Blessed Are the Peacemakers

I won’t recount the tragedy in Baton Rouge in detail because you already know about it. It may seem strange but even British media report on these events and I found out about the officers in Baton Rouge being killed while in line for the loo at a pub in Bath. I have to be very honest about my response: I was filled with anger. Yet again, police officers – the majority of whom have had absolutely nothing to do with injustices against people of color – were targeted, ambushed, killed senselessly.

This has to stop.

I have seen many people on social media – including some clergy – who have been trying to rationalize these attacks on our law enforcement officers. To me, such rationalizations are just excuses and, possibly worse, exhibit inaction and an unwillingness to actually work for justice. There is no possible solid rational reasoning for police officers to be killed by vigilantes. None. Zero. Zilch. There is no acceptable excuse for taking life without just cause; “guilt by association” is not just cause. You should also know that EMS and fire crews have been targeted over the last few weeks because people claim that “they’re on the same side as the cops.”

This has to stop.

I know that there has been injustices committed by some police officers. I know that innocent people have died who did not have to. I agree that there should be changes made to procedures and laws so that these tragedies can be eliminated to the absolute best which can be achieved. I grieve when an innocent person is killed when they did not have to be. I am not saying that all law enforcement officers are innocent but I am also not going to condemn them all unlike so many others. I acknowledge my own privilege and I acknowledge that people of color have been harmed. However, killing other innocent people solves nothing, changes nothing, and only causes more animosity. Violence only brings more violence.

This has to stop.

During his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9 NLT). Note that he did not say that those who take the law into their own hands are blessed. He did not say that those who shed more innocent blood are blessed. He did not say those who exact revenge are blessed. The ones who are blessed are the ones who work for peace. What have you done to actually stand in the gap and make injustice into justice for someone? What have you done to bridge the divide between us and our neighbors? How have you ministered to the “least of these?”

If you have taken any actions such as snarling racial slurs, hurling insults based on stereotypes, or picked up a weapon and spilled innocent blood, then you are part of the problem.

This has to stop.

Following in the Footsteps of the Wesleys

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Salisbury Cathedral

Since last Monday, I have been in the land of England on a Wesleyan pilgrimage. While this might sound like a fancy name for a sightseeing tour while on vacation (or “holiday” as the Brits say), this has been a once in a lifetime opportunity to learn, to study, to grow, and to touch history. So far, this pilgrimage has proven to be just that: A pilgrimage. We have trod where John and Charles Wesley and so many others have trod, touched where they lived, worshiped, shopped, preached, and undoubtedly shed many tears. It is not enough to state that these places have been historical in nature. Indeed, we have been to sacred, holy places.

The trip began, in earnest, when we went up to Oxford (one always “goes up” to Oxford) to explore the place where the Methodist movement was begun. It’s important to remember that John and Charles Wesley were not setting out to start a new church, rather this was a renewal movement within the Church of England. One thing to note is that it was actually Charles who began what would be come the Holy Club at Christchurch College. Later on, they would be called Methodists as a way of poking fun at their methodical style of study and prayer. While in Oxford, we saw St. Mary’s Church where John preached sermons which caused him to be scorned by many within the Church of England power structure. Christ Church Cathedral is the place where John and Charles were both ordained Anglican Priests.

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Commemoration of where the Oxford Martyrs were burned.

Seeing and touching these holy places was an amazing experience but here was the real sobering moment for me: We stood at a spot on Broad Street which commemorated the place where Anglican bishops Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, and Thomas Cranmer were burned at the stake for heresy. These men are who became known as the Oxford Martyrs. To see the place where these men were killed for their faith in Christ rather than their faith to a monarch was inspirational and sobering.

 

In addition to this significant faith history, we also experience another place where our faith was shaped: The Eagle and Child pub. This is where C.S. Lewis would often congregate while he was in Oxford. There was a door marked “Narnia” but I darned not to open it. For the record, the fish and chips are excellent.

Yesterday we spent the day in Epworth where the Wesley boys and

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Me in the pulpit of Wesley Memorial Methodist Church in Epworth.

girls grew up. We toured the Old Rectory where the Wesleys lived while Samuel Wesley was rector of St. Andrew’s Church. At St. Andrews, we were able to see and touch the baptismal font where John, Charles, and their siblings were baptized. We were even able to see and hold the chalice which belonged to Samuel and from which his children received their first Eucharist. We saw some of the places where John Wesley practiced open air preaching, including the market cross and his father’s grave (he climbed on top of the grave to preach after he was denied an invitation to preach at St. Andrew’s).

 

Along the way, we have learned much from our leaders who have been lecturing on Methodist history as well as ways by which we can reclaim some of the Wesleyan fervor. Hopefully by doing this, what began as a renewal movement within the Anglican Church will itself be renewed today. I throw this in mainly because I did not want you to think we have only been sightseeing. This has very much been a learning experience, both by being able to learn from some of the best Wesleyan scholars available as well as being able to experience the places where so much of our Methodist heritage was formed.

Still on tap for us is worshiping at Salisbury Methodist Church tomorrow as well as an excursion to Bath, where there has been much Roman influence preserved. Monday we head to Bristol to see sites such as the New Room and Bristol Cathedral. Tuesday and Wednesday will be spent in London where there is also much Methodist history to be experienced and learned about.

This has been our trip so far. As you can see, we still have much more to go and I can not wait to see what God will do with these final days for us here. As I expressed to a friend of mine earlier today, this has been a learning experience that is helping to shape my future ministry in the United Methodist Church. Even if I were to go back home today, I would come away with much knowledge and the blessings of being able to be in these holy places. I have experienced joy, affirmation, new friendship, and the Holy Spirit speaking to me. May we continue to listen for His small voice as we continue this sojourn.

Jonathan

All Are Welcome

widetableThis Sunday, as many other congregations do on the first Sunday of the month, I will preside over Holy Communion at Shiloh. There are a lot of things I really enjoy about being a pastor but Eucharist near the top of the list. I count as a huge blessing to be able to present the body and blood of Christ to all who have gathered to worship as a way to proclaim the risen Christ and to draw us closer to him. We also have a common sacrament that unites us not only with one another but with the entire worldwide church. Holy Communion is a beautiful expression of our faith.

Just prior to inviting all to receive the elements, I give a reminder that the table does not belong to us as a congregation or as a denomination. It’s not called “Christ’s table” just as a pretty catchphrase; the table truly belongs to him. As Christ invited all to commune with him during his days here, so we invite all to his table. I remind everyone that one does not have to be a member of Shiloh, another congregation within the UMC or a congregation anywhere else for that matter. The only qualification is a desire to have an encounter with Jesus or even to not be sure why one wants to come to the table. The point us, we are not to put up barriers to the table when it does not belong to us.

“The Church used to be a lifeboat rescuing the perishing. Now she is a cruise ship recruiting the promising.”

The above quote is by Leonard Ravenhill and was shared by a friend on Facebook. He and I both shared some thoughts about the church’s intent was to be open to all. So many people have had experiences that made them feel anything but accepted in churches and I am deeply grieved by this. How did the church get to the point where “all are welcome” meant “all are welcome as long as they meet our standards?”

Unfortunately we have all seen churches that tend to only want certain people as part of their congregation. I know of a church which was seeking to grow and decided to do some marketing in the form of direct mailings, signs near the main roads, things like that. My friend who was part of the church at the time was on the team who was in charge of this marketing campaign and became disillusioned when he realized that the mailings were being sent only to certain ZIP codes and the signs being put up in certain neighborhoods. When his concerns were not resolved within the committee, my friend went to talk to the pastor. Much to his (and my) shock, the pastor said “we have to make sure we get the right people into this church.” My friend is no longer part of the church and I really can’t blame him.

When Jesus came as a man and was ministering in this world, he put no restrictions on who could come to him. His apostles were not made up of the richest or the “most worthy” people in the land. His very inner circle was made up of what the society of the day considered some of the lowest people. These would have been the blue collar guys living in the poor ZIP codes, they were not wealthy nor did they hold any kind of real power. Jesus himself was a carpenter by trade and was not some well-to-do guy living in the best neighborhood. When people sought him out, he didn’t care where they lived. They only had to come as they were, find healing for their lives, bodies, souls, and experience transformation. He hindered no one.

Why is the church hindering people today?

Churches have expressed a desire to grow and ended up closing because the people they attracted were not just like those already there so the new people were driven out. I find this to be among the saddest reasons for a house of worship to close its doors. May God forgive our exclusionary practices and give all his people welcoming hearts which truly extends to all people. No one should be hindered from Jesus and therefore should not be hindered from worshiping him. Who are we to decide who’s worthy and who isn’t?

If you think about it, none of us are.

Jonathan

Not Calling for a Split

cross-and-flame-color-1058x1818I’ve made no bones about the fact that I’m not a lifelong Methodist. I grew up in another denomination and at some point I began to question what I was being taught and what I had always believed. It was thanks to my wife that I joined the United Methodist Church and came to realize that what I had always felt in my soul was true about God and scripture most aligned with Wesleyan theology. Whether I realized it or not, I have always been Methodist even if it wasn’t in name. The Wesleyan-Arminian hermeneutic (I’m in seminary so I might as well use a fancy preachin’ word) is, in my opinion, the best way to articulate the gospel and to live it out.

The United Methodist Church was where I  began to learn the most about Christ and my identity in Him. Jessica and I were married in a UM church (Decatur United Methodist Church – Decatur, Mississippi). My first time to preach as a lay speaker was in a UM church (Richton United Methodist Church – Richton, Mississippi). I made the decision to answer the call to pastoral ministry in a UM church (Central United Methodist Church – Meridian, Mississippi). The people within the United Methodist Church are the ones who have affirmed that I have the gifts and graces necessary for pastoral ministry and who have invested in my seminary education (MEF). The United Methodist Church is where I have served as a pastor (Oak Grove United Methodist Church – Meridian, Mississippi), and where I am currently serving as a pastor (Shiloh United Methodist Church – Stanton, Kentucky) while I attend Asbury Theological Seminary (not a UM seminary but they are an approved school and turn out a ton of UM clergy).

The United Methodist Church is where I hope to serve out the time of my ministry. Among the many reasons that I have an affinity for the UMC is the fact that there is so much diversity. The UMC is a global church with churches all over the world. While Africa tends to get a lot of the attention, the UMC also has presence and is seeing fruit in several countries in Europe and Asia. There are also many vital ministries that the UMC facilitates such as Imagine No Malaria, The United Methodist Committee on Relief, and countless others which are done at the Annual Conference and district level. There are many UM congregations which take outreach to their communities seriously and who spread the love of Christ both in preaching and in action.

And we do all of this in spite of our differences. We are diverse in our thoughts on all sorts of topics and even some nuances of theology. We are conservative, liberal, Republican, Democrat, rich, poor, and everything in between. We come from the entire spectrum of backgrounds and modes of living. We are a multitude of races, speak a multitude of languages, and, yes, some of us are LBGTQ. And yet, in spite of all of these differences which could divide us, we still typically find ways of working along and with one another. In any given congregation you will find people who fit any of these molds or even none of them. Regardless, the gospel is preached for all people to know that there is forgiveness, transformation, redemption, reconciliation and love available to one and all.

I’m not ready to give up on the United Methodist Church. I don’t believe that God is ready to give up on the UMC either. Unfortunately, a lot of people are. Just today I have seen two people – both of whom I respect greatly – publicly call for a split of the denomination over the human sexuality issue. I’m saddened by the fact that there are people who, in spite of the denomination having much to offer, wish to make the UMC a one issue church. Well meaning people who are entrenched in their positions are ready to give up, take their toys and go play in another yard. One of the biggest problems in this debate, in my opinion, is that people who are on the extremes of the debate are being heard while people in the center are being shouted down.

Several claim that the majority of people in the UMC are ready to split. I beg to differ.

I believe there are more people, like me, who are in the center than the people on the extreme ends realize. We are just not being heard. We try but people on the extreme left and right are much louder in spite of there likely not being as many on their respective sides as they think. People in the center are unfairly vilified as being wishy-washy, lukewarm or simply trying to preserve the institution. While I’m not sure that any of us have the answers as to what to do, we do believe that a way can be found for us to remain united in spite of our differences. We want the UMC to be about more than just one issue.

We want to build bridges, not blow them up.

In the Service of Word and Table as found in the United Methodist Hymnal and United Methodist Book of Worship, there is a line which reads, “By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world, until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet.” At chapel services at Asbury, the congregation says these words along with the celebrant (typically, only the celebrant says these words) and it’s something that I think I will start to have my own congregation say together as well. But as I ponder this in light of the ongoing debate on human sexuality in the UMC, I have to ask this question…

Do we really mean these words or are they just words on a page or on a screen?

Ponder that.

UMC General Conference: Rumors and Games

Yoda-QuotesI am not at the United Methodist Church’s General Conference in Portland, Oregon but I have been watching through social media and the video stream when I’m able. It has been stressful to watch so much fighting among people who I greatly respect and even admire. Today has, by far, been the worse.

It all started during the night when rumors were released by the Love You Neighbor Coalition (LYNC – a group which advocates for LGBTQ inclusion) which claimed that the Council of Bishops were set to announce a plan for schism which would divide the UMC into liberal, progressive, and centrist factions. This afternoon the President of the Council of Bishops, Bishop Bruce Ough (pronounced “Oh”) addressed General Conference to deny these rumors and say that the rumors were the result of conversations that the Bishops have, indeed, had (from his tone, I speculate these conversations were no different than conversations many people within the UMC have been having) but that nothing pertaining to separation or schism was going to be presented or advocated by the Council of Bishops. In short, the rumors were pure bunk.

Assuming all of this is correct, I have to say that I feel that this was nothing but a publicity stunt perpetrated by LYNC. Personally I find such stunts pulled by any kind of special interest group of any kind to be sickening. These people have played and heightened the fears of many within and without the General Conference and I can not denounce their actions enough.

I don’t have time for games and neither should they.

I have no time or desire to play these games when we have a world with hurting people in it. We have people who desperately need the gospel and when I’m trying to figure out how best to reach out to them, I don’t have time for games. I don’t have time for games when I live and serve in a county with one of the highest rates of poverty and drug addiction in the state of Kentucky. I don’t have time for games when I have people within my congregation who I am trying to care for when they are sick, dying, or uncertain about their faith. I don’t have time for such games when there are people who have been harmed by the church and those within it who I am trying to show love to.

If you feel that you have time for such games, I encourage you to check yourself.

I am one of the people in the center of this debate where I believe we can find a way to coexist in spite of our differences. Unfortunately, people in the center are not being heard because those at the extreme ends of the homosexual issue insist on being heard because it’s “our way or no way.” My desire is for the table and those at it to be increased, not hindered in any way. I don’t have the answers but I hold to the hope that a way to coexist can be found. In Being United Methodist in the Bible Belt, F. Belton Joyner used the analogy of the church being intended to be a large bus with lots of people on it as opposed to a two-seater convertible with “just me and Jesus.” We need to strive to keep it that way.

Even if the bus is a double-decker, the point is we would still be on the same bus.

I have not been a Methodist all my life (my wife gets the blame or the credit for bringing me to the UMC); I grew up in a church within the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) which broke off from the PCUSA way back when. I’ve seen first hand the damage and the scars which are left from such splits. I constantly heard comments like, “those liberals are ruining that other church, I’m glad we left. We don’t want them here.” If the UMC splits and further fractures the body of Christ, such is what awaits us. I can not, in good conscience, support any talk of a split when I still feel that it can be avoided.

Let’s stop playing games, spreading silly rumors, and let’s stop the nastiness toward one another. Let’s work for unity and the good of the Body. Let’s be the church and stop the foolishness.

Submitted for what it’s worth,
Jonathan

A Tale of Two States

I am a transplant to Kentucky, having just moved here in June. One of the things I have found myself doing often is comparing how each state differs in its traditions, customs and certainly in their government. I want to offer you the same opportunity.

As you may have seen in a previous post, I wrote a letter advocating for the General Assembly of Kentucky to pass a bill allowing EMS providers to receive the same benefits as police officers and firefights should they die in the line of duty. I had received some bad information that the bill was in danger of failing to pass and I urged my state senator and representative to support this measure. The next morning I received a call from Representative David Hale who took time out of his busy schedule to call me personally and tell me that the bill was indeed expected to do well and that he was not sure how information had gotten out that the bill was in danger. He let me know that he fully supported the bill and many of his counterparts in the senate did well. He then took a few moments to get to know me, thanked me for making the choice to move to the Commonwealth and also asked if I had any other concerns related to EMS workers. He also commended me for taking up pastoral ministry as he is also a pastor and knew how difficult it can be to balance the duties of the church with everything else life throws at you. He was very pleasant and I thanked him for giving me a call when he certainly did not have to. He said, “I work for you. It’s my pleasure.”

Contrast that to how I have been treated by a Mississippi official.

A couple of years ago, I wrote Representative William Shirley and expressed my concerns about cuts to education and the fact that teachers in Mississippi had not, at that time, received a raise in quite some time. He did not even bother to return the email. I get it, I know he has bills to vote on, committees to sit on, campaign fund money to give to himself (see page 11) and to spend at the fish camp he owns (page 10).

But I digress.

I emailed him again and this time he responded. Essentially the exchange was not very polite on his end. He essentially let me know that he would vote for and against bills that were in his best interest of staying elected and to heck with everything else.

He also made it clear that my opinion was not valued.

And then there’s this guy who told a constituent that he “could care less” about her views, that her views were not Mississippi views, and that she should consider moving back to Illinois. Her crime was the same as mine: She dared to advocate for education and questioned the wisdom of tax cuts when revenue was already projected to be lower than expected to a member of a legislative regime who is determined to cut as much spending as possible from education for the benefit of their donors who happen to be “non-profit” private education companies.

Legislators in my home state of Mississippi could learn a lot from their Kentucky counterparts.

Jonathan

Being a Strong Witness

92b8c584afb491d0c703b3ddc3244926What does it mean to be a strong witness for Christ?

What does it really mean to be a strong witness for Christ?

Throughout my life I have often heard preachers, youth ministers, evangelists and countless others encouraging their hearers to bear a strong witness. How does one do this? Often a “strong Christian witness” is thought of in these ways:

  • Being able to quote the right scripture at the right time and completely from memory
  • Displaying symbols such as crosses, the “Jesus fish” and other images
  • Being very vocal about what they God are is against
  • Explaining everything under the sun as “God’s will” (especially tragedy)
  • Vocally and passionately articulate their political views (“God’s on my side here!”)

Now, let me be clear: There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of those things so long as they are done in a spirit of charity and grace as opposed to one of domination and attempting to belittle someone or their views. I believe that bearing a strong witness for Christ involves much more than our political leanings and the stickers displayed on our cars.

Being a strong witness for Christ is a lifestyle which must be lived, not one that is merely talked about.

For my Missional Formation class today, I have been reading a keynote speech that was given by Dr. Christine Pohl at the Wesleyan Theological Society’s annual meeting in 2006. One of the takeaways I have gained is that simply being hospitable can bear a strong witness for Christ. But what is hospitality? It’s more than cooking or offering our friends a place to sit. Hospitality means we have to open our tables and our witness to everyone, not just those we love or who have something to offer. From the transcript of Dr. Pohl’s speech:

Based on the biblical passages of Matthew 25:31-46 and Luke 14:12-14, Christians were expected to offer hospitality to those most likely to be overlooked, anticipating that it might be Jesus they were welcoming. According to Jesus’ instructions, when followers welcomed people to their tables, it should be the poor and infirm, those who seemed to have the least to offer.

Perhaps one way to look at this is that we should extend hospitality to everyone we come into contact with. That doesn’t mean we have to invite everyone over for dinner but it does mean making space for people to meet Christ through us right where they are. We can not be brash and demeaning in our witness; if we think that such an attitude will win anyone to Christ we are delusional at best and just plain crazy at worst. Instead, we are to show everyone a generous and loving spirit of grace. We have been given much grace therefore we should be quick to give it ourselves. I know that I don’t always make God happy but I also know that God loves me and forgives me so long as my trust is in Christ. Just as God is quick to love and slow to anger, we should be likewise (see James 1:19-27).

Be hospitable. Be loving. Above all – through your everyday living – offer Christ to everyone you encounter regardless of who they are, how much you disagree with them or what they lack.

Jonathan