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Bullets on the Tennis Court, or Mission trip to East St. Louis, part 1

Lessie Bates Davis logoThere was a bullet on the tennis court.  Not a spent shell. A fired bullet. Among the mess of leaves, sticks, and broken glass, one of our youth reached down and picked it up, looked at it for awhile then said, “I found a bullet.”  I knew right away he wasn’t joking.  I looked at the little cone-shaped piece of metal.  I don’t know enough about guns and ammo to know anything about its caliber, what weapon it was fired out of, or any details.  There was probably something else we could have done with it, but all I said was, “throw it away.”  So he tossed it in the garbage bag and we went about our business of cleaning up the tennis courts at Lincoln Park in East St. Louis, Illinois.

We were a group of nine youth and three adults.  Some were inside the Mary Brown Center, working with some kids from the neighborhood.  Most of us were outside sweeping.  It was unseasonably cool for late July in Saint Louis.  It was a gray morning, and we were looking for something to do.  Miss Terry had told us that the tennis courts were unusable because of all the broken glass, so we decided to try and sweep it up.  We had some rakes, brooms, trash bags, and a dust pan.  We raked the sticks, leaves, and grass into big piles and swept the broken glass into the dustpan.  Even when we were joined by about a dozen youth from the neighborhood, most working for a few dollars an hour, we realized there was no way we were going to clean up the courts entirely.  By the time we finished though, I would have felt a lot better about kids playing there, as long as they had good shoes on.

Of course, it was entirely possible that once the sun went down, the park would be filled with young people with nothing better to do than throw their empty bottles into the courts.  Miss Terry hoped though, that the presence of people cleaning it up would discourage them.  We could hope.

The first day of the mission trip did not go exactly as we had planned.  We had planned to show up at the Mary Brown Center at 8:15 so we had plenty of time to set up our version of Vacation Bible School for the 25-30 seven to nine year old kids that would arrive at 9:00 a.m.  We had planned to spend the two hours with them in neatly divided groups so we could have 20 minute sessions of worship, devotion, Spanish, art, dance, and closing worship.  We had planned to stay to do some other kind of chores around the center until having lunch, and then going about the rest of our day in Saint Louis.  They say that if you want to give God a good chuckle, tell him your plans.

The Mary Brown Center is a part of Lincoln Park.  The geodesic dome houses a beautiful gymnasium.  The Center is also home to most of the youth programs of the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House.

The Mary Brown Center is a part of Lincoln Park. The geodesic dome houses a beautiful gymnasium. The Center is also home to most of the youth programs of the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House.

On the first morning drive to the Mary Brown Center, I got turned around.  I took the wrong exit after crossing the bridge.  I read the map, but the streets I wanted to drive did not go through.  After a process that included about four u-turns, our two minivans arrived at the Center at about 8:50.  We were welcomed graciously by Miss Terry.  She gave us a quick tour of the facility.  There are two main sections of the Center.  There is the beautiful domed structure that houses an immaculate gymnasium, and there is the education wing, home to a computer lab, a youth room, a dining room, offices, and a larger room with tables for seating and table games.

During the tour she told us about the pool, which would be opening for the first time in five years, and the tennis court, which despite having the money set aside for new nets, rackets, and balls, was unusable because it was covered in broken glass.  We unloaded the vans, started setting up our stations, and waited for the kids to start coming.  At about 9:30, there were about four kids.  That’s when I asked Miss Terry what else we could do.  I thought of trying to clean up the courts.

Some stayed inside with the kids that came, and as the morning went on a few more trickled in, and others swept the courts.  That is when I felt the futility of what we were trying to do.  We were invading this space, not sure of our place, unsure of our role, wondering what the mission of this trip was really going to be.  We had all the right plans, but the reality of the situation weighed heavily on my heart.  And then we found the bullet.

“What the heck are we doing here?” I wondered.  Then I kept sweeping.  I could pick up glass, and if that was all I was meant to be doing, then I was going to do it well.  We worked for about an hour and a half.  When we left, there were still young people sweeping in the courts.  There were others outside the fences, laughing at those that were foolish enough to pick up a broom.  Later I talked to our youth about the courage it took to remain there while their friends taunted them.  We agreed that those that remained there to clean up their park were among the bravest people we had ever met.

To Miss Terry’s enormous credit, she sat down with us for awhile before we left and taught us about what the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House was all about.  She told us about her struggles as a community leader.  She told us about the kids on the corner with no hope.  She told us about the adult leaders that give their time and their energy so that they did not have to lose another kid to the street.  When I asked her, “What do you mean by lose them?” I knew that the only answer anyone needed was that bullet we found on the tennis court.

Part 1 – “Bullets on the tennis court.”

Part 2 – “You were made in the image of God”

Part 3 – “Not ‘goodbye,’ just ‘See you later.'”

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Communion Liturgy lifting up Extravagant Generosity

The following is a Communion liturgy that I wrote for use at the opening worship service of the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference.  The service took place in Peoria, Illinois on June 5, 2013.  It was a great honor to be asked by my friend and colleague, Eric Swanson, to write this liturgy.  It was a great experience to be in worship with 1000 of my clergy and lay brothers and sisters to hear Rev. Jan Griffith and Bishop Jonathan Keaton read these words, even if there was a slight technical glitch.


The Lord of be with you

And also with you

Lift up your hearts.

We lift them up to the Lord.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God, creator of heaven and earth, giver of all good gifts, and source of all blessings.

It is right to give our thanks and praise.

It is right and a good and joyful thing, always and everywhere to give thanks to you, Almighty God, creator of heaven and earth.  You formed us in your image and breathed into us the breath of life.

You created us man and woman in your image, and provided all that we would ever need.  You placed us in a garden to care for your creation so that we may know peace.

You delivered us from captivity.  Through days wandering in the desert you sent to us manna from heaven so that we could eat.  You let water pour from the rocks so that we could drink.  You commanded us to trust in what you provided, and warned us against hording.

You made covenant to be our sovereign God.  You gave to us the Law, the great gift that could guide our ways.  The Law commands us to honor the Sabbath, and to be satisfied with what we have.  Above all, the Law reminds us that there is but one God, and we are to love you with all of our hearts, our mind, our soul, and our strength.

You spoke to us through your prophets, who reminded us to care for the widow and the orphan.  They spoke the truth of your Word to the powers of the world, and stood up to injustice.  They raged against those that would gain wealth on the backs of the oppressed.  They commanded kings to follow God first.

And yet we fell away.  Our love failed.  We choose disobedience.    We try to horde the bread.  We pursue our own goals on the Sabbath.  We mock the Law.  We deny the prophets.  We forget your promises of plenty.  We ignore the needs of others so that we might protect our own interests.  We hold onto blessings with white knuckles, not trusting enough to let go.  Forgive us, O God, for the times that we have failed you.

 Hear the good news.  God’s love remains steadfast.   God’s Law is righteous.  God’s prophets still speak   the truth to power.  God’s promises endure.  God’s grace knows no bounds. Despite our sin and brokenness, God calls us to this table.  Even while we wander, God invites us to return.  Even while we cling to the things of this perishable world, God calls us to extravagant generosity.  In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.

In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. Thanks be to God, Amen.

And so, with your people on earth and all the company of heaven we praise your name and join their unending hymn:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory.  Hosanna in the highest.  Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.  Hosanna in the highest.

Holy are you, and blessed is your Son Jesus Christ.  Your Spirit anointed him to preach good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty with those who are oppressed, and to announce that the time had come when you would save your people.

When no one thought there was enough, he fed the multitudes.  When no one thought the lepers could be healed, he cleansed them.  When there was no way to cross social boundaries, he talked to a Samaritan woman.  He told stories of a wasteful forgiveness, and unfair generosity.   When hope was lost, he raised the widow’s son and called Lazarus out of the tomb.   Here today, while we wonder if there is enough, Jesus reminds us that there is plenty.  There is enough food for all to be full.  There is enough water for us all to drink.  There is enough joy for us all to dance.  There is enough forgiveness for us all to embrace.  Here in this place, Jesus reminds us that there is enough love for us all to live abundantly.

By the baptism of his suffering, death, and resurrection you gave birth to your church, delivered us from slavery to sin and death, and made with us a new covenant by water and the Spirit. When the Lord Jesus ascended, he promised to be with us always, in the power of your Word and the Holy Spirit.

On the night in which he gave himself up for us, he took bread, gave thanks to you, broke the bread, gave it to his disciples and said: “Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

When the supper was over, he took the cup, gave thanks to you, gave it to his disciples and said, “Drink from this, all of you; this is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for forgiveness of sins.  Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

And so, in remembrance of these mighty and generous acts in Jesus Christ, we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice.  Let the generosity of Jesus, which enabled him to pour himself out for us, be embodied in all that we do.  May our every word and deed reflect a spirit of thankfulness for all with which we have been blessed, so that we may be in union with Christ’s offering for us, as we proclaim the mystery of faith.

Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.

Pour out your Holy Spirit upon us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine.  Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ; that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.  By your spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world, until Christ comes in final victory and we may feast at his heavenly banquet.

Through your Son Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit in your holy church, all honor and glory is yours, almighty God, now and forever.  Amen.


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“Welcome to beautiful West Point”

John Kofi Asmah School

These pictures of are of the John Kofi Asmah School in the West Point community of Monrovia, Liberia. On the left was the project as my group left it in February 2011. The picture on the right was taken by Michael Whitaker. He was a part of the IGRC group that went in March 2012 and saw the dedication of the completed school.

I went to Liberia last year as a part of newly ordained clergy from the Illinois Great Rivers Conference of the United Methodist Church.  Illinois Great Rivers and Liberia have had  a flourishing partnership since 2006.  Hundreds of clergy and laity have made the journey between the war-torn West African nation that is struggling with a fledgling democracy and the heart of Illinois.

During the last six years much has been built through this partnership.  Along with schools, wells, clinics, and churches, things like trust, friendship and community have been built.  The partnership between Illinois and Liberia is a strong one, and it has helped bring hope to the people of Liberia and Illinois.  There is hope that churches can rise up out of years of decline with the power that comes with reaching beyond the walls of the building.  There is hope that a nation can rise up from the ashes of civil war with the power that comes with education, clean water, and friendship.

I was forever touched by the people of Liberia.  One place that especially touched me was West Point.  I cannot properly describe West Point.  It is a small peninsula that juts off of Monrovia, and has two roads that enter it.  Once inside, the roads are so narrow that a car can barely pass, and only when the vast amounts of people get out of the way.  At its widest, it is less than a kilometer, and it is about a kilometer in length.  In this tiny land area, there are approximately 75,000 people.

Towering over most of the community of West Point is John Kofi Asmah School.  This school is one fruit of the partnership between the Illinois Great Rivers and Liberian Conferences of the United Methodist Church.  It is the only middle and senior high school in West Point.

When I was in Monrovia in February 2011, I spent two brief days on the third floor of the school, mixing mortar for the walls of the school.  During my brief time there, we build a couple of interior walls of the third floor.  The work I did there was almost insignificant.  It was but one thread to the larger fabric of this partnership.  We were told it could take another $50,000 to buy the materials and pay the labor to finish the project.  Most of us came back to Illinois with a very clear mission – complete that school.

In February 2012, another group of ordinands from Illinois traveled to Liberia (about 3-4 work groups a year make the journey.  Each group consists of laity and clergy.  They can work on a variety of projects, and there is one trip each year that is especially geared for teachers to go to train other teachers at the schools that have been built).  They came back with wonderful news.  In the year since my group left, the project has been completed.  They were a part of the dedication service.  I was told that at the dedication, some of the students thanked the people of Illinois for their help.  I wish I could return that thanks.

I am thankful for the partnership between Illinois Great Rivers and Liberia.  I know I am better for having been to Liberia.  I am better for working in the heat of the Liberian sun.  I am better for singing songs of praise with Liberian people.  I am better for knowing Sam.

“Welcome to beautiful West Point.”  That is how Sam Quarshie  welcomes people to his church and his school.  Sam is the associate pastor, but is known to the people of West Point as “Uncle Sam.”  Below, Sam is standing next to the cornerstone plaque on the school.  Sam is an inspirational man.  As amazing as that school is, my hope for Liberia does not rest in buildings.  Even though my own sweat is in the mortar, my hope is stronger than any concrete mixture.  My hope for Liberia and my hope for Illinois lies in people like Sam Quarshie.  My hope rests in the power of Jesus Christ to make all things new.

Associate Pastor Sam Quarshie in front of the cornerstone of the John Kofi Asmah United Methodist School in West Point, Monrovia. Photo taken by Michael Whitaker.

Click here to read more about Liberia and to watch a video about the 2011 trip.

Click here to learn more about the partnership between IGRC and Liberia and get information about how you can help or go.

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Partners in Hope

This is a video I put together with pictures I found on the internet plus my pictures and videos from my recent trip to Liberia.


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You’re going where?!?

I’ve collected enough money to get there and back. All the money I collect now will go directly to churches and people in Liberia. Click on the thermometer to be taken to my Donation page. Click on donate to make a $10 donation through Paypal.

“You’re going where?”  I’ve been asked that more than a few times recently.  Depending on the tone of the question, it can be loaded with shock, worry or confusion.  “Is that near Egypt?”  Is the common follow-up question.

“No, you might be thinking of Libya,” I say.  “You know how Africa has a bump on the side?  Liberia is sort on the bottom of that bump.”

“Are you going to be safe?” they ask.  “Right now, the most dangerous things are the water and the mosquitoes.  They’ve had peace since 2003, and a legitimate democratic government since 2006.  Their president is a United Methodist.”

Some wonder why I’m going.  Sometimes, especially now that it is so close, I wonder why I’m going.  It really doesn’t make any sense.  Why would I leave my home – a warm house, a comfortable bed, two daughters that light up when they see me, a wife who makes my heart leap when I hold her.  Why would I leave all of this for two days, let alone two weeks?

Why would I travel 10,000 miles to live for two weeks in sweltering heat, without reliable electricity (sorry, no air-conditioning), without land-line telephones, without clean tap water?  Why would I go to a place that is going to be 100 degree heat indexes, but is dangerous to wear short sleeves because the mosquitoes often carry malaria?  It doesn’t make any sense.

I’m going for two weeks to do what?  Paint a hospital – anyone can do that.  Attend annual conference – really?  I’m going 10,000 miles to sit at a budget approval meeting?  Build a school in Monrovia – I don’t know anything about building a school.  Why would I spend two weeks and $1,500 to do things that Liberians can do just as well – if not better – than me?  It doesn’t make any sense.

You know what though?  Sometimes the Kingdom of God doesn’t make sense.  This is the parable of the mustard seed.  It is one of the shortest parables of Jesus.  This is Matthew 13:31-32 (NRSV).

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’

Most people read this story hear only the part about a small seed turning into a large tree, but let’s look at this short parable a little closer.  Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven is like someone taking  a mustard seed and sowing it in a field.  Really?  Who would do that?  If you had a field or a garden, and were hoping to grow something that produced a crop, would you really sow a mustard seed?  The parable says that the seed turns into a shrub, and then a huge tree – big enough for birds to make nests.  Drive through rural Illinois or Iowa – there are lush, green fields as far as the eye can see.  How many huge trees are there in the midst of the corn and soybeans?

Think also about a garden.  A huge tree – complete with birds and other small animals – is the last thing you would want in it.  Sowing a mustard seed in a field just doens’t make sense.  Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to planting a tree in a field, or a weed in a garden.  Today he might have said, “The Kingdom of God is like planting dandelions on your front lawn.  One pops up, and before you know it, your whole yard is covered in them.”

It just doesn’t make sense.  The Kingdom of God doesn’t make sense.

It doesn’t make any sense for me to go to Liberia, but sometimes the Kingdom of God is about doing something that doesn’t make sense.  The Kingdom of God is about learning something totally new about “what makes sense.”  When someone strikes you on the face, it doesn’t make any sense to turn the other cheek.  When someone steals your cloak, it doesn’t make any sense to give him your cloak as well.  It makes sense to love your neighbor and hate your enemy.  But Jesus told us that’s not how the Kingdom of God works.

Common sense tells us to work, accumulate, gain status, grow in stature and garner power.  Common sense tells us to get revenge when we can, to punish when we are able and to win at all costs.  The Kingdom of God isn’t about making sense.  It didn’t make any sense for Jesus to forgive the tax collectors.  It didn’t make any sense when Jesus healed the sick or fed the hungry.  It didn’t make any sense for Jesus to allow himself to be put on a cross because of my sins.  And it definately didn’t make any sense for him to conquer the grave and leave the tomb empty.

The Kingdom of God doesn’t make sense, and the only way we’re going to get there is if people are willing to do some things that don’t make sense.  It doesn’t make sense to fogive.  It doesn’t make sense to seek reconciliation.  It doesn’t make sense to be love mercy, do justice and walk humbly with your God.

It doesn’t make sense for me to go to Liberia.  But I’m going anyway.  I’m going to meet people, share stories, and build relationships.  I am going to walk amongst a people that still proclaim “God is so good” even though it doesn’t make sense.  I’m going to a place that faced 13 years of the most brutal war the world has ever seen.  I’m going to a country that saw 200,000 people die, 2,000,000 become homeless.  I’m going to a place where girls raped, kidnapped and turned into “brides” for brutal warlords.  I’m going to a place where boys saw their parents murdered, were kidnapped, given heroine and guns and forced to become soldiers.

I’m going to a place that has no reason to have hope.  It doesn’t make any sense for people to be kind and generous.  It doesn’t make any sense for people to come to worship and declare “God is so good.”  It doesn’t make any sense.  And that’s why I’m going, because sometimes we all have to do something that just doesn’t make sense.

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Unpopular: Humility

“Humility is the virtue that distinguished Christianity from worldly wisdom.”  This quote is taken from one of my favorite devotional books, Praying with John Wesley.  It is attributed to Jeremy Taylor, an Anglican bishop that influenced John Wesley. David deSilva, the author of Praying with John Wesley writes, “Desire for advancing one’s status and defending one’s honor in worldly terms is not compatible with the desire to follow Jesus.”

“Advancing one’s status” – that one got to me as I read it again last week.  It was only a week ago that I knelt in front of the Bishop and received a stole, a Bible, and a certificate announcing that I now held a new status in the United Methodist Church.  I have advanced my status, and have the certificate to prove it (it will probably be in a frame and on a wall in my office in about six months or so).

The night after my ordination tornadoes ripped through central Illinois.  They passed about 30 miles north of my home.  They destroyed many homes in Dwight and Streator.  On Wednesday I went to meet a few people from the conference to help out with the cleanup in Streator.  The three of us that met there had all gone through the conference’s disaster response training.

After going through a daylong seminar about disaster response, we were all given special green t-shirts as well as photo badges that announced our status as trained and registered early responders.  The three of us showed up at the Streator Fire Department with wheel barrows, shovels, gloves and special shirts and official badges.  We were promptly put in a van (without all of our equipment we were so proud of), and dropped off at a public park.  We were told, “Pick stuff up and bring it over here.”

We stood there for a second, not sure of what to do.  First of all, the damage left me a little dumbstruck.  We were at a baseball complex.  Two of the backstops were crumpled like aluminum foil.  Several of the light posts were snapped in half.  Brick dugouts were piles of rubble.  A cement shed was toppled.  Another field was relatively untouched.  Shingles, limbs, splintered wood, nails, and glass were scattered everywhere.

The three of us just stood there, not sure what to do.  There were about 50 people at work.  Some were dragging garbage cans full of debris.  Some were working on a pile of bricks.  It was hot and humid, I didn’t know where to begin, so I just wandered around for awhile, picking up random things and holding them in my hands.  I started to get annoyed.

Didn’t anyone notice my green shirt?  Didn’t you see my badge?  I am a trained disaster responder.  I am here to help – to do real work – not to pick up litter at a baseball field.  I’m an ordained Elder, for crying out loud, shouldn’t I have an important job to do.  I am, like Ron Burgundy, kind of a big deal.

Eventually I found an empty can.  I found a field that no one was working on, and I started to pick things up.  I picked up shingles – so many shingles.  I picked up nails and splinters of wood and broken limbs. I looked at the baseball field and realized how important this work really was.

It was a beautiful baseball complex – surely a point of pride for the community.  I realized that if I could clean up this field, it could be a place kids could come and play, and hopefully forget about the destruction.  Maybe in some small way I could help families get back to their normal life.  Maybe I could pick up enough nails and glass and make the field safe for a kid to have fun again.

In the heat of the day, knelt down to pick up a pile of debris.  I thought about those shingles.  They had come off of someone’s roof.  I was literally picking up pieces of someone’s home.  Then I saw something that really didn’t belong.  It was pink.  It was a tiny little toy pony.  In the midst of the debris, there was a little girl’s toy.  I know a little girl that loves her toy ponies. I cried.  I knelt in that field and cried as I held that toy.  I realized that I was sitting in almost the exact posture I had sat just a few days before while being ordained.

In that field I knelt down to pick up the pieces of someone’s home.  I had sweat on my brow and a young girl’s toy in my hands.  A few days earlier I knelt down to be ordained by Bishop Palmer.  I had a stole around my neck and a Bible in my hands.  Somehow it felt pretty much the same.

That’s when I knew what humility was all about.  Following Christ is not about stoles or certificates.  Being a pastor is not about compliments after a great sermon, and it is not even about building bigger churches. Being a disciple of Christ is not about “advancing one’s status.” I learned – or maybe was reminded of – an important lesson: the best way I know to follow Christ, is by getting down on my knees to serve.


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No relief for the Reverend

So, now I’m ordained.  Someone asked me on Sunday if I feel any different.  My immediate thought was, “No,” but I paused before I answered and thought about it and said, “Yes, I guess I sort of do feel different.”  He smiled.  I think he appreciated that I took the time to answer him honestly, and he said, “Good.  You deserve to.”

I’m not sure what I was expecting to feel like after ordination.  Some have asked if I feel relieved.  You would think I would feel relief.  After all, the process has taken almost eight years to complete.  I’ve been interviewed and approved by three different groups.  I’ve submitted myself to psychological analysis, turned in hundreds of pages of theological writing, went through CPE, and graduated seminary.  Along the way I have served at three churches, had various mentors, been criticized by anonymous letter, chastised by the mysterious “some people,” and made enough mistakes to  put even Jesus’s limit of forgiveness (70 times 7) to test.

So you would think that I would stand here relieved.  I’m not.

There is no relief.  There is way too much work to do.  If anything, I feel the weight of responsibility now more than ever.  I have been charged by my Bishop before God, my Church, and my family, to do something.  The world is a broken place, and there is so much work to be done.

I went to Peoria on Wednesday.  I was accepted into membership by my brother and sister clergy on Wednesday afternoon.  I was introduced to the conference on Thursday morning.  I was ordained on Friday evening.  I came back to Chenoa  on Saturday and the world had not yet changed.

The oil was still pouring into the ocean.  Wars over greed and power were still being fought.  The divide between the rich and the poor was still growing.  Children were still dying of curable diseases.  Wayward souls were still wandering without knowledge of the love of Jesus Christ.  Young people were still being influenced by the TV telling them they could only find happiness if they looked this way, and bought this product.

The building downtown was still crumbling.  The food pantry across the street was still in need.  The basement of our church was still a wasted space waiting to be turned into something wonderful.  The meetings still had to be scheduled.  The sermon on Sunday still had to be preached.  The dishes still needed to be washed. So no, I don’t feel relieved.

I took vows on Friday night to work for the Kingdom of God.  When I turned on the TV this morning I saw plain as day that it had not yet arrived.  So no, I don’t feel relieved.

I took vows on Friday night to move onward toward Christian perfection.  It didn’t take long for me this morning to realize I hadn’t made it yet. So no, I don’t feel relieved.

Instead, I feel empowered.  I feel ordained by the Holy Spirit to go into the world and do something.  I feel ordained by the Holy Spirit to equip the saints for ministry.  I feel ordained by the Holy Spirit to teach and preach, to break bread with sinners, to heal the sick, to proclaim release to the captives, and to baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  So no, I don’t feel relieved.

I am empowered by God to do something.  And you are too.  Let’s get something done.  And then, and only then, may we find relief.


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Hii does. Do Wii?


Do we really?

Do we really?

Last week at annual conference I bought a shirt that read, “Hii welcomes all of His children.”  Next to those words was a picture of Jesus that looked like a Nintendo Wii character (or Mii).  Underneath, in smaller letters were the words, “Illinois Great Rivers Conference of the United Methodist Church.”


Annual Conferences of the UMC have been gathering over the last few weeks.  All of the conferences will be voting on a set of amendments to the UMC’s constitution.  These were amendments that were passed by the General Conference last summer, and now have to be ratified by a 2/3 majority of all the annual conference members.  Last week our conference voted on these amendments, and the results of one in particular really saddened me.  This is the amendment:


On May 1, 2008, at a session of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church held in Fort Worth, Texas, the following Constitutional Amendment was made by a recorded vote of 558 Yes, 276 No. It is now presented to the Annual Conferences for vote.
In the 2004 Book of Discipline, Division One, ¶ 4, Article IV, (2008 Book of Discipline, Division One, ¶ 4, Article IV)) amend by deletion and addition as follows:
After “worth” add “and that we are in ministry to all” and after “persons” delete “without regard to race, color, national origin, status or economic condition” and after “sacraments,” add “and” and after “members” delete “, and” and insert a period and add “All persons,” and after “faith” add “and relationship in Jesus Christ, shall be eligible to” and after “body” delete “of the Church because of race, color, national origin, status or economic condition”.
If voted and so declared by the Council of Bishops, ¶ 4 (¶ 4) would read:
Inclusiveness of the Church — The United Methodist Church is a part of the church universal, which is one Body in Christ. The United Methodist Church acknowledges that all persons are of sacred worth and that we are in ministry to all. All persons shall be eligible to attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments, and upon baptism be admitted as baptized members. All persons, upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith and relationship in Jesus Christ, shall be eligible to become professing members in any local church in the connection. In the United Methodist Church no conference or other organizational unit of the Church shall be structured so as to exclude any member or any constituent body.

On May 1, 2008, at a session of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church held in Fort Worth, Texas, the following Constitutional Amendment was made by a recorded vote of 558 Yes, 276 No. It is now presented to the Annual Conferences for vote.

In the 2004 Book of Discipline, Division One, ¶ 4, Article IV, (2008 Book of Discipline, Division One, ¶ 4, Article IV)) amend by deletion and addition as follows:

After “worth” add “and that we are in ministry to all” and after “persons” delete “without regard to race, color, national origin, status or economic condition” and after “sacraments,” add “and” and after “members” delete “, and” and insert a period and add “All persons,” and after “faith” add “and relationship in Jesus Christ, shall be eligible to” and after “body” delete “of the Church because of race, color, national origin, status or economic condition”.

If voted and so declared by the Council of Bishops, ¶ 4 (¶ 4) would read:

Inclusiveness of the Church — The United Methodist Church is a part of the church universal, which is one Body in Christ. The United Methodist Church acknowledges that all persons are of sacred worth and that we are in ministry to all. All persons shall be eligible to attend its worship services, participate in its programs, receive the sacraments, and upon baptism be admitted as baptized members. All persons, upon taking vows declaring the Christian faith and relationship in Jesus Christ, shall be eligible to become professing members in any local church in the connection. In the United Methodist Church no conference or other organizational unit of the Church shall be structured so as to exclude any member or any constituent body.

The amendment, put briefly would make it clear that all persons are welcomed into membership of the United Methodist Church.  There were many arguments against this amendment.  The one that made the least sense was the argument that this amendment would force Pastors into allowing anyone into membership without any standards.  At first, I was torn on this amendment because of this issue, but after re-reading I saw the word “eligible.”  This is not a mandate compelling churches to include anyone that wants to join. 

There are a lot of smoke-screen arguments against this amendment, but the only viable reason anyone would vote against it is that they don’t want a gay person sitting next to them in church.   

I thought that this would be the line that people wouldn’t cross.  I thought this was the dividing point between the moderate majority and the extremes.  I understand that people are divided on issues of pastoral authority and marriage.  But I also thought that keeping people out of churches was going to be too far.  

I believed that the moderate majority would rise and say, “we are a welcoming church.”  I thought that people could get beyond the fear-mongering and the politics and the polarization and say, “We have open hearts, open doors, and open minds.”  This amendment wasn’t about homosexual marriage.  It was not about homosexuals in the pulpit.  Really, it wasn’t about homosexuality at all.  It was about a church standing up and saying simply, “We welcome ALL.”  I really thought that the conference I love was going to vote to approve this amendment.

By a vote of 51%-46%, I was proven wrong.

Hii welcomes all of His children.  Apparently Wii don’t.


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Fixing the Skandal

A few weeks ago, my friend and colleague Will Deuel had a series of posts on his blog, “A Man Called Preach.”  His series of posts about the Skand-lous mission of the Board of Ordained Minstry created quite a whirlwind, including dozens of responses from well-wishers, sympathizers, and fellow probationary Elders rumbling along the ordination track.

As I think about our current Board of Ordained Ministry in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, I concur with much of what Will had to say, especially in suggesting that it needs to be re-thought.  So I kept on thinking…

What if the Board of Ordained Ministry was perceived not so much as a board of gatekeepers, but as a team of mentors?

I can imagine a new kind of process, one that does not exist to weed out those that are deemed unworthy, but one that lifts up, empowers, and molds responsible Christian leaders.  I can imagine a team of mentors, prayerfully discerning the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate, shaping a process that meets them where they are.

Instead of treating us as “classes” that have set list of hurdles that must be leapt in order to reach the goal, the ordination process could be a time of spiritual guidance, discernment and empowerment.   Picture this:

A probationary elder, upon being comissioned, sits with a small group of pastors and lay people to examine the material that was presented.  They talk about the Bible study, the sermon, the written work, and Wesley’s historical questions.  They consider the work experience of the candidate, the education, and seminary evaluations.  Together, they create working goals related to different parts of ministry.  If a candidate has a gift of teaching and preaching, she is given resources to develop those gifts.  She is supported in going to preaching conferences (like the annual Festival of Homiletics, which I am dying to go, but have no means), and continuing education seminars.  She is not required to do redundant work that was taught in seminary and examined during the comissioning process.

The candidate struggles with administrative duties, so she is given a mentor – one not based solely on age and gender, but one that is suited to teach her the skills she needs.  During the first round of annual conference forms, she meets with her mentor a couple of times.  They meet again shortly after the annual report forms are filled out.  Throughout the year, the mentor and candidate meet several times to talk about administrative tasks.

The group decides that Clinical Pastoral Education is required of the candidate, but not necessarily for all.  She has some gifts of pastoral care, but could certainly refine her skills.  She is given financial support to enroll in a CPE program.  Her mentor and DS make sure that during the CPE internship, certified lay speakers relieve her from the pulpit two or three times so she doesn’t get overwhelmed by the duties of congregational leadership and her CPE internship.

There are Residence in Ministry Retreats.  They are intentionally about building the connection and meeting learning goals.  The residents meet the bishop, members of the cabinet, and some local pastors and lay leaders from around the conference.  At the retreats, practical ministry techniques and issures are mixed with things like spiritual gifts inventories and personality tests.  The candidates discuss their path toward ordination, about their struggles and their fears.  They are given time for their own prayer, study and reflection.

Each candidate is treated as an individual –  a whole person.  Ordination is a process of discernment and growth – not a series of hoops. 

Sounds nice, doesn’t it?  The question I have is, what’s keeping this from being a reality?


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