Evangelicals Unite in Chicago

swayze4During the first hour of its launch event in Chicago on October 7, leaders of the Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) were scrambling to find more chairs to accommodate the standing-room-only gathering, as well as swaying and clapping to the enthusiastic and impromptu participation of African United Methodists during the opening worship time – a visible reminder of the global nature of the denomination.

“I am convinced God is doing a new thing among those of us who claim the historic, orthodox, evangelical, Wesleyan expression of our faith,” said the Rev. Dr. Jeff Greenway, lead pastor of Reynoldsburg (Ohio) United Methodist Church, in his presentation on the group’s purpose. “I believe we are planting seeds today that — when full grown — will bear the fruit of a vital Wesleyan witness and a dynamic Spirit-filled Methodism across the globe.”

Speaking on behalf of the participants from Africa, the Rev. Dr. Edwin Julius Momoh of the Sierra Leone Annual Conference, affirmed the kinship between the goals of the WCA and African United Methodism. “We understand that the WCA is vision-driven movement committed to moving forward God’s agenda for the evangelization of the nations, the revitalization of The United Methodist Church, and the transformation of society; as we do in Africa.”

The inaugural gathering was a high-energy mixture of affirmative messages on the Lordship of Jesus, the centrality of the Scriptures in the life of the Church, and the Wesleyan drive to transform the world through Christian discipleship and social holiness.

“We Methodists believe in holding in tension both works of piety and works of mercy,” said the Rev. Jorge Acevedo, senior minister of Grace Church, a multi-site congregation committed to recovery ministry in Southwest Florida, in his presentation. “Faith expressed without a robust expression of both in the life of an individual follower of Jesus or a local church is incomplete and unbiblical in our understanding of what it means to live in Christ. For us faith is lived best when as a follower of Jesus I work on my prayer life and work to end human trafficking. My local church is being faithful to the way of Jesus when our hands are lifted high in transcending worship and our hands are reaching low to work with the poor.”

The Chicago event was also a show of solidarity to orthodox clergy and laity in sections of the church that no longer adhere to the global United Methodist views on marriage and sexuality. The day-long event culminated with a communion service overseen by two United Methodist bishops.

“We don’t live on the world’s wisdom, we do not exist on the world’s power,” said Bishop Mike Lowry of the Fort Worth Area of the Central Texas Conference, during his communion homily. “You know and I know it is Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God. What is at stake for us in this struggle we are in is not ultimately the issue of human sexuality. What is at stake for us is who is Lord, who rules, who saves us. We preach Christ and him crucified.”

Living core of our faith. Interspersed between messages calling for a revitalized Wesleyanism, WCA leaders crowd-sourced affirmation of its theological underpinnings, purpose, and moral principles. “We are reciting the Nicene Creed today without crossing our fingers behind our backs,” said the Rev. Dr. Bill Arnold, professor of Old Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, before leading the group in the ancient affirmation of faith. “These standards and this creed are more than mere historical relics of our past. These are the living core of our faith, rooted firmly, we believe, in the revelation contained in the Old and New Testaments.”

It also christened a new leadership team through audience affirmation by applause and “amens.” As the council members began their work together they elected Dr. Jeff Greenway as the group’s chairperson; the Rev. Carolyn Moore, pastor of Mosaic United Methodist Church outside of Augusta, Georgia, as vice chairperson; the Rev. Madeline Carrasco Henners, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Luling Texas, as secretary; and Ferrell Coppedge, lay leader of Mt. Bethel United Methodist Church in Marietta, Georgia, as treasurer.

With more than 1,800 participants, the Donald E. Stevens Convention Center near O’Hare Airport in Chicago was flooded with enthusiastic United Methodists from every conference across the denomination in the United States and from ten conferences in Africa.

The Rev. Dr. Kim Reisman, the World Director of World Methodist Evangelism, called upon the gathering to find strength in the global church’s witness. “I believe the Wesleyan Covenant Association is a place where we can be encouraged to follow the lead of those beyond the United States and begin rooting ourselves in the wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit, so that we can move beyond self-reliance, and boldly claim, or reclaim, the Trinitarian shape of Wesleyan life and witness.”

Chicago Statement. Through a “Chicago Statement” that was affirmed by a standing ovation and cheers, the group asked the Council of Bishops to “swiftly name the members” of the Commission on the Way Forward and “approve the call for a special General Conference in early 2018 to enable resolution of the conflict that divides us before further harm is done to United Methodist members, congregations, conferences, and ministries.”

“If we are one church, we need to stop acting like two churches,” said the Rev. Dr. Chris Ritter, pastor of a multi-site United Methodist congregation around Geneseo, Illinois, in presenting the statement. “If we are two churches, we need to stop pretending we are one. I say these things as someone who has worked passionately for the cause of church unity over the past few years.”

In the midst of dissension and uncertainty within United Methodism, leaders of the Wesleyan Covenant Association say the group was formed in order to bring a unifying voice of hope and encouragement to evangelicals and traditionalists as they face the future.

“What unites us is that we long to be part of a mighty movement that God uses to change the world,” said the Rev. Rob Renfroe, pastor of adult discipleship at The Woodlands (Texas) United Methodist Church, during his message to the group. “We did not join the United Methodist Church to debate what the Bible has made clear. We did not enter the ministry to save the church. We are Methodists because we want to be part of a church that God would use to save the world.”

“We don’t know what the future will bring,” said Renfroe, who is also president and publisher of Good News. “We are not here to promote schism. But we are not here to be naïve either. Change is coming to the United Methodist Church. We all know that. The bishops know that and many have said so publicly.”

The Rev. Dr. Jerry Kulah, dean of the Gbarnga School of Theology (United Methodist) in Liberia, reminded the group about the importance of choosing the right way when two divergent paths are presented at a crossroad. “The only sustainable path to global unity of the people called United Methodist is total submission and loyalty to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and an exclusive obedience to the Word of God as primary authority for faith and Christian living,” said Kulah. “While we live within diverse cultures and religious worldviews, it is important that we love and embrace everyone, but we must continually live within God’s parameter of grace defined by Scripture.”

Light of the world. The temptation to accommodate to the values of the prevailing culture has been a struggle for the Church since the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, observed the Rev. Dr. Andrew Thompson in his presentation. “The Church was not meant to adhere to the values of the world. The Church was not meant to be the handmaiden of the culture,” said Thompson, Wesleyan scholar and pastor of First United Methodist Church in Springdale, Arkansas. “The Church was rather called to be the ‘light of the world,’ the ‘city built on the hill,’ and the ‘lamp upon the lampstand’ giving light to the darkness beyond (Matthew 5:14-15)!

“Wesley’s great fear was that the Methodist movement would – in a process that had happened again and again over the centuries – be tamed by the culture until it was nothing more than a docile lapdog,” Thompson continued. “He was afraid that Methodism’s engagement with the culture would dilute it until it was a shell of its former self.”

In his opening sermon, the Rev. Kenneth Levingston, senior minister of Jones Memorial United Methodist Church in Houston, said that the “core of our struggle” is when men, women, and the Church attempt to put other things in God’s rightful place. Levingston said that modern false gods include: salvation without sacrifice, sanctification without submission, mercy and grace without truth and transformation, social holiness without Scripture, and forgiveness without faithfulness.

Reunion of the rescued. The Rev. Jessica LaGrone, Dean of the Chapel of Asbury Theological Seminary, told the story of the special reunions conducted by the 155 survivors of flight 1549 that was forced to land on the icy waters of the Hudson River in January of 2009. On that day, all the ferryboats in the area were deputized into rescue boats in order to save the passengers who were perched precariously along the sinking plane’s massive wings. The event is known as the “Miracle on Hudson” and the reunions are dubbed “Celebrations of Life.”

LaGrone called the WCA Chicago gathering a “reunion of the rescued.” She reminded the participants that their unified purpose can be found because “together we were saved, together we find hope in our shared faith, and so together we stand. We were, all of us, sinking deep in sin, and Jesus rescued us.”

“We meet not just to find a way forward, but to remember how we found The Way, the Truth, and the Life in the first place,” said LaGrone. “And to remember that to fully know life is not just to be rescued from something, but to be rescued for something. To become the rescued and transformed means to be those intent on the rescue and transformation of others.”

Appealing to the future. Wesleyan Covenant Association leaders announced during the afternoon session that they had run out of membership forms and encouraged participants to sign-up online (wesleyancovenant.org). Two young clergypersons appealed to the future of the church in asking participants to join the association.

“It’s not often that you get to be part of history,” said the Rev. Ryan Barnett, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Kerrville, Texas. “No matter how you think things are going to turn out in the United Methodist Church, there is no question that they will be different for my son than they were for my parents.”

“Today, I’m joining the WCA because I’m desperate for renewal within the church and revival within the world,” said the Rev. Madeline Carrasco Henners. “I want to support my brothers and sisters in conferences that ostracize them or violate our global covenant. I’m joining the WCA because I believe it will be a vibrant, Spirit-filled Wesleyan voice within the world. Finally, I’m joining the WCA because I desire to be in covenant with brothers and sisters who seek to know, love, and honor God in all they do.”

Bill Hybels and the Virtuous Spiral Upward

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Photo by Lance Rothwell, Florida Annual Conference

“For 60 minutes I sat in my own personal agony, watching this guy, who was probably only ever going to come to church once. I could viscerally sense him being pushed further and further away from the God that he was interested in, albeit mildly.”

That was one of the emotional and transformative moments Bill Hybels, founding pastor of Willow Creek, described during an hour-long interview in front of the more than 700 clergy and laity at the Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church in June. The pivotal scene he described took place during his teenage years in high school when a fellow baseball player – the wildest kid in school – asked to attend a church service with Hybels.

“I didn’t think about it,” recalled Hybels. “I should have thought about it…. I had never sat in my little legalistic, traditional, inward-focused church with someone far from God.”

After a few days of feeling as though his teammate was intentionally avoiding him, Hybels finally asked his friend about the church service. “Bill, I know you’re religious, but you pitch normal, you dress normal, you talk normal,” he said. “What you took me to was just not normal. So I’m just trying to figure out why someone as normal as you would be a part of something as abnormal as that was?” That encounter gave Hybels his “first rude awakening to what can happen in a single church service.”

Hybels launched Willow Creek outside of Chicago in 1976. Forty years later, more than 25,000 people attend one of Willow’s seven regional locations each weekend. He is also chairman of the board of the Willow Creek Association, a network of more than 7,000 member churches from 90 denominations in 90 different countries.

That high school experience when he was 17 years old gave Hybels a passion for creating a spiritually-centered – but outward-focused – congregation. When a first time visitor appeared at the church, Hybels wanted to make sure that the staff paid careful attention to “rehearsing and true innovation and heartfelt pieces of art that would move human souls, and preaching that would actually be intellectually rigorous and theologically sound, but also applicable Monday morning.”

The Hybels interview – conducted by his friend Jorge Acevedo, senior pastor of Grace Church in Cape Coral, Florida – was one of the key components of a leadership emphasis at the 2016 Florida Annual Conference. The event also featured presentations by Jeff James from the Disney Leadership Institute, Texas Bishop Janice Riggle Huie, and Lucille O’Neal, author and mother of NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal.

Hybels has become a driving force in providing leadership models and training for local Christian churches through his renowned Global Leadership Summit each year and through his books such as Courageous Leadership, The Call to Lead, Leading from Here to There, and Leadership Axioms.

Vision for the Church

“There is something beautiful and powerful and potential-filled in the concept of a church,” a professor told Hybels during a study of the book of Acts in 1972. This was the second transformative event that shaped Hybels’ vision for Willow Creek. His professor provided a picture of a New Testament church that triggered a life-altering response in Hybels.

“There was once a worshipping community radically devoted to God. They were relentlessly committed to spreading the Gospel, even at the risk of their own lives,” Hybels recalls his professor saying. “They were sewn together in a kind of fellowship where they called each other brothers and sisters. They sold their property and possessions so that no one in the community would live with ongoing need. And gender walls came down and racial walls came down and socio-economic walls came down. And they experienced the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit in community at a point in time.”

“It blew my mind,” Hybels recalled. “I got all caught up in the vision of what the church could be. I knew the church of my youth and it was not faith-inspiring, it didn’t move me to want to do much on its behalf. But he described a kind of church that I had never experienced.”

Why don’t we have churches like this today, the professor provocatively asked his students. “Has God lost His power? Is the Holy Spirit no longer fired up? Does the Gospel no longer change lives? The problem is, young people like you won’t risk everything to try to build one. That’s the problem.”

Hybels had never been confronted with a vision like that for the church. “Some of you are just thinking about what your parents want you to do,” said the professor. “You’re just going to inherit a business…. I plead with you, why not cancel your career plans and give every day of the rest of your life to the building and developing of an Acts 2 church?”

Those words hit a nerve because Hybels’ father was a very successful businessman who had a plan of handing the family business over to his son. Meanwhile, Hybels was feeling an undeniable call to plant a church. The two visions collided when Bill explained his call to his father.

“It’s the first time that I ever knowingly disappointed him,” he confessed. “He was a hero figure, bigger than life – flew his own airplanes and sailed his own boats and traveled all over the world and did deals and was a strong Christian. I devastated him by that choice.”

Hybels’ father made sure that his son understood the gravity of his decision to walk away from the security and responsibility and rewards of the family business. “If you have any idea in your mind that I’m going to support this venture financially, I’m not going to,” Hybels recalled his father saying. “Further, if you’re going to really do this, then we’re going to have the lawyers come down and we’re going to write you out of the family interests and you’re going to sign some papers and you’re going to give back the keys to stuff and the credit cards and all that. I’m not cutting off relationship, but let’s see if this is God really calling you or if this is something you think that our family is going to underwrite.”

Hybels admitted an internal struggle. “And I went back to prayer,” he said. “I asked God a second or third time on that” – triggering laughter by the crowd. Nevertheless, the call was undeniable. At the same time, his father was not bluffing. “I remember it like it was yesterday, signing all the legal papers,” said Hybels. “And that was it for that.” Regretfully, two years after the church began, his father had a massive heart attack and died. “He never saw what Willow Creek would become some day,” said Hybels. “He only thought that I was being careless with something that he had spent a lifetime preparing for me to lead. So that’s a hard part of the story.”

Doing things differently

“After 40 years, how would you have started Willow differently, knowing what you know now?” Acevedo asked Hybels during the Q&A session.

“I have been asked this question before. And I actually have a bit of an issue with that kind of question,” responded Hybels, with a grin. “We’ll get over it,” he said as the audience laughed.

“In actuality, we don’t get to go back with the knowledge we have decades later. We’re living life real time right now. I’d like to be as smart now as I hopefully will be 10 years from now, but I can’t microwave that,” Hybels said. “When I look back at some regrets, instead of beating myself up and saying, ‘Oh, you idiot,’ I realize I was 22 when I started the church and I did the best I could and I made some terrible decisions and I made some, what turned out to be, pretty smart decisions. And I don’t get to do that do-over.

“I would rather remind myself that every day is the only day I get to live real time. So I want to be filled with the Holy Spirit today. I want to love my enemies today,” Hybels continued. “I want to do good in this world and try to reach some people today. Yesterday is gone, tomorrow isn’t here yet. The only shot I have is real time.”

Virtuous Spiral Upwards

Leadership matters to Hybels because people matter to God. “The only thing God spilled the blood of His son for is people,” said Hybels. From his vantage point, if you have been given the spiritual responsibility of human souls, you have a sacred obligation to grow as a leader, develop your pastoral skills, and learn how to preach more effectively.

Hybels is fully committed to training the leaders of local churches despite denominational affiliation or worship style. More than 20 years ago, Hybels launched the Global Leadership Summit to help develop spiritual gifts of leadership. In 2016, more than 300,000 people participated in the live telecast of the Summit. Throughout the fall, Summit events take place at more than 675 sites in 125 countries and 59 languages.

“Everyone wins when a leader gets better… I shamelessly ask all of you to make the decision to get better, to preach better, to lead better, to communicate, to worship – whatever it is that you do in the church…,” Hybels said. “When you feel in your own spirit that you are developing and … your heart is growing, your head is growing, your gifts are growing, it creates a culture around you of people who start to live their life that way. … It’s a virtuous spiral upwards, if you can create that kind of culture. If you don’t, there’s a high degree of probability that there will be a less than virtuous spiral the other way.”

The downward spiral hit the church of Hybels’ childhood in Kalamazoo, Michigan, when it officially closed its doors. “It was a thoroughly defeated congregation that had to hold its own funeral and sell the building…. I sat in front of that church and balled like a baby. What is sadder on planet earth than a kingdom light that goes out? We live in a dark world. We don’t have that many lights. So when one starts to flicker and then it goes out, it’s a cosmos-wide tragedy when a church dies. Some do.”

Hurricanes and spiritual conversations

“We United Methodists are pretty good at acts of compassion and mercy,” Acevedo told Hybels during the interview. “We’re at our best when a hurricane blows through or there’s a crisis. We’re good at giving away bags of groceries. And yet, we’re not so good at just ‘walking across the room,’ a phrase that you’ve popularized, and engaging in God-honoring and people-honoring spiritual conversations.” Although Willow is most well known for effectively reaching out to spiritual seekers, Hybels praised United Methodism’s social outreach.

“If you guys are really as good as he’s saying at compassion and justice, I want to say from the rooftops, way to go,” Hybels said. “Because most churches around the world don’t give a rip about the poor. They just don’t. They hold their little services, keep it all tidy. And they’re not passing out any groceries, they’re not responding to any hurricanes. There is a passivity and a complacency in churches around the world that drives me up the wall. So the fact that you are good at compassion and justice is no small thing. Hear my commendation, for whatever it’s worth, and please don’t devalue yourselves for being that, because that’s a major part of what Christ said we ought to be about.

“But if you’re a little weaker on the evangelism side, then I would just say, oh, you don’t know what you’re missing,” he continued. It is the vision, simplicity, and power of that passage in Acts 2 that originally ruined Hybels – in a good way. The Scripture reads: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (42-47).

This is clearly the dynamism that Hybels lives for. “I don’t understand church work apart from the adventure and the thrill of seeing God transform a human heart,” he said. “Now, I’m all for the compassion and justice. We do a lot for prisoners. We do a lot of compassion and justice stuff. When people say, what’s the church really about? It’s about evangelism, discipleship, and compassion and justice in its simplest framework. When evangelism is occurring supernaturally and people are growing in their faith, putting roots down deep, and joining small groups and you’re doing compassion and justice, pinch me.

“Forty years into it and I’m as passionate about the beauty, power, and potential of the local church as I was day one. I am in awe of the church.  And when it’s working right, there’s no institution like it on planet earth,” Hybels said.

You’re not crazy!

“Every pastor needs to hear every once in a while that you’re not crazy. Because there’s a lot easier ways to earn a living, and there’s a lot easier ways to develop a career that isn’t as messy and as exhausting as being a pastor,” Hybels said to conclude his remarks. “And there are times when we’ve launched capital campaigns and fallen short of the goal. And there are times when we’ve had what we thought were brilliant ideas and launched them with high hopes and they just fell flat, and no one’s life changed.”

At the same time, Hybels reminded the clergy that “God has entrusted you with what He treasures most in this world….  And He’s gifted you. And He’s given you His Holy Spirit. And every once in a while someone probably just has to say to you, ‘You are not crazy for pouring your life into this.’ You are not crazy for enduring what you endure, from season to season. You are not crazy for staying faithful to the Word of God when pastors are bailing on the trustworthiness of scripture, right and left. You are not crazy for holding the line on certain moral issues that everyone is willing to cave on. Every once in a while you just need someone to tell you you’re not crazy.”

Hybels ended the session by describing a time that he spoke at Acevedo’s Grace Church. “The place was electric because Jorge’s life story is one of redemption and optimism, that God can do anything, and he’s got a congregation that has experienced so much recovery and they key into Jorge’s optimism,” he recalled. “The place was on fire that night.”

Hybels transitioned from the story of Acevedo’s United Methodist congregation committed to recovery ministry into a benediction and a charge. “I would encourage you to do whatever you need to do to stay fired up, stay on the faith-filled side of things, tell people God is still strong, the Holy Spirit still has His stuff, the Gospel still transforms people’s lives, the church is still the hope of the world. And you keep beating that drum and good things will happen.”

The Gospel According to Nightcrawler

Nightcrawler NightcrawlerWhen moviegoers were first introduced to Kurt Wagner more than a dozen years ago in the blockbuster film X2: X-Men United, he was darting through a legion of hapless Secret Service officers at the White House. At first glance, he appeared as a fierce blue demon-looking character that was able to disappear into thin air and reappear across the room.

For those who don’t follow the alternative universe of comic book imagination and discussions of “mutants,” Wagner is one of the most fascinating characters introduced in the X-Men franchise.

Wagner’s appearance in X2 (played by Alan Cumming) delighted comic book fans. His character is better known as Nightcrawler (or Fuzzy Elf to his friends). As a “teleporter,” the German-accented mutant is able to morph into a puff of blue smoke and transport himself with the speed of sound. With acrobatic grace, he cuts quite an image with his dark blue skin, tail, pointy ears, three-fingered-hands, and funny teeth.

There was more than a ripple of thrill coursing through the veins of comic book fans when it was announced that Nightcrawler would reemerge in this year’s blockbuster X-Men: Apocalypse. Mysteriously, the character has been absent from the last five films in the series.

Nightcrawler has been one of Marvel Comics’ most unique and complex superheroes since 1975. For those outside the X-Men cult of fans, the series revolves around a cast of characters that have some form of genetic mutation that manifests itself through extraordinary abilities. They have names such as Wolverine, Cyclops, Magneto, and Rogue. The mutants can control the weather (Storm), blow freezing cold wind (Iceman), or walk through walls (Kitty Pryde, aka Shadowcat). As you would expect, they are treated as freaks and ostracized from society. The storyline revolves around the struggle between the humans and mutants and the need to fight prejudice, suspicion, and bigotry when dealing with people who may have different looks or talents.

Perhaps the most intriguing characteristic about Nightcrawler is that he is a mutant of faith — a devout Christian. Out of all the myriad of cartoon superheroes created in the last fifty years, very few have articulated or been identified with a specific religious faith.

There have, however, been exceptions to the rule. In 2002, it was revealed in the comics that Ben Grimm (aka The Thing) of The Fantastic Four was Jewish. Clark Kent (aka Superman) was raised Methodist. In the movie Daredevil, crucifixes and other religious iconography flood the screen (as well as visits to the confessional) in order to convey Matt Murdock’s struggle between vigilantism and his boyhood Catholic faith.

To their credit, the screenwriters, director, and producers of X2 allowed Nightcrawler to retain his purity of faith and hope. They skipped the subtle, read-between-the-lines type of allusions to his Christianity and let him express full-metal devotion. Nightcrawler takes refuge in an abandoned cathedral in Boston, festooned with statues of Jesus. When he is nervous, he holds a crucifix and says the rosary in German. When he needs to summon inner strength, he recites the Lord’s Prayer. When the group is confronted with tragedy, he pastorally quotes Psalm 23.

Awash in hellfire, brimstone, and lazerbeams, X-Men: Apocalypse was this summer’s big screen spectacle loaded with melodramatic screen banter about false gods and Four Horsemen, all bursting out of the rubble of ancient Egyptian cults. While some observers rightfully complain when Hollywood turns its back on religion, it must be pointed out that some films overdose on discombobulated spirituality. Apocalypse may well have been one of those films.

In the midst of the metaphysical chaos of an X-Men film, you can thankfully depend on the pointy-eared blue character (this time played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) with the tail to make the sign of the cross and pray: “Dear Father, hold me in the light of God. Protect me from danger. Save me by your command. Listen to my prayer and keep me safe.”

Quite simply, Nightcrawler is one of the most devout and unconventional Christian characters that has ever been portrayed on the big screen. Furthermore, his distinct characteristics span his portrayal in comic books, graphic novels, and an animated film. He talks righteously about sin and the power of faith, without the slightest hint of holier-than-thouism. Although he has every right to be angry at humans for their bigotry, he chooses to help them. He has fears, but he acts with courage through the power of prayer. He quotes the Scripture to find strength that his genetically mutated special powers cannot give him.

In the movie version, Nightcrawler’s faith is further highlighted in that his body is covered in tattoos, one for each of his sins. He calls them his “angel marks.” In a form of penance, they are self-inflicted ancient Enochian symbols considered to be an angelic alphabet.

Good-natured swashbuckler 

When Nightcrawler first began with the X-Men, he was not conceived as a religious superhero. He was a swashbuckling adventurer with a good sense of humor and a special charisma with the ladies. He even became the leader of the British superhero group Excalibur.

His unique look always made him appear to be something that he was not — namely a demon. The creators used his image to further press their point that prejudice and bigotry brutally cloud our judgment in being able to truly judge a person. This was only heightened when Nightcrawler began quoting Scripture, praying, and hanging out in abandoned cathedrals. He began to be mentored by a priest at Church of Michael the Archangel in Brooklyn and studying for the priesthood.

For a period of time in the X-Men comics, Nightcrawler was shown wearing a clerical collar and even presiding over the funeral of a friend. In the midst of his theological studies, he also struggles with his faith, the tremendous injustice that he sees all around him, and what it would mean to become a priest.

In the graphic novel Uncanny X-Men Vol. 1: Hope (2003, written by Chuck Austen), Nightcrawler is staring at a life-size crucifix in St. Patrick’s Cathedral when he says, “Your death was intended to show us a shining example of how we should live in loving union with you and those around us. Yet even those of us who hold you deepest in our hearts — fail — in keeping true to your divine word.”

In continuing his confession, he says: “Clergy, parishioners, priests — me. I have such thoughts — feelings I cannot escape — the desires for the touch of a woman.” While the temptations of the flesh weigh heavy on his conscience, Nightcrawler’s vastly more threatening challenge is against the racist and religious humans of the Church of Humanity, a Ku-Klux-Klan type of anti-mutant organization.

With the gritty and heart-torn anxiety of the Psalmist, his poignant monologue continues by unleashing his frustration on a seemingly standoffish God. “And now another Holy War is brewing — more fools take up weapons of murder in Your name. And You allow it. Perhaps even encourage it. If we take You into our hearts, does that mean fighting and killing in Your name — or not fighting and being killed in your name? Which is the right answer? And what purpose does it serve to torment your most faithful when the goal is maybe one day sitting beside you — alone — possibly forever apart from the ones we love and desire — who chose wrongly or failed your uncertain tests?”

The scene concludes with Nightcrawler looking at his crucified Jesus and saying, “When next we meet, I expect answers.”

Did God give up on the mutants? 

With the heightened popularity of the X-Men movies, a DVD collection of animated TV episodes from the early 1990s was released entitled X-Men: The Legend of Wolverine (Buena Vista, written by Eric Lewald, Mark Edward Edens, and Sidney Iwanter). It includes an entire episode devoted to the origin and theological disposition of Nightcrawler.

The story takes place within a monastery in a small Bavarian village in Germany. Three of the X-Men (Wolverine, Gambit, and Rogue) find themselves being aided by monks in the aftermath of an avalanche. Having been mistaken for a demon by the townspeople because of his looks, Nightcrawler explains to Wolverine and his friends that his genetic mutations were evident from birth and that the villagers chased him and his mother out of town.

His mom (Mystique) also abandoned him as a child (in the comics, she throws him over a waterfall) and a family of travelling performers took him in. When he was young he was able to work in the circus, but he was still treated as an outcast, “shunned and hated.” In talking with Wolverine, Nightcrawler says, “Though all people are flawed and struggle with the capacity for sin, none likes to be reminded of our shared human weakness. My appearance does not make it easy.”

“Don’t it make you crazy?” Wolverine asks with incredulity.

“It did once, but then I found peace by devoting my life to God,” said Nightcrawler. “He directed me to this place [the monastery] where they value the character of my heart, not my appearance.”

This only sends Wolverine further into a rage. “What are you talking about? God gave up on us long ago!” Nightcrawler counters, “No, my friend, God does not give up on his children — human or mutant. He is there for us in our times of joy and to help us when we are in pain — if we let Him.”

Later, Nightcrawler tells Wolverine, “We are alike, you and I — angry at the world. My pain drives me to seek God, yours drove you away.” Wolverine is further infuriated when he asks why God would have allowed him to be treated so badly. “Our ability to understand God’s purposes are limited,” says Nightcrawler, “but take comfort in the fact that his love is limitless.”

The episode concludes with Wolverine kneeling in a French cathedral reading the Bible and saying, “I will give thanks to you O Lord. Though you are angry with me, your anger is turned away and you have comforted me. I will trust you. I will not be afraid.”

Not a bad message — especially coming from a thoroughly unconventional superhero.

The Martyr’s Invitation

_90520544_mediaitem90520543“Jacques, you were a faithful disciple of Jesus.”

If he were given the opportunity to overhear the proceedings at his own funeral, these are the words that Father Jacques Hamel would have been most pleased to hear. They were said with a mixture of solemnity, sorrow, and triumph by those who knew him best.

In what can only be described as barbaric bloodlust, Father Jacques’ throat was slit by two jihadists in front of the altar of the church at St Étienne-du-Rouvray, near Rouen, nearly 80 miles northwest of Paris. He was 85 years old.

Father Jacques’ death sparked international controversy for politicians and religious leaders in the midst of our current battle against terrorism. Some call his death martyrdom. Others wish we could call it something else so as not to add further tension to an easily flammable international tinderbox.  It is pitiable that the ghastly murder of an elderly priest should have very smart observers tiptoeing through a minefield, but such is the world we live in.

Thankfully, from the testimonies given at Father Jacques’ funeral, there are more celebratory observations to be made.

1. Lifelong commitment. One of his ministerial colleagues used to jokingly remind Father Jacques that he was getting up in years and that perhaps it was time to take his pension. The old priest would laugh and say, “Have you ever seen a retired pastor? I will work until my last breath.”

What was said with good humor ended up being manifest in great tragedy. Serving communion would be his final pastoral act. “This is my body given for you,” said Jesus. “This is the new covenant in my blood…”

“When Jesus wanted to explain to his disciples what his death was all about,” writes Anglican scholar N.T. Wright, “he didn’t give them a theory, he gave them a meal.” As the disciples noted, these are very difficult concepts to grasp. When offered, however, we receive the gifts of the sacraments with grateful and childlike faith.

What was intended to be sacrilegious, Father Jacques’ death in the shadow of the altar ended up becoming an amplified witness of lifelong devotion to the incarnate love of a God pierced with bleeding wounds in his hands, feet, and side. Blood remains the key element that binds all of humanity. When pooled in a puddle, it may appear grotesque; but coursing through our veins, blood remains the source of life.

2. Spiritual vision. At his funeral, it was recalled that Father Jacques tried to push away his murderer with his feet, twice saying, “Go away, Satan.” As taught by St. Paul, Father Jacques knew “our struggle is not against flesh and blood but … against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).

Father Jacques had seen many horrors during military service as a younger man. His life had been spared when other soldiers lost their lives. His ministry was one way of responding to the mystery of why his life had been spared. His sister Roselyne spoke of his humble spirit: “The God of love and mercy chose you to be at the service of others … until your last breath.”

3. It’s all about Resurrection. “Christ is risen, it is a mystery, a secret, a secret that God gives us to share,” Father Jacques wrote to his parishioners last Easter. Archbishop Dominique Lebrun responded to this message at the funeral: “Perhaps this mystery, this secret you confided was what was winning hearts in our assembly: yes, Christ is risen. The death is not the last word.”

Lebrun continued: “The resurrection of Jesus is not a catechism lesson, it is a reality, a reality for our heart, for the secret of the heart, a reality at the same time to share with others, as a confidence told with trust.”

There were several thousand French men and women in attendance at Father Jacques’ funeral. For a proudly secular society, this was an enormous audience. Each listener was challenged by Archbishop Lebrun’s message: “Brothers and sisters, let us be simple and honest about ourselves. It is in our heart, in the depths of our heart that we have to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to Jesus, ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the path of truth and peace, ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the victory of love over hatred, ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to his resurrection.”

Lebrun concluded: “God will never force us. God is patient, and God is merciful. Even when I, Dominique, have resisted, and said ‘no’ to love; even when I told God, ‘I will think about it; we will see later,’ even when I have forgotten, God is patient. God expects me because of his infinite mercy.

“But we must uphold with Jesus that every man, every woman, every human person can change his heart with His grace. This is how we make ours the words of Jesus, even as they may seem beyond our strength today, ‘Well! I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’”

It is with grace that we remember an elderly French priest, desperately loved by his parishioners. It is with grace that we ask God for the strength to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. It is with grace that we receive with open arms the power of the resurrection, the great mystery and the great secret that we are empowered to share.

Pentecost at the Crossroads

African Central Conferences worship service“The United Methodist Church is at a crossroads,” Bishop Eben Nhiwatiwa told the more than 500 assembled for the African Worship Service on Pentecost Sunday at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland.

Nhiwatiwa welcomed the international congregation and made it clear that the church in Africa and its bishops must play a pivotal role in helping The United Methodist Church take the right road. “The church has been here before” he said, and African bishops such as St. Cyprian and St. Augustine led the church at other key crossroads.

Nhiwatiwa, the president of the African Council of Bishops, concluded with the message that the Holy Family sought shelter in Africa, the Word was kept safe in Africa, so that it would shine as a bright beacon for all the world. “As it was 2,000 years ago, God said, ‘Take the baby to Egypt’ [Africa].… With worldwide hostility to the cause of Christ, we say again today: ‘Take the baby to Egypt!’”

The congregation erupted with cheers as it gave Nhiwatiwa a standing ovation before being led into worship by the dynamic Africa University Choir. Participants in the worship service hailed from numerous African nations such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Sierra Leone, Mozambique, Angola, and Nigeria.

The modern day reality of United Methodism is that nearly 5 million of our 12 million members are found on the African continent. In Portland, that new reality explains why 30 percent of the 864 delegates were Africans – with 48 delegates from the North Katanga Conference in Congo. That number will increase exponentially as membership continues to skyrocket in Africa and descend in North America. Quite simply, the energy, vitality, and growth within Methodism is found in different time zones, nations, and languages than the solely American name brand Methodism of yesterday. The shift is epic.

• More United Methodists reside in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (2.5 million) than in the North Central and Northeastern Jurisdictions combined (2.4 million).

• More United Methodists live in Nigeria (457,959) than the entire Western Jurisdiction (322,939).

• Twice as many United Methodists worship in Cote d’Ivoire (677,355) as in Virginia (327,706) – one of our largest annual conferences.

• More United Methodists worship in Mozambique (108,322) than in Northern Illinois (90,820).

The axis of Methodism is shifting. The unmistakable tilt of the sociological and spiritual reality found in the newly emerging United Methodist Church is in African cities such as Harare, Abuja, and Kinshasa. These urban epicenters could end up being the Londons, Bristols, and Epworths of the next wave of Wesleyan resurgence.

The fiery tongues of angels were manifest on Pentecost in the book of Acts, but the tongues of Methodism’s next chapter may be in French, Portugese, and Swahili.

“Today is Pentecost Sunday, and so we celebrate the birth of the Church,” said the Rev. Dr. Jerry Kulah, dean of Gbarnga School of Theology in Liberia. “This historic day, the day on which the Church was born, is also the first time in the history of General Conference that the Central Conference of Africa conducts a worship service that celebrates Jesus Christ.

“As bearers of the Good News every second there is a message to offer to the world,” said Kulah, one of the leaders of the Africa Initiative that prepared delegates for the General Conference in Portland. “The Initiative is a movement of African leaders both clergy and lay people committed to partnership. We need to raise our voice and pray to seek God’s face to train and develop leaders so that the African church will be empowered with men and women who know the truth, and who live the truth, and who proclaim the truth.”

Kulah repeated the theme of the crossroads confronting United Methodism. “I’ve come to realize that on our life’s journey, there are always crossroads to encounter,” he said. “And at the crossroads of life, it becomes our responsibility to carefully identify the path that leads to our destination. If we fail to take the path that leads to our destiny, we eventually will take a road that leads to our dead end.”

Preaching from Jeremiah chapter 2, Kulah spoke about the political and religious leaders of the nation of Judah abandoning God. “Their priests were preaching lies, their prophets were prophesying lies. They were preaching peace when there was no peace,” he said. God sent the Prophet Jeremiah on the difficult task of declaring His truth to a wayward people.

“The crossroads is a place of decision making. At the crossroads, you choose to take a new direction or the wrong direction,” Kulah said as individuals from the congregation stood in affirmation of his message. “At the crossroads, God asks us what path will you take. Will you take the path that leads to what is good?”

Great biblical characters such as Abraham and Esther had to face their own crossroads, said Kulah. God chose them to make difficult decisions with faith. “I don’t know how long we will be at the crossroads, but eventually we will move on,” he said.

“Look to the future and see the church. Do you see a growing, vibrant church? What do you see? God’s invited all of you to look into the future,” Kulah told the assembly. In the interim, he said, we are to “walk in justice, walk in mercy, and walk in righteousness.”

Kulah concluded by quoting Jesus: “I am the way, I am the truth, I am the life. No one, absolutely no one, comes to the Father except through me.” When we come to our crossroads, the rest for our soul is found in Jesus Christ.

The service concluded with the Lord’s Supper being served by the African bishops to the congregation gathered from around the globe. The morning message soon seemed to crystalize: With a shared cup and a broken loaf of bread we will approach the crossroads together with one faith, redeemed by one Lord, and empowered by one Spirit. It was, after all, Pentecost Sunday.

Portlandia at General Conference

wandedThis was my seventh United Methodist General Conference and I had a sneaking suspicion that it would be like trying to ride a tornado. There are, after all, 162 marijuana dispensaries in metro Portland and one of the top tourist destinations is Voodoo Donuts. Dropping several thousand United Methodists upon the newfangled bohemian utopia of the Pacific Northwest promised to be an interesting venture.

After all, “Oregon’s Finest Cannibas” – a huge emporium – sat across the street from the General Conference venue. This had all the makings of a quirky episode of Portlandia, the five-year-old snarky comedy lampooning the occasionally absurd progressive dogma in Portland written by liberals with a sense of humor. (Insert joke about delegates sneaking across the street during extended Rule 44 debate.)

I’m not gripping: I love Portland, every funky and redeemable inch of it. Two weeks in a city where new restaurants spring up like chickweed in your lawn seemed like Shangri La to me. It just seemed like an ironic place to throw a legislative hoedown for an international denomination.

Looking at the event with a sense of humor (it helps), there were a few zany moments at General Conference that could have been scripted in Portlandia.  

• Everyone was body-wanded by the faux TSA agents outside the Convention Center. They were good sports, however, and let us keep plastic containers exceeding six ounces.

• One of the funniest moments occurred when a delegate deadpanned, “Trust me, I’ve dated plenty of Jews…” in order to speak against a resolution addressing anti-Semitism. It was wobbly rationale and it seemed more fitting for Seinfeld, but it created waves of laughter.

• A delegate publicly accused a presiding bishop of using hand signals to sway votes like a baseball coach uses hand signals to steal second base. Oy vey.

• Indie band Indigo Girls did a concert for LGBTQ activists.

• Methodists spent three days, 23 parliamentary procedures, and two handfuls of Rolaids to decide to defeat one rule.

• One delegate announced, “I believe we are confusing God at this point” during our debate over the rules. I believe she was technically correct.

The Rev. Jessica LaGrone, Dean of the Chapel at Asbury Theological Seminary, wisely calmed those who were ready to set their hair on fire while tuned into the live feed and seeing the parliamentary procedures and the protests: “Let your view of the Church be determined by what you see week-to-week in your local church and not once-every-four-years at General Conference.” Truth.

Learning to be grateful

It has been noted that expectation is the root of all heartaches and I have learned to curb my expectations for General Conference. For the last seven months, I was frequently asked, “What do you think is going to happen at General Conference?” The still, small voice of God reminded me: “Dude, you have no idea.” Which was true.

At the same time, the issues we dealt with are very important and our differences of opinion matter – all our opinions. Our varied perspectives should not be papered over in merely insincere Methodist politeness. They should be acknowledged with charity and dealt with respectfully.

I flew to Portland with the modest declaration in my heart that “prayer matters.” Win, Lose, or Delay: prayer still matters. St. Paul said, “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done.” (Page 4 illustrates this beautifully.) My blood pressure needed to meditate on that word.

Thanksgiving

• A big “thank you” goes out to Bishop Grant Hagiya, the Pacific Northwest Annual Conference, and the Western Jurisdiction for being such tremendous hosts. In whatever ways we may think differently, certainly all United Methodists would testify that the hospitality in Portland was generous and a blessing. Many thanks.

• Thank you, Grace Avenue UM Church Ukulele Choir from Frisco, Texas, for donning the Hawaiian shirts and spreading the spirit of aloha. Mahalo, ya’ll.

• Thank you, Dr. Tom Albin and the Upper Room crew who prepared our Protestant prayer beads. Methodists don’t really have any cool and kitschy trinkets except the John Wesley bobblehead (sitting between my Johnny Ramone and Elvis). These prayer beads have a customized wooden medallion with the United Methodist cross and flame and a mountain sheep –signifying that we are called by Jesus to go in search of the lost sheep.

• Thank you, Bishop Warner H. Brown for leading us in the Zimbabwean song “Jesu Tawa Pano” – “Jesus, We Are Here For You” – during the opening worship service. I thought of that throughout conference: “Jesus, we are here for you. Not any other agenda. We are here for you. Therefore, let us go!”

• Thank you to the beautiful staff at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, United Methodist News Service reporters and photographers, Kinko’s, Pine State Biscuits, Uber, The Screen Door, Frank’s Noodle House, Prime Rib and Chocolate Cake, Tasty ‘n Sons, Le Bistro Montage, Cadillac Café, Biwa, Tin Shed, Imago Dei Community, Renata, Russell Street BBQ, Radio Room, Zeus’ Café, Salt and Straw Ice Cream, Pok Pok, Lincoln, Ox, Blue Star Donuts, Jake’s Grill, Lardo, Noble Rot, Sizzle Pie, Reverend’s BBQ, and the Bamboo Grove Hawaiian Grill.

• Thank you, Maria Thaarup and the KEFAS gospel choir from Copenhagen – yep, Copenhagen – for your soulful rendition of “Blessed be the Rock.”

• Thank you, Bishop James Swanson for preaching on the devil. I know that you made a ton of folks sweat it out, but you preached the truth.

• Thank you, Bishop Gregory Palmer for this benediction: “We have everything we need – all fear, doubt, and controversies notwithstanding. We have nothing less than the promise of the Risen Christ that he will be with us.”

Even when we land in Portlandia, that’s what we’re counting on.

Jesus, Our Compass

Bishop-Thomas“We begin, not with business and legislation — as important as these are — but with a fresh emphasis on Jesus Christ for all our living,” said Bishop James S. Thomas as he launched into the Episcopal Address of the 1976 General Conference of The United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon. “It is he who calls us into being and gives meaning to whatever we do here. Plainly, we are here to recognize and respond to his Lordship, to plan for his mission in the world, and to divide the labor and pass the legislation that will be consistent with such discipleship.”

Forty years ago, Bishop Thomas (1919-2010) was widely known as a venerable statesman, beloved civil rights leader, and champion of dismantling the insidious racial barriers within United Methodism. As the denomination returns to Portland for General Conference, it is fitting to remember his prophetic role and revisit his clarion call to the centrality of Jesus Christ.

“Christ calls us to wholeness in mission and ministry. We are not here to choose various themes that will rove over the landscape looking for a place to center down. Jesus Christ is the center, and his ministry in the world is what we are about. No disjointed series of brilliant flashes here or there can substitute for him,” Thomas told the General Conference delegates. “In this Christ-center, we will both frame and express our special ministries, whatever may be their name. By him we are defined and to him we are — each and all — accountable.”

In the 6,200 word Episcopal Address, Thomas touched on numerous subjects facing the church and society. With each issue, Bishop Thomas pointed back to Jesus as the compass for our direction.

From uncertainty to vitality: “Our major task is to proclaim the message of Christ’s redeeming love so clearly, and demonstrate it so joyously, that we will move from uncertainty to vitality. … Let us affirm that God is real, Christ is Lord, and the Holy Spirit is present; and let us be sure of the faith that is in us. … Christ is never met adequately by an argument over differences.”

Crisis of faith: “There is no deeper crisis, either within or without the Church, than the crisis of faith. Contrary to the views of some religious people, this is not a crisis of unbelief. There is abundant evidence that the human population is given to a plethora of beliefs, probably in desperation to find a place on which to stand.… The depth of the faith crisis is not a pluralism in beliefs; this we have always had. It is the grave identity crisis of Christians, many of whom do not know what they believe or why. … The faith crisis comes at the point of a naive belief in the sufficiency of our own technologies to meet deep inner needs that they can never reach.”

Cherishing faith: “For us as United Methodists, the crisis can become even deeper. We do not believe now — and we never have — in rigid doctrinal concepts to hold us steady in a wavering world. This is a virtue, we think. But there is no deeper peril than that of taking to the high seas in a ship whose structure we do not know and whose capacity we are afraid to test. We need to know and cherish the faith that is in us.”

World hunger: “What we, above all other institutions, are called upon to share is what the world needs supremely — a vibrant and intelligent faith in the Christ who ministered to the physical hungers of people who came to him when their spiritual hungers prompted them to neglect physical hungers.”

Human equality and justice: “Let it be admitted that much social action on the part of the church has often lacked deep biblical and theological roots.… The avoidance of our faith foundations, either for reasons of pietism or activism, is clearly not what we are here to affirm.… Persons of faith cannot keep their own motivations clear unless they are constantly under the light of God’s holiness, or wholeness, as he is known to us in Christ. Between an emphasis upon personal salvation and one upon systemic reformation, there should be no real choice.”

Criminal justice: “What concerns us primarily are not the statistics of crime, tragic as these are. Our primary concerns are the human beings behind the statistics: the victims, the prisoners, the judges and the juries, the society out of which crime grows and on which it preys.… Our witness must be seen under the loving judgment of Christ who included prisoners in his chief ministerial concerns.”

Experience, reason, and tradition: “Instead of rigid doctrinal outlines, we have a faith rooted in a heritage of scriptural commitment…. Beyond a religion of correct but cold concepts, we have a heritage of experience. … Instead of unrelieved emotion and sentiment, our heritage calls us to a clear commitment to reason. But there is a vast difference between arid intellectualism and loving God with all the mind. Beyond the regular pendulum-swings of history, our heritage calls us to a commitment to tradition.”

Evangelism: “Evangelism is not a method or a function of the Church to be assigned to one board or a division of a board. It is the heart of Christian self-definition, the fundamental reason why we exist as Christians. It is — or should be — pervasive, not occasional; permeative, not segmental. It should go along with the job as it did, in consuming fashion, for Francis Asbury, John Seybert, and Christian Newcomer.… It is conversion, without long debates as to whether it is step-by-step or instantaneous.… The Christian community would be much advanced if we could recognize that evangelism is not so much the fighting of a battle as it is the sharing of a faith.”

Enkindling flame: “It is our business in this session to provide ways by which evangelism will become the chief concern of this quadrennium and lead to new evangelistic growth in the future. … It means that we will see evangelism as a continuing expression of the total life and definition of this part of the Church of Jesus Christ. It is an expression of our total Christian witness that we would not avoid even if we could.… Whatever our human methods may be, it is good to remember that the Holy Spirit is the major actor in bringing people to Christ. Evangelism will not occur, either by direction or indirection, unless there is a deep commitment to let method follow the enkindling flame of the Good News.”

Our task: “The task of the ministry, clergy and lay, is to lead inactive members to become active; idle and passive Christians to be alive, with a workable and working faith. … We think and act on the assumption that all our members are precious persons for whom Christ died and who need the nurturing ministries of the Church. Winning persons to Christ is not a mere afterthought.”

Bishop Thomas reminded the delegates that our “God is moving decisively into the future. Indeed, he is well ahead of any utopian future of which we can possibly dream. It is our business to be where God calls us, however far or hard that seems to be. We desperately need a deep and unashamed passion for the kingship of Christ in all the structures of life.”

In the midst of the great challenges faced in his era, Bishop Thomas leaned upon and appealed to Jesus Christ as our compass. We would do well to follow his lead. “There is no time like the present to commit ourselves to following God into the future with faith, prayerfully believing that our church, under God, can do even greater things than we ever dared to attempt before.”

Remembering Orphans

Orphan2“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). United Methodists of all political stripes should be able to agree on ministry to and with widows and orphans.

At least that is the hope of the Rev. Wayne Lavender, a United Methodist pastor who is making a run/walk/drive trek from the east coast of the United States to the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon.

Lavender is the author of Who Will Care for the Orphan: If You Are A United Methodist, It Could Be You and executive director of Foundation 4 Orphans. His cross-country awareness campaign is focused on embracing the world’s estimated 210 million orphans as a missional priority of the UM Church. His petition to the General Conference has been assigned to the General Administration committee.

“Today the denomination, within the United States, is in great decline,” writes Lavender. “We are deeply divided over theological and political issues and have seemingly lost our way. We do not have a single missional priority through which we can focus our missional activities and ignite our evangelical efforts.” He believes that ministry to orphans could be a unifying issue that the entire denomination can support.

Lavender reminds United Methodists that there are 30 specific times the Bible “calls for its followers to care for orphans.” At the same time, he points to UNICEF statistics that claim 26,000 children die daily from the effects of extreme poverty, an annual total of 10 million children.

“The crisis of orphans and vulnerable children is one of the most pressing ethical issues of our day, and yet it remains predominately the silent concern with little attention, publicity, funding or policies,” writes Lavender.

Lavender is able to make his appeal not only from the Bible, but also from our shared Methodist roots. “John Wesley’s missional focus was on improving the human condition of the poor, including orphans and widows,” he observes.

Shortly after his experience at Aldersgate in 1738 where his heart was “strangely warmed,” Wesley witnessed the remarkable ministry of an orphan home in Germany. He was greatly impressed and referred to it in his journal as “that amazing proof that ‘all things are still possible to him that believeth’” (Journal, June 24, 1738).

According to Lavender, Wesley established orphan homes in Great Britain. He also supported George Whitefield’s life decision to care for orphans in the American Colonies, and wrote to him in 1770 with these words: “Can anything on earth be a greater charity, than to bring up orphans?”

Most United Methodists are aware that John Wesley embraced the unconventional practice of field preaching when he began proclaiming the gospel outside the confines of a pulpit. “At four in the afternoon I submitted to be more vile, and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation…” he famously wrote in 1739.

Wesley’s decision was in direct response to witnessing his friend George Whitefield preach outdoors in 1738 so that he could raise funds for a new orphanage in Savannah, Georgia. “Had Whitefield not chosen to raise funds for an orphanage,” writes Lavender, “he might not have made the decision to preach outdoors depriving Wesley of this model.”

“Embracing of orphans and vulnerable children as the missional priority of the denomination will bring disparate components of the UM Church together to address a Biblically based, Wesleyan-supported common cause. We can mitigate the daily death toll and simultaneously find a raison d’ê·tre.”

Saxophone Sermon

Coltrane-Love-Supreme-CoverIt is one thing to listen to John Coltrane’s album A Love Supreme – and it is completely another event to hear the art behind the notes. Jazz is like that. It’s an acquired taste. With no shame, I readily admit that it took many, many listens before I actually heard Coltrane.

It has now been 50 years since Coltrane’s masterpiece was released. The anniversary was celebrated with a remastered three-disc box set featuring previously unreleased recordings from Coltrane’s accomplices – McCoy Tyner, Elvin Jones, and Jimmy Garrison – and other extras.

The album has a uniquely mystical and spiritual aura surrounding it. In his book Freedom Is, Freedom Ain’t: Jazz and the Making of the Sixties, professor Scott Saul referred to the album as “the drama of a saxophone preaching to its congregation. In this case, Coltrane has literalized the metaphor of his saxophone as the voice of a preacher, with his poem ‘A Love Supreme’ serving as his sermon.”

From Coltrane’s poem: “God is all. Help us to resolve our fears and weaknesses. In you all things are possible. Thank you God. … Keep your eye on God. God is. He always was. He always will be. … God will wash away all our tears … In all ways seek God everyday.”

The recording of A Love Supreme begins with a Chinese gong and then the listener is ushered into a mosaic of sound and energy. This is not elevator jazz; this is jazz with an exclamation point — tortured souls finding liberation, exorcism, and deliverance. Within the confines and liberties of jazz, it is Jacob wrestling with an angel, the parting of the Red Sea, the kiss of betrayal from Judas, and the empty tomb.

Throughout his illustrative life (1926-1967), Coltrane shared the stage with jazz masters such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, and Dizzy Gillespie. His admirers have included Bono, Patti Smith, Duane Allman, Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana, Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Garcia, and Outkast.

“I’m never sure of what I’m looking for,” Coltrane once told noted jazz critic Nat Hentoff, “except that it’ll be something that hasn’t ever been played before; I know I’ll have that feeling when I get it.” In the world of jazz, he was Ponce de Leon with a saxophone tirelessly searching for a mystical fountain of rhythms and harmonies. He practiced relentlessly, stretching every conceivable note to conform to his will.

Spiritually, a notable difference between the contemporary church service and a vintage Coltrane gig would be the use of words. For most mortals, worship is expressed through prayers, creeds, and hymns. For Coltrane, it was expressed through sweat, overlapping chord progression, bulging neck veins, blasts, and wails.

For Trane, as he was called, to play is to pray. Dubbing it “sheets of sound,” Ira Gitler described Coltrane’s playing as a “continuous flow of ideas without stopping. It was almost superhuman, and the amount of energy he was using could have powered a spaceship.”

Those packed into the gritty jazz clubs such as Birdland, the Village Vanguard, Five Spot, Blue Coronet, or the Half Note would all testify that Trane could light the joint ablaze — sometimes logging 45 minute solos. Saxophonist Dave Liebman described one scene: “En masse, cats started to put their hands up to the ceiling and the whole place stood up. It was like those holy-roller meetings. It was unbelievable.” Jazz man Archie Shepp remembers another occasion: “The place was packed. And man, they played until 4 o’clock in the morning and it was like being in church. I mean Coltrane brought something which raises this music from secular music to a religious world music.”

The potency of his musical genius was not always so easy to recognize. Miles Davis had to kick Trane out of his band in 1957 — for the second time — because of intense addiction to alcohol and heroin. Davis was all too familiar with the travesty because he had kicked a nasty heroin habit cold turkey a few years earlier.

Trane was a wreck. He was nodding off on the bandstand, appearing disheveled, always running late or never showing up at all. Davis had reached his limit.

Coltrane’s restoration is worth recalling. He retreated for a two-week stay at his mother’s house in Philadelphia where he locked himself in a room with water and cigarettes to kick the addiction. Trane is said to have heard the voice of heaven during his withdrawls.

“During the year 1957, I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life,” Coltrane wrote many years later in the liner note of A Love Supreme. “At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.”

Seven years after his battle with heroin, Trane recorded A Love Supreme. He had been sequestered to a section of his Long Island home for four or five days. “It was like Moses coming down from the mountain, it was so beautiful,” Alice Coltrane recalls. “He walked down and there was the joy, that peace in his face, tranquility.” She asked him to tell her what he was experiencing. “This is the first time that I have received all of the music for what I want to record, in a suite,” he told her. “This is the first time I have everything, everything ready.”

In the liner notes, Coltrane writes: “God breathes through us so completely … so gently we hardly feel it … yet it is our everything. Thank you God. Elation — Elegance — Exaltation — All from God.”

Rolling Stone ranked A Love Supreme #47 of the “500 Greatest Albums Of All Time,” commenting that “…Coltrane soars with nothing but gratitude and joy. You can’t help but go with him…” Likewise, the Village Voice keenly observed, “As much as any speech by [Dr. Martin Luther] King or The Autobiography of Malcolm X, A Love Supreme radiates the virtues of principled struggle, rapturous idealism, intellectual rigor, devotional passion. For all its thunder you can hear yourself think when you listen to it, primarily because Trane achieved the unthinkable: creating a secular form of God-loving music for the godless universe of Western modernity.”

The blind are said to have a stronger awareness of their other senses, particularly hearing and smell. Coltrane had the accentuated senses of a blind man who had been healed — eyes wide open and soaking up a dazzling vision from a heavenly realm.

“My goal is to live the truly religious life, and express it in my music,” said Trane. “If you live it, when you play there’s no problem because the music is part of the whole thing. To be a musician is really something. It goes very, very deep. My music is the spiritual expression of what I am — my faith, my knowledge, my being.”

Love the Bomb!

lssc_thm_16.9_1920x1080“Joy is the most infallible sign of the existence of God.” That was the message on a note taped to the computer of Stephen Colbert, the new host of The Late Show. There is something seemingly subversive about a late night comedian who teaches Sunday school and has used his TV gigs to discuss heaven with Anglican theologian Bishop N.T. Wright and defend the divinity of Jesus Christ and the credibility of the New Testament against Dr. Bart Ehrman, a religious scholar who has called Christianity into question. There are several other examples over the years that caused fans to question whether these were the scripted lines of his contrived blowhard TV persona on The Colbert Report or his authentic convictions.

All of this, of course, is done with the quick wit of a court jester and the spiritual banter of a well-read theologian – with the Vatican on speed dial. “If Jesus doesn’t have a sense of humor, I’m in big trouble,” Colbert confessed before 3,000 students at a Fordham University event not long ago with Cardinal Timothy Dolan. Turns out that behind the shtick beats the heart of a true believer.

Shortly before Colbert took over the duties at The Late Show for the retiring David Letterman, he was on the cover of GQ magazine. In a 6,000 word profile, journalist Joel Lovell attempted to help readers understand how Colbert has dealt with the gut-wrenching tragedy of losing both his father and two brothers in a plane crash when he was 10 years old.

As one can imagine, the cloud of that horrific event haunted him throughout his teen years and through college – a period of time where he discovered a love for theater and drama. Eventually, Colbert landed himself a spot at The Second City, Chicago’s premier comedy club and school of improvisation. On his very first night on stage Second City’s director Jeff Michalski gave him one bit of essential advice: “You have to learn to love the bomb.”

“It took me a long time to really understand what that meant,” Colbert told GQ. “It wasn’t ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get it next time.’ It wasn’t ‘Laugh it off.’ No, it means what it says. You gotta learn to love when you’re failing.… The embracing of that, the discomfort of failing in front of an audience, leads you to penetrate through the fear that blinds you. Fear is the mind killer.”

Ever since then Colbert has attempted to steer towards the fear that can so easily cripple us. “I like to do things that are publicly embarrassing,” he said, “to feel the embarrassment touch me and sink into me and then be gone. I like getting on elevators and singing too loudly in that small space. The feeling you feel is almost like a vapor. The discomfort and the wishing that it would end that comes around you. I would do things like that and just breathe it in.” During the interview, he paused for dramatic effect: “Nope, can’t kill me. This thing can’t kill me.”  In our darkest moments, it is essential to remind ourselves of that truth.

For someone who has been through so much emotional devastation as a young boy, one would not be surprised to see him lash back at the dark clouds of life with a steady flow of comedic cynicism and snark – a common currency for stand-up comedians. Instead, Colbert responds counterintuitively. “I’m not angry. I’m not. I’m mystified, I’ll tell you that. But I’m not angry…. That might be why you don’t see me as someone angry and working out my demons onstage. It’s that I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.”

What he declares is not easily understood. This isn’t the message inside a condolence card. Colbert points to his mother as the source of his equilibrium after the tragedy. Yes, his mother – and a deeply compelling sense of gratitude. “I was raised in a Catholic tradition. I’ll start there. That’s my context for my existence, is that I am here to know God, love God, serve God, that we might be happy with each other in this world and with Him in the next — the Catechism. That makes a lot of sense to me. I got that from my mom. And my dad. And my siblings.”

For many years after the death of his father and his two brothers it was just Colbert and his mother – struggling and coping together. “And by her example I am not bitter,” he said. “By her example. She was not. Broken, yes. Bitter, no.” His mother desperately relied on a faith that teaches us not to be devoured by sorrow (Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid”), to recognize that too often pain is inseparable from joy, and that we must try to see our suffering in light of eternity.

“It was a very healthy reciprocal acceptance of suffering,” he said. “Which does not mean being defeated by suffering. Acceptance is not defeat. Acceptance is just awareness.” He had been told to learn to love the bomb. “Boy, did I have a bomb when I was 10,” Colbert admits. “That was quite an explosion. And I learned to love it.”

There is nothing cavalier or whimsical about Colbert’s theology of suffering or gratitude. He has made his spiritual peace with the deep scars of his childhood and has chosen to respond with faith, hope, and love. “So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude,” he told his interviewer with tears in his eyes. “It doesn’t mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head,” he said. Colbert was 35 before he could really feel the truth of that. “It’s not the same thing as wanting it to have happened,” he said. “But you can’t change everything about the world. You certainly can’t change things that have already happened.”

Tears and laughter. Rejection and acceptance. Cynicism and gratitude. Hate and love. Cowardice and heroism. Pain and joy. These are just some of the choices that we are given. Move forward or spend your life looking over your shoulder.

At the end of his time with GQ, Colbert wrote down a message on a slip of paper and handed it to his interviewer. Joel Lovell has wisely been carrying it around ever since: “At every moment, we are volunteers.” The choices we make mark our accession or decent. We all must learn to love our bombs – working through them so that we are not perpetually hamstrung by their damage. It helps you, Colbert would say, to “penetrate through the fear that blinds you.”

Kaboom.