Saturday, May 24, 2008

General Conference is nearly a month behind me now, but I have neglected to share one observation I made during the event that seemed to resonate with some. Sometime during the ten days United Methodists were together in Fort Worth, I observed that General Conference, at least in plenary sessions, can seem like a cross between C-Span and Monty Python.

Last week, attending my older daughter’s college, Julie and I drove two vehicles. We were not just attending her graduation, we were helping move some of her things back home for the summer. Our son, David, traveled from Fargo, North Dakota to Duluth and then with us to the graduation. Because we each had a vehicle, David shared time between his parents. When we were together, David and I, among other things, talked about and shared music. The first music I remember him identifying as his own was M.C. Hammer. He is a little chagrined by that. Somewhere along the line, he started listening to people like Bob Dylan, and to music like the blues. It was music to my ears –so to speak. When in college, David hosted a blues show on the college radio station. He and I attended a Bob Dylan concert together in Fargo a few years ago. We both love music, and we enjoy comparing notes on it.

Well, David shared with me his passion for a band called “The Pogues.” They are an Irish folk/punk band. We listened to a compilation CD he had made. If you want to know more about this band, type “The Pogues” into an internet search engine (that’s the more formal way of saying “google ‘The Pogues’”).

I shared with David two bands that I had been listening to lately. While my listening tends toward music made decades ago – classic rock, jazz – I always enjoy “discovering” some new bands to listen to. Around the time of the Grammy Awards, I heard a little about two bands that I wanted to check out – The Foo Fighters and The Plains White Ts. Recently I did just that, and found I enjoy both groups – being especially drawn to The Foo Fighters CD Echo, Silence, Patience, Grace.

If you want to hear one of my favorite Foo Fighters songs, “Home” – here’s the link.

The Foo Fighters, "Home"

I like the spiritual yearning expressed in the song.

And here’s a link to a really nice song by The Plain White Ts, a song that is about hopes and dreams and love.

The Plain White Ts, "Hey There Delilah


With Faith and With Feathers,


Friday, May 16, 2008

Grace. The word is used for the prayers we say before a meal. It is used to describe something beautiful and flowing, something with a certain elegance. In traditional Christian theology, grace is often translated as “unmerited favor,” and is something that God extends to humankind. God loves us even though we do not merit that love. That is adequate, as far as it goes. One can make a powerful case that God extending love to a humanity that kills and maims one another in war, that finds the most creative ways to exclude and diminish others, that pollutes the very environment which sustains its life and all life, that uses the earth’s resources with insufficient attention to the rate at which they are being depleted is unmerited, undeserved. Of course, that picture of humankind is decidedly one-sided – the same human community has found ways to cooperate to feed millions, has formed community out of disparate peoples, has created tremendous beauty, has been ingenious in its inventiveness, has loved. Does it seem odd to you to say that God’s love extended to someone like Mother Teresa was undeserved and unmerited? Perhaps at an abstract theological level it does, but at some point the language of merit and deserving seems strained.

In the past couple of years, I have come to a different understanding of the theology of grace. I have come to think of grace as primarily that which transcends the language of merit and deserving. There is a full moon over Lake Superior on a clear autumn night. Its beauty is astonishing, and I witness it. Do I deserve to see this? About two years ago, a couple in my church had a baby, whom they named Grace. It was their first child, and they were tremendously excited. They wanted me to come and see the baby in its first few days – and I did. Did I deserve to be a part of that miracle of new life? What had this couple done to deserve a beautiful baby girl they named Grace? The questions don’t seem to make sense. Grace is primarily that beauty, wonder, joy, mystery, love that touches our lives in ways that go beyond the language of merit and deserving. Grace happens, and in my Christian theology of grace I understand that all grace has its source in God.

Quick cut to my upcoming weekend. I have been thinking about grace again because this weekend my wife and other family members will be in Stevens Point Wisconsin to attend my oldest daughter Beth’s graduation. Beth is a remarkable young woman, and is one of our three remarkable children. Our son David will turn 25 this summer and has already graduated from college. He is working with developmentally disabled adults at a group home and is considering his future options. He is a bright, witty young man who wants to make a difference in the world – and he will. Our youngest child, Sarah, is sixteen, and tonight before we leave for the graduation, we will see her perform in a high school play – Much Ado About Nothing. Sarah is smart and determined. When we moved to Duluth three years ago, Sarah found some things difficult. It has been challenging for her to break into long-standing friendship groups, but this spring she decided she wanted to be a part of this play, and while her role is rather small, she is enjoying it to the fullest.

Back to Beth. When she was eleven, Beth broke her hip in a skiing accident. It was a significant break and it has marked her life ever since. She has had surgeries to keep her leg length similar, but they have only been partially successful. So this summer she is anticipating a surgery that will take part of the bone from one leg so the discrepancy in leg length is diminished. After she broke her hip, Beth was told she should probably not play basketball or volleyball. She discovered swimming, and was a good high school swimmer, one of the better ones on her team in Alexandria, Minnesota. In college she continued to swim and in 2006 and 2007 she participated in the National NCAA Division III swimming meet. She is multiple All-American athlete. She is graduating from college with degrees in biology and English. She has a straight-A grade point average and she has been accepted into medical school for next fall. She has talked about serving underserved populations in the United State or perhaps doing medical mission work overseas.

So what did I do to deserve such great children? And what did I do to merit their mother, my wife, Julie, who has been such a great mom and such a wonderful and supportive life partner? The language of deserving and merit does not seem applicable here. Of course I did not deserve my family, though I hope I contributed positively to making our family what it is. On the other hand, don’t people deserve love? Again, the language gets stretched beyond its capacity. Better here is the language of grace – beauty, wonder, joy, mystery, love that touches our lives beyond the language of merit and deserving. My family is grace to me, and the appropriate response to grace is gratitude and a graciousness in living that seeks to touch the world with grace.

So sitting at graduation Sunday morning I will bask in grace – filled with gratitude for the goodness of life, especially the goodness of my family. I will be filled with gratitude to God, whose very nature is gracious love and I will pray that in my life I can be as gracious as the God who gives life and grace.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Sunday, May 11, 2008

It is now about ten days, two sermons and one confirmation service since The United Methodist General Conference. I feel a little more rested, and feel back in my regular routine. Like being gone to summer camp, it takes some time to re-enter one’s former life after one has been at General Conference.

I want to share some final impressions (final for this moment, anyway). I make no pretense of comprehensiveness here. For a more complete report on General Conference, see the United Methodist New Service report, which can be found at:

United Methodist New Service: General Conference

I would like to share my reflections under three simple rubrics. Bishop Rueben Job has recently published a brief book on the Christian spiritual life within the United Methodist stream of Christian faith – Three Simple Rules. There are three simple rules that have the power to change the world…. We live in such a fast-paced, frenzied, and complex world that it is easy to believe we are all trapped into being someone we do not wish to be and living a life we do not desire to live…. I believe we have reached a place where, as people of faith, we are ready to give serious consideration to another way, a more faithful way of living as disciples of Jesus Christ. Here are the three simple rules Job proposes:
1. Do no harm
2. Do good
3. Stay in love with God

The book, which was a gift at General Conference, is next on my reading list. But today I want to consider General Conference under these rubrics.

Did we do harm? Certainly General Conference again left gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people feeling left on the margins of the church. The witness to that pain the day after we took most of our votes on issues related to human sexuality was powerful, testifying to the depth of that pain. Out of pain and hurt, there came anger, and some of that anger was expressed in words that probably left others hurt. “We defy bigotry and ignorance, that the anti-gay policies and practices of The United Methodist Church are wrong.” The witness also spoke of “the church cruelly scape goating lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people on the altar of so-called unity.” Difficult words, words born in pain, words spoken in anger and with tears. Hard words, but perhaps necessary words. Words that wounded some, even as they flowed from wounds. We cannot claim that we did not create hurt and pain, harm is a somewhat different issue. Harm is something other than hurt, though it often overlaps. Harm thwarts the genuine interests of the other, and one way to consider the debate around human sexuality in mainline churches is to think about whether our current prohibitions really harm LGBT people, or whether they serve their best interests, helping them into a healthier life. Those who stand by language that says the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching believe they are acting in the best interest of people trapped in unhealthy and unholy living, and so to maintain our current denomination position, while it hurts is not causing harm. Others of us disagree. The conversation will continue. In one way we did do some harm on this issue. Our Social Principles will be without some helpful language about the complexity of human sexuality even as it continues to say that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.

In other ways, I think we left Fort Worth without doing significant harm. Most of our conversations were genuinely civil. People were really trying. We were cautious in changing policies around ordination. We opened up the church to possibilities that we may be different as a world-wide church in the future.

Did we do good? Good was done in Fort Worth. In our time together, with help from the Gates Foundation, over $400,000 was raised for Nothing But Nets, a program that purchases insecticide treated mosquito netting for people living in countries where malaria continues to be a scourge. We gave the youth and young adults of our church an opportunity to share their hopes and dreams with us and their presentation was one of the highlights of General Conference. Thanks. Their energy bodes well for our church now and in the future. We were fiscally responsible. We focused on four areas much of the time – working with the poor, working to improve world-wide health by fighting preventable diseases, developing principled leaders, establishing new congregations and revitalizing others. We heard some wonderful stories of creative and redemptive United Methodist ministries from around the world. Of course, the greatest good done by churches is at the local church level. Maybe the best General Conference can do is help these local ministries, or at least not hinder them. I think we did o.k. Personally, I experienced a great deal of good as I connected with old friends and made new ones. Four years ago in Pittsburgh, I made good friends with people from Fort Worth and enjoyed dinner with some of them on a couple of occasions. I met some great people from North Carolina. Jorge from New York was a pleasure to get to know, and the list could go on – thanks to all. I got to know Adam Hamilton, pastor of one of the largest United Methodist Churches in the United States, and that was a joy. I reconnected with Liz, who had been in my Dallas youth group. I had not seen her for fourteen years, and we had dinner together one evening. Seeing United Methodist friends is one of the true goods of General Conference for me.

Did we do things to help people stay in love with God? For me the answer is an unequivocal “YES!” Worship is wonderful. Another friend, Mark Miller, was one of the General Conference worship coordinators, and he is awesome at what he does. One of my favorite new songs is a song Mark co-wrote called “Welcome.” Thanks, Mark. I deeply appreciated the way the Episcopal report was woven together with the language of our Eucharistic liturgy. Two moments from sermons were especially memorable for me. Bishop Mark Hanson from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America preached to celebrate our approval of a full communion agreement with the ELCA. One of his lines was powerful (paraphrase): “It is not a matter of inviting Jesus into our hearts, but of dying and rising with Christ and going with him into the world.” Bishop Hee Soo Jung of Northern Illinois, on the morning he preached shared with us the story of his faith journey, of how as a new Christian from Korea he held to his faith arrogantly. When his father died, he refused to participate in some of the traditional funeral rituals, including a pilgrimage to the mountains. He saw these as unchristian. Later, as he grew in his faith, he was home in Korea and took the pilgrimage. Bishop Jung also put a helpful frame on some of our disagreements within The United Methodist Church. He spoke of the tension we live between hospitality and holiness. How do we welcome all, but live lives where there are limits, where we acknowledge that in God’s love not everything goes? How do we balance holiness and hospitality? Of what does holiness consist? These are some of our pressing questions.

It is good to write about and reflect on my experience of General Conference. I expect that a number of things will simmer in my heart, soul and mind for quite some time. One other thing, I left Fort Worth still believing in a future with hope.

With Faith and With Feathers,


Thursday, May 1, 2008

Here is a brief update from General Conference.

Today has been a difficult day for those of us who would like to see The United Methodist Church offer some softening of its language on homosexuality. For another four years, clergy in our church will be prohibited from performing same-sex unions. Our official Social Principles will retain the language that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” “Self-avowed practicing homosexuals” will not be ordained. On the last matter, I had worked with a few people to offer some compromise language for our Book of Discipline that while it would not have changed the ordination standards, it would have admitted that we disagree about homosexuality as a barrier to ordination and that we will continue to work and pray and think together. I was able to get the motion on the floor, but it was defeated soundly – both a liberal and conservative speech were made against it. I was saddened by that.

At the same time, the church was at its best again. In my last column, I related the story of the African-American who had seemingly been discriminated against at a local restaurant. The entire General Conference heard his story today, and the President of the restaurant chain is receiving a letter from The United Methodist Church. The church is at its best when it can offer compassion and when it can work for justice. Both are needed. Both are necessary. Many churches seem to do better focusing on one or the other, but we need both – and we need the church to help us care for our inner lives, too.

This is not a new insight. This week, the official mission of The United Methodist Church became – “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Believe it or not, many spoke against this change. They wanted the statement to focus on making disciples as the saving of souls. Yes, the church cares about our inner life and the way we meet God there. Yes, the church seeks to bring people into relationship with Jesus Christ – but we do so in order that the world will be different. Both are needed – social focus and inner spirituality. Both are needed – justice and compassion.

After 2000 years, we are still learning what it means to be the church.

With Faith and With Feathers,