Author Archives: sheofferedthemchrist

Lamentations of Loss

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A lamentation is a passionate expression of sorrow or grief, and today I have a lot of lamentations.

It has been hard to be sequestered in my home, as much as I love and appreciate my house. It has been hard to watch my son stay inside and away from his friends. It has been hard to resist going out to public places and gathering with people. It has been hard to go without in person worship, and there are no words to adequately convey that loss. But all of my troubles seem to pale in comparison right now to that of others.

I am so sad for all the children and teenagers who will not get to go back to school, and especially those graduating seniors who have had their senior year experience obliterated. I am sad for the families that will have to unexpectedly navigate the world of homeschooling, distance learning, and constant contact unlike their previous normal daily lives. I am sad for the compounding of stress, strain, and anxiety for families. I mourn the financial impact this closure will have and the trickle effect of the loss of vital childcare school provides for single parents.

I am so sad for teachers, staff, and families of other school programs that will be devastated because of this news. Preschools, before and aftercare programs, and tutoring programs will all be profoundly affected. Some may lose their jobs, contracts, and vital income. Some of these programs may never fully recover, or recover at all. The gifts and services they provide will be missed by the children, teenagers, and families that were blessed by them, and now will go without.

I am so sad for those in the service industry that are now out of work with the suspension of in dining offerings for the foreseeable future. They are suddenly cut off, and might not have access to the same social safety nets other industries have. I mourn for their circumstances, financial difficulties, and the strain this will place on them and their families.

I find myself overwhelmed with sadness this day. The Church is a place where people seek to do the right thing, seek to be a vessel of blessing. We yearn to enact our love in acts of kindness, and our compassion in acts of mercy. Yet today the void seems so huge to fill. Just when I think that I might sink into a pit of despair, lamenting until I exhaust my energy, I remember the words of Christ:

But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid (John 14:26-27 NRSV).

While I ache for the gathering of two or more in Jesus’ name to feel his presence in a miraculous way, I am reminded that I have not been left orphaned by the present circumstances or the loss of in person worship. Nor have we been abandoned when we discover new challenges that are being faced right now. We can unite in other ways, some new to the Body of Christ entirely, and some merely assumed to be the way of the world and not the Church. We can focus on prayers and our giving, both of which can be done without contamination to one another and spreading COVID-19. We can support the Church and those that will come in their time of need.

I have been looking for peace, but looking in all the wrong places. I have not found it on the news. I have not found it in social media. I have not found it in my busyness or my isolation. The peace that I need, the peace that brings true rest and rejuvenation to sustain in dark and trying times can only be found in Christ. The truth is that I did not have to find it either. When I remembered Christ’s words, it came flooding back to me. It found me. The peace washed over me, like a river. It cleansed me of my doubt and fear. It rid me of my hopelessness. I still am sad for others. I still lament their pain and suffering. Yet now I can focus on my response and what I have been empowered to do. We have lost so much, and we just may lose a lot more, but we shall not lose hope. For hope is not a thing to be set down and lost, it is our God, who finds us and saves us:

I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind, but now I see. -Amazing Grace

May grace teach our hearts to fear forgetting our God, our selves, and our means of grace, and our purpose as disciples, and grace our fears relieve all the terror, the anxiety, the stress, and the trials of the days to come. We can do this. We shall do this. Emphasis on the “we,” all of us, together.

A Time to Wait and a Time to Serve

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Scripture:

Now Elijah the Tishbite, of Tishbe in Gilead, said to Ahab, “As the LORD the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” The word of the LORD came to him, saying, “Go from here and turn eastward, and hide yourself by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. You shall drink from the wadi, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.” So he went and did according to the word of the LORD; he went and lived by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank from the wadi. But after a while the wadi dried up, because there was no rain in the land.

Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” But she said, “As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the LORD the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the LORD sends rain on the earth.” She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by Elijah.

After this the son of the woman, the mistress of the house, became ill; his illness was so severe that there was no breath left in him. She then said to Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” But he said to her, “Give me your son.” He took him from her bosom, carried him up into the upper chamber where he was lodging, and laid him on his own bed. He cried out to the LORD, “O LORD my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” Then he stretched himself upon the child three times, and cried out to the LORD, “O LORD my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” The LORD listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived. Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; then Elijah said, “See, your son is alive.” So the woman said to Elijah, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the LORD in your mouth is truth” (1 Kings 17:1-24 NRSV).

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I do not usually write devotions based upon such long swathes of text, but many of us appear to have additional time on our hands these days, so I am going a little farther and a little deeper here. In fact, some of us might feel a kinship with Elijah and the widow of Zarephath, being unable to go about our lives as we were used to doing or hope to do now. Perhaps their story can speak to us even more so in this current context of isolation.

Elijah is a faithful servant of God, a prophet who speaks the Word of God when he receives it, trying to bring God’s lost people back into the path of righteousness. Our text opens with his prophetic pronouncement to King Ahab that there shall be no rain for the foreseeable future, a span of time that remain undefined. Just as many of us all over the world find ourselves in a nebulousness of when our isolation shall end, Elijah has to live and operate in less than idea circumstances. He does so. First, he lives off the land in the form of food delivered by ravens and water of the wadi as commanded by God. The thing about ravens is that they are unclean birds, eating carrion as well as being birds of prey. A kosher believer would not eat a raven nor take food from it, as it would be unclean from the raven’s touch, so already Elijah is having to make adjustments to his way of life and his expectations for himself during this time of stress.

When the wadi, the source of fresh water, dries up, Elijah then receives new directives: go to a foreign country to live with a widow there. I doubt Elijah is very excited. He’s about to become a stranger in a strange land literally, a country and people not his own. They do not keep his faith, nor the Lord’s commandments, which dictate purity in living and diet. If the ravens made him uncomfortable, then it is about to get worse. The mention of a widow would not have made him feel any better. In his day, widows were living on borrowed time, unless they had an adult son to take them in and provide for them. Otherwise, they became beggars and died. Yet somehow this widow is supposed to not only take him in, but provide for him. Wordlessly, Elijah departs for Zarapheth.

Do you feel for him? Would you want to be in the prophet’s sandals? Perhaps you find yourself feeling more a kin to him than you ever have before, as a stranger in a strange land yourself. No matter how weird or uncomfortable things get, so far Elijah carries onward. He responds to the call with faithfulness, even if he may have reservations, even objections, which he must have kept to himself. Elijah shows us that there is a time to wait and see, to remain faithful even when we feel doubt and are discouraged.

Our intrepid prophet arrives in Zarephath, and meets the widow. Their first interaction conveys the hopelessness that is being felt around their known world. Now out of his native country and into hers, Elijah discovers from the widow’s words that the famine and hardship is here, too. She has so little to eat, that she expects this meal she is preparing for herself and her son to be their last. Elijah responds with a promise that the Lord will sustain them, and that their food will not run out. These might appear to be empty promises from a stranger, but she quickly discovers that the meal and oil miraculously do not run out. Elijah moves into her upper room in her home, and takes up residence with her and her son. They seem to be waiting out the famine together under the watchful eye of God.

Then things get worse for the widow. We have to pause and think, “How can they get any worse?!” The whole world appears to be in a crisis, and death is all around. But now death has come to their house. The widow’s son dies, having been struck sick. This breaks the widow. She lost her husband, making her a widow, kept a strange Israelite in her home, and now her beloved son has died. In her cultural context, she truly has lost everything. Not even her remaining life could bring her hope. She cries out at Elijah from her pain and suffering. The time to serve has come for Elijah. Elijah takes the son, who is revealed to be but a boy, and intercedes on their behalf with God. Three times he lies prostrate over the child, a physical sign of humility and worship, and seemingly transferring his breath of life to the boy. Crying out to God, Elijah asks for the resurrection of the child, and God hears. The child revives, and Elijah restores him to his mother.

Now something incredible happens, and a lot of notable things have happened in the story thus far. Now the widow becomes a believer, a believer in God and in Elijah. She lived through the unending food, but that was just staving off the inevitable: death. Then death came, and somehow this foreign man was able to call out to his foreign God and bring her precious child back to life, and back to her. It is this climatic event that makes her a person of God, too.

For many of us, we find ourselves in a holding pattern, just waiting for our lives to get back to normal, back on track. For some of us, we find that we are called to do things here and now, even if they are vastly different than how we have always done things and the things we have always done. All of us are called to be ready and willing to serve the moment when the call comes. What that waiting looks like will be different for each of us. Some will rest and read. Some will work and produce fruits of their labors. Some will oscillate between the two. No matter what your waiting may look like, are you tending to your readiness to serve? Are you in prayer? Are you continuing to provide your gifts, in whatever form they may take? Are you keeping your heart ready to respond to God’s call?

Elijah lives with the widow and her son “for many days” (1 Kings 17:15) before his call to serve came. He didn’t take time to think about it, or get geared up. He immediately responded. All the food and rest were for that moment, and he was ready. May we all take this time, this strange time in strange land, to get and keep ourselves ready. Ready for the next thing, the next service the Lord requires of us. There will be a day coming when we shall emerge from this. Elijah did not stay with the widow in Zarephath forever. He had to come home, back to his home country, and so shall we. Until then, let us stay focused on making the wait count, because service always does.

Prayer:

Here we are, Lord.

From your home, you can see into ours.

You know the struggles we face, and the feelings that flood us.

Incline your ear to hear our prayers, asking for you to protect and sustain us.

During this time, we wait in a myriad of ways.

Let us hear you when you call, teach us to recognize the voice of God.

May we respond with faithfulness and our willingness to serve.

Let Elijah inspire us to bring others, like the widow, into your family of faith.

May this time be fruitful for your will and purpose.

Bring us forth into a new day together and back to you.

There is no life, no purpose apart from you, Almighty God.

For now we wait, wait to serve once more.

Amen.

A Prayer for Uncharted Territory

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Almighty and Everlasting God,

There nothing you have not seen or considered.

All human existence has been witnessed by you,

But today I find myself in a new place in scary times.

I am trying not to fear this uncharted territory.

I wrestle with productivity and still doing all the things I expect myself to do,

Yet I also see the need to rest and recuperate.

Guide me as I navigate this new region of ambiguity.

May your wisdom guide my actions and inspire my choices.

Teach me the ways of Christ, my Lord, who knew when to rest and when to act.

I cannot do anything apart from you,

And I know that I need you in order to become the disciple I desire so deeply to be.

When I feel anxiety rise, let your Spirit fall over me.

Surround me with your comfort, so that I can focus on you and your will.

Help me rest when my mind is overworked and my body is pushed to the limits of stress.

Grant me the peace I need to be healthy and whole.

May my choices align with your will, so that all your people may find healing,

Being safe guarded from this illness that threatens to overwhelm us.

I commend to you all those who are working on the front lines of protection,

Keeping our communities safe with their selfless sacrifice.

Guide and guard them, Lord.

Lead us to a time and place when we can rejoice together again.

For now, all our trust is in you, the Rock upon which we stand.

All honor and glory to you, now and forever.

Amen

It’s Not About Me or You. This Is About Us.

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I am struggling with this concept of “social distancing,” which is really about physical isolation. I am an extreme extrovert, and pretty outgoing, which is generally a good thing when my identity revolves around shepherding God’s people. However, right now my community is working to curb the tide of COVID-19 infection and spread, so we are all trying to do our part to keep from spreading it, even if our normally healthy immune systems would not be devastatingly impacted by it.

Today I showed up at my church to film a truncated version of our worship for digital distribution, and standing in the Chancel of the Sanctuary with four other people in the sacred space that holds well over two hundred on a Sunday was a shock to my system. Even on our worst snow day, I had over seventy-five people. I had not felt the full force of this isolation until it slammed into Sunday morning. I really just miss our people, their faces, their warmth, and their presence. The interactions of Sunday worship are so profoundly meaningful to me that their loss is acutely felt. Yet today I was also keenly aware of something else: this is not about me. Maybe it is not about you either. This attempt to slow and even stop COVID-19 is about us, our church, our Body of Christ, our community made up of people that would not claim us in the same way that we yearn to have them. It is to put our wants and desires, even our immediate needs, to the side and focus on others.

Today was about making the means of grace, the Ministry of the Word, available in the midst of this isolation. It felt honestly weird, because this is different from what I am accustomed to and yearn for each week. Where are all the smiling faces, the words of greeting, the handshakes and embraces? Where are the sounds of children and their awesome questions? Where is the embodiment of community and the intentionality of gathering together in one place in the name of Christ, our Lord? It is still here in a strangely technological way. It did warm my heart to see people check in online, make comments of gratitude and support, and share in the modern digital way of evangelism. It gave me hope that we could still bless from afar.

As Christians, but even more so, as disciples, we are learning to be selfless and follow the example of Christ, the one for whom we are named. In the Gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus says that he has come not for the healthy, but the sick (Matthew 9:12, Mark 2:17, Luke 5:31). He is pointing out that the sick in our midst need to be our priority, because they are certainly God’s. Christian tradition has often taken this as metaphor: Christ came for the spiritually sick, those sick with sin. But what if now these words and prophetic utterances are just as true about those who are physically sick? Jesus literally healed the sick in his earthly ministry, too: “When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick” (Matthew 14:14). I believe that in our current context we are being called to a new form of discipleship, one that gives up some of its liberty to grant healing and life to those who are sick and vulnerable to sickness. It is not easy or without great sacrifice, but it is worth it. To save even one, would be to fulfill the parable of the Good Shepherd:

What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost (Matthew 18:12-14).

To not lose even one, would be a triumph, and should be our goal. Jesus never said, “Well, some are going to sin anyway, so oh well.” Jesus continually preached, taught, and went out into the world to show love, compassion, and grace. He never stopped even from the cross, when he prayed for intercession for those that crucified him: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Our model is Jesus Christ himself. Our duty on this path of discipleship is to be willing to be selfless in the face of unparalleled selfishness in the culture. While others hoard, we shall share. While some openly revel in the aspect of gathering in spite of consequences, we shall endure isolation with patience. While we are criticized for our decisions to suspend worship and cancel gatherings, we shall look to God to uphold us and lead us forward into a bright and beautiful future of health and reunion. None of the freedom, the autonomy, and the joy of the moment is worth the loss of a being of sacred worth, a beloved child of God, and a member of the Kingdom to Come. Not one.

So for now, we reframe our current situation, and make our decisions from a place of selflessness. Instead of saying, this hurts me, or this makes me feel bad, we should try asking how can I help someone else? How can my decision to limit my movement and my liberty allow someone else to live and experience more of life on this gift we call Earth? Jesus never took the selfish route. Even when he was exhausted and need time to refresh, he responded with radical compassion:

On their return the apostles told Jesus all they had done. He took them with him and withdrew privately to a city called Bethsaida. When the crowds found out about it, they followed him; and he welcomed them, and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed to be cured (Luke 9:10-11).

May it still be so, that Christ will heal those who need to be cured. Only this time, it will be because we make room for them through our willingness to step back and out of the way, making space for healing.

A Prayer for the Annual Gathering of United Methodists of Virginia

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Blessed be the name of the Lord!

For thousands gather this day to glorify you in worship, examine ourselves and our ministry in your name, order the life of the Church, experience the miraculous blessing of fellowship in the Body of Christ, and discern your will for us for the coming year.

May all this and more be done, in accordance with your will, and always through your ways.

Fill us with hope, equip us with your divine wisdom, and lead us into the paths of righteousness with hope and humility.

Teach us to sing with new passion the songs of our faith.  Teach us to see you in others, especially those with whom we do not agree.  Teach us to be slow to speak, yet quick to listen.  Most of all, help us discover the self-control to be slow to anger (James 1:19).

We cry out to you from our brokenness as individual disciples marred by our sinful inclinations, and as a community of faith which has committed its own sins by commission and omission.  Yet through it all your grace abounds.

You love us when others would not, even ourselves.  You lead us when we are stiff-necked and reckless about the power and authority we wield in the name of our Lord and Savior, Christ Jesus.  You forgive us when we are unwilling to forgive each other.  You never forsake us, but continually draw us closer to yourself.

Forgive us once more, that we may reveal your Gospel of grace in all that we are.  Enable us to forgive others, one another.

Today may we remember with great thanksgiving that long before we were ever the people called Methodists, we were your people.  Yet now, as the people called Methodists, let us share our gifts, our theology, our prayers, and our hope with all the world, continuing the life-saving ministry of Christ himself.

Open us once more to your Holy Spirit, so we may hear you before ourselves.  Rekindle our connection and our passion for unity.  Help us in our frailty to cling to you before anyone or anything else.  May your will be done, and nothing less.

This is your day, and what a blessing, a gift it is!  Thanks be to you, Mighty and Merciful God!

Amen.

 

Hope in the Midst of Hopelessness

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In just another day and a half, the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church will convene.  I find myself here in our temporary Mecca of Roanoke, having made my annual pilgrimage a couple days early, for the task of assisting with worship preparation and set up.  This year, I am part of the Worship Planning Team, and worship is one of my passions both as clergy and disciple.  Worship will be vital to Virginia Methodism as clergy and laity alike gather for the business of the Church.  Worship is where God reigns, and there we experience the Ministry of the Word.  At its best, it is without prejudice or politics.  It forces us to set aside our will, and open ourselves to God’s.  As I help prepare and consecrate the make shift chancel and set the altar, I am praying that God’s will be done, and not ours.

I have been praying that prayer for a long time.  I was praying it up to and in the midst of Called General Conference in February.  I left St. Louis with sorrow and tremendous hurt, both of which made for an unholy union, and gave birth to hopelessness.  Many on all sides of the issue of human sexuality and inclusion felt that same hopelessness.  I have watched as it has expressed itself in a myriad of means.  From declarations to protests to acts of defiance, hopelessness casts a heavy shadow on the vibrancy of the Virginia Annual Conference.  Thank God that Christ’s light can permeate even the darkest of shadows (2 Corinthians 4:6).

So where do we find hope in the midst of hopelessness?  As some have declared that the United Methodist Church is dead, I have watched entire households join the local church I serve.  As some have railed at the decision of Called General Conference, I have watched non-heterosexuals refuse to leave our denomination, and instead, recommit to continue the dialogue, the journey, and the holy quest for full inclusion.   I have been given the opportunity to witness the Holy Spirit continue to speak and move in our midst, and that always brings me hope.  Can that happen here at Annual Conference?  That depends entirely on us.

Just as John Wesley asserted that we can sin away our baptism, we can close ourselves off from the Holy Spirit.  We can refuse to hear and be moved, but I have more faith in my fellow Methodists from the beloved Commonwealth of Virginia.  I choose to believe that we are a people ever faithful and desirous of God’s Word for us.  I choose to open myself to what God has to reveal to us next.  I come here with great conviction, born of my own divine encounter and post-Called General Conference vision.  Yet I know that nothing is ever finished until God declares it so.  Thus far that consists solely of the salvation of the cross (John 19:30).  So if we open ourselves up to what God has for us next, then Methodists on all sides of the issue can experience new direction and even new hope.  As the Psalm cries out: “But I will hope continually, and will praise you yet more and more” (71:14).  Hope and praise, specifically in worship, are intimately tied together.  When we declare God’s mighty acts of salvation in Jesus Christ and give thanks for our blessings, then hope begins to feel tangible.

So if you, like so many, feel like there is no hope, then I urge you with all that I am to turn to praise.  Gratitude for what we have, no matter how small and insignificant it feels, is a gateway to hope.  Hopelessness is incompatible with gratitude.  Hopelessness cannot stand before hearts that rejoice in our Lord and Savior.  Hopelessness will always fall before the Body of Christ that refuses to be silenced in praise in the midst of struggle, division, and disagreement.  Hope will rise out of the void, because that is the miracle God promises: “Uphold me according to your promise, that I may live, and let me not be put to shame in my hope” (Psalm 119:116).  So we worship and we hope.

Over the next few days, Virginia United Methodists will worship and work.  I, like thousands of others, will be here working, worshiping, and witnessing.  If you are not here in person, you can be in Spirit.  May our prayers and hopes rise to the highest heavens, and petition God to reveal what we have not yet seen: a bright and beautiful future for a denomination that freely gives the world a theology of unparalleled grace.  I do not know what that may look like, but I know that God can do what we cannot.  This evening, I wait with bated breath to discover what God will do next, and I pray that I am faithful enough to follow the Spirit’s lead.

Connectional Pain and Suffering: A Coming Out Story

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One of the most underappreciated, yet beautiful things about United Methodism is its connectionalism, how a global church connects local churches and individual members to others to combine our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness into a world-wide Body of Christ.  Methodism makes the world a small place, as the saying goes.  It is not uncommon for people to hear I am United Methodist clergy and ask if I know someone in another state, and then find I do!  I have been in airports all over the country and run into fellow clergy I personally know.  Many of my church members have been members of United Methodist churches while residing in other parts of Virginia, and we discover that we know the same people, have been in the same churches, and funded the same missions.  The United Methodist Church has created a family of faith in a tangible way.

Yet like all families, we have our issues, our dysfunction, and our struggles.  We are not perfect, and yet we profess to strive actively to be made perfect in God’s love in our concept of Christian Perfection.  Living in community, even holy community, brings with it a certain amount of expected tension, drama, and conflict, but things have gotten to be so painful.  I know that from pain something beautiful can emerge, that God can bring forth blessing from burden.  I have given birth, and I know that it is not all sunshine, roses, and smiles.  It was a struggle, a test of my endurance, and filled with gnashing of teeth, literally.  In the end, I have my son, and as the days go by, I can see that he is not only a blessing to me, but he will continue to grow in God’s love and bless many others.  I find this a fitting metaphor for my beloved denomination.

The Friday after Called General Conference I had a vision, a divine encounter with God.  In it, God simply told me that “it was time” for full inclusion of non-heterosexual persons and the extension of holy matrimony to same-sex couples.  This was not my previous position.  I was raised and educated as a Traditionalist.  I am so grounded and immersed in Scripture that I could never justify overturning the nine prohibitive texts around non-heterosexual sexual expression.  Even as my family and friends came out as gay or bisexual, and my heart longed to see them fully embraced as I am in all my heterosexuality and human sinfulness, I could not find the Scripture to justify it.  So like what I suspect are countless other United Methodists, I defaulted to Traditionalism around the issue of human sexuality and inclusion.  Yet here was God Almighty telling me that I had to now totally reverse myself, and, oh yes, tell my church in my sermons in  the next forty-eight hours.  I cried for hours until I was dehydrated.  I tried to get God to tell me what I knew I would need: the Scripture citations.  God simply told me to remember Peter and his attempt to walk on the water.

This was not my first vision.  I have had three others, two around my call to ordained ministry.  They are always very biblical, in that they are disturbing, confusing, unwanted, and terrifying.  This was no exception to my past experience.  I was terrified at the ramifications of publicly coming out in favor of full inclusion when I had not even come out publicly in favor of the Traditionalist position!  I knew what was at stake: I could lose the confidence and acceptance of my church members, I could lose my appointment, and thus lose custody of my child to his father.   I knew I would make people angry, and that I would cause hurt to those I love, including members of my own family.  Despite all of this, I never tried to argue with God.  I have done that in previous visions.  It never works, makes God angry, and leaves me in a state of spiritual brokenness.  I knew that this was God, God’s will, and God’s word to me, and set about trying to figure out how to do what God wanted two days later in Sunday Worship.

I started reading Matthew 14, the passage that records Peter’s attempt to walk across the water to Jesus, over and over again.  God directed me here for a reason, and I had less than two days to figure it out, incorporate it into my ministry of the Word, and present the riskiest, scariest, and most prophetic sermons of my life.  What I read was not helpful in easing my fears.  In the story, the Apostles, without Jesus, are in a boat overnight on the waters assailed by a storm’s winds and waves.  As morning breaks, they see Jesus walking on the water, coming towards them.  They become terrified (running theme), mistake him for a ghost, and cry out in fear (Matthew 14:26).  Jesus speaks to them to try to ease their fears, and then Peter issues both his challenge and his faith: “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water” (Matthew 14:28).  Jesus gives a one word reply: “Come.”  Peter does, getting out of the boat, onto the water, and making his way over to Jesus.  This is where our visual depictions cause us to stumble, because almost every image or moving recreation I have ever witnessed had Peter seemingly between the boat and Jesus when the rising strong wind scares Peter and he starts to sink.  But for the first time in all the countless times I have read this passage what jumped out and slapped me in the face was that “Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him” (Matthew 14:31), which means that Jesus was right there.  He did not have to run over, or even quickly shift his body to be in closer proximity.  He was already there, so he could immediately reach out and save Peter.  Peter was on top of Jesus, and yet doubt and fear caused him to fail.  This was not the kind of inspiring revelation I wanted, much less the difficult truth I wanted to share with my people on Sunday.

I started yelling out loud to God, and in retrospect have never been so grateful for an empty house on Fridays.  “Are you kidding me?!  Peter fails!  How can I share a Scripture text where he fails in order to convince people to be open to this message you have burdened me with today?  They are going to lynch me!”  God’s voice rang out in my home once more,”Peter failed because he doubted.  You do not doubt.”  I hate to admit it, but God had me there.  For all my flaws and sins, I do not doubt.  I been talking with God since I was six, and those are just the conversations I can clearly remember and recall.  I know that voice.  I know that power and presence without image.  I knew who was talking to me the moment I heard it with all that I am in body, mind, and spirit, and I never questioned.  It also helps that I have two professional psychological evaluations from my ordination process declaring that I am certifiably sane.

It was then that I declared my seemingly insurmountable obstacle out loud to God: “I know the Traditionalist position.  I was born into it, raised with it, and educated in it.  I not only honor and respect it, but I held it myself.  I know what Traditionalists want to hear, because I have spent over two decades searching for it!  Now you want me to give them not just Peter failing, but your declaration that I do not doubt?!”  I could feel my blood pressure rising, my blood pulsing in my head, and nausea erupting.  I was going to be martyred.  “No,” replied God, “I want you to remind my people that Scripture is testimony, and it gets you very close to me and my truth, but in the end you must step out in faith and not doubt that my grace is sufficient.”  The world stopped.  I had never heard that in all my years of yearning, searching, and seeking.  There is nothing more biblical than this, and Jesus declared it himself: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29).

The United Methodist Church has used its own method for theological reflection to create and perfect our Book of Discipline.  It is the culmination of our searching the Scriptures, engaging the tradition of not only Methodism, but the Church Universal and the whole of Christian tradition, as well as utilizing our rational minds through reason, while being attuned to our experience as individual disciples and communities.  I gave my vow to the Clergy Session of my Annual Conference who voted to ordain me, as well as all those gathered to witness the presiding bishop lay hands and speak the ordination blessing upon me, and conclude with the command to “take authority as an elder to preach the Word of God, and to administer the Holy Sacraments and to order the life of the Church, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”  In my ordination is the covenantal duty to uphold The Book of Discipline, and my vision does not change that.  Within the Discipline, either as an expression of human ingenuity or divine wisdom, perhaps the ironic union of both, is the means by which to make change to the same book at General Conference.  That is the path by which those of us who feel convicted to see the United Methodist Church shift its position to full inclusion of non-heterosexual clergy and same-sex holy matrimony must walk.

After I preached that Sunday after Called General Conference, and came out to my church about my vision and new position on human sexuality and inclusion, I sent out over four hundred letters to the households in my church explaining my divine encounter, my sermons, and my new position.  In the letter I also promised that I would not “break Discipline,” commit any willful acts of disobedience, because I recognize that to do so and incur punishment would hurt them, and cause them unjust pain and suffering for my actions.  Many took the time to reach out to me to let me know how much they appreciated my explicit statement about not “breaking Discipline.”  To me, it is about keeping my covenant with the Church, honoring my vows and role as the elder at my appointment, and modeling patience and faithfulness while working for justice and transformation.

On March 26th, a digitally signed “Statement in Response to General Conference 2019 from the Undersigned People of the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church” was sent to the bishop, and posted on the official Facebook page of the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.  I saw the statement prior to publishing as several people forwarded it to me both to sign and get my thoughts.  I read the statement which includes language about refusing to uphold The Book of Discipline, and outlines certain actions of willful disobedience regarding clergy and marriage, as well as voting in matters of clergy ethics and the appointment of retired clergy.  Hundreds of clergy signed, proclaiming that they would “break Discipline” in these areas.  Even more laity signed in their support of these declarations.  After having just promised my church that I would not do this, I felt this concern for how the statement would be received.  It was not well received, even by those who share the belief of full inclusion.  I was immediately inundated with upset and concerned church members.

From my pastoral perspective, I want to offer this reflection on the statement, in light of my union with the sentiment and my own work to bring about changes to The Book of Discipline at the 2020 General Conference.  As a notoriously impatient person, I cannot stand the idea of waiting, but we have just over a year before the next General Conference convenes.  The Judicial Council will meet after Easter to rule on the constitutionality of the Traditional Plan passed at Called General Conference, and then Annual and Central Conferences will have their annual sessions.  After that, there will be less than a year before General Conference.  We need to model and practice patience.  I cannot imagine how hard it was for Joshua and Caleb to hear that they would have to endure forty years of wandering before they could enter into the Promised Land, simply because God and the people of Israel had things to work out in that time!  Yet we are not talking about years in this instance, we are having to live out non-anxious presence for about a year.  We have work to do in that time, and acts of disobedience are too readily received as rebellion and anarchy, which only further hurts the efforts to engage in meaningful and transformational conversation.  It thwarts the work of those who feel convicted to work for change and full inclusion.

I would not be Methodist if I was not willing to grant grace.  Perhaps the language was nebulous enough in the statement to convey a sense of outrage and not intentional disobedience.  Maybe those that signed their names and publicly stated their position wanted to show that they were not giving up or going quietly into the night, but still very present and willing to struggle for those who have been prevented from experiencing the fullness of ordination and holy matrimony.  No matter what, I hope and pray that my fellow clergy, whether licensed, commissioned, ordained, or retired would not forsake our promise to the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church to uphold The Book of Discipline.  After all, it is the very same book that allows females like myself to be clergy when some of the largest Christian denominations in the world still do not.  It is not all bad, and neither is it perfect.  I do have hope that through our continued commitment to one another we can have authentic conversation, experience true holy conferencing, and discern the next iterations of The Discipline.  It will require us to be patient, prayerful, active listeners, and wiling participants in the ongoing work of the Church.  Breaking Discipline is received as impatience, reactionary, closed off, and unwilling to be engaged.  I recognize that most of those who signed the statement were convinced of the necessity of full inclusion long before I was, and that I am new to this side of the conversation, but again Scripture speaks out to me that “the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4) is not something determined by humankind, but something we experience.  It was not until the fullness of time for me, that God spoke to me, gave me this vision, and laid this mantle across my spiritual shoulders.  Now that God has done this, I am at work.  Who knows how many others have joined this cause since the close of Called General Conference, and perhaps add to our numbers daily?

There would be no more redemptive moment for our non-heterosexual siblings in Christ than to have the book that once excluded them proclaim in written word that they are truly us in every way.  I and others like me are committed to seeing our Book of Discipline be transformed like Saul to Paul, and God will not let us stop until we do.  But the process of transformation must be righteous and without reproach.  Sarai and Abram took divine matters into their own hands to conceive and bear a son (Genesis 16), and the result was incredible pain, suffering, and brokenness for Hagar and Ishmael.  If we are willing to set our will, even with the good intention of bringing about justice and holiness, before the covenants we made before God with the Church, then we are creating greater obstacles, which will ultimately cause the most hurt to our non-heterosexual members of the family of faith.  What greater hypocrisy than “breaking Discipline” now and decrying those who would do so later?  We must run this race with perseverance and integrity.   We must demonstrate our respect for God’s Word and our own, especially those who have given their word in vows of ordination.

I believe that change is coming.  Not because I am right or in favor of it, but because I have read the Bible too many times to believe that God’s will can ultimately be thwarted by human beings, even well intentioned and faithful ones.  As I struggle to remain patient, I hope others will struggle with me.  I hope we will all endeavor to hold fast to our faith, our word, and one another.  None of us are in this alone, and we need to find affirming and inspiring ways to reveal that truth.  We serve an unbroken Savior (John 19:36), but not with broken vows.