When I was growing up, I did Sunday School, confirmation, and youth group. When I was in high school, there was a group of us who got together on our own and did Bible study. We didn’t have any adult leaders or any commentaries. For that matter, we pretty much just had the Revised Standard Version of the Bible to work from. But we spent time together wrestling with tough questions.
The question I remember the most was about heaven and hell: If you have to be a Christian to go to heaven, then how is that fair for people who might never have heard about Christ? It just didn’t seem like a loving God would send people to hell who never had a chance.
As the years passed and my understanding evolved, I questioned whether God would send people to hell if they were Muslim or Hindu. Or atheist. Or even if they are a really bad person. Would a God who loves everyone really punish someone forever?
Clearly, there are many people who believe in that kind of heaven and hell. I received an anonymous piece of mail this week trying to make the Biblical case that homosexuality really is a terrible sin. It was full of bad biblical scholarship and worse science. It also contained this zinger: “Will you go to heaven when you die?” If you have broken any of the Ten Commandments, “…the Bible warns that one day God will punish you in a terrible place called Hell.” Of course, you can “repent and trust Jesus” and you will be saved. The threat of hell is still alive and well in some parts of the church.
As Brian McLaren points out, Jesus’ teaching gives us little help in understanding what heaven and hell are like. But he does give us a lot of teaching about who goes where. He pretty much shoots down the “if you’re nice and don’t break any of the rules, you’ll go to heaven” theory. In Jesus’ teaching, those people we tend to look down on may be the very people who will be in heaven. The people our society holds up as “blessed” may be the least likely to be there.
The bottom line here is not about who is going to heaven or hell, or each is like, or if these places really exist. It seems like a waste of time to speculate too much on this. What we really need to do is ask ourselves and our churches if we are we treating everyone like people who are worthy of spending eternity with God. Doing so may allow us to be pleasantly surprised to discover that God is working in places, and in the lives of people, we’d never expect.
And those surprises could turn out to be real blessings—even offering us glimpses of heaven here on Earth!
Jan Nelson is the lay leader of the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference and the lay delegate to General Conference 2019. In her previous life, she was a middle school math teacher.
The following is the prepared text of Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky’s sermon on February 3, 2019 to the congregation of First United Methodist Church in Seattle, Washington.
CLICK HERE if you would prefer to listen to her sermon.
People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it. But Jesus called for them and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” Luke 18:15-17 (NRSV)
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Ephesians 4:1-7 (NRSV)
A word to Seattle First UMC
I give thanks for you and your ministry, and for your joyful engagement with your community. For the 16,000 meals served at the Shared Breakfast in 2018; for your advocacy for a social safety net that protects the most vulnerable as you raise a voice for justice on immigration, gun violence, care for creation, and homelessness; for your faithful participation in the United Methodist connection financially and in so many other ways.
And I give thanks for your pastor, Jeremy, his family, the staff of the church, and all of you, who bring this place to life on Sundays and throughout the week. May God bless you and keep you and send you to places of sorrow and pain.
A word about General Conference
Your pastor may have told you about the General Conference coming up at the end of the month, where United Methodists will decide whether to stay United, despite deep divisions over sexual orientation and identity. Well, that’s the context for my message this morning. This conflict, which has wracked the Church for nearly 50 years, sends me back to scripture and leads me into deep prayer. So, I’m going to treat you to more-than-your-average Bible this morning.
Reading the Bible
When it comes to the Bible, people make choices about how they listen to what they find there; which stories they let shape and inform their lives, and which they let fade into the background of timebound inscrutability.
Everybody who engages the Bible does this: brackets and underlines, and highlights, and writes question marks in the margins. Thomas Jefferson even took a scalpel to cut out passages he didn’t think belonged. People are looking for a biblical story to emerge that deserves to be called “good news.” And when they go searching in the Bible, some passages speak to them, and others they set aside. Who, for example, gets upset about wearing clothes made out of blended fabrics anymore? But the Bible says, NO! We just don’t pay attention.
There’s all kinds of stuff in the Bible: invasion, war, and rape. Murder and betrayal. Wickedness, treachery, revenge, enslavement, bigotry, kidnapping, sexism, incest, as well as kindness, justice, healing, hospitality.
God and God’s people have seen it all. And they have told the stories—good and bad—from generation to generation, until they wrote them out and collected them in what became our bible. And it’s so thick and has so many stories, you can find almost any message there.
If you open your Bible looking for a straight and narrow way of life with rewards for good behavior, and punishments for bad behavior, you can find it.
If you are looking to justify your sense that you deserve to possess what is not rightfully yours, you can find that justification in the Bible.
If you are looking for God’s condemnation of a world of “total depravity,” where people are powerless to resist evil and seek good, you can find that there, in the Bible.
And, if you are looking for a way of life that offers, a path of peace and joy, a light in the darkness, you can find that there, too. It’s in the Bible.
The challenge for people like you and me is to find the Good News in the Bible. When we find that, we can let the rest recede into the background—at least for the moment.
When you’re reading your Bible, you’ll notice that when people of faith hear bad news, they keep listening, because the bad news is never the final word. In the Bible, there is no judgment without forgiveness. Even a cold stone tomb cannot contain the life given and tended by a generous God. When people of faith hear bad news, they keep listening—there’s always Good News coming.
So, as I enter February, the special session of the General Conference looms large, when United Methodists will decide whether we will continue as one church or split apart, I’m looking for some Good News to carry us through. And I think I’ve found some. So, I want to share a few nuggets that I think the Holy Spirit made sure were buried in there for us to uncover.
Nugget #1 – All Means All – Luke 18:15-17
Some leaders in our Church are asserting that homosexuality is a sin, and that people who choose a life of sin should not be fully accepted in the Church. Their marriages should not be recognized. Their calling and gifts should not be recognized and put to work in ordination. And people who allow these things should be punished. No, expelled. That’s what’s before us. A proposal not only to ban same-sex wedding in our churches and performed by our clergy, and to ban ordination of LGBTQ people, but a requirement that leaders sign a pledge to obey and a promise to punish people who don’t obey. It is a desperate attempt to define once and for all who is “inside” and who is “out” (no pun intended). They have a few, brief Bible passages to support their position.
But in the Bible, in the “good news” section of the Bible, Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them…” It doesn’t say let the good little children come to me. The well-behaved little children. The little children who do what they are told, who keep quiet, who pay attention, who sit still, who play by the rules. He gives a broad instruction: let them come. Do not stop them. There is no need to say “all” the children.
And what about the birds of the air? Jesus says, that the smallest seed grows to a tree, so large that the birds of the air come to make nests in its branches. The smallest of seeds—not the biggest, not the best, not the most fertile of seed—produces a tree of life, where the birds of the air—not the fastest, or the
birds with the nicest song, or with the most exotic feathers. No, the birds of the air—whatever bird flutters by. Whatever bird is looking for a place to land, to build a nest. A small seed provides shelter to the birds of the air. All of them.
And the Bible doesn’t stop with children and seeds and birds. The Bible makes room for all kinds of people, too. Some Christians read the Bible looking for a purity code that defines who is acceptable and who is not. But the Bible breaks every exclusive barrier. Remember Jesus? He invites tax collectors, a woman with a flow of blood, a lame man, a blind man, raving lunatics, lepers, women of questionable reputation, people on their death beds, Samaritans—back in the day, before Jesus showed us that Samaritans could be good, they were the hated, despised, impure, foreign. A Roman military commander, an Ethiopian Eunuch.
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”
And in the final words of the Bible, we read this:
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” And let everyone who hears say, “Come.” And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift.
Revelation 22: 17
I guess that’s why I’m a Methodist. We do not teach that creation is utterly depraved. We teach that human beings can be partners with God in sharing a good word. We teach that God reaches out to us in every circumstance and guides us into the way of peace. We teach that there’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea. We teach and believe—and we find it in the Bible—that God has embedded in every child, bird, searching soul the good intention of the Creator, and that Christ reaches out with an open hand, and a warm invitation to each one and everyone, and that the Holy Spirit invites us to look for Christ’s presence in each one we meet, looking for the gift they bring. In this way, God works in us and through us, to guide us toward loving with a perfect love. To be made perfect in love in this life.
Children. Seeds. Birds. All kinds of doubtful people. God in Jesus embraces them all. What’s next? What about creation? In Genesis, we hear of God’s mighty acts of creation out of a void: the heavens, earth, light, dry land, seas. Plants bearing seeds and fruit. Sun and moon to rule the day and the night. “Swarms of living creatures,” sea monsters, winged birds. Land animals: cattle, creeping things, wild animals. Finally, human beings in God’s own image. And after all that creative activity, the Bible reports that God sat back and looked at all of creation, and said, “Now THAT is very good.”
How much did God say was good? Everything. Everyone. Anyone.
All means all.
Nugget #2 – One Means One – Ephesians 4:1-7
How does one baptized Christian say to another baptized Christian, you do not belong? You don’t qualify. Your experience of God’s love doesn’t count, because you are flawed. How does one baptized Christian get the authority to make this judgment against another?
I was taught that baptism makes God’s family our family. That in baptism, we don’t get to choose who our siblings are—God gives them to us. Does that mean we don’t all need to grow in God’s love? Does it mean we don’t sin? No. It just means we are invited and expected to stay in relationship with one another as we take our walk with Jesus. And our privilege, our joy, is to gather around the Communion Table of Grace to discover how God is working in one another’s’ lives, to receive each other as God’s good gifts, and to try to find a way to live together in peace. I was taught that eating at the table is a means of grace. That as we know each other, and care for each other, and challenge each other, it is Christ at work in us, shaping us in the image of our Creator.
In the midst of the controversy in the early church about what was necessary for a person to be a member of the family of Jesus, Paul writes:
But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known… This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus… Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. Because of what law? The law that requires works? No, because of the law that requires faith … is God the God of Jews only? Is God not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.
Rom 3: 21-30, selections
And so we find in Romans and in Ephesians, Paul trying to help Jewish Christians and Gentile/Greek Christians find the common humanity that they share. He is trying to help them reclaim the unity that God gave in creation, when he says, “I beg you . . . to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and [Parent] of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”
Paul is trying to call us back to the unity in God that has the power to hold EVERYONE together, despite how fragmented humankind had become. The early Church was searching for the unity that was deeper than their differences. Isn’t that what we are doing today? Only our issues aren’t between Jews and Gentiles; circumcised and uncircumcised. The issues of who belongs in The United Methodist Church in 2019 are about sexual orientation and gender identity.
Well, I’ve sat at table with too many LGBTQ siblings; been shown the love and grace of Jesus Christ in their lives; seen Christ’s face in their faces—your faces—to be able to say it can’t be; it’s unclean; you are unworthy.
One means one. My baptism is no better than yours. My life experience is no better than yours. If I’m in, you are in. We’re stuck with each other. This is God’s gift!
Nugget #3 – Some means None – Hebrews 11
The Book of Hebrews in the Bible gives a long and glorious recitation of the mighty acts of God in the lives of generations of the heroes of the faith. And toward the end, it gets pretty close to ecstatic utterance:
By faith … people passed through the Red Sea … the walls of Jericho fell … Rahab did not perish … And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets—who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, … shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead… Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in [animal] skins, destitute, persecuted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy… Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
Hebrews 11:29-40, selections
Can you believe it? That God would hold back the rewards of the righteous, warriors and saints of the faith, “so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.” Well… I guess we’re in this together. God’s promises can’t be fulfilled for just some. Nobody can enter God’s glory until and unless we all enter together and we’re not ready yet.
If I refuse to sit at the table next to a brother in Christ. If I refuse to receive the bread and the cup from the hands of a sister in Christ, I do violence to the body of Christ. We cannot grow in grace cut off from one another. We need each other to grow. We need each other for wholeness. Some means none. One means all.
That’s why I hope the special session of General Conference will adopt the One Church Plan. Not because it adequately embraces the fullness of God’s mercy as I understand it. But because it creates space for United Methodists who profoundly disagree with each other to stay in the same family, at the same table, and practice ministry as their faith leads them, while we continue our journey of faith together. It allows Seattle First UMC to host weddings between two people of the same sex and for LGBTQ clergy to serve in ministry. But it does not force clergy in the Democratic Republic of Congo to do so. I think God likes creative tension. It’s where the Holy Spirit flutters and broods.
And yet, I know that one person’s creative tension is another’s burden. And so, I want to tell you a story.
A Hopeful Story
In the Council of Bishops, when the bishops from the U.S., Europe, Africa, and the Philippines were sitting around tables trying to have this important difficult conversation among ourselves, at one point an African brother bishop I know well says, our concerns about sexuality in Africa are very different from yours in America and Europe. He continued to explain (paraphrasing): “In our churches, if a man comes to be baptized, and he has several wives, and they each have children, it does great harm if we ask him to renounce all but one wife and leave the others with their children destitute. You don’t have much to teach us about how to cope with this concern. This is a generational issue for us. We must teach the next generation while welcoming this man and his whole family… Maybe we don’t have much to teach you about homosexuality.”
My friends, where else could that conversation occur, except at the table where God has invited us all to gather? In that story is great hope that God’s children can learn from one another and from our very different life experiences. And if we don’t have to tear apart from one another every time we understand God’s will for creation differently, we might learn to leave space for more learning, more growth, more grace.
Please pray for our Church, all its leaders and that a way may open before us upon which we can travel in the love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ, and the communion of the Holy Spirit. I pray for you.
This is an uncertain time, but on the morning after General Conference, there will still be people who look to the Church to be God’s agents of grace and hospitality. There will still be people who need a good meal and fellowship. People will still languish in hospitals, and under bridges, and in loneliness. And God will still be looking and saying—these are good. They are my good children. There’s work to be done, but it is good work.
And together, the churches of the Greater Northwest will continue to follow God in faithfulness and service. Listen for the Good News. The story’s being written. With God’s help, we will help to write it.
Standing in the laundry room, I take each unmatched sock into my hand. “Thank you… thank you…” I mutter gratitude to each as I place it in the donation bin.
January was a month of huge transitions, both for my church family, and for me, personally. Last week, Trinity United Methodist Church held its final worship service in the building it has occupied for 90 years in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. Our ministry will continue into the future in new spaces. On Thursday, my husband and I finished moving the last of our belongings to a new home. Moving always means confronting the true—sometimes overwhelming—weight of one’s possessions. I used Marie Kondo’s method of thanking and donating each unwanted item (including mismatched socks*) to let go of possessions that were no longer useful or meaningful to me.
A Japanese native, Kondo introduced her KonMari method of de-cluttering to a US audience in 2014 with a New York Times bestselling book. In January her new Netflix show went viral and Marie Kondo’s reach expanded to the multitudes, helping so many shed their clutter that thrift stores around the country have seen a significant uptick in donations.
Kondo uses deliberate process, gratitude, and ritual to help people keep what “sparks joy” and let go of what prevents them from living examined, meaningful lives. (I would directly quote Kondo here, but I gave away her book last week.) It is easy to become numb to the detritus we accumulate in our consumerist culture. The KonMari practice awakens us to release the glut and the guilt that so often lead us to keep unnecessary items.
KonMari found its way into this reflection because I was inspired by the stories of Jesus ministering to the multitudes; time and again contradicting the custom of his time to impact lives; letting go of the religious laws that might have prevented his ministry. I hope that we as a church might let go of what is keeping us from living into Jesus’ example. McLaren notes that “In addressing the social realities of his day, Jesus constantly turned the normal dominance pyramid on its head…” Kondo offers modern tools that can literally be applied in our time and place to work toward the equity Jesus preached and practiced.
At Trinity UMC each week we ask God to help us “discover how much is enough for us to be truly fulfilled, neither rich nor poor, and to consume only that.” With this prayer, we pledge to align our hearts and actions with Jesus’ example. As a church we decided to leave our stuff behind and to embark on a journey to discover how to best serve our community. For our local church that means letting go of a beautiful, landmark building that housed nearly a century of ministry in Ballard. Much of the accumulated furniture and items—in fact, the deteriorating building itself—no longer serve the needs of this justice-focused community.
Our prayer of dedication continues with a pledge, to discover “how much would be enough for everyone not just to survive but to thrive, and to find ways for all to have access to that.” Rather than spend millions on renovations and upgrades for a vast space that we don’t need, we chose to invest our love, energy, and resources to continue serving the community. When we push back against consumerism, we begin to undermine the violent social and economic structures that enrich few through the pain of many.
Now that we have left so much behind, it is beginning to dawn on me that we might have more than we did before. By turning away from what dominant culture tells us to want, will we free ourselves to serve God more fully—to be “Alive in the Adventure of Jesus”?
*Used, single socks, I’ll admit, aren’t the most useful items to donate. Some thrift stores, including my local Goodwill, accept all garments of any condition to be recycled or repurposed.
Marie Kuch-Stanovsky is the head of the PNW delegation to the 2019 General Conference and serves on the Rules Committee of the Commission on General Conference. She is the interim Campus Minister at the Wesley Club in Bellingham, Washington and the coordinator of Fossil Free UMC, as well as a designer and letterpress printer.
In a memorable scene from Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian,’ several individuals are so far back during the Sermon on the Mount that when Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” they mishear him, hearing instead, “Blessed are the cheesemakers.” One woman responds, “Ah, what’s so special about the cheesemakers?” Another responds, “Well, obviously, this is not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.” While I would only recommend this movie if you happen to be comfortable both with cursing and sacrilegious humor, it offers uncomfortable truths to people of faith.
As we worked through McClaren’s chapter on Jesus the Teacher, this scene came to mind because of how easy it is to misunderstand Jesus’ teaching. Sometimes, it is not Jesus’ teaching that we miss but rather it is a cacophony of tradition that makes hearing and understanding Jesus’ story and life more difficult. Voices from across millennia have interpreted, commented, sermonized, and reflected on Jesus’ words and life so much that it can be difficult to hear Jesus the Teacher through all the noise.
Sunday School teachers, pastors, church leaders and parents have taught us, mentored us, and strengthened us in our faith journeys. What we hear and learn about Jesus comes through the filters of their experiences, expectations, prejudices, and hopes. If we try to work past these voices and hear Jesus on our own, it can feel like a betrayal of these to whom we owe so much.
This moment, for me, was the first time I heard someone suggesting that the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus kept talking about was not just a place where we go when we die. Rather, it is the reality that Jesus desired to see happen here and now; one that we are invited to both be part of and work towards in this life. The parables, teachings, and even the declarative actions in the miracles and healings were Jesus pointing to a world that could be different than the world that is.
For me this ‘discovery,’ came after college, seminary, and even several years of ministry. Reading the Gospels again, I wondered how I had ever missed this. Even more so, how had all of my teachers and mentors missed this? Or, had they been saying it all along, and I was not hearing?
And then one Sunday I was leading the Lord’s Prayer, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” It was right there! This wasn’t safely sequestering God in heaven and making certain we live right so we can be there in the end. This was inviting God into the messiness and chaos of our lives and desiring to see something new happen.
Beginning to hear and see Jesus more clearly leads to other fresh and exciting discoveries that were there all along.
Jesus the Teacher quoting Isaiah,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
Jesus the Teacher inviting us to see others,
“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:35-36)
These are grit and grime missional callings, not a metaphysical goal for the afterlife. We don’t care for others to get another notch in the belt of eternity, but rather because we desire to see God’s kingdom here and now. Jesus the Teacher offers grace as we are invited into the world that his stories, life and ministry begin to reveal.
Pastor Dan Wilcox is serving with the congregation of Christ First UMC, in Wasilla, AK, his third congregation in Alaska over the past 12 years. He lives in Wasilla with his wife, Kris-Ann, and their four children.
We see the stories we want to see. Lin-Manuel Miranda was sitting on a beach reading Ron Chernow’s historical biopic Hamilton and he said to himself “this is a hip-hop story.” Adapting the historical narrative into a new musical framework formed the basis of the Broadway smash by the same name. Amidst the historical narrative, Miranda saw a story that was familiar to his world, and he brought it to life.
We also see the stories that we are trained to see. We see the same story again and again in many forms of storytelling. The “Hero’s Journey” is found in many stories, from Star Wars to Lion King to Grimm’s fairytales. Ten Things I Hate About You is a 1999 remake of Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew,” and 2018’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before recalls parts of 1987’s Can’t Buy Me Love. Blockbusters often offer only small variations of stories so familiar to us. We see the same story so often that we don’t realize how unoriginal it really is.
So which stories do we see in Scripture? The ones we want to see, the ones we are trained to see, or the ones we need to see?
Brian McLaren, in Chapter 21 of his book We Make the Road By Walking, writes about miracle stories in the Gospels. He doesn’t focus on whether they historically happened—what matters more to McLaren is the reason for telling the stories. Why tell that Jesus turned vats of water into wine? Why tell that Jesus cast out a demon? Why did the followers of Jesus consider these stories important?
I’m partial to the healing miracles. I want to see them as true so I can find healing for my ills. I also am trained, as a theologian, to see them as testimonies to a God interwoven in the brokenness of humanity and caring about the afflicted.
But maybe these were stories that needed to be told by those communities: stories whose maladies were emblematic (a blind man was healed because his community is blind to the marginalized, and so on). Telling these stories was a witness both to the familiar communities of the present and to the eternal truths to which Jesus offered his eternal compassion. The particulars don’t matter as much as it was important they were told.
So it is with us. It’s not enough to read stories about Jesus. I believe we are stories too. We tell stories by our words, our actions, our deeds, and our character. We bring heroism or tragedy to our everyday life, to our mundane choices that teach others about us and about our faith.
We are called to live and tell good stories. Stories of justice and peace and perseverance that point to a God whose love and faithfulness is unmatched and unrelenting. To live as stories of people who stand with the marginalized and confront the powers and principalities. In the words of Riverside Church’s Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, “We have to preach a radical Gospel because no one else is.”
In a world where a psychology of enmity, fear, and hatred of enemies rules, a world where polarization is lifted up and a hostile imagination is inflamed, it is up to the dreamers, the idealists—us!—to foster a heroic imagination where a hero appears, where Jesus returns, where the Spirit moves, where courage conquers fear, where love bears all things.
What stories are you telling today? Tell them and live a life that tells it too.
I’ll be offering a few reflections in advance of General Conference 2019. In some, like this one, I will share memories of my own journey alongside LGBTQ siblings in the Church. In others, I’ll work to answer questions that I am hearing in my role as your bishop. I hope each will offer you some insight into my thinking as we walk this road together over the coming months.
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. – Ephesians 4:10-6
Let me take you back to 1971, when I was a 17-year-old high school senior at Bellevue High School (go Wolverines!). It was two years after the Stonewall Uprising which protested a police raid at a gay bar in Greenwich Village and marked the beginning of the gay liberation movement in America. But I didn’t know anything about that. It was a year before the General Conference of The United Methodist Church would adopt language stating that it considers the “practice of homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching.” I would attend that conference as a young adult observer. But that’s a story for another time.
I was just an awkwardly tall, unusually curious, teenager. A member of Methodist Youth Fellowship (MYF), I served on the district youth council. We planned retreats and fun events and studied the issues of the day. As I got to know youth from many backgrounds, life experiences, races and cultures, my horizons expanded quickly, and my faith was tested and stretched in a thousand ways. I never felt far from God during these years. I never felt I was being pulled away from faith. I always turned to my personal faith, and the community of faith to help me understand what I was experiencing, and to respond as a follower of Jesus.
One day I was on the phone – you know (or maybe you don’t), the one-and-only-heavy-black-dial-phone that sat in the living room, where anyone in the family could hear your side of the conversation and speculate about the other side. I was talking to a 16-year-old boy from a neighboring church on youth council business. We were both sexually inexperienced, but through youth ministry, we had become aware of the emerging struggle of lesbian, gay and transgender people to be understood and accepted. Somewhere in the conversation, Michael said, “I think I might be gay. And I don’t know if there is a place for me in the Church.”
Michael didn’t find his gay identity outside the Church. He didn’t come to the church as an invader or a reformer, trying to change the Church. He grew up in the Church. He was baptized in the Church. He was formed and shaped by the Church. And as he began to understand himself as a sexual person, before he had been in a sexual relationship, it was within the church that he searched to find his place in God’s good creation. I didn’t know how to respond, but I knew that in the Church we embrace one another, and we stay in relationship, and we walk together. So, I found Michael some gay Christians to help him find his way. And I knew from that moment on, that I would work in the Church to understand and to welcome, and to learn from brothers and sisters who did not fit the sexual norms I had grown up with, but who loved God, wanted to serve God, exhibited life-giving loving relationships in their lives and were members of the household of the Church.
I hear people claim that the movement for full inclusion of LGBTQ people is a secular movement, driven by outsiders who want to control the Church. I don’t know many secular people who care very much about what the Church thinks or teaches. But I know lots of LGBTQ Christians like Michael, whose sexual identity unfolded right alongside their Christian identity, as they grew into adulthood as members of the Church. Because I know this, when I go to a General Conference, and I see people with anguished faces, mouths taped shut with rainbow duct tape in protest of the Church’s persecution, I see Michael, and other dear sisters and brothers in the family of Christ, weeping and yearning to be heard, understood, embraced, treasured, included.
Michael taught me that the Church’s struggle to understand God’s will regarding human sexuality is not a struggle of US vs THEM. It is a struggle of US with US. It is a family struggle. Baptized children of God talking to other baptized children of God, with Jesus as mediator.
When I was a child, I noticed a trend in our family vacations that I might describe as a curse or maybe just bad luck. Every time we planned a vacation, my dad’s car would have some major problem and wouldn’t work. Vacations were often postponed or cancelled.
It can be so exciting to sit down to plan a vacation. We get to imagine, plan and hope for the best adventure ever! When I go on an adventure, I attempt to plan well and ask myself some questions—with the help of my spouse, of course. Questions like: Where are we going? What are we going to do? How long will we stay? What do we need to take? All of these are important questions to ask when we are planning a trip.
But the word adventure, by definition, implies some unknowns because no matter how well we plan, there are things we can’t know or anticipate. No matter how much we plan the weather may change, someone may become ill, or like it often happened in our home when I was a child, there could be problems with transportation. And yet, even when vacations and adventures don’t turn out as we intend them to, good times and fun memories are often still produced.
The adventure of being a part of a church family and having a deep faith in Christ is often like that. We imagine who God is, where God is going to take us and what God is going to do with us and through us.
I have done a lot of wonderful things I never anticipated doing and I have failed in unexpected and unimaginable ways. Those successes and failures are part of my faith adventure. Journeys have changed my mind about things I once believed very deeply and have taken me on detours I never expected to enjoy. I have been challenged to see the world from other perspectives which have ultimately made me a better person. I have, more often than I want to admit, chosen wrongs roads that led to nowhere, but I learned something important there too.
These experiences are part of the adventure. I guess we can choose not to go on adventures. We can stay in our silos. We can disengage and stop planning and hoping. But it is my prayer that we will join the adventure. Let’s plan, hope and dream that wherever the adventure takes us we’ll discover some new understanding and experience of what is means to be a people called by God to serve and love each other.
Rev. Daniel Miranda is currently serving his fourth 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.
Can you come of age more than once? How many times did Jesus “come of age?” Was it a one-time thing when he was 12 and stayed back in the temple to hang out with the religious scholars and teachers? Or, was it when he entered into the muddy Jordan River to be baptized like all the others by John and communicate that he too needed to be touched by waters of grace and hear of God’s love? Perhaps Jesus came of age when he encountered the Canaanite woman as she asked for her daughter to be healed and was challenged to realize his ministry is to share God’s love and grace with all people.
Jesus came of age all of these times and more. Each time he delved deeper into the realization of God’s deep love for him and his call to live out that love, he had a coming of age moment.
I have had various moments in my own life. There was a time in my life when I would approach communion with the thought, “make me worthy to receive this sacrament.” Through much interpersonal work and prayer, one day the narrative changed, “through God’s love and grace I am worthy, I am God’s beloved.” It was a coming of age time, into both my worthiness as a child of God and hearing God’s call into ministry.
Coming of age is not solely an individual endeavor, it is also something that can be experienced within a family, a relationship and a community. For Lori and I, we experienced a coming of age moment when we got married on May 20, 2017. It was a moment over 24 years in the making.
Our relationship, which began during my last year of seminary, was complicated in the life of the church. We knew we loved each other, made a life-long commitment, and we knew that I was called to serve the church, specifically The United Methodist Church, my life-long faith community. In faith, we struggled to make it work. We played, “don’t ask, don’t tell.” In time, we found community outside the church to affirm our relationship and discovered support within the church. I had trusted colleagues who became valued friends where our relationship was also affirmed.
Not being fully out though, created limitations in our relationship and ministry. We had talked about marriage off and on, but felt we wanted it to be something we could share with the wider community, plus the legality was not there yet. On June 26, 2015 same-sex marriage became legal in the USA and our talk went into action. We began planning and getting excited. When I signed the UMC Clergy Out letter in May of 2016, we no longer had to decide how to handle the church.
When we gathered with family and friends, with those who had supported us through the 24 years, we had a complete sense that we, as a couple, were loved and affirmed by them as well as God. Lori shared with me this morning, that when we had a blessing of our marriage at church, that support of the faith community spoke to her of God’s love in a new way.
We came to age as a couple, fully embracing and embraced by the love of family and community and delved deeper into the understanding of God’s love for us as beloved daughters, as a beloved couple. What are some of your coming of age moments, as an individual or with others?
Rev. Wendy Joy Woodworth is currently appointed to Open Door Churches, a cooperative of six United Methodist faith communities in and around Salem, Oregon. She also serves the Oregon-Idaho Conference as chair of the Board of Ordained Ministry and Agenda Chair for the Annual Conference Session.
A baby was born who turned the world on its head. Lives are changed by Jesus, who opens our eyes to God’s transforming love and justice. We celebrate his birth extravagantly, because we understand that his life, death and resurrection are awesome in their creative power—maybe even awe-ful in their disruptive power. They show us that life is not in vain, that the most violent powers of sin and death cannot snuff out the hope that burns in our hearts, even at times like a small, flickering flame.
The story of Jesus turns us inside out as we sing, “the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” I pray that your very personal hopes and fears are met by Jesus in the New Year.
This week, United Methodists will carry our very public hopes and fears from 2018 into 2019 as the year turns. A special session of General Conference in February will seek a way forward out of decades of strife over whether and how the Church will welcome and include, or reject and exclude, people based upon their sexual identities and orientations.
What are the hopes that delegates will bring to the Conference?
Full Inclusion. The Simple Plan would remove of restrictive language in the Book of Discipline to enact full inclusion of LGBTQ people in the life and ministry of the Church. Sexual identity and orientation would not be a standard for ordination. Same sex weddings would be allowed. [Learn More|Proposed Legislation]
Obedience to scripture and discipline. The Traditional Plan reaffirms the traditional teaching that marriage between one man and one woman is the norm. “Self-avowed practicing homosexuals” would be prohibited from ordination and same-sex weddings would be prohibited, with stricter enforcement of each. [Learn More|Proposed Legislation]
A new definition of Connection. The Connectional Conference Plan is the most complicated of the three proposed by the Commission on a Way Forward providing for three overlapping conferences which share some services but have more theological autonomy. Of the major plans, if provides the most space for theological differences but probably has the least support due to the number, and difficulty, of the changes proposed. [Learn More|Proposed Legislation]
Room for contextual adaptation. The One Church Plan offers less legislated uniformity and allows clergy, local churches and annual conferences to set standards and practices appropriate to their ministry context and exercise of conscience. [Learn More|Proposed Legislation] I have publicly joined other bishops and leaders of the Western Jurisdiction in support of the One Church Plan. [Press Release]
Depending on the outcome of the Special General Conference, our United Methodist Church could enter into a season of wrenching schism, with some churches leaving whatever the new form is that emerges, or we could experience a tectonic shift as differing standards are set in conferences and churches across the denomination.
There’s a lot at stake. Feelings run high. Opinions about what scripture says, and how determinative it should be, run deep. At times there is more heat than light in the conversations.
This week we will celebrate Epiphany, which means the manifestation of God to gentiles—people outside the Jewish community of faith. Matthew tells the story of Magi whose astrological faith traditions led them to follow a star to Jesus. It teaches us that people don’t have to think or believe alike to recognize God’s transforming presence in the world. It shines as a bright star in the night sky. It shines on the just and the unjust. It is universally accessible to all.
So, if God’s revelation is visible and accessible to people of many faith perspectives. And United Methodist Christians are led on their journeys with Jesus to very different understandings of human sexuality and standards for participation in the Church, then how are any of us to find our way through the complex and contradictory proposals under consideration?
Here’s what I’m going to do, and what I invite you to do with me.
As a way of searching our own hearts and inviting God to speak to us for what lies ahead. On or around New Year’s Eve, take a quiet time apart to experience John Wesley’s Watch Night Covenant Service. First, prayerfully read through the service (Click here to review and download) and write your reflections and personal commitments and prayers. Then, alone or with others, pray through the service. This is a time-honored new year’s practice of Methodists—a time of reflection, humility, re-dedication. Brian McLaren, author of We Make the Road by Walking, describes it as one of the treasures of the Church.
If you aren’t already participating in the year-long study of We Make the Road by Walking, January 1 is a great time to jump in. Go to greaternw.org/crossover/ to learn how. Especially subscribe to the “CrossOver to Life” blog by following the link on that page.
From now through February, pray for the Special General Conference. Pray that the Holy Spirit would be present to bless and guide our Church for a future of faithfulness and fruitfulness.
Follow the events of the General Conference at http://greaternw.org/gc2019/. As the time grows closer, up to date coverage will be posted here.
What we know for certain is that on February 27, we will have neighbors to love and to welcome, and we must be prepared to carry our ministries forward no matter what.
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us to-day. We hear the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell; O come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel.
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.
I knew it must be getting close to time to get up but I was cold, tired and very grouchy.
It was about 1985, during the counter-revolutionary and Sandinista war in Nicaragua. My husband and I were serving as missionaries with an ecumenical development agency, CEPAD, and one of my roles was to care for groups of church folk from the US coming to see for themselves what was going on. This group’s plan was to experience coffee picking.
We had arrived to this mountain farm the previous evening, just in time to sit with the regular workers and eat dinner together. After dinner, we went with them to get settled for the night. We were taken to a big old wooden barn that had been converted into a bunk house by building giant shelving along both of the long sides of the barn. Each bunk was about 4 feet wide, 4 feet high and 6 feet long. Bunks were stacked four high. There were no beds, just wooden shelves and we had not come well enough prepared. Still, we passed around the blankets and sheets we did have and each sought out a shelf to sleep on.
I ended up with just a sheet, and this mountain area was much colder than the hot sea level city I lived in. All night long, I tossed and turned, pulled the sheet tighter, then rearranged it over and over, all the while whining to myself about how miserable I felt.
It was still quite dark when I heard a guitar beginning to play quietly, and then a voice began to sing. I peeled open my eyes and saw a small light up at the very top of the barn. One of the Nicaraguans had gone to the top shelf, reached out and hung a hammock from the middle of the roof. From that hammock a lovely voice was calling us into a new day, a day to work together, a day to pick coffee instead of picking up guns.
In another moment lights began to flicker on all around the barn. I could hear people moving around and whispering greetings to one another. In that light the barn changed. It became a home for a people working together. That light led me from feeling sorry for myself, to being part of a community of hope. I was still cold and tired but I could get up and rejoice in a new day.
In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. What came into being through the Word was life,[a] and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.
John 1:1, 3d-5, The Message
In Spanish, one of the most common ways to say “give birth” is “dar a luz” or give to light. I’m sure that Mary did not sleep much that night as she labored in a barn to give her baby to the light; her baby that would be light for us all, a light that changes everything. Thank you Mary, may we follow in your pathway and give others to the light of your baby.
The Rev. Dr. Lyda Pierce serves as a United Methodist missionary for Hispanic/ Latino Ministry Development in the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference.