Saturday, November 25, 2006
February of 2005, and knowing the wonderfully generous nature of the people
there, this touched me, but it didn't surprise me!
About a month after Ganta United Methodist Hospital reopened its doors following Liberia's civil war, an elderly lady requested to see the Hospital Administrator. Her name is Yei Gborr, and she is an 82-year-old subsistence farmer. She makes her living selling potato greens in the Ganta market. She is affectionately called "Ma Gborr" in the community.
Ma Gborr explained to hospital staff that she met Jesus at a young age and that Jesus has always been her "all in all." She never had the opportunity to go to school. Her average income is about $600 Liberian Dollars a year. She is a widow and she lives as part of the extended family in her sister's household. She told us about her memory of Dr. George Way Harley, who came to her people back in the 1920s, and requested land to build a hospital and
grade school. The people embraced the request and offered Dr. Harley 1,000 acres of land on which he established what is now known as Ganta United Methodist Mission Station. She reflected on the decision of her father, and others, in giving the land to Dr. Harley to build the hospital and school "for us".
Moved to Give Her Best
Ma Gborr came on this day to inform the hospital administration that she claimed ownership of this mission station. She explained how devastated she was when the hospital and school were destroyed during the 2003 civil crisis. She spoke of how encouraged she is that they are now reopened. Ma Gborr said she was spiritually "touched" to give her own donation to this place that has taken care of her and her people since she was a little girl. She explained that she was moved to give her best to the hospital. She then pulled out a bundle of money and presented the hospital administrator with $1,000.00 Liberian Dollars-a lot of money for an humble potato green seller!!
One can imagine how humbled we were by the expression of faithful obedience from this woman of God. This generous act of giving serves as a challenge and encouragement to everyone here at Ganta Mission Station and the Ganta community.
Provided by Mary Zigbuo, GBGM Missionary
When I visited in 2005 I was told that Ganta is the only hospital in its region, and serves 750,000 persons! It is there because United Methodists cared enough, and gave in shared ministry so that they might make a difference in the lives of their sisters and brothers in Liberia!
How You Can Help
Cash gifts will help UMCOR support the work of Ganta United Methodist Hospital. Checks can be mailed to UMCOR, PO Box 9068, New York, NY 10087. Write "UMCOR Advance #982168, Hospital Revitalization, Ganta Hospital," on the memo line of your check. One hundred percent of every donation to any appeal, including appeals for Ganta Hospital, supports the program you select.
Thursday, October 26, 2006
After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.
When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord.
--John 21:1-12, NRSV
In the recent motion picture release “The Guardian,” Kevin Costner plays Ben Randall, a living legend in the Coast Guard’s elite team of rescue swimmers. In the midst of the worst storms and conditions, Randall and his crew will go out in their helicopter, jump 20 feet into freezing water and miraculously pluck the victims of wrecks, capsized boats and ship fires from what would otherwise be certain death.
In the academy where these selfless rescue teams are trained, Costner’s aging character holds the school’s every record, but a young recruit, Jake Fisher (played by Ashton Kutcher), is bent on replacing Ben Randall’s name on the record boards. One record though, is not posted anywhere, and is only spoken of in hushed voices: the number of lives Randall has saved in his amazing career. Some say it’s 200; others say 300; no one seems to know for sure.
At one point early in the film, Randall’s friend and fellow crew member suggests it may be time for them to retire. “And do what?” Randall asks.
“We could go fishing,”
“Where’s the fun in that?” Randall replies as they go off to sea, to dangle their line into the swelling waves in order to haul a new day’s catch of human lives into their vessel.
Let’s go back 2,000 years to the shores of the Sea of Galilee, Peter, Andrew, James, John and some other disciples decide that, in the face of the turmoil around Jesus’ death, empty tombs and all the rest, it is a good time to go fishing. Remember: When Jesus called those four, they were by the sea mending their nets. It seems finding those nets they left behind might not be a bad career move. The nets are a key ingredient in their livelihood: letting them down off one side of the boat in a certain way, then rowing in a circular motion. Next the nets are pulled in to determine if the fishing is successful. Many times, the answer to that question means survival or devastation for the fisher’s family.
So these confused and dazed disciples have been at it all night, and they haven’t caught so much as a mackerel. Just great. Everything is in chaos, and now even their nets aren’t working anymore. Suddenly a figure calls to them from the shore, asking if they have caught any fish. Talk about adding insult to injury. When they answer honestly that they haven’t caught a single fish, the mysterious person tells them to cast their nets instead on the right side of the boat. You know what happens.
I’d like to share the story of another kind of net that can mean survival or devastation today: a bed net, given to families in Africa. It’s a simple method for reducing the spread of malaria and other diseases transmitted by mosquitoes.
The United Methodist Church has been fighting malaria for years. Recently our denomination’s work intersected with the efforts of the United Nations, which also had made the eradication of this disease a priority, and a relationship began to form.
Then things took an interesting turn. A popular columnist from Sports Illustrated, Rick Reilly, learned of the U.N. Foundation’s fund-raising efforts to deliver mosquito nets to people in Africa in order to save lives lost to malaria. He was inspired to write a column that called all of those who play sports that involve nets, and those who enjoy those sports, to donate $10 each to purchase a different kind of net – one that actually would save a life. The column was entitled “Nothing But Nets,” and his appeal raised $1.2 million! The effort quickly got the attention of the National Basketball Association (NBA), and we soon found the United Methodist cross and flame lined up beside the logos of the NBA, Sports Illustrated, the U.N. Foundation and other partners in the “Nothing But Nets” effort to provide bed nets for people most at risk for malaria in Africa. You can learn more about this effort at the Web site www.nothingbutnets.net.
For some people this alliance may seem a little strange. Yet we need only look at the Gospel accounts of the travels and associations of Jesus to see he constantly crossed the boundaries of what seemed “acceptable affiliations” in his day and culture. He went where others wouldn’t go, and he ate and hung out with persons that others in the religious establishment wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole.
When we realize we dwell in a world where one small part of the population lives in abundance, while others live in a desperate struggle for survival, we could conclude that we need new strategies, tactics and alliances if we are going to make a difference.
It may be long past time for us to hear Jesus’ call to cast our nets on the other side of the boat, to take what has become the familiar business of ministry and to find new ways to represent Christ in a world in urgent need of Christ’s intervention.
Let’s return to the film “The Guardian,” which I mentioned earlier, and to Ben Randall, the rescue swimmer. Leaving behind a world of relative comfort, time after time Randall dons the wet suit and the rescue gear, boards the Coast Guard helicopter and makes that 20-foot drop into raging, turbulent, icy waters. When the helicopter drops its net (a metal basket, in this case), Randall is the one in the water who sees that the victims make their way to the basket. He is the one who decides who gets picked up first, and often that determines who survives.
In a powerful scene near the end of the film, as Randall appears to be “passing the mantle” to his former student Jake Fisher, the new rescue swimmer asks about that mysterious number, the one spoken of in hushed voices at the Coast Guard elite training school. Is it 200 lives, or 300 or more? “Twenty-two” is the somber answer. Young Jake is taken aback; you can see the wheels turning as he imagines how easily that record is broken. Ben’s explanation shakes him back to reality: “That’s the count of the ones I didn’t save.” In the powerful silence that follows, the implications are clear: Ben Randall never bothered to count the hundreds of souls he snatched from a watery death, but he carries the weight of every individual life that might have made it but didn’t.
In the time it has taken for me to share these words, about 20 children have died from malaria. If we listed the number of bed nets necessary to protect all of the children, women and men who need them, the number would be staggering. We do know what we can do: if each us gave just $10 that would buy XX bed nets, and maybe we could save XX lives. Buy a bed net; save a life. We can do it for the children we can save. We can do it for the ones we cannot save, because that number weighs heavy on our hearts.
Or we could do it for ourselves, for our ongoing relationship with Christ is linked to our ability to be connected to those with whom Christ would connect. It’s part of my salvation-relationship with Christ. I could give a bed net, or 10, or a cup of cool water, or a meal, because of the way that act, thanks to Christ, blesses my transformed life.
In the end, I must acknowledge that it was me in that water, in the midst of stormy waves, facing death, until Jesus plunged into the water and swam my way. My rescue swimmer. my Savior, made sure I made it into the net, for the thought of even one lost weighs heavy on his heart. Can I do anything less?
Saturday, October 14, 2006
Mike Dubose is one of my heroes.
If you are familiar at all with the United Methodist Church, if you have ever visited any of the UM websites, if you have ever seen a news release from our United Methodist News Service and it had great photos with it, then you probably are familiar with the work of Mike Dubose. He is an extraordinary photographer, who tells the story of our ministry in some of the most amazing images you have ever seen.
Mike has done this work all around the world, in the face of disasters and tragedies. I would think he had seen it all.
Yet he returned this past week from Angola, and brought back pictures and stories of poeple who lives have been ravaged by malaria, a disease which for many of us is about as far removed as small pox or bubonic plague. For Mike Dubose, who has seen poverty, disease and disaster through the lens of his cameras, this trip shook him like no other.
You can read UMNS Reporter Kathy Gilbert's moving story if you click on the title of this blog entry. Please take a moment to read it. You will meet Domingos Antonic, the child in the picture above, who was brought to the hospital where Mike and Kathy were visiting in their assignment to cover the impact of malaria. Domingos small body had been victim to this disease, but by the time he arrived the doctors there were unable to save him.
Malaria kills over a million people a year, one every 30 seconds. Sometimes we can't get our heads around numbers like that. But little Domingos died, and that has a way of sinking in.
Who will remember Domingos? Mike Dubose and Kathy Gilbert will. I will, because they shared their story with me, and hopefully you will and all those who read this story and see his picture. But if we remember Domingos, will we no anything to save the others who are dying even as we read this?
A simple bed net might have saved Domingos life, and enough bed nets might put a serious dent in the number of malaria deaths in Africa. You can get a bed net to a family in Africa for just $10.
The United Methodist Church is a partner in an effort called "Nothing But Nets." I'll be writing more about this in upcoming postings. You can visiti the website at www.nothingbutnets.net.
Saturday, October 07, 2006
What did it take to get me back to this after five months of inactivity? Maybe the thought that someone might actually visit this blog and see that might last entry was the details of my Mom's passing. The thought that this somehow so devastated me that I could no longer find good things to write about this church I love was pretty embarassing. She was a neat lady, but I know he is in a place that is much better, and as I wrote, I'm sure she is enjoying the buffet!
The entry before that one announced a pretty dramatic life change for me, and for my family. More than any other factor, my neglect of the blog can be attributed to thee things:
1) Getting ready to move to Nashville,
2) Moving to Nashville, and
3) Recovering from the move to Nashville.
In that next to last entry I announced the blog would continue, and so part of me needs to make good on that promise -- just in case there is anyone out there looking. I indicated that in my new position with United Methodist Communications I would have a great vantage point to continue to tell stories of amazing things happening in the United Metghodist family. At the certainly has proven to be true.
So, if you happen to find your way here, or back here for some of you, thanks for visiting. I am alive and well, and still in awe of what amazing things are being done by the people called United Methodists.
Tuesday, April 18, 2006
Easter morning, 2006, I found myself trying to get the family dressed and out into the car so we could make it to the 9:00am service without being late. I had issued the “five minute warning,” the one that goes something like, “if you’re in the car in five minutes we’re leaving without you (like any of my children, ages 24, 21, and 14 would think that was such a drastic consequence). Having made my pronouncement, I then had the opportunity to retreat to the solitude of the downstairs bathroom, knowing that certainly they would not be ready any sooner than that first five minutes.
No sooner had I closed the door to the bathroom when the phone rang. With five persons living in this house, all well trained in the use of a telephone, I left the answering to someone else. No one I know (mostly pastors and other church types) would be calling at 8:40am on Easter morning.
Finally someone answered. “It’s for you, Dad.” It was the nursing supervisor at the Nursing Home where my mom has been a resident for the last four years. “We think she is dying, you may want to come up today.”
And so I found myself in a hospital on Long Island on Easter Sunday by the bedside of my step-mother, waiting with her for that moment when she will take the step from this life -- that has carried her for 83 years, 3 months and 7 days – into the next one which will hold her for eternity.
There in that hospital room we celebrated Easter, not with the sound of a pipe organ blasting out “Alleluias” but with quiet sound of an IV infusion pump doling out doses of saline solution; not with the smell of lilies, but with the smell of hand sanitizer and the other not-so-wonderful smells that greet one in a hospital. We read the scripture (John 20:1-18), I quietly sang for her some of our favorite Easter hymns, and we prayed prayers. So there would be no doubt it was a Methodist service, there was an offering: I offered her up to God.
Note: Mom didn't make the journey on Easter, but on the day after. I told her Dad was waiting for her on the buffet line, but she waited until Monday. Who knows, maybe she heard Jesus calling from the shore, inviting her to a breakfast he was barbecuing. I suppose I'll have to ask her when I get there.
Sunday, April 09, 2006
This has been a time of some big happenings and not a little stress in my life. It's been announced that effective July 1st I will be appointed to United Methodist Communications (UMCom) in Nashville, to serve as Director of Communications Ministries. It's the start of an exciting new chapter in the life of my family, but a busy time as we prepare to sell one house, buy another, pack and move in a period of about 9 weeks.
There will still be lots to report in United Methodist Lifesigns, though maybe not as frequently. From my new job in Nashville I should have a good spot from which to see and report the wonderful things being done across the church. So keep checking us out, and spread the word to others.
Monday, March 27, 2006
The following is not my writing, but a piece from the Women's Division at GBGM, written by Carol Barton. I have simply reprinted it here because I think it is worthy of as wide an audience as possible. Ken
A life dedicated to Shining for Racial Justice
by Carol Barton
As we prepare for the UMW Assembly in a few weeks, we are considering what it means to “Shine.” I am reminded of the song, “They will know we are Christians by our love." Paul describes this love eloquently in 1 Corinthians, but “shining” and showing God’s love in the world, a love that “rejoices with the truth,” is not always an easy or safe road to take, even though it brings great rewards.
This month we celebrate the life and mourn the death of a great Civil Rights activist, Anne Braden, who died in Louisville, Ken., on March 6 at the age of 81. Anne made a life-long commitment to the struggle for racial justice in our country, as a courageous white anti-racist woman. In 1954, she and her husband Carl became renowned for their decision to purchase and resell a home in a suburban white neighborhood to a Black couple, the Wades, who were their friends. This brought on the wrath of white supremacists who threatened both couples. The Wade’s home was the target of rocks, a cross burning, shots fired, and a dynamite blast. Braden and her husband were ostracized by many in the white community and received hate mail and threats. As public radicals during the McCarthy era they were called communists, and even indicted for sedition, or, in their case, disloyalty to the State of Kentucky. Carl spent seven months in jail.
Anne, a journalist with three young children at the time, wrote a book about the experience and began traveling to speak up about both civil rights and civil liberties. Braden and her husband joined the struggle for Black rights. In his famous “Letter from Birmingham,” Martin Luther King, Jr., thanked her for her actions. After her husband’s death in 1975, she continued her activism, including working for peace and equal rights for women. She was a delegate for Jesse Jackson at the 1998 Democratic National Convention. In the fall of 2005, at the age of 80, she traveled on the bus from Kentucky to Washington, D.C., to participate in a rally against the war in Iraq, and she continued to work for the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression until her death.
A lifelong Episcopalian, Braden reflected, “I grew up…in a totally racially segregated society. You just knew something was wrong. I mean there were the pictures on the Sunday School wall of the children of all colors. You know, sitting around Jesus? Brown, black, white. You'd look at that and that's not the way the Sunday School class looked, right? I mean you're bound to notice that.”
In the last article Braden wrote, published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation in January 2006, she reflects, “I had to face the painful fact that this society that had nurtured me and been good to me was just plain wrong. And I was able to change sides in the racial divide…This very painful experience is not destructive, because once we have done it, we are free. We are not really free of the racism within us because we will always see the world through white eyes, but we are free to struggle consciously against it, so it no longer shapes our lives without even knowing it.”
When white people “make a conscious decision and take concerted action to 'change sides' on the issue of race,” we join “the other America,” the one of resistance and struggle for a different world. Braden observed, “this is the genius of humankind, the thing that makes us half divine: the fact that some human beings can envision a world that has never existed…And living in the world that is working to make it happen lets us know our lives are worthwhile.” THAT is letting God’s love SHINE!
* Carol Barton is one of the executives for racial justice for the Women’s Division. This meditation is written to help United Methodist Women begin to prayerfully prepare themselves for the United Methodist Women’s Assembly, May 4-7 in Anaheim, Calif., and for the ensuing education, inspiration, and mission work of the organization.
 Excerpts from an Interview with Anne Braden, A Southern Childhood, The Veterans of Hope Project, Vincent Harding, http://www.veteransofhope.org/ (downloaded 3/17/06)
 Finding the Other America, Anne Braden, Fellowship, January/February 2006, http://www.forusa.org/fellowship/recent.html%20downloaded%203/17/06.
Wednesday, March 22, 2006
You've probably heard those elections raised Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, an active member of First UMC, Monrovia, to the office of President of Liberia. Last week she came to the United States to address Congress on March 15th. According to the news reports, she is "the fourth African head of state and the eighth woman to address a joint meeting of Congress. Invitations to address Congress are extended to international dignitaries only once or twice during a typical year," according to a report on AllAfrica.com.
On Tuesday of this week, she stopped by to see two other United Methodist who live in the area: George and Barbara Bush. Mrs. Bush traveled to Liberia in January to attend Sirleaf's inauguration, along with Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.
If the nation of Liberia is going to restore itself as the light, United Methodists all around the world will be able to take pride in the part our church has played. Bishop Innis, the episcopal leader of this wonderful conference, has been courageous beyond our imagining in his call for a leader who would put greed and self-interest aside and be a godly leader -- open and accountable. Without wavering he has shared his dream of a leader whose legacy for Liberia would be selflessness, who would see the children of Liberia as its greatest natural resource. We all pray Ms. Sirleaf will be the fulfillment of that dream.
The needs in Liberia, from what I saw first hand last year, are overwhelming. Imagine a major city whose infrastructure has disappeared, where utilities are no longer provided. Electricity is available only if you have a generator and only when you have the fuel to run the generator. Phone is service is gone, except for cell phones, which only work off pre-paid cards of minutes (there are no accounts, no way to deliver bills). Garbage is not picked up, but burned in the street, in the alleys, por by the side of the road. The list goes on and on.
So as Liberia struggles to get back on their feet, Ms. Sirleaf has come to ask the US to stand by their side, and help them rebuild their post-war nation. There is some indication our Congress will provide at least some of that aid. The truth is that the United Methodist Church has been at the side of Liberia through all struggles, and we will still be standing there when Liberia is once again the bright light of Africa.
Monday, March 13, 2006
In the midst of this wonderful celebration, which encompassed just one portion of the ethnic diversity of our Greater New Jersey Conference, I came to a realization of the diversity in the midst of this diversity. Not just Bishop Devadhar, born in India, preaching in english (i have to keep reminding myself, his second language) being translated into spanish, but in the midst of this group of spanish speaking United Methodists they hailed from 22 different lands: Cuba, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and others from Central and South America. On top of that, they were young and old, some relatively well off financially and some not so well off. A bouquet of 22 flags graced the altar, and a parament with a rainbow hung frm the pulpit. It was inspiring.
Is it difficult to live in a church that celebrates this kind of diversity? Sometimes. We have to anticipate each others needs (they provided me with a headset so I might hear translations of the part of the service that was in spanish). But isn't that what Jesus calls us to do anyway?
We have to work a little harder to understand the nuances of each others culture ("When we say we are starting at 5:00pm what does that really mean?"). Yet isn't that what most of us aspire to in regard to financial security -- we'd like to be wealthy enough that we could travel and experience other lands and other cultures? You don't have even have to leave New Jersey.
Want to taste some Korean culture? Head up to Fort Lee, or Wayne. Yearning for some Indian food, point your car towards Exit 131 off the Garden State Parkway. A little Brazillian food, how far are you from Harrison, Elizabeth or Long Branch?
Yet in the midst of all this, there is that cross, and the red flame alongside. One cross, one savior, one Holy Spirit. Diverse and yet united. I love this church.
Thursday, March 09, 2006
(Bishop Hans Vaxby of Moscow accepts a stole and cap after being made a member of the Rural Chaplains Association at the 12th consultation of the United Methodist Russia Initiative. The Rural Chaplains help to organize rural congregations in the US to provide assistance to rural churches in Russia and other countries in the Eurasia Area of the denomination.)
One of the real blessings of this job is the opportunity I get on occasion to see first hand where our church is in mission.
In 2001, before I was even in my job full-time, I was privileged to travel to Smolensk, Russia to see the work that had been done through the participation of the Conference in the General Board of Global Ministries Russia Initiative (Smolensk is one of the mission sites we support, the second is in Kerch, Ukraine). We flew from JFK to Moscow, then took an overnight, 8 hour train trip from Moscow to Smolensk (on a train where no one spoke english and all we knew how to say was "spasiba" or thank you). We were met in Smolensk by families who had been touched by our ministry there, and they took us to their homes and treated us like we were Kings (or maybe Czars!).
In the 1990's when we first heard about the Russia Initiative there were 15 United Methodist Churches in Russia. By 2001 when I went for the first time, there were 88! Presently, the number of congregations is 104 and growing!
The Russia Initiative is not just about churches sending money to churches over there. It is about building bridges to reach people who were once the "evil empire." Since the inception of the Initiative, 6000 United Methodists have made the trip to meet face to face those who were once the most feared enemy. For those who are old enough to remember hiding under their desk in the 1960's in drills that were suppose to prepare us for a Russian attack, this is a humbling experience. When I shared those grade school memories with people my age in Smolensk, they laughed at the silliness that they were doing the same ridiculous drill in their schools as well.
Don't take my word for it, though. Make the trip yourself.
Their are groups that go from our conference every summer: some involve work teams, some involve teaching a summer school project, some involve youth, some are focused on witness and teaching in Bible study groups that have been formed there.
Check out general information about the Russia Initiative at: http://gbgm-umc.org/programs/missioninitiatives/russia/
To find out about the groups going to Smolensk this summer, visit http://www.gnjumc.org/MissionOpportunity2006.html
Sunday, March 05, 2006
Let me officially invite you to make this a place where we can share ideas and discuss things. The Blog provides you with an opportunity to do that without listing your name, as well putting your name on your comment if you want your opinions to be known. Either way, I think discussion can be healthy. The comments that have been made to date fall into that category, and for those I am grateful.
The hope and prayer I have is that we will feel free to be complementary or critical of what has been written, or what is happening in the church or conference, but that we will refrain from attacking people. We all are human, we sometimes do the wrong things with the right intentions, and it is helpful to have those actions critiqued in a way that doesn't strike at our personhood or intentions. I always thing it's best not to assume I know what is in someone else's heart.
So having said that, lets move some of the "parking lot conversations" here to the Blog where we all might be able to hear and discuss and maybe make some course corrections. Keep the conversations going!
Wednesday, March 01, 2006
It's hard to describe what its like when you get 450+ pastors in one church for the day. Well, there's the singing -- we do that really well. Then there is the eating -- unfortunately, we do that really well, too. Then there is the task of trying to get everyone in a seat and quiet: you may have guessed, we don't do that very well at all.
The preacher for the day was Rev. Vance Ross, presently serving as Associate General Secretary for the General Board of Discipleship in Nashville. Vance preached a powerful message during our opening service, about the importance of clergy coming together and keeping connected to one another. After the service concluded and the 10 minute break that looked like it would never end, Vance spoke a second time, this time expanding his message of coming together to encompass the whole church, and our commitment to being connectional.
I joke about the difficulty of getting these clergy in their seats and quiet, and the near impossible task of getting them back together after a break, but I do so half heartedly. The truth is, it was awesome to see people connecting with folks we don't see nearly as often as we should. To try and move people away from these important reunions to get them into a sanctuary to hear a message on coming together and maintaining their connections seemed, well, a little silly.
"It would be neat," I told someone that day, "if we could have one of these gatherings, and not have a speaker but simply have time for folks to come together and talk and renew their bonds of friendship with sisters and brothers in the covenant community of clergy." The problem, I will be the first to admit, is that many people wouldn't come. Everyone of us is so busy, everyone of us is so caught up in what we are trying to do for the Kingdom of God, that we just might not carve out the time to be with each other and be with God unloess we can convince ourselves that there will be a speaker there who will give us some new insight, hone some new skill, share with us some new secret that will make our work for Christ more productive.
Here is that gem that I brought away from yesterday's meeting: God saying to me, "I never called you to be in this alone. Come together. Get reconnected. Get recharged and renewed, and you will serve this kingdom much better."
Friday, February 24, 2006
As I sit in the airport in Porto Alegre, the 9th Assembly of the World Council of Churches concluding without me today, I’m reflecting on the issue which garnered the most attention during the days I was present: the inclusion of young people. The issue manifests itself in the way the WCC composes itself, but in truth it is an issue for the entire church, all around the world.
We scratch our heads and ask, “Where have all the young people gone?”
Do you ask that question when you look at your church? As I travel from church to church, I am struck by the absence of young people in significant numbers, certainly in a much smaller percentage than their percentage of the general population. People will ask that question, and even occasionally will ask, “What do we need to do to reach the young people?”
Do we really want an answer to that question?
At the 9th WCC Assembly, the issue came around the percentage of young people (those up to age 30) included in the important Central Committee, which guides the World Council during the 7 years between assemblies. The standards set by the WCC itself calls for 25% of the members to be youth. The problem is that those youth must come through the delegations of member churches, and these denominational church groups only have a defined number, so meeting the 25% requires delegations giving those precious seats to young people, and the “over 30” crowd is not so anxious to let go. The youth plastered handmade signs all across the venue, simply indicating “25%” to remind the group of its own goal. Regrettably, the Assembly will adjourn with only 15% representation for for young people.
So what is the answer for local churches, for your local church? Simply, some people -- some of the "older folks" -- will have to let go. There won’t be room for young people unless we make room.
Here’s the good news (thanks for sticking with this posting long enough to get to the good news): the United Methodist delegation made me proud by the way it added its voice to the voices of these young people reminding the assembly of their unfulfilled promise. To have Bishop Ann Sherer and Bishop Sally Dick lead other members of the United Methodist delegation in solidarity with the youth, positioning themselves by each microphone at the start of a plenary so that the issue could be pressed.
So my prayer is that there will be more youth at the 10th Assembly of the WCC, wherever it may be held. If there is less, we’ll know why: the unwillingness of some to let go of their seats, and make room for young people.
However, maybe the more immediate question for us to ask is this: Seven years from now, will there be more young people at your church, or less?
As we get that right, our future will get brighter.
Wednesday, February 22, 2006
The irony didn't slip by me unnoticed. In the same week that the NBA All-Star game was being held, I met one of my heroes -- a hero worth having. Here in Porto Alegre, Brazil, at the 9th Assembly of the World Council of Churches, without fanfare or fuss, onto the stage walked Archbishop (Emeritus) Desmond Tutu.
Not a millionaire who can do a reverse slam dunks. Just a giant who stands 5 foot nothing, who helped lead the world to find its heart and say no to Apartheid.
Tutu referred in his address to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, and paid tribute to the support given by the WCC, particularly through its Programme to Combat Racism. "This was controversial but was quite critical in saying our cause was just and noble and that those who, as a last resort, had opted for the armed struggle were not terrorists but freedom fighters," he said. "Nelson Mandela was no terrorist."
The WCC was his "mentor", and he owed it a very great deal, he said. "You, the WCC, demonstrated God's concern for unity, for harmony, for togetherness, for friendship, for peace, and you must celebrate that, you must celebrate the success you notched up in defeating apartheid, for you were inspired not by a political ideology but by biblical and theological imperatives."
However, he said, apartheid had continued so long because the church was divided, and God called it to unity, adding, "Jesus was quite serious when he said that God was our father, that we belonged all to one family, because in this family all, not some, are insiders.
"Bush, bin Laden, all belong, gay, lesbian, so-called straight - all belong and are loved, are precious."
Being so far away, I have no idea who won the NBA All-Star Game -- the acrobatics of the likes of Allen Iverson, or the scoring of Kobe Bryant. Those who know won't remember in a decade. The Rolling Stones and U2 were in Brazil this week, but in my book they pale by comparison (though Bono is definitely on the right track, there may be a Nobel Peace Prize on his shelf one day). Being in the presence of Desmond Tutu, hearing him speak, seeing the fire in his eyes as he spoke about justice and inclusion. There is a hero worth having.
Sunday, February 19, 2006
Having just arrived and only attending the afternoon session today, there's not all that much to write. I was a bit in awe that I had the opportunity to be present for the world coming together for church.
This afternoon the agenda for the plenary was a report on how God is at work in Latin America. The report was beautifully done, with music, drama, puppetry, video clips and slides shows. It seemed to me each time the presenters rasied the issues of social injustice, they gave thanks to the church and, more time than not. singled out the Methodists.
Friday, February 17, 2006
The denomination has much to celebrate in "the overwhelming generosity of the people of the United Methodist Church, who increased giving by 53.6 percent compared to 2004," said Sandra K. Lackore, top executive of the denomination's General Council on Finance and Administration in Nashville. She spoke to United Methodist media by telephone and Web conferencing Feb. 15.
Total giving in 2005 was $244.7 million, which is $85 million more than in 2004, she said. Of that, $80 million was for tsunami and hurricane relief efforts. Total giving in 2004 was $159.3 million.
Individuals, churches and organizations contributed significantly to the United Methodist Committee on Relief for immediate and long-term hurricane recovery efforts, and initiatives are being developed with assistance by local people in both Mississippi and Louisiana, she said. "It is not being driven by UMCOR's design but being driven by local design."
What does the more than 50 percent increase in overall giving mean? According to Lackore, it reflects that within the last two years, the church has given people new and different ways to contribute.
"The connectional covenant is present in the faithfulness of so many local congregations and conferences in meeting their commitment to the apportioned general funds in 2005. These funds drive the financial mission statement of our denomination," Lackore said. "By working together and fully participating in the general apportioned funds, we make possible the mission and ministry of Christ."
Through the end of 2005, she said, 30 percent of the giving was done by online contributions or direct giving - "giving that did not come through annual conference treasuries." That, she said, is "significant in the life of our denomination."
The council is researching donor identities "to discern whether that giving is coming all from United Methodists, whether it is coming from persons interested in what the United Methodist Church is doing, whether it is coming from persons excited by what we are doing, especially in our relief efforts, and could … want to be part of United Methodist congregations," she said.
In the last 10 years, the level of giving to church-related causes has been "steady," she said. "The blip has been online giving." The council is trying to determine what that means for the financial health of the denomination, which is tied to local church and annual conference giving. She defined the health of the denomination as "good" but said membership loss is a continuing concern.
Membership in the United Methodist Church in the United States for 2004 was 8.1 million, a loss of 66,402 people, or 0.82 percent, over 2003, according to GCFA statistics.
Despite the long-running decline in U.S. membership, Lackore told the editors and communicators that gains continue in the 59 annual conferences in Africa, Europe and the Philippines. About 1.9 million additional United Methodists live in those areas, called central conferences, and the fastest growth in membership is occurring in Africa.
Membership losses will be reduced if U.S. annual conferences "open ourselves to really learning from the central conferences … so that we can grow our membership in the jurisdictional conferences," she noted.
Lackore also took note of the generous, second-mile giving by United Methodists during times of crisis and on the ongoing financial needs of churchwide ministries throughout the year.
"We want to note the faithfulness of our denomination to the connectional covenant of apportioned giving," she said.
She paid special tribute to the leadership of 15 annual (regional) conferences that "demonstrated the power of our connection by participating at the 100 percent level of all apportioned funds." That was an increase of three conferences over 2004, and seven additional conferences were recognized for giving 90 percent or more to church-related causes and ministries.
Apportionments are the contributions requested of each of the 63 U.S. annual conferences for the support of denominational ministries and administration. The apportionments are determined by the church's top legislative assembly and managed by GCFA. Each annual conference sets apportionments for its local congregations, and the amount includes support for conference projects, programs and ministries.
The conferences highlighted for having a 100 percent commitment to the church's seven funds were Alaska Missionary, Baltimore-Washington, Central Pennsylvania, Desert Southwest, Detroit, Illinois Great Rivers, New York, North Carolina, Northern Illinois, Oklahoma Indian Missionary, Peninsula-Delaware, Red Bird Missionary, Rio Grande, Texas and Wisconsin.
The seven conferences contributing 90 percent or more for apportioned giving were Arkansas, Holston, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Central Texas, North Texas and Southwest Texas.
The Louisiana and Mississippi annual conference, significantly damaged by Hurricane Katrina, were acknowledged as examples of faithfulness in honoring their financial commitments to the denomination. These two conferences, "in the midst of extreme devastation and hardship," maintained their apportioned giving at or slightly above their 2004 contributions, Lackore said.
Three additional conferences affected by last year's hurricanes - Alabama-West Florida, Florida and Texas - maintained or "slightly" increased their level of giving for all seven of the church's apportioned funds.
Church members gave more generously in 2005 than ever before, Lackore noted. "The people of the United Methodist Church have a great capacity for giving."
*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.
- I have been in Baltimore at Northeast Jurisdiction meetings since Wed., Feb. 15th.
- The day before that was Valentines Day, and I gave my attention to my Valentine.
- The day before that, was, well, the day before Valentines Day...
OK, so they really aren't good excuses. But they are certainly as good as the excuses we give for, say, missing church or not tithing, or not giving more to the church when we know we could.
The United Methodist as a whole is still trying to absorb the reality of the money that was raised in 2005 for the Tsunami and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In the face of declining membership, and a declining support base, we re able to do these incredible feats when confronted with a disaster -- a dramatic, demonstrated need.
A news conference was held this week, featuring Sandra K. Lackore, General Secretary of the General Council on Finance & Administration (the UMC's top bean counter) where she announced that United Methodist total giving had increased over 2004 by more than 50% due mainly to those responses to the diasters (due to problems getting a manageable link, I have reprinted the story as a separate posting).
What continues to be clear to me is that people respond when a story is shared in a way that touches their hearts, and when they believe that what they give will make a difference. The tsunami response taught us that. The hurrican response taught us that. The 9/11 response taught us that.
Here's the question I have to ask: The other giving that we ask folks to do, is it any less important, is it any less needed, is it any less capable of making a difference and touching and transforming lives? Or is the problem that the story has not been told.
Who will tell the story, if not me, if not you?
Monday, February 13, 2006
I've just come through a wonderful weekend. We were treated to a storm which dumped almost 27" of snow in New York City, and probably around 12-18" where I live in Central New Jersey. While I am not a big fan of snow or winter in general, it gave me the gift of a weekend of being home with my wife and three children.
Let's talk about the beauty of the world just after a snow storm. The highlighting of every branch of every tree, the soft smooth blanket that covers the ground, and the sense of undisturbed beauty when the woods behind my house looks as pristine as it must have 1,000 years ago. (the picture is out across our back deck).
The other wondrous gift that a snow storm brings is the silence that blankets everything like the snow. That perfect moment when everyone is inside, there are no planes in the sky and no cars on the road (no bass pounding from someone elses suped-up sound system). There is stillness there that is unlike anything else. I don't particularly like winter, but that part I love. Some people, though, can't stand the silence.
A friend Laurie, a real lover of the outdoors, email me a newsletter she receives from a group called Eco-Justic Ministries, called "Eco-Justice News" (full text is found at http://www.eco-justice.org/E-060210.asp. I encourage you to read it all, but these sentences touched me:
"We can't know God when we're too busy to think, when we're being bombarded by sound, when we never allow ourselves the quiet time to feel deeply. We need space away from the noise and busyness to experience God."
There I stood, in my yard in the middle of a snow storm, knowing that as the snow fell like God's own sound absorbing insulation, and all I heard was the sound of my breathing and the wind in the branches, I was closer to hearing God's voice whisper to me that I had been in months, maybe years. I know I can pray amidst the noise, I do it on a regular basis. The question is when am I able to hear the answers?
Saturday, February 11, 2006
The nation has said farewell to Coretta Scott King, an amazing woman of courage and strength who did not let her personal tragedy defer the vision that she shared with her martyred husband. That her funeral came as we began the observance of Black History Month seems somehow appropriate for the intentional nature of her amazing life among us. I was shocked when I learned that she was not only the first African American woman who was "laid in state" in the Georgia Capitol building, but the first Afrcican American and the first woman as well! This is 2005, right?
I was amazed when I heard a well-intentioned person state that Black History Month was a time for Black children to get in touch with "their history" and some of the important contributions made by African Americans. Far be it from me, a white male, to be the definitive word on this, but I say, "WRONG!" Black History Month is a time for all of us to understand that who we are and what our country has become is a story that was not played out exclusively by old white men in starched white shirts. Black History Month is so important because my memory is still woefully imcomplete when it considers who were the real shapers of this wonderful country we enjoy. While some of the persons we remember made contributions that earned them a place in the history books because of the positions of priviledge and power they were born into, others earned a right to be remembered because of commitment, intelligence, courage, imagination, compassion, creativity, and perseverance through suffereing from positions of being second class citizens, and often much worse.
So if you are considering whether Black History Month is anything that should attract the attention of you or your church, and your decision is made by looking around and seeing if there is anyone present whose skin is darker than yours, remember that this is about my history and yours as well, and we are the ones who desperately need the education.
(For resources your church on Black History Month, can be found at http://gbgm-umc.org/global_news/special_pages/blackhistorymonth.cfm)
Thursday, February 09, 2006
As promised, I wanted to spend at least one more posting on the column written by Bishop Bruce Ough (pictured) in the January 27th edition of their newspaper, West Ohio News. Let me pick up where I left off in the last posting. He writes:
"The extraordinary disasters of last year have exposed the true colors of the United Methodist Church, I have never been more proud of our denomination and the powerful presence of our connection. United Methodists responded to the devastation created by the tsunami in South Asia with an astonishing offering of over $60 million...To date, United Methodists have shared an astounding $50 million to help rebuild the lives of those in the Gulf States displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita."
Here in the Greater New Jersey Conference, the numbers are truly inspiriring. In 2005, our churches gave $2,053,761 to what we call "Second Mile" giving. That's more than twice what was given in 2004 (a not-too-shabby $927,911) and more than the total from 2001, 2002 and 2003 combined! Of that $2 million plus total, $524,700 was for the Tsunami and $737,446.22 was for Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. So for those who think the United Methodist Church is slowly dying, I'd say the numbers tell a different story!
We are not a dying church, but we are, in many places, a people who have lost touch with who we are, what we have done, how we are in ministry around the world 24/7, and what we might do in the days ahead. We should be excited about this, every individual and every congregation!When we recover our excitement and enthusiasm for the mission and ministry of the United Methodist Church, then our numbers will increase, our giving will jump, and our ability to enter new and vital minitries in the name of Jesus Christ will exceed our wildest expectations!
But...we will need to walk the first mile in order that we might go the second mile. More on that in upcoming posts.
Tuesday, February 07, 2006
I was amazed when my counterpart from Louisiana, whose conference had suffered the devastation of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, shared that their conference churches had remitted 95.75% of their apportionments. In Greater New Jersey, where Katrina and Rita meant we endured a couple of rainy days at the end of a beautiful summer, our churches remittances were just about 80%. I have to admit, I was a little embarrassed.
Bishop Bruce R. Ough, episcopal leader of the Ohio West Area, had a similar reflection in that conference's newspaper, the West Ohio News (January 27, 2006). He looks at even more detail:
"The Lake Charles District, leveled by Hurricane Rita, paid 100 percent of its apportionments. Bethany United Methodist Church in New Orleans, which was completely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, paid more than 100 percent of its apportionments.”
Then Bishop Ough points us toward the scripture where Paul makes the following observation about the churches of Macedonia:
“Fierce troubles came down on the people of those churches, pushing them to the very limit. The trial exposed their true colors: they were incredibly happy, though desperately poor. The pressure triggered something totally unexpected: an outpouring of pure and generous gifts…They gave offerings of what they could afford, far more than they could afford!” (II Corinthians 8:2-3, The Message).
Bishop Ough suggests that “the extraordinary disasters of this past year have exposed the true colors of the United Methodist Church.” I could not agree with him more. Over the next few postings I’ll continue to share some observations of how our true colors are shining through. Come back often.
Sunday, February 05, 2006
Or maybe because we all wait for that commercial that will knock our socks off, and we think of the ones that have in the past...
For whatever reason, I'm enjoying revisiting the Coca-Cola commercial that ran almost a quarter century ago, featuring Pittsburgh Steeler "Mean Joe" Green, limping back to the lockere room, and growling at the little boy offering his coke. When the commercial ends with a smiling, coke-refreshed Joe tossing his footbal jersey to the adoring child, a moment was created that will be talked about when I'm 80 and they are getting ready to play Super Bowl LXX!
Which makes me think about what people remember as the years past. Sure, I remember the Steelers team of the 70's with Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swan and Mean Joe Green. And there are, no doubt, a relative few sports jumkies who could recite from memory the stats of what Joe Green did on the field, any record he might have held, and could give a description of the best game he ever played. Yet how many millions more remember a moment, even one scripted and stage for a TV commercial, when a child's selfless act of kindness was rewarded with a improbable smile and a sweaty jersey?
What moment in my life is most worthy of remembering? A night when I worked later than anyone else in the office? A decision I made that meant profit for me and a boost to my net worth? A time when I have gone to head-to-head with a competitor (or even a collegue) and come out the winner, and them the loser? Or has there been a time in my life when I have given, not for obligation, and not for credit or recognition, and not for future favor, but selflessly expecting nothing in return?
Friday, February 03, 2006
Now, when I asked co-worker and life-long Steeler's fan Allan Brooks if I could climb on the "Steelers Nation" bandwagon, he returned this picture of two United Methodists from Western Pennsylvania Conference who give new depth to the "c-word" commitment.
There is the opportunity this weekend, though, to do more than load up on snacks and watch the big game. I will be at First UMC, Newton, NJ on Saturday for the Skylands District Day of Learning, leading a workshop on being a mission church and what it means for United Methodists to be engaged in shared ministry.
In churches all over, youth will be collecting money in pots and kettles to observe "Souper Sunday" where the money is donated to help replenish supplies in area food pantries (http://gbgm-umc.org/umcor/hunger/souperbowl.stm).
Thursday, February 02, 2006
I just read a story about a team of Volunteers-in-Mission who were working on homes in New Orleans. Not so unusual, except this team was made up of volunteers from Methodist churches in Mexico. It's a great story, and you can read at the following link: http://gbgm-umc.org/umcor-hotline/20060131.cfm.
It's those stories that no only stir my heart, but challenge me to approciate more fully and consistantly what it means to be a global church. There was the story last fall of one of our United Methodist Communication staff persons who was in Liberia (West Africa) after Katrina hit and mentioned that she was from New Orleans. The church there gave her money to take back to assist in the Katrina recovery. Absolutely amazing...
We're not dead yet.
Wednesday, February 01, 2006
So why? Why enter this new world? Well, my Bishop thought it would be a good way to communicate better with the world, and that would be reason enough. Closer to my heart, though, is the temptation that is often before us to see only what's wrong in the church -- what is sick, what's dying. And there are lots of signs of life if you just care to look...