#GC2019 Update #1 – Worldwide Discernment

23 02 2019

img_0116Sometimes I get tunnel vision – when I fail to see too far beyond my own circumstances. And sometimes, sometimes, by God’s grace I’m blessed with a Holy Spirit insight into a broader picture.

The United Methodist Church just finished a set-aside day of prayer to begin our specially called session of General Conference to determine a way forward in the midst of differences in views on human sexuality. In the midst of our united prayers, God opened my eyes to something I already knew but easily forget in my tunnel vision.

In the months, weeks and days leading up to this General Conference, I personally received somewhere between 200 and 250 “contacts” from those concerned about the direction of the broader church. These contacts consisted of a few phone calls, and dozens and dozens of emails and letters. A small handful were from the congregation I serve. The vast majority were from United Methodists within our Illinois Great Rivers Conference. And I received a handful from others across the United States. Furthermore, I spent many hours reading blogs and articles written by UM leaders with varying viewpoints. As much as I hoped to keep my mind open to all points of view, I realize now that I was undoubtedly in a tunnel – a tunnel of Stars and Stripes – Red, White and Blue.

But in our day of prayer, I was ejected from that tunnel by the Holy Spirit. We spent segments of our day in prayer led by United Methodist bishops from all across the world. We prayed for the church in Europe and Eurasia, singing songs in Russian and Swedish. (By the way, did you know that “How Great Thou Art” was originally a Swedish hymn?) We were led in powerful prayer by representatives from Africa – the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Uganda and Zimbabwe. Yes, we were also led by leaders from the United States but concluded our regional prayer-times with moving leadership from the Philippines and Southeast Asia. Again, God’s Spirit reminded me of what I already knew. Roughly 45% of the 864 delegates to this General Conference are from outside the United States. In my attempt to remain open minded to all viewpoints, I realize now that I missed hearing from nearly HALF of our connection.

Make no mistake about it. We have all studied the Scriptures and the legislation before us. There is deep faith, tradition and courage in the global church. And we are here collectively as a worldwide United Methodist Church to discern God’s will. We each bring our cultures and regional tunnel vision, but collectively we will discern God’s will that transcends any one culture. I take comfort in that. I take comfort in the fact that God (for better or for worse) has yoked me to a denomination that is connected across oceans, national boundaries and languages. (We all have translation devices!) And God has used that BROAD connection to help me get out of my narrow tunnel vision.

No matter what decisions are made or not made over the next few days, I hope you take comfort in knowing that the Holy Spirit, who transcends all cultures, is working through a global body to discern God’s will together. Could we still get it wrong? Yes, that is always a possibility. Will people be upset and even hurt by the decisions made here? I’m sure that will be the case. But there is a far greater probability that we will get it right and that we will be able to share grace and compassion with one another precisely because as a worldwide church, it is a lot harder to get caught up in isolated tunnel vision.

Grieving Through Tragedy

11 09 2017

Today is the 16th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. At Troy United Methodist Church, where I am the senior pastor, we have been in a message called Good Grief where our goal has been to learn how to grieve with hope. One of the hardest circumstances to grieve with hope is when tragedy strikes. By all means, 9/11 was a great tragedy, but there are others. Cancer. Stillbirth. Suicide. Natural Disasters. Car accidents. Death – particularly the unexpected death of someone far short of a long-life led. Tragedy strikes someone, somewhere, every minute of every day. We spend most of our lives simply hoping and praying that tragedy will not strike too close to those we love. So when it does, I’ve found that most of us are completely unprepared for how to navigate through the waters of the intense grief that follows.

The completely unexpected nature of tragedy is what makes it so difficult. Especially when that tragedy ends in death. And because of that, a unique set of challenges to the grief process arise:

  • You’ve had very little or in some cases NO time to prepare your heart for the loss – if a loss is expected, you have time to start grieving before the loss. Not so with tragedies…
  • Because you haven’t prepared, oftentimes you have no opportunities to say goodbye to a loved one – no time to make amends or ask forgiveness for dumb things you’ve said or done which at this point seem so trivial. You have no time to adequately express the love you have for the one you’ve lost. So much is left unresolved. Like stopping a song in mid-chorus, it longs for completion. Tragedy leaves unfinished business.
  • Because of this, there is often a long period of shock and denial – a complete sense of unreality as your mind and body try to come to terms with the truth.
  • One of the most difficult parts of tragedies are what I call the “What ifs” – What if I didn’t cause him to be late he wouldn’t have been speeding to work? What if I just wouldn’t have complained that she didn’t make more money or put so much pressure on her? What if I didn’t let him go to the party? What if I said this instead of that, would she have made a different choice? The “What ifs” can drive you crazy – literally. They are our way of expressing our own guilt over the tragedy making us question if we could have done something different to prevent the loss. But it’s an effort in futility because nobody will ever know for sure.
  • Tragedy also often involves violence, accidents, mutilation, destruction and killing. This can stir in us horrible images as our imaginations run wild – we replay the scene in our minds over and over and over again even if we weren’t present. This makes the grief more prolonged, disturbing and in need of healing.
  • For many people unexpected tragedies cause major life interruptions where logistical issues need to be dealt with – life insurance, medical examiners, estates, legal authorities, funerals – things that just need to be dealt with causing a delay in our grief.
  • For others, tragedy leaves the survivor in an utter sense of helplessness. Nothing reminds us better than tragedy that we’re absolutely NOT IN CONTROL. And sometimes that can send you into a tailspin rendering you paralyzed to deal with everyday life.
  • But one of the main challenges to Good Grief in the midst of tragedy is the instinctual need to blame someone for what happened. We want things to make sense. We feel like if we just get to the bottom of “things” we’ll find enough of an explanation to satisfy us. But it’s not true. The basis of “things” is not rational, but tragic! So when you enter the domain of suffering and sorrow you find that reason and logic have their limits.
  • But we’ll persist. And oftentimes, when we can’t find anyone to blame or gain enough satisfaction in assigning blame to someone with flesh and blood – we’ll turn our attack on the only available target left. God. Anger at God is not uncommon in the midst of tragedy.

A side note about being angry at God. I don’t believe it’s necessarily a bad thing to express your anger toward God or complain to God about the loss you’ve experienced. In fact, I see it modeled over and over and over again in the Scriptures. The book of Psalms are filled with complaints about God’s action or inaction. Read Psalm 44 sometime if you don’t believe me. Here are some excerpts:

O God, we give glory to you all day long
And constantly praise your name.
But now you have tossed us aside in dishonor
You no longer lead our armies to battle…

Our hearts have not deserted you.
We have not strayed from your path.
Yet you have crushed us in the jackal’s desert home.
You have covered us with darkness and death…

Wake up, O Lord! Why do you sleep?
Get up! Do not reject us forever.
Why do you look the other way?
Why do you ignore our suffering and oppression?
(Psalm 44: 8-9, 18-19, 23-24)

I believe there is biblical precedent for being angry at God and expressing our anger toward God for what is happening or not happening. But unless our anger at God is followed by ultimate trust in God’s unfailing love, then our anger will not be a helpful part of Good Grief. Even the Psalms of lament and complaint incorporate some element of trust in God in the midst of anger and doubting and questioning.

You see in the end, I believe the Bible teaches us that although expressing anger toward God is an acceptable part of the journey of good grief, ultimately, anger toward God is misdirected anger. God is not the problem when tragedy strikes. In fact, I believe God is the only solution! Because in the midst of tragedy, God gets angry too. Want to know more? This will be the focus of my message, When Tragedy Strikes, Sunday, September 17th. I hope you can make it, or watch the video on our website that day after 11am.


Grieving Well when “here” has been wonderful.

6 09 2017

In my last post I gave a little introduction to grief and one of the more overlooked causes of grief: transition. Transition occurs when you move from HERE to THERE: your child enters kindergarten, you begin a new relationship, you become a caregiver to your aging parents, you try to rebuild your life after the divorce. You are no longer HERE –> you’re now THERE. It’s a new reality. Things have changed, and whenever there is change, there is loss. And grief is the natural human response to loss. How can you grieve well in the midst of transition and the subsequent losses you experience?

I discussed in my last post how to grieve well when HERE is not so good. I encourage you to read it for yourself, but I shared the first two steps: 1) See the truth of HERE and 2) Grieve the losses sustained by staying HERE so long. I promised step number three in this post because it’s the same final step as scenario #2 – How do you grieve well when HERE has been wonderful? Sometimes a transition forced upon you either by time or something else out of your control. And you don’t know whether the transition will end well or poorly. It’s all unknown.

Our family just moved, and my wife shared that she felt we packed up our kids childhoods and unpacked them into adolescence. They are now in 3rd and 4th grades and we’re sad because our kids are growing up and we have loved the days when they were little. Maybe you’re getting older and the things you used to be able to do are more difficult now. Maybe someone you love has moved away, or maybe it’s been more tragic. Regardless, how can you grieve well when HERE has been wonderful and you’re not sure about THERE yet?

First, stop long enough to offer praise and thanksgiving to God for the joy you’ve experienced in the past that you’re saying goodbye to. Thank God for the joy of the past. Stop to say thank you for the HERE that you don’t want to leave, but that you’re having to leave. Thank God for the joy you’ve had with your parents; for the memories of raising your baby; for the pleasure you had to run and jump and play; for the opportunity you had to experience that great vacation or that season of life that has been so fruitful. Offer your thanksgiving to God. Celebrate what was. It was God’s good gift to you so thank God for it and remember!

Secondly, grieve the transition. It’s okay to cry and talk about and reflect on the good ole days! It’s okay to grieve over these transitions that life brings. It’s okay to acknowledge the pain that saying goodbye to HERE causes you. In fact, it’s healthy! Just to be honest, I have a difficult time with this. I’m just wired to take on whatever is coming AHEAD that sometimes I forget to stop and reflect on the things that I won’t ever experience again. And when I don’t stop to say thank you and even grieve the good that is behind me, I miss out on intimacy with God and others. And I miss out on a deeper understanding and appreciation of the joys and even the sorrows that are awaiting me around the corner. Knowing this about myself, I recently faced my own grief head-on while in the midst of my own transition. We recently moved and had to say goodbye to the church my wife and I started 14 years ago. To read more about it, see this post. We had a several month transition of saying goodbye to so many people we loved with our whole hearts. HERE was so good. It was so wonderful. It was difficult to say goodbye, but I let myself feel. As hard as it was I let myself feel the pain and the hurt that accompanies goodbyes. Things will never be the same. Stop, say thank you and grieve the loss of the HERE that was so wonderful. Yes, it is likely that what God has in store for you is even more wonderful, at least at the end of the journey, but reflecting on the good things of HERE is a necessary part of learning to grieve well.

But there’s still another part of the grief process that is vitally important whether HERE is particularly bad or whether it’s been wonderful. And that’s the third part. No matter how good HERE has been, you will be missing out on the future God has for you if you try to live in the past – if you deny reality or live only in memories. Or, if you stay stuck in a HERE this is not so good because you’re so afraid of walking into the unknown of the future. The third part of good grief in transitions is to Trust God with your future. This of course is easy to say, but not so easy to DO.

Trusting God with your future means following God’s ways even when you don’t feel like it or want to because you know that in doing so you will get to experience the THERE that God has for you. Let’s break that down:

  1. It means following God’s ways. Jesus taught us what it means to follow God: It means to be obedient to His Word – to live a life like Christ – a life for God and not for ourselves. When we trust God enough to be obedient to God’s Word, then that’s real trust. Especially when you don’t feel like it.
  2. Because you know that God has your future in his hands. Now the reality is that much of our future in this life will be challenging – it will be difficult – filled with lots of joys, but also lots of sorrows and grief. The longer we live, the more we experience the losses and pain of this life. But God holds our future, and when we trust in Jesus, our ultimate future is with him. Don’t doubt that God make all things work together for your good. That’s trusting God with your future.

Jesus’ disciples had a major transition forced upon them, and over the course of a one 24 hour period, they went from a HERE that they loved to a THERE that they didn’t want to face. One day they were with Jesus celebrating. The next day they were scattered as Jesus was arrested, put on trial and crucified. But God had a much better future – a much better THERE in mind for them and for us. They just didn’t see it yet. Can you? Through the pain of Jesus’ death, God made a way for us to be with him THERE whether that’s THERE here on earth the rest of our days, or ultimately THERE by his side for eternity.

I don’t know what you’re presently going through as you read this, but you can trust God with your future. Don’t stay stuck in the past whether it’s a good past or a horrible past that has you trapped. Do you want to know why you can trust God? I mentioned in the last post that we grieve through loss because we’re created in God’s image and God grieves loss. Want to know what grieves God the most? When the people he created to love run from him instead of to him. That’s why Jesus came! He came to show us just how much God loves us and to what lengths he would go to suffer and die in order to bring us back to him. You can trust God with your future because He loves you enough to sacrifice everything for you – for your good – in order to be with you THERE.

I don’t know what the transitions are that you’ve been facing in your life and the extent of the grief that you’re working through. I don’t know if you’re stuck in a HERE that is horrible or maybe being tempted to return to a HERE that will only enslave you. Or maybe you’re grieving a transition that has been forced upon you. But I do know that God has made a way for you to experience his loving presence with you wherever THERE is for you. And you can even experience his presence in the midst of grief. That is, if you grieve well.


Grieving Well when “here” is not good.

3 09 2017

This past Sunday I opened up the topic of “good grief” in our church with the goal of equipping our congregation to grieve well (see 1 Thessalonians 4:13). Grief is the natural human response to loss. It’s important to understand that:

  1. Everybody grieves – no one is exempt because everyone experiences loss in some form or fashion throughout their life.
  2. You are not alone in your grief – oftentimes we will isolate ourselves in our grief believing we’re all alone. But you are not alone in your grief. Others have walked on your same path and many are now.
  3. Your do not have weak faith if you experience grief – in fact, just the opposite! Learning to express grief is an indicator of strong and healthy faith. If you don’t believe me, consider that David, described as a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14), wrote the majority of the Psalms expressing at times, deep anguish and grief.
  4. Part of being made in God’s image is our capacity for grief – sin distorts our desires, so oftentimes we will grieve things God doesn’t grieve, and we won’t grieve things that deeply grieve God, but that’s not the point. God grieves loss, and we were created in God’s image.

Okay, with the foundation set, one of the overlooked causes of grief is transition. Transition occurs when you move from HERE to THERE: you get a new job, you have a child, you get your first gray hair, you are diagnosed with cancer. You are no longer HERE –> you’re now THERE. It’s a new reality. Things have changed, and whenever there is change, there is loss. And grief is the natural human response to loss. But how can you grieve well in the midst of transition and the subsequent losses you experience?

Two scenarios. 1) When HERE is not so good. That is the topic of this blog. Check out part two next week when I look at how to grieve well, 2) When HERE has been wonderful.

You might think that a situation where HERE isn’t so good would be absent of grief – let’s just get THERE. Anything is better than HERE. But just because THERE is better than HERE doesn’t mean that the transition doesn’t involve grief.

Let’s look to the time of Moses about 3500 years ago. Moses delivered God’s people from bondage and slavery which they experienced at the hands of the Egyptians for 4 centuries. God worked through Moses to bring his people out of Egypt and take them to the land promised to their ancestor Abraham – a beautiful land with all the resources necessary for survival. In their case, HERE was horrible – it was slavery! And THERE? THERE was something beautiful. But going from HERE to THERE wasn’t going to be easy. In fact, along the way, these thousands of people (biblical historians have estimated anywhere from 200,000 people to 2 million people) became difficult to feed. As they journeyed from present day Egypt to present day Israel via the Sinai peninsula, they ran out of food. So they cried out to God and God provided a bread-like substance for the people called manna. Amazing – God was providing in their difficult transition.

But the people came to a point where they started to remember what they had lost by moving from HERE to THERE. The Bible records, Soon the people began to complain about their hardship… “We remember the fish we used to eat for free in Egypt. And we had all the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic we wanted. But now our appetites are gone. All we ever see is this manna!” (Numbers 11:1, 5)

When you’re moving into the unknown, learning to depend on God – when you know that God has something better for you THERE because HERE is just not acceptable, you can still expect to experience grief along the way because you’ve experienced a loss – even if the loss is something unhealthy or came with strings attached or was something that enslaved you! You’ve left what you know behind and you can still expect to grieve.

Consider this example: Maybe HERE you’re addicted to pornography. THERE is so appealing! It’s the future God has for you; freedom from pornography; healing for the brokenness of isolation and shame and loneliness and anxiety that accompanies such an addiction; freedom to experience wholeness in your marriage or in the sexual purity God created you for; freedom to see people, not as objects to meet your needs, but as people created in God’s image. Even though THERE is so appealing, you will likely grieve along the way because you’ve become attached unhealthily to the things that enslave you – to the rush of excitement and the short-lived satisfaction that your habits provide.

Or maybe you’re in an abusive relationship. God has a better future in mind for you (THERE) if you’ll just speak up and either get out or find good counseling. But it won’t be easy. And you’ll grieve – maybe even want to go back to the abuse because it’s what’s familiar. Even though HERE is horrible, it’s what you’re used to.

So how do you grieve well when HERE is not so good. Your first step is to See the truth of HERE. See the truth! Allow the reality of how bad HERE is to soak in. What will happen if you stay HERE? What will happen if you don’t get a job where you feel fulfilled? What will happen if you don’t answer God’s call on your life? What will happen if you don’t change your eating or exercise habits? What will happen if you don’t quit ____________? What will happen if you stay HERE? Acknowledge that truth and allow it to drive you into discontentedness. You have to come to a point of saying, “Staying HERE is not an option.”

Secondly, it’s important to actually grieve. Grieve the losses sustained by staying HERE so long. Maybe you’ve been an overly domineering parent and its driving your kids away. Grieve the loss of you staying HERE so long. Grieve what it’s done. Maybe your parents got divorced and it hurt. It hurt bad, and you’ve been living in a HERE reality of unforgiveness and it’s poisoned all your other relationships. Grieve the consequences of that divorce and of your response. Grieve! What might that look like?

  • Cry about it! Cry out to God! Agree with God that “this is not how it should be” and allow it to break your heart as it breaks God’s heart.
  • Talk to others about your pain – get it out.
  • Pray to God for help and wisdom.
  • Ask God for forgiveness for your role in the pain.
  • Ask God for healing for the things that happened to you that were out of your control and for the bad effects of your own decisions.
  • Don’t wear a mask. It’s okay to say to people when they ask “how are you?” “You know what, I’m struggling right now through the pains of grief.”

But then the third part. Well, the third part of grieving well when HERE is not so good is the same as the third part of grieving well when HERE has been wonderful. So I’m going to have you wait until next week for Good Grief part 2.

Revisiting “Biblical Justice” in light of the events in Charlottesville

16 08 2017

Let me just say it. I’ve been sick this week over the events in Charlottesville, Virginia and the response/lack-of-response by the president of the United States. Racism is sin. Period. It cannot be justified by a Christ follower. It is always wrong. On the other side of the coin, self-righteousness is sin. Period. In fact, self-righteousness is condemned more often in the Bible. So in condemning racism, I tread lightly for fear of coming across as self-righteous. I recognize that people on both “sides” feel unjustly treated. In fact, those who consider themselves part of the alt-right felt repressed and ignored for years. Commentators have suggested that led to the election of our current president. They have cried out for justice! Of course I and many others are crying out for justice after the senseless murder of Heather Heyer when she was run down by a driver bent on causing fear and harm to those standing up for people of color. If both are crying out for justice it begs the question, “Biblically speaking, what is justice?”

Doing biblical justice is both 1) meeting the needs of the most vulnerable and 2) righting wrongs done to the most vulnerable. Biblical justice is always directed toward the poor and oppressed – those most vulnerable. This is what the LORD Almighty said: ‘Administer true justice; show mercy and compassion to one another. Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the foreigner or the poor. (Zechariah 7:9-10) You never read about God fighting for justice and being a defender of the rich or the strong or the privileged. Now this doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care about justice for all people. It just means that as a default, justice usually happens for the strong, rich, powerful and privileged. They have the status and means to defend themselves. So injustice happens less frequently to the strong, rich, powerful and privileged.

But people with less including the widow, the orphan, the foreigner, and the poor as well as migrant workers, some single moms and elderly and minorities – these groups are more vulnerable to injustice particularly because they oftentimes do not have the means or the generational support or the social status or class or level of influence or power to defend themselves. Those of us who do are considered “privileged.” Those who don’t are more oftentimes victims of crime or violence or corruption and being taken advantage of because they are overlooked or easier prey. So, because they cannot easily defend themselves, the God of the Bible has a special place in his heart for them. That is why God is described as a “defender of the poor” and one who “takes up the cause of the orphan and the widow.” God stands up for the vulnerable because no one else will.

Let’s apply these biblical principles to representative groups from each “side” that our president claims are to blame for the violence in Charlottesville: white supremacists and #blacklivesmatter supporters. Because God, by his very nature, is just, we can believe wholeheartedly that God wants justice to be done for everyone. However, biblically speaking, God is a defender of the most vulnerable, not those with power and privilege. God calls his people, the church, to be defenders of the poor and marginalized rather than defenders of the powerful and the dominant majority. So, you tell me. Whose cause does God take up? Certainly not those advocating for the dominant culture to gain more power and use that power to oppress or marginalize others. The biblical God of justice takes up the cause of those who have been marginalized by those with power; those who have been oppressed because of their skin color; those who have been systematically held down by the dominant culture. Yes, #alllivesmatter, but the God of biblical justice would more likely take up the case of the oppressed and raise a banner that says, #blacklivesmatter. That God would also likely be targeted and run down like Heather Heyer was. In fact, Jesus was targeted and murdered for opening up the Kingdom of God to those who were not the privileged.

Now to be clear, people are not perfectly just. I am not perfectly just. Nobody on either “side” is perfectly just. There will be people whose cause is righteous and “biblically just” who fall short of emulating Christ’s character in their actions in standing up for their cause. Then there are some (although I’d guess, fewer and farther between) whose cause is much less righteous and does not meet the definition of “biblically just” whose character is much more Christlike than their cause might lead us to expect. We can’t accurately categorize all people. However, we can and we should do the difficult work of holding the causes of both “sides” in the Charlottesville violence up to the plumb line of biblical justice. When we do so, it will be abundantly clear which “side” those who follow the God of the Bible should land.

As a side note, I am proud to be part of The United Methodist Church. Along with its predecessor denominations, the UMC has historically been doers of biblical justice whether through the abolitionist movement, women’s suffrage or civil rights. United Methodists care for the vulnerable.

Another side note – if you wonder why I put quotation marks around “side” it’s in reference to the president of the United States’ speech made on August 15, 2017 in which he claimed that both “sides” were at fault for the violence in Charlottesville.

Final side note – if you are interested in reading more about biblical justice, I would highly recommend Timothy Keller’s book, Generous Justice.


Our Big News

12 02 2017

Beloved family of Quest: A Community of Grace,

I’ve long known this day would come: the day when I would have to write a letter with this news. It was never a matter of if. It was always a matter of when. When I took my vows to become an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, I promised to go where God, through the authority and role of my bishop, sends me. Today in worship, Loren Sanders (the chair of our Staff Parish team), informed the congregation that Bishop Frank Beard has appointed me to be the next Lead Pastor at Troy United Methodist Church in Troy, Illinois, effective on July 1, 2017.

Troy UMC is a fantastic church that has made a great impact in people’s lives for the Kingdom of God. After meeting with their leadership on Thursday night this week, Amy Jo and I are confident that this is God’s call on us even though we didn’t ask to be moved. We really just wish we could take each of you with us on this next leg of our journey. Our hearts are filled with so many emotions and I’m sure it will feel like a roller coaster over the next few months. We are trusting in God to not only meet our needs, but also to meet Quest’s needs.

It was 14 years ago this weekend, on Valentines Day of 2003, when I was first appointed to start a new church in the Champaign-Urbana area. I still remember the feeling of complete exhilaration and tremendous anxiety as we stepped into the unknown. Starting a new church is risky business. In the United States, 40% don’t make it past their first birthday. Eighty percent don’t make it to their fifth birthday. And of the 20% that make it that far, only 20% make it to their tenth birthday. That’s right. Of all the new churches started, only 4% survive beyond ten years. But Quest not only survived, Quest thrived and is now even stronger since becoming Quest: A Community of Grace. Our church is perfectly positioned to make an even greater Kingdom impact in the years and decades to come. All I ever wanted to do was be faithful to God’s call to love Jesus and point people to him. I can rest well knowing that for the last 14 years, we’ve done that together.

So what happens between now and my last Sunday at Quest: A Community of Grace (Memorial Day Sunday, May 28th)? Together with the staff and the leadership of the church, I will be working diligently to hand over the reigns to whomever God, through our bishop, appoints as the next Lead Pastor of this amazing church. I invite you to begin praying now for whomever that may be. I anticipate an announcement sometime in the next several weeks. Of course, Amy Jo, Andrew, Anna and I will have many logistical things to tend to as we prepare to uproot from everything we’ve known for the last fourteen years. We are experiencing all the different emotions that accompany transition and recognize those will be amplified as our move date gets closer. Please pray for us as we pray for you. We love you, our church family, as well as our broader Champaign-Urbana community. We intend to cherish every moment between now and the end of June.



#UMCGC – Hope and a Future

21 05 2016
2016-05-20 18.43.08

The Oregon Convention Center in Portland – the site of General Conference 2016.

As I wait in the Dallas Fort-Worth airport for my flight back home, I can’t help but reflect on the entirety of this year’s General Conference. I have far too many thoughts than I will share in this final #UMCGC post, but I at least wanted to share the hope I left with.

Most of you know that I am a part of the Illinois Great Rivers annual conference. I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with and getting to know some of the great pastors and laypersons of our conference. Right after the close of conference on Friday night, most of us gathered together for dinner with the delegation from the Liberia annual conference. Our two conferences have been in partnership for almost a decade. In fact the church I pastor, Quest UMC, has been intimately involved in Liberia – a handful of our members have visited, we’ve entertained and hosted a few Liberians who have traveled to the US, we’ve built a church building and a primary/secondary school, dug more than two dozen wells and sponsored dozens of kids to go to school at all levels. We are intimately connected with the work God is doing through the UMC in Liberia. It has helped our congregation experience the beauty of being a global church.

During our dinner together I met several Liberians and talked about their ministries. I was encouraged by the development of a Masters of Divinity degree through the United Methodist University and now Seminary in Gbarnga. The need for high quality theological education in West and Central Africa is urgent as the church continues to grow rapidly and more and more pastors need to be trained. (As a side note, on the final day of General Conference, we voted to increase our commitment over the next 4 years in Theological Education outside the US from 4.9 million to 10 million dollars!) I even learned that my alma mater, Asbury Theological Seminary, is building a relationship with the school in Gbarnga. That made my heart smile too.

Our dinner was a beautiful reflection of the church that I want my kids to grow up in. A global church committed to sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with all peoples far from God. At the end of dinner we joined hands in a large circle and my friend, Rev. Jerry Kulah from Liberia, led us in singing “To God Be the Glory.” Every part of me wanted to weep with joy, but instead I just sang these powerful lyrics with a huge smile on my face as I looked around the circle and saw a glimpse, not only of heaven, but of the future United Methodist Church. For those of you who don’t know the song, here are the lyrics:

1. To God be the glory, great things he hath done!
So loved he the world that he gave us his Son,
who yielded his life an atonement for sin,
and opened the lifegate that all may go in.

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,
let the earth hear his voice!
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,
let the people rejoice!
O come to the Father thru Jesus the Son,
and give him the glory, great things he hath done!

2. O perfect redemption, the purchase of blood,
to every believer the promise of God;
the vilest offender who truly believes,
that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.

3. Great things he hath taught us, great things he hath done,
and great our rejoicing thru Jesus the Son;
but purer, and higher, and greater will be
our wonder, our transport, when Jesus we see.

After this General Conference, many people are left wondering if the United Methodist Church will continue to exist beyond 2020 when we are next scheduled to meet again in Minneapolis, Minnesota (there is a small chance we could meet sooner…). We are mired in discord over whether homosexual practice is contrary to Christian teaching. And honestly, I have a hard time seeing any Commission called by the Council of Bishops creating a plan that will be satisfying to representatives making up the wide theological diversity represented in our denomination. The idea of schism is scary to many. In fact when the rumors of schism were flying about earlier this week, I was worried too. But over the last 24 hours, whenever I picture the cloudy future for the UMC, I keep going back to the image of our delegation holding hands and intimately connected with our friends from Liberia. And as I go back in my mind’s eye and recall everyone’s faces full of joy, I see HOPE and an amazing FUTURE as we cling to the message contained in the hymn we sang together.

#UMCGC – Sweeping it Under the Rug

20 05 2016

So far the final two days of General Conference have been rather tame. Some legislation has been passed that matters to many (ethical investing, removal of UMC participation in the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and more), but all in all, the energy has been ratcheted down about five levels now that all debate about human sexuality has been deferred in order to be worked on by a special Commission appointed by the Council of Bishops. The demonstrations have stopped. There is a (superficial?) atmosphere of calm. People are so at ease, many are even getting sleepy! This is what happens when we avoid those things that we passionately disagree about.

On the one hand, it feels much more peaceful here in Portland. Delegates are less on edge. I am certainly more relaxed! It makes me wonder if this is what it might feel like to really be unified. But then I think about my loving marriage.

I’m not sure if this is every married person’s experience. I’ve only experienced two marriages (in depth) during my lifetime. My parents and my own. With all loving respect to may parents, their marriage reminds me of our General Conference session. There were periods of major disagreement and explosion, and then long periods of what I might call “false peace” – an unspoken agreement to avoid the problems in order to get along enough to function day to day. We call it “sweeping the problems under the rug.” At least a couple things happen when we approach conflict this way. 1) Problems are not resolved – just avoided, and 2) Intimacy is sacrificed on the altar of false unity.

Given my upbringing, I came into my marriage with a VERY large broom! However, I learned (slowly and by God’s grace) that if I wanted to experience intimacy and unity (not necessarily uniformity) with my wife, that I have to put my broom away. In fact, with the help of the Holy Spirit, I’ve burned it up and taken out all the rugs in the house  – metaphorically speaking of course. Now let me be real for a moment. I hate dealing with the problems. It’s painful. I get defensive. I sometimes say things I regret. Sin still dwells deep inside me. But I’ve also learned from experience that my marriage will not thrive if I run away from the conflict. I love my wife, and when we’ve worked through the problems, even if it takes weeks or months or years, in the end the result is intimacy.

It is painfully clear to me that my denomination, as evidenced by this General Conference, lacks intimacy. We have clung to a false unity for years and years – sweeping our disagreements about human sexuality under the rug. At times we have experienced a sense of peace and mission together when we set aside our differences. But that can happen for only so long. We are being pressured from inside and out to change our historically Christian understanding that homosexual practice is sin. As best I can tell, somewhere between 33-40% of our 864 delegates would like to change that position of the United Methodist Church. The other 60-66% do not. Even though I disagree with a portion of the church, I love them and out of love, I don’t want to avoid our differences in order to have a false unity. We’ve wrestled with each of the pieces of legislation in smaller groups in our legislative committees. Some of those conversations have been painful, but many have led to deeper intimacy even in an absence of agreement. And yet, for the second consecutive General Conference we as a full body have avoided voting on the vast majority of legislation about human sexuality that our committees have worked on! The ONE and ONLY body that can officially speak for the United Methodist Church (the General Conference) has once again swept it under the rug!

In a marriage, when major problems continually get swept under the rug and go unresolved, a couple things tend to happen. Either the spouses learn to co-exist with each other in an unhappy marriage that lacks intimacy, OR they end up getting divorced. Until we burn our brooms and toss out our rugs, the United Methodist Church will continue heading in that same unfortunate direction.

I have hope that the Counsel of Bishops’ special commission will be fair and objective and creates a way for both segments of the church to minister with integrity without forcing either to compromise their base convictions regarding human sexuality. If that is possible, we might find a way to move toward intimate unity. If the commission doesn’t do that, at best we will have a false unity – at worst, we will find ourselves looking at schism in 2020. Please pray with me that this special commission comes up with a suitable way for us all to move forward and that we as a denomination STOP sweeping our differences under the rug.

#UMCGC -Wednesday’s “Blank Check”

18 05 2016

Wednesday at General Conference was something, let me tell you. We began with a powerful sermon from Bishop James Swanson Jr. Then we received the following “way forward” from the Council of Bishops. This was a non-binding recommendation that the General Conference body could act on or not. Here is the content of that recommended “way forward.”

Some highlights:

  • The Bishops believe unity is possible even with our differing views on human sexuality.
  • This plan would be bathed in prayer.
  • It calls for a special General Conference in 2-3 years to deal with a “way forward” “Should they complete their work in time.”
  • We would defer all conversation and votes on human sexuality for this session of General Conference.
  • The bishops would pull together a Commission “to develop a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph in our Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality.”
  • Members of this Commission would come from every region and represent differing theological perspectives on the debate.
  • The bishops “will continue to explore options to help the church live in grace with one another – including ways to avoid further complaints, trials and harm while we uphold the Discipline.”

After receiving this, we took a break. Upon returning from the break, Adam Hamilton (a large church pastor and proponent of “a third way” – refer to my definitions in a previous post) proposed legislation that would act on the bishop’s recommendations. After much debate and attempted amendments, AND a lunch break, the body voted it down by about 40 votes. In between our presiding chair was accused of undermining the entire process and was overwhelmingly supported by his colleagues and the body. It was an act of tremendous disrespect.

So, the Hamilton motion was defeated. After some moments of awkward silence and pleas (but no motion) from a two African delegates to move on with the business of the general conference, another delegate asked us to receive the bishop’s recommendations and act on them (essentially the same as the Hamilton proposal). After some debate, this vote passed by about 30 votes.

If we finish General Conference without reconsidering this motion, I am concerned that it essentially gives the bishops and their appointed special commission a “blank check.” If you read the bishop’s recommendation closely, you see that it has very few specifics and therefore opens the Commission to bring forward whatever it pleases. I’m concerned about this because I expect the Commission to bring something very similar to what the General Agencies and Adam Hamilton have already brought to THIS General Conference to be dealt with. Those petitions were defeated in committee and would likely have been defeated by the body if they would be discussed. As it is we kicked the can down the road, will likely spend alot of money to meet again in 2-3 years, and have to do it all again then. On the positive note, we don’t have to do the painful deliberating about human sexuality at this General Conference even though we were elected to do so. And yet my hope is not in the bishops or this commission, but in Jesus, and his Holy Spirit can do anything. Thus, I have peace.

Not to be shortchanged, at the end our our day the United Methodist Church acknowledged the horrific acts and pain caused by former members at the Sandy Creek Massacre on November 29, 1864 and repented of our institutional sin that followed.

#UMCGC – What is the Way Forward?

17 05 2016

Although we accomplished more legislatively today than we did in all of 2012, it is my sense that most people are primarily concerned with the future state of the United Methodist Church. Here is part two of my opinion piece. Part one provided an informed guess about all the events that led to this morning’s chaos. Now I’ll offer some of the possible ways forward for our denomination. I’ll offer the wide spectrum with brief explanation why they could or could not work.

Emphasis on current Disciplinary language with deeper accountability – This position is what the Good News and African contingent is angling for. It would keep the current “incompatibility” language with regards to homosexual practice and strengthen the accountability for bishops or clergy who choose to break their covenant vows to adhere to the Discipline. This would mean the “right” wins and the “left” loses resulting in further pain and a resolve for louder and more radical acts of defiance. The possibility of this position being played out may have led to the leaking of rumors of schism last night.

Keep everything the same – This would be the default if we can’t agree on anything. This would likely lead to more disunity under the false guise of unity as more clergy and bishops defy the Discipline without a structure of recourse. We would continue to fight the rhetorical battles and it would get uglier.

Adopt some version of a “third way” – This would effectively make what is currently happening “legal” acknowledging that we as a denomination can’t agree. Some things about this plan are desirable – fewer trials and bad press, etc. However, it wouldn’t satisfy anyone. Those on the “right” wouldn’t stand for it, and those on the “left” would continue to fight to mandate every church/conference be fully inclusive. We would continue to fight the battle every four years.

Become a fully LGBTQ inclusive church – The language here can be misleading. All people are loved and welcomed in the UMC regardless of anything really. However, the LGBTQ community feels less than included because of the prohibition of 1) clergy conducting same sex weddings and 2) ordination of openly practicing LGBTQ clergy. Obviously, the “right” would never move in this direction, and it is unlikely this kind of legislation would pass in any form. However, this is what progressives have been working toward for 44 years.

If schism occurs, we could find ourselves with two or more factions representing any or all of these positions. But most of the UMC isn’t keen on schism. That could blow up so much we’ve worked for including many of our churches who would have to fight this battle on the local level. We don’t want that. So what other options are there?

The “Love Alike” plan or something similar – The best bet we have to remain united is to help the “right” and the “left” both win. I believe this can only happen if we essentially have two churches with two sets of rules regarding human sexuality operating under the same United Methodist umbrella. The “Love Alike” plan works toward that end effectively allowing those who can’t, with integrity, abide by the current discipline to align themselves together even if that isn’t perfectly regionally based. I won’t get into all the details, but this type of plan seems like the most logical way forward considering neither side will change their minds about whether homosexual practice is sinful or not.

Whether it happens tomorrow, before the end of General Conference, or at some point in the coming years, I anticipate the Counsel of Bishops to bring forward some plan that involves amicable schism or some form of two churches under one umbrella. It seems the only way forward that will end the rancorous arguing over positions on human sexuality.

Please continue praying for our bishops, our churches, all of our delegates, and most importantly the world that we are called to go into to make disciples.