A TL, DR Sermon: “YOU Give Them Something

(I’m at new appointment – more on that another time – and we have not been meeting in-person for nearly a month due to COVID-19. For people in my midst who don’t have reliable internet access and are unable to watch our worship service recordings, I’ve been including condensed versions of my sermons for the worship bulletin. Here is this week’s. I will be sure to include them here starting now. I hope you find a blessing from my ponderings. – Jonathan)

Text: Matthew 14:13-21 (NLT)

One of the most common questions for pastors right now is, “How should Christians respond to the COVID-19 pandemic? What should our witness be?” I believe this is an excellent question, because what we see playout on social media and elsewhere by people who state that they are followers of The Son seem to be anything but a positive response. I believe Jesus calls us to exhibit sacrificial compassion in the face of a crisis like COVID-19.

I believe this is just one of the lessons we learn from what we call the Feeding of the 5,000. First of all, we need to know that the number was actually much higher because only the men were counted (the women and children present were not counted at gathers back then). Jesus likely fed closer to 10,000 – or more – people with five loaves of bread and two fish! People tend to get lost in the “how” of this miracle but I believe the more important question is, “Why?”

The writer of Matthew tells us why in verse 14: “He had compassion on them.” We have to remember that this is just after Jesus found out that John the Baptist had been executed so He was in the midst of grieving the loss of his cousin and friend. This grief may not be unlike the collective grief we’re experiencing now.

I believe there are several reasons why Jesus responded in the way that He did and I’m sure I could preach several sermons on this passage. The lesson we most need now is His example of sacrificial compassion. When Jesus told the disciples, “You give them something,” He wasn’t trying to pass the buck because He didn’t feel like performing a miracle, rather He wanted them to know that sending people away in their time of need is not how a disciple ought to respond to a need.

How do we respond in the midst of crisis, whether it’s a pandemic, natural disaster, or something else? We show compassion, even to the point of personal sacrifice. That’s why we do things to protect our neighbors: It’s not out of a desire to make a political statement but out of a desire to make a moral statement, to give a strong witness for the love of Christ. We are called to be imitators of Jesus and showing compassion is one of the ways which we do this.

Remember: Even Judas ate, had his feet washed, and sat at the right hand of Jesus – the place of honor – at the Last Supper. If Jesus can show the one who would betray Him this much compassion and mercy, what could we do?

Let’s go and do likewise.

Sermon: Real Talk about Racism

More or less, what follows is the sermon I gave this morning at Druid Hills UMC in Meridian, MS (Lost Gap had a different sermon because they were voting on closure today). I’m sharing this here because I believe this is a message that we all need a reminder of right now. The recent racial unrest has underscored that we have a long way to go in racial equity, much farther than we probably want to admit. I hope you will take my attempt to articulate what has been on my heart and “chew on” these words. Allow God to work on you and what your part may be in breaking the church’s silence on racism and how we can combat this sin.

If you’d like, you can watch the worship service from Druid Hills here.

LUKE 10:24-37 (NLT)
One day an expert in religious law stood up to test Jesus by asking him this question: “Teacher, what should I do to inherit eternal life?”

26 Jesus replied, “What does the law of Moses say? How do you read it?”

27 The man answered, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind.’ And, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”[c]

28 “Right!” Jesus told him. “Do this and you will live!”

29 The man wanted to justify his actions, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Parable of the Good Samaritan
30 Jesus replied with a story: “A Jewish man was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho, and he was attacked by bandits. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him up, and left him half dead beside the road.

31 “By chance a priest came along. But when he saw the man lying there, he crossed to the other side of the road and passed him by. 32 A Temple assistant[d] walked over and looked at him lying there, but he also passed by on the other side.

33 “Then a despised Samaritan came along, and when he saw the man, he felt compassion for him. 34 Going over to him, the Samaritan soothed his wounds with olive oil and wine and bandaged them. Then he put the man on his own donkey and took him to an inn, where he took care of him. 35 The next day he handed the innkeeper two silver coins,[e] telling him, ‘Take care of this man. If his bill runs higher than this, I’ll pay you the next time I’m here.’

36 “Now which of these three would you say was a neighbor to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked.

37 The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Then Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.”

Last week we celebrated the day that the Holy Spirit was sent to this world with a video worship service featuring clergy, laity, and children from all over our Mississippi Annual Conference connection. Did you notice the diversity that was represented? Men, women, white black, and everything in between coming together with but one two-fold goal in mind: To lead us in worship and to give glory to the Lord’s name. As I watched the video with you all last week, the sheer beauty of how wide and deep our own state is in terms of the different people we have in our midst brought tears to my eyes. In my mind, it was truly a reflection of God’s kingdom – the way the kingdom was always intended to be and will be someday when Jesus returns.

We live in a fallen world where diversity is not always celebrated and, in many cases, is discouraged and even ridiculed. The killing of George Floyd sent shockwaves through our nation, just as such an unjust and evil event ought to do. While Mr. Floyd’s death may have been an event that brought our racial tension to a head, this was hardly the first time that we have seen unjust killing of people of color. Another recent example is the shooting death of Breona Taylor, a young black EMT from Louisville, Kentucky, who was killed when police executed a raid at the wrong address – her apartment – looking for a suspect who was already in jail on another charge. I resonate with the cries of our brothers and sisters of color when I say that enough is enough and it’s time for an end to these senseless deaths. As a white man who has family members who are biracial or of another race entirely, I must stand up for my loved ones. As a Christian pastor, I know we are all children of God. The children’s song says, “red or yellow, black or white, we are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world.” So why are we not doing that for each other now? We are all loved by God. And God taught us to love our neighbor, as we heard a moment ago. So, now above any other time in our existence, God is calling us to love our neighbors. We must love the most threatened among us. We should stand with our black brothers and sisters and protect them, love them, treat them as our equal… because anything less is a sin in front of our Lord and Savior.

Now I say all of this as a pastor among a white congregation. I say this, knowing that this is not the popular belief in this area, but brothers and sisters, Jesus did not preach to what was popular. He preached to what is right.

On Friday, Bishop Swanson sent out a video that was both a rebuke against the church for its long and deafening silence on racism as well as how we can begin to respond. Bishop Swanson is absolutely correct: The church has remained silent for far too long and this needs to change. The reason the church is often silent on racism is because we don’t want to seem to be preaching political topics or we don’t want to make people uncomfortable. The truth about the gospel is that the truths within it often are uncomfortable because we are forced to see ourselves for who and how we truly are. So, today, I do my part to change this trend of silence in the church. Today, I stand here and tell you that we’re going to get uncomfortable. I declare from this pulpit that racism is a sin. Racism is incompatible with Christian faith – you cannot call yourself a follower of Jesus if you are a racist. To remain silent is equally as sinful. Our baptismal vows that we make before God and His people include standing up for the oppressed and to resist evil in whatever form it takes. That starts with us acknowledging the sin of racism.

And that brings us to our scripture today: The Parable of the Good Samaritan. The legal expert who is questioning Jesus is really wanting to justify himself. While I fully admit that I’m using some conjecture here, I would speculate that the man that Jesus was talking to was one of the Jews who really hated Samaritans. Back then, Jews and Samaritans simply did not get along. Jews viewed them as inferior and as beneath them. Perhaps the justification that the man was seeking was really that which would affirm his hatred toward someone simply because that person looked different than he did. And as we see through the rest of the passage, Jesus is not having it. The fact is, a story where the Samaritan was the hero was very scandalous to the Jews who heard it.

The belief back then was that touching certain people or people experiencing certain conditions would make one unclean and this certainly would have included touching a man who was beaten and bloody and left in a ditch to die. The Levite and the priest would have been considered to be ceremonially unclean had they touched him. It was because of those crazy fears that they went so far as to cross the street. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave a speech using the story of the Good Samaritan as an example. He had this to say about it: “The first question the priest and Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me? But the Good Samaritan reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop and help this man, what will happen to him?’” In other words, the priest and the Levite were putting themselves first. Instead, the Samaritan chose to put the man before him and to in turn take care of him.

One thing I have seen over and over again is that children do not seem to have a racism gene. If you go to a park in most cities, you can see white children playing with children who are black, brown, and everything in between. Comedian Denis Leary says, “Racism isn’t born, folks. It’s taught. I have a two-year old son. You know what he hates—naps.” Children are not born to hate other people. Instead, this behavior is something that is learned. When children are raised in ignorance about other races, that’s how they learn to hate. And simply, this is not ok.

More than anything, racism is not a skin issue, it’s a sin issue. The problem is not the color of one’s skin or their national origin, the problem is that the person who is racist is giving in to sin. James 2:9 says, “But if you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin. You are guilty of breaking the law.” When the command handed down says, “Love the Lord with all you have and love your neighbor as yourself,” there are no qualifiers attached to that. There is no asterisk with a list of who our neighbors are not at the bottom of the page. Our neighbors are all people, period, full stop. There’s a meme that goes around from time to time where Jesus is telling those gathered to love their neighbors as themselves. Someone from the crowd goes, “What about my black neighbor?” Another says, “What about my Jewish neighbor?” And then Jesus says, “I’m going to start over, tell me where I lost you.” When Jesus tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves, he’s telling us that we are to love all people no matter what.

So how can we neighbor those who look different than us? Well, it starts by taking a good look at the person in the mirror. We have to confront our prejudices. Let’s be honest with ourselves for a minute: We all have them. We all have those pre-conceived judgements about other people that are not based on any sound reason or experience (which is the definition of a prejudice, by the way). Some examples might be, “All rich people are snobs.” Or, “Old people are mean.” Or, “Which men can’t jump.” I could go on and on. Or maybe we say things like, “I’m not racist because I have black friends.” Well, that’s great! But do you truly see them as your equal? Are they just as much deserving of the love of Christ as you are? We have to confront those prejudices. We have to get real with ourselves.

Next, we have to see to understand others. This is another hard part because this means we will have to get even further outside of our comfort zones than we did when we took a good hard look at ourselves in the mirror. This means that we have to actually pay attention to our neighbors, take the time to get to know them, really listen to them. This is the one that is the easiest to ignore because it takes real effort on our part, but it’s so vital. We can not simply look at people different from us who are on TV or read some data about what works in one place. We have to know how to love people and help them right where we are. This is where they live as well and it’s vital that we take this seriously enough to truly listen to them in order to find out how we can best show them the love of Christ.

After we listen to them, we have to do the hardst thing of all: We have to love those who are different from us. This is not simply telling someone that we love them, it’s actually doing it. It’s putting our faith and our words into action to show them that we mean it. This is hard becasue it involves a lot of sacrifice. In 1996 in Michigan there was a rally by the Ku Klux Klan and the police in the town were doing their best to keep the Klan and the protesters separated. One of the Klansmen snuck over to the protesters side. Next thign you know, they started to beat on him with shouts of “kill the Nazi” being hurled. 18-year old African American girl named Keisha Thomas threw her body on top of the man’s to stop beating. She put herself at physical risk protect man that likely wanted to harm her.

Who does this? Committed believer. “I knew what it was like to be hurt. The many times that that happened, I wish someone would have stood up for me.”

Crossed the street—protect someone different from her.

Thomas says she tries to do something to break down racial stereotypes every day. No grand gestures. She thinks that small, regular acts of kindness are more important. “The biggest thing you can do is just be kind to another human being. It can come down to eye contact, or a smile. It doesn’t have to be a huge monumental act.”

Radical love is what she showed to that man. The best way to combat racism is with love because racism is not the presence of hate, it’s the absence of love! Paul wrote to the Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” God loves all people. He loves Americans. But he also loves Nigirians, Cubans, Hondurans, Mexicans, Choctaws, Jamaicans, Turks, Iranians, Russians, and all other people. He loves white people, black people, brown people, and everything in between. Heaven will be the most diverse place you will ever see. If you hate diversity, you are really going to hate Heaven. Ultimately we will all be together and it will be a beautiful sight.

We have to face the sin of racism and combat it head on. Racism is not a Christian value. It is not acceptable to God and racism should therefore not be acceptable to us. Jesus said for us to love our neighbors with no qualifiers attached to that. He told us now to neighbor those who are different than us. We simply love.

Imagining What’s Next in the Methodist Movement

John Wesley preaching at the market cross in Epworth, England.

There was a time – 2016 to be precise – that I was completely against any sort of break off within the United Methodist Church. Part of me still wishes to find some way to maintain some sort of unity, but my views have softened as the years have gone by. The work of the Commission on a Way Forward has been completed, a special session of General Conference voted on proposals, and yet the in-fighting has continued until it has reached a fever pitch. My opinion now is that a separation of some sort is going to be in the best interests of all parties so that we can continue doing the work of God’s Kingdom. I could give plenty of “hot takes” of what this should look like, but there’s really no use in engaging in such. There are plenty of others who are eager to do this (if you don’t believe me, just search the #UMC hashtag on any social media platform).

With an inevitable split becoming apparent, I have been keeping my eye on what could be next. The Protocol on Reconciliation Through Separation that has been drafted and proposed by a group representing the spectrum of theological thought within the UMC, while not perfect, seems to be the most equitable means to end the fighting and to move forward. Since the Protocol has been released, I have been watching for proposals for changes within the UMC as well as proposals for new denominations. The only significant work toward a new expression of Methodism, at least as far as I know, has been done by the Wesleyan Covenant Association.

WCA has released two portions of a proposed Doctrine and Discipline for a new traditionalist church. The first section deals with doctrinal standards and clergy deployment. I gave some thoughts and a proposal for changes to their proposed clergy deployment strategy a couple of months ago. In speaking with someone involved with WCA leadership, my proposal was well received by those who read it. I’ve also had conversations with other pastors who I know to be aligned with orthodox theology and they expressed similar concerns to the ones I conveyed, that is that women and persons of color would have a difficult time securing placements under a modified call system. In addition to my thoughts on the proposed clergy deployment system, I offered these thoughts on the proposed doctrinal standards:

I find that their doctrine seems spot-on with expressions of orthodox Methodist/Wesleyan belief. High regard for the sacraments – including baptism of children and babies – is retained and other important Methodist distinctives are contained. I like that WCA has incorporated the creeds as foundational doctrinal standards as well.

The doctrinal standards are solid and strong, and a great representation of Wesleyan theology. In the draft, I noted no fundamentalist bent or overt attempt at excluding anyone. From where I sit, I believe any true Wesleyan would be hard pressed to find anything in the doctrinal standards they disagree with. In fact, this section is almost identical to the current Book of Discipline (with the draft’s inclusion of the Apostles Creed and Nicene Creed being notable exceptions).

Since that time, a second section has been released that details credentialing of ministers and a few details of how clergy are to conduct ministry. As with the first section, I like the work that has been done, particularly in providing multiple pathways by which one may be ordained an Elder. Theological education is absolutely required – as it should be – but how one obtains that education is much more flexible under the proposed Discipline. There will still be required subject matter and approved schools but even a clergyperson who completes a course of study outside of a traditional seminary education may have an opportunity to obtain Elders orders. I believe this is a very positive step in the right direction, one that will allow more people to be ordained as an Elder with less debt that if they had attended seminary.

I have written previously (here and here) of expanding the role of the licensed local pastor (LLP) within the UMC. Under WCA’s proposal, local pastors would be ordained as Deacons and be granted sacramental authority when serving as the pastor in charge of a local congregation or charge. As mentioned above, one obtaining their theological education by course of study would be an option in seeking ordination as an Elder. There is currently an option for an LLP to become an Elder within the UMC, but the candidate must obtain a bachelor’s degree and complete additional seminary-level coursework in addition to the standard course of study. In theory, the additional material could be incorporated into the standard course of study, thus enabling a clergyperson to be ordained in a more timely fashion. Likewise, Provisional Elders would also be ordained as Deacons – a practice that ceased some years ago in the UMC – and would be granted sacramental authority while serving a two year residency in preparing for ordination as an Elder.

LLPs would also have full voice and vote on all matters within the annual conference. I believe this is a major positive, something I have also championed in the past. What remains unclear in the proposal is whether or not LLPs will be eligible to serve as delegates to General Conference (this portion of the proposal has not been released yet). The ability for LLps to serve as clergy delegates to General Conference is something I believe is essential, as LLPs currently provide a significant amount of the pastoral ministry within many annual conferences (in Mississippi, LLPs outnumber Elders), therefore ought to be able to participate in shaping the overall ministry of the church.

Overall, I like the work that has been done in this proposal (with the noted exception of the proposed clergy deployment system). Of course, we must remember that what has been presented is a proposed draft so nothing is final. Assuming that WCA’s proposed church is formed, the convening body would still have to approve a discipline, doctrine, polity, etc. Also, a split is not even final, as General Conference is the only body that can actually initiate the work of an official separation of any sort (and as of today, the UMC’s General Conference will not meet until sometime in 2021).

Diversity of thought is not necessarily a bad thing (more on that in a moment) but it’s become clear that those whose interpretations of marriage differ will continue to focus on the issue to the detriment of the mission for Christ. While I lament separation, I acknowledge that this may be the best course of action for the long term. However this shakes out, I would hope that any denominations that form as a result of a separation can carry on some mutual ministry. Missing an opportunity to have an eccumenical relationship between two bodies with the same roots would be a real shame.

I remember a sermon that Bishop Swanson gave at Central UMC in Meridian sometime leading up to General Conference 2019. I’ll never forget a statement he made: “We don’t all have to think alike to be together.” When I wrote previously of diversity, I was talking about a lot of things: Diversity of race, gender, and, yes, theological thought. Not everyone within the universal church of Jesus agrees on every single facet of theology and doctrine, yet we are all united in Christ. In my mind, a snapshot of the kingdom is our unity in Christ in spite of our differences in opinion. I have my convictions but that does not mean that I can’t minister to or be in ministry with someone whose convictions are different than mine.

I hope you will join me in praying into whatever is next in this movement called Methodism. Let’s lean in to how God is working during this time and join in that movement. God is not done with us yet.

The Clergy-Laity Disconnect

“The witness of the laity, their Christ-like examples of everyday living as well as the sharing of their own faith experiences of the gospel, is the primary evangelistic ministry through which all people will come to know Christ and The United Methodist Church will fulfill its mission.” – 2016 Book of Discipline, ¶ 127, “The Ministry of the Laity” 

When Methodism was getting on its feet in the 18th Century, the movement was largely one spread by… wait for it… the laity! That’s right, it wasn’t ordained or licensed pastors who were out beating the bushes with the good news of the gospel for all people who the church either couldn’t or wouldn’t reach – it was lay persons who were trained in Wesley’s teachings and on how to preach. Laity were the class leaders and the primary leaders within their societies and congregations. The pastors were there to be the spiritual leaders whose primary job was to equip the laity for ministry. The laity were expected to make most of the major decisions and to be the movers and shakers within the church.

Read that again: It was the laity, not the pastors, who were charged with the responsibility of doing ministry. These were not the prominent people of their day, rather they were the marginalized of British society – the poor.

There were first of all the itinerating lay preachers, assigned in pairs to circuits throughout the British Isles, and eventually sent in pairs to America. There were also the non-itinerating local ministers and the stewards who oversaw the various societies. Most important were the leaders of classes, who provided spiritual oversight for those under their care.

What Wesley did is open the door for hundreds of men and women to become leaders in the vast missionary endeavor of spreading scriptural holiness across the nation. Since most of these were not from the upper classes, British society did not provide avenues of leadership. Indeed some evangelical pastors criticized Wesley for disrespecting the class distinctions they believed God had established. But Wesley recognized their gifts and commitment, and enlisted them into God’s service.

“Wesley and Lay Leadership” – Dr. Henry H. Knight, III – St. Paul School of Theology https://www.catalystresources.org/consider-wesley-51/

At some point this began to change. Dr. Knight points to the merger that created the United Methodist Church in 1968 as a major turning point where the laity became passive consumers – largely due to their lack of education on our doctrine and theology – and the clergy were highly educated providers of religious services for the congregation, specialists in the same vein as lawyers and doctors. As Dr. Knight states, “This was hardly a recipe for vibrant outreach into their communities.”

That perception has only increased as the years have passed. Today, the UMC is hardly the movement where the laity are the primary leaders and the clergy are the equippers and providers of guidance and teaching. Today the pastors are expected to be the CEOs and to make most of the decisions. In the typical UMC congregation, the laity are not involved beyond roles such as Sunday School teacher or the lay leadership roles mandated by the Book of Discipline (which, let’s be real, are often only on paper in many congregations). This is a major problem for many reasons, but the main reason is because the widening gulf between the clergy and laity is yet another way in which we have forgotten who we are.

It’s time for Methodists to get back to our roots.

I was reminded of the width of this gulf is yesterday when I published my proposed re-write of WCA’s proposed church clergy deployment plan. I want to digress for a moment and express my appreciation for most of the feedback given being constructive and helpful. As the comments on social media continued, I realized that the tone and type of the feedback differed between clergy and laity. The reason is because we have different points of view on what is most needed in our churches and how to meet those needs. As I mentioned to someone yesterday, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. I believe clergy and laity ought to come together and to hear one another. You know, like John Wesley and the early Methodists did.

We need to get back to our roots.

In the United Methodist Church, we say that we believe in the priesthood of all believers – but do we really? Our Book of Discipline affirms the ministry of the laity but as I read the paragraph that contains this affirmation, I can’t help but question how we actually practice this aspect of ministry.

“The witness of the laity, their Christ-like examples of everyday living as well as the sharing of their own faith experiences of the gospel, is the primary evangelistic ministry through which all people will come to know Christ and The United Methodist Church will fulfill its mission.”

2016 Book of Discipline, ¶ 127, “The Ministry of the Laity” 

Spoiler alert: We suck at this.

There is plenty of blame to go around for how we got here. Part of it is societal norms changing where worship attendance is now largely seen as optional, therefore so is becoming involved in the ministry and leadership of the church. The clergy also have been afraid of feeling less important and have failed to equip their laity for ministry in addition to other failures to teach the doctrine of the church that would not be popular with many within their congregations. I could go on but you get the point.

Pastors, you may not like what I’m about to say but I’m going to say it anyway: We need to give the laity their church back. What I mean by that is, we need to reclaim our roles as the spiritual leaders and the equippers of the laity to conduct the ministry of the church. We need to allow our people to take the lead and we need to let go of some of the control that we have claimed. This is more than a great thing that Wesley taught; allowing the laity to lead is a biblical mandate.

“Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ.”

Ephesians 4:11-12 (NLT)

I realize that this is not the case in all congregations. I’m thankful to be able to say that I know of many churches that are doing great work because the laity took ownership of the ministry of their church. But when it comes to the majority of congregations, we still have a major disconnect and we need to address it quickly. We, the clergy, certainly have our place but so do the laity. It’s time we set aside our pride and our ambitions, took a step back, and started equipping the saints again.

Sports teams are made up of individuals with different responsibilities but with the same goal in mind: To win. On scoreboards, teams are shown as winning or losing, just one individual on the team. The same goes for the church: We all have different jobs but we are on the same team and we ought to have the same goal: To win souls for God’s kingdom. Our job is to minister to the people with the gospel but also by being the hands and feet of Christ. By being doers of the word, we allow God to use us in this endeavor. If the church is failing, it’s because we have failed to carry out this mission. We have all become power hungry or consumers. It’s time for this to change.

It’s time to get back to our roots.

Help Me Get to General Conference!

42301730_1569501283728286_rLast week, I received word that I have been chosen to serve as a marshal at the upcoming General Conference of the United Methodist Church in Minneapolis. I counted this as a blessing because I have wanted to serve at General Conference for many years but never had the opportunity. I count this as an honor to be able to serve the larger church with my time, service, and witness.

A lot of people don’t realize this but serving as a marshal or as a page at General Conference is a completely voluntary position. I will receive no funding from my annual conference or elsewhere to subsidize my expenses. I am responsible for paying all of my expenses – travel, lodging, food, all of it. I don’t like the thought of “begging” but I definitely can’t pay for this trip on my own. We’re talking probably around $3,000 or so by the time it’s all said and done. With that in mind, I have set up a couple of fundraisers and would love any help you can give me!

The first is a t-shirt with the theme verse for the 2020 General Conference on it. You will have a choice of colors for your shirt. They make great gifts as well! Every shirt sold helps me meet my goal. This fundraiser has a closing date of October 14th so hurry! Find my page right here!

If t-shirts aren’t your thing, you can give at my GoFundMe page, or send donations via PayPal (if you use this method, include a note that this is for GC 2020, that way I will know why someone is sending my money).

I very much appreciate all of the support I have received so far and thank you for any help you offer from this blog. It would mean a lot for me to be able to serve at General Conference.

Jonathan

Being One is Not Being the Borg

“Being one does not mean that we all think alike.”
Bishop James Swanson on “The Power That Makes Us One.”

Last week, Bishop Swanson – the resident bishop of the Mississippi Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church – was in my district where he met with the pastors followed by preaching at a district-wide laity rally in the evening. The theme of this rally was “The Power that Makes Us One,” referring to the power of the Holy Spirit that unites us as Christians. Bishop gave the above quote during his sermon and it made me think of some of the rhetoric I have witnessed as the United Methodist Church has continued to debate LGBTQ inclusion. My thoughts then turned to Star Trek.

If you’re a Trekkie, you know of The Borg. The Borg are a hive mind collective made up of cybernetic beings that are forcibly “assimilated” by injecting nanoprobes into the host and where their brains surgically altered. The point is to collect the knowledge of all alien species into a common brain with the goal of achieving a perfect linked society where all think as one.  Anyone within the collective who begins to exhibit signs of independent thought is terminated as quickly as possible. The Borg are famous for the phrase “resistance is futile,” as they believe that all lifeforms must and will submit to assimilation.

There seems to be a concerted effort by organizations on all ends of the political and theological spectrum trying to assimilate members of the UMC. The idea is that a church can’t be a church unless all of the members agree completely… or else. I believe such thinking is contrary to the reality of our humanity and denies that we are all independent creatures with our own ways of understanding the nuances of doctrine. One thing I have noticed from all of those involved is that they love Jesus, know that He loves them in spite of their flaws, and want others to know that love as well. And yet, because of disagreement on a piece of doctrine, so many of us are content to throw all of that away. For the life of me, I can’t reconcile that with, well, really much at all.

The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, stated: “If we can not think alike, can we not love alike?” I believe this is a profound statement that acknowledges the scriptures that teach us that we will be known as Christ’s disciples by our love (John 13:35) rather than our agreement on doctrine. While doctrine is important, it’s not the end-all, be-all. The main thing is to keep Christ the main thing as he is the main thing. Some argue that the disagreement is over the authority of scripture. I say the issue is interpretation rather than authority. There is a major difference between the two and we must stop conflating authority with interpretation.

We are a church made up of imperfect people from all walks of life, different places, different races, and different experiences. This is exactly what the church has always been. The first disciples were all people from different backgrounds, did not understand things all the same, and yet Jesus used them in mighty ways and even considered them his closest friends. They were not a hive mind and neither are we. The church was never intended to be The Borg. The only way in which the church can and ought to be one is through the power of the Holy Spirit, in the name of Jesus Christ, and to the glory of God the father.

Thanks be to God.

#GC2019: God Don’t Like Ugly

cross-and-flame-color-1058x1818The question that a lot of people have right now is, “How do we move on?” For people who support the traditional interpretation of scriptures related to human sexuality, the mood seems to be like that of a “win.” For our LGBTQ brothers and sisters, the level of sadness and hurt is palpable. Many who are gay or who support including LGBTQ persons in ordained ministry and allowing UM clergy to perform their weddings would consider General Conference 2019 to a “loss.”

I would make this submission: There were no winners, only losers.

With few exceptions, I watched almost every moment on the live stream. I felt that I should witness as much of this pivotal time in the church as possible. I was sorry that I made that decision for a lot of reasons but one of the biggest regrets I have is witnessing the amount of ugly from so many people. Where I come from, we have a saying: “God don’t like ugly.”

I highly doubt he liked the shenanigans that took place in Saint Louis.

Especially on the final day, much of what I witnessed made my skin crawl. One scene, in particular, was a lay delegate quoting scripture very much out of context. Ok, proof-texting is common so I was not too shocked that this was happening. But when she quoted Matthew 18:5-6, it was revealed that many took this as implying that LGBTQ persons should be drowned. Whether this was her intent or not – and I pray it wasn’t – this was ugly and poor use of scripture.

God don’t like ugly.

I’m afraid things only got worse from there. I saw traditionalists implying the worst about progressives and vice-versa. I saw accusations of unethical behavior happening on the floor. I saw tempers getting the best of people, Need I go on? It was all ugly.

God don’t like ugly.

I hope that, regardless of how we feel about the outcome, we can all agree that a lot of harm was done. One of the most significant bits of harm was done to our witness for Christ. Some will argue that God was honored with the adoption of the Traditional Plan. Some will argue that God was not honored. One thing I can tell you for certain is that God was not honored in how everyone treated one another.

As God’s people, we have to do better.

On Sunday, I preached out of Luke 6; the title of the sermon was “Love Your Enemies, Even the Ones You Don’t Agree With.” The title might be a bit of a misnomer, however, in that part of my argument was “is someone you disagree with really your enemy or do we just like to think they are?” I would say such a person is not.

Regardless of how you feel, you are entitled to grieve, lament, or celebrate as you are led. But, please, remember that every single person you ever lay eyes on, talk to, or encounter on Twitter is of infinite sacred worth, even if you disagree with that person about anything or lots of things. We are commanded by scripture to treat one another the way we want to be treated.

Let’s start doing it. That’s how we move forward, because “God don’t like ugly.”

General Conference is Here

cross-and-flame-color-1058x1818The lead up to the specially called session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church has been fierce. I have recorded my thoughts here several times on the various plans, Judicial Council decisions, and the actions of organizations like the Wesleyan Covenant Association (and even gotten more than one “talking to” about it). But now, the time of speculation, commentary, and wish making has come and gone.

General Conference is here.

While I have been outspoken about a lot of this, I’m afraid that my ultimate hope has been misunderstood somewhat. Here’s what I want for the United Methodist Church: A fresh movement of the Holy Spirit to overpower all of us – the delegates, clergy, laity, and everyone – and cause us to once again bring about the kingdom here. Yes, I would love for us to find a way to continue in ministry together but I also realize that God’s kingdom is much bigger than the UMC. That’s the thing: We are supposed to be about kingdom work. We need to get back to the work of evangelism.

While some disagree, the biggest problem in the UMC is a lack of evangelistic zeal. We have been so distracted by debating about LGBTQ inclusion that I fear we have forgotten our first love. Regardless of what happens in Saint Louis, we have got to get back to our mission: To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We – and I definitely include myself – have been distracted for far too long.

When the delegates have all gone home and we are calculating the fallout from Saint Louis, the “last, the least, and the lost” will still be there in the world. They are thirsty for redemption and for new life. No resolution, plan, or debate is going to save them; only Jesus Christ can do that. It’s up to us to reach out and show that love to them.

I have my convictions and I am prepared to stand by them. Support your chosen plan, make your voice heard (with the knowledge that it’s the delegates who will ultimately decide). But no matter what does or doesn’t happen, can we all agree that we have got to get back to work for Jesus? If nothing else, I hope we can agree on that.

I am praying for our delegates, the bishops who will preside, and for the church as a whole as General Conference begins. I hope you will too. Below are some ways to follow along in real time if you would like. Above all, pray… And then act.

Streaming link
Social Media Hashtags: #UMC, #GC2019, #UMCGC

WCA Leaving Regardless? It Seems Possible

StillUMI have not been very quiet about my issues with the Wesleyan Covenant Association ever since I realized their tactics. Recently, I met with someone who is high in the WCA leadership at the conference leadership and we had a nice long chat over coffee. I do appreciate his willingness to meet with me and I do believe he earnestly listened to my concerns. He was very sincere in his answers as well. I still felt uneasy about WCA after our meeting so I have maintained my distance.

Ever since Rev. Brian Collier was allowed to remain part of WCA’s leadership council in spite of WCA’s insistence that it existed to strengthen orthodox ministry within the United Methodist Church and in spite of the fact that Collier led his congregation (The Orchard) out of the United Methodist Church, I felt like some of my suspicions were correct. At the time, I felt that WCA was likely planning to form a new denomination and to leave the UMC at some point.

I hate to use the term “I told you so” but, well, I told you so.

Last night, Mainstream UMC released a letter, purported to have been sent out by the North Alabama chapter of WCA, detailing plans for WCA after the specially-called session of General Conference in a couple of weeks. It would seem that unless WCA gets their way – or even if they do get their way – they are planning to take their ball and go play in a yard that they will make. Also, as of this moment, no one from WCA or WCA itself has refuted the contents of this letter (if this happens, I will edit this post to indicate such).

WCA has set April 25-26  as the dates for the convening conference of the “Next Methodism.” Further, they have apparently had a team of leaders working together on how the denomination will be set up, core beliefs, etc. Many of these were adopted at WCA’s last gathering. So, what are the chances of WCA actually leaving? Per the letter:

If the One Church Plan is passed, there is a 100% probability of calling the convening conference. Our current evaluation is that the proponents of the One Church Plan do not have the necessary votes to enact that plan.

If the special General Conference adopts neither the One Church Plan nor the Modified Traditional Plan, or adopts a Traditional Plan with no enhanced accountability provisions, there is a 70% probability of calling the convening conference. Our current evaluation is that this is the most likely outcome for the special General Conference.

If the special General Conference adopts the Modified Traditional Plan with the enhanced accountability provisions, there still may be churches which are intent on departing from the United Methodist Church. The WCA will work with those churches to transition into a new Methodist movement. Those churches which indicate a desire to be part of something new will be invited to a convening conference. Other churches would be given the opportunity to move to what is new at a later time, if they decided that became advisable. Our current evaluation is that there is a higher probability of the Modified Traditional Plan being adopted than the One Church Plan being adopted.

So, basically, WCA – or at least a significant portion of their organization – will likely leave no matter what happens in Saint Louis. In other words, they have already broken covenant.

Now is not the time to be making plans for departure. WCA has maintained that they were only making “contingency plans” but this is far from a contingency. This is a certainty at this point. I further believe that once the rubber meets the road, WCA is not going to have as much support as they believe they will. I personally know several conservatives who will not be joining them. I know many congregations that hold orthodox beliefs that will not be joining them either. Of course, I could be wrong but I truly believe that that limb they’re going out on is going to be a little lonely. None the less, I do believe that a lot of clergy and laity are going to depart with them. May God be with them and with us. I will not, however, be joining them in WCA or whatever WCA becomes.

I, for one, believe in actually keeping covenant.

The Judicial Council (Mostly) Got It Right

cross-and-flame-color-1058x1818Today, the #UMC hashtag on social media has been abuzz with conversation about the Judicial Council’s ruling on the plans put forth for consideration at our special session of General Conference in February. The Council of Bishops had asked for a ruling on the constitutionality of the three main proposals in order to avoid any confusion and in hopes of as little conflict as possible in the voting process. Today, the ruling came down and I believe they got a lot of it right while I wish they had ruled differently on other things. But, this is why they are appointed to interpret our church law and why I am not. You may read the full ruling here.

I have been outspoken on my objection to the so-called One Church Plan because I feel that the proposal would seriously alter the polity of the United Methodist Church. Currently, we are a connectional/episcopal church, which means that we are bound by common doctrine, church law, and standards (at least we are supposed to be). Certain powers are given to the Annual Conference and to the bishops to administer rules but ultimately it’s the General Conference who makes decisions on matters that impact the entire church. One Church, as it has been presented, would open the door to a “local option” whereby Annual Conferences and congregations would be able to decide for themselves on matters that are normally left up to the General Conference to decide. The Council found that One Church is mostly constitutional except for a few minor provisions that are mostly inconsequential to the larger body of the plan. Regarding One Church, the ruling states,

As a primary principle in any organizational structure of The United Methodist Church, connectionalism denotes a vital web of interactive relationships—multi-leveled, global in scope, and local in thrust—that permits contextualization and differentiation on account of geographical, social, and cultural variations and makes room for diversity of beliefs and theological perspectives but does not require uniformity of moral-ethical standards regarding ordination, marriage, and human sexuality.

In other words, the ruling is that the constitution of the church allows for “contextualization” as is the practice for many of our African and European central conferences. I understand what they’re saying and they are correct. But I still wish that we would not potentially be allowing annual conferences and congregations to decide on their own what they will and will not do on decisions relating to human sexuality. This impacts the entire church and serves to only further fragment the body. Ultimately, this defeats the purpose of and undercuts our current polity. I hope that the delegates to General Conference will take this matter into consideration.

Regarding the Connectional Conference proposal, Judicial Council essentially said that they have no grounds to rule on this proposal as it contains the necessary amendments to the Constitution to make it legal.

The Judicial Council was most critical of the Traditionalist Plan. I have not said as much about this plan but I have had many concerns about this proposal. Basically, I am not comfortable with the idea that boards of Ordained Ministry and district Committees on Ministry would essentially be asked to engage in witch hunts and that anyone who is even potentially a homosexual could be tossed out without recourse. I have had some grave concerns about these aspects of the plan and, apparently, I wasn’t alone. Out of the 17 petitions that make up Traditionalist Plan, the Judicial Council found issues with nine of them. Seven of them were found to be unconstitutional in their entirety. It’s safe to say that the Traditionalist Plan is effectually been gutted. From the ruling:

Under the principle of legality, the General Conference can prescribe or prescribe a particular conduct but cannot contradict itself by prescribing prohibited conduct or prohibiting prescribed conduct. It can require bishops, annual conferences, nominees, and members of boards of ordained ministry to certify or declare that they will uphold The Discipline in its entirety and impose sanctions in case of non-compliance. But it may not choose standards related to ordination, marriage, and human sexuality over other provisions of The Discipline for enhanced application and certification. The General Conference has the authority to require that the board of ordained ministry conduct a careful and thorough examination to ascertain if an individual meets all disciplinary requirements and certify that such an examination has occurred. But it cannot reduce the scope of the board examination to one aspect only and unfairly single out one particular group of candidates (self-avowed practicing homosexuals) for disqualification. Marriage and sexuality are but two among numerous standards candidates must meet to be commissioned or ordained; other criteria include, for example, being committed to social justice, racial and gender equality, and personal and financial integrity, that all should be part of a careful and thorough examination.

TL, DR: We are not allowed to pick and choose which parts of the breaking of covenant can be scrutinized and which can continue to be ignored and swept under the rug.

Many have said that the Traditionalist Plan is now dead but I do not see it that way. Anything and everything can be amended when General Conference convenes at St. Louis in February. General Conference can adopt any plan that has been proposed, make their own plan, or adopt no plan at all (which I feel is unlikely). I am glad that the Judicial Council addressed many of the concerns I have had about the Traditionalist Plan.

I have no interest in witch hunts and will not take part in them.

Regardless of how you may feel about the proposals, I urge you to be in prayer for the United Methodist Church as the future of the church is very much at stake. Dialogue with your conference’s delegates and express (kindly and civilly) your views.

Above all, let’s remember that we are the church and act like it.