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On Being Fully Human

CrossOver reflection for Week 41 • Beginning September 15, 2019
We Make the Road by Walking, Chapter 2

By Rev. Erin Martin

The family backpacking trip has become a summer ritual. Our sons, Elijah and Rowan, don’t always love it, hiking in the woods for 30-40 miles over a few days. Inevitably, my oldest will groan, “Why can’t we vacation like normal families?” and by that, he means Disneyland. But there is something incredibly simple about carrying what I need with me, nothing more nothing less, and walking out into the wilderness. Without fail, the first night under the trees, by a rushing stream, or at the base of a mountain, I can feel the stress of life begin to melt from my body. I feel myself becoming fully human again.

Let’s face it. Being human, these days feels especially hard. I am easily overwhelmed by the “gloom and doom” of the daily headlines — increased gun violence, climate degradation, political turmoil. I find myself clenching and shrinking over the “not good” of human activity that Brian McLaren explains so clearly in Chapter 2 of We Make the Road by Walking. In this chapter, McLaren traces human rebellion to an original wilderness and our first decision to “play God.” 

I see it unfold in myself every day, the temptation to judge others, to define myself over and against other people. I experience it in the created order that can lead us all toward the seemingly inevitable way of increased hostility and violence. McLaren, however, urges us to remember that human judgment is always a choice. We can balance our bent toward rebellion with the truth of our place in God’s original blessing of creation. 

McLaren invites us to change our posture by opening up our hands toward embrace. We can become fully human when we daily take into ourselves the refrain of God’s first sacred litany, “light-good, seas-good, animals-good, humankind-very good.” As an image-bearer of God, I can choose to participate in the reciprocal energy of giving and receiving blessing with others and with all creation. 

Recently, Native American spirituality has been increasingly informing my understanding of the interconnectedness of all things, trees- breath, oceans- rhythm, land- provision, humankind- family. Disconnected from other people and the created order, I will be only partially human. Connected to others and to all creation, I become whole. 

What about you? How do you become more fully human?

Rev. Erin Martin serves as Superintendent for the Columbia District in the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.

Awe and Wonder!

PREFACE: Bishop Elaine invited people to join her in reading and praying their way through We Make the Road by Walking, A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation – beginning last December with Chapter 14. If you haven’t begun, this is a great time to start at Chapter 1. If you have been journeying with McLaren since January, this is a fresh reminder of the purpose of the book study – to revive our connection and love for the beauty and life God called into being at Creation and to join Jesus in his quest for aliveness.

CrossOver reflection for Week 40 • Beginning September 8, 2019
We Make the Road by Walking, Chapter 1

By Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky

The heavens are telling the glory of God. ———

Life is not boring! When I become bored, or so busy I don’t notice the abundance of life that hums everywhere, I know it’s time to stop, look, and listen.  

Last month Clint and I were camped at the Coal Banks Landing and Campground on the Missouri River in north-central Montana. We went out of our way to get there by driving many miles on a dirt road to cross the Missouri River on the FREE! two-car cable ferry at Virgelle. On a mid-summer weeknight following region-wide thunderstorms, the campground was mostly empty.

The sunset that evening with a full moon rising, crickets chirping and a silent, relentless river flowing … flowing … flowing. About 3 AM, I imposed on Clint to accompany me to the outhouse. After fumbling with zippers, shoes, and flashlights, we finally emerged from our tent and started the long walk to our destination.

We were not on a mission of wonder. Our purpose was mundane. But we were swept into the wonder of the universe. The moon had set. The vast spray of the Milky Way pierced the remote darkness above, and the stars were shooting across and falling out of the sky at a giddy rate. It was the height of the Perseid Meteor Shower, and the heavens were telling the glory of God!

On the following day, we made new bird friends and learned their names: Eastern and Western Kingbirds. And when we passed a lifeless Badger on the road, we turned around, stopped the car and paused with it. To honor. To marvel. Probing snout. Tough but nimble paws. Able claws. Insistent stripe. Noble cloak.

Along the way, we met a few of the sparse people in that wide land. Adventurers floating the river. An anthropologist preserving the prairie. A woman and her son tending cattle. An Amish woman tending store. Cheyenne mourners preserving a sacred way of life. Hispanic cowboys. People honoring their dead; embracing their living.

And at the end of the journey, we helped lay a dear friend to rest in the Cheyenne country of eastern Montana before the long, straight drive west and home.

Since we began the quest for Aliveness reading this book, The United Methodist Church has entered into a season of turmoil and uncertainty, as harsh prohibitions and punishments for LGBT+ inclusion were adopted at the February 2019 General Conference, with plans being made by some to implement them, and by others to resist them. The church cannot hold together as it stands right now. How deep the divide will be and how many local churches will survive intact is all unknown. We are still waiting, praying, and planning. For my part, I don’t see why churches, where people have learned to live with their differences, should have to tear in two. It’s part of the wonder and richness of the community of faith, and all human communities, that we can be very different, and yet find joy in our life and service together.

You, lovers and followers of Jesus, and you, local churches, YOU are tend-ers of aliveness, week in and week out. Nurturing life through love. Noticing the goodness of God’s creation and celebrating it. Protecting life when it is threatened by hunger, neglect, disease, loneliness, gun violence, deportation, or hatred. You are ministers of aliveness at the birth of a baby, or in the shadow of death at any age.

You are alive to nurture life. You are blessed to be a blessing.

Thank you. Don’t stop. God is opening a way for us to CrossOver.

God’s Grandeur by Gerard Manley Hopkins

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
    It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
    It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
    And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
    And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
    There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
    Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
    World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Elaine JW Stanovsky serves as the resident bishop of the Greater Northwest Area including the Alaska, Oregon-Idaho and Pacific Northwest Conferences of The United Methodist Church.

God in the End

CrossOver reflection for Week 39 • Beginning September 1, 2019
We Make the Road by Walking, Chapter 52 

Rev. Daniel Miranda

About 12 years ago, while serving a church in central Washington, I experienced one of the worst times in ministry — seven funerals in eight weeks! It was exhausting and depressing. There was a sense of dread as the congregation and I navigated through each of these weeks. And yet, these were not simply funerals; they were celebrations of faithful women and men who had served, worked, loved, and made a difference in our community. Every so often, I remember those months and recall both the sadness and the promise of homecoming for those faithful people to their Lord. I hold on to some good memories and wish there had been more time with these dear friends.

From this side of existence, it is impossible to know what it will be like in the end. Brian McLaren says that some anticipate “catastrophe” and “collapse” while others imagine “a Big Celebration.” Like our author, I dream of a celebration where you and I are welcomed by God, even though we are prodigal children. Then, we will finally understand the fullness of love and grace.

But before we arrive at the end, we have our own smaller endings in our everyday lives: cancer, conflict, grief, disappointment, separation, and pain of all kinds. It is impossible for me not to acknowledge that we, as a denomination, are in the midst of the end of something. Maybe it will be the end of our disagreements about human sexuality or the end of our denomination as we have experienced it since 1968.

I have to take a leap of faith and trust that God, in the end, will make things good for you and me. I have to have confidence that God, in the end, will make things good for our greater United Methodist family no matter what transpires. Do not mistake my faith and hope for strength or fearlessness — it is not!  I think that for most of us, as we walk this road of life and faith, do so with trepidation and anxiety — if you don’t, I would like to know how you do it!

The first paragraph of this chapter begins by talking about what scientists think will happen in the end. I wish that we could have that kind of certainty where we could do some research and crunch the numbers and say, “There is a 90 percent probability that if we do this it will end well.”

We have the powerful words of Jesus to remind us that we are always welcome in God’s home and that we will be greeted with open arms of mercy and grace. We have the words of the Apostle Paul reminding us that we are “more than conquerors.” I take these words to heart whether I am thinking eschatologically or merely trying to make sense of things at the end of a stressful day.

Rev. Daniel Miranda is currently serving his fifth year of appointment to First United Methodist Church in Auburn, Washington. He also serves on the PNW Council on Finance and Administration. When not engaged in ministry Daniel also enjoys playing racquetball, time with family and cooking.

A Revelation Revelation

CrossOver reflection for Week 38 • Beginning August 25, 2019
We Make the Road by Walking, Chapter 51 

Rev. Jim Doepken

“Dan the Man” was a bus driver known to many kids at the United Methodist Junior High Camp I counseled at, many…many years ago in Indiana. His story was compelling. He had given his life to Christ after hitting rock-bottom with drugs and alcohol. He would dramatically show campers his stitched-up tongue; repaired after eating a light bulb in a drug trip gone wrong. He shared his story and told these impressionable kids (and counselors) that they didn’t want to be “left behind” when Jesus came back. He would shout “Rapture Practice” in the mess hall, having all the kids raise their hands and scream in what I felt was a raucous and less-fun version of “The Wave.”

I was young, but I still remember being uncomfortable every time he’d loosely quote from Revelation to add to his stories. It was just one part of my uneasy relationship with this book.

Before Indiana, I grew up in New York. Revelation was not a book I remember spending any significant time with. I appreciated meandering through Matthew’s Gospel. I had seen “Godspell” and “The Cotton Patch Gospel” so, clearly, I had a broad theological perspective. I dabbled in Paul and loved the Old Testament stories from Sunday School. But, not Revelation. No, Revelation was a book quoted by TV preachers with their four horsemen, seven seals, and 144,000 elect from every nation. This was too many numbers for any book that wasn’t required for Middle School math.

The four horsemen of the Apocalypse as visualized by by Albrecht Dürer.

I remember one of those TV preachers comparing Russia to the beast from Revelation. The “beast” was coming to the Persian Gulf, and we needed to stop it. I think this was a Biblical justification for going to war with Russia in the 1980s and it was just as confusing to me then as it is now.

Later, though, seminary blew my mind. There was a whole lot more going on in Revelation than I realized. Life was messed up for Christians under Nero and Domitian in the Roman empire. There were Christians just trying to survive under madmen who demanded people to worship them as gods. Violence and fear ruled the day, and this book was a complex code with an intended message of hope. Here, my TV preacher and “Rapture Practice” understandings of Revelation were (pun intended) “left behind.”

Brian McLaren puts it this way in We Make the Road By Walking:

“As literature of the oppressed, the Book of Revelation provided early disciples with a clever way of giving voice to the truth—when freedom of speech was dangerous in one way, and remaining silent was dangerous in another. Instead of saying, “The Emperor is a fraud and his violent regime cannot stand,” which would get them arrested, Revelation tells a strange story about a monster who comes out of the sea and is defeated. Instead of saying, “The religious establishment is corrupt,” it tells a story about a whore. Instead of naming today’s Roman empire as being doomed, they talk about a past empire—Babylon—that collapsed in failure.” (p. 255 Kindle version)

Yet, I still kept running from Revelation, even during my first year in ministry. It was then that I attended a continuing education event on “Biblical Storytelling” about which I remember almost nothing—except for one thing. We discussed stories of the Bible that could work well in worship, and someone mentioned that the Book of Revelation would be a challenge. I jumped all over this, bringing up my problems with its symbolism and how it had been co-opted to support hawkish military policies.

A young pastor said, “Oh, you don’t need to run from it. I can summarize the Book of Revelation in two words.”

I was listening.

“God wins,” she said.

I had learned that Revelation was a message of hope to persecuted Christians in a troubled time. But, when I was told, “God wins,” it was a revelation for how this book spoke to my present situation and world. It meant that no matter the struggles…no matter how oppressive political systems and leaders may be…no matter how much the denomination I love fights over including ALL people…no matter which beast or dragon or horseman is spreading some contemporary version of famine and pestilence…. NO MATTER WHAT, GOD WINS.

God wins. God will have the final word. Our God is “making all things new.”

McLaren says:

“Even if the emperor is mad, Revelation claimed, it’s not the end of the world. Even if wars rage, it’s not the end of the world. Even if peace-loving disciples face martyrdom, it’s not the end of the world. Even if the world as we know it comes to an end, that ending is also a new beginning. Whatever happens, God will be faithful and the way of Christ—a way of love, nonviolence, compassion, and sustained fervency will—will triumph. (254-5)

God wins.

This, for me, was a Revelation revelation.

This is the perspective I need as I read the papers, watch the TV, plan my sermon, and, yes, live through this CrossOver year in our denomination.

We know the ending. God wins.

Jim Doepken is pastor to the congregations of Seward and Moose Pass United Methodist Churches in Seward, Alaska.

Hospice Moments

CrossOver reflection for Week 37 • Beginning August 18, 2019
We Make the Road by Walking, Chapter 50

Rev. Deena Wolfe

My heart sank when I heard those words. My dad had been declining for two years, but I was not ready for the reality of what those words meant. I felt both fear and sadness, and I knew that his days on this earth were short. I was preparing to begin work as a hospice chaplain, and over the next 3 ½ weeks, orientation became personal. 

“It’s time to consider hospice.” 

For ten days we sat in vigil for him, and a little over four years ago he stepped off this earth and into glory. It was a beautiful and very emotional time as we went from brief moments of conversation together to him slipping into a coma and then taking his last breath. 

This experience has enriched my ministry as a grief counselor and hospice chaplain with deep empathy for those who hear the word “hospice.” The reality of death is now staring you in the face. Our culture does not give fertile ground to the discussion of life and death and the grief that comes along with it.

Everything in this world is moving from birth to death. People die, relationships end, corporations go out of business, churches close. How do we move from a place of paralyzing fear to embracing the possibilities that come with the death of something or someone we love? 

As people, it is natural to feel fear of the unknown. When my dad was dying, he suddenly opened his eyes wide and said, “Wow…. mom’s going to be shocked!” He saw something on the other side which we couldn’t see, something which was amazing and beautiful. He was unable to share with us what he was seeing, but the joy and wonder on his face were unmistakable. They brought great comfort as we mourned this time of separation. The picture above was taken by my brother, the evening before dad died. For us, this was dad’s angel, coming to guide him home.

In this week’s chapter of We Make the Road By Walking, Brian McLaren writes:

“As we walk this road, we not only remember the past, we also anticipate the future, which is described as a great banquet around God’s table of joy. When you pass from this life, do not be afraid. You will not pass into death. You will pass through death into a greater aliveness still – the banquet of God. Trust God, and live.”

This principle applies to relationships with the people that we love but also has great meaning with all the uncertainties we see in the church today. For there to be new life, death must occur. God is with us in every part of our lives, from celebrating the birth of a new life, or a new ministry, to mourning with us in the pain and sorrow that occurs when a ministry ends, or someone dies. 

We are invited to embrace “hospice” moments in our everyday lives. Hospice provides supportive relationships, individuals walking together, shepherding the person and their family members on the road from life to death. We trust that the Spirit who brings us life will lead and guide us through these times of uncertainty into a place of deeper relationship. 

Part of our Wesleyan heritage is the value of the experiences we have in our lives. Whether an experience is filled with joy or sorrow, or birth or death, there is something valuable to be gained, a piece of wisdom to be pondered for use later. May we take great comfort that our triune God–Creator, Christ, Comforter is living and active in our lives–from before birth to after death.

Rev. Deena Wolfe serves as pastor for Valley-Veneta United Methodist Church in the Oregon Idaho Conference as well as a Hospice Chaplain for Cascade Health in Eugene, Oregon.

Three Promises Amid Violence

CrossOver reflection for Week 36 • Beginning August 11, 2019
We Make the Road by Walking, Chapter 49 

Rev. Katie Ladd

Like a lot of pastors, I had to change my sermon at the last minute last Sunday because of yet another shooting—wait, no, two mass shootings, one in El Paso, TX and one in Dayton, OH. Of course, these were not the only shootings around the country last weekend. In Chicago, one article I read said there were five shootings. There was even a shooting Sunday morning in Seattle. At the least, the shooting in El Paso was fueled by white supremacy. It’s hard. The soul gets so weary. What can we do with the weary soul? How do we believe in God’s good vision with so much violence all around us?

In chapter 49 of Brian McLaren’s book We Make the Road by Walking, he focuses on the role of judgment in bringing about reconciliation, harmony, and healing. Called “Spirit of Holiness,” he tells us this:

“Jesus promised HIS followers three things. First, their lives would not be easy. Second, they would never be alone. Third, in the end all will be well. But all is not well…how does God get us from here to there? How does God put things right?”

McLaren believes that judgment is the way that God puts things right. It is the way from here to there. When deployed correctly, judgment isn’t just a punitive tool. It is a wise action that names harm and sets to work at redressing it. Its goal is restoration. In the end—in the “final restoration”—everything will be made new.

Many of us have very complicated histories with the word “judgment,” and so we shy away from it. For many of us, it can seem unredeemable. What would it be like to embrace it—not as it has been used to harm, demean, and ridicule—but as a justifying act? How would that call us to act as a community? Can we possibly divorce “judgment” from “judgmentalism?” It’s an intriguing thought.

Even if we decide that we can’t use the word “judgment,” perhaps we might employ the Spirit of Holiness to address the brokenness in our society. We could allow the Spirit of Holiness to move us closer to God’s good vision for what our shared lives might look like. We need God’s restorative action around our country’s addiction to violence. God’s Spirit is required to move us to deep change. Such change would include more than social media expressions of outrage at yet more lives lost.

In addressing the white supremacy at the heart of many mass shootings, we have to tell hard truths, truths that in the end liberate us all. In addressing the deep pain of suicide by shooting, we tell hard stories of isolation and desperation. In addressing the insidiousness of domestic violence that ends in gun violence, we reveal closely held secrets of family dysfunction. Truth-telling must be part of moving us forward in our communities. Truth-telling is a purifying fire that burns up the garbage and leaves the substance of life behind. This is the work of the Spirit of Holiness.

At The Well, we invite people to give us guns so that we might transform them into garden tools. This practice will not end all violence in all places. The quest for one answer to do all of that work is folly. However, transforming one gun is a symbolic act that centers us on life in a death-obsessed culture. It is part, if a little one, of changing our relationship with violence. This, too, is the work of the Spirit of Holiness.

If you feel despondent at the violence all around us, remember the three things McLaren tells us are Jesus’ promises. Life as Jesus’ disciples isn’t easy. Bearing witness to violence isn’t easy. You are not alone. In our communities of faith, others accompany you in bearing this witness. Also, you are not alone in your deep soul weariness. Many of us share in it. And, when we employ the courage to see and name harm and redress them, we move, even if only by fits and starts, closer to God’s dream for us and the world we share.

Rev. Katie Ladd is the pastor of Queen Anne United Methodist Church in Seattle, Washington. She is also the founder and director of The Well.

Life in the Upside Down

CrossOver reflection for Week 35 • Beginning August 4, 2019
We Make the Road by Walking, Chapter 48 

Rev. Jeremy Smith

Like many preachers, I usually start my discernment for a week’s worship service and sermon message with the Lectionary: that decades-ago discerned calendar for preaching and teaching. I don’t always stick to it, but I begin with it because it is remarkable how often the Lectionary readings match the text of our lives that week.

The same is true for this CrossOver year book We Make The Road By Walking. This week’s Chapter 48 is about demons and what happens when a spirit seems to take hold of a people causing them to do things completely out of their character. McLaren outlines what happens when ordinarily decent people act badly and cause great harm that they wouldn’t normally do.

In a way, “demon-possessed” basically describes every week of the past few years in this current American administration. The incredible rise in the number of racist attacks and rhetoric, of immigration policies locking children in cages, of women’s stories being dismissed—no matter who you voted for, these stories ought to disturb us and spur us into action. As McLaren outlines the Gospel and Pauline accounts, it’s like they are demon-possessed or at least living into states of abject racism, classism, and sexism, amongst others. Things seem completely upside down.

But that’s my view as a privileged straight white male. In truth, marginalized communities have known this violence all along. There have always been people abusing those who present as a minority ethnicity. There have always been #MeToo and #ChurchToo violations at all levels. And there have been heinous overreaches of law and immigration enforcement against marginalized persons before. What’s different? Now we know more about it and some stories are being shared more openly and technology allows previously disparate movements to coalesce across the Internet and act more boldly.

These days, I wonder if we have things backward. We used to think those who acted in abjectly racist ways were triggered to act outside their nature. But we know now what racist structures of society can look like, what patriarchy looks like in insidious forms, and what white nationalism looks like in every corner of American society, including the Church.

UM Theologian Marjorie Suchocki says that sins that we were born into—accepted or benefitted from without acknowledgment—are “original sins” that infect us without our knowledge and must be named, unlearned, and blotted out by the power of Jesus Christ. We are all infected or at least benefit from these unfair structures.

Maybe life in the Upside Down means that we are called to look for those who are Spirit-possessed, who live and act in ways that are in nonconformity with the expectations of society. We look to those stories that inspire us to rise above our stations, to self-examine and purge ourselves of our uncontested -isms. And we seek to spark or trigger those moments within our own communities such that the powers and principalities start to lose ground, and a new reign of peace and justice starts to take hold again. To allow Wesleyan prevenient grace to germinate without contention.

May we live each week in this CrossOver year and quadrennium looking for those who are Spirit-possessed, who name that which is sin-sick in themselves and in others, and lift them up and emulate them. And may each of us through study and service cause ourselves to be more easily infected by this Spirit. The choice is yours.

Rev. Jeremy Smith is the pastor of First United Methodist Church of Seattle, and a blogger at
Photo Credit: Jon Long via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Random acts? No. Lifestyle change? Yes.

CrossOver reflection for Week 34 • Beginning July 28, 2019
We Make the Road by Walking, Chapter 47 

Rev. Carlo Rapanut

I am a long-distance runner who dabbles in the marathon and ultramarathon distances (26.2 miles or longer). Mind you; I am not one who competes to race and win. I am a “middle of the pack” runner who aims to finish and hopefully improve on my time from the last race.

I was not always a runner. In fact, I grew up as a kid with exercise-induced asthma who could barely run 100 feet without running out of breath and chest wheezing. But I always had a fascination with running and have long wanted to be a runner. And for most of my youth and young adult life, it remained that—a dream that seemed to go farther and farther from grasp the older I got.

When my family and I moved to Chugiak, Alaska more than a decade ago, I watched a local 5K race that rekindled my dream of being a runner. I thought to myself, “5K isn’t that long. I can probably do that next year.”

So I set it as my goal, and I signed up. And I ran it. Without training. Without running a single mile to practice. Without any knowledge of pacing or hydration or technique. I ran only with the resolve that I wanted to be a runner, and I paid the price for it. Heavily. I did finish the race, but I think I may have walked half of it. And my legs revolted against me for a week.

Lesson learned? To run a 5K, one needs to train and start with a shorter distance. 100 feet. Then 200. Then 400. Half a mile. A mile. It takes time to build up to a 5K. The body needs time to adjust. Your muscles need to learn the new action they are being made to do over and over again until it is encoded in their memory.

Before I was running ultras, I ran marathons. Before I was running marathons, I ran half-marathons. Before those, 10Ks. Before 10Ks, 5Ks. And it’s the shorter daily, regular runs that allow me to run any of these longer distances. Running, for me, has become a lifestyle.

My point? When we go about transforming the world for Jesus Christ, we don’t suddenly decide to do that in one major, earth-shaking act. We do so in smaller acts of kindness, justice, grace, love, and mercy.

In this week’s chapter of We Make the Road By Walking, Brian McLaren reminds us that if we are serious about our faith in God and desire to take part in God’s movement of transformation, we need to start with smaller acts that the Holy Spirit inspires us to do in our various circles of influence.

I believe, though, that this is more than doing “random acts of kindness” as many espouse. While I agree that doing random acts of kindness is a start, it isn’t the goal. Lifestyle change is. McLaren says that the Holy Spirit is inviting us on a mission of transformation by living a lifestyle of mercy. Regular, instinctive, and intentional acts of kindness and mercy are the goal.

I can’t run ultras on random runs here and there. We can’t transform the world with random acts either. What McLaren is saying is that acts of kindness, mercy, justice, grace, peace, and love need to be encoded into our very beings through repetition in our daily circles so that they become our natural, automatic response to whatever circumstance life throws our way. We exercise that muscle over and over again until it is encoded in our muscle memory. Think of the Holy Spirit as a trainer, pushing us to a lifestyle of spiritual fitness for the race called life.

Rev. Carlo Rapanut serves as Conference Superintendent for the Alaska Conference of The United Methodist Church.

When Up is Down, and Down is Up

CrossOver reflection for Week 33 • Beginning July 21, 2019
We Make the Road by Walking, Chapter 46

Nancy Tam Davis

A small group of us, clergy and laity, talked about chapter 46 of Brian McLaren’s book We Make the Road by Walking. The Spirit of Service, what does that mean? The author draws our attention to a concept of verticality. Up is better than down.

Our culture promotes the idea that it is good to climb to the top or die trying. We assign both power and privilege to those at the top with high salaries, deference, corner windows, and close parking spots. We believe they have a broader vision, more wisdom and must be smarter than the rest of us. We assume they deserve the privilege they have. 

Some of our religious teachings share that same view. As children, we think of God as being up in the clouds. Heaven is above us. We are climbing Jacob’s ladder. Up is better than where we are now. Then the New Testament throws us a curve ball by encouraging those who are ‘up’ to be in service to those who are ‘down.’ Jesus modeled that by washing the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper. In that sense, I understand McLaren’s point. He tells us that the Spirit draws us down, to serve those who have less and need more. We engage in service because we can, because we have the resources to do so, because God calls us to be in service humbly. The way up is by going down.

Our group examined this concept; we struggled with it. How can we avoid the sense of superiority when we feel we are going down? We still come home every night to our very ‘up’ and comfortable homes. The concept of going down as the path to salvation (but only for a humble visit), was not working for us. 

Instead, we saw a horizontal plane. When we are in service to one another, we are moving out and across divisions into difference. We are called to the edges and to the marginalized. We try to widen the circle, so no one is left out. We are all children of God. It is not God who puts us on different vertical planes, but our culture relying on status and class to make the system work. It reminds me of those old song lyrics from God Bless the Child; “Them that’s got shall get, Them that’s not shall lose, So the Bible said…”

Many years ago, I managed a community center in the poorest section of the county, the catchment area outside Ft. Lewis which was never designed for year-round living. The houses were old cabins on the east side of American Lake. Many of the people who lived there were the unofficial wives and children of the lower-ranking military who could not get access to base housing or any military services. Too many times, the active duty person eventually forgot they had families there at all. 

I was not raised in the church and I also had very disparaging views of Christmas. Ironically one of my responsibilities was to organize the Christmas basket-giving. We filled the community room with rows of tables holding food, a variety of gift items and Christmas decorations. Volunteers arrived, formed teams of three, gathered their assignments (i.e. single-parent family of 4, boy 2, girl 5, boy 6), and set about preparing the “baskets” for them.

I remember one seemingly unlikely team. Pardon my language but this is also how the individuals described themselves. This team was comprised of the town drunk, the retired (aged out) prostitute and the town rich lady complete with diamond-studded rings. This was a small community, nearly everyone knew everyone and the roles they served. This team worked for hours, filling many baskets. I would peek in to see how things were going and they were having fun. Lots of laughter, lots of careful consideration and huddling. At the end of the day, they sat together on a side bench, exhausted, still laughing and hugging one another in a sense of accomplishment. Good work was done that day—together. 

They were not going down to serve, they were reaching out, going out to the edges of the community to make sure everyone had a holiday. A couple of those team members were probably qualified to receive a basket. But that day, it was not about them. It was all about what they could do for others. Yes, they would go home that night, but their thoughts were with the families that received baskets and what fun it was to work together for the community. They also received that day.

A subtheme of this story is about me. That day was the beginning of my turn-around about Christmas. I began to get it.

Finally, McLaren speaks of falling through the trap door. When you go down, far enough, you reach and fall through the trap door… into God. What does it mean to fall into God? Our small group spoke of images of death, loss of ego, trust, and faith. Soon our group was drawn to a similar phrase; falling into love. Twenty-five years earlier, four people in that Community Center fell in love that day. Some with the idea of meaningful work together, some with a deep love for their community. And for me… I fell into God that day. I fell into love, into hope, and into God.

Nancy Tam Davis serves as the Conference Lay Leader for the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.

Graduating From Rules to Spacious Freedom

CrossOver reflection for Week 31 • Beginning July 7, 2019
We Make the Road by Walking, Chapter 44

Rev. Jenny Smith

You’ve likely heard of the playground experiment. A team put a fence up around a playground. Children ran all over the playground and felt free to explore. When the fence was removed, researchers noticed children gathered around their teacher and were reluctant to explore. 

Rules (and fences) can be helpful. They make us feel safe. They give us boundaries. Someone determined the rule was helpful and needed. This works. Until it doesn’t. We grow, change, ask new questions and the rules that previously gave us freedom now keep us trapped.

We’re ready for wisdom.

My dad recently retired as a United Methodist pastor and I appreciated his comment that at first it felt like his life was getting smaller. Less responsibility, fewer keys, less contact with colleagues and friends from church. But then his brother texted him two words: expansive sabbath. At the very moment that life feels like it is getting smaller, it, in fact, is opening up in a spacious wide-open way. 

Eugene Petersen puts it like this in 2 Corinthians 6:11-13 in The Message: “I can’t tell you how much I long for you to enter this wide-open, spacious life…The smallness you feel comes from within you. Your lives aren’t small, but you’re living in a small way…Live openly and expansively!”

It’s worth asking in stuck, tight, anxious, scarcity moments: What rules am I living by that are slowly taking my life? Am I open to some new wisdom? To receive it, I have to first believe I don’t actually know everything. And isn’t it surprising how often we find ourselves thinking we do?

McLaren puts it this way: “When we’re ready, the Spirit leads us to graduate from rule-oriented primary school to secondary school with its new emphasis: wisdom.” Wisdom is more than rule-following. It’s Spirit-leading.

To graduate from rules to wisdom, we’re invited to not simply follow a different plan. We’re invited to move in an entirely different way. We need this as individuals. We need it especially as faith communities.

A spacious community living from wisdom instead of rules asks different questions. They address their fear and dig underneath it. They resist scarcity. They practice trusting abundance.

Are there rules your community follows that don’t feel life-giving anymore? It’s helpful to name them aloud in safe group conversation spaces. You can help your faith community dig into good conversations and do courageous work to discern and name where God may be inviting you next. 

Spacious communities trust God’s wisdom is gloriously sufficient to hold us as old rules fall away. Spacious communities know grace and love will birth new ways of being beloved community together. Spacious communities do the work to grieve what is shifting. It is a kind of death. And they prepare for the resurrection!

I offer this reflection as a prayer for your local church family:

A Spacious Community

There’s room to breathe
In a spacious community

There’s space to bring 
Who you are

There’s margin to explore
A new perspective

There’s questions to ask
That could change everything

A spacious community
Doesn’t feel narrow
Confining or 

A spacious community
Breathes freedom into the
Knots of our souls

In spacious community
There is

Because a spacious community
Is fully alive
Showing up with courage
Paying attention to pain
Cooperating with Love
Releasing the assumed outcome
So that Love gets a wide-open playground
To skip, climb, slide and giggle
Its way through us all


Rev. Jenny Smith serves as pastor to Marysville United Methodist Church in the Pacific Northwest Conference. You can find more of her writing on her blog.