Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Just One Candle

Our older son sings in his school's "honor" choir and one of their songs for their Christmas tour and home concert is "Just One Candle" by Teresa Jennings. I love its harmony. It starts with a solo, then a duet, and then progresses to the full choir. What great symbolism for how the flame of one candle can spread from "wick to wick", from person to person, when it is shared.

If I light just one candle and you light just one, too,
and we pass the flame from wick to wick,
from us to you and you...

I am also drawn to the song's message, especially in the midst of the "darkness" in our world today. When I was watching them perform this song, I found myself in tears, touched by the words and realizing that it really takes a simple act by you and me and everyone else in the world...

And if we keep it going around the world,
you'll see the world is glowing with the light
that came from you and me!

Christmas continues to become overly commercialized and is more and more defined by greed. And really, if we look at the world's issues and problems today, most if not all of them stem from this insatiable human appetite to gain more, even when we already have more than enough.

If we light just one candle and pass the flame to you,
all our light would glow from place to place,

and we would glow there, too.

If we would only light even just one candle...
...by taking time to listen.
...by recognizing and respecting our differences in culture and faith.
...by laying down our arms.
...by looking beyond our wants and seeing the needs of others.
...by considering "what we can give" more than "what we can get"
...by choosing acts that bring light to the world instead of casting dark shadows.

And when we keep it going,
the light will show the way
to touch the people 'round the world
by shining night and day!

It is our tradition in many of our churches to light candles on Christmas Eve. I love this tradition! As we each light a candle this Christmas, I invite you to consider its deeper meaning, calling you and me too light candles with our lives all throughout the year.

Friends, we have it in us to bring light to this dark world. His name is Jesus, Emmanuel- God with us. May the flame of the Light of the World, Jesus, burn in the wicks of our lives. May we share that same flame to this world so desperately in need of light.

Here's a YouTube video (not my son's choir) of the song:

With one candle, just one candle.
Yes, one candle burning bright.
With one candle, just one candle,
we can fill the world with light.

Will you light even just one candle and help fill this world with light?

Have a Meaningful and Merry Christmas!

Your fellow disciple,

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Blue Christmas Run... for those in the dark

This Saturday, I will be running the Willow Solstice Marathon in Willow, Alaska for the third straight year. Last year, I did it as a prayer run, playing on the theme of it being held on the winter solstice, the longest night (or at least the Saturday closest to it) and dedicating the run to those who are in the "longest nights" of their lives. I plan to do that again this weekend.

I am reposting excerpts from a blog post I wrote a year ago because my words then are still my words now as I again dedicate this run in prayer and solidarity for you who are living in darkness right now.


I am running the Willow Winter Solstice Marathon this Saturday. It will be another prayer run for me. This time, I'm running for those who can't.

Let me explain. From its name, the Willow Marathon is held on a Saturday closest to the winter solstice, the day when the darkness is longest. In some churches, a Longest Night or Blue Christmas service is held and is specifically planned to minister to those who are in the midst of darkness during this season of joy and cheer. It is for those to whom Christmas is a burden because of certain life situations they are in.

For those of you who are in the longest nights of your souls, for you who are living in the darkness of your life situations, I dedicate this run to you.

This is for you who have lost loved ones, and you who are going through difficult times.

This is for you who are going through painful divorces, you who are worn-out trying to work it out and you who are going through stressful life transitions.

This is for you who have been diagnosed with sicknesses, you who are going through treatment and you who are in recovery.

This is for you who are lost and you who are struggling for direction.

This for you to whom Christmas will never be merry and bright because it is a painful reminder of tragedy, abuse and conflict.

I run in solidarity with your darkness and pain. I will be praying for you through the dark night. I know that the suffering I will go through in running those 28 cold, snowy miles will be nothing compared to the pain you are in right now.

I will pray with the hope and assurance that the next day would be longer and the night would be shorter. I will pray with the hope of increasing light for you and your situation.

For those of you who don't feel any compelling reason anymore to continue running the race of life, I will run the race for you and with you. There is hope, my friend. That is the real good news of Christmas.


Scripture reminds us that "the people who lived in darkness" in the original Christmas story, "saw a great light!" Hold on to that hope.

Your fellow disciple,

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

A time to listen

I used to run with earphones and listen to music. I do not anymore. On one level, it's a safety issue. I would like to be fully aware of my surroundings and be able to react accordingly. When I run on streets and sidewalks, I would like to hear if a car is coming or if a fellow runner or biker wants to pass me. When I'm on the trails, I certainly would like to hear it if a bear or a moose is close by.

There is also a deeper level to my giving-up earphones, one that's more spiritual. I've said before that running for me is a spiritual discipline (read here). When I run, I am able to commune with God. A long run allows me to clear my mind and process my thoughts and emotions. There is something about the sound of my feet hitting the ground in sync with my breathing that soothes and centers me. To that cadence, I say a mantra that's based on Philippians 4:13, my life verse. Having earphones and music would not allow me to that. On this level, I would like to be fully aware of what God is saying to me while we commune.

"There is a time to speak and a time to listen." (Ecclesiastes 3:7b, my paraphrase). And I believe the time to listen is now. During the season of Advent we are called to wait and to "be still and know that God is God." And as we pause and reflect, I believe we are also called to listen.

In the Bible, much of God’s activity is through voice. The creation story tells us that God spoke the world into order. “Let there be light. And there was light. Let there be this… Let there be that…" Speaking was understood as an activity of God. God was a voice. God spoke to people. That’s why we verses like “Hear, O Israel,” and “The Lord is in his Holy Temple, let all the earth keep silent before him,” and “Thus says the Lord,” and “Let him who has ears let him hear.” Because God connected to people by speech, by sound, by voice, people were called to listen to God. 

Do I actually believe that people heard God’s voice speaking to them directly? Absolutely! Why not? I think to believe otherwise is to limit God’s ability to connect with us. Besides, I’ve known people who clearly heard God’s voice.

My grandmother suffered through a marriage that was plagued by my grandfather’s infidelity. Yet she stuck it out with him until his death. She was a very prayerful woman, waking up everyday at 3:00 a.m. to "talk to God." Shortly after my grandfather died, she told me that in one of her prayer moments, she heard a voice telling her, “Elay, your burdens have now been lifted.” And I believed her. I still do. God speaks to people.

But, there’s another aspect to God’s speaking to us. Apart from hearing God in the spiritual, supernatural realm, we can hear God in daily, ordinary life experiences. When I read the Bible and of God speaking to people, I see it, too, as people understanding their circumstances and their situations, and making sense of the voices and sounds around them as the voice of God. 

Leonard Sweet, in his book "Nudge: Awakening Each Other to the God Who's Already There," says that to hear God is to be open to the possibility that God may be speaking to you in and through everything that you would least expect God to use. A baby crying. A fire engine’s siren. An unexpected remark from someone. A bell that says your not wearing your seatbelts. Th
e first step to hear God is openness to the possibility that “it might be God.” 

Hearing God is listening with our hearts and minds, watching out for God in the sounds we hear and asking, "What is God trying to say to me?" And sometimes, it is hard to filter through all the sounds, to hear the voice of God when there is just too much noise. For with all the noise that we are exposed to, silence is now a "commodity” that we have to pay big bucks for in order to have.

Sweet suggests we take time to turn-off the noise in our lives so that we can hear God. What are the "noise makers" that we need to turn-off, in order to hear God’s voice more clearly? Technology? Screens? The 1001 things on our to-do lists?

And often we have to admit that the noise and the voice we need to turn-off, is our very own.

One of my pet peeves is when people are quick to speak but slow to listen in conversations. Sometimes it comes by way of an insincere yet incessant "uh-uh", pretending to be listening but actually sounding more like "Keep going. Are you done? Now, listen to what I have to say." Other times, I just get cut-off mid-sentence. It's as if they're saying that what they have to say is more important than what I am already saying. It’s even worse when they try to finish my sentences for me as if to say that they already know what I will be saying. And even if half the time they actually do know what I'll be saying, can't I at least finish my sentence and train of thought (which I so carefully crafted in my mind, translating from my native language to English)?

Thomas Hawkins said, “Listening involves suspending our own thoughts, opinions and agendas, being receptive and entering momentarily into the speaker’s life, world and experience.” 

Sometimes we just cut God off mid-sentence, finishing it off with our own words, acting like we already know what God is trying to say and wanting us to do. In listening with our hearts and minds, we are called to suspend our own thoughts, opinions and agendas and receive openly what God has to say.

And when we have turned-off the noise, Sweet says, we have to tune-in. Remember how we used to tune in to a radio station? We fiddle with the dial, fine tuning it until we find the right setting where there was no static. Nowadays, of course it’s all programmed, on the web and digital.

But we aren’t digital, and so we have to tune-in daily to God’s frequency. And the way to do that is with what we call spiritual practices or spiritual disciplines- prayer, searching scriptures, worship, fasting, fellowship, acts of mercy and justice. Through these practices, we are able to tune-in to God’s station and are able to hear God’s voice clearly. These practices give us the tools to discern if a sound is the voice of God or not.

What do we need to unplug and turn-off in order to tune-in to God? 

The season of Advent is a season of watching and waiting. It is a time of sitting with our hopes and fears, our prayers and and our deepest desires. It is also a time of deep listening to the God who continues to speak to us even now. May it be so.

I pray that this Advent season would be a meaningful time of hopeful anticipation and deep listening for all of us. For there is a time to speak and a time to listen. And the time to listen, to God, is always now.

Your fellow disciple,

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Everyone has a Story

One of the traditional practices at Thanksgiving is to go around the table and let each answer the question, "What are you thankful for?" The responses are varied in depth and content, depending on each person and what or how much they wish to share.

But one thing is evident in this practice: Each of us has a story.

Here's a video that illustrates my point. Please take time to watch it before reading the rest of my post.

Everyone has a story, of what they are thankful for as well as what they are struggling with; what they celebrate and what they grieve or regret; their triumphs as well as their trials. Each person represents a story of life unfolding.

Perhaps this is one of the keys in responding to Jesus' charge to us to "welcome the the stranger" (Matthew 25:35). There is a lot of conversation now around welcoming of refugees. There is an ongoing conversation in our churches around what it means to be truly welcoming of all. Perhaps we need to realize that each person has a story. We need to look beyond the labels we've assigned to people. We need to look beyond our seeming differences. We need to realize that just like us, other people have their own stories, too! And perhaps their coming to us: to our doors, our tables and our borders, are God's way of calling us to listen to their stories and to see them the way God sees them.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving this week, and as we go around the table, may we listen deeply, realizing that each one of us has a story. May that knowledge push us to a fresh appreciation of each one. May it push us to treat each other with grace, compassion and genuine love. May it also spur us to open our doors and our tables to the stranger, the immigrant, the refugee, the other who is different from us, for they, too, have their own stories to tell and to share.

Happy Thanksgiving!


Tuesday, November 17, 2015

On Vows, Pledges and Running Marathons

November is typically Stewardship month in many United Methodist Churches. During this time we receive pledge cards and are asked to either begin or renew our commitment of planned giving to support the mission and ministry of our local churches. This challenge is framed within the context of our membership vows to support the church with "our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our serve and our witness."

We are asked to make a commitment for the coming year. And while we don't know what the future holds, financially and otherwise, we are asked to make the commitment in faith that God would help us honor the promise that we make. It holds us accountable. Let me explain...

When I sign-up to run a marathon or an ultra, first, I tell my family and my close friends. Then, I post it on social media and sometimes even blog about, especially if I am doing it as a prayer run or am running for a cause.

But why do I do this, you may ask. When I sign-up for a marathon and tell everyone about it, I am not trying to brag. What I am attempting to do is build an accountability system for myself. I am making a commitment to run a race and to do the necessary training it entails and I am holding myself accountable to people around me.

My wife is very good about "pushing me out the door" to run on days when I don't feel like it, when she knows I am training for a race. That, plus the fact that I am just grumpy on days that I don't get a run in.

Good friends are good about asking how I am preparing for a race and if I were to answer them truthfully, then I need to really be preparing. Friends in the running community are good about asking details in my training like daily mileage, hydration and rest days. They are also good about doing training runs together. There is nothing better to get you out of bed and lacing up your shoes on a dark, sub-zero winter morning than the thought that your running buddy is counting on you to show up and run the usual 10-mile loop.

When I run a race as a prayer run and dedicate miles to people, groups or churches I am praying for, I let them know about it. I make the commitment and ask for their commitment to be in prayer with me. Sometimes, I even ask them to run or walk or bike or ski or swim a mile "with" me. I build accountability. One of the races I love doing is the Willow Winter Solstice Marathon. It is done during the longest night of the year and in 2014, I dedicated it to those who are in dark times in their lives. On the eve of the race, I texted a friend who was going through "a long night" in his life and told him that I was running for him the next day. He said "thank you" and said he would be "joining me in prayer and looking forward to the coming of the light." I could not have possible backed-out of that race at that point.

In many ways, I am able to stick to my goal of running marathon after marathon because of the commitment and accountability system I allow myself to be built around me. I believe the same is true with our membership and pledging. When we stood in front of the congregation and vowed to be loyal to Christ through the United Methodist Church, supporting it with our "prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness," we made ourselves accountable to others in our community of faith. When we fill-out and sign our pledge cards for the coming year and join others in offering them to God on Commitment Sunday, we also make a commitment to our sisters and brothers in the congregation.

That is why we make a pledge. Think of it this way: If I sign-up for a marathon and let no one but myself know, it would be easier for me to drop out at some point in the prep, especially when the training gets really tough. Allowing our faith communities to hold us accountable to our vows and pledges gives us the necessary support to fulfill them.

My prayers are with you as you consider your covenant of planned giving for 2016. I pray that God who has led you to make the commitment would also give you the grace and the means to fulfill it. May a web of loving accountability be formed by your local congregation to support you in fulfilling your pledge.

Your fellow disciple,


P.S. To the point I made above, I am signed up to run the Little-Su 50K on February 13. I also plan to again run the Willow Winter Solstice Marathon on December 19.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Call (Last of 6 parts)

This post is the last of a six-part series on the points I made in my Superintendent's Address in June. These are six things I am passionate about in my role as Superintendent and these are six things I am hoping that clergy and laity in the Alaska Conference would take seriously.

To review, here are the first five with links to the first five posts:

Engage: We need to identify and engage our mission field.

Welcome: We need to cultivate a culture of genuine welcome.

Disciple: We need to live a culture of discipleship.

Risk: We need to allow a culture of experimentation and innovation to thrive.

Connect: We need to recover a culture of connection among us.

The last word is Call. We need to foster a culture of call in our churches. Our faith communities need to be spaces where calls from God are discerned, made certain and nurtured.

I was able to discern my call to ministry through the encouragement of folks in my home church. They fostered a safe space where I could ask questions and seek answers, where I was mentored and guided.

How are we creating a culture of call in our local churches and ministry settings? How are we encouraging and nurturing people who have a call or are discerning one? Is call an integral part of conversations in our churches, especially when it comes to volunteer opportunities and service? When we ask people to serve in different capacities, do we invite them to serve out of a sense of call?

Fellow clergy: Are we taking time to share our call stories? Is part of our ministry devoted to the encouragement and mentoring of those who are discerning their calls?

Leaders among the lay: Are you taking time to share your call stories of how you received the call to be a leader? Are you encouraging others who may have the gifts and graces, and most especially the call to serve in different lay leadership positions?

Moses prepared Joshua. Elijah encouraged Elisha. Paul mentored Timothy. How are we as church leaders today preparing and encouraging and mentoring those who are called to serve alongside us and those who are coming after us?

I pray that the Alaska Conference, in all its ministry settings (churches, camps, etc.), would be a sacred space where call is heard and nurtured.

your fellow disciple,

P.S. This will not be the last time you will hear of these six items. I will be bringing them with me as I go around for charge conferences. Also, there was energy among our clergy at our retreat a couple of weeks ago to do a sermon series about this during the first part of 2016.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Connect (5th of 6 parts)

I am continuing the 6-part series on the points I made in my Superintendent's Address in June. Again, these are six things I am deeply passionate about and encourage our pastors, lay people and churches to be serious about them as well. For this fifth installment, I would like to talk about the 6th point I made in the address, because of its relevance to current events in the life of our conference.

The need to connect
Photo Credit: Doug Handlong
Last week, pastors and other professional church workers of the Alaska Conference came together for their annual retreat at beautiful Birchwood Camp. The retreat followed closely on the heels of the New Clergy Orientation which also at the camp.

Photo Credit: Doug Handlong
Doug Handlong, chair of the Professional Ministries Unit who organized the retreat,  led us in a time of deep sharing of joys and concerns ending with a time of praying for one another. Spiritual Director Rebecca Johnson led the group in a guided spiritual reflection about life as a journey. Jim Doepken, our
longest-serving active clergy person, shared a "confession" about his ministry failures and those of the conference. Kelli Williams led a guided meditation in the sweat lodge. Bishop Grant Hagiya led a sharing session about personal concerns and then transitioned into a conversation about making disciples. Two of our youngest clergy, Melissa Engle and Nico Romeijn-Stout led us in communion to close.

Photo Credit: Doug Handlong
One thing was evident to me during our time together: the need to connect. For the second year in a row, the organizers became very intentional in making the schedule not too content-heavy and allow for times of fellowship, reflection and free time. Folks openly shared during the structured sessions. During free times, people hiked the lake together, played board and card games, watched movies, went boating, did service projects around camp or simply huddled around the fire and talked. We all fulfilled our need to connect.

Isolation: our common reality
In varying degrees, isolation is a common reality for us who live in Alaska. This reality is more evident in settings that are not on the road system like Nome, Unalaska, Sitka or Ketchikan. But it is also a reality even in settings connected by roads all across the state, even in Anchorage. The isolation becomes even more pronounced during the dark and cold winters when we are disconnected by the harsh elements. Another factor common to all of us in Alaskat hat adds to the sense of isolation is our physical disconnection from family and friends in the lower 48 and in different parts of the world.

Sharing our story
In my first round of visits to our churches around the state, I observed how disconnected we are from each other. We do not know what is happening in other ministry contexts beyond our own and in many ways, our pastors, lay people and churches feel isolated and disconnected from each other.

I believe that each person and each ministry context has a story to tell, whether it is a burden or a joy. And these stories need to be shared, for we can learn from them and be encouraged by them. I, having the opportunity to travel to our different ministry settings, commit to being one of the channels of sharing these stories.

Photo Credit: Doug Handlong
Connecting through prayer
One of the ways we are now able to connect churches to each other is through the weekly prayer email. Each week, we highlight the prayer concerns or praises of a church or ministry setting in the Alaska conference. These are prayers written and sent to us by their leaders. I have seen church share these prayers in worship, in their weekly bulletins and in their newsletters.

Connecting through other means

There are other ways we can connect. In last week's retreat, the PMU identified mentors to journey with our new clergy. The Anchorage area clergy meet for lunch every first and third Wednesday of the month. They are looking at ways to include others via Skype or FaceTime  The Kenai Peninsula clergy gather once a month.

What are the other ways we can connect? Perhaps the better question to ask is: How are we being intentional about connecting with others in the conference? There are many stories to tell. We need to be intentional about connecting in order to hear these stories and share some of our own.

Recovering a culture of connection

One of the trademarks of the Methodist movement from the time of John Wesley was its connectional system. No Methodist society was left to figure it out on their own. Each group was connected to the others in prayer and support. May we recover this culture of connection that would nurture our relationships across the conference.

Friends, our isolation is real. Our levels of disconnect are real. We need to be more intentional about our connecting with one another.

Your fellow disciple,


Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Risk (4th of 6 parts)

This is the fourth installment of a 6-part series on the points I made in my Superintendent's Address in June. These are six things I am deeply passionate about and encourage our pastors, lay people and churches to be serious about them as well. In this year's charge conferences, these will comprise our main talking points during our time together.

Our reality
In many, if not all, of our churches and ministry settings, we’re finding that a lot of the ways we do things are no longer relevant. The world is constantly changing. Technology is developing at a very rapid pace. The demographics in our communities and neighborhoods have shifted dramatically over the years. Many of the buildings and spaces we have are no longer used in the ways they were meant to be used, and sadly, they sit unused or underutilized. Many of our methods of ministry and mission are just not pertinent anymore. Even our churches' standing and role in the community are no longer what they used tobe.

We need to come to terms with this stark reality that if we do nothing to change our ways, we risk obsolescence within a generation or two.

A call to innovation and creativity
Hence, I call us to risk being innovative and creative in our ways. Ultramarathon runner and environmentalist Ed Ayres in his book, The Longest Race said, "Maybe the most effective way to fend off institutional fatigue or collapse, and to bring rejuvenating life and energy, is not to further tighten the grip of an institution on the hardened rules and ideologies that define it now, but to regenerate some of the creative spirit that formed it in the beginning."

What if we try something new? What if we risk being creative and innovative? I use the term "risk" because, as we all know, people who do new things to disturb the stale status quo get into trouble.

It's like the Disney cartoon Phineas and Ferb
The two main characters, Phineas and his brother Ferb, are two young boys wanting to transform their boring, "business as usual", uneventful summer day into "the best day ever!" And so they innovate and get creative. They come up with crazy, out of this world ideas inventions to transform their "normal" toys. So every day (episode), when an idea comes to mind, Phineas start out by excitedly saying, "Ferb, I know what we're going to do today!"

But then there's Candace, the older sister, who has made it her personal mission to keep the status quo; to keep her brothers from innovating; to keep them from having the best day ever! Every episode, she's out to bust her brothers and tell their mom about their inventions.

In order to move forward, I believe we need to have more Phineases and Ferbs in our churches and less of the Candaces. Sadly, the converse seems to hold true.

Ed Ayres continues, "Maybe the greatest function of idealism is not to guide the way to a utopian outcome but to help us reinvigorate or re-create our institutions when they have grown weary. Utopias never happen, but revolutions and rebirths sometimes do." We are after all Easter people. Our's is a story of resurrection and new life after death. We have to start seeing innovation and creativity as necessary for rebirth.

What's God up to?
Now, we do not just innovate for innovation's sake or be creative for creativity's sake. There has to be a compelling reason why we innovate and become creative. Of course, one might argue that the staleness or irrelevance of our ways is reason compelling enough. But I call us to an even greater reason, and that is paying attention to what God is up to.

What's God up to in your church and in your community? Where is the Spirit of God moving in your midst? The next question is vital: "How can you take part in what God is up to in your church and neighborhood?"

As Paul Knitter, as quoted by Fr. Richard Rohr, said, "If we can truly be mind-ful of what is going on in us or around us--that's how we can find or feel 'the Spirit' in it. Then our response to the situation will be originating from the Spirit rather than from our knee-jerk feelings of fear or anger or envy. And whether the response is to endure bravely or to act creatively, it will be done with understanding and compassion--which means it will be life-giving or life-creating."

To be mindful of what is happening in us and around us and act creatively. To be mindful of what God is doing in our churches, neighborhoods and communities and act accordingly. To be mindful of where the Spirit is moving and finding ways to be part of it. Friends, this is our call to innovation and creativity.

What is God birthing in your church and community and how can you be a part of itWe believe in God as creator. We also believe that we were created in the image of this creator God. Hence, the creative juices that are in God who created the universe flow in our very veins. I come alive whenever I am able to do something creative!

The Garage
Microsoft has what's called "The Garage" which is an incubator for fresh, new ideas. It is an innovation zone. It is where crazy, outrageous, out-of-this-world ideas are given a chance to be heard, tested, tried and even funded.

What if all our churches become innovation zones? What if our churches become safe spaces where fresh, new ideas are welcomed and given a try; where the Phineases and the Ferbs are listened to and given chances and where the Candaces are open to change.

What if we give up the fear of failure  and really try-out new stuff, instead of sticking to the old ways that do not work anymore? Are we stuck in old ways of doing things? What if we allow space for creativity and innovation to thrive in our different ministry settings instead of suppressing these ideas for fear of failure or replacing our beloved yet obsolete practices.

The Challenge

What is something new your church is doing? This is a question I will ask all of you at charge conference. It is something I hold myself accountable to, as well.

May we risk leaving our comfort zones and move into innovation zones. May we truly foster a culture of experimentation and creativity. May we truly be sensitive to what God is up to in our churches and communities and may we strive to do whatever it takes to be part of it.

Your fellow disciple,

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Disciple (3rd of 6 parts)

The third point I made in my Superintendent's Address (which I continue to make now) has to do with the first part of our mission as United Methodists: "to make disciples of Jesus Christ."

What to do with those we welcome
In last week's blog post, we talked about cultivating a culture of genuine welcome as one of the six priorities I would really want our churches to be serious about. The next questions then is: What do we do with those we welcome?

The United Methodist Book of Discipline (par. 122) outlines the process for carrying out our mission as follows: "We make disciples as we:

  • Proclaim the gospel, seek, welcome and gather persons into the body of Christ;
  • Lead persons to commit their lives to God through baptism by water and the spirit and profession of faith in Jesus Christ;
  • Nurture persons in Christian living through worship, the sacraments, spiritual disciplines, and other means of grace, such as Wesley's Christian conferencing;
  • Send persons into the world to live lovingly and justly as servants of Christ by healing the sick, feeding the hungry, caring for the stranger, freeing the oppressed, being and becoming a compassionate, caring presence, and working to develop social structures that are consistent with the gospel; and
  • Continue the mission of seeking, welcoming and gathering persons into the community of the body of Christ."
There is a lot that needs to happen after welcoming if we are to be true to our mission of disciple-making. After people are initially welcomed, they need to feel that they are continually welcome the next time they come. As they feel more and more welcome and at home in our spaces and among our people, they will start looking for ways to engage. They will look for ways to be involved, to learn, grow and be nurtured. They will seek to answer questions about faith and life; about Jesus and God and the Holy Spirit; about worship and communion; about baptism and giving.

Are our churches ready for them when they get to this stage? Does your church have a system that grows people from first-time visitors to disciples who are transforming the world (as our process above suggests)? Do we have a discipling model in place in our churches? Or are we just living from week to week, Sunday to Sunday, doing business as usual.

Why a system?
I must say that I am not at all impressed by just the sheer number of activities and programs a local church has in a given week or month. I always look for a storyline, a thread that connects these activities as part of a greater purpose or system. A church may be an "Energizer Bunny", having multiple things going on seven days a week but if any of these are not part of a system for making disciples, then the church is just wasting valuable energy, talent, resources and time.

Everything- Bible studies, craft and other interest groups, Sunday Schools, week-night classes, confirmation programs, youth group, children's ministries, auctions, garage sales, bake sales, cake walks, coffee hours, potlucks, choir, praise band, garden group etc.- everything has to play a part in your church's system of making and growing disciples.

Sometimes, all it takes is designing the discipling system and plugging in what we already are doing into the different steps in the system. Many of the programs will fit naturally. Some may need to be tweaked in order to play into the system.  Other times, though, we come to a realization that one or more of our beloved church programs has no role to play whatsoever in our discipling systems and we are just wasting our resources on them for the sake of keeping "traditions". Churches need to ask the question: What part of our disciple-making process does this program/activity play?

To be good stewards of the resources God has entrusted to us, we need to be intentional about what we do as churches and how these programs fit into our system of making disciples that would in turn help us fulfill our mission of transforming the world.

Beyond teaching to discipling
Fr. Richard Rohr said, "You can give people all the pious Christian teaching you want, but without a transformation of consciousness, they don't have the energy or the capacity to carry it out." Jesus modeled this. He went beyond mere teaching/transfer of knowledge, to discipleship- inviting people to apprenticeship, to grow and learn and be transformed through a process or a system. While genuine transformation is something between a person and God, our call is to create a healthy environment where this transformation can happen. 

Our goal in having intentional discipling systems is to grow Christian disciples who will be part of this movement of transforming the world. And every church, given their unique context, will have a discipling system different from the rest.

How are you making disciples in your church? What is your disciple-making system?

I challenge us to live a culture of discipleship. May we be more intentional and systematic about our making disciples. 

Your fellow disciple,

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Welcome (2nd of 6 parts)

As indicated in the title, this is the second of a six-part series on the points I made in my first Superintendent's Address in June. These six points represent what I am most passionate about in our common ministry here in Alaska. These are six areas I am hoping that churches and individuals will be serious about.

That's My Spot!
A good number of years ago, a Filipino couple came to Anchorage as immigrants. Being active and devoted United Methodist leaders back home, they went to one of our UM churches here in the city. They arrived as the service was about to start. The sanctuary was half full and there were a lot of empty pews. They picked a spot close to the back.

Just as they had gotten settled and were reviewing the contents of the bulletin, an Anglo couple wearing name tags (obviously members of that church) arrived, stood by the pew where the Filipinos were seated and sternly said, "That's our spot!"The newcomers apologized and gathered their belongings. But instead of moving to a different pew, they made a beeline for the door, never to set foot in that sanctuary again.

They were embarrassed and truly felt unwelcome in a United Methodist Church that proudly proclaimed in their bulletins that "All Are Welcome!" When I met them shortly after my family and I arrived in Alaska, they were already involved in a church of a different denomination. (Thankfully, when they went back home to the Philippines after they retired, they went back to being United Methodists in their home church.)

It's easy to get angry about this story and at the unwelcoming couple. But before we point accusing fingers and try to find out where it happened and who did it, I believe the greater questions that needs to be asked is an introspective one: How many times have I/we actually said to someone new, "That's my spot!"? How many times have we felt our "spots" in church (i.e. positions of leadership, ways of doing things, favorite church programs, belief systems, etc.) being taken by someone else, especially someone fairly new, not realizing that there is actually room for all of us.

All are welcome?
Most if not all of our churches claim that "all are welcome" there. But is our welcome genuine? When we say "all", do we really mean "all"? Or is there a fine print somewhere that says "all" means "all who think, act, look, dress, worship, pray, serve, speak and live like us. All of those are welcome."? Or perhaps the fine print reads: "All are welcome as long as they don't take our 'spots'."

Are ALL truly welcome in our churches and faith communities? If so, then it begs the question: How are we welcoming them? How are we welcoming the OTHER into our midst? How are we welcoming our Alaska Natives, Native Americans, millenials, young families with young children, our LGBTQ sisters and brothers, immigrants, people of color, the Nones (people with non religious affiliation) and the Dones (people who are done with organized religion)?

The Sacred Circle
Our theme at annual conference was "Restoring the Sacred Circle". God's family is a sacred circle that includes everyone and excludes no one. How do we truly restore and keep this sacred circle? How can we continue to draw the circle wider?

There is a well-known Vietnamese saying: "In order to fight each other, the chicks born from the same mother hen put colors on their faces." Vietnamese buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh said, "Putting colors on our own face is to make ourselves a stranger to our own brothers and sisters. When will the chicks of the same mother hen remove the colors from their faces and recognize each other as brothers and sisters?"

When will we as the church, the body of Christ, remove the colors from our faces and remove the colors we have put on the faces of others and recognize each other as sisters and brothers? Another way of putting it is: When will we get rid of the fine print in "all are welcome"?

What's their story?
In the movie Amistad, there's a scene where Abolitionist lawyer Theodore Joadson seeks the legal advice of John Quincy Adams in defending the rights of the African slaves (click here to watch it). Adams asks Joadson, "What's their story?" He challenges Joadson to look beyond Slavery as an issue to learn the specific stories of the individual slaves he was defending: "Who are they? Where did they come from? What are they good at? What is their family like? What are their concerns? What is their story?"

What's their story? This has been a guiding question and principle for me in welcoming the other. I always push myself to find out what their story is. I try to go past the labels to look at the people and listen to their stories. I challenge you to do the same. You'll be surprised what you'll learn. I believe its a way of "removing the color from our faces" and "getting rid of the fine print."

I challenge us to cultivate a culture of genuine welcome as individuals and as faith communities. When we say "all are welcome" in our churches, may our "all" really mean "all". And as we do, may God's kingdom truly come "on earth as it is in heaven!"

Your fellow disciple,

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Engage (1st of 6 parts)

A month ago I wrote a summary of my first Superintendent's Address that I gave at annual conference in June. (If you missed it, read it here.) It was an abridged version outlining the six points I emphasized and I promised to expound on each of them at a later time. That time has come. For the next six weeks I will be sharing my thoughts on each of the six aspects of mission and ministry in Alaska that I am deeply passionate about. My prayer is that you would catch the passion and share in the vision.

If your church closes its doors today, would your community notice it?
This question was my biggest take-away from a Rethink Church workshop we had a few years ago. It underscores the importance of our call to community engagement. We are called to reach out to our neighbors as the hands and feet of Jesus. Is our church's existence in the neighborhood impactful enough that closing it would be detrimental to the community as a whole? Or is our church visible only to its members and our neighbors don't even have a clue that we are there?

Here's a 5-minute video by Lovett Weems, Jr., Director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership about the Why Community Engagement Matters.

I call us to know and engage our mission fields.
Who are the people in our neighborhoods that God is calling us to reach? Who and where is our mission field? How are we reaching them? What are the ministries we are engaged in that are truly impacting our neighbors in real and positive ways?

We already have churches who are positively engaging and impacting their communities and I celebrate that! The stories are heartwarming and I challenge you to keep it up! But sadly, we also have churches who can't seem to look past themselves and their own concerns. I challenge you to step it up and reach out beyond yourselves to the communities God has planted you in and calls you to reach.

The Dead Sea
Ever wondered why the Dead Sea is dead? It's because it is too salty. No creature can live in it because the salinity of the water is too high. And that, in turn, is because the Dead Sea has many river and stream tributaries that flow into it but has no outflows. It receives and receives but doesn't give.

A quick look at healthy, vibrant churches would yield that they have both a strong inflow (nurture programs and ministries for members) and a strong outflow (outreach ministries and missions to their communities). Are our churches healthy bodies of water or dead seas, always receiving, never giving?

Small Steps: What if...
What if all of our churches had signs in our doorways as we go out or in our parking lots as we drive out saying: "You are now entering the mission field!". What mindset and behavior change would this simple act do?

Recognizing that we cannot do it alone, what if we partner with organizations and groups in our communities to bring about change and lasting positive impacts. What are the things already being done in your community by other groups that you can partner with? There is no sense reinventing the wheel or even duplicating efforts. Or what can your church do to augment and/or complement an already existing ministry in your community? Perhaps there's a segment that's not being met, or maybe a gap somewhere where your church can fill-in.

Not being challenged
In a recent study, one of the top reasons people are leaving church is not pastoral leadership or worship styles or preaching. It is the lack of a sense of mission. People are leaving church because there isn't a mission bigger than them that they can be a part of (or at least its not communicated to them in a very compelling way). Many people feel that the church is all about institutional survival instead of its mission of making disciples for the transformation of the world. And that, sadly, is turning them away.

I heard a United Methodist lay person who works with a prominent, cutting edge film outfit recently say about their church, "I haven't been challenged in 30 years. I just come out of obligation."

What if beyond nurture, we work on challenging our members for mission. What if we look at each member of the congregation as a missionary and so every Sunday becomes a commissioning service for everyone to go out into the world and be the hands and feet of Jesus?

Friends, its time we come to terms with the reality that our mission field is out there, outside the walls of our sanctuary; out there, among our neighbors; out there, among the people God is calling us to reach. In the reading of appointments at annual conference this year, we made a small language change that would hopefully make a big impact. Instead of naming just the churches where the clergy were being appointed to, we also named the mission fields (i.e. St. John UMC in the Anchorage Mission Field). We were trying to send the message to our clergy and lay leaders that the ministry of the Alaska United Methodist Conference will not be confined to the walls of its church buildings.

It is my hope, my prayer that our churches would become mission outposts where significant outreach and community engagement can be launched from. May we truly be the hands and feet of Jesus in our communities, allowing us to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Your fellow disciple,