I am in you and you are in me

On that day you will know that I am in my Father, you are in me, and I am in you.

John 14:20 (CEB)

I had a seminary professor who had a prayer practice that always impressed me. Dr. Taussig did a lot of commuting on trains, and whenever he found himself on a commuter line or in a subway car, he would look at every person on the train with him while repeating his translation of Jesus’s words from this passage in John.

“I am in you, and you are in me, as we are in God.”

I am at the United Methodist General Conference in Saint Louis. On day one, I mostly got checked into my AirBnB, registered for a name tag, and tried to figure out how to understand everything that’s going on. It feels a little like the first time I showed up at a meeting of the Texas Annual Conference as a wide-eyed 21-year-old totally overwhelmed by what was around me, but times about 1000. I listened to a lay delegate from Liberia  and a lay delegate from Portland talking about LGBTQ people, how much they both love scripture and Jesus, and their shared deep love for the UMC.

I have been praying and fasting in preparation for this General Conference along with many of the wonderful people from St. Stephen’s in Houston for 3 weeks now. My first prayer is that the Holy Spirit would descend upon this place and surprise all of us. My second prayer has been that all of us who call ourselves United Methodist might remember that, as Jesus reminds us, we belong to him and we belong to each other.

Of the various pieces and parts of legislation in front of the General Conference, I find the One Church Plan to be the best option for our future. Like all things created by humans — especially humans in committees — it’s imperfect. But it does a couple things that I find to fit my understanding of a strong Wesleyan Christian ethic:

It trusts local churches to do ministry together. For years I’ve heard church leaders talk about how the UMC “has to keep this issue out of the local church.” I can’t understand why. People who authentically do life together over the course of years are much better prepared to disagree with love and faithfulness than people who meet infrequently for the sake of legislating. This is because people in a local church understand that they belong to each other on a deeper level. The people of St. Stephen’s have been talking about the future of our church for months now, and we represent a wide array of different opinions. But we love each other and we want to share a future together.

It privileges a united future. Many people find it impossible to see how a church can move forward without a single clear sexual ethic. However, many people also feel as if people who love and follow Jesus have lived together and faithfully followed him across broad and significant disagreement as long as people have followed Jesus. Most of Paul’s ministry was working to convince people they could, in fact, live together faithfully even when they differed wildly. Under the One Church Plan, people who want to stay deeply connected, even if they disagree, have the opportunity to do that. I find it compelling to allow the people who want to move forward together the best opportunity to do that, which is, in my opinion, the One Church Plan.

As I’m sure you know, I could be wrong. (About a lot of things, not just my preferred future for United Methodist polity.) But I also know that I’m NOT wrong in praying fervently for the Holy Spirit to descend on Saint Louis. I love the people God has connected me to through the United Methodist Church. Many of them are people who I never would have encountered anywhere else, and I’m a better Christian and human because I am in them, and they are in me. As we are in God.

 

–N

God is not a man

Note: Since the time I started writing this post on Thursday, it was announced that Bishop Scott Jones of the Texas Conference was the primary author of the statement released by the Council of Bishops, and also that amendment one would be reconsidered without the “controversial” passage in it that led to the harmful discussions on the floor of Annual Conference. The new wording will probably pass. But I decided to finish this thing up and post it anyway, for two reasons. First, God is not male, and that theological value is too important to ignore. Second, the harm done by our floor discussion and our broader conversations didn’t go away, and it needs to be talked about, because it should not happen anymore.

Earlier this week, I found myself transported back in time to a day that I had done a pretty god job of blocking from my memory.

The moment happened in a business session at our Texas Annual Conference meeting where we were discussing some constitutional amendments. The results of the votes, taken in every conference around the world, were announced this week. They went like this.

This was an upsetting result. The Council of Bishops offered this response.

All the female bishops issued this joint statement.

The bishop in Alabama/West Florida, one of the three Annual Conferences in the US that voted against the first amendment, issued this statement.

I serve in one of the three US conferences that voted against this amendment, one of only two conferences here in the states that voted against both amendment one and amendment two. I was in the room for our conversation about these amendments. The tone, tenor, and substance of those conversations was brutal, harmful, and way outside the bounds of our Wesleyan heritage.

Speakers insisted that God was, “A man of war,” that women are complimentary to and by that token subservient to men, that denying the maleness of God somehow discounts the personhood of Jesus as the incarnation, and a bunch of other things that stand against the long and proud Wesleyan heritage of equal footing and standing for women.

There were bizarre statements about human gender, and a lot of fear-based rhetoric about radical agendas dismantling churches. And I was just so flabbergasted and angry I didn’t have words to say. But my pain is so unbelievably unimportant to this story.

Some of the greatest blessings of my life are the relationships I have with female clergy colleagues. I could write full length blog posts about the incredible women who have led me in life, in the classroom, in my work as a clergyperson, in my faith, and in everything I do. Not passing this amendment does harm to women and girls and countless people in vulnerable positions around the world.

I watched my mentors and friends and colleagues have their identity demeaned. I watched people cry, yell, send angry all caps text messages, and question deeply how in the world we got here. My friends were under attack.

There are churches that do not welcome women in ministry. There are places that uphold complimentarian doctrines. We as the United Methodist Church are not one of them. Or at least we aren’t supposed to be.

When things are not how they should be, we can respond in several ways. We can throw up our hands and say, “well, nothing we can do about it.” We can feign moral superiority and take comfort in the fact that, “at least I don’t behave that way.” We can find someone else to blame.

Or we can do what needs to be done, and accept some of the blame, apologize, and get to work on a better future.

I am sorry I have not done more to proclaim the truth about who God is in words or in action. God is not a man, and there are human characteristics that we consider to be feminine that are part of the image of God. I will do more of this, not just on Mother’s Day, but year-round.

I am sorry that I haven’t done more in my local church to teach how unbelievably expansive God is, and how language about God matters. I will talk about the depth and richness of images of God that are masculine, feminine, and much, much more.

I am sorry that when people call me “Pastor Nathan” but they call our Pastor of Music and Worship “Miss Lindsay,” I don’t correct them. I will stop doing that.

I’m sorry I didn’t stand up on the floor of Annual conference and remind people that the United Methodist Church has distinctive doctrines and beliefs, and that they matter.

I’m sorry I haven’t put up signs in our church bathrooms to offer support and information to people suffering domestic abuse.

I’m sorry I’ve been unwilling to have conversations with people about why bible studies and curriculum and videos that reinforce female subservience have no place in United Methodist Churches.

If you’ve ever heard me preach, you’ve heard me talk about the Kingdom of God; Jesus’s incredible vision of the here AND the hereafter in the way that they ought to be. A place where life is abundant and eternal today and forever. It’s where I try my hardest to get every sermon I preach to end up. And when I preach this way, I preach hoping to stand in the shadow of Mary Magdalene, the first preacher of this Gospel following the resurrection.

Jesus said to her [Mary], “Don’t hold on to me, for I haven’t yet gone up to my Father. Go to my brothers and sisters and tell them, “I’m going up to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”

John 20:17 (CEB)

United Methodist Christians believe, through the doctrine of the trinity, in a God far too big and broad and incredible for any name to be complete enough. In the verse above, when the first preacher of the Gospel was commissioned by the resurrected Christ, Jesus was quick to follow the image of God as loving father with expansive language.

We look more like the image of God when women and girls are not denied their place at the table, their positions of leadership, their authority to preach or teach, or the ability to follow God’s call on their lives. Let’s get there.

I don’t know what I don’t know, you know?

So the premise of this trip is to learn how to read the Bible geographically. So we’re going to a lot of the places that show up in the Bible, looking at maps, reading scriptures, and getting a ton of background information and history from our teacher.

And there are so many things that I didn’t know! Like, significant, changes how I think about Jesus’ ministry things that seem simple and obvious when you’re walking around here with somebody who knows things.

For example, Jesus did a huge bulk of his ministry in and around Capernaum, on the coast of Galilee. As you can see below, it’s just a terrible place to hang out, and it’s not beautiful at all:

Obviously I’m kidding. It’s a beautiful place. And a huge portion of Jesus’s ministry happened within a days walk of here! Who knew? Well, for starters, I felt like I should have…

So….where else in my life could that be true? Where in your life could it be true?

So here’s some great news: We can all, always, keep learning! We can have our eyes opened, find new information that excites us and has the possibility to change how we think about or do almost anything.

I’m praying to stay open to a God who speaks in words, in places, in maps, and in ways beyond comprehension. Will you pray that way, too?

Reflection from the Holy Land (and the deer lease)

Reflection from the Holy Land (and the deer lease)

I am on an immersive learning trip in the Holy Land! As we tour Israel with a group of 32 pastors, spouses, and church professionals, I am going to do my best to check in here as often as I can with reflections on our time together.

Today was a great first full day in Israel! We spent our morning framing a lot of the learning we’ll be doing for the next 2 weeks.

Our instructor for the trip is a man named Jack Beck, who calls his academic project “biblical geography.” A story he told to illustrate part of what biblical geography means for reading was really interesting to me, and reminded me of a story about my own life that I think can help to describe the sort of learning we’ll be doing here.

Many of my friends and church members and other folks know that I am an avid deer hunter. It’s my favorite hobby, and I spend a lot of time and energy on it.

In order to get around on a piece of hunting property, or to mark distances from blinds to make sure you’re making good and ethical shots, lots of hunters will use red sticks as a marker. They look like this:

(image from HomeDepot.com)

If I saw one of these things, I always knew I was looking at a marking stick, but didn’t know much more about it.

So a few years ago I was in the Boston area in the late winter time, after most of the snow had melted but before people had “de-winterized.” If you’re from somewhere cold, you already know where this is going; I saw a bunch of deer lease road marking sticks! Only…they were doing what they’re actually designed to do, and marking the curbs and edges of roads to keep snow plows out of peoples’ yards. Because you see, these sticks are, to most people in most places, snow plow sticks.

At that time, some Pharisees approached Jesus and said, “Go! Get away from here, because Herod wants to kill you.” Jesus said to them, “Go, tell that fox, ‘Look, I’m throwing out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will complete my work.

–Luke 13:31-32 (CEB)

If you read many of the commentaries on this text, they’ll talk about the layers to this statement by Jesus in which he compares Herod Antipas to a fox. They’ll dive into the understanding of foxes as tricksters widely held throughout Europe and in classical thought. Could Jesus have meant to inspire that comparison? Certainly. But wouldn’t it be more likely that, as a guy living in first-century Palestine, Jesus was talking about the local foxes that he and his audience were familiar with? The kind that, while still a predator, doesn’t inspire the sort of fear that wolves or tigers or hyenas or lions or the other bigger and stronger indigenous predators did?

Dr. Beck’s passion, and what he is trying to help all of us to see, is that place matters profoundly to the biblical stories. The other things that happened on a mountain, or the reason for a city to be here and not there, or connotations and reputations of towns or places tell us something about the text, and they tell us something about God, too.

I’m so excited to learn more about this new way of reading the Bible, and sharing it with you!

Paz,

Nathan

Lessons and Carols: The Epiphany and Egypt

This is the fourth part of our four part Lessons and Carols service from Dec. 31 at St. Stephen’s UMC. If you’ve been reading along for the last few days, I hope these retellings have made you think a little bit, and have been fun. If you’re just tuning in now and wondering what in the world I’m talking about, the introduction is in a gray box just like this one on the first post. This one references Matthew 2:1-18.

Now since Jesus had been born in Bethlehem, a group of very wise men from out towards Persia who knew the stars showed up at King Herod’s asking him about the newborn king.

Herod, being both out-of-the-loop and a very jealous man, was deeply concerned. And his council of clergymen and scholars was troubled with him — they were the sort of clergymen and scholars who tended to feel exactly how the king wanted them to.

But he asked the scribes and clergymen where it was the Christ child was supposed to be born, and they told him, “Bethlehem, of course! It’s the City of David. Because, as the prophets said,

‘No matter what anybody says Bethlehem, you’re really not so bad. Because out of you will come a leader who will shepherd all God’s people.’”

But Herod pulled these Magi aside and really grilled then about when and how a star appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, and he told them, “Once you find this kid, swing back by my palace and give me his address. Because I want to ki..I mean, pay him homage, too.”

After the lengthy conversation with Herod, the wise men went on their way, and they followed that star they’d seen in the East until they were right in the spot where Jesus and his parents were staying. They were so excited, because the stars had literally aligned for them.

They were so excited that they threw Jesus a party, with much rejoicing and festivities and honor. Oh, and presents. They also gave the child lots of presents.

After this party, the group said their goodbyes. But they went home a way that did not take them by Herod’s place, because God told them in a dream to steer clear of there, and also because that guy gave them the creeps.

Once everybody had left, Joseph was visited by one of God’s angels. That angel told Joseph to get up, get moving, and take your family out of the country, go all the way to Egypt. Because Herod is mad and he’s not at all afraid to shed blood.

So Joseph got up, packed up, and in the middle of the night the Holy Family took off into Egypt as refugees from a dangerous ruler. They stayed in Egypt until Herod had died. In addition to keeping Jesus alive, this fulfilled the prophecy that God would call his son out of Egypt.

I cannot emphasize enough that Herod was a bad dude. Once he learned that the wise men had slighted him, he flew into a blind rage. He had every male child under two in the greater Bethlehem area slaughtered. The devastated families were reminded of the prophecy of old,

A voice was heard in Ramah,

weeping and much grieving.

Rachel weeping for her children,

and she did not want to be comforted,

because they were no more.

Lessons and Carols: The Birth of Jesus

This is the 3rd of 4 parts from our Lessons and Carols service at St. Stephen’s UMC on Dec. 31, 2017. For more information about why they’re being posted like this or what in the world they are, check the first post. Hope you find it an engaging way to hear the story of Jesus!

So here’s how it all happened: You see, Mary was engaged to Joseph. Things were going along in the normal way, but then something happened. Mary got pregnant. But this was not an ordinary pregnancy. Mary became pregnant through the Holy Spirit.

Joseph was an honest man and a really good guy, but I wouldn’t say he was thrilled with this new arrangement. If he had wanted to, he could have had Mary put to death. But, like I said, he was an honest and good man, so he started working on arrangements to end their engagement quietly. In his defense, that was a pretty reasonable response to the situation, what with nobody in history ever having been conceived by the Holy Spirit.

But then another incredible thing happened, and Joseph saw an angel, who explained the situation. The Angel explained that, yes, really and truly, Mary would bear a son who would be truly special. The Angel also told him that he was supposed to name this special child Jesus.

This was certainly a lot to take in, but Joseph was up to the task. He raised that boy as his own — it was through Joseph, after all, that Jesus was a part of the line of David — and the world hasn’t been the same since.

Lessons and Carols: John and the Prophets

This is part 2 of 4 from our Lessons and Carols service at St. Stephen’s UMC from Dec. 31. This one draws from John 1:5-28, Isaiah 9:2, 6-7; 11:1-4, Hosea 11:1, and Zechariah 9:9. For more info on what in the world this is, check out the intro on Wednesday’s post. 

Just before Jesus came into the world, his cousin showed up and started preparing the way. John was his name, and he was truly sent by God. He came to witness to the coming light of the world, the true Messiah, the Word Made Flesh.

Some asked, “Could this man be the Christ?”

But John knew that was not his role in this play.

John knew the words of the prophets of old. Of Isaiah and Micah, Hosea, Zechariah, and more. So he set to work, testifying about a great light that would come into this world.

Because the people who walk in darkness have seen a great light! A child has been born, the Prince of Peace! Wonderful Counselor, everlasting God! The true King!!

The true King will come from the root of Jesse’s tree; and this branch will be the true branch! He will stand up for the voiceless, he will proclaim justice and righteousness to the poor and the outcast. He’ll show the world once and for all what it means to love the true God.

John knew and proclaimed these words. And John did incredible things! So the people asked him if he was sure that he was not the Christ. And he said to them my job is not to be the Lord, but to prepare his way. Prepare the way of the lord! The Lord is coming! Prepare the way!

So the people in charge cornered John.

“What is it that you say you do here?”

“Who do you think you are?”

“If you’re not the one, are you the great prophet?”

John replied,

“I’m nobody from no place. I’m just a messenger. The one who’s coming? I’m not even good enough to untie his sandals. Yeah. He’s that good.

I’ve been out here baptizing people in the river. The Messiah? He’ll baptize with the Holy Spirit!”

“Out of Egypt he has come! And before it’s all done, he’ll ride triumphantly into Jerusalem on a donkey. The words you’ve heard from the prophets? They’re true. He is who he says he is. He’s the one and only. The holy one. Emmanuel, God-with-us!”