Mark 12:30-31 (NIV): Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
As I reflect on this scriptural reference from Matthew, I am struck by the order that Jesus has laid out these commandments. Loving God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength comes first. I am coming to realize that these commandments are likely laid out in this order for a reason. Too often in my life, I make personal commitments to forgive and move on, yet my heart and mind seem to hold on and not let go. This leads to more pain and resentment and it seems the cycle goes on even though my intention is to let it go.
I find myself in the midst of this cycle now. Since we moved into our house over a year a half ago, we have been embroiled in conflict with our next- door neighbor. Throughout this journey of discord, pain and resentment, I have experienced tests to my faith like almost none other. What does it mean to love our neighbor when it feels like she is constantly attacking us and making false accusations against? How do I practice forgiveness when what I really feel is resentment? Why am I still holding on to so much pain and anger when I keep trying to forgive and move on? This conflict has cut to the core of who Alys and I strive to be. We desire deeply to be good neighbors – to help build a healthy and loving community. Instead it seems that our life commitments are an insult and an affront to our neighbor.
In my conflict resolution work in schools, I often encounter students that appear to be dripping with resentment. I often share with them the saying that is attributed to the Buddha: “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” My expectation often is that they will grasp the harm they are causing to themselves and then let go of the resentment. I have found through my own journey with pain and resentment, that this is far easier said than done. I have gained more compassion and empathy for my students and their burden of carrying resentment.
While I have been trying to forgive and move on from this conflict with our neighbor, I continue to be caught holding the burning coal in my hand. I can’t seem to let it go. I believe what is happening is that I am trying to do this according to my time and not God’s. My focus should be on recognizing the pain and resentment that I feel and to offer it up to God. Once I do that, then I believe my duty is to focus on the first commandment so that God can show me how to forgive and love my neighbor according to God’s plan and not my own.
One thing we have known for sure throughout this journey, is that God is in the midst of all of this. God did not lead us around the country for a year and have us settle next to this particular neighbor for nothing. There is something in this that is far bigger than us, but I have not been able to understand it yet. I think that is a bit of the point. God has invited us to trust, period. God has not provided us with the answers to all of our questions, but if I truly believe God and God’s invitation to mercy and justice, then I have to believe that the answers will come according to God’s time. God is faithful … all of the time 🙂
Prayer: Dear God, During this Lenten season, I want to make room for you in my heart and mind. I want to make space for you, but I want to be honest that you will be sharing space with some unsavory thoughts and emotions. I offer those thoughts and emotions to you as well. I patiently wait for you to transform them into instruments for your peace and justice. Transform my heart and mind into a sanctuary for you and your divine light. In Jesus’ name I pray.
Mary Oliver says in her poem When Death Comes, “When it’s over, I want to say: all my life / I was a bride married to amazement.”
While we were on the road this past weekend, we stopped at a rest stop and I reflected on “rest stops.” I watched as people scurried from their cars and speed-walked inside to use the restroom, then hopped back in their cars and sped away. The only people who seemed interested in resting at the rest stop were either old people with little yip-yap dogs or children. I watched as a little girl, probably 18 months, toddled around and squatted to look at every root and flower on the ground. She seemed enthralled by the magic of it all. She then made her way unsteadily towards a tree. When she came to it, she examined it the way an alien to earth might examine it. She touched the bark, peeked around it, walked around it, gazed up towards the branches. She was clearly amazed by this strong stick in the ground.
Nature is our best way of connecting to the Divine. This is like Face-timing with God. You can’t sit in nature, even if it’s sitting on the stoop of your office building, without noticing something about nature. You might look up at the sky and wonder about the weather, you might notice the temperature or the breeze or the pollen, but you’ll notice.
At this stage in my life, it feels like I live on an interstate. There are rest stops available at regular intervals, but I rarely get off and pull in and park. I’m making it a point during this Lenton season to schedule rest stops. If I manage to go outside during lunch, it’s like hitting the reset button on my mind. I’m temporarily not thinking about work, I’m noticing. Sit and notice … notice the smells, the breeze, the clouds, the sounds. Rather than take away sugar or wine during Lent, try adding rest stops instead.
In Mark 6:30 Jesus even advised his workers to take a break and rest: The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.
Corinthians 12: 9-10 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
In the wake of general conference, I find myself experiencing two disparate, yet confounded emotions: loneliness and vulnerability. Feelings of hope, safety and security have been giving way to exposure, sadness and disappointment — manifesting as uncontrolled weeping and uncomfortable weakness.
But these feelings crowd my thoughts, serving to distract and distance me from God and from those around me, spurring on my discontent. My loneliness persists when I create barriers that separate me from God and from others. Instead, how powerful might I be if only I can risk showing my weaknesses as an offering of love?
The words of Paul and Timothy in 2 Corinthians offer me the instruction I need to understand God’s love for me, telling me to be content in my weakness. If I can delight in hardship and remain vulnerable in the eyes of God, then I can truly receive God’s love, freeing me from my unending search for love from others.
Today I will risk exposure, venturing to love others as God loves me, fully and unconditionally.
Prayer: Heavenly One, We ask for Your forgiveness for ways in which we have filled our time and thoughts with human endeavors. Guide us towards Your salvation and use us to create space for others to join us so that they may experience the bounty of Your unending grace and mercy. Help us to expose our weakness as a witness to Your unconditional love. In Your name we pray, Amen.
This was originally published on March 19, 2016 and was written by former Oconee Street UMC member Leland Spencer, who is now assistant professor in the Department of Interdisciplinary and Communication Studies at Miami University.
Ecclesiastes 3:1 “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.”
In this Lenten season, I’ve been reflecting on time, at least in part because I’ve been rereading several of the speeches and writings of Martin Luther King, wherein time functions as a frequent theme. Lent, of course, marks time—40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter, not counting Sundays—what a strange way of marking time it sometimes seems.
As Lent calls us to awareness of our own mortality and sinfulness—but never without acknowledging God’s grace and forgiveness, always than our sin—I have reflected on time and my own willingness to wait, to defer, to privilege expedience over the call of conscience. In my work with a speech and debate team, I recently had a run-in with a coach of a neighboring school who wanted to ban debate judges who spoke native languages other than English. I confronted this person’s racism, but only after he’d succeeded in getting some judges dropped from a competition by claiming they were too inexperienced to judge. He hid his true purpose behind the veneer of the rules, but I knew his motive because he’d voiced it at a public meeting months before. In that earlier meeting, I rolled my eyes but didn’t speak up. I didn’t take him seriously, and I doubted anyone else would. I never imagined he would find a way to enact his ideology under the guise of legalistic adherence to letter of the law.
“Silence is betrayal,” King said in his 1967 speech at Riverside Church. Breaking with the Johnson administration for the first time exactly one year before his death, King articulated several reasons why his conscience compelled him to speak against the Vietnam War. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” a few years before, King excoriated white churches and white Christians (clergy and lay) who encouraged people of color to wait patiently for civil rights. King reminded his readers (then and now) that time itself is neutral, not progressive. Furthermore, the forces of injustice, in the call to wait patiently, more often mobilize time to their ends than the voices agitating for social change. The church, writes King, “is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are.”
King’s words convict me of my own silence and embolden me to speak. As I reflect on King’s words about and to the church, I wonder about how our United Methodist Church this spring will act. As General Conference approaches, will 2016 finally be the year that justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream? Or will the church forget the message that “justice too long delayed is justice denied”?
Prayer: Oh God, in our lives, in our homes, in our church, find us faithful in your call to justice. Forgive us our silence in the face of oppression, and grant us holy and sacred impatience in the face of all that harms the people you love. Amen.
Adapted from the “An Invitation to Lenten Practices” from the Oconee Street UMC Ash Wednesday service on March 6, 2019.
Luke 6:12 One of those days, Jesus went out to the mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God.
In Christian tradition there are three modes of prayer: confession, assurance and petitions. These are central to what Christian prayer is all about – ways of reconnecting with God one-and-one and corporately. These practices of prayer are ancient, but they still make so much sense today.
In confession, we let go of those things we regret – things we are sorry about. We let go of them and let them slip out into the past. It feels really good to unburden our hearts in that way. In Christian belief, any time we say we’re sorry to God, we are forgiven. Assurance is when we’re reminded by the Holy Spirit that God will never abandon us. In prayers of petition, we let go of the worry in our own hearts and entrust them to God.
Instead of giving something up this Lent, make room for God by making room for prayer. Designate room in your calendar when you will pray. Create physical room in your home where you will pray. And develop spiritual room in your heart and mind for what you will pray. Make room where you can ask God to be with you and hold you near, drowning out the noise of the things that bother you.
Prayer: For the times when we have been too busy for you Lord, forgive us. For the times when we have filled up our lives with things, so much that we have no room for others, forgive us. For the times when we have been to busy to let our loved ones know how much we care … and to put ourselves in the world for the common good, forgive us. Help us be open to your nudge this season, to adjust to your time for us.
Proverbs 29:11 Fools give fool vent to their rage, but the wise bring calm in the end.
I was filled with rage.
I was crippled with anger as the General Conference of The United Methodist Church voted to continue its discriminatory policies on LGBTQ people. I shot argumentative texts back and forth with Carla about leaving the church. I scoured the internet, consuming fiery responses from like-minded Methodists. I provoked social media debates with those who disagree with me.
But none of my actions mattered. The outcome of the General Conference vote didn’t change. The words in the Book of Discipline weren’t altered. I didn’t convince one person to think differently. And quite honestly, I didn’t feel any better.
I was a fool.
In the immediate aftermath of General Conference, I single-handedly took on the issue without God, convinced that my outrage was the solution for the injustice of the day. But my anger did nothing to help the people who were persecuted by the decision — LGBTQ Methodists who were labeled as “less than” by the governing body of their own church.
Don’t be mistaken, I’m not downplaying the importance of speaking out against injustice, but it must be done with God at our side, prayerfully, reflectively and intentionally.
The theme this Lenten season is “Make Room for God.” It’s critical that we take this message to heart as we discern how we — individually and as a church — move forward. Although we cannot change the decision made at 2019 General Conference, if we allow God to help us, we can be confident our way forward will bring calm, peace and love to those who need it most.
Prayer: Dear God, we are hurting today. We are sad. We are angry. We are letting you in. Please guide us. Amen.
In my lifetime of being a United Methodist, I’ve never experienced the level of anxiety in myself or across the board for the future of their church. As you all know, today is the first business day in the Special General Conference that will determine the future of the church—not just on human sexuality, but perhaps on the makeup and structure of our denomination as it moves forward.
Everyone is trying to picture the future of the church. What will it look like? While I have absolutely no idea what if anything will happen as a result of the next few days of deonimational deliberation, I think that in order to help us picture the future of our church and the denomination, we could hardly do better than draw on the image that Paul suggests in 1 Cor, but maybe with a little help from postmodern architecture. Now before beginning, let me say that no image of the people of God is perfect or complete, and that’s why Scripture has so many of them. Last week, Paul told the believers in Corinth that they were like plants organically connected to the field where God brings growth and new life, but now he provides a metaphor from the building trades. Hear this word:
1Cor. 3:5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? …. we are God’s servants, working together; you are …God’s building.
1Cor. 3:10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must take care how to build on it. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. 14 If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.
So if GC2019 is like the denomination trying to decide how and where the church should be built in the future, then we would do well to heed this advice from 1 Corinthians and make sure that the church is built on the foundation of Jesus Christ. There are some people who say, “If the foundation is poured concrete, then by God, the whole thing is gonna be poured concrete. Let’s form this thing up and reinforce it. Let’s make the connection to the foundation obvious and literal.” What might that position look like if it were a building? Well, fortunately for our exploration this morning, there is a school of architecture called Brutalism!
How would you like to live there, or work there? As much as we want to ensure that our church is built on the foundation of Christ, if the result is ugly, then we might need to reconsider. Scripture often talks about “the beauty of holiness.” That is, what is good and true is also beautiful.
Now on the other hand, there are some who might be tempted to build something creative and beautiful while saying, who cares if it’s structurally sound as long as it looks good. At first glance, the instructions to build on a foundation that has already been poured might seem like a hindrance to creativity. But I actually think that the more our work is “tied in to the foundation,” the more we will be able to extend ourselves even further and to push the forms we’ve been given. For instance, consider an example of postmodern architecture like the Wexner Center for Contemporary Art in Columbus, Ohio.
The Wexner Center is not just a place to hang contemporary art, or a roof to keep rain off your head. Like a lot of contemporary architecture, it’s an attempt to say, “this is what architecture ought to do.” It’s playful and fun, it’s de-centralized rather than having one main resting point for the eye of beholder. I see several possibilities that this building suggests for the future of Oconee Street.
1. It’s connected to traditional forms, but clearly distinct.
Notice how it is situated next to these other buildings. Their straightforward, rectilinear form provide a contrast to the creativity and playfulness of the Wexner Center. It’s very possible that as a result of General Conference, some churches may exit left or exit right, (or both), but no matter who keeps the name UMC, or whether or not there are two denominations or three Connectional Conferences, we won’t be alone.
2. There is another aspect to consider in the next view of The Wex:
The Wex is provisional and playful with historic forms. You see these white geometric poles? Those evoke scaffolding, like a builder would put up to work on the walls. Scaffolding suggests that the work of architecture is constantly under revision, that it’s not fixed and final.
Similarly, discerning the will of God for the church is work that has to move forward through time. Every generation has new challenges to work through, and the work of building on the foundation of Christ is never done.
3. The Wexner center is interesting for the way it builds on its foundation. It’s connection to the foundation is complex—more connected for being less obvious.
One of the most interesting features is a column that playfully deconstructs what a column is. It doesn’t rest on the ground, but hangs from above, it doesn’t support the roof overhead but is itself supported by the roof. But notice. The cross members that it hangs from are supported by what? The wall at the edge of the building. And that wall is resting on what? Not a hovercraft, not a gaseous substance or water or mud. The wall that holds the cross member that holds the column is itself resting on a solid foundation. Reference to the foundation can be deferred, but not disregarded altogether.
Just because we’re built on the foundation, that doesn’t mean that the connection has to be obvious. Sometimes the church might need to cantilever it’s ministry into new terrain, or to make room for new ministry and new people. But a floor that cantilevered out over nothing in some ways has to rely on the foundation all the more. Think about Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic house called Falling Water.
The horizontal floors echo the dramatic rock formations below, and to achieve the effect of flying out over the water, they had to extend past the foundational supports. About 20 years ago, major cracks began to appear as the cantilevered concrete began to pull away from the foundation. As architectural historians began to cull through the details of its construction, they discovered an angry correspondence between the architect and the construction foreman, in which the lead on-site builder tried to tell the Wright that the building would never last and that it would require twice as much steel reinforcement than Wright had specified. When the restoration of Fallingwater got to a certain point, they realized that despite the architects protests, the men who built it did in fact double on the the reinforcements to the foundation, and the only reason that the building lasted as long as it did was because those who built it took great care to build on the foundation that had been laid.
Paul says that the work of church leaders will one day be judged, not just in the slow breakdown of material by natural processes like gravity and erosion, but by a decisive gesture of God. The true nature of our work is not how good it looks, or how obviously it hews to the foundational footprint, or how big it is or how grand it is. What separates lasting material from ersatz imports can only be known by the revelation of God. There will come a Day when the Chief Building inspector asks us to show our work. Straw roofs will be consumed with fire, and wooden walls will be tinder in the fire, but there will be parts of the building that will remain in all their golden splendor.
While the judgment of God might seem a foreboding prospect, if we care about the future of the building, we will welcome it now so that we don’t have to fear it in the future. Because we’re the children of God, its kind of like “knowing somebody down at the permit and inspection office.” We don’t fear their judgment but welcome it. There are several stages of getting construction inspected—the foundation, the framing, electrical and plumbing all have to be approved before the work is covered up with sheetrock. If we didn’t have those preliminary inspections, how much more trouble we would have to go to if something leaked or arced and the entire wall had to be torn off. Better to show our work while we’re still in process. Better to welcome God’s inspection of our church, knowing that it’s provisional and unfinished and maybe a bit messy and hard to explain to people who don’t understand what we’re trying to do here.
In these days of uncertainty it’s important to remember that we are not the ultimate judge of what will last and what will not. This Special General Conference is important for the future of our church, but it is by no means the decisive moment that reveals which parts of the UMC that have been built on the solid rock of Jesus Christ. General Conference 2019 is more like a remodeling job whose worth will only be proven in God’s good future.
There is something in these proceedings that makes us impatient for that future. Every plan and piece of legislation has its advocates, with the various factions determined to win out over their foes and to some extent that’s necessary. Take heart in this season of uncertainty. In the end as at the beginning, we are God’s building through and through. General Conference 2019 is not the Day of Judgment. It will not fully determine once and for all who is faithful and who isn’t. That is for God to do. Nor will General Conference determine how the church will look in the future. That is also the creative work of our Chief Architect who allows us to participate in good work of building the church. Back here at Oconee Street we can have the courage to extend ourselves in love because we are tied in to the foundation of Jesus Christ.
“Showing Your Work” Sermon by The Rev. Joe Gunby 1 Corinthians 3: 10-15 Feb. 24, 2019
“Christ is Made the Sure Foundation” Song by Eden Church • Arrangement by Dennis W. Larson Trumpets: Ben Otieno and Elizabeth Scott Pianist: Janet Frick Organist: Maxine Easom Director: Amanda Martin Performed by The Oconee Street UMC Chancel Choir 1 Corinthians 3: 10-15 Feb. 24, 2019