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.


• 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.”


The Methodist Revolution: Q&A with Bishop Ricardo Pereira

“Our church is a church that has joy,” Bishop Ricardo Pereira said. “We have learned how to love – even in the midst of problems – through Jesus Christ. We don’t allow any obstacles to stop us. People come with their drums, with their guitars, and people are happy. That’s a testimony. Even members of the Communist government – taught not to believe – some of them are coming to know the Gospel and coming to faith through Jesus Christ.”

Pereira is the spiritual leader of the Methodist Church of Cuba and the pastor of the 3,200-member Methodist Church of Marianao in Havana. Good News editor Steve Beard sat down with the bishop to talk about the growth and dynamism of the Methodist Church and the changes that are taking place in Cuba. Pereira was in the United States to preach at the Aldersgate Renewal Ministries gathering in Lexington, Kentucky. The conversation was translated by the Rev. Jacquie Leveron, a United Methodist clergywoman serving in Fort Pierce, Florida.

The Cuban Methodist Church is young, growing, and vibrant. What is the explanation for your vitality?

“The church must learn that there’s a place that belongs only to the Holy Spirit that cannot be substituted with anything,” said Bishop Ricardo Pereira. Photo by Brenda Mandeville Johnson. Courtesy of Aldersgate Renewal Ministries.

The limitations due to the economy and the Communist system have forced us in the church to have a spirit of prayer and fasting. The Bible teaches us that all things can work together for good. We cannot do what you do here – get a hotel or a stadium to have an evangelistic event. But we do one-on-one evangelism, person to person. In a stadium, people get converted and then you don’t see them. But with personal evangelism we are able to visit someone’s home, know their phone number and allow us to follow up.

Because people are able to share the message one to another, they have a commitment to extend the Gospel and to support the church. They don’t make too much money but they learn how to support the church financially and that has been an explosion.

In the last 15 years, there has been an explosion of growth. People go to homes and they share their testimony before their neighbors. And then we start a church there. We cannot build it and say it’s a sanctuary. But it’s a church because we have Sunday school, Bible study, and Sunday worship services. That’s how we’re extending in a very extraordinary way all over the island.

How does Caribbean culture accent your expression of Methodism?

Our people are very joyful because Jesus has made a difference in our life. As in biblical times, they praise the name of the Lord and dance with all kinds of instruments and shouts of joy. For many years the Methodist Church in Cuba was a replica of the American church. But we have some black blood in our veins. It’s a mixture of European and African cultures and our people want to shout because they have joy in the Lord. I think it’s our success. We’re using our roots to worship the Lord with all that we have. And now we say that if Jesus was coming back again – born a second time – he would be birthed of a mulatto woman. [laughter]

We respect the American church, but we believe our church needs to allow the Holy Spirit to do His own thing and allow our emotions to express itself. We don’t have any problem when people shout at a stadium, at a football game. Why not shout when we are before the Lord and let Him know how much we love Him?

Some people are confused about what it means to be a Methodist. Some think that being a Methodist is only about singing the hymns that Charles Wesley composed, which is a good thing. But Cuban Methodists go to the spirit of Wesley. What did Charles Wesley do? He took the music of his time and wrote evangelical lyrics. They had theology and doctrine and that’s exactly what we’re doing. We still sing their hymns, but we use our music and we use evangelical, biblical lyrics. Our people could sing the Bible without stopping. And our Cuban rhythm invites you to move your whole body. [laughter]

Bishop Ricardo Pereira preaches at a baptism service in Havana. Photo courtesy of the Methodist Church of Cuba.

That’s why our services are longer than two hours. Because people bring their poetry, their dances, their special hymns. People want to sing together. They want to hold each other and dance. And I think that looks a lot like what John Wesley did.

The United Methodist Church in the United States is struggling with retaining or attracting young people to our services. 

In Cuba it’s different. Our members are very young. Our pastors are 35 or younger. I think I’m an old man in Cuba. [laughter]

Young people need Christian music. Young people have a lot of expectations and if we lead them or channel them to prayer and seeking after the Holy Spirit, they’re going to find answers that are going to keep them from drugs and other things that will damage them.

It seems as if the Cuban church has a great awareness and expectation for miracles. I sometimes wonder if the wealth of the church in North America numbs our expectation for the supernatural?

In some senses, yes. Because you think you could resolve everything with a cellphone. You could pay through the cellphone, you could do any kind of transaction. And you don’t have to depend on God too much. But where we have economic problems, people cannot resolve their problems and they have to pray more. But I think that the biggest problem of Christians in the United States is not to use the resources that the Holy Spirit has given them. The church must learn that there’s a place that belongs only to the Holy Spirit that cannot be substituted with anything.

Describe the size and scope of the Methodist Church in Cuba.

There are 300 churches that are formed and functioning in homes. There are up to 400 people in some of them. With youth and women and we have another 800 houses that are churches in formation, that are smaller. We have another 5,000 houses all over Cuba that are meeting places where Methodists come to pray to support the churches.

We have three models: churches, churches in formation, and meeting houses for prayer. Sometimes people believe that they don’t have the proper clothing to worship in a sanctuary, and they feel more comfortable at a house. There’s a total revolution going on in the houses.

What is the reaction of unbelieving neighbors to all the noise and commotion of your services in homes?

One day they will come and see because they’re curious. And the love of Christ hits them. There is an altar call at every service we hold. It doesn’t matter if it’s Resurrection Sunday [Easter] or not. At the end of a service, I always say, “How many are going to accept Jesus?”

The church has changed its strategy. Instead of having evangelistic campaigns, it’s a continual one, constantly, bringing people to Jesus.

When I visited Cuba many years ago, the Methodist Church was wanting to launch a more evangelical seminary for young clergy. What is the status of that seminary?

The church in Cuba was a member of an ecumenical seminary for 60 years but they were not responding to our expectations. We needed pastors to know our theology, but we didn’t want them to lose their passion. Eight years ago we separated from the ecumenical seminary and started our own seminary.

In these past eight years, we have graduated 91 Cubans and one from Angola. And when they come out of the seminary, they are ready to open new churches. We’re also working with United Theological Seminary in Ohio and Bethune-Cookman University in Florida. They’re supporting us so that our professors will have a higher level and we can offer a master and also doctorate degrees.

The Bible talks about a new wine needs a new vessel. A new church, an evangelical church. We need a seminary with evangelical vision that is committed to Jesus.

As an orthodox and vibrant expression of Christianity in an fully atheistic culture, what advice would you give to believers in North America who believe that their culture is becoming less accommodating to Christianity? 

The church had to learn a new system of discipleship because people were coming from the Communist system. Atheists don’t believe in anything – then they receive Jesus. But we still don’t baptize them right away because they don’t even know what that means. So we have a year training with three courses where people learn about the Bible, and they learn the doctrine of the church. At the end they have a written test and then they have a day of graduation.

When Methodist members are baptized, they can give a reason for their faith. They know the doctrine of grace, justification, regeneration, sanctification. They know what they believe. It has been hard in the past, but now it’s easier because now we have the mechanism already going. I believe that people need to be discipled. Our concept of discipleship changed. It doesn’t end once you become a member. After the people become members, then they start in the seminaries in the church where they could spend two more years. They learn about the story of the church, evangelistic techniques – so they’re constantly growing in the Word. Some people don’t talk about our Methodist roots but John Wesley was about the reading the Bible, prayer, and fasting.

What has been the practical difference of having the political power transferred from Fidel Castro to his brother Raul Castro? 

It is not a visible change, but it’s one that’s coming. They’re changing their concept about the economy because in Cuba people could not own their businesses. They’re bringing changes so that people can make a little more.

On the other hand, Cuba and the United States have been speaking. And in Cuba, we’re seeing some freedoms. People can have a cellphone and call anywhere, but it’s very, very expensive. They have opened some Wifi stations at the park, but it’s expensive.

People can sell their homes. They can start a business in their home, very little, like sell food or things they make. We’re believing that there’s a change coming. And the relationship with the United States is going to bring more changes.

This new relationship is very controversial. Some believe it is dangerous, while others believe it is long overdue.

I know that there are people that have bitterness because they lost everything in Cuba. And some suffered a lot. But we cannot hold on to that bitterness forever. We want to work with it in a positive way. We are not agreeing with the Communist system, but we want to have a positive influence and more communication so that the whole world can know whatever happens in Cuba. Can you imagine half a million Americans around the streets of Cuba with their cell phones and their cameras? When there’s no relationship, the truth is hidden. But if people go to Cuba, they will see the truth of Cuba – not only through the eyes of the media. From that point of view, I think that would be very positive.

What specifically will change between our two countries?

For many years, there was a consulate to deal with a few things under the covering of the Swiss Embassy. And Cuba had an office in Washington. On July 20th, the U.S. consulate in Cuba became an embassy. It will not be under any other country’s covering, but government to government. And you’ve seen the interviews between Raul Castro and Barack Obama. They shook hands and Raul was joking and told him, “You’re not one of the bad ones.” So it seems that something is happening underneath. The Communist system that we had in Cuba in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s has nothing to do with what’s happening right now in Cuba. It’s very different. They keep calling themself Communist, but it’s not like it was from the Soviet Union.

When I was in Cuba many years ago, the Methodist Church was unable to build new sanctuaries. Are things different today? Can you build a Methodist sanctuary? 

The government doesn’t allow it. We buy a house in the name of a pastor. The pastor signs the papers. That’s legal. And then we start a home church there.

Is Roman Catholicism still the largest Christian designation in Cuba?

They’re not. Evangelical churches are the largest. A month and a half ago, I had a reporter from the Washington Post in my office and he asked me if the Popes visited Cuba so much because of the growth. I said, “Oh, it’s possible. But the evangelical church has grown a lot more than the Catholic church.” Of course, the Catholic church hasn’t checked their statistics. When you count the numbers, it’s not the largest. What brought the Washington Post to my church is that they went in on Resurrection Sunday to cover the mass at 6:00 a.m. and the Catholic church was empty. And then they asked, “Where are the people?” And they say, “You have to go to the Methodist church if you want to see people.” There were thousands of people there because it was Resurrection Sunday and we had a lot of services. They were really excited about that.

How do the Baptists and Assemblies of God and Methodists get along?

The churches that have the Pentecostal background have a good communication. Assemblies of God is the largest. There’s three Baptist groups in Cuba that are the second place. And then the Methodist Church is the third place. But the Methodist Church is the fastest growing.

Does it help for United Methodist work groups from the United States to come to Cuba or does it create a gigantic headache?

No, it really helps us. We have United Methodist Volunteers In Mission – they come every month. For 20 years they’ve been refurbishing the churches. We also have groups like the ones we’ve had from United Theological Seminary and other schools.

Our two churches have a great relationship. We share a great mission.


Happy Birthday Wanda Jackson

By Steve Beard

At the age of 78, the righteous Queen of Rockabilly is still tearing it up with 60 to 80 concerts per year. Considered to be one of the first women to record rock and roll, Jackson is a sassy music legend who toured with Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, and, most recently, Adele. It was her boyfriend, Elvis Presley, who convinced Jackson to migrate from country music to rockabilly.

Wanda Jackson

In the 1960s and 1970s, Jackson growled out hits such as “My Big Iron Skillet,” “Tears Will Be the Chaser for your Wine,” and “Fujiyama Mama.” Ten years after their marriage, Wanda and her husband Wendall began attending church and dedicated their lives to Christianity in 1971. “We were headed down a pretty rocky road,” she told Smithsonian Magazine. “The main thing that God does for you when you really sell out to him and want to live for him is he sets your priorities up right.” Over the next decade, she recorded half a dozen gospel albums and devoted their talents to churches and revival meetings.

When the rockabilly revival of the 1980s was launched, Jackson was recruited to tour all over Europe. With her legendary status as a rock pioneer, she was periodically invited to play at music festivals and to collaborate with other artists such as Rosie Flores and The Cramps.

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Free Speech Under Fire

By Steve Beard

As a budding young journalist and editor, my thoughts on the First Amendment and free speech — even outrageously offensive speech — were shaped by Nat Hentoff, columnist for the left-wing Village Voice. Hentoff was a prolific contrarian, jazz critic, pro-lifer, and self-proclaimed “member of the Proud and Ancient Order of Stiff-Necked Jewish Atheists.” His book Free Speech for Me — But Not for Thee, a polemic against censorship, has been on my bookshelf for more than 20 years as a reminder of the dangers and virtues of the free marketplace of ideas.

The-Silencing-Powers-CVR-v10-PERS“Consider what would happen,” Hentoff asked, “if … the First Amendment were placed on the ballot in every town, city and state. The choices: affirm, reject, or amend. I would bet there is no place in the United States where the First Amendment would survive intact.” That observation is justifiably haunting — and still true today.

As a USA Today columnist, Fox News analyst, and life-long liberal Democrat, Kirsten Powers has picked up where Hentoff left off. In her new book, The Silencing, Powers launches a noble war on the vindictive shaming and censorship spawned by what she dubs the “illiberal left.” “These are the self-appointed overlords — activists, university administrators, journalists, and politicians — who have determined what views are acceptable to express,” Powers observes.

“Liberals are supposed to believe in diversity, which should include diversity of thought and belief. Instead, an alarming level of intolerance emanates from the left side of the political spectrum toward people who express views that don’t hew to the ‘settled’ liberal worldview,” Powers said.

Although Powers is an outspoken supporter of gay rights and same-sex marriage, she is appalled by what happened to Brendan Eich, co-founder of the Internet company Mozilla. When it was announced last year that he was going to become CEO, gay rights activists bombarded social media with the news that Eich had made a $1,000 personal contribution to the “Yes on 8” initiative to ban same-sex marriage in California in 2008.

“It’s OK to be angry about Eich’s donation,” Powers said. “Screaming for Eich’s head on a pike for his failure to conform to Mozilla’s majority view on same-sex marriage is not. Liberals are supposed to believe in protecting minority views, even when they disapprove of those views.” She reminded readers that this was the “same year that Senator Barack Obama sat in Rick Warren’s church to explain his religious based opposition to same-sex marriage.”

Despite his publicly stated commitment to making sure Mozilla would remain a “place that includes and supports everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity,” nearly 70,000 signed a petition calling for Eich to renounce his beliefs or resign as Mozilla’s CEO. One week later, the activists triumphed and Eich stepped down.

“It’s not necessary to support Eich’s donation to recognize something deeply disturbing occurred here,” Powers wrote. “When people’s lives and careers are subject to litmus tests, and fired if they do not publicly renounce what may well be their sincere conviction, we have crossed a line,” observed writer Andrew Sullivan — who is gay and a same-sex marriage advocate — about the Eich situation. “This is McCarthyism applied by civil actors. This is the definition of intolerance.”

“This intolerance is not a passive matter of opinion,” pointed out Powers. “It’s an aggressive, illiberal impulse to silence people. This conduct has become an existential threat to those who hold orthodox religious beliefs. But increasingly I hear from people across the political spectrum who are fearful not only of expressing their views, but also as to where all this heading.”

The Eich debacle is only one example of dozens that Powers grapples with in The Silencing. She is a tireless advocate for everyone having the opportunity to defend their own position in the public square.

Powers startled a lot of political observers by sharing her conversion testimony in the pages of Christianity Today. Although she does not share the political agenda of all conservative Christians, she will be the first to defend the sincerity and authenticity of their perspective.

The Silencing is a jarring trumpet blast to those who treasure the First Amendment, religion, and freedom of speech. All one has to do is read Powers’ Twitter feed to read the vicious way the illiberal left has made her a target — and single-handedly reinforced the point of her book.

Steve Beard is a pop culture writer, theological editor, and roller derby photographer. He is the editor of Good News and the creator of Thunderstruck Media Syndicate.

Reviving the X-Files

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A six-episode revival of the sci-fi hit The X-Files was recently announced that would reunite actors David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson after 13 years as FBI Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. Coming from drastically differing vantage points, the pair attempt to solve bizarre occurrences often dealing with extraterrestrial and paranormal phenomena out of their basement office at the FBI. Mulder was the agent with the “I Want to Believe” UFO poster on his office wall. Scully, on the other hand, placed her faith solely in science and provable data.

There is no telling what the new series will explore, but the conclusion of the TV show in 2002 was one of the more provocative and intriquing endings for a nine year television show. Alien-chasing Fox Mulder is asked by his colleague, Dana Scully, “You’ve always said that you want to believe, but believe in what, Mulder?”

“I want to believe that the dead are not lost to us,” he responds, “that they speak to us as part of something greater than us – greater than any alien force….”

The camera then focuses in on Agent Scully’s cross necklace as Mulder holds it on his fingertip. As the scene and series draws to a close, Mulder makes this fascinating observation, “Maybe there is hope.”


A Mighty Little Luther

martin-luther-FIGURINEBy Steve Beard

An astounding 34,000 mini Martin Luther action figures were sold out within the first 72 hours of availability. The smiling Reformer toy made by Playmobil was created as a kitchy keepsake for German tourist boards and Bavarian Lutherans to mark the upcoming 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in 2017.

“I’m used to Luther the first modern man, Luther the rebel against overbearing church authority, Luther the anti-Semite, Luther the destroyer of the unity of Western Christendom — but Luther the action figure is a new one,” the Rev. Dr. Sarah Hinlicky Wilson of the Institute for Ecumenical Research in Strasbourg, France, told Good News.

“However distorted the image of Luther remains in Euro-American consciousness, the fact is that 500 years later he hasn’t been forgotten and still looms large in the cultural imagination,” said Wilson, editor of Lutheran Forum. “I’m grateful that the Playmobil people made him holding the Bible instead of the 95 Theses.”

Of course, United Methodists have a warm hearted connection to the leader of the Reformation since John Wesley’s own new birth experience occurred at Aldersgate in 1738 while listening to a reading of Martin Luther’s preface of the Epistle to the Romans.

Professor Wilson and her colleagues launched the Luther Reading Challenge (www.lutherreadingchallenge.org) as a way of encouraging a wider exploration of Luther’s thoughts than simply the history-making and polemical 95 Theses. Writing in First Things, Wilson explains that that the program highlights a fuller portrait of Luther: “the pastor concerned with the care of souls, the exegete, the friend and prolific letter-writer, the husband and father, the hymnist….”

“It was a natural step to merge the desire to improve knowledge of Luther with the desire to give Christian people permission not only to feed others but to nourish their own souls as well,” concludes Professor Wilson. “And that is our invitation: read Luther — not to take sides, and certainly not to justify yourself or your church or the compromised history that all Christians share — but to meet a sinner of ages past who knew and loved and constantly wrote about the good news of Jesus Christ.”

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