A Post-Election Thought and Prayer

I know it’s been awhile since I’ve blogged!  Since my last post, Corey and I have moved, I started a new pastoral appointment, Corey has started a new job, we are deep into this whole parenting an infant thing, and we’ve been doing a crazy balancing act ever since!  Please forgive me!  I did want to break my silence and share a letter that I will read to my congregation on Sunday morning in the post-election madness that our nation is feeling and experiencing.  I hope you will find it helpful and hopeful. Peace to you and yours.

Dear Friends of Asbury UMC,

As your pastor, I feel the need to address the divisions and uneasiness many feel as a result of the election this past week.  Regardless of your political views, there is no getting around the fact that this election has caused deep division and fear for many in our country.  Regardless of your political views, there is no getting around the fact that people of different colors, religions, sexual orientations, and genders are being taunted, bullied, and threatened, and feel unwelcome in their own country.  I have friends with black children who have been targets of racial threats.  I have seen stories of Muslim college students fearing for their lives.   I saw an article about a school where someone posted “whites only” and “colored only” signs above water fountains.  I have seen photos of graffiti in Bloomington, IN glorifying racism and white supremacy in the name of our president elect, complete with swastikas and KKK images.  In Columbus, Indiana, a Hispanic pastor’s children were told by other students to “go back home, and go build that wall.”  Because of the election result, some feel that they have been given a platform in which to treat others as “less than.”  Regardless of who your vote went to, I hope we can all agree that this is unacceptable, and it is not okay.  We can’t deny the fact that our culture has seen a shift over the past few months, and has worsened over the last week.    Therefore, we as Christians must speak out against bullying, injustice, racism, sexism, and xenophobia in all its forms.

This is not about politics.  This is about treating human beings with dignity and respect.  We, as followers of Christ, who loved and welcomed all, should not stand by and be silent.  We as United Methodist state in our Social Creed that:

We commit ourselves to the rights of men, women, children, youth, young adults, the aging, and people with disabilities; to improvement of the quality of life; and to the rights and dignity of all persons.

We believe in the right and duty of persons to work for the glory of God and the good of themselves and others and in the protection of their welfare in so doing; in the rights to property as a trust from God, collective bargaining, and responsible consumption; and in the elimination of economic and social distress.

We dedicate ourselves to peace throughout the world, to the rule of justice and law among nations, and to individual freedom for all people of the world.

We believe in the present and final triumph of God’s Word in human affairs and gladly accept our commission to manifest the life of the gospel in the world. Amen.

As Christians, we are a people of hope and peace.  So as we move forward together, may we spread hope and peace, that we might be the healing hands of Jesus in the midst of this uncertain time in which we find ourselves.  Let us pray:  (prayer by Rev. Jessica Stenstrom and the UM Book of Worship #442)

Come and fill our hearts with your peace

You alone O God are holy

Come and fill our hearts with your peace

Alleuiah

If you celebrate this morning, I pray with you and for you

If you mourn this morning, I pray with you and for you

If you’re excited for the changes that’s coming, I pray with you and for you

If you’re filled with anxiety and fear over potential changes, I pray with you and for you

If you have felt harmed by the political rhetoric, by divisions among friends and family – I pray with you and for you hoping today begins healing.

Whether you are thrilled or devastated – the good news is this God is still God. Neither candidate would be the solution to all the problems, pain and division of our world. God is the only solution.

My prayer for us this morning is that we would be the people of God living out life in the ways Jesus modeled by feeding the hungry, caring for the sick and poor, offering hope to the broken-hearted.

Through our faith in God, we know that love has the power to overcome hate and division – light shines through pain and darkness. Let us choose love and choose light.

Almighty God, you rule all the peoples of the earth.

Inspire the minds of all women and men to whom you have committed the responsibility of government and leadership in the nations of the world.

Give to them the vision of truth and justice, that by their counsel all nations and peoples may work together.

Give to the people of our country zeal for justice and strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with your gracious will.

Forgive our shortcomings as a nation; purify our hearts to see and love the truth.

We pray all these things through Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

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“Goodbye (God Be With You)”

Philippians 1:1-11: From Paul and Timothy, slaves of Christ Jesus.
To all those in Philippi who are God’s people in Christ Jesus, along with your supervisors and servants.
2 May the grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
3 I thank my God every time I mention you in my prayers. 4 I’m thankful for all of you every time I pray, and it’s always a prayer full of joy. 5 I’m glad because of the way you have been my partners in the ministry of the gospel from the time you first believed it until now. 6 I’m sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus. 7 I have good reason to think this way about all of you because I keep you in my heart. You are all my partners in God’s grace, both during my time in prison and in the defense and support of the gospel. 8 God is my witness that I feel affection for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.
9 This is my prayer: that your love might become even more and more rich with knowledge and all kinds of insight. 10 I pray this so that you will be able to decide what really matters and so you will be sincere and blameless on the day of Christ. 11 I pray that you will then be filled with the fruit of righteousness, which comes from Jesus Christ, in order to give glory and praise to God.
From Pastor Jill Howard, servant of Christ, appointed here by Bishop Mike Coyner in 2008- to the members and friends of Morgantown United Methodist Church, who are God’s people in Jesus Christ:

Dear Friends,

I thank my God every time I mention you in my prayers. I’m thankful for all of you every time I pray, and it’s always a prayer full of joy. I’m glad because of the way you have been my partners in ministry of the gospel from the time I started here 4 years ago and until now. I’m sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to continue the jobs of ministry here- the jobs of worship, fellowship, prayer, learning, serving, reaching, and loving. I have good reason to think this way about all of you because I keep you in my heart. My prayer for you is that your love might become even more and more rich with knowledge and all kinds of insight as you continue on in this place. I pray this so that you will be able to decide what is truly important and what is petty enough to let go. I pray that you will be filled with the fruit of righteousness, patience, hope, peace, compassion, and joy, which comes from Jesus Christ, in order to give glory and praise to God.

Four years ago, I was at my parsonage in Terre Haute one March evening eating a blizzard from Dairy Queen, when I got a phone call from the DS- THE phone call. We were moving to a little place called Morgantown, he said. Having known Pastor Roy, I knew of Morgantown, but not too much about it- just that it was a small town in south central Indiana. This came as a shock to me because the last news I heard about my new appointment was that I was being considered for another associate pastor position at a larger church. So Morgantown, IN was the last place on my radar! I asked the DS, “What part about ‘don’t send me to a rural congregation didn’t you all understand?’” He assured me that I would be well-accepted and told me some of the wonderful things about the congregation. I thought to myself, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” And my mind was put at ease from the moment I met with the PPR committee on that first night 4 years ago. And the rest is history. Looking back, it’s hard to believe how fast 4 years have gone by, and how much ministry we have done together. Today I want to share with you some of the highlights of my time with you.

Learning. We have learned a lot from each other. You all have taught me the joys, quirks, and sometimes drawbacks of small town life. I have never lived in a small town, but you have shown me the ins and outs of what it’s about. I’ve driven some of the most rural little roads, and my Subaru has seen what the backwoods really look like. Corey and I survived hitting our first deer, and have dodged several more since then. We have also learned a lot about our faith together. My first small group study here was on the book, What’s the Least I Can Believe and Still be a Christian. In this class we wrestled with everything from evolution to creation, to sexuality and how we read and understand the Bible. This class was followed by others such as Christianity and World Religions, Making Sense of the Bible, Becoming a Disciple, and the a study on the Apostle Paul. I fondly remember a Tuesday morning study for women during Advent where we learned together about the women of the Christmas stories in the Gospel of Luke. And I also have fond memories of our Wednesday morning Bible study at the Senior Center where we read through and studied the entire Gospel of Luke together. All 24 chapters of it!

One of my passions as a pastor is teaching and journeying with people as we explore our faith. I enjoy asking and hearing the tough questions and wrestling with them together. We had some eye opening discussions, lightbulb moments, and prayerful times of learning that will stay with me forever. I want to say thank you for these sacred moments.

2) Worship. We have worshiped well. We have heard and been a part of beautiful music together. Either from the choir, special music, or Brian and Debbie on the organ and piano, we have lifted our voices and thoughts to God through song. You’ve allowed me to share my passion of singing with you. You all have been supportive of the creative things I’ve tried, such as the Pentecost where we released red balloons throughout the sanctuary. I have never seen happier faces on people in worship than I did that morning! Or the times that I have invited you forward to kneel in front of the cross and reflect upon its paradoxical beauty and sadness. We have been a part of healing worship times, celebratory, challenging, prayerful, and Spirit filled. We have prayed for one another, and we have praised God together. May you always remember this sacred space as a place where we come to experience God, and expect that God will show up for worship, whether you are prepared to meet God or not!

3) Fellowship. This includes all of the good food we have had together! From ladies’ luncheons to pitch-in dinners, and the wonderful Christmas meal, you all sure know what it means to hang out and have fun together. There is a reason why Jesus shared meals with so many different kinds of people. As one of my seminary professors said, “Jesus loved meals so much that he became one.” Being at a table together over a meal is a good and sacred thing. It is where we are our true selves and experience the riches of life together. Fellowship at this church means that all are welcomed and all are loved. I’ve never seen a church who cherished their fellowship time after worship as much as you all do. I hope you keep that spirit alive for a long time to come, and invites others to be a part of it. Anyone who attends fellowship hour as a first time visitor usually comes back. Why? Because they have shared in conversation with you over some good food and fellowship. Jesus meets us at the table, and we are to extend that invitation to others to come as they are.

4) Love for the community. This is a congregation who is proud to be part of the community. We open our building for a number of different people and things, and we serve the community in many ways. We get involved in things like Col. Vawter Day and the Memorial Day parade, we have scouting troops that meet here, aerobics, and people who make sure the Food Pantry is a vital ministry and service for people in this town. Vacation Bible School reaches out to children and youth, and we can be proud of the fact that we are an open, affirming, and inclusive church. We have done mission projects that have helped youth, senior citizens, the homeless, the hungry, and even IGA shoppers. I hope that you will keep thinking of ways to reach out to the community and bring them the light of Jesus Christ. And not just that, but that you will invite people in this community to experience what it means to have a relationship with Christ and his followers in a wonderful place such as this. We need Jesus both inside the church and outside of it. The world is our parish. Let’s make it so.

5) You have allowed me to be a part of your lives. I have shared joyous occasions with you from birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, positive medical test results, and births of children or grandchildren. I have sat beside you in hospitals or prayed with you before a surgery. I have helped plan funerals for your loved ones. I have prayed with you for a variety of reasons. I’ve had intimate conversations with many of you, wrestling over life’s challenges or difficult questions about faith. We’ve explored next steps together in life’s journey. You have let me into your lives, and for that I will be forever grateful. One of the most rewarding things about being a pastor is that I get to experience the many seasons of life with people, from the baptism of a baby, weddings, and when life is coming to an end. Pastors are invited into those sacred spaces and times, and it is a holy opportunity and calling. I have been privileged to share these times and spaces with each of you.

6) And finally, I have loved the unique oasis that makes this church special in so many ways. I hope you realize how rare it is to find a small town church such as this with a range of theological and political views such as this, and how much you love each other and do ministry together anyway. I love that you have welcomed people into this congregation who have not been able to find a warm welcome in other churches in this area, and I love that some of you disagree with each other, and probably even me, yet this is the place you come to learn about and experience a relationship with Jesus Christ. You have been able to keep your focus on a shaping a loving community and staying the course in disciple making. Keep on making the main thing the main thing. Create space for people who are different from you and who do not think like you do. Keep working on ways to invite a wide range and variety of persons into the fold, and be creative in how you might reach out to youth and families, too. There are rich possibilities here for multi-generational ministries and sacred spaces for children and families. Take advantage of those possibilities!

Many years ago when I was leaving my youth ministry position at St. Luke’s in Indianapolis and heading off to seminary in Atlanta, my dear friend and colleague said to me, “We are saying goodbye, but goodbye really means, ‘God be with you.’” And I have never forgotten this. So today, as we say goodbye, we are really saying, “God be with you,” and I will add, “till we meet again.” “God be with you till we meet again.” The apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians with affection, prayers, and thanksgiving long ago. He said to them, I know these wonderful things about you are true (and will continue to be true) because I keep you in my heart. And these words are words that I know are true today. I keep you, the people of Morgantown United Methodist, in my heart. And may his prayer to the Philippians long ago be my prayer for you this day:
That your love might become even more and more rich with knowledge and all kinds of insight as you continue on in this place. I pray this so that you will be able to decide what is truly important and what is petty enough to let go. I pray that you will be filled with the fruit of righteousness, patience, hope, peace, and joy, which comes from Jesus Christ, in order to give glory and praise to God.

God be with you. And blessings on the journey.

In Christ,
Pastor Jill

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“Leaving the Nest” Syndrome

The other day in conversation, Corey pointed out to me that I have been in ministry of some form or another for almost 15 years.  15 years!  I started out as a youth ministry intern/staff for St. Luke’s UMC while I was in college.  I also interned as a chaplain for Wishard Hospital during that time.  I was 19-20 years old.  I then served as a student pastor in seminary, followed by more chaplain work.  And after seminary, I started serving churches as a pastor full-time.  Now, almost 34, I look back at how far I have come, and also how much more ministry I have ahead of me.  I have TONS of sermons, Bible studies, pastoral care visits, weddings, funerals, mission projects, and I’m sure LOTS of church meals awaiting me in the years to come.  I look forward to continuing to live out my calling.

I am now about to enter into my third full-time appointment as an ordained elder.  And here’s what I wonder as a young clergy woman: when, instead of leaving a congregation that says, “We’ve seen you grow so much while you’ve been here and we feel like we’ve helped get you to the next phase,” will I hear these words instead: “We’ve done good ministry together and you have led us well.  Blessings on the journey.”  In my past 2 appointments, I have left feeling as if people see me as “leaving the nest.”  I also know good and well that people believe that good ministry and discipleship has taken place, and I do not discredit that at all.  But I do, however, feel an overwhelming sense that I am still seen as a little bird who is still waiting to take flight, and that’s not how I see myself living out my ministry calling at this point.  I have a lot of years ahead of me, but I also have a lot of years behind me.  I hope one day for people to see beyond the “leaving the nest syndrome” when they consider my ministry and leadership.

Yes, I still have a lot to learn and a lot of growth ahead of me.  But I look forward to the day that I am not seen as the young clergy woman who is “earning her wings” and “is leaving the nest.”  I am genuinely curious if this is a gender thing, an age thing, or something else.  Does anyone else experience this, and in other vocations, too?  Maybe I should take it as a compliment, and be glad that evidence of my growth is authentic and real.  But I am also taking it as a statement that perhaps younger clergy are still seen in a certain light that is difficult to escape.

Am I alone in this?  What do you think?  Has it happened to you?

 

 

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Close Encounters: Peter

John 21:15-19

15 When they finished eating, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 Jesus asked a second time,“Simon son of John, do you love me?” Simon replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Take care of my sheep.” 17 He asked a third time,“Simon son of John, do you love me?”  Peter was sad that Jesus asked him a third time, “Do you love me?” He replied, “Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 I assure you that when you were younger you tied your own belt and walked around wherever you wanted. When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and another will tie your belt and lead you where you don’t want to go.”19 He said this to show the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. After saying this, Jesus said to Peter, “Follow me.”

This week, we will wrap up our series on Close Encounters of the Risen Christ as we explore the complex and compassionate relationship between Jesus and Peter.  In this encounter, Peter has the conversation of a lifetime with the Risen Christ over a fire and breakfast.  Last week, we left Peter on the shores of the sea after he had jumped into the waters to swim ashore to see Christ for himself.  For whatever reason (I think it’s funny), the text tells us that Peter was naked on the boat, but put on clothes to jump into the water.  I always thought this was more than a random and intriguing detail.  I think this moment is when Peter is most vulnerable to Jesus.  He is living in the in between- between his past failure of betrayal and the hope of restoration and forgiveness that only Jesus can offer.

Once on the shores of the sea, Peter encounters the Risen Christ by the fire, which mentally takes him right back to the fire that warmed Peter as he denied Jesus three times.  Scent is connected to memory.  There have been times when I have been walking somewhere and have caught a scent of my grandmother’s perfume, and it takes me right back to memories of when she was alive and would hug me so tight that I thought she would never let go.  The scent also reminds me of my teenage years when, admittedly, I wasn’t so nice to her, and I find myself feeling guilty that maybe I didn’t apologize to her enough in my adult life.  Scent can bring back parts of our lives that either bring us joy or that we no longer wish to remember.  As the scent of the fire takes Peter back to his betrayal and failure, the risen Jesus meets him in the midst of his shame, and offers both compassion and a challenge to turn it all around.

And it all begins with a question (or three!) from the Risen Christ: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”  What is Jesus referring to here?  What are the “these”?  Perhaps his question is really, “Simon Peter, do you love me more than these other disciples do?” Peter responds the first two times, with “Yes, Lord you know I love you.”  What kind of love is being referred to here?  There are three types of love discussed and used in the Greek language.  Eros usually refers to an intimate or romantic kind of love.  Philos is friendship or family love, and a love shared between equals.  Agape love expresses a love between God and humanity, and the kind of love we show when we are charitable to others.  As Thomas Aquinas put it, agape love is to “will the good of another.”

The first two times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, Jesus uses agape love, and Peter answers with philos love.  But the third time Jesus asks, he changes the wording, asking Peter, “do you love me?” using philos love.  Peter answers for the third time, “yes, Lord, you know everything, and you know that I love you (using philo love again).  In this we are reminded of Jesus words to the disciples when he tells them, “I do not call you servants any longer, but I have called you friends” (15:15).  Jesus calls Peter not just to love, but to love others and love them to the end, even to the point of laying down his life for his friends.  Sound familiar?

This kind of love, whether it is called philos or agape love, expects to be shown in action.  This kind of love is not about just feeling- it is about doing.  Love is as love does.  This kind of love personifies courage, risk, and unwavering commitment, regardless of what we are being asked to do.  In these three repetitive questions, the Risen Christ calls Peter (and us) to follow him, even to the places where we may not wish to go.  Echoing Peter’s three denials, Jesus then gives him three opportunities to make it right.

The church is at a crucial point in our world right now where we cannot afford to waste our time with “we have never done it that way before,” or trying to get back to how things used to be.  Instead, we need to be listening for this very question from Jesus himself, “Do you love me?” and be willing to respond over and over again, “Yes, Lord, I love you.”  But that’s not the end of the story.  If we love Jesus, really love Jesus, then we are to show it through the way that we are brought to life through him.  If we don’t do this, then our words are empty and meaningless.  We must be willing, as Jesus commands Peter, to take care of, feed, and tend to all persons as those who belong to God- the sheep of the Great Shepherd.

But in order for Peter to be equipped for this great cause, he must be willing to face his failures and open himself up to the restoration and healing that comes with confessing what has been and moving forward.  After all, Peter, in spite of his deep betrayal and failure, swims to Jesus and meets him by the fire, perhaps with the hope that he could move on from his failure.  In order to do this, he would need to depend on the grace and compassion of Jesus.  So it must be with us.  Before we can minister for Jesus, we must allow him to minister to us (Bradford).

Peter has been living with great shame, but it is here at the fire that Jesus forgives, heals, and restores him.  And he does this in a way that Peter is not condemned or that he remains in his failure, but in a way that he is healed.  Author Brennan Manning once wrote, “Define yourself radically as one beloved by God.  This is the true self.  Every other identity is illusion.”  Peter had to learn this lesson in order to move forward and become the rock of the church.  He had to become a “forgiven failure,” and that is enough for God to take him and use him.

We live in a society today where success is the driving force behind everything.  To fail is perhaps the worst thing that could happen to us as individuals.  Failure has become synonymous with shame.  We have forgotten just how broken we are, and that there is beauty in recognizing that despite our brokenness, we are loved unconditionally by God.  That is the heart of this story of Jesus and Peter.  In this we remember that Jesus himself was willing to “fail” and lose his very life in order that he might gain it again and show us a better way.  There is a quote that says, “Never trust a leader without a limp.”  Peter would walk with a “limp” for the rest of his life, and it would actually add to his strength in loyalty and leadership for the cause of Christ.

What if instead of pushing our failures aside and hiding in our shame, we bring them to the surface and are honest about who we really are, despite our failures and brokenness?  What if we were to pray each day for daily humiliation or for at least one thing that doesn’t go our way in order to remain humbled and honest with ourselves and who we truly are?  I have found that as a mother, I have a whole new definition of success and failure.  There are moments each day when I feel as if I have failed my son, either because I feel that I am not doing enough or not doing something right, or because I can’t seem to figure out why he is crying or unhappy.  The perfectionist in me wants to fix everything in every moment, and with a baby, that’s just not possible.

Just earlier this week, Xavier and I took a trip to Indianapolis to see my best friend and her new baby.  On the way home that afternoon, we ran into rush hour traffic, and on top of that severe thunderstorms and heavy rain.  By the time we finally reached Greenwood, Xavier was in the back seat screaming bloody murder.  I had to pull over twice to calm him.  Let me tell you, you haven’t lived as a mother until you find yourself climbing in the back seat of your car in the parking lot of a fast food restaurant in the pouring rain to hold your screaming child and pray just to make it home.  I called Corey in tears twice before it was all said and done.  To make matters worse, state road 135 was closed at Whiteland Road, and I had to take a detour to get to our house.  What should have been an hour long car ride took us 2.5 hours!  I began to feel as if I had failed as a mom and wondered if it was a mistake to bring him along for the day because he was tired, fussy, and hungry.  The trip home was full of unplanned scenarios and detours and hardships.  But I was humbled by the fact that I did everything that I could have done.  And you know what?  It was success that we made it home safely.  What I perceived as failure made me rearrange the way I saw my day of motherhood, and I was able to move forward in order to get us home safe and sound.

Every day I have to shift my perspective of success and ask, “Is he fed?  Does he have clean clothes?  Is he warm enough?  Is he safe?”  When I answer yes to these questions, I know we have succeeded, even in the midst of moments when I question if we have failed.  The worst words for me to hear are, “I am disappointed in you,” and I try to avoid hearing those words at all costs.  But perhaps it is good for us to realize from time to time that we are not perfect and not to be ashamed of our imperfections.  It is good for us to realize that we stand in need of grace and compassion from others, and especially from God.

I have a friend and colleague who struggles with the mental illnesses of anxiety and depression.  The other day, she posted on facebook that she usually enjoys sharing photos and thoughts about the good things in her life and about her accomplishments- the things that make her proud.  However, this particular day, she shared that she was battling with her disease once again and shared her thought process that happens to her: a downward spiral of thought and self-hatred.  Yes, she is on medication and seeks medical attention.  But I admired her bravery for sharing her struggle in such a real and raw way for people to see and get a glimpse into mental illness and the effect it has on a person.  She even posted a photo as a real look into her struggle.  It was met with many people who commented that she was a courageous young woman for opening up and sharing such emotion and struggle, because so often we just want to share the good parts about our lives and we often do not show who we really are and name our imperfections.  This was a good reminder to me that as Christians, we are called not to hide in our shame, but to name it in community and draw strength from a God who takes us as we are, even when we are struggling or failing. For my friend, sometimes success is simply getting through the day.

Peter, in the midst of his failure, had to find a new definition of success.  Not as a fisherman, but as someone who is radically beloved by God, and to live into that identity by feeding Jesus’ sheep.  In his encounter with the Risen Christ, Peter walks away with 2 things: freedom from his failure, and a future ahead of him.  Peter’s restoration to renewed relationship with Christ is also a restoration to a new kind of leadership and a call to true discipleship- the kind that brings us to the point of discomfort as we name our need for God and are sent out into the world to bring others to him.  As I was preparing for this sermon, I was reading a chapter in the book, Encountering the Risen Christ by Mark Bradford, and this particular quote nearly took my breath away.  Mark writes, “the trouble is that, without a sense of the true cost of discipleship, so many of us never truly hand over our lives to Jesus in the first place.  Christianity is all too often for us a ‘lifestyle accessory’ rather than a dying and rising in the path of our Master.  When the going gets tough, we sometimes try to save the very life that we are called to lose, and we still cling on to the world, at the cost of our souls.”

This really struck me because it was a hard truth to swallow.  I had to ask myself, “have I never truly handed my life over the Christ?  Do I tend to see my Christian faith as nothing but a lifestyle accessory rather than the way I live my life?  Am I so concerned with what people think of me on the outside that I’ve neglected to show my true self as an imperfect person in need of the same kind of grace that was extended to Peter?

Jesus stands before us asking us over and over, “Do you love me?”  How will we answer him?  Will our words echo what is in our hearts and our hands and the way we will serve?  Will our brokenness, our mistakes, or our pasts stand in our way of loving and being loved by the Risen Christ?  I certainly hope not.

Archbishop Desmund Tutu says, “True forgiveness deals with the past, all of the past, to make the future possible.”  The past he refers to deals with the horrors of the apartheid in South Africa where those of darker skin color were labeled as less than those with white skin, and violence, torture, and death came upon those who were different.  Following the end of the apartheid, Tutu headed up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose job was to hear the stories from victims and perpetrators alike about the atrocities of the apartheid.  The hope was that instead of more violence and retaliation, healing and forgiveness would occur in order for the country to move forward.  The realization was that the past does not simply go away, either on a political stage or in personal lives.  Wounds that are pushed down deeper are bound to resurface at some point.  So we must allow the truth about ourselves to be told and to live with it.  As a people, we struggle to tell our difficult stories or show our scars and imperfections, all because we feel that success is the only thing that should be shown to the world.

There were some beautiful things that came out of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, mainly that people were able to share their stories and the truth was heard.  It was thought to be a success overall, despite a few flaws.  Those who shared their stories were given the gift of freedom from the past and a hopeful move toward the future.

Peter was given freedom and a future as he sat with the Risen Christ by the fire that morning in Galiliee.  He had to become a “forgiven failure” in order to move forward and begin his mission to change the world.  So, too, Jesus calls to us to come sit with him by the fire awhile, or to the communion table, to ask us this very question until we really get it: Do you love me?  To love Jesus means that we come forward as broken people in need of forgiveness and compassion, and then to follow, feed, tend, and even lead out of our failures.

The Christian life is one of humility, admitting our failures, and standing in need of a God who loves us anyway and calls us to restoration.  It was at this low point that Peter came to find his place and identity in the love and forgiveness of Jesus.  Maybe this is where we need to encounter the Risen Christ for ourselves, too (Bradford).  Amen.

 

 

 

 

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I am a D.Min Dropout

Well, it’s official.  I am a D. Min dropout.  Most of you know that I started working on my doctor of ministry degree from Candler in August of 2014.  I was very excited to be part of the first cohort of the program.  The focus was on “biblical interpretation and proclamation,” and I was ready to take it on.  And then life happened.  When I found out that I was pregnant with Xavier, I realized that our J term class during the 2nd year fell right around my due date, and then I would be on maternity leave through most of the spring semester.  I couldn’t fathom as a first time mom dealing with a newborn and course work, and obviously recovering from childbirth.

I also, in the meantime, got involved with the IN delegation to jurisdictional conference and started serving on the Board of Ordained Ministry, and found myself busy and interested in other parts of ministry in my congregation.  So…my enthusiasm for the D. Min program quickly faded.  And I learned something about myself…that perhaps online learning wasn’t really my thing anyway, which was a difficult realization for me.  Even more difficult was the realization that I would eventually withdraw from the program.  And even MORE difficult was hearing from the faculty, “I understand, but I am disappointed that you are choosing not to return.”

But you know what?  It’s okay.  I had to get over my feelings of feeling like I failed at something or feeling like a quitter.  Having a baby has changed the way that I see the world, and I honestly was not prepared for how much it has changed the way that I see things.  I have also had to learn (and I’m still learning) how to say “no” and what to say “no” to.  It’s been a good lesson for me, and a difficult one.  I’ve never said “no” so much in my entire life!  It also means that the things I say “yes” to are things that I treasure and choose to spend my time doing, whether personally or professionally.  Time is so very precious these days.

I have also had to rediscover where my interests are at this point in my life, and be okay with the fact that the D.Min program just wasn’t on my interest list anymore.  Will it be in the future?  Possibly!  For now, I have chosen to focus on other things, such as my family, ministry in my new appointment, and continuing to serve the church in a variety of ways.  I had to choose to say “no, not right now,” and that was the best choice for me.

So yes, I am a D.Min dropout…but I prefer to think of it as “not right now,” and “exploring other avenues.”  I won’t be Rev. Dr. Jill Howard…but for now, I’ll stick with and celebrate my other titles: M.Div, Rev., pastor, wife, daughter, sister, friend…and my latest one…Mom.  And that’s okay with me!

 

 

 

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Close Encounters: Thomas

Part 3 in a series I’m doing called “Close Encounters with the Risen Christ.”  I’ve had some help and guidance from the book, Encountering the Risen Christ, by Mark Bradford.

John 20:24-29

24 Thomas, the one called Didymus, one of the Twelve, wasn’t with the disciples when Jesus came. 25 The other disciples told him, “We’ve seen the Lord!”  But he replied, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands, put my finger in the wounds left by the nails, and put my hand into his side, I won’t believe.”26 After eight days his disciples were again in a house and Thomas was with them. Even though the doors were locked, Jesus entered and stood among them. He said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here. Look at my hands. Put your hand into my side. No more disbelief. Believe!”28 Thomas responded to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!”29 Jesus replied, “Do you believe because you see me? Happy are those who don’t see and yet believe.”

Words for reflection: “Anything worth believing is also worth doubting.” -Brad Watson, Finding Jesus by Doubting the Resurrection

A man was on trial for murder. There was strong evidence of his guilt, but no corpse.  When the time came for the defense to give a closing statement, the lawyer, knowing that his client would probably be convicted, tried to stump the jury. “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I have a surprise for you all,” as he looked at his watch. “Within one minute, the person presumed dead will walk into this courtroom.” As he turned to the courtroom door, the jurors, looking stunned and confused, looked on eagerly, awaiting the entrance of a so-called dead person.

A minute passed, and nothing happened. Finally, the lawyer confessed, “Well, actually, I made up the previous statement, but you all looked as if someone was going to walk through the door.  I therefore say to you that there is reasonable doubt as to whether anyone was murdered, and insist that you come back with a verdict of not guilty.”

The jury, still looking stunned and confused, left to make their decision.  A few minutes later, they returned with a verdict: guilty.  The lawyer, surprised, asked, “But how?  You must have had some doubt because I saw all of you stare at the door.”  The jury foreman replied, “Oh, we looked….but your client did not!”  (Mark Bradford, Encountering the Risen Christ)

Doubt, or lack of it, can be very revealing- it certainly was in the case of Thomas! Poor Thomas! He has gone down in history as possibly the 2nd worst disciple (behind Judas), and he’s most well known as Doubting Thomas, the one who needed to see the Risen Christ in order to believe that he had actually appeared to the disciples. In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), he is simply mentioned as being one of the 12 disciples. But in John’s gospel, we get a little bit more about who he is.  When Jesus hears that his friend Lazarus has died, Thomas’ loyalty comes through when he says,“Let us go, too, that we may die with him.”

And later, Jesus explains to his disciples that they should not worry, because Jesus goes to prepare a place for them, and says that they know the way place he is going. Thomas, however, speaks up and says, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”  In his childlike way, Thomas asks questions that a child would ask, but that an adult might be afraid to ask. I admire him because he’s not embarrassed, but just comes out with it.  Thomas is the guy who doesn’t always “get things” the first time, but is unafraid to question or challenge what he hears or sees. We are not always great with people like this in the church…but Jesus’ grace and patience show us a different way.

I remember in my previous appointment, I was teaching a class on the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church, which for some, are surprising and very challenging on certain topics. I had one person in the class who I was convinced thought that his job was the question or challenge every single thing that I said.  It took all the patience I had to try to explain or answer his questions in a way that would appease him, or at least get a point across.  At one point, I finally had to realize that out of every person in the class, he was at least the one who dared ask tough questions and be interested enough in the material to challenge it and assess it for himself! At least he showed up to class to see for himself what was being discussed and was able to immerse himself in the conversation rather than hearing about it from someone else outside of class.

So we have to admire Thomas, and feel a bit sorry for him that he wasn’t with the group of disciples when they first encountered the Risen Christ. Imagine how that week in between the two appearances must have been for Thomas- he would have put up with everyone talking about it and saying “you should have been there!” Because he wasn’t there, he is isolated from the group, and feeling left out.

So when Jesus appears again and Thomas is there, Jesus shows kindness and grace to him in the midst of his doubt.  The Risen Christ meets Thomas exactly where he is in his skepticism. He doesn’t condemn or judge him. Instead, Jesus invites Thomas to see and feel the evidence for himself- his pierced hands, his side, the top of his head.  Interestingly enough, our text doesn’t say that Thomas actually touched Jesus.  I think we assume that he did, but perhaps the sight of Jesus alone was enough for Thomas’ doubts to be removed, and Thomas experiences “the benefit of the doubt.”  We shouldn’t ignore the fact that the disciple who doubted Jesus the most also gave him the highest praise and confession of faith found in the gospels by proclaiming him as, “My Lord and my God!”  Perhaps, Thomas accepted more quickly than anyone else what the resurrection would mean about who Jesus is, and he needed some extra time to wrestle with it. According to tradition, Thomas was the first disciple to leave Jerusalem, and he didn’t waste any time doing so. The other disciples remained in the upper room for quite some time, but Thomas, after encountering the Risen Christ for himself, was ready to go and tell others about him.  (Bradford)

That’s the evidence of a true encounter- that we are called to do something about it! Tradition also states that Thomas traveled further than any of the disciples, going all the way to the tip of India, where he gave his life for Christ as a martyr. Thomas sure went a long way with his “doubt.” If that’s the case, then I think we could all use some! Was he the second worst disciple? I don’t think so!

Thomas is actually one of my favorite disciples, and the reason that we chose Thomas as Xavier’s middle name.  He should be best known not for his doubting, but his curiosity.  He wasn’t satisfied with the run of the mill answer, or by things he had just heard. He wanted to experience and believe in the Risen Christ for himself.  He wanted to get the answers for himself. He wanted more- a richer experience and explanation, and to dig deeper.

I would even challenge the idea that he was doubting Jesus, and say that instead, he was longing for Jesus.

He had a deep longing for what Jesus had said to be true. Thomas wanted it so much that maybe he couldn’t bear to open himself up to the possibility without assurance that it was real. He was longing for Jesus enough to ask the questions in the first place. And Jesus honored his curiosity with the invitation to reach out and feel his hands and side.

It’s unfortunate that a lot of the time in the world of faith, that doubt is viewed in a negative way. Christians especially are made to feel guilty if they express doubt or question their faith, the teaching of the church, or teachings about the Bible. Overall, the church has sent a message that doubts are not welcome, when really, the church should be a place where we encounter the Risen Christ as someone who receives our doubts and questions with grace.

We also live in a society where knowledge, facts, and evidential proof have the final say on complicated matters.  The church has a hard time fitting into this type of society because it seeks answers to some very difficult questions without concrete answers. Faith asks very different questions of us than science does!

There hasn’t been much space provided in our world today for doubt or suspicion. The church should proudly be that safe space where people bring their questions, doubts, and skepticism about life, faith, and beliefs.

We also have to get out of the trap that sometimes it’s easier to just be told the answers instead of wrestling with doubt or seeking answers for ourselves.  This is a dangerous way to live out our faith. We should always be seeking answers, asking questions in community, and being honest about when we struggle with our faith.

If we never doubt or ask questions, then we will never grow. If we never get uncomfortable with our faith, then we will be stuck in the same old pattern and will never move forward in our relationship with God. So much of the church today has been tamed. We don’t allow enough room for those scary questions or doubts about our faith.  Mike Yaconelli, a writer, theologian, and co-founder of Youth Specialties, speaks this hard-to-hear truth that we have embraced the wrong understanding of faith. “Faith has been reduced to a comfortable system of beliefs about God instead of an uncomfortable encounter with God.” When was the last time your faith in God made you feel uncomfortable?

When was the last time you asked a tough question about life or faith? Where are you settling for simplicity rather than journeying through the complexity?  Where are we too passive?   Living off of what others have to say and settling for second hand encounters rather than longing for a passionate encounter with the Risen Christ for ourselves?

I get the feeling I’m not alone when I say that I question my faith in God as an itinerant pastor every time I get a call for a move. That’s really when I have to sit with the complexity of life, the vocation I have chosen, and the faith I have that God calls me into this complicated and difficult lifestyle. There have been times when I have asked Corey if my faith in God is strong enough to go where I am sent and trust that God will meet me there in the midst of it all. Even as a pastor, I have my moments of doubt about my faith in God.  I am challenged most often when I look at the brokenness of the world and wonder where God is in the midst of it all, or if God is there at all. I wrestle with writings in scripture that contradict themselves, portray God as violent, and wonder about these strange laws that no longer apply to us today, and wonder why, 2,000 years later, many still see them as absolute truth. There are times I question if all that we do in the church or as pastors is all for nothing.

And then I remember Thomas and how his doubts actually turned his heart outward to a strong life of faith. His encounter with the Risen Christ and the way that Jesus received him gave him the strength in the midst of his doubt to carry out the mission of being a disciple of Jesus Christ, and perhaps the first to go out and tell the world about him.

Doubt is not wrong! In fact, it is biblical, and not something to shy away from. Just think of all of the biblical figures who experience doubt-Job, when he was tested, King David laments over and over again about God and asks where and how God is present. John the Baptist, from prison, sends his disciples to Jesus to ask if he is really the one to come or should John expect someone else. Jesus himself in the Garden of Gethsemane had his doubts about the path before him,asking God that if possible, to remove the cup of suffering from him.

Doubt is not just biblical, but beneficial and necessary. I wouldn’t be standing here before you today if I had never doubted my faith. Because of my doubts, I sought answers for myself about God and Jesus and this whole Christianity thing. If it were not for my doubts, I would have never found my faith.

Thomas was not afraid to share his doubts about the resurrection. In fact, he denied the resurrection by saying that unless he sees for himself, he wouldn’t believe. The challenge of believing in the resurrection is not just about getting our beliefs, arguments, or words right, but it’s about getting our lives right as well. We must be people who practice a resurrected lifestyle led by the power of love, grace, forgiveness, justice, and holiness- and we must do this even in the midst of our doubts, by digging in, asking the questions, and not waiting until we are 100% certain in order to move forward in our relationship with God.  God is there in the midst of our questions, our fears, our doubts. God meets us where we are and invites us to observe his hands, his side, to reach out and touch for ourselves, that we might believe. And when we are bold enough to proclaim in the midst of our doubts, “My Lord and my God!” or even, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!” may we press on to live lives as those who have affirmed the resurrection out there in the world.

Peter Rollins, a writer and theologian, was once asked at a conference if he denied the resurrection. Let’s see what his response is.

So may we, like Thomas, not be afraid to voice our doubts, ask our questions, and confess that at times, we too deny the resurrection. But let us also go forth to proclaim and affirm it in the world out there that needs to have an encounter with the Risen Christ for themselves.  May we, with childlike curiosity, let our doubts lead us along the path to faith. And may we find God in each step along the way, that we will join Thomas in proclaiming, “My Lord and my God!”  Amen.

 

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Lessons from Maternity Leave

I’ve been on maternity leave since Dec. 21 when Xavier decided to make his appearance 3 weeks early!  I feel like I have learned a whole new way of life since then, and I have learned more about myself, parenthood, and life than I ever thought possible in such a short amount of time.  Here are some lessons that I will take away:

  1. Being a new parent is NOT for the faint of heart. Corey and I have had some very difficult conversations, moments, and tear-filled times.  We’ve been more frustrated than I’ve ever known us to be, more confused, and more challenged than ever before.  It’s very hard when you want so badly to fix something, like a crying baby, but coming to the realization that babies sometimes just cry for no reason, and the only thing to do is wait it out and find things that soothe him in the meantime.
  2. Being a parent will break your heart.  The other day I was attempting to clip my son’s tiny fingernails when all the sudden I realized that he was bleeding a little bit from his finger- I had missed his finger nail!  He started screaming, and I started crying and apologizing profusely.  Of course, 3 minutes later, it was as if nothing had happened to him.  Of course, the next day or so I had to overcome my fear and successfully clipped them, with all fingers accounted for…  Then, Corey and I took him to get his 2 month shots this past week, and I didn’t think that we were going to make it out of there with a dry eye between the 3 of us.  I can’t imagine how we are going to handle the many things that will surely cause our child pain in this life.  We will have to toughen up I suppose.  Being a parent will do that.  But I’m sure it never gets any easier.
  3.  Being a new parent is isolating.  There have been times when Corey and I have talked about feeling guilty for not being better friends to our friends who have had new babies.  I definitely feel like I need to write a letter of apology to every friend who has had a baby and tell them how sorry I am for not being there for them or offering to bring food, my presence, or simply a listening ear or phone call.  Some people think that new parents need time and space from other people. For me, this was certainly not the case.  I found myself wanting more people to check in, wanting more people to come over, and more people to just ask how we were doing and who expected an honest response.  We need our friends now more than ever.  There have been some very lonely days.
  4. Being a new parent is at the same time joyful and mournful.  There are times that we have mourned the way that things used to be- when we could just pick up and go anywhere and do anything on any given day.  There are times when we miss sleeping in and being able to eat dinner together at the same time and place.  It’s very hard to let go of the way life used to be.  But there are also times when I look at our baby and I’m filled with joy and wonder at the fact that we created him and he is part of our world.  He’s starting to smile at us now, too, and that certainly helps!
  5. Breastfeeding is HARD.  No one tells you how hard it is.  My goal is 6 months.  It HAS gotten easier, but I HAVE wanted to give up on multiple occasion.  I didn’t believe anyone who told me that it would get easier, and to be honest, I didn’t want to believe them, but here we are still going strong.  And I’m tired.  So very tired.  (But thanks to breastfeeding, I’m only a few pounds away from my pre-pregnancy weight!  That’s motivation for you!)
  6. I actually DO have maternal instincts.   I honestly never imagined that I would know instinctively what to do with a baby.  I was terrified about the strangest things, like how will I know when or how to pick him up?  How will I carry him?  How will I know when it’s time to change his diaper?  How do I change a diaper, by the way?  How will I give my baby a bath?  How will I know when he’s sleepy?  Hungry?  Will I break him?  Drop him?  What do I do with my hands?  :)  Once he came into the picture, I didn’t so much ponder these questions.  Instead, I somehow knew what to do.  And if I didn’t, I learned quickly.  I feel like I’ve discovered a whole new side to myself- a (gasp!) maternal side.
  7. Maternity leave is wonderful, but being a working mom is where it’s at (for me)  Being on maternity leave has taught me important lessons about being a mom, but it has also confirmed that I am meant to be more than just “mom.”  I’m ready to go back to my work as a minister, back to my congregation, back to the life of writing sermons, caring for people, mentoring, and being a part of the connectional system.  I look forward to seeing colleagues and having a life outside of my home.  As much as I love my little boy, I need to remind myself that I am many things.  “Mom” is now a huge part of who I am, but it’s not the only part.
  8. We will eventually need time to work on our marriage.  Having a baby changes everything!  Corey and I have been ships passing in the night between feedings, diaper changes, and taking care of baby.  At some point, hopefully soon, we will need to set aside time to reconnect and remind each other that before baby, it was just the two of us.  We will need to have normal conversations, good food at the same table, and time to be more than “mommy and daddy.”
  9. I’ve learned a new kind of love.  Maternity leave has given me time to focus on my child and to begin to understand the kind of love between parents and children.  It’s a painful, yet beautiful kind of love.  You really know what it means to love something so much that it hurts.  Yet at times I will say that with this love comes a bit of resentment, guilt, and constantly wondering if I am enough, if I’m doing enough, if I’m capable enough for this journey of motherhood.  But in the end, it all comes back to love.  It is a powerful thing.  Never underestimate it.
  10. I’m thankful: thankful for the gift of maternity leave, thankful for the gift of this time, thankful for the support we have received from family and friends, thankful for a supportive husband, thankful for a healthy baby, thankful for good medical care, thankful for a warm and safe home in which to care for a child, thankful for the gift of life and love.  We have so much to be thankful for.1927754_10101177501194987_6770053540581399007_n
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