Small Things…

Today, with the time change and the dreary weather, attendance and participation in worship were less than one would like. Even with those factors, there were some great moments had. It may not have been during the actual worship service, but God moments did happen. In between services, I had many heartfelt discussions about the nature of relationships and how society is functioning today.

One conversation was about how we don’t have community like there once was in our churches and towns. People don’t rely on one another for anything now, and there was a mutual dependence that made everyone stronger. This got me thinking about how we are too often working with the mentality of being completely self-sufficient. This is just not realistic, and maybe the church needs to be the agent that brings strong communities back into our society.

I don’t have any specific ways to do this, or really have a plan to find those answers. I’m just thinking that we need to strengthen community, and the church might be the place to start.

Any ideas? Please share!

Grace and Peace,
Z

My Hopes and Dreams…

Today, as I focused my personal reflection time, I thought about why I’ve come to where I am and what I can do from here on out. I thought about my hopes and my dreams for myself and the church. Trying to remember those things where I felt most hopeful and connected to God in the church. One of the most recent moments was at General Conference in April/May of 2008. Yes, in the midst of the most political activity known to the United Methodist Church, I found God more clearly than ever. A moment I was a part of during that conference will always stay with me.

During one of the morning worship services, a young adult choir was brought together under the direction of Mark Miller. The song we sang was, “Draw the Circle Wide.” It was later in the conference and many of use had grown very weary with the state of the church and whether it would become fully inclusive of all people. Everyone I knew personally in that choir were there to push the church we love to fully embrace each and every person, no matter what! We were told before the performance that since we were part of the conference worship, we would have to remove our rainbow stoles for the morning. At first this troubled me, as it was a sign of our commitment to working for a cause, but after the song was finished I knew that our message was clear without the visual addition.

I felt part of a great witness that day. Calling for each and everyone of us to draw the circle wider and expand the reach of the church in love to ALL. This is more than a mission or idea, but a way of life. This is how we should operate. This is my hope and dream, that one day this will be but a stone on the path to great change. It will take a lot of work, and growth personally, but I am committed to a fully inclusive United Methodist Church and will do all that I can to see that happen.

Below, I have included a recorded performance of the song by a group recently. It is the same version and with the same director. I am working on getting the video from General Conference in a format I can share, but this is just as moving to see. I hope that you can watch and listen and think about how you already “draw the circle wide” and how you can “draw it wider still.”

Grace and Peace,
Z

Validation

This Lent, my churches are studying together, through our sermon series and weekly group study, the complexity of relationships. Specifically, how to prevent their demise and heal those that are wounded. The first Sunday’s sermon topic was on “Invalidation.” It focused on the invalidation of Jesus through the treatment he received from the Roman soldiers. They mocked him and beat him because of who he was and what he stood for.

From there, we talked about how we treat others and recognize their feelings and beliefs. Each person holds these beliefs and experiences close to them, and how we react to their sharing can really change how the person feels now and in the future. If someone tells you about a problem and you brush that off or don’t really listen, you’ve invalidated their feelings. It’s important to think about how we react towards others in this way.

Also, I thought about how we respond in disagreement. There will always be things that people can’t agree on, and those things usually revolve around politics and theology. How do you react to others when in disagreement? Do you simply blow them off as uneducated or not compassionate? Is your reaction in disagreement one that would invalidate someone’s feelings?

I have thought long and hard about how I invalidate people, and about times I may not have even realized I was doing it. Those are the times I feel horrible about. The times when I thought I was listening and caring, but probably wasn’t enough and gave off a message that I did not value the other person. I pray that I can receive forgiveness for the times I invalidated people and their beliefs or feelings.

One moment of validation I felt just today was when a church member asked for a copy or notes of my sermon from last week on the Transfiguration. I was very worried about that sermon and took a lot of time to get it done, and to find out that this person wanted a copy to put with other sermons he enjoyed, really validated my work and my presence in that community. Too often, I think, leaders feel they are not validated and then do not return validation to others.

I pray that each of you realize you are validated by God, through Jesus, and can find peace and happiness this season.

Grace and Peace,
Z

Transfiguration and Ash Wednesday

Mark 9:2-9 (The Message)

2-4Six days later, three of them did see it. Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain. His appearance changed from the inside out, right before their eyes. His clothes shimmered, glistening white, whiter than any bleach could make them. Elijah, along with Moses, came into view, in deep conversation with Jesus.

5-6Peter interrupted, “Rabbi, this is a great moment! Let’s build three memorials— one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah.” He blurted this out without thinking, stunned as they all were by what they were seeing.

7Just then a light-radiant cloud enveloped them, and from deep in the cloud, a voice: “This is my Son, marked by my love. Listen to him.”

8The next minute the disciples were looking around, rubbing their eyes, seeing nothing but Jesus, only Jesus.

9-10Coming down the mountain, Jesus swore them to secrecy. “Don’t tell a soul what you saw. After the Son of Man rises from the dead, you’re free to talk.” They puzzled over that, wondering what on earth “rising from the dead” meant.

After last Sunday’s worship services that I preached at, and then chapel at Saint Paul in Kansas City this week, I’ve been thinking about transfiguration in both the scripture and how it appears to us today. I’ve been thinking about changes in my life and ministry, and how I can look for my “mountain top experience” that will give me some guidance. I’m working to understand how to recognize transfiguration around me.

I’m not entirely sure why, but the sermon in chapel by Dr. Susan Smith this week really brought to the forefront of my thoughts many ideas and questions. I realized the importance of this moment in scripture in relation to the greater narrative of Jesus. I recognized the importance of the guidance and words of those who came before us, and how faith can help wrestle through so many ambiguous situations.

When talking about the ministry of Jesus to this point, Dr. Smith pointed out the human nature of Jesus that we can all easily relate with. I am paraphrasing since I was trying to take notes and listen, but the main point will be the same. She said, “He was familiar with his surroundings. He thought that this ministry would be how it was going to be, but the nudge came along and forced him to look the other way.” I am perplexed by this idea of Jesus being content where he was, and feeling like this was okay to stay put. However, he knew what was right when he was called and continued on to his eventual death and resurrection. As I’ve blogged about recently, I’m struggling with defining and seeking out my ministry calling. This idea that when the nudge forces you to look another direction, you should recognize where it’s leading you and go both excites and frightens me. The thought of sacrificing everything because you were guided to it, is an awe inspiring thought. Jesus did this, and forever changed humanity.

I’m sure the human side of Jesus had his doubts. In fact, that was the point in the sermon that made it very real. The appearance of Moses and Elijah with Jesus on the mountain top shows this guidance for Jesus. They were guiding Jesus to Jerusalem and his death. Dr. Smith related it to them saying, “It will be okay, Jesus. Go to Jerusalem.” I guess I’m looking for my Moses and Elijah right now. I’m searching for those people in my life whose opinions I value the most, to just tell me that “It will be okay, maybe not easy, but okay. God is calling you in this direction.” There is so much uncertainty in ministry, especially when you feel called to areas that are less than traditional settings. I am starting to feel like I might have found a good direction, but just don’t know what it’s like to “know.”

I know I’m called to be a pastor in some form. I want the church to reach out to people, make them feel loved and accepted, and be intentional in working to limit the hurt the church does in society. I want there to be a day where more people are comfortable around a pastor and church than there are people who are uncomfortable. I want to meet people were they are, because that is were God already is. I don’t believe in a philosophical God who looks over us, I believe in an active, working God amongst the people. God will always be shown to us no matter how uncomfortable we may be with the situation or people, God is Love and Love is for ALL!

I hope and pray for each of you to find your mountain top experience. As we begin this time of Lent, we remember Jesus’ journey, ministry, and faith. In Dr. Smith’s words, “God’s intention for us is beyond mortality.” We are love, called, and guided into action by God. This work goes well past our physical lives, but it needs to be done for those who follow. Maybe one day one of us will the Moses or Elijah to someone.

Keep searching for the mountain top experience, because that will enable you to go back in the valley and serve!

Grace and Peace,
Z

What will it be? Where will it be? My purpose in life is a mystery.

Yesterday at chapel I had the distinct pleasure to her the Rev. Dr. Joseph Lowery preach. Some would say it was a lecture, but there was no doubt in my mind that worship and a sermon took place during that time together. I cannot fully give justice to the event in my words, but I do know that I was greatly changed by being able to experience it. Very few people know this, but since I was in elementary school I have extensively read and studied the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. So, to be able to see, listen to, and shake hands with a giant of the movement was extremely meaningful to me.

There were many quotable moments throughout the morning, many of which I am unable to recall completely, but I do remember this one being especially moving.

Integration is not the movement of all things black to all things white; it is the movement of all things wrong to all things right.

As I heard Rev. Lowery speak, I was constantly moved, many times to tears, about all that he and others had done to bring about change to our country and how they have never stopped working for the greater good. He has been committed to his convictions for his entire life, which has spanned an amazing 87 years so far. His stories always had a point whether they seemed to at first or not, and hit home something powerful about humanity and its need to love one another. After the time in chapel I was both comforted and extremely uncomfortable. My discomfort is grounded in the struggle of my purpose and calling in life. Hearing the call for each of us to be “chaplains of the common good” really struck home with me. Rev. Lowery spoke of his recent work in uniting advocacy groups, and how he felt there were some things above the hierarchy of the church. His use of humor in that situation did not stop me from thinking that our institution gets in the way of ministry many times.

I struggle with my own calling each and everyday. I question whether I am called to the direction I’m headed, or to something different. I wonder if I am compromising my calling for the sure deal of itinerant preaching and guaranteed appointments. Am I called to this? Each day I think I may be less and less. First and foremost I want to be a servant leader. Yes, those two terms can go together whether my recent pastoral care book would agree or not. Leading by example, and less by meetings and visioning plans is where I want to be. I want to serve the needs of people and spend less time maintaining and protecting an institution. There is so much need for work in social justice and mercy ministries, that I would hope the church would be open to a calling based entirely on those factors.

Here’s the catch, how do I go about this? How do I determine if this is possible? How do I make sure that I am able to serve in a way that is authentic to my calling, and still be able to make a living to survive? These are all things on my mind right now. I never imagined being almost half done with my MDiv and be thinking that maybe there’s a different path for me when it’s all done. It scares me, causes me discomfort, but also gives me some peace that I know God is still calling me through the doubt and confusion. God’s calling is bigger than a process and bigger than me. Hopefully some answers will come my way soon, and Rev. Lowery was probably a messenger on the path to figuring it all out.

Grace and Peace,
Z

Educate and inform the whole mass of the people…

The title of this post comes from a Thomas Jefferson quote. Jefferson’s full quote is,

“Educate and inform the whole mass of the people… They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about social justice and the treatment of the minority in our society. This has long been a focus of my life, but recently I made the plunge and became a “card carrying member” of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union). I was encouraged to this idea in October. I was asked to attend a political dinner to offer the invocation, being a clergy person in the area and a known member of that party, I said yes. At this event was a retired Presbyterian pastor from my hometown, whose wife was my kindergarten teacher. Before the event started, he took me aside to tell me something. At first I was concerned it would be some warning about being a pastor and too politically involved, but what he said was really encouraging. He said, “Glad to see you here, and wanted to tell you that I’ve been a member of the ACLU for longer than you’ve been alive. There are some of us (liberals) around here as pastors.”

Now this post won’t be entirely about the ACLU, but merely and illustration of my point. On their website, they describe their work as:

The American Civil Liberties Union was founded in 1920 and is our nation’s guardian of liberty. The ACLU works in the courts, legislatures and communities to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to all people in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States.”

This, to me, is very important. ALL people need have the same rights and chances as another. This is especially important to watch within a system that could oppress and limit people with laws everyday.

As my ACLU membership card came in the mail a couple days ago, I began to think about how this relates to my understanding of God and ministry. I find the two very equally connected, the political protection of rights and the openness of the church to ALL people. How do we make a welcoming, hopeful place in our world? I, more than ever, really relate to John Wesley’s idea of the “world is my parish.” I am slowly realizing that so much of what is done in our local contexts is maintaining the institution and its tradition. I think I always knew this to an extent, but it seems like a cycle that doesn’t stop. My heart always lead me to believe that changing one person can start some sort of reaction that would fundamentally alter the way we do things. Unfortunately, my involvement thus far in the church process has made me realize the need for change is on a much larger scale than a few “traditional churches.” Now, I realize that some of this is cynicism, but there is always a bit of reality in cynicism.

I’m in my ‘big picture’ phase right now, but how do we make the world happier for people? How can the church work to ensure that people aren’t left feeling alone and abandoned in life? What ministries can we use to help with this, and what types of new ministries do we need to create?

Personally, these thoughts have made me reflect on my call. I know ministry and being a pastor is the right thing for me, but in what ways? For too long in my life have I accepted the way things are, and decided that I can live in the system and wait for something to be better. What if that catalyst for the change was suppose to be me and I wait for someone else? I’m also concerned that maintaining the institutional side of things takes up too much of our lives as clergy. If we have to spend so much time in administration of system that isn’t working, how do we have time to think and plan the future?

I dream of a church where people never feel left out, are embraced by the people there, and come away with the feeling of being loved unconditionally. This shouldn’t be as hard of a goal to accomplish as it is, but it seems to be the most difficult task any church leader can think about. There are enough things in our society that separate people and make them feel isolated, the church needs to not be another. The feeling of being left out and unwelcome can cause much damage to a person physically, emotionally, and spiritually. We need to always consider how the church’s actions can negatively effect even one person when we make a decision or institute a practice. We can’t prevent every instance of people getting hurt by the church, but if we show our intention to prevent it, that will go a long way.

Let’s hope and pray for a church that focuses on our call to love, and less about the preservation of ourselves.

Grace and Peace,
Z

What’s Love Got To Do With It?

Over the last two weeks I have had more than adequate time to think about life, ministry, and the world. I also had the opportunity to worship as a member of a congregation for the last two Sundays. This was probably the good thing that came out of my recent health problems (which are still ongoing at this point), as I was able to sit and just relax to experience worship. This last semester was one of great challenge and reflection, and is still continuing at this point. I’ve been evaluating my place in the church, my role as a pastor, and how I can use my gifts to improve the people and churches I work with. This has been a process that has left me tired and weary on many days.

This last Sunday I heard a very thought provoking sermon, well at least for me, on Love. I always enjoy David’s sermons, but this one really spoke to me at this point in time. His title was “Love Builds Up.” Immediately I began to think about my life and how I operate, but I also thought about ministry and my direction in it. Love is so much a part of my personal theology, in fact, in may THE essential part of it. I believe in love, and hope for love, and want to spread love to others. While I believe all this, I often wonder how I do this or if I really do?

Love guides me to social justice, to being inclusive, and to being in ministry. Hope for each and every person feeling loved is what drives me to continue on in my career path. The most powerful part of the sermon that caught me was the thought that Love crosses boundaries. The Love of God, as experienced through Jesus, crosses the boundaries we put up as humans. Love should always be our focus, our goal, and our guiding principle. Likewise, Love needs to be MY focus, MY goal, and My guiding principle. I think that it may not be the case most of the time. I regret that I too often just function and maintain the status quo, and that I don’t push the idea of opening ourselves up to Love each and every person we interact with.

I did not realize the power of Love until much later in my life. In fact, probably did not totally until very recently. Unconditional Love is a concept that is difficult to comprehend and accept. Thankfully I have people in my life to remind me of this fact, and love me unconditionally. I owe these people more for my recent development and growth than I can ever truly convey. The feeling of someone loving you should be the way we feel about God, church, and the people at church. This needs to be my focus and the model I give to my ministry. I’m still struggling with how I can do this in the most effective way, and in what form of ministry I can do this the best. This is something I will be contemplating and working on here in the near future.

I hope that each and every person in the world can feel loved at some point in her or his life. Feeling alone and without Love is a horrible thing, and the church should do more to show people compassion and comfort. This is my hope and dream for the church, and my goal to work on!

Grace, Peace, and Love,
Z

Reflections on Chapel Today

For the first time in quite awhile I was really moved by the chapel service at school. The sermon was excellent, communion was done in a way that embraced completely the theology of those serving the elements, even the prayers were deligently decided upon for their value. The overarching theme was to not give into fear, even when the cloud of fear is completely surrounding us.

The message was on Matthew 25:14-30. Here is a small excerpt of that passage:

Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” 26But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

This slave lived in so much fear that he was not willing to even attempt to invest or expand on what he is given. This fear is so much that it actually pushes him to not act at all. How often is that the case in our lives? I know the fear of the results push me to not act many times. The fear of the unknown can debilitate us in so many ways. This message of overcoming fear continued at the Communion Table. We were called to come and partake in the meal, as Jesus and the Disciples did, without fear of there not being enough. Jesus allows there to be enough of him to go around all the time. During communion, the pianist began playing the song, “Give Thanks.” There was no intention for the congregation to sing along at this point, but slowly we all began singing with the music. As I was walking up to receive Communion, the lyrics really started to speak to me.

AND NOW LET THE WEAK SAY
I AM STRONG
LET THE POOR SAY
I AM RICH
BECAUSE OF WHAT
THE LORD HAS DONE
FOR US

I began to choke up for no apparent reason at that point and really felt vulnerable as I came to the front of the line to receive the elements. It was extremely powerful moment in a time where I needed to know about the hope and love that is still present in the church. I also want to share the prayers from the service today.

For all that we have been given, for the many gifts with we have been entrusted, O God of Abundant Life, We give thanks. For the many times we have failed to respond according to our ability, for the many times we have been paralyzed by fear and insecurity, for our complicity in the unjust distribution of weatlh, O God of Mercy, we repent. For the many who live without, for the many who live with too much, O God of Compassion, we pray. For wisdom and courage, O God of Sustenance and Grace, we hope and trust in you. In the name of Christ, Amen.

May many blessings be upon you in your life!

-z

My First Interesting Experience

I had an interesting experience a week ago after the first of two services I was leading that week. It was only my second Sunday at this particular church, and I was still getting to know people and couldn’t entirely tell who were guests and who were members. After the service, as I was greeting everyone that attended the service, a man came up to me and started a conversation.

First off, he stood much closer to me than I was comfortable, and he began to tell me a bit about himself. He informed me that he was not United Methodist, but had taken part in the Walk to Emmaus program and found that to be very good. Here is where things got interesting. He then began to tell me that the United Methodist Church has been out of touch with “true biblical teaching.” He stated that as a denomination we have tried to wiggle and justify our positions, but continued to teach people the wrong way. He informed me that I needed to forget and throw-out everything I had been taught, and reread the Bible with a much more literal mindset. This “conversation” only lasted a few moments, but it seemed to happen in slow motion. The entire thing appeared to be rehearsed and went quickly as to not give me a chance to say anything. Afterwards I simply thanked him for sharing his feelings with me and he bolted out the door.

It was very apparent that he only attended the service that morning to tell the new pastor this message. I blew it off at that moment simply because I had others waiting to see me at this church, and I had to then go to another church afterwards for a second worship service. After looking back, I began wondering if this kind of thing would happen more often to me. I asked the senior pastor if he had ever experienced this, and he hadn’t. In 8 years at these congregations, he had never had someone come up to him like that.

I began to think a bit on whether this man was going to say this to me anyway, or was it something in my sermon that made him feel that he had to say it. I thought my sermon was pretty sound. I preached on why Jesus taught in parables and the importance to us as a community. I made no radical social or political statements other than we should be gentler in how we reach out to people and not condemn or judge right away. If that was a radical statement, then I’m in for a long 40-plus years of ministry.

I’m sure this may only be a one time thing to happen, but thought that it was interesting it happened to me in the first couple weeks of my first appointment. I’m sure there will be more stories of interesting interactions in the years to come.

A Few Different Things

A lot has happened since my last blog update, and I should be in a position now to update on a regular basis. I’ve had much to say, but had to let some of it simmer in my head for a bit so that I didn’t write out of anger.

The first big event is that I attended the South Central Jurisdictional Conference in Dallas. I was a lay delegate from Nebraska, and it was my last thing I’ll ever do as a lay person in the United Methodist Church. I entered this conference with some high hopes for the leadership of our denomination. We were there to elect 3 new Bishops to serve the church. I was very hopeful that this would be the conference where our jurisdiction would finally elect an African-American female to be a Bishop. However, this did not happen. This conference was a struggle for me to be a part of. It was draining physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I don’t want to write every detail here, but the obvious part that sexism and racism played in this conference was very disheartening to me. I had a couple conversations with people from different conferences about how an African-American woman wouldn’t fit the culture of their conference. This one conversation put me over the edge and created a anger inside of me. How is this even a valid reason to prevent an election of a gifted leader to be Bishop, and how is something like that even have a place in the church? I became more and more disillusioned at this process as it went on. Just to set the record straight, I have attended this conference before and I was aware of it being overly political, but I still hoped that this time might be a little different. I left this conference more committed to social justice ministry within the church, and with a deeper understanding of my call to ministry. I also came away with new friends in the progressive movement in the church, so I suppose some helpful things did come about.

On to another event in my life recently, I began my first appointment on July 1. I am now serving 3 rural congregations near Lincoln, Nebraska, as an Associate Pastor. So far everything has gone smoothly, and I’m still feeling things out. It’s hard to get to know people when I am not preaching in the same church every week, but I’m starting to remember people now. I’m excited for the ministry that has gone on in this parish, and am hopeful for the future. I don’t plan on moving to a new appointment for 3 years, which is when I graduate, but I’ve learned that you can never be too sure of anything in this system.

I’ve also settled into my new apartment in Lincoln, and really enjoy living on my own know. I’ve established my residence here, and even got my new driver’s license this week. For the first time since I was 2 years old, I am not a resident of Wahoo, Nebraska.

I’m looking forward to getting back to Kansas City and seeing everyone at school. I’m sure we all have tons to talk about, and I’m ready to get back into the swing of classes.

Grace and Peace,
Z