The Story that Shapes Us

Rev. Dr. Rachel Coleman

Last week I was at an academic conference, an event filled with many delights—intellectually challenging dialogues, renewal of old friendships and the start of new ones, and display after display of books! (I only yielded a tiny bit to the book-buying temptation.) One brief conversation I had with a respondent to my presentation during the conference has been rolling around in the back of mind since then, so I decided to take it out and have a closer look at it today.

My paper was on the boundary-shattering hospitality of Jesus and the early church. The number one criticism that religious leaders leveled against Jesus was at the very point of his hospitality practices. His critics accused him of “eating with tax collectors and sinners” and they were offended that he didn’t maintain a proper degree of separation from “outsiders” (Luke 5:30; 7:34). “Hospitality” is literally “the love of the stranger” (philoxenia), which stands in stark contrast to the all-too-common “fear of the stranger” (xenophobia), this was a topic that led naturally into conversations about the reality that much of our public dialogue is being shaped by fear rather than love. And the question that has stayed with me is how people whose identity is first “Christian” and only secondarily “American” should be approaching the pressing hospitality issues of our day. This includes, of course, the immigration issue, but reaches beyond it to all contexts where “welcoming the stranger” is at stake.

What has really been weighing heavily upon me is not so much the WHAT of our responses to these issues, but HOW we arrive at those responses. It seems to me that there are two competing stories for those of us who enter these conversations as Christians. One is the great biblical narrative of the God who shatters every boundary imaginable in his passionate quest to restore humanity to a right relationship with himself and who calls the restored ones to live in a way that reflects his character and his radical hospitality. The other story is whatever version of the dominant rights-oriented and anxiety-driven cultural narrative happens to be the common currency of our particular social group. Those two narratives are mutually incompatible at many points, so how does their collision play out?

I fear that in far too many “Christian” conversations about “outsiders and strangers,” it is the dominant story that is allowed to shaped our convictions, attitudes, and actions, with bits and pieces of the biblical perspective shoved into the cracks, distorted to fit into whatever space is available. What if that were turned upside down? What if the radical hospitality of God were allowed to be the shaping story of our conversations about “the other”? What if a biblical perspective were allowed to have the formational power in our approach to “the stranger”? What if theology shaped our responses as citizens? What if we chose to lay aside the dominant narrative at those points where it clearly stands in opposition to the biblical story? How might our conversations be different? I’m guessing that we wouldn’t all come to the same conclusions in terms of civic response to the pressing issues of the day, but what if we shared a common starting point that was grounded in the character and faithful action of the God who shattered boundaries to come and rescue us? Prayerfully pondering the possibilities. . .

Following the Spirit’s Call

By Linda Pelfrey

I am powerfully reminded that when God wishes to reveal his plan to us, it will keep appearing until we say, “Okay, I hear you.” For me, it was the theme surrounding the name we are given. A verse from Isaiah, which says in part, “I have called you by name, you are mine,” kept showing up in my consciousness.

One day, the process of God speaking a theme into my heart came full circle. I felt God at work the moment I woke up.  My spirit was on fire in a way that left me open to hearing God’s voice. I had been invited to attend a conference focusing on the power of the Holy Spirit. After listening to the faith narratives of two remarkable pastors from Cuba, it was time for prayer and laying on of hands.

Here is where my belief was affirmed that God has one twisted sense of humor (in a good way!). As a young woman, I felt trepidation and major anxiety when zealous Christians talked about healing my blindness. So, I experienced a desire to get up and run not walk out of this place. I blurted out to one of my companions: “I’m not going to the altar. I can’t do the ‘laying on of hands’ thing, because inevitably, someone wants to pray for my physical sight.” Then, to my shock, I began to cry. I mean full-on, wrenching sobs which were torn from my being. My heart felt like someone was smashing it against a rock into a zillion pieces.

I babbled something about trauma, and how I felt the misery of all those who have been hurt to the core of their soul by what happens in some churches. Many persons with disabilities avoid church because of how they are treated.  No one wants to be where they feel “less than.”

I struggled to breathe through all the sensation. Sitting with this raw emotion depleted my physical strength, and I started to shake and feel nauseous.

Then, a man I had never met was in my face asking if he could pray for me.  My sarcastic thought in the moment was, “Dear Lord, I guess these folks just can’t miss the opportunity to hit up the ‘blind chick.’” I was raised to be polite at all costs, particularly when someone is chomping at the bit to pray for me. So the “good girl” said, “Yes.”

I was feeling shattered… and kept saying the word “trauma,” repeatedly. He did not know of my past experience with folks wanting to heal my blindness, so, in his Spirit-filled zeal, he asked if he could pray for my sight to be restored. I confess I was “feeling some kind of way” toward God and this random dude. I said, “I’m good with being blind, but you can pray for my spiritual sight.”  I found out later that there was a language difference; still, the gentleman was sincerely trying to hear me. Perhaps he was disappointed that I wasn’t there to have my blindness cured, but he took it in stride.

Here is where everything becomes blurry… one praying person turns into many. This “blind chick” (who has an aversion to physical contact) has hands on my face, shoulders, and of course… my eyes. I never fell into a heap on the floor, but I was encircled by a powerful and healing presence. I will never forget the heat reaching from hands straight into my soul. I pray I do not lose that memory or its power to remind me that God is real and loving.

The Holy Spirit took over, and no matter what the original intent… these prayer warriors were guided to pray for exactly what I needed in that moment. The wrenching pain field—the kind that breaks God’s heart—was transformed into a peace and a cleansing, healing fire.

When I came back to full consciousness, there was a woman standing beside me. She said, “I couldn’t see your name tag, so I asked God for your name.” He told me, “I call her Joy-bringing Daughter.” My response was laughter, because I am many things… but joyful isn’t the word that comes immediately to mind. I have a salty nature, and am often quite irreverent and snarky. I then recalled that the word “joy” had come up several times in conversation with my companions that day.  Also, I had expressed that God is calling me to something, and I don’t quite know what it is. I knew right then that if I listen God will continue to speak his purpose into my spirit.

I learned many lessons that day: God is not without a sense of humor. When you feel called to a path which makes no sense to the human heart, stay on it. God knows what he is doing.

As I walk through the Season of Lent, I keep the eyes of my heart on living out the name God has given to me. Sure, I still chuckle a little at the “joy” part because I am still salty and irreverent. And yet… with all my imperfections and scars, I remain beloved daughter of the Lord.

Stand Up

by Rev. Randy Coleman

We’ve seen it in the news numerous times.  Many U. S. citizens have lived through it and some have even died.

Recently we heard of another mass shooting on a high school campus.  Seventeen young people, including some adults, lost their lives in this one. Parents are grieving for their lost children.  Family members grieve for a lost member. Students and administrators grieve for a lost colleague.  We at Belmont UMC, grieve with you.  We do pray for you, but we will also stand up with you to help end the violence in our schools and our public places throughout this nation.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated case.  Sixty cases of gun violence of some type have already been reported in our nations’ schools just this year!  That’s only in two months!  Some of these incidents, like when gun shots were fired at a high school football game in California do not get reported, as no fatalities were recorded.  Even one incident, no matter the results, is not acceptable.

Students across our country are rising up and saying, “Enough is enough, let’s stop the violence.  Let’s do something about it.”  You have heard them speak strongly and loudly in the news or in our nations’ capital to law makers.  They are making their voices heard.  They are planning marches in our cities for March 24th.

One student from Parkland Florida said, “Every kid in this country now goes to school wondering if this day might be their last. We live in fear,” the March For Our Lives website says. “It doesn’t have to be this way. Change is coming. And it starts now, inspired by and led by the kids who are our hope for the future. Their young voices will be heard.”

Some students in Utah have begun a quiet protest where they stand quietly at their desks every Monday for three minutes to call attention to the continuing gun violence in schools. They call their movement the #Standfor214, which indicates the time of the Parkland, Florida shooting at 2:14 p.m. on Feb. 14, or 2/14.  The students stand for three minutes ending at 2:17 p.m., in honor of the 17 lives lost in the shooting.

It’s time to put away our partisan politics on this one and stand up for what is right.  We cannot allow kids to go to school afraid every day.  This is not about Democrats, Republicans or the second amendment.  It’s about safety and protection.  I encourage each of us to get involved in some way.  My wife and I are writing to our congressmen to urge them to put safety first.  We encourage the banning of all assault rifles (they are not needed for civilians); background checks for gun purchases, the raising of the age from 18 to 21 to purchase guns, and proper help for those who show mental health issues.  I know, that will not stop all the violence, but it is a good place to start.  Let’s stand with our young people! Ultimately, let’s follow our Savior, Jesus, who leads the way to true peace.  “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.  I do not give to you as the world gives.  Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).

What Can We Learn From the Super Bowl? A Lesson on What Matters Most.

Rev. Jordan McKenzie

Last night, tens of millions of Americans watched as the Philadelphia Eagles won their first Super Bowl, defeating the New England Patriots in a thrilling game. As always, it was a media frenzy. Alongside the game itself, the media was abuzz with stories about the halftime performance of Justin Timberlake, the commercials, and the like. But there was also another story that some made light of: the Christian faith of many of the Philadelphia Eagles players and coaches.

After the game when he was awarded the team’s victory trophy, Eagles head coach Doug Peterson began by saying that he wanted to give praise to his “Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Quarterback Nick Foles, when he was awarded the game’s Most Valuable Player just moments later, immediately said that “all glory goes to God” for his performance. Tight End Zach Ertz, who caught the game-winning touchdown pass with just minutes to go, said that honoring Christ was his first goal in the game. Frank Reich, the offensive coordinator for the Eagles, echoed this sentiment, having been a former pastor before entering coaching. Even Carson Wentz, the Eagles’ star quarterback who was hurt and unable to play in the game, credited his faith with helping him get through the disappointment of not being able to play in the game. One article in The Washington Post went so far as to say that the “binding force” of the championship team was the Christian faith that so many of its players and coaches shared.

Many will no doubt cheer on the Eagles’ testimonies of faith. Many others will no doubt roll their eyes, saying that they would like less faith and more football. (After all, thanking Jesus has become a kind-of cheap cliche in such celebrations, something that seemingly everybody does.) But regardless of what people think, there are a couple of important comments to be made. One is a caution, the other a lesson.

First, the caution is that it would be very shortsighted to say that the Eagles won the Super Bowl simply because so many players and coaches on the team were outspoken Christians, as if God somehow liked them more or rewarded them because they are Christians. It is true that God works all things together for the good of those that love him (Romans 8:28). But it’s also true that God gives blessings to the righteous and the unrighteous alike (Matthew 5:45). So while God does work in the lives of those who follow Him, that doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll let us win a football game or give us good luck when we need it.

With that said, we can learn an important lesson from the players and coaches that spoke about their faith. And that’s this: When it comes down to it, what matters is how we respond in the defining moments of our lives.

Most of us are not professional athletes, but regardless we all find ourselves in moments that define who we really are. We’re at work and can get that promotion we’ve always wanted by fudging the truth on our resume. We have a chance for that relationship with someone we’ve always liked and we might actually be able to have it if we embellish who we are or what we’ve done. We see someone in a position of authority doing something that’s not right, and we have the choice to stand up or be silent. The question is: who are we in those defining moments? Who are we in those moments where we face the pressure or temptation to do something that’s not right?

In their defining moments, these players and coaches continued to be resolute in who God called them to be. They could have made the victory all about themselves. They could have praised their own performances and not mentioned their faith. They could have gone out to party or womanize, like many other players certainly were doing and likely pressured them to do. But instead, in spite of all the accolades and attention, they lived with integrity and didn’t change who they were. They let their faith define them.

That’s the lesson we can learn from one of the best Super Bowls in recent memory. What matters most is who you are in those defining moments.

So, that’s the question. Who are you in those moments? Are you defined by your faith and integrity, or something else?

Some Thoughts on Life, Death, and Faith

by Jordan McKenzie

Seven people lost.

Seven lives cut short.

Seven families broken.

One nation in mourning.

That was the aftermath of January 28th, 1986, when the Space Shuttle Challenger tragically exploded during its launch. The launch itself was watched live by millions, and after the explosion became one of the biggest news stories in American history. Within an hour of the incident, surveys show that nearly all Americans were tuned into news coverage of the event.

I was born one year after the Challenger explosion, so I did not see it live. But as some remember and reflect on the 32nd anniversary of the event today, it’s made me mindful of the loss that day. I can only imagine what it would have been like to have seen it live.

We don’t like to talk about loss. Grief and death and all the emotions that come with them are uncomfortable, even awkward topics for us. This is especially true in our advanced, technological society where we can move on from something so easily, or find so many other distractions.

But when there is an event like the Challenger explosion or the Oklahoma City bombing or September 11th, it’s hard to get away from the harsh realities of life. It’s impossible not to talk about these things.

The truth is that our faith as Christians does not shy away from death, loss, or grief. Indeed, our faith invites us, even compels us, to take them more seriously. The foundation of our faith is that the world is broken and imperfect, often subjecting us to heartbreak and pain. Most profoundly, Jesus’s death and resurrection take us more deeply into these realities. Jesus’s death forces us to grapple with these things. On the cross he somehow takes the weight of our pain and suffering upon himself and shouts, “My god, my god, why have you forsaken me???” Even he is not exempted.

The good news, though, is that our faith teaches us that loss or grief do not have the final word. Jesus does. Jesus somehow overcomes our pain, our loss, our brokenness, our death. They are redeemed and restored by him, as miraculously “all things are worked together for our good.”

This is the good news. But we have to hold these realities in tension. We can’t have one without the other. There is brokenness, but there is also wholeness; there is suffering, but there is also healing; there is death, but there is also life.

As Christians we should not focus too much on either side of the coin. Rather we should always remember that we live in a broken world, but a world which is also redeemed by God. And that’s the good news. All of it.

Hello from 2018!

by Jordan McKenzie

Hello church blog readers!

So it’s been a while since we’ve talked…

But now’s a perfect time to reconnect, as the holidays are over, most of us are already on our new year’s diets, and spring weather is back (oh wait, did someone say something about a snow storm?)… so anyway… what’s on my mind? Well I’m thinking about the year ahead for Belmont United Methodist Church.

As we all know, last year was a busy year for our church. Between transitioning to a new service, finalizing some financial changes, moving our food pantry, completing our revitalization project, hosting new churches in our space, and adding a new music director, it was a jammed-packed year! In fact, because of some of the exciting things that took place, just yesterday the West Ohio Conference of United Methodist Churches filmed a video about what’s happening at Belmont, as a few members shared how our congregation continues to make new and growing disciples for Jesus Christ in this community and beyond.

As I think about this, I’m energized by so many of the things that are happening at Belmont. As the old hymn goes, Great Things He Hath Done! God truly has done great things in the life of our church! As He has done for so many decades, God is using the people on South Smithville Road to truly make a difference in fresh and unexpected ways.

Yet the truth is that this is the time that churches can be most vulnerable. When a church begins to see God working in new ways and sees the fruits of its labor come to fruition, that’s when it’s easy to grow weary. In this time, churches often get complacent because they taste success or they get worn out because of the hard work it took to get there. Either way, it’s a vulnerable place to be.

That’s why prayer, scripture, and worship have to be the backbone of any true church growth. Without the inner transformation and restoration that comes from God, we will get complacent or burnt out. We need God’s spirit to fill us afresh. We need God’s spirit to fill us with a vision for what God wants to do through us. We need God’s spirit to fill us with the strength and willingness to actually be the people God’s wants us to be. And that’ why our church’s theme this year is Living Boldly for Jesus.

This year our goal is to think about what it means to live boldly for Jesus. What does it mean to live boldly for Jesus in our community and country today, both as individuals and as a church?

If you join us this year, you might just find out.

So if you’re willing, I’d invite you to join me in going on this journey this year, as we look to live boldly. And as we look forward to this year, always remember these words:

But they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” Isaiah 40:31

Amen.

 

Why God? Brief thoughts on the Church Shooting in Texas, Pain, and Suffering

by Jordan McKenzie

As most readers have probably heard by now, the church shooting that occurred yesterday in Sutherland Springs, Texas (just outside of San Antonio) has become the deadliest church shooting in American history. All told, twenty-six people were killed and nearly two dozen more injured. Nearly half of those killed were children, some as young as five years old. They were gunned down as they worshiped inside their church sanctuary, as they did every Sunday morning.

When we hear about events like this, or the shooting in Las Vegas —where hundreds were injured or killed while simply enjoying a concert— we ask why. WHY? Why God? Why would you let this happen?

This is a natural response. All of us ask ourselves this question at some point when we’re witnessing a difficult situation or going through such a situation ourselves. In fact, people have been asking the why question for thousands of years, even back to the time the Old Testament was written. Indeed, entire books, like Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Job, were written in part to address the question of why there is pain and suffering in our world.*****

Yet what we find out in reading these books is that there is no clear answer to this difficult question. Sometimes it seems that God uses difficult events to increase our faith. Sometimes it seems God uses them to bring glory to himself. And sometimes it seems they are the result of humanity’s God-given free will. (Methodists would generally tend to support the view that pain and suffering are primarily a result of human sin.)  The challenge is that each of these answers raises additional questions. No one answer provides us an easy, hard-and-fast solution to the problem. Thus the question of why is not an easy one to answer. But there are two things that can help us when we think about this question.

The first thing is this. It’s helpful to always remember that the ways in which God is working in our world are far beyond our understanding. As Isaiah 55:9 says, “his ways our higher than our ways, his thoughts are higher than our thoughts.” This a central point to remember. We are not God. We cannot even begin to grasp how God is intervening in our daily lives or the lives of others. It is, quite literally, beyond our understanding. So when we ask why we always must have some humility, knowing that we may not be able to totally understand what God is up to.

The second thing that is helpful to remember is this. God is always willing and working for our good. Romans 8:28 says as much, saying that “in all things God is working for our good.” You can’t say it any more simply than that. This again is central to remember. We may not know why God is working the way He is, but we can have faith that no matter the situation, God is working for us out of love and concern. No matter what happens, God’s love for us remains even in the chaos of these events. He will not give up on us.

So, as you watch coverage of the tragedy in Texas and hear of other tragedies, it’s natural to ask why. We could discuss that question all day (and all night!) and not agree on an answer. But no matter what, remember that God works in ways we can’t begin to understand. And even though we can’t understand, we can know that he is working for our good. Let that give you peace today. Amen.

*****Discussion of this question is not limited to Christians. Those in other religious traditions, such as Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and especially Buddhism, all actively discuss the issue of why there is pain and suffering in our world. Thus this is a universal, cross-cultural question.