This made my week

In a recent note to the families involved in the youth ministries at the church I serve, I wrote this about Church Conference:

Church Conference is the United Methodist term for what other denominations might call its Annual Business Meeting, or what a corporation might call its Annual Shareholders meeting, or what a leading tech company might call its Keynote Event.

That is, Church Conference is where we do business such as electing church officers, consider the successes and challenges of the past year, and cast the vision for who we want to be in the new year.

Prognosticator that I am, all three of those things happened Wednesday night. Plenty of good ideas were shared, but two moments far outshine all the rest:

The District Superintendent’s dinner with the youth and our newly adopted Hospitality Statement.

I don’t know how often this happens at other churches, but I know that in the last 20 years at WUMC, the District Superintendent has never shared a meal with our youth. That changed Wednesday night. The interaction between the youth and Rev. Dick Wisdom, Superintendent of the Aurora District, was so fun to watch and participate in. Our young people prepared ten questions for Rev. Wisdom, and he responded to all of them with grace, humility, and, well, wisdom.

But what really made the night was a little later when Rev. Wisdom declared that the questions from our youth were the highlight of his year. I couldn’t be prouder of our amazing teens! What were those questions that so moved our DS? Glad you asked…

  1. Do you have children? If so, how old are they?
  2. Were you in youth group in High School? What was it like? Did it influence your vocation? Did you go on mission trips?
  3. What does a District Superintendent do?
  4. What did you do before becoming DS? Before you were a pastor?
  5. What made you want to be DS?
  6. Why did you assign Pastor Danita to WUMC (not complaining)? How did you come to decide this was a good fit?
  7. Is swearing considered a sin?
  8. One of my best friends is Muslim.  What can I do, as a Christian/Methodist, to make sure that she doesn’t feel scared or bullied? What if I am too scared to stand up for her?
  9. What do you think of UMC’s “democratic” nature? Is democracy the best way to run a church of Christ? In democracy, majority rules, but is the majority always right? What do we do when the majority is wrong?
  10. Is the UMC too influenced by the political process in our country? Does it interfere with us responding to God’s will?

 

The other highlight was the historic moment when our congregation unanimously adopted the Hospitality Statement. Our Administrative Council worked on the statement for months, approving it at our November meeting and thus bringing it to Church Conference for a vote. While almost everyone who visits WUMC says they received a warm welcome, and we’ve long tried to be welcoming of people no matter what, this statement marks the first time our congregation has officially declared that all people are welcome.

It is written in three parts:

We are an open and loving United Methodist Community who are:

Welcoming to all;

Uniting in service toward greater social justice for all;

Moving forward with understanding and acceptance of all peoples;

Creating disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

We invite others to join as we live our Christian faith together.

***
Our purpose is to offer a safe place and community to all races, cultures, religions, genders, sexual identities, ethnicities, age groups and other beliefs.
***
We expect everybody:

  • To accept imperfection in one another;
  • To respect that we are all on unique and valuable spiritual journeys;
  • To recognize that we are all worthy of God’s love;
  • To acknowledge there is no room for hate.

 

See, I wasn’t kidding when I said in my November 27th sermon that you would want to be in attendance for this.

Jesus’s words, actions, and love show us that there is no “other,” there is only us. Now the same can be officially said about Woodridge United Methodist Church.

All that is left now is for us to live up to our words.

‘I’m embarrassed…’

One recent morning at the gym I go to, the group present for class included a guy whom I hadn’t met yet. I’m still fairly new to this gym, so I didn’t really think anything of it. There are any number of members there I have yet to meet. After the class, as we were cooling down and getting ready to leave, the new-to-me guy said to our coach, “I’m sorry I was a no-show the other day. Again. I almost didn’t come today because I’m embarrassed about that.”

Our coach, being the good guy that he is, responded, “Don’t be embarrassed! I’m just glad you’re here today! Good job getting through that tough workout.” Coach’s sincerity was evident.

I couldn’t help but think, “Wow! That same scenario happens at WUMC!” In the 20 years I’ve been a pastor, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a variation of that conversation: the sheepish look, the expression of guilt or shame for having been away, the presentation of reasons for the absence, the admitted hesitation to return.

Which, believe me, I get. Whenever I skipped a class in college, for whatever reason, it was easier to skip again. It was always harder to go back. We often become our own harshest critic. Same for those few times a year I’m not in worship on Sunday. It’s harder to go back after being gone.

But I promise you this: when I say, “I’m glad you’re here! We’ve missed you.”, I genuinely mean that. I’m not trying to guilt or shame you. That’s not the way of Jesus.

So, I’ll listen to your litany of reasons for being away, if you really want to name them. But, that’s really not what I’m after. I’m not your professor or your parent. Those excuses aren’t required for your re-entry into the building. Or, more importantly, the community.

Here’s what I say to our congregation: Your presence matters because we are better together. Each one of us has gifts to bring and share — gifts that further God’s work in the world through Jesus (aka, the Kingdom of God, the Kin-dom of God, bringing God’s dream for the world to life, God’s love revolution, etc.). Life can be really tough, so let’s walk through it together.

There’s a story in Luke chapter 5 that we read for our weekly bible study wherein Jesus tells some professional fishermen where to cast their nets in order to obtain a huge catch. After which, the one named Simon knelt in front of Jesus and declared himself unworthy of being near Jesus. But Jesus responds, “Don’t be afraid.”

So many people seem to expect the church — and thus, by extension, Jesus — to say to them, “you aren’t worthy!” While I understand that feeling — honestly, far too many people who self-identify as Christian are far too ready to tell whole groups of people they are unworthy (women, LGBT, Muslims, etc.) — notice that Jesus did the opposite of that. Jesus never tells anyone they are unworthy of him. Just the opposite–Jesus consistently sought out the marginalized, the outcast, the “sinner” in order to talk with them or share a meal with them.

Whether you’ve been a faithful attendee for all 53 years of WUMC’s existence or you’ve never been here, or anything in between, don’t be afraid to enter those doors. Whomever you are, wherever you’ve been, whomever you love… You’re welcome here. We’re glad you’re here today. You matter here. You are a beloved child of God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Celebrating Sabbath

Note: Celebrating Sabbath is my attempt to begin the week with a reminder of our true identity: whose we are and who we are called to be.

Let’s reboot this series with the verses I’ve said should be our first responder, our top go-to text, our  new leadoff hitter:

Acts 10:34-35

Peter: 34 It is clear to me now that God plays no favorites, 35 that God accepts every person whatever his or her culture or ethnic background, that God welcomes all who revere Him and do right.

Standing Rock Reservation visited Woodridge, IL

Last summer, Woodridge UMC youth and leaders (including me) traveled to McLaughlin, South Dakota, in the middle of the Standing Rock Reservation. That was usual, commonplace, expected. We take a trip like that every year.

What none of us predicted was how significantly we would be impacted by that trip. The second night we began to sense something was different about this trip. The questions our teenagers asked and the conversations we had were deeper, more informed than ever before. Even as a professional person of faith it makes me uneasy to speak like this, but as we reflected on our experiences in Standing Rock, we could only conclude that God was speaking to us.

Our youth returned to share a new vision: Instead of picking a new location for the 2013 trip, we want to return to Standing Rock. And we want to bring the whole church with us.

So a multi-generational trip was born. In June, people of all ages from WUMC are heading to McLaughlin, SD for a week of work with the Lakota people of Standing Rock. But first, Standing Rock came here.

While in Standing Rock we met Robert White Mountain. Some from our group built a modest shelter so those working at the enormous community garden that Robert started could have some shade. Others of us pulled weeds in the garden. All of us were exceedingly moved talking with Robert, listening to him share his vision for his family, his people, his home.

That’s why we were thrilled when Robert agreed to speak at all three of our worship gatherings on January 20. For me, the best was at our Evening Worship when Robert was able to just talk and respond to questions. Don’t be scared by the one hour running time or by the moment of nothingness as the video begins. Robert starts talking about four minutes in. If you make it through the whole thing, you’re rewarded with Robert signing a prayer song in Lakota.

What did you think of the conversation with Robert? What surprised you? What moved you? What questions didn’t get answered?

 

Money wins, natch

Hollywood Sign
Image via Wikipedia

Over two weeks ago (which I’m pretty sure makes it about 100 in blog years), Tim Swanson wrote an interesting retrospective on “Boyz N the Hood” which appeared in the Chicago Tribune. (Weirdly, it doesn’t seem to exist on the Tribune website.)

What I found most interesting was this paragraph, which was the third-to-last one (pen-penultimate?? ante-penultimate?? tertiultimate??  I need a ruling here):

And while the movie helped to spotlight the struggle in places like South-Central, it ultimately did little to change the habits of Hollywood, which seemed more interested in tapping the financial potential of a new sub-genre than further democratizing the filmmaking process.

Hollywood creates movies in order to make money, not to create a fair and justice society. Now, I often use thoughts, ideas, soundbites, clips, retellings, quotes from TV shows and movies to make or illustrate a point in a sermon or a lesson. So I’m well aware of the power of story – especially the power of stories well-told.

But that ‘graph has me thinking: Are we guilty of expecting Hollywood to be something it’s not?

And perhaps more importantly: Do we do the same thing with the church? Is the church really interested in democratizing the leadership process? Or does she just trying to tap into the latest fad in hopes of boosting collections?

 

Finding a new leadoff hitter

During our worship services this Easter Sunday, I got to read the lesson from Acts 10. I added a little prologue because the prescribed reading from the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) begins in the middle of the story. It’s a story that’s too good, too important to skip over. In fact, I argue that it changed the church. The church is available to you and me as a result of the, well, actions from Acts 10.

[Disclosure: I’m really double dipping here. This is a post from my stint as guest blogger at The Hardest Question. It’s also a revision of my usually-weekly letter/post/thing for my congregation‘s eNewsletter. Over there it’s called The View from the Dance Floor.]

With all due respect (isn’t it odd that this is probably the best way to indicate that something is about to be disrespected?) to that whole He-is-risen-indeed thing, this is the most important story to tell on Easter Day.

Of course, in order for this sermon of Peter’s to make any sense, we need to read the story that precipitated it. A story that, sadly, the RCL never has us consider. Am I the only one to whom that seems a bad idea? Maybe it’s the RCL’s way of forcing us to do some homework. You know the story; it’s the one with the…WorstLunch MenuEver.

Toads and lizards and vultures, Oh My!

Peter was staying in Joppa as the guest of Simon the tanner. Peter went up on Simon’s rooftop to pray, but was too distracted by his hunger to get much praying done. Instead, Peter had a vision. A sheet descended through a rift in the sky and on the sheet were four-footed animals, reptiles and birds. And a voice told Peter to “Get up! Kill and eat!” The only thing this missing from this menu was “and for dessert…chilled monkey brains!”

Peter, being a devout Jew, politely declined the offer. Or, you know, not so politely. “No! All my life, I’ve never eaten anything profane!” The voice responds, “What God makes clean, you must not call profane.”

This is Peter we’re talking about, so he had to see the vision three times. But then he really got it. Immediately after this vision he met with Gentiles, offered them hospitality (no word on what Simon the tanner thought about that), and traveled with them to Caesarea to meet Cornelius.

The times, they are a changin’

Upon arrival, Peter entered Cornelius’ home demonstrating just what a radical departure he’d made from, well, the self-understanding he’d had his whole life: “I have always thought it was wrong to associate with Gentiles…” (at this point I can only imagine how glad Cornelius was he’d invited Peter) “…but God has just shown me that I should no longer consider any human being unclean or profane… God accepts every person regardless of background or culture. God welcomes all who revere Him and do right.”

Eat some lizards, make friends with a Roman Centurion, declare Jesus as Lord of all people. Critics have been all over Rob Bell lately, but here’s Peter, barely awake after the gross-out dream, and already out on a whirlwind tour of radical inclusivity! I’m thinking I should do the same.

The new John 3:16?

Given how quickly we USAmerican Christians divide and denounce and declare one another heretical, could it be that we need to hear this story even more than we need to hear the all-too-familiar and all-too-comfortable Resurrection tale? Could it be we need this story to save us from our arrogance and complacency? How might it change the church, change us, change me, if Acts 10:35 was our lead-off hitter, our first responder, our top go-to text?

Hardest Question

Those questions haunt me and I hope to explore them further. But the hardest question here is one the text asks of me: What categories am I using to judge and forbid people? Who am I excluding from the family of God? How am I subverting God’s subversion of exclusivity?