The Special General Conference: How Will HUMC Respond?

The Special Session of the UMC is this weekend. Delegates from all across the globe will gather to examine church law concerning human sexuality and explore ways to maintain unity. Whatever the conclusion, many United Methodists will be angry and hurt.

If the UMC removes all language regarding homosexuality, many will feel we have lost  something very precious: the Bible. This is God’s Word to us, and to condone homosexuality is to ignore what God is saying to us.

If the language stays the same, the UMC will still consider homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching,” and the current restrictions regarding gay persons will stay the same. This will be painful for many in the pews. They will consider themselves members of a denomination that marginalizes a specific group of people.

I expect the Special Session’s decision will affect Huntingtown UMC, but to what extent?

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Pentecost, by El Greco

I see HUMC as a theologically diverse congregation. Even though most people here do not wear labels, there are traditionalists, progressives and just about everything in between. HUMC does not live in perfect unity. I’m sure there have been many fist-pounding discussions over various church, theological, political and social issues.

But for the most part, that hasn’t kept us from being together. We serve on committees together. We serve area schools together. We partner with local ministries together. We repair homes in low income areas together. We support a community in Alemania Federal together. We prepare church meals together. We are family. None of this has to change.

Whatever the decision, I want to offer a few thoughts to Huntingtown UMC as we await General Conference’s decision:

  • There will be no “winners.” Many people will be hurt, angry and disappointed, regardless of the outcome.
  • HUMC can be a safe place for people to express their views: Let’s be quick to listen and slow to pass judgment.
  • Someone’s view on homosexuality should not be a litmus test: God has given the gifts of the Holy Spirit to everyone.
  • Talk to me. I’m your pastor and I want to listen to everyone.
  • The last one is the most important:

It’s okay to express our pain, anger, approval or disapproval at the General Council’s decision. But if that is all we ever do, then we lose focus on our God given mission: making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

I am very confident that whatever our denomination decides, Huntingtown United Methodist Church will still gather for powerful worship, our ministries will continue to transform lives, and we will still be a family that welcomes everyone.

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Is This Guy Homeless?

To this present hour we are both hungry and thirsty, and are poorly clothed, and are roughly treated, and are homeless…1 Corinthians 4:11

Currently I am without transportation. I have 3 cars in working condition but I cannot drive them. I stopped responding to medication, so I’m trying new ones. As I experience the vicissitudes of a new medication, I stay away from the steering wheel. It’s not convenient, but it is certainly bearable.

This is my 3rd time as a pastor / church staff where I’ve been in this situation. During those times I’ve relied on public transportation, walking and the generosity of others. Sometimes when I’m waiting for transportation, I sit in restaurants and libraries. Still, it would be ridiculous to say that I have experienced the world from the perspective of the poor.

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Jesus the Homeless, Timothy Schmalz

Today I’m sitting in the public library, waiting for my ride. My congregation is hosting Safe Nights, a ministry that provides winter protection for Calvert County’s homeless by offering shelter, breakfast, dinner and a bag lunch, all served by loving people. I’m noticing that some of our guests are at the library.  One of them recognizes me and jokes, “Welcome to my office.” I suspect some of them will remain at the library until they are transported back to my church.

I look at the people sitting around me. Judging by their appearance I wonder, “How many of these people are homeless?”

In the restroom I look in the mirror. Today is my “day-off,” but I’m still surprised at my appearance.  I would not look like this at a church meeting or event. I’m unshaven. My wool cap has lint all over it. My black coat is dirty and has dog hair all over it (my wife fosters dogs who shed nonstop). I’m wearing faded, dirty jeans. My shoes are older than two of my children (Rockports last a lifetime).

I am carrying a faded gray drawstring bag, which contains dandelion tea bags, my remaining lunch and an ipad.  I intend to share the tea with our Safe Nights guests who are trying to avoid coffee. I reach for my ipad, but the tea bags, a partially eaten sandwich and an unopened bag of chips spill on the floor. I quickly stuff them back into the bag.

I’ve settled into my chair to review tomorrow’s sermon. I stop and wonder if anyone around me has noticed me. Is anyone thinking, “I wonder if that guy is homeless?”

 

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Do the Magi Belong in Manger Scenes?

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. –  Matthew 2:3

It seems every Christmas there is a myth buster who will tell us that 3 figures in our manger scenes do not belong there.

Next to the shepherds, sheep, cows, and the holy family are the wise men, kings or magi. Critics graciously remind us that we don’t know how many there were, and they likely arrived a couple of years later. And they probably weren’t kings, despite the shape of the figurines and the title of the famous song.

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The Magi Journeying, by James Tissot

Such myth busting does not concern me. I paid too much money for my manger scene to leave out three pieces until January. Also, the magi are extremely  important precisely because they DO NOT belong there.

These magi were likely “magicians,” not like Harry Potter, but more like astrologers. They were the type that would write the daily horoscopes for the Baghdad Daily News. To 1st century Jews, they are pagan astrologers from enemy territory.

Imagine the chaos that would ensue if officials from Iraq, Syria or Iran were to approach Prime Minister Netanyahu. They want to know where to find a new Israeli leader – all based on reliable intelligence that was unavailable to Israel. That’s pretty much what the magi are doing. Early readers of Matthew 2:1-12 were probably shocked and possibly offended by their inclusion in this story.

Imagine putting out of place figures in manger scenes in churches and front lawns: Batman could be standing on the roof of the manger. The Avengers, who were watching their sheep at night, could be visiting the newborn Jesus. Garden trolls, instead of cows and sheep, could be gathered around the manger.

People might be shocked and offended by these figures that do not belong on a manger scene. But people would stop their cars and pay attention.

Shocking misplacements persist throughout the Gospels: Samaritan adulterers, immoral prostitutes, corrupt tax collectors, despised Roman soldiers, and ostracized lepers, and pagan astrologers: Often God chooses to reveal himself to people who do not belong, not to “devout” believers.

If you have 3 king-like magi in your manger scenes, please know that they do not belong. This is precisely why we need to keep them there.

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Humiliation at Christmas

They all condemned him as worthy of death. Then some began to spit at him; they blindfolded him, struck him with their fists, and said, “Prophesy!” And the guards took him and beat him. Mark 14:64-65

As we enter Advent, I’ve been thinking of the cross more than the manger. It is the cross that saves us, not the manger. The cross is the demonstration of God’s radical love towards us. The cross is our  example of the radical love we are to show others. The cross reminds us of the seriousness of sin, and Christ’s victory over it. Not the manger.

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The Flight into Egypt, Edwin Longsden Long

But the manger is important: While the cross shows us Christ’s humiliating death, the manger shows us His humiliating beginnings. It was a prelude to the kind of life that Jesus was to live.

Philippians 2:7-8 tells us that Jesus laid aside His divine majesty, took on the limitations of being human, and experienced the difficulties, sufferings and sorrows that all people do.

We see this in the Christmas story:

He likely endured the suspicion of being an illegitimate child. This seems to be implied in John 8:41, and 2nd century critics of Christianity made this accusation. Plus, Mary and Joseph’s friends and relatives understood simple biology and could do simple math.

He was born among commoners in anonymity in a place of little importance:

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,  though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel…” (Micah 5:2).

He was born into poverty. Mary and Joseph were too poor to offer a lamb as a temple sacrifice, so they offered two pigeons instead (Luke 2:22–24; Leviticus 12:7-8).

His family soon fled Bethlehem to live as refugees in Egypt (Matthew 2:13-18). He grew up in an area with such poverty and bad reputation that his disciple Nathaniel once said, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46)

His material status didn’t change during  his 3 years of ministry. Jesus commented on his economic status when he said, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20).

Jesus preached from borrowed boats, multiplied borrowed food, rode into Jerusalem on a borrowed colt, and was buried in a borrowed tomb.

Jesus left his throne to live in humiliation and poverty with us, to give us His life and his friendship. This very thing is stated in 2 Corinthians 8:9:

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

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Jesus and Black Friday

For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world. 1 John 2:16

Many retailers will open their doors this Friday at midnight, ushering in the Christmas shopping season. Black Friday translates into commercial success for stores and malls. Shoppers are treated to special discounts, parking lot camping experiences and minor injuries. Employees have their holidays and time with families cut short to help the masses get this year’s most popular toys before they fly off the shelves.

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Adoration of the Kings, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Some would call this a part of the American Christmas experience. Others would call it another symptom of consumerism. The latter has been around since the early 20th century.

The industrial revolution created mass production, which in turn created an economic crisis: the supply of goods grew beyond consumer demand. The answer was to manipulate the desires of people and encourage spending through advertising. As a result, we are continually urged to fulfill our desires by consuming a broad range of goods and experiences.

We are all deeply affected by consumerism: it shapes how we think, act and even run our churches.

We face the constant temptation to confuse desires with needs. Our contentment depends on our salary, the car in the garage and the amount of gifts under the tree. As a result our life decisions are not guided by a desire to follow Jesus. Instead, our choices are guided by a desire for success and personal satisfaction.

Christ calls us to faithfulness. The world needs disciples of Jesus who are generous, compassionate and other-focused. Before you grab that toy or click that mouse, remember Jesus’ call to “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).

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Will God Protect Me From Temptation?

“Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Matthew 26:41

The true nature of our faith doesn’t usually come to light until we are faced with our own weaknesses. Not our Sunday morning attendance record. Not our work on a service project. Not a well crafted sermon or Bible study. (All of these are very important.) It is only when we are tempted can we know the true strength of our faith.

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James Tissot (1836-1902). You Could Not Watch One Hour With Me 

When we are overcome by temptation, it often means we haven’t been vigilant—that we’ve stopped pursuing the God who has pursued us. In the aftermath of temptation, we recognize a spiritual weakness, and hopefully we use this failure to grow closure to God. We become wiser—but we do so remorsefully.

Both spiritual weakness and vigilance are illustrated in the garden of Gethsemane. In His last moments, Jesus requests that His closest disciples stay awake with Him to pray (Matt 26:38). But while He prays, the disciples fall asleep. At first Jesus’s instructions to pray seem like a request for spiritual and moral support. Jesus is facing a horrifying and painful death, and he wants his disciples to pray fervently for him.

But in just a few verses later, Jesus explains the true reason for prayer request: “Stay awake and pray that you will not enter into temptation” (Matt 26:41). Staying awake is associated with resisting temptation. The disciples rest their eyes, and they pay a high price for it. Because of their spiritual laziness, they are not prepared for Jesus’ death, even though Jesus had repeatedly prepared them for this. When they are tempted at the point of their weakness, they abandon the one they love out of fear (Matt 26:56; 75).

In this same passage, we also see what vigilance looks like. “Deeply grieved, to the point of death,” Jesus turns to His Father in prayer. He boldly requests relief from suffering, and when it is not granted, He submits to God’s will.

Being vigilant means constantly seeking guidance and refuge from the God who provides it. Keep pursuing the God who pursues us. We don’t know what challenges and temptations we will face, but God does. Pray for Holy Spirit to provide you with strength and discernment when they do come.

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Should Churches Be Large?

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed…” Matthew 13:31

Christians admire mega churches and corporation-sized Christian non-profits. They have amazing capacity to take on large projects and to deliver the goods. Both have a large capacity for innovation and setting trends, and they can create specialized ministries for special audiences.

Smaller churches often admire and try to copy churches that attract thousands of worshippers, hoping to experience similar success. The desire for numerical growth often takes its cue from modern capitalism than it does the Gospel.

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The Mulberry Tree, Vincent Van Gogh (1853-1890)

This is not to say that a declining church that has lost its passion is okay. A church steeped in tradition that has plateaued in membership is not okay. These are not good examples of small. Jesus has called us to bear fruit (John 15:16).

But in another sense Jesus did say, “Small is great.” He often talked about the kingdom of God in terms of small things. Consider just a few comparisons:

  • The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which “is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree.” (Matthew 13:32).
  • The kingdom of God is like yeast “that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough” (Luke 13:21).
  • God is like a shepherd who goes after one lost sheep when 99 percent of his flock is safe. (Luke 15:3-7).

What do Jesus’ words about small things say to churches?

The comparison to the mustard seed that grows into a great bush teaches us about small beginnings that turn into great blessings. The woman’s dough teaches us that great ministries often have hidden beginnings. The shepherds’ looking for the lost sheep teaches us that true joy is found in the rescue of the one.

God does not want a marketing plan. God does not hold media events. There are no flashbulbs going off when God begins to work. God is more concerned about the one than the large crowd. God wants to begin in a small, hidden way, because God is full of surprises.

What doesn’t start small doesn’t start at all. Churches and ministries start small, but their blessings can become great in the lives of those they minister to. If the church is faithful in doing the small things, they will ultimately produce big blessings to the world. That’s how the kingdom of God works.

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