“My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?”

LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS
This week we continue our fourth week of our “Final Words from the Cross” sermon series. Our statement to reflect upon today is “My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?” If we are honest, we have all had moments in our lives where we have asked God this same question. For me, it is when I was in my first year of seminary. After many conversations and much deliberation my fiancé and I decided to break up. We had been together for five years. We had planned a future together. Before I left to go to Duke Divinity School he proposed in a grand gesture to show his love for me.

You see I was on a certain trajectory. I graduated college, I was to finish seminary and then get married to my high school sweetheart. Things were not supposed to happen this way…especially not to me. Although we both made the decision together to end our relationship so we could both move forward in other areas of our life, I was crushed. He was my first true love and my best friend. What was I supposed to do now? I felt like life as I knew it was over.

I found myself in a new state and new place my first year of seminary and coming in I did not know anyone. My first semester I had spent so much time going back and forth from Duke to Tech that I had not tried to make new friends so I did not have a support system.

To make matters worse, I had shared about my breakup in my required Duke covenant group and the leader quickly moved on to the next person, not stopping to pray for me, not seeming to acknowledge the depth of my pain or this important life event. I had great family and friends from back home, but I felt alone. I was also angry. I thought “God, I finally have surrendered my life to you. I am here. I am in seminary on my way to being a pastor. Why now? Why could I not have this one thing and be happy? Do I really have to sacrifice everything I care about for you?” I was in a dark place and uttered these same words of Jesus Christ.

We all have experiences in life that lead us to this place. We live in a broken world where there is pain and suffering. We lose the people we love. Life is not fair. Others always seem to be able to get ahead while we feel like we are working just as hard or even harder. It is comforting for us today to know that Jesus also knew what it felt like for everything to go wrong. Jesus knew what it felt like to feel like he had been abandoned by God.

Now, we know that God was with Christ, because Jesus was the Son of God, a person of the Trinity who was never separated from God. Even though Christ felt abandoned by God, God was still with him.

We are called to be a light to those who are in darkness, to those who utter these same words of Christ. God has blessed me with amazing family and friends who were there for me in the difficult moments of life. In seminary right after my breakup God sent me a friend named Ashley. She journeyed with me through my grief and I helped her with some of hers as well. We are all dealing with something aren’t we?

Ashley and I developed a beautiful friendship that continues today. We have seen each other continue to live out the calling that God has placed on our lives. Also, we have both since been married and had our first children and we are both now UMC pastors me in Virginia and her in Texas.

When we are going through difficult things in life, it is sometimes hard for us to look toward the future with hope, but time after time I see that God’s plan for my life was better than any plan I ever could have made. I wish I could have believed that in the dark moments of my life, so I feel I am charged with sharing this same message of Christ with others.

The good news for our lives today is that God has not abandoned us, God is with us, and God is offering us a future with hope.

So friends take a moment to be there for those who need it the most and if you are struggling you are not alone, God has not abandoned you and I am here to listen.

Prayer: God, we thank you that even in our darkest moments, you have not abandoned us. We take comfort that you know our pain, you know our grief, and your son Jesus died our death, and rose so that we can always have hope for tomorrow. May we not take a single moment for granted and sacrifice our time to help those the most in need of your love and grace. Amen. 

JESS AND ASH 2019Left: Me and Ashley at my wedding where she was a liturgist.
Top Right: Taken after Broadway Revue 2013, where Ashley came back to support me as Co-Director. Middle: Ashley preaching at her church. Bottom right: Me preaching at my last appointment.

 

 

“New Life in the Midst of Death”

Magnolia

This coming Wednesday, March 20 is going to be the first day of spring. This is a day that has been long awaited through such a long winter of bad weather and rain. I found it ironic during our last snow when I was playing outside with Dean, when I looked at a snow-covered tree with the buds piercing through the snow. New life was trying to spring forth, even in the cold of winter snow.

Christ is always offering us new life, but so often we miss the signs of new life all around us. I think this is why I love the season of Spring, because we look all around at the beauty of creation and see new life bursting forth. As we continue our “Final Words From the Cross” sermon series this Sunday we see Jesus Christ offering new life to a criminal hung beside him on the cross.

Our Scripture from Luke 23:42-43 reads: “Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’” We see in the last moments of his life a criminal reached out to Jesus, and Jesus in God’s mercy invited him into paradise.

What an amazing God we serve! I hope to see you this second Sunday of Lent in worship.

Prayer: Living God, you are always making all things new and offering us new life in the midst of death. Help us to see the signs of your kingdom breaking through all around us. In the name of Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.

“Sticks and Stones”

sticks and stones

I think we have all heard the saying, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” We say this, and yet it simply is not true. Some of the worst damage someone can cause us emotionally and spiritually is through their words. I am sure all of us can think of an example from our own lives of when we experienced harmful words that we can still recall today. Harsh words are like stones because they can chip away at our identity, at our understanding of others, and even our understanding of God.

Last week at General Conference, our delegates experienced protesters on the street whose signs were held up by sticks and were hit with insults that stung like stones as delegates from both sides passionately shared about which plan was the best one to adopt. It was not a good day to be a United Methodist.

The damage done at General Conference is not over, and yet I will continue to be part of building up the body of Christ through staying in The United Methodist Church.

The good news for us all today is that we cannot break the church. Christ is the head of the Church, the cornerstone upon which the church hinges, so I know it will be preserved beyond all of us who are living and breathing today.

Instead of spending our time and energy placing blame on why everything happened the way it did (although it is so easy for us to do this, myself included), I think we are now called to action. This is a time to remember who we are as United Methodists and think about who we want to continue to be as future generations become disciples of Christ.

May we continue to be people who build up the church and not tear it down.

Stones have been used all throughout Christian history to build up the kingdom of God and not tear it down. In the Old Testament, Moses hit a rock with a stick and water sprang forth to provide life for the Israelites. The people of God built altars out of rocks to commemorate their experiences with God.

In the New Testament, it was a rock removed from its original place, that told us that Christ had risen. Our understanding of rocks became an embodied part of our faith as we were called to be “living stones” as be “built into a spiritual house for God” as we are built into the body of Christ, the church (1 Peter 2:5).

Our communion table, which is made from sticks and stones, continues to offer us life and not death. This is what God does for us; God takes elements that by themselves look ordinary or dead, and breathes new life into them to show us grace.

As we move forward together, I will continue to offer life. I am not ready to give up. God is always doing something new. I hope you will join me.

Prayer: Giver of life, renew us with your Holy Spirit as you make a way for us. As we find ourselves on the eve of Lent, you remind us that we have to spend time in the wilderness before we can do effective ministry. As we wander in the wilderness, guide and direct us. Save us from ourselves and each other. Remake us into the people you are calling us to be and above all else, give us the words to express your love and grace to others. In the name of Jesus Christ, we pray. Amen.

(Picture used by permission from canva.com)

“Rising from the Ashes”

RISING FROM THE ASHES

In a surprising turn, the Special Called General Conference of The United Methodist Church of 2019 ended up tightening up the old wine skins, instead of making new wine skins. I think we are all still in a state of shock as the perceived understanding of this called conference was to make “A Way Forward” as we learned to be in ministry with people who are LGBTQI+. There are also many questions as the plan that was passed, “The Traditional Plan,” still seems to have many elements that are unconstitutional to our “Book of Discipline.” This plan was also passed unknowing the financial implications that may occur…there are still many questions that need to be answered in the coming days and months.

Although I am saddened because I feel we moved backwards instead of forwards, I do not feel defeated in my understanding of The United Methodist Church. I grew up in The United Methodist Church since birth. My entrance to the church was playing baby Jesus in the Christmas Nativity. This is the church that has raised me, loved me, and taught me what it means to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. These are the people who have laughed with me and rejoiced in the beautiful moments of life, and these are the people that have sat with me and cried with me in the difficult moments of life.

So I am not ready to give up on The United Methodist Church. I am now in my tenth year of serving in full-time ministry and this is still the church I love.

So I will not give up and I will continue to renounce “injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves” (UMC Baptismal Covenant, UMC Hymnal).
I still long to be part of a church that continues to extend Christ’s table to the world, a church that says that all people are welcome at the table…a church that recognizes that God’s calling on another person’s life cannot be debated.

So friends, I know there are many hurting, and for that I am sorry. Know that there are many people out there not willing to give up. There is hope for us yet.

Prayer: Welcoming God, still the chaotic seas of our hearts this evening. Make your presence known to us and offer us your peace. Calm our anxiety about the days and weeks to come as we live into a new normal. Give us strength and endurance as we continue to discern how to bring to fruition your kingdom on earth. May our tears this evening be the food that sustains us as we continue on this journey together. Thank you for offering us the hope of your resurrection today and always through our faith in your Son, Jesus Christ. And Lord, once again, help us to rise from the ashes into new life. Amen.

“Trapped by Our Method”

methods picI don’t know why I am surprised. We have always been people who are methodical. The term “methodist” actually came from a derogatory term used to describe John Wesley and his “Holy Club” while he was studying at Oxford. His classmates had experienced John Wesley as someone who always did the same thing with his friends. He always prayed, studied theology, studied the Bible, took Holy Communion, and visited people in prison.

These are just a few things that defined the faith of those starting this Wesleyan movement. “Methodists” went from a derogatory term to a noun used describe a denomination that was spreading like wildfire through England as the people called Methodists practiced personal and social holiness. Societies were growing. They were places others could participate in these methods of worship, hearing the proclamation of the word of God, praying,  and taking communion. Accountability was important as all society members were required to be part a small group where they were invited to recount their sins each week and seek encouragement and support.

Throughout the test of time, part of our survival has depended on our methods.  Our methods have kept us intentional about our relationship with God and other people. As I am watching the live feed of General Conference, from the comfort of my kitchen table, I see these methods being used once again as Holy Conference is occurring. Yet, these very same methods, these “Robert’s Rules” leave us talking at one another, rather than talking to one another. These human-made rules allow for time to be wasted and focus to be taken away from the task at hand.

Yesterday in worship I preached on how we are called to “hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness (Matthew 5:6).” In his book “The Workbook on the Beatitudes” Maxie Dunnam shares: “When we hunger and thirst for righteousness, we desire for God’s will to be done in the world, and we place ourselves at God’s disposal in order to make that happen.”[i] Jesus goes on in the very next beatitude as he explains that offering mercy is a part of this process (Matthew 5:7). In Hebrew the word mercy is “chesed” and William Barclay explains that it means to literally “get right inside the other person’s skin.”[i] This is also the ministry to which Jesus is calling us to do in this beatitude. We are fully able to submit to the will of God and offer mercy when we enter into dialogue…dialogue with God and one another.

I have no doubt that those elected to discern God’s will for us as The United Methodist Church to move forward have been called for such a time of this. They have entered into dialogue with God and others in preparation to come to St. Louis. I think what is missing from the conversation today is an honest dialogue about what is at stake and the weight of these upcoming decisions…a time to offer mercy as both sides are heard…a time to lament the pain we have caused others and time to pray together on how we can move forward and not backwards as The United Methodist Church. A time for hope.

I will continue to pray that God’s will be done and continue to hold onto hope that more dialogue can occur in the large session so we can more faithfully discern how God is calling us to move forward.

Prayer:
Gracious God, I thank you for all the delegates at General Conference. They all have a great weight that has been placed on their shoulders. They have been faithful in their preparation for this time. Continue to help our process today at General Conference and make room for your Holy Spirit to move and breathe and stir. Continue to help these delegates discern a faithful way forward as we seek to extend your table instead of close it off. We thank you that your will we be done in spite of our methods today. Give us your hope, give us your peace, and give us your guidance. In the name of Jesus Christ we pray. Amen. 

Endnotes
[i] Maxie Dunnam. “The Workbook on the Beatitudes.” Self published. 2004. P. 116.
[i] Maxie Dunnam. “The Workbook on the Beatitudes.” Self published. 2004. P. 116.
* Disclaimer: Although I like this resource by Maxie Dunnam I do not wish to associate myself with his theological understandings outside of these quotes.

Image taken from canva from canva.com subscription. Cross and flame from UMC.ORG.

“Back of the Bus Stories”

school bus
(image used with permission with subscription to canva.com)

This past week I was blessed to attend the “Fierce” Women’s Gathering event in Tipp City, Ohio. This event was held for the first time this year when Pastor Rachel Billups of Gighamsburg Church discerned a need for women in leadership in the church to connect and empower one another. So, the Holy Spirit started nagging me. “It looks like a great event Jessie.” Then the excuses came: “It is too far away, how will I find childcare for Dean for that long? I don’t want to be away from the charge.” And yet, the Holy Spirit persisted and made everything fall into place so that I could go.

Once I was there, I understood why God had called me to that place. So often in ministry we only hear of each other’s successes. It is so easy to compare ourselves with our amazing colleagues in ministry and feel like we are not doing anything for the kingdom of God. It was amazing for me to see these very successful women of God share about their failures, their struggles, their hopes, and their journeys as they continue to answer the calling that God has placed upon their lives.

The talk that was the most influential for me was by a Nazarene pastor, Rachel Kuhn. She shared about the power of telling our stories, and that our original story comes from the story of God and God’s people. She gave this beautiful analogy of a school bus. She said, [paraphrased]“Imagine that all your stories live in a big yellow school bus. As you walk onto the bus you first see your favorite stories in the front, the stories you love to tell. As you get to the middle of the bus you see your best friend and share your secret stories that connect you.” Then she said, “Many of us do not want to tell our back of the bus stories.” These kinds of stories are ones that scare us, that make us sad, or that may even make us view ourselves as a failure. These are the stories we have not quite worked out for ourselves, but these stories are powerful and show Christ’s redemptive work in our lives.

This imagery of the back of the bus stories was powerful to me. We all have stories like this and yet so often we do not share them with one another. Not sharing our stories can cause conflict and warring within ourselves as we fail to process and let go of negative things we have experienced or bad choices we have made.

Throughout the Bible we see people at warring with themselves, God, and one another. In Genesis 25, we see Jacob and Esau warring together even in the womb. This war continued as Jacob stole Esau’s rightful birthrate and blessing through deception. All of this came to ahead a Peniel where Jacob was at war and wrestled with God.

This is my call story. This is my back of the bus story. God called me to ministry and time and time again, I wrestled with God. I said, “No, not yet.” I was called to ministry in Gadsen, South Carolina on a mission trip at sixteen years old beneath the ashes of a church that had been burned down by the KKK.

This calling was clear, it was direct, but I discounted it for many years. I thought: “I am too young to decide to devote the rest of my life to God in this way.” I thought, “I am not good enough.” I thought if only other people knew all the mistakes, I had made they would not want to follow my leadership.”

Just like going to this conference, I made a million excuses of why I was not ready to say yes to God’s calling upon my life and yet, God pursued me, God forgave me, and God redeemed me.

What an amazing God we serve! I am been so blessed over the years to hear so many share with me these holy back of the bus stories.

Remember you are not alone. Your stories are important. God works through our stories and continues to bring redemption in our lives every day.

I hope to see you this Sunday as we continue our beatitude sermon series “Blessed Are the Peacemakers” where we remember that even though we may feel at war with God, with one another, or with ourselves, Christ continues to offer us peace through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

Prayer: Amazing God, thank you for working through our stories. Even though we may not have asked for the stories we possess, we thank you that there are those who are willing to listen to our stories of joy and sorrow. Help us to not be afraid to share our lives fully with others in the body of Christ. We thank you that we are part of your story, where you continue to offer us grace, and save us from ourselves, one another, and sin. We love you God. Amen.

“My Name is Jessie, and I was Continued”

 

cont pic
Hi. My name is Jessie, and I was continued. Continued to do what you may ask…Well if you live in the world of The United Methodist Church you may know, but if you don’t I will inform you as a lot goes into this word “continued.”

If you don’t know much about the process to become ordained in The United Methodist Church, you must know that when folks get to their ordination interview, they have already been on a ten year plus journey to get there. To seek ordination, you must receive a diploma from college, you must attend a three-year seminary, you must do field education, and clinical pastoral education, and work in ministry for three years before you are even able to apply for full ordination. It is a grueling and faithful process.

Seven years ago in January of 2012, I went before the Board of Ordained Ministry to be considered for full ordination. I was ready. I was over-prepared. The day came and I walked to my car at Blackstone confidently thinking that all my interviews went very well. Then I received the call that although I had passed two committees with flying colors, they were going to continue me another year because I did not pass the theology committee. When I asked why, my team leader shared that although I had not shared anything heretical during the interview, the team thought that my answers were too short in the oral interview and because of this the team thought that they could not hear my theological voice and were not comfortable passing me.

In my effort to not talk too much (which is my very nature), I did not talk enough. So, I was continued for another year in the provisional process. Although this may not seem like a big deal to some, in my world, this was the worst thing that had even happened to me. I felt like I had failed, like I had publicity failed. My church grieved with me. I questioned my own effectiveness in ministry.

I felt that a great injustice had happened to me by the Board. I was devastated. To make matters worse, that Annual Conference, I sobbed as I watched 25 of my closest friends being ordained. That was the year they had the choir and everything.

I wallowed for a while with this grief: I laid on the floor and cried. I ate some Ben and Jerry’s, I shared with anyone who would listen about how unfair my life seemed to be. By the grace of God I had some wonderful people in my life who told me it would feel like the end of the world, but that is really wasn’t.

I finally realized that I needed to spend more time and energy on passing than becoming stuck in the past. The next year, I went back to the interview committee, I presented my action report, and I shared theologically in detail with more examples from my ministry setting, how God had called me to practice this crazy thing called ministry. Then in 2013, I was ordained.

What I found in that year of growth, and it is hard for me to admit this even today, is that being continued had a lot more to do with work I needed to do, and a lot less with the Board that had continued me.

God works in mysterious ways. The same year I was ordained I was invited to serve on the Board of Ordained Ministry, which I have now been a member on for the past six years. I have read 23718394734347328947239847 papers. I have been in many interviews of those seeking ordination and I can say with confidence that the board does this holy work with a great burden on their shoulders. Of course we want everyone to be recommended. We know how hard everyone works, we know how much time it takes to write papers and do everything else to prepare for the interviews. We sit in our team meetings for hours, praying for discernment from the Holy Spirit as we discuss candidates and the criteria that has been set before them to meet.

As I have sat on this other side, I realized that when I was continued that board was just doing their job. In continuing me they were not saying no to me, they were saying not yet. It was true that I had not met the criteria set before me in the interview, so their only choice was to continue me. They rejoiced with me the following year when I was recommended. They beamed with pride as I crossed the stage to be prayed over by the Bishop.

I now thank God for that year to grow in humility, knowledge of the Bible, and my ability to teach what the Bible says. I think this is why God and our Bishop have called me to serve on the board, to sit with those who have been continued at provisional events. I know your pain. To remind them that God is with them, to remind them this is not the end of the world even though it may feel like it.

I think we have to stop viewing being continued as failure and the end of something, and start viewing it as the beginning of a journey of self discovery in which we will be strengthened.

To those of you out there who have recently been continued…this is not the end…your ministry is important and needed, you are important. Surround yourself with people who lift you up and celebrate your gifts, give yourself some grace and ultimately know you are loved by God.

It is okay to grieve, to cry, to be angry, to question things, but you cannot stay in that place forever.

God really does work in mysterious ways as this past round of interviews I served on the very committee and team that continued me all those years ago. In this action, God reminded me that moment of continuation in my life was not the end, it was just a part of my story of ministry, it did not define me and my ministry and helped to strengthen me into the pastor I am today.

What I am trying to say is continuation is not the end…it is like a comma in the story of life. Do not lose heart if this is part of your story and above all know you are not alone.