I pray that the grace of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, be upon you all! As you know, the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic has spread virulently throughout the world and that there is no place that really has avoided the spread. I live and serve in New Jersey, USA, and we are in an area that the virus is spreading exponentially. Our state as shut down bars, restaurants, movie theaters, and there is an 8 p.m. curfew here that will continue throughout the foreseeable future. What’s more, our president and federal government has asked that groups of no more than 10 people gather at any given time. Thus, as a pastor, I have had to make the hard decision of closing our place of worship and moving to an online format. I have also been placed on a Coronavirus Response Team for our Skylands District of the United Methodist Church of Greater NJ. All of this has taken tremendous amount of time and energy and, as a result, I have not had the chance to write this week’s devotions. I am fully planning on getting back into the swing of things next week, the Lord willing. I thank you all for your readership, understanding, your patience, and your prayers.
In the mean time, check out this message of encouragement I gave to my church on our Facebook Page:
ALSO IN SCRIPTURE “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'” (Matthew 23:37-39, NRSV)
My heart, brothers and sisters, is extremely heavy. As many of you already know, I am an ordained elder in full connection in the United Methodist Church. This is the church I was baptized into, the church who prayed for me when I was in critical condition in the hospital at age 3, the church my wife and I were married in, the church I returned to when I came back to my faith in the early 2000s, and the church I finally answered my call in.
When I first came back to Christianity, I tried one other denomination prior to settling in the United Methodist Church. When I walked in that fateful Sunday, I was greeted by people as one often is at church on Sundays. When I asked the usher at the door what the difference was between them and a different denomination with a similar name and background, the person responded to ask me what my view on homosexuality was. He then proceeded to tell me that they split from their “heathen” sister church because of their acceptance of gays and how the Bible said gays were all going to hell.
Friends, I walked right out of that church and never looked back because I knew that such a judgmental denomination was NOT for me. It is following that experience that I found my way back into the United Methodist Church. At the time I didn’t know the language that is currently in our Book of Discipline. What I did know was that I was welcomed by a loving community that accepted me for who I am and not what I came in believing or not believing. They welcomed, they encouraged me, they loved me and my family, and they supported me in answering my call.
That church didn’t just welcome me but welcomed all people. They were a home for the broken, the outsiders, the lost, and the needy. They openly accepted all people, no matter their sexual orientation, no matter socio-economic status, no matter their hurts and/or hangups, no matter what they were or weren’t addicted to. They accepted and LOVED EVERYONE! That witness to Christ’s love is what brought back to the United Methodist Church.
I found my place in the UMC while learning of John Wesley and his belief in radical, omnipresent grace, his push for a balance between social holiness and social justice, and his openness to new ideas that were grounded in the Biblical witness of God’s love and grace. I knew, by this point, that we as a church had a position on human sexuality that I disagreed with; however, there was hope that things would change over time. To be clear, I understood and respected the fact that social change takes time because it involves the changing of hearts and not just minds. I still understand and respect that.
What happened during the Special Session of General Conference (February 23-26, 2019), deeply saddens me as I know it deeply saddens many United Methodists. The decision to pass the Traditional Plan over and above the One Church Plan, means that the denomination has decided to double down on its unholy ban on LGTBQ marriage and service in the Church. It diminishes their sacred worth, and hangs that up over their sexual orientation.
While the United Methodist Church touts having “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors”, the People of the United Methodist Church have shown the world something completely different. We’ve become a people with closed hearts and closed minds. We’ve become a stick that is breaking because it refuses to bend. We’ve become a people of the closed door.
With all of that said, it is important to note that while the global church as a whole voted to adopt the Traditional Plan, it must be said that it only passed by a very, very small margin. There were more than 800 delegates from around the world who voted and if a mere 28 people had voted differently the Traditional Plan would have been defeated. In regard to the inclusive One Church Plan, if 26 people had voted differently it would have passed.
These numbers only show that the vote is not reflective of the people called Methodists as a whole, and that gives me room for MUCH hope. My heart is heavy, my sadness deep; however, my HOPE is very much ALIVE. The church has always been in wrestling with Jesus’ call to be ambassadors of God’s inclusive, loving, and grace-filled Kingdom. We often fail at doing so; however, Christ still loves us and lifts us back up out of the mud we sink ourselves into. I have hope that the people called Methodists will find a way to move forward from the tragic steps backwards we just took.
Right now, Bishops, church leaders, pastors such as myself, and laity are working toward building a path forward to becoming a people of open hearts, open minds, and open doors once again. In fact, many of us never stopped being that in the first place! We will find a way forward to become a people of one church that accepts diversity in all of its richness, complexity, and sacred possibility. Please join with me in prayer for the people of the United Methodist Church and the people of all denominations as we seek to live out the Gospel commission of making disciples of ALL people (not just some), baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
THOUGHT OF THE DAY
Inclusivity has always been a struggle in the church, as it has for all of humanity. Here’s the Apostle Paul recalling a confrontation in his fight for Gentile inclusion: “But when Peter came to Antioch, I had to oppose him to his face, for what he did was very wrong. When he first arrived, he ate with the Gentile believers, who were not circumcised. But afterward, when some friends of James came, Peter wouldn’t eat with the Gentiles anymore. He was afraid of criticism from these people who insisted on the necessity of circumcision. As a result, other Jewish believers followed Peter’s hypocrisy, and even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.” — Apostle Paul of Tarsus (Galatians 2:11-13, NLT).
Lord, help us to be a people who do not become closed doors seeking your loving embrace and help us to not become closed doors on people seeking to your call on their lives and serve you. Amen.