Today I Saw God

Uncertainty and Hope

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It's a funny thing to work on a church staff.You see trends ebb and flow. You see people join the church. You see people dig deep into their spiritual lives. You see the transformation that comes with surrendering yourself to God.

On the other hand, you see people leave the church. You see people burn out or "give up" on God. You see the full range of human emotions.

I attended a memorial service at the church a couple weeks ago.As I sang "Amazing Grace" with those that gathered to celebrate this person's life, I couldn't help but think about the status of the Christian church today.

The church stands in a world of love and hatred. The church stands in a world of poverty and excess. The church stands in places of utter sorrow and in places of immense joy. Sometimes the church stands in the right place. Sometimes, it doesn't. One only has to read history books to see the ups and downs of the church and its people.

When you read the news and the surveys today about the state of religion in America, it's easy to see that the church as a whole is declining rapidly. Some blame it on what they see as the perceived hypocrisy of Christians. Others blame it on access to other, more exciting weekend activities. And some blame it on the rise of the "spiritual but not religious." Many more people today just no longer believe.

In Portland, Oregon right now, the worldwide United Methodist Church is gathering to determine what the future looks like for the denomination. If you read the news about this conference, uncertainty abounds in so many ways.

Uncertainty abounds. That's actually a good way to view our world today.

I would say that over the next year "uncertainty abounds" might be my mantra. One only has to look at the politics surrounding the current presidential elections to have an understanding of the stress and anxiety that we face as a nation.

Uncertainty is our lives on a daily basis.

Today, there are some people trying to figure out how to take care of an aging parent. Today, another family is a week late for their month's rent. Today, a person you know may be battling depression or another troubling situation.

Uncertainty abounds. In my life and in yours. So very much of it is out of our hands. And yet, I have hope.

Despite the uncertainty that life throws our way, I am hopeful in a future of God's kingdom. It's not because I have a greater insight into the nature of God. It's not because I pray harder or know the Bible better than others.

I am hopeful because of what I read in Scripture about God's faithfulness and because of what I've experienced.

I am hopeful because of the life-changing work that Christians are doing around the world and in our community.

I am hopeful because despite my flaws, I am loved and forgiven.

I am hopeful because there is grace.

I am hopeful because, like Martin Luther King, Jr. stated, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."

So, uncertainty abounds. But hope does too. And for that, my mantra will need to change. "Hope abounds" works better for me.

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Sermon Response: Navigating Stormy Seas ~ by Wendy LeBolt

We need this reminder!

I'm glad Tom is back from General Conference. And that has nothing to do with the preaching, teaching or the leadership in his absence. I am glad Tom is back because I was worried about him there. His letters (blogs, facebook and tweets) from Florida were a bit frightening. Clearly, they were battening down the hatches in Tampa, expecting high winds. I wondered what it would take to stand up to hurricane force winds.

Part way through the Conference a friend told me I could tune into the live coverage at So I did. Very briefly. I saw and heard the presiding Bishop, the speakers at the various microphones, the calls for votes. And Iread the constant stream of realtime text messages. Oh my goodness. Let's just say, my fears were not alleviated. This is the church. My church. It looked and sounded very much like the rest of the world.I wouldn't have lasted 30 minutes in that conference center.

Cut to my life back here in the easy chair of Northern Virginia. I'm at the gym chatting with a neighbor who used to attend the Episcopal church down the street from Floris. She tells me it's been so sad, the split in their church that caused her family to leave it and now hasresultedin its closing its doors. "Fortunately," she tells me "I only have to worry about what I do. How I treat others. I just have to take responsibility for myself."

That's true, I guess, as far as it takes you. But not for the church leadership. They need to work in the bigger picture, to set a course that will guide the whole church. So, when storms come, congregations have a game plan. And I don't think that "every man for himself" is a good strategy. We need to be prepared. And to prepare our children.

It didn't take me long to picture the classroom full of confirmation students it was my privilege to lead in small group. One class is dedicated to learning about the "social principles" of the United Methodist church. In preparation to teach this class, I photocopied the social principles section of the UMC Book of Discipline. And I, well, I scanned thisbecauseit is long and wordy and, frankly, very broad-ranging. It, as Tom says, "casts a wide net."

But I'm glad I have it in handbecauseI want these young teens to know that theirchurchcares about these issues. More than that, it cares about the people who face these issues. That it has taken time to address them and to findlanguagethat expresses a common (or at least majority) opinion. There is some direction, some guidance and a fair amount of wiggle room, actually.

And just when those confirmands start yawning and figuring these principles are stuffy and distant, I assure them that these issues will find them. Personally. And when they do, it won't beblackand white. There will be a whole lot of gray. And they'll be making a decision that may have big consequences. I tell them the story of someone nearly their age who didn't speak the hard truth to a friend and paid for it with his life. All of a sudden, they're all ears.

There comes a point when social principles become personal principles. When "What does the church think about this?" becomes "What am I to do about this?" When the rubber meets the road or the oars meet the waters, on very choppy seas. And fear threatens tooverwhelmfaith. Yes,Jesus did say, "Do not be afraid." But he didn't say, "there is nothing to fear." (Perhaps Churchill?) We need a strategy against that opponent.

When we join the church we pledge our prayers, our presence, our gifts and our service. And one other thing: our witness in the world. Perhaps that's when personal principles point us back to the bigger picture. We can be personally disciplined in study and prayer, even worship and giving. But principles can't make us care. We have to choose that. And when we do Christ's power is unleashed in the world and on the waves. It mayreach those who don't yet know the salvation that Christ offers. Personally, I want to have achurchto bring them to. That's a denominational business.

The view from my window says there are storms blowing in. Tom, it was good to have you attheoars of General Conference; I'm imaging you are bit sore from the effort. I'm wondering if maybe you have even bulked up a bit.Welcome home.I'll see you at the gym!

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We Are Called To Be on God's Side by Tom Berlin

It seems that no one feels things lightly at General Conference. Every issue brought to the floor, from whether we will continue to call lay speakers by the same title, to the administrative structure of the church, to proposals for the pension board to divest funds from certain corporations, is felt stridently. My experience of Methodists (let me apologize, it is felt important by many to say United Methodists, whenever Methodist is used in reference to the denomination, otherwise we forget the Evangelical United Brethren Church that was in the merger in the 1960's. In doing so, we do great disservice to our history and exclude those who came to the union this way). As I was saying, my experience of United Methodists is that we are some of the most reasonable people I know. We often demonstrate the ability to meet in the middle on most matters in the life of the church. (I'm sorry, by saying meet in the middle, I did not mean to imply that there was anything wrong with the ideological right or the left, but simply used it as a reference to two people with varying viewpoints coming together in a place that is mutually agreeable; and my apology to anyone who may feel that I suggest the middle as some smoking lounge for compromise, truly, some of my best friends are in the middle, and on the right, and left. But I digress.)

However, lock us in a convention center for two weeks and wow, suddenly we feel things very strongly. And when blood sugar levels get low, some group will march a protest past to get us fired up again.

Now that Twitter has been added as a new communication layer, you can see this in real time. When issues are discussed on the floor of the conference, hundreds of tweets launch in salvos. My favorite part is when people observe, after someone makes an impassioned and informed speech on their side of the issue, that God seems to be at work here. Each person of the Holy Trinity is invoked, such as, Is this the will of the Creator?, The Spirit is moving among us, and what would Jesus do? Sorry, that is actually an arm bracelet rather than a tweet, but you get the idea.

Likewise, when a motion is voted down, and so many are, a round of The Methodist Church (people, can't you understand the importance of using the word United when you tweet! Could you at least put up a U? This is important to us!) is out of touch with the Spirit.

We are fairly certain that God, in these matters, if not in all that is before us, is on our side. Or my side, as the case may be. And if my side prevails, then God is happy with us. But if my side is defeated, then God is, well, not angry., because we have a strong theology of grace. Maybe just grumpy. Or disappointed. Picture God saying, It's not that I'm angry that you voted the way you did on the pension fund. It's that I'm disappointed

But clearly, and I say this to all my fellow delegates in all Christian love, God is clearly saddened, even a bit cranky, when my side does not garner the votes necessary to carry the petition. The way I wanted.

This is an old problem. Abraham Lincoln, in his second inaugural, talked about the Union and Confederate sides and stated, both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. Lincoln had the high moral ground on that one, so no one can blame him he poked the enemy by adding, it may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged.

It seems to me that unless you are Lincoln talking about slavery in the middle of the Civil War, it is important to remember that God is not on our side. We are called to be on God's side. That means we have to do the hard work of discerning the will of God on all these petitions. And that means that in some matters I will get it right. In other matters I will get it wrong. Because I am a delegate to General Conference, and not God. The good news is that we are not left to figure things out on our own. We have the Bible and the blessing of good theology. We are people of the world. We know things. And we have good minds, except when I took that cold medication yesterday afternoon and got a little foggy. This does not mean that majority vote is the will of God. God's will should not be confused with the wisdom of the crowd. That is why we often have to fix stuff four years later. So what are we to do?

I have some suggestions for me to consider. You deal with it any way you want. This is for me:

  1. Know that some things are worth standing at a microphone and others are not. Too many times at the microphone is more hubris and less Holy Spirit. Maybe the Lord of the Universe could prompt another delegate sometime.
  2. Leave room for wonder. When a vote doesn't go the way I want, rather than assuming that bad people were successful at wrapping their evil tentacles around the less discerning masses of General Conference delegates, I am offering a little prayer: God, what are you up to here? What am I missing? Why didn't I see it that way?
  3. Feel some things strongly. Some things are worthy of stating your opinion to 1000 people who are mostly strangers who you know may not agree with you. If the Holy Spirit is teaching you through others, then the Almighty may want to teach others through you. Sometimes you need to say it.
  4. Don't gloat, even internally. Don't go anywhere near a gloat. Those things are poison to my spirit and are not of God. I fell into a gloat one time as a boy in 1974 and did not crawl out of it until the mid-'80's. It was dark down there. These issues are important to people. I did not agree with the Divestment lobby, but the young woman who drove an hour to meet with me to share her viewthe same one who came all the way to Tampa to continue her efforts — deserves my respect and even my appreciation. She didn't change my mind, but she broadened my world. She made me struggle with the issue. I want to remember that gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit.
  5. Know when you have a deal breaker. There are issues significant enough that one can, in good conscience, leave the church over them. Such matters are at the nexus of one's understanding of Scripture, life experience, passion, and calling. That varies for each of us. But every hot issue is not that issue.
  6. Leave it in God's very capable hands. Much of what we discuss has real impact on the world. Some of these decisions will bless thousands of people at a time, and one person at just the right time. But many don't. I am coming to realize that some of my strong opinions are a manifestation of my pride, my need to be right, and my desire to get my way, rather than a function of my servanthood to Christ.

I have a friend who says that it is very helpful to leave the convention center during lunch or dinner and go a few blocks away just to see that the vast majority of the world does not even know about our little meeting. The world is still spinning. The sun is still rising and setting. When I take that walk, above the noise of traffic and the city, I can hear the still, small, voice of God whispering that I don't have to hold it all so tightly, because we are, all of us, held in far more dependable hands.

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