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“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
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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.

“Blessed Are the Meek”

hand holding earthLast week we started this sermon series entitled “Blessed: Wisdom from the Beatitudes of Jesus.” We talked about those who are poor in spirit long for God, and those who mourn are those who can’t wait for the kingdom of God to come to fruition. We talked about the glimpses of the kingdom of God that we have seen through those in Virginia helping workers who have been furloughed.

This Sunday we continue our second week in our “Blessed” sermon series on the beatitudes where we will study the second beatitude: “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5: 5).

When we think of being meek, we must realize that most of us have spent most of our lives hoping that no one would call us meek. Meek in the eyes of our society is someone who is shy, quiet, or awkward. Someone who must be drawn out of their shell. Someone who gets picked last for kickball, the person who never wanted to be called on during class. In adulthood we see meekness appear in adults who appear uncertain of themselves, in those who miss promotions because they will not go after them. We have been taught to view meekness as a negative attribute in our society, and yet here in these words of Jesus, we see that being meek is an attribute of God.

You see meekness as it is defined in the Bible is something that requires great spiritual strength. People who are meek care more about what God thinks than what other people think. John Piper describes it this way: “Meekness is the power to absorb adversity and criticism without lashing back.”[i] We all should strive to be meeker as we once again recognize the God in whose image we are made.

Jesus Christ was someone who was meek. Many people thought that this promised king would come into the world like a warrior, a military hero, someone fully clad in armor who would save the people and conquer the world through war.

Jesus’ entrance into the world made him vulnerable. He was born in a meager stable because there was no room for him in the inn. He spent the first part of his ministry alone in the wilderness for 40 days being spiritually formed to do his ministry. He did not enter Jerusalem on a steed, he entered on a lowly donkey. He did not hang out with the popular kids and strategic political leaders in order to rise to power. He modeled a ministry of servant leadership where the lowly were exalted.

Come this Sunday and hear more about how we can embody meekness as we practice our faith.

Prayer: Lifter of the lowly, help us to embody the beatitude of meekness. Help us to listen so that other may speak, help us to stop so that others may step up, help us to choose our words carefully when others treat us badly. Help us to model the meekness of Jesus who broke down boundaries and served all of your people. In the name of Jesus Christ we pray. Amen. 

Endnotes

[i] https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/blessed-are-the-meek

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