to transgendered people. I was impressed with how in flux the matter is. Nevertheless, trans people have their own difficulties and their own need for grace. And yet, the church is a primary source of exclusion. I saw at Sunnyside an immense dedication to living faithfully and living out the Micah 5:8 charge to do justly, love mercy and to walk humbly with God.

Finally, I was part of a contingency from my current conference, the Pacific Northwest. I serve a long-standing congregation who dedicates itself to serving the poor. This issue of sexuality in the church seems likely to demand a stance from us soon. Part of our contingency is the former pastor of Orchards, Bishop Mary Ann Swenson. I see her current work in ecumenical circles and see the beauty of the church at its best: understanding, intelligent, truthful, just and peaceful. I see our conference trying earnestly to do justly by our LGBTQ neighbors. I see us on the wrong end of church history, perhaps having to endure a period not unlike what Elijah Jones endured: cut off, ostracized and belittled based on the color of one’s sexuality. I’m not resigned to this fate, but I am prepared for it.

In the end, I can see why Bishop Oliveto was elected. She has been an amazingly fruitful minister of the gospel for a long time. She has been openly gay for a long time. It’s notable that no one has questioned the quality of her ministry. No one questions if she loves her partner. All of those deep down spiritual matters are beyond reproach. All that’s left are matters of ‘legality’, wrapped in church-lawyer language.

At some point, perhaps in the not so distant future, it seems likely that all United Methodists will have to choose where they stand on these matters. Each jurisdiction will ask each conference which will ask each congregation which will ask each member and clergyperson to state their place in the debate. It seems like the time for honest reckoning is approaching. When that time comes, this personal history of the church’s lessons on what is right and wrong for LGBTQ people will carry my own position.

Tradition as a Spiritual Foundation

Since marrying almost 11 years ago, I have entered the realm of another family’s traditions. It’s nothing new. Ever since Cain met that girl from somewhere else, family traditions have always come and gone and evolved. As a child, I never thought much of the traditions of my family. They seemed plain and were less taught than assumed. During holy seasons, you went home, gathered around the table and talked about life. The food was good, the company was quiet but dependable, the conversation polite, the mood warm.

Now I live out west and the holidays are spent elsewhere. There’s nothing wrong with any of it. The food is still good, the company is less quiet but still dependable. But the people are different, and my people are “back home”. The routines that feel familiar out here are not illogical…they’re just not my routines. As our family grows, the tradition changes and all of that is okay.

But I feel foreign. And I am foreign. Even if someone were to ask me about my traditions…well part of my traditions were the unspoken-ness of them all.

As it stands, the only tradition I have left is my religion.

What is Tradition?

Tradition binds us to space and time. Tradition recognizes my connection to my ancestors. Tradition also is my gift to give to people who will come after me. Tradition is the community of time. It is the wisdom database that is stored within my bones containing all the lessons and tendencies of those who have gone before me. And I am contributing to that wisdom database by simply living. I reinforce the wisdom that I understand to be true by practicing the traditions of my ancestors. I also correct the wisdom database by exposing the falsehood within it. Finally, I add new practices and tendencies for my offspring based on my living in my environment in my time. Hopefully, my descendants will inherit a more true and fulfilling wisdom database because I contributed.

It seems to me that the sources of tradition are family, location, culture, religion (both formal and folklore) and history.

Rootless Society

I wonder about a populace that is maniacally mobile. I wonder if our mobility is the cause or the result of our societal restlessness. I wonder if our mobility contributes to the ideological silo-ing of America. I know that I moved because my ideas and beliefs were not welcome where I was. And neither party was interested in further conversations to work out differences. So that population of uprooted people includes me.

But rootedness feels good. It feels safe. It gives me guidelines for how to act and what to decide. Of all the things lost in my various moves, gained is a surer rootedness in my religious tradition. Now people want to break that up.

The United Methodist Church, Tradition and Transcendence

In 2017 the momentum within the United Methodist Church will continue toward a showdown over human sexuality. This year will be a bridge year between General Conference 2016 and a specially called session of General Conference in 2018 to address all matters of human sexuality. It is a shadow that hangs over me and my family in a particular way. After bouncing wastefully around the connection for better part of a decade, we both find ourselves in positive and fruitful appointments. We fully expect that in short time, we will have to make very tough decisions about our callings and our appointments. The irony is that we are both skilled enough to lead our congregations through such moments. But we could end up on the outside.

Add to this the emerging uneasiness politically in America and you have a recipe for tremendous upheaval. For any aspect of my tradition to give me wisdom for this particular journey, I’d have to go back to my ancestors who fled the homeland to come to the New World. That is a very murky time to me now. More apropos is going back to the very roots of my faith: to Jesus touching the leper and eating at Zacchaeus’s house.

I’ve been working on this idea of ‘sectlessness’ for a while now. It is a feeling that all the divisions between humanity are ultimately arbitrary and meaningless. That among the lessons of Christ is the oneness of earthly life. We all need each other and we’re built to be bound as one. Jesus transcended the divisions of his day and joined humanity together through his life, death and resurrection. Trying to be like Jesus means also transcending these divisions.

[My hesitation is that this feels very easy given my privilege. I am aware that people in minority groups often cannot and do not want to escape their distinctions. I know many embrace their distinctions as a matter of pride and identity and I see nothing inherently wrong with that. I think for me, my desire to transcend may actually arise out of my place of privilege. I often feel entrapped and minimized by the privileges assigned to me. This is an unresolved dilemma for me.]

So What?

All of this rootlessness, both forced and sought, leads me to the only rootedness that seems trustworthy…my identity as a child of God in a universe of siblings. I give thanks to God that my church tradition has propelled me to this revelation. I also fear that this revelation will outlast my church. The ultimate tradition is that of innovation and growth and why should I not embrace this reality.

Closing Ceremonies

Note: A year ago today, I preached this final sermon at Sunnyside-Centenary United Methodist Church.


I want to begin with an apology. This apology is generally for the remaining members, but it is more specifically for Cliff Fairley our illustrious choir director. Boy, hasn’t the choir just been magnificent?

Several months ago, while we were in the throes of some very difficult conversations about the future of the church, the idea of closure was first floated. The possibility of closure had always been before us, but on this particular day it emerged as the most appropriate decision. I said something to the crowd that day that Cliff really took to heart. I said “Given the stature and history of this great congregation, if you’re gonna close, you ought to close out in style. You ought to light up the cross and flame on the bell tower and you should shoot fireworks of the roof.” As the conversation went on Cliff spoke up and said: “Yes, I want fireworks off the roof.”

I am sorry there won’t be any fireworks off the roof. Because Sunnyside has earned fireworks. Fireworks are what you get when you make the winning play. And I’m a bit disappointed that you’re not getting all the things you have earned by being a winning church.

For any other offense I may have committed in my brief time here, I offer my sincerest apology. No doubt that in 125 years, this congregation has accumulated its share of offenses. From love withheld, to neighbors neglected. From harsh words to rash decisions. From sins left unconfessed and unreconciled to bouts of laziness and cheap grace. In the light of these offenses God empowers us to pronounce forgiveness and be freed. You are forgiven. You are forgiven. In the name of Jesus Christ you are forgiven. I believe it is God’s will for you to exit this place freed of any burden of regret and guilt. So know you are forgiven.

I love this text from Jeremiah. It is famous in and of itself, but perhaps you’re unaware that these words were given–this promise made–at a time of loss. A time when the all the people of Israel and Judah were losing their homeland. That piece of property that was so quintessential to their identity was now someone else’s…and they had to leave. How strange that these ancient words are about God doing new things. God still must do new things. Our God is a creative God who knows us intimately, better than we even know ourselves. God can see what’s ahead and what is needed for the continued redemption of God’s creation. How awesome is this God that writes a new covenant on the very hearts of those who understand the pain of transition.

I feel that pain myself. I know what my calendar says about where I’ll be this time next week. I know that the Bishop has reappointed me across the river in Vancouver. And I trust God to show me new things there. But I can’t help feel a particular sorrow for having to leave Sunnyside. I just got here. And I deeply, deeply love Sunnyside. I wrote to conference leadership around Thanksgiving that Sunnyside is the church I have always wanted to serve: inclusive with purpose, classy with personality, faithful with an inquiring mind. So many Godly qualities live here. As surely as this ole boy from West Virginia loves Sunnyside, so too does the living God know and love you who make up Sunnyside. God knows you better. God honors you more deeply than any of us ever can.

God honors you because in spite of those moments of iniquity, you have blazed a tremendous path of faithful service to God. When no one else saw the need to house homeless families, you saw the need and you responded. When your neighbors weren’t so happy with the company you kept on Wednesday and Friday nights, you stood firm with faithfulness and creativity. When our denomination wasn’t able to welcome our neighbors with differing sexual orientations and gender identities, you told your own stories, lived out your own faith and welcomed without judgment. You have taught others to listen without prejudice and you have made room for others.

You deserve fireworks, because you have loved deeply. The church is called to be the body of Christ. We take on the life, purpose and example of Jesus. Jesus got down in the gutters and redeemed people where they were. He defiled himself through the controversial acts of healing the sick, eating with sinners and forgiving the despicable. It’s crude to say Jesus was a sacrifice for our sins. It’s more like Jesus died so that others can be freed to live as God would have them live. So churches, to be like Christ, must give their lives away. Wanting to live forever is understandable. Even as we’ve gotten smaller, Sunnyside is still a joyful congregation. But the God we follow ultimately lives for others, even if that means losing his own life in the process. It may be that the toughest task ahead is explaining to your next congregation what happened to Sunnyside. Others may view your old church as a failure. They may wonder what you did wrong. But you know the truth: Sunnyside chose to give its life so that others may live.

God’s covenant is not about a building, it has never been about the building. The new covenant is a state of mind–a state of heart, really–it’s a way of being which says this life is for loving God with all that I have. A way of being that says this life is for loving my neighbors as myself. It is still about healing the sick, befriending the forgotten, welcoming the outcast and working for the peace of the world.

You are allowed to feel whatever you are lead to feel on this day. I have cried and I will cry. I’ve been mad, confused, relieved, honored…every emotion. Regardless of how you feel, I insist, as your pastor, that you walk out of here with your heads high, with a deep sense of accomplishment for having been faithful to God ’til the end. And be free to love and serve the Lord in all that you say and do.

A Genuine Good-Bye to the West Virginia Annual Conference: Thank You for these and many other great memories

So my pastoral ministry career in the West Virginia Annual Conference is officially closed. The Clergy Executive session approved my transfer to the Pacific Northwest Conference. I heard about it through a note on my Facebook page by the pastor who invited me into this life when I was 17. A few months later, as a sad, friendless teenager I skipped school to find out more. She gave me “The Christian as Minister” and I completed the first step in the ordination process. She then invited me to shadow her that summer as her intern. I made pastoral visits, babysat as she was beginning a ministry for low-income moms that later became Mary’s Cradle, wrote notes of thanks to various people. She also made me exercise and read the Bible in the morning.

I read her note at 11PM as I had kinda forgotten that Conference was in session in WV. It was a silent, surreal ending to a very long journey. No matter where I was in the last 23 years, I was a part of the WV annual conference. At least I thought so. Looking back I have more questions than answers. When I kept sending press releases to WV from my mission work, I wondered why no one ever replied. How come those mission experiences didn’t matter? Why this? Why that? It feels like a loss. But maybe they’re glad I’m gone.

Nevertheless, I know I did worthy work in WV. I certainly made mistakes and just plain did some wrong. I also know that I did many more things right than I did wrong. And I know I cared.

As I mark this transition, I am praising and thanking God for the 5 congregations I served in WV. Here is the best moment in each of them:

Mary McGinnis Joining Sabra United Methodist Church, Morgantown, WV

Sabra is a nice little congregation in the Jerome Park neighborhood of Morgantown. My favorite memory of Sabra was welcoming Mary McGinnis as a member. Mary had been a life-time resident of Jerome Park and had even attended Sabra when she was little. She married a Roman Catholic and they raised their kids in Catholicism. Mary was very fond of her husband, but dearly missed him after he passed. She finally decided to come back to church to reconnect with friends and rediscover her own faith. She and I had many discussions about church, Jesus, life, etc. Mary was very funny and her son Mark often worshiped with her. Welcoming Mary as a member was marked by joy and a real sense of welcome. To provide her a community of caring peers in her advanced age was a real treat.

Taking my Newborn Daughter to Highland Park United Methodist Church, Morgantown, WV

Highland Park, being the church that worshiped at 9am was really my first congregation, though they too often took a second billing to Sabra on the charge. My favorite moment at Highland Park came in my 4th year there. My wife and I each took some Family Leave time after the birth of my daughter Anna. I made it a point to worship at each congregation during my 8 weeks off. and each was delightful in their own ways. But Highland Park was a really close knit group. When I entered the church with Anna in her seat, the welcome they bestowed upon both of us was truly joyous. I had long felt welcomed, but on that morning, I could feel genuine, caring love coming our way. I still remember Dr. Rieder, my pastoral counselor, presiding over worship and everything just being peaceful and warm.

Being Ordained by Naomi Butler at Jones United Methodist Church, Morgantown, WV

Jones became my 3rd church my 2nd year of ministry. I was really excited to serve a predominantly African-American congregation and they welcomed me with almost overwhelming grace and respect. My favorite moment came in my last month there. Meredith and I had already announced that we were moving to southern WV. Jones was aware of the struggles I had had in the ordination process, especially their senior matriarch, Mrs. Naomi Butler. Mrs. Butler had served in every capacity a lay woman could serve in the conference. She had been UMW chair, on the district Council on Ministry, the conference mission board, etc., etc., etc. Other members of Jones called her Sarge and only to her face when she had passed age 90. Some people have authority of office, Mrs. Butler had authority of integrity, service and seniority. I was not surprised that Jones wanted to give me a gift. We had a good four years together. But I was stunned silent when Naomi pulled out a red stole and made me bend over as she placed it on my shoulders.

My first sermon at Jones had been about the story of Elisha picking up the mantle Elijah left behind. I encouraged the congregation to bring their ideas and pursue what God wanted them to do. They took that charge very seriously. I felt genuinely God-filled in that message. So for them to return the message and grant me their God-ordained authority…wow! I still can’t describe it. But I always tell people that I was ordained by a 93 year old black lay woman.

Paying Witness to the Multi-layered Health Crises in My Homeland while Pastoring at Greenview United Methodist Church, Bluefield, WV

Returning to my hometown to be a pastor was daunting. I had almost too much familiarity with the place and too much understanding of the ways of its suffering. I was invited to participate in the County Health Assessment. I knew that drugs were bad there. I knew that DUIs were high. There had been drug-related violence all around our home. When I sat among the few people in the county trying to stem the tide of disease and self-destruction, I felt a holy calling to simply pay attention. My home county led the nation in hepatitis infections, a leading marker of the drug epidemic that the nation is just now starting to notice. We also led the nation in babies born addicted to drugs. We couldn’t stop at poisoning ourselves; we went and poisoned our babies as well. The County Health Assessment named the problem and the needs, even if there was too much problem and not enough solution. It was plain, unassuming work with some heroic people. I was honored to participate.

I name this as my “best” moment in Bluefield for the fact that I was simply incapable to doing anything else. I was incapable of turning the tide of addiction, of warding off the incessant sadness of my hometown, of creating anything of hope or solace. BUT ALSO, I learned that paying attention to the pain was holy work. My prayer life began centering on the sex slaves walking the streets of Princeton near our house. I saw them when the police chose not too. I saw them when they got out of a truck crying. I saw them when they first appeared and when their worn out faces crawled down Thorn Street for the 45th day in a row. My attempts to preach on the problems, to organize for solutions were dismal and futile. But they were attempts. At this point, I hang on to that recollection: that I cared, even if it was the only thing I could do.

Baptizing Joshua at Cedar Grove United Methodist Church, Parkersburg, WV.

I served Cedar Grove for 1 year. Cedar Grove is a great church on the southern end of Parkersburg. Through a member, they had cultivated a nice relationship with a half-way house for recovering addicts in town called the Fellowship House. The Fellowship did remarkable work helping people fight their addictions. Cedar Grove regularly welcomed friends from the Fellowship House for worship.

Shortly after I arrived, we welcomed a young woman who was very serious about defeating her addictions. Katrina* [fake name of a real woman] was wise, funny and dedicated. She came to church and bible study regularly. We soon learned that due to her addictions and incarcerations, her 8 year old son had been housed in a residential care facility in Tennessee. As Katrina progressed in her recovery, she began speaking of being reunited with her son Joshua* [name also changed]. We began praying for Joshua and sending coloring pages and other tokens of our prevenient love for him. To make matters even more miraculous, Joshua’s dad had returned to the picture and was successfully working on his own issues. The time came for Joshua to arrive and I couldn’t believe how beautiful and well–holy–he looked. He had a great little accent, dark questioning eyes and enough bashfulness to affirm his innocence. Personally, I know that little boy had seen way too much for his 8 years. And as he settled in with his mom and got reacquainted with his dad, you could see the promise in his demeanor.

Toward the end of my year at Cedar Grove, I had the opportunity to baptize a brother and sister in the congregation. I am fond of including children in baptism as a teaching moment and as they add great joy to a joyous sacrament. I taught about baptism during the children’s message and then baptized the brother and sister. All of the kids were genuinely enthralled with the process of pouring water and laying hands on the brother and sister. I invited the congregation to pass the peace and greet the brother and sister and their parents. Joshua then looked at me and said, “When is it my turn?” I went to Katrina as people were passing the peace and told her about Joshua’s request. I asked her if she could speak on his behalf and she said yes. After people reconvened, I shared about Joshua’s desire for baptism. I wasn’t the only one who ‘got’ the significance of the moment or who recognized the tumultuous journey of this young boy’s life. We baptized Joshua and gave him a proper welcoming into the body of Christ. I cried throughout. It is the best baptism I have ever done.

It was certainly painful to leave West Virginia. I always assumed I would die a WV pastor. But the calling requires a willingness to move where God needs you. And I can safely say that God has needed me in the Pacific Northwest. My time in WV was always marked with a lot of disappointments. Nevertheless, I am grateful for my time there and for the ministry God allowed me to do in that wild and wonderful place. I am thankful for each congregation and their lessons to me. Our struggles and conflicts are passed. Now we can remember and appreciate those holy moments we shared.

The Body of Christ in the None Zone

What I love about church in the None Zone:

  • No cultural Christianity: They’re is no civic version of the religion telling you what Christianity is (ie. Patriotism, gender roles, etc.)
  • Deliberate choice to be in church: We’ve all heard the None’s reasonings and have decided to pursue Jesus anyhow. This makes for a stronger church member.
  • None’s keep us honest and transparent: Some of the None’s reasonings are due to pain from the church…the church locally has learned to recognize this painful history and many have adopted ways to not repeat it.
  • Sense of ecumenism: We all love our traditions, but we know that we need our ecumenical friends.
  • Sense of camaraderie: Less competition, more collaboration
  • Room to innovate: Being small and regularly on the brink, we have developed a sense of freedom to try new things. This brings joy and fun to the work of ministry.

What about you? What do you love about church in your context?