It is 2016, going on 2017…

[Note: This is an end-of-the-year letter I wrote for our congregation, Woodridge United Methodist Church. I’ve adapted it here for, hopefully, appealing to a wider audience.]

I am often asked about that weird word in my title. Koinonia is a Greek word used in the New Testament. I’m not a Greek language scholar, but those that are write that koinonia means community. The way the term is used in the New Testament (e.g. Acts 2:42-47) suggests community that is formed through worship, fellowship, and living together justly. It seems to fit as my title, as my main areas of responsibility are youth ministry, outreach and justice projects, and worship.

Of course each of those areas also have a full committee working on them. Instead of telling each of their individual stories, I focus on an event that brought all three areas together in a vital, beautiful, inspiring, Spirit-filled way — creating community. Or, if I may dare to say it, creating koinonia.

With input from Youth Council and our youth themselves, we decided to go to Birmingham, Alabama for our summer youth mission trip. Immediately, our leadership team knew we needed to spend as much time as we could learning about the civil rights movement before our trip and as much time as we could visiting the movement’s special sites once we were in Alabama. Studying The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was a key component of our preparations.

But first we read the letter to Dr. King which prompted his now-famous epistle. Most of our group was surprised and disappointed to learn that two Methodist bishops were among the eight signatories of the letter accusing Dr. King of being an outside agitator who had no business being in Birmingham. With the context set, we dove into the letter itself.

I am fond of quoting the portion of King’s letter that reads,

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

While that first sentence is oft-quoted, the final two sentences seem to me even more vital. For they remind us that no matter how independent we think we may become, each of us is dependent upon others. We need each other and so we need to look out for each other, help each other, speak up for each other. Reading through Dr. King’s letter together transported us back those 60 years, evoked questions and concerns, and helped us consider our present time: In what ways is our society better? How can we better live into the ideals of the letter? What is the role of the Christian community in this? What is WUMC’s role?

The letter and all it provoked made us uncomfortable. Which is probably why it is so powerful and still relevant.

One of our members provided another milestone in our preparations. Thanks to her connections, the mission trip group was blessed with an evening with two leaders in the civil rights movement: the Rev. Dr. Stanley L. Davis, Jr. and the Rev. Dr. B. Herbert Martin, Sr. The duo shared stories of their experiences, suggested some sites to be sure to visit in Birmingham, and encouraged us to be faithful witnesses of God’s love for all people. Then Dr. Martin offered a closing thought that transfixed us and became our prayer for our time in Alabama:

Hate no one no matter how they have wronged you.

Live humbly no matter how wealthy and privileged you become.

Think positively no matter how hard life gets.

Give much even if you have been given little.

Forgive all, especially yourself.

Never stop praying for the best for everyone.

Always forgive. Forgiveness upsets, interrupts, and distorts the plan of Satan to defeat you. Always be forgiving.

Love is of God and God is love. Love is bigger than the past, our pain, our anger, fear, our scars, and yes, bigger than this whole world with devils filled.

There is somebody bigger than you and I. Behold the universe — the only thing bigger than you — walk there, live there in.

Do not worry about thinking outside the box — there is no box!!! There is no fence! There is no border!

Live free in God.

Thanks to one of the families on the trip, each member of the mission trip had those beautiful words laminated on a card along with Dr. King’s words that I quoted above. Our trip included meaningful work with community organizations, fun conversations on the road, vehicle mishaps, moving worship, laughs, tears, and lots of pictures. The attending youth were fantastic. They are why we do this.

I can never say this too much: our mission trips would literally be impossible without the dedication of and sacrifices made by our volunteer adult leaders. THANK YOU Lorie, Alma, Glenn, and Kevin.

As amazing as all that was, our time at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute was, at least for me, the most moving experience of any of my 20 mission trips. God’s Holy Spirit is in that place. God’s Spirit is at work in the people who are continuing the story of Exodus, the prophets, and Jesus by working tirelessly for all people to be truly free. I want to be part of that story.

So that is on my mind as I consider plans taking shape and ways we might show better hospitality in our church and our community in 2017. For some time now, our lighted sign reads, “We stand with Standing Rock.” I hope we will further our lines in God’s ongoing story of freedom by renewing and increasing our connection to the Standing Rock reservation, and finding ways to support their efforts to protect their water supply against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Our young people return to South Dakota in June 2017 for mission in Martin, South Dakota.

We look forward to confirming into full membership 15 young people in May, should the whole Confirmation class choose that path. Regardless of the final outcome, the families in that class are already deepening their connections with each other, with the congregation, and with the community — and, ultimately, that is why we have the program.

One way I hope we will expand koinonia in 2017 is through fuller participation with Northern Illinois Justice For Our Neighbors. If even some of the president-elect’s campaign promises are fulfilled, our neighbors who are recent immigrants could be extremely vulnerable. We can help JFON care for them. That is a way to love our neighbors we have left largely unexplored. I hope we begin to correct that in 2017.

To paraphrase the great Maya Angelou: As we work for justice for all God’s children, whatever challenges and roadblocks 2017 brings, I know that with God’s Spirit, like a song, still WUMC will rise.

What’s next?

“Today and everyday, I will fight hatred with love and kindness.”

It has been, and continues to be, a very difficult week for some of us. Each day since the election, reports of violent words and actions against women, blacks, Muslims, and LGBT folks are (trigger warning for hate speech and language) filling our timelines — including dozens of reports of it happening in schools; happening to children.

I find myself in an unusual position: largely at a loss for words. Words are kinda my thing. It is disconcerting to have them fail me in this time when so many are feeling, well, all the feels: shock, fear, anger, disbelief, victory, emboldened, attacked, or even hopeful. We need wise words to help us organize our thoughts and feelings and to galvanize us into action. So I’m relying on the wise words of others.

Like that quote at the top of the page. Know who said that? A high school student from our church, Woodridge UMC, tweeted it Wednesday.

“Love God and love your neighbor as you love yourself. Love your enemy and pray for them.” Those are other words I keep going back to.

None of us know what the next four years might bring. We don’t even know what tomorrow will bring. All we have for certain is today. So today we offer love and kindness. If campaign promises of massive deportation, stripping of rights for women and the LGBT community, and banning entire religions come to fruition, it will be up to us as a community (especially the community of faith in Jesus the Liberating King) to respond with love, kindness, and protection.

If campaign tactics of empowering and employing white supremacists (or white nationalists or “alt-right” or whatever else they are calling themselves today) continue, it will be up to us as a community (especially the community of faith in Jesus the Liberating King) to respond with love, kindness, and protection.

Right now, our church building has a beautiful sanctuary. That building may need to become a literal sanctuary. Will we be ready for that?

Here’s another wise tweet from one of our students: “It is easy to hate, it takes strength to be gentle and kind. It is through love that we will get through this, be kind to one another today.”

How might we do that? By saying to any and all — but most especially to the marginalized and the demonized — that this is a safe space. We are here for you. We love you.

Or, as one of my friends put it:

If you wear a hijab, I’ll sit with you on the train.

If you’re trans, I’ll go to the bathroom with you.

If you’re a person of color, I’ll stand with you if the police stop you.

If you’re a person with disabilities, I’ll hand you my megaphone.

If you’re an immigrant, I’ll help you find resources.

If you’re a survivor, I’ll believe you.

If you’re a refugee, I’ll make sure you’re welcome.

If you’re a veteran, I’ll take up your fight.

If you’re LGBT, I won’t let anyone tell you you’re broken.

If you’re a woman, I’ll make sure you get home ok.

If you need a hug, I’ve got an infinite supply.

If you need me, I’ll be with you. All I ask is that you be with me, too.

That seems to me like the to-do list we all need.

Why does this matter so much? Let me share one last quote from this week. This one from a young adult who grew up in our congregation:

“From the moment I saw your video that accepted lgbt youth into the church without judgement, I knew I was accepted in my church. And that meant more to me than I could ever explain.”

Friends, we now know what’s next. We now know what we have to do and who we have to be: agents of God’s love, kindness, and protection.

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?

 

“That’s some salty language!” – final version of Feb.6 sermon

Not exactly sure why, but unlike many of my more disciplined colleagues, I’ve never been one to post a written version of a sermon. Probably has mostly to do with not preaching from a manuscript. Posting a few notes with a few more-fully written paragraphs and a few other thoughts that end up not being said…well, just doesn’t sound very appealing.

But it also has to do with seeing the sermon as more of a singular, oral event that occurs in a particular context for a particular audience and not as a paper to be submitted. It just seems like something is missing when reading a sermon – it’s meant to be heard!

(Please don’t misunderstand this as criticism of any of who do write out and post a sermon. I’ve read some that were really good.)

Now, as you’ve likely guessed, I’m about to do the very thing I just said I don’t like to do. Sort of. Think of this as the SportsCenter highlights version of my “That’s Some Salty Language!” sermon. I shared some thoughts on this recently. What follows now are my reflections after the fact.

Following the lectionary, the texts were Isaiah 58:1-12 and Matthew 5:13-20.

My synopsis: Jesus calls his followers to be salt and light in the world – to live righteous lives. Isaiah helps us define that righteousness as rescuing the oppressed.

While I didn’t say this exactly, these commentaries on those texts guided my message:

Isaiah 58 mocks worship preoccupied with ritual and blind to human oppression and need. It subverts a religion, no matter how passionate and busy, that ignores social arrangements that leave people dehumanized and enslaved. Authentic worship occurs when liturgy is joined to a hands-on involvement with the hungry and homeless.

Salt and light are functional metaphors. By their very nature they do something, and do it openly. They have an impact on the surrounding environment. Disciples of Jesus cannot retreat into private spirituality. Our call is to the marketplace, the public arena, where discipleship becomes witness and the same commitments Isaiah made are to be practiced.

What are those functions? Salt preserves and protects. Salt brings out the best in food. And, as all of us here in the Chicago area rediscovered this week, salt melts away that which paralysis us, that which causes us to stumble, that which oppresses us. Light eradicates darkness and helps us to see things as they really are, helps us see the truth.

What if we saw church as training ground for teaching people to be salt shakers and flashlights – what if the purpose of church is to transform the world?

That’s what the UMC says it’s for! “Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”

Isaiah and Jesus tell us today what we are to be transformed into.

What if what we do here at WUMC is train people how to be salt and light, encourage each other in those efforts, recruit new agents of change, celebrate successes, commiserate failures, seeing worship as filling us up with the Holy Spirit in order to leave our building ready, bursting even!, to change the world…to be salt and light.

That’s what Isaiah & Jesus are talking about.

So who among us beams with light? Who is providing salty flavor? Who is fasting rightly, bringing deliverance, hope and life to those around them? Who is preserving/protecting? Who is melting away that which oppresses? Who is eradicating darkness?

-Final Bloody Sunday march in Northern Ireland? British government finally admitted its troops were to blame for the massacre, not the demonstrators. Further, British government admitted the troops had no reason to believe they were under threat from the victims, gave no warnings before firing and lied to the official inquiry. This reversed decades of official government explanations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

-Family of our congregation who takes in young people with no where else to go, young people often rejected by their own parents.

Egyptian protester kissing riot police This is the greatest example of Jesus’ teachings on the Sermon on the Mount I’ve ever seen! Brilliant, non-violent, disarming but still affirms and loves the other, the enemy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

-Rosa Parks: She would have been 98 years old Friday. We don’t hear that Parks worked with the Youth Council of Montgomery’s NAACP in a “mighty but unsuccessful” effort to integrate Montgomery’s library when she became angry that black children didn’t have access to books.

“As long as people use tactics to oppress or restrict other people from being free, there is work to be done.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

-Christians encircling Muslims at prayer in Egypt this week

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

-In January, on Coptic Christmas, Egyptian Muslims became human shields for Coptic Christians to ward off further violent attacks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

-fighting trafficking – slavery – at the Super Bowl. National Hotline gets more calls from Texas than any other state. 1 out of 3 children who become homeless are sold into sex slavery w/in 48 hours of hitting the street. Super Bowl called “single largest human trafficking incident in USA, especially under-age slaves” Consider that when you see how many commercials this evening denigrate women. A South Florida task force estimated that tens of thousands were trafficked through there for a recent Super Bowl.

About 50 girls were rescued during the past 2 Super Bowls

“I’m not buying it” Campaign. Jay Ratlif, 3-time Pro Bowler from Cowboys made PSA for it. “Real men don’t buy children. They don’t buy sex.”

Airlines holding training to learn what to watch for.

Texas Attorney General working on it. NFL and Host Committee are ignoring it.

The group behind Traffick911, the founder of “I’m Not Buying it” campaign? A nondenominational church plant in Fort Worth. They wanted to raise awareness and show Christian compassion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

-Friday and yesterday, one of our college students, Catie, participated for the third time in the U of Iowa’s annual Dance Marathon. She helped raise over $1.2 Million for U of Iowa Children’s Hospital Pediatric Oncology Unit

 

 

 

 

 

 

-Another of our college students, Nikki, working with Invisible Children campus group to help child soldiers in Africa

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

-19 year old Zach Wahls speaking before Iowa Senate, shining light on a resolution that would return Iowa to the days of discrimination and oppression

People full of light, speaking a very salty language. May God’s Holy Spirit keep moving each of to be citizens in God’s kingdom, to be light bearers, to speak with THAT kind of a salty tongue. Amen? May it be so!

A little something to help Haiti

On Wednesday this week, 30 dedicated youth and adults from our church traveled to Aurora to work at Feed My Starving Children.

FMSC is a Christian non-profit dedicated to providing food for, well, children starving all over the globe. They currently send food to over 70 countries. All the meals they send are hand packed by volunteers. That’s what we did on Wednesday.

Working with groups from two other churches we packed 14,688 meals in less than two hours. That’s enough to feed 40 children for a year.

Let me say that again: working for a short time we fed 40 children for a year!

Praise God! I’m proud of all who helped make this happen!

But it gets better. Did you notice when we were there? Wednesday was the one-year anniversary of the horrific earthquake in Haiti. FMSC sends a lot of food to Haiti. We had the honor of completing and praying for a shipment that was scheduled to leave for Haiti today.

One of FMSC’s directors shared a few Haiti-related stories before we started packing meals: FMSC planned and budgeted to send 25 million meals to Haiti in 2010. As a result of the earthquake the need was much greater than that. Enabled by some generous donations, they sent 50 million meals there last year!

Then the director told us a disappointing, though not really surprising, story. She said that a year ago, right after the earthquake, their phone rang off the hook and their parking lot was full of media members doing stories on their organization and the work they are doing in Haiti. But this week, on the one-year anniversary, FMSC couldn’t get a single media member to cover their anniversary event. An event that even included the presence of some of their Haitian partners!

You and I can do better than that. 300,000 people were killed, 300,000 more were injured and a million people were left homeless. Add to those statistics this story about Haiti’s quarter million child slaves, and we have in Haiti a country in dire need.

So let’s remember the people of Haiti. Continue to read about the situation there. Keep the country and the rebuilding effort in your prayers. And, if you are able, consider giving a gift. You can still do so through UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief). As always with them, 100% of your gift goes to relief and development. Donate directly here.