Letter to Congregations on the Death of Osama bin Laden

The events of the last week have weighed heavy on my heart. Last Sunday night as I was watching the announcement by President Obama that Osama bin Laden, leader of a terrorist organization, had been killed by U.S. forces in Pakistan. In the age of social media and 24-hour news cycles, the responses of individuals came rushing into the world. The responses were varied, some well thought out, some very visceral. One thing was clear, a chapter in our history had just been closed.

In reviewing responses of people on Facebook and Twitter, and seeing images on the different news stations, the overriding response was joy, celebration, and pride. As I sat there something didn’t sit easy with me, I honestly felt sick and had to sit in silence for a few moments. There seemed to be something wrong with this type of response from the masses. I was most troubled by those who would claim a blessing from God upon our nation by providing the death of this man. The thought that God has played a part in any of this was not isolated to a few zealous Christian fundamentalist, but people I know very well who many would classify as very devote Christians who follow Christ closely. (Some would even be called left-wing crazies!)

I do not want it to be thought that I look past the teachings or actions of Osama bin Laden throughout his life, nor do I think that it is realistic that he would ever be brought to a courtroom alive, it is the response of so many people that has lain heavy on my heart. Is celebration of any death a Christian virtue? There is nothing in any of my study, prayer, or faith experience that can comprehend that celebration of any killing is a faithful way to serve our God. Some claim the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) of God’s judgment and wrath as precedent for this type of celebration, but I must say this is a strong misreading and interpretation of God and Jewish practice.

I share with you the practice of the Seder Meal during Passover. During the meal the Ten Plagues on Egypt are recounted that lead to the freedom of the Jewish people. With the recital of the Ten Plagues, each participant removes a drop of wine from his or her cup and places it on the tablecloth. Although this night is one of salvation, the Sages explain that one cannot be completely joyous when some of God’s creatures had to suffer. So even though the deaths were needed for the freedom of Israel from slavery, mourning is still the proper response to those deaths. We can mourn for the systems in the world that create violent behavior and thought, that create people like bin Laden, but celebrating the death only continues the cycle. Celebrating this death with such joy only perpetuates the things we find so disturbing about terrorist like bin Laden.

I leave you with this quote from Martin Luther King, Jr. from his writing Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?(1967):

Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes… Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.

In Prayer,

A New Day

It has been way too long since I’ve done anything with this blog. I’ve had lots to say, but life was just moving so fast I didn’t see a good time to pause and write. However, I think this is about to change. I am sitting in the airport in Washington, D.C. right now, returning home from Ecumenical Advocacy Days 2011. It was a great event that really changed my motivation for ministry, but energized me to move forward.

The conference was opened and closed by amazing plenary sessions. I’ll go into more detail about each of them in later posts, but this quote was shared during the first session. It is from Sally McFague’s book, A New Climate Theology. In it, McFague says:

“If God is always incarnate– if God is always in us and we are in God– then Christians should attend to the model of the word as God’s body. The model of the world as God’s body helps us understand the doctrine of creation is not about God’s power, but about God’s love.”

A new understanding of creation leads us to a new understanding of our life and our purpose within creation. Everything around us is part of God’s body, created by God’s love. It was from this perspective I began my time at Ecumenical Advocacy Days. We were there to seek peace and justice through God’s love, for God’s creation.

In the closing session, Jack Jezreel of JustFaith Ministries shared great insight into why we do the work of justice and peace. Jezreel left little room for us to stay silent in our collective witness for God. His goal for the night was to make us uncomfortable with our current place in our mission. He was very successful, but it made me uncomfortable in a way to motivates. I feel bad that I’ve been complacent in what I’ve done and haven’t done. Jezreel shared this insight with us later in the evening:

“Churches are not losing members because they are wrong…it’s because they aren’t courageous.”

We in the church like to blame each other for the failings of the church. In the United Methodist Church, in which I serve, it usually comes down to a conservative/liberal type argument. After thinking about it, both sides are correct. We are all to blame. I don’t think we do enough when it comes to justice. We don’t work for the rights of each and every person in the global community. This causes people to avoid the church, to find alternative ways of expressing their spirituality, and to work for justice wherever the opportunity arrises. It’s time for the church to be courageous, to take major risks, to be heroic in the struggle for God’s love to be realized by all.

I’ll share more in the coming days, as well as some pictures. I just wanted to get the first post up so that I started the process again. Who knows, if my plane gets delayed any more, maybe the next post will come sooner than I think!

Grace and Peace,

Here We Go Again…

Well, this is going to be what seems like my 100th attempt at blogging regularly. I always get going well in the beginning, and then let it slip away. I figured it was time to get going moving on it again. So many things have changed over the last year that I’m not going to even attempt to catch up on everything on this blog. I’ll highlight a few things, and set the tone for future blogs.

I am in the third month of my third year as a pastor. I began my third year in the Conestoga Parish on July 1, 2010. It’s both exciting and scary knowing that I’ve been in the same place for that long. Most of my employment up to this point has been seasonal or temporary at best. The other thing about starting my third year is that I know it will be my last with these three churches. Starting July 1, 2011, I will be a full time pastor and will move to a new church, and most likely a new town. I’ll share more about that in the future, because I don’t know anything about that yet and won’t until I get the phone call next spring.

Along with starting my final year at the churches, I begin my final year of seminary. I won’t mince words here, I’m extremely excited to be finishing up school. I started school at 5 1/2 years old, and now I’m 25 1/2 years old. That’s been a lot of time in school thus far in my life, and I’m ready for a break. People tell me that I’ll miss it, but I just want the opportunity to miss it. Right now I miss being home for more than 3 days a week. I miss being able to spend time with my family and friends on a regular basis. Many of my friends are getting married, having kids, and I want to be more free to experience those things with them. I fell rushed all the time, like I can’t give my all to any thing, only part of me to a million different things. Anyway, I’m ready for May to come around and to have completed my Master’s degree. It’s been a long few years here, and I’ll be glad to have that degree in my hand.

This last summer I had some exciting times. At Annual Conference (if you don’t know what that is, think of it as a large corporate meeting with all of its stockholders) I was commissioned as a Provisional Elder in the Nebraska Conference of the United Methodist Church. Now, what does that mean? Well, in short, I’m a step away from full ordination. The Board of Ordained Ministry felt that I was prepared enough to take on the work of an Elder, with some accountability and supervision, and after a couple years, I will be eligible for ordination. If all goes well, I’m looking at summer of 2013 for ordination. Here’s a picture from that event.

Well, I think I’ve spent enough time tonight tinkering with the design and layout of the blog and writing this post, I better get back to the homework. I’ve already started the list of things to blog about, so look forward to more posts coming soon. It feels good to be back.

Grace and Peace,

Check This Out!

Throughout the summer, 5 young adults from the different parts of Nebraska came together to look into what doing justice within our church was all about. The interns were part of a program called Micah Corps, and have done amazing work. Many of the things they’ve done can be seen on their blog by clicking here.

You’ll see interviews with different agencies they worked with, as well as some interviews with pastors from the Nebraska Conference. (You may even find me on there! 😉 )

Hope that you can venture over to their blog.

Grace & 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

Refelctions

I’ve never been one to set resolutions as a new year begins, but I do think it’s important to reflect on events and happenings in my life and see what I can learn. 2008 was a year of much diversity in my experiences. There’s been highs and lows, and everything in between.

2008 started and ended in the exact same place and with some of the same people. I found myself in cold machine shed in rural Nebraska with friends from college. That might have been the same, but everything in between was anything but familiar.

I spent the first 5 months of 2008 living in Kansas City and working at Baker University in Kansas. I enjoyed the time very much, and often miss living in a city with so much to do. That semester is also when I experienced a class that forced me to think in different ways about theology. I was introduced to Process Theology, and think that this will be an area I will spend more time in, either in a class or on my own. I discovered an understanding of God that made sense to me and lined up with my experiences. This was a big moment for me to have discovered something in seminary that got me excited about what I was doing.

The spring of 2008 also brought about the quadrennial gathering of United Methodists known as General Conference. This was my second time attending, but my first as a primary delegate. This was a time of deep struggling for me personally and spiritually. There were many glimmers of hope that I saw and experienced during the conference, but there were also some down times. It won’t be a surprise to anyone who knows me, but there was much disappointment in the church’s continued decision to ban the ordination of homosexuals. Also, the continued policies that make the church less accessible to the LGBT community troubled me at the time, and still does. However, I experienced a progressive community that I had not previously within the denomination. These were people I shared views and passions with, and gave me some comfort during that time.

Following General Conference, the school year ended and I received my first appointment as a pastor in the United Methodist Church. This resulted in a move back to Nebraska and a few life style changes. I also spent July in Dallas at the South Central Jurisdictional Conference to elect bishops for the church. This was my last act as a lay person in the United Methodist Church, and was a reaffirmation of why I am moving towards ordination and greater leadership in the church. The politics and clear prejudices present at this event showed me the need for great change in the church.

As August and September came around, I became very excited to start school again. I was ready to start learning and to see my friends again. However, I never thought that this fall would be such a challenging time in so many ways. These last 4-5 months have been the most difficult that I’ve experienced in my life, and there are so many different elements that have contributed to it. I’ve learned so much about who I am in comparison to who I thought I should be, and learned a lot about trust. I’ve gained some amazing people in my life through these experiences, and wouldn’t want to have had any other people in my life during this time.

One shining highlight of the year was the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. I spent much of the year hoping for that night when the election happened. I had the opportunity to see Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton in person, as well as take part in a few political rallies. It was exciting to be a part of something so historic. Election night was also a lot of fun in KC. I got to see the results with my closest friends and had a blast.

I know there will be challenges and difficulties in the future, but at this point I’m hoping for all the best in 2009. I have a lot of questions about my calling and my future ministry, but am going to take it as it comes and discover where I’m suppose to be in life. It may even end up being something I never imagined.

I’ve gained so much from my close circle of friends in the last part of 2008, and feel a lot better than I would if I didn’t have them. In some of my most difficult times, I gained people that are family to me. I can never thank you all enough, and look forward to the times we will have together in the future.

I pray that everyone will receive love and happiness this coming year, and all the years ahead. Take time to evaluate life, and be willing to try something new!

Grace and Peace,
Z