By Thomas Lambrecht –
As a young adult, I became fascinated by the story told by J.R.R. Tolkien in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I was inspired by the extraordinary adventures on behalf of human goodness undertaken by ordinary folk.
Through my wife’s recommendation, I recently became acquainted with a devotional book called Walking with Bilbo (Tyndale, 2005), by Sarah Arthur. It draws spiritual lessons from the various happenings in the Tolkien story (which is in keeping with Tolkien’s deep Christian faith). Fortunately for my wife and others, you do not need to have read The Hobbit to benefit from the devotions. They are biblically-centered and practical in their daily application.
One chapter recalls an episode in The Hobbit when the hobbit Bilbo Baggins and his dwarf comrades need to pass through a broad, dark forest called Mirkwood. Their mentor, the wizard Gandalf, warns them that the only safe way through the forest is to stick to the main path through the center. In Gandalf’s absence, however, the group becomes bored. Day after day, mile after mile, there is nothing but trees! To compound the problem, the dwarves and their hobbit comrade are running out of food. Who knows how much longer this forest will last? Is it not time to disregard Gandalf’s advice and leave the path, just for a short while, to break the monotony and find something to satisfy their need for food? In the story, of course, the decision to do so leads to bad things happening — what Arthur calls “misadventures.”
I can really relate! This coronavirus pandemic has been going on for six months. No in-person church or small group. No concerts or movie theaters. No fun trips. For many, no eating in restaurants. No getting together with friends or even family. For some, not even the ability to work, since they have been furloughed or let go from their jobs. When you have watched everything good on Netflix, you know you are in trouble! Worst of all, we have no concrete idea when it will all be over.
The stay at home routine can become mind numbing. In some places, when things began to open up again, people went wild. Beach parties. Packed bars and nightclubs. Family get-togethers. Forgetting to wear masks or practice physical distancing. The predictable consequences of going “off the path” were a dramatic spike in Covid19 cases and a surge in deaths and hospitalizations.
As Arthur points out in her devotional, these situations illustrate the fact that sometimes, the Christian life can become routine and even tedious. The daily Bible reading and prayer times can become stale. Staying faithful in our marriage or celibate in singleness can seem unexciting. Weekly or monthly tithing can crimp our ability to have fun or buy something we really want. The daily effort to be kind to others in the face of insult and selfishness can become wearying.
As Arthur puts it:
Sometimes you wake up in the morning and — unless there’s a cataclysmic disaster or even just the slightest deviation from the norm — the day’s events will go exactly as predicted with no change from the everyday tasks God has called you to do. Homework is still homework, laundry is still laundry, and dinner must be prepared before the end of the day. … The truth is, if we stick to the path God has chosen for us, we’re not guaranteed eye-popping, jaw-dropping, heart-racing adventures all the time. In fact, we may be asked to do the mundane, the banal, the mind-numbingly boring.
And that’s exactly when we’re tempted to stray. We begin to starve for change, for something to break the tedium of our days, to get the heart rate up again. So we contemplate taking the slightest jog off the track, just to see what’s out there. Those are the times when the misadventures of our lost and wandering peers look almost tempting. … We begin to wonder if there’s perhaps some other path. …
Other times, we’re tempted to stray because we have genuine needs that must be met, like the starving dwarves in Bilbo’s tale. Perhaps we’re simply exhausted at the end of the day and need to relax. Why not with a six-pack? Or maybe we feel the pain of poor self-esteem. Why not pick on someone else in an attempt to feel good at another’s expense? If we’re not careful, our genuine needs can lead us to justify all sorts of unhealthy behavior. (pages 110-111)
It is in those times that we need to remember that God’s way for us is always best. Going off the path can lead to spiritual and even physical danger.
The Bible has a lot to say about staying on God’s path.
- “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13-14).
- “You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you. Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord, the Lord himself, is the rock eternal. … The path of the righteous is level; you, the Upright One, make the way of the righteous smooth. Yes, Lord, walking in the way of your laws, we wait for you” (Isaiah 26: 3-4, 7-8, emphasis added).
- “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it'” (Isaiah 30:21).
- “I instruct you in the way of wisdom and lead you along straight paths. When you walk, your steps will not be hampered; when you run, you will not stumble. … Do not set foot on the path of the wicked or walk in the way of evildoers. Avoid it, do not travel on it; turn from it and go your way. … The path of the righteous is like the morning sun, shining ever brighter until the full light of day. But the way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know what makes them stumble” (Proverbs 4:11-12, 14-15, 18-19).
- “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death” (Proverbs 16:25).
- “This is what the Lord says, ‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls'” (Jeremiah 6:16).
- “Many peoples will come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.’ … Come, descendants of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the Lord” (Isaiah 2:3, 5).
The good news is that we have the resources to keep us on God’s path for our lives. We have the Holy Spirit to guide us, if we will listen, and to give us strength for the journey. We have the Lord Jesus as our companion on the journey, who as a man went through times such as we are experiencing, who can sympathize with our weakness and encourage us by his presence. We have the Word of God, which is the “light for our path,” showing us the way to go. We have brothers and sisters in Christ who can help and encourage us along the way. When we are feeling hemmed in by the routine, it helps to be transparent with the Lord and with our human companions on the journey. Sharing our struggles takes the power out of them and enables us to receive encouragement and strength.
We are called to persevere in faithfulness to God’s path, whether that path be exciting or mundane. We find life, peace, and rest for our souls on that path. “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9). Or in the words of Gandalf, “Stick to the path!”
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.
By Steve Beard –
There are good reasons to avoid watching the evening news these days. It is a rough slog, even for those with sunny dispositions.
The pandemic has severally thrown us off the normal rhythm of life. Piped-in crowd cheers at baseball games, shuttered businesses on Main Street, empty classrooms, drive-up eucharist at church, Zoom meetings for work.
Once only thought to be the essential accessory of surgeons, fumigators, and bank robbers, face masks are now used to stoke our political divide. No more hugs, nor kisses on the cheeks. Forget the handshake. The entire elbow bump looks ridiculous and feels even more absurd.
Sadly, we cannot even have proper funerals for our dearly departed — and there are so many of them. We have much to mourn and now we must do it in isolation.
It seems as though one traumatic event leapfrogs another. There is a good chance that you have someone in your circle of friends who has either radically withdrawn because of depression or grown numb emotionally because of crisis fatigue.
“The sense of groundlessness has set off a spike in anxiety,” writes Joe Robinson in an article about stress management in the Los Angeles Times. “What’s going to happen to my health, my job, my family? Is takeout food safe? Will there be a depression? How long will it be before we can return to normal? Coping with existential threats in the fog of so many unknowns is a major challenge for folks programmed to make life predictable and, therefore, more safe.”
For entertainment, we thrive on cliffhangers in movies and sports because we know there will be a finale. “It’s a different story when it comes to personal uncertainty, and it’s worse when the unknown is open-ended, as with the coronavirus,” writes Robinson.
In other words, there is nothing normal about the new normal.
The Rev. Kenneth Tanner is a treasured friend of mine and pastor of the Church of the Holy Redeemer, a congregation in Michigan. He recently told me about one of his parishioners, Michael, who had been missing for almost four weeks. “Like millions, he exists at the margins” and all of this pandemic craziness proved to be “too much.” Michael “just couldn’t handle his unbearable existence anymore. He walked out the door of his apartment one night without telling a soul and just drifted away.”
When he first arrived at his parish many years ago, Ken pledged that he would help all those in need that God sent across his path. After Michael missed a couple of services, my friend Ken went looking for him. Discovering that no one in Michael’s apartment complex had seen him in three weeks, Ken’s heart sank.
“With help from the homeless community in Pontiac, some good shop owners, the Oakland County Sheriff’s Office, and a member of the congregation,” Michael was found and Ken was overjoyed. “He matters to me and to our church.”
Ken took Michael to talk to his landlord and try to work out any issues related to the lengthy absence. “A lot remains to be done to restore some semblance of togetherness for his life — logistics and resourcing — but he is resting well” at the church facility in the meantime as they tend to his needs. After all, Michael had spent nearly the last four weeks under a concrete staircase without showering or eating a proper meal.
My friend Ken was there for Michael — looking for him high and low. These are tough days and God bless those who are on the lookout for the souls who are struggling to cope — Heaven’s bloodhounds of compassion.
As the two of them were driving back from the meeting with the landlord, Michael pointed out the front windshield at the blue sky and said: “Pastor, there’s a lot of pain in this world, a lot of people suffering right now, but no one suffers from bearing the weight of it all like God.”
Michael spoke the truth about a God who refuses to cast a blind eye toward suffering and injustice. “But you, God, see the trouble of the afflicted. You consider their grief and take it in hand. The victims commit themselves to you; you are the helper of the fatherless” (Psalm 10:14). He spoke truth about the God who knows the number of hairs on our head and the fluttering migration of the sparrow.
While there will be a time when there will be no more sickness or death, that time has not yet arrived. In the midst of our storms and delayed mourning, God bears the gravity of it all.
Before Jesus bore the weight of the cross, he first served with basin and towel to show his undying love. “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal … and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet” (John 13:3).
This moment of selfless love was brought to memory when I learned about a couple — Steve and Mary in Jacksonville, Florida — who were separated by a pane of glass for 114 days because of COVID-19.
Steve is in a retirement facility for those with early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Mary is the top executive for a successful company. Since last March, she has faithfully visited her husband in the evenings and tucked him into bed until he fell asleep. When the pandemic struck, a state order barred visitors from assisted-living facilities. Steve was confused; Mary was heartbroken. She loved him so much but could not touch him.
“It didn’t matter what I had to do to get there,” Mary told the Washington Post. “I was willing to do whatever it took to fulfill my promise that I was going to be there for him every step of the way.”
March 10 was the last night she was able to spend with her husband. “I got a call on the 11th, and they told me I couldn’t come back,” she recalled. “I didn’t even get to say goodbye.”
Her mind raced for ways to get around the restrictions. “I reached out to the governor, talked to local reporters and called the parent company of the facility asking if there was anything I could do to get inside,” she said. “I even offered to bring my puppy as a therapy dog.”
In desperation, she went to his window at the facility. That turned out to be an especially cruel barrier. “I did that twice, and he just cried,” she recalled. “I decided not to do that anymore, since he’s better when he’s not crying at the window. That wasn’t doing him any good.”
But love often finds a way. Or, as a popular U2 song reminds us, “Love is bigger than anything in its way.”
Mary discovered a job opening for a dishwasher at the facility. In order to get her foot in the door as a cleared employee, she had to do a drug test, a background screening, a Covid-19 test, and video training — all so she could have a part-time job that she does not need.
Nevertheless, with joy, she works hard scrubbing plates and pots twice a week as a dishwasher so that she can walk down the hall and knock on Steve’s door.
“Mary” he exclaimed when he opened the door for the first time. They hugged for a very long time. And they both cried — this time with gratitude.
“I wanted him to know that he is deeply loved and he will never be alone,” she said on the Today show. “That’s the best gift I can give for the rest of his life.”
During these Alice in Wonderland days of strangeness and chaotic rhythms, we are asked to socially distance, wear a mask, and wash our hands.
And, if you walk the path of love, look for those who are having difficulty coping and be prepared to wash a few dishes.
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.
By Rob Renfroe –
Responses to the proposed plan for separation could hardly be more divergent. Some are shouting “hallelujah” and others are feeling dismissed, even sold out.
There are several components of the plan that I do not like. In particular, I don’t like the perception it creates. When I was first told about it, I said, “It looks like we’re being paid off to walk away.” It doesn’t look like a separation or two new denominations being birthed. It looks like traditionalists lost, and now we’re leaving.
Having said that, I am in favor of the proposal. Let me tell you why I and most traditionalist leaders favor its passage.
First, I ask myself what’s our goal? What has been our goal, for at least the past 20 years?
For me, it was never about winning or taking over the UM Church. It has been to create a vibrant evangelical Wesleyan church that is fully focused on mission and ministry — a church that is not mired in a dysfunctional and divisive struggle over sexuality.
For me the goal has never been about keeping a name — a name that in many parts of the country is a negative because it has become connected with progressive theology and non-biblical practices.
And it has not been about getting our fair share of the assets. I want that. We deserve that. But that wasn’t the goal. I was not desirous of continuing this ugly, destructive battle so we could receive additional funds. As a matter of fact, in the Yambasu negotiations that brought about the protocol, our (traditionalists’) primary concern was about funding for the Central Conferences, not ourselves.
Most of the leaders in the evangelical renewal groups have long ago accepted that we need separation. We worked for that to be the result coming out of GC 2016 and 2019. However, when we realized separation was off the table, the only option was an enhanced traditional plan — but that was not our first option mainly because we knew it would not solve anything.
Liberal areas of the church would ignore it, progressive bishops would not enforce it, and we would remain where we were before the Traditional Plan was passed. This is exactly what has happened.
Then, new elections were held for GC 2020 delegates. And we suffered real losses. Plus, we continued to hear that some of the African bishops were willing to adopt a regional conference plan that would allow the UM Church in the United States to have its own Book of Discipline and its own sexual ethics.
So, even though we “won” in 2019, there was no guarantee we would win in 2020. And even if we did, it would not really change anything.
Looking at who was elected as jurisdictional delegates, it is unlikely that we will elect a single bishop who would be committed to the full enforcement of the Discipline. And our church structure and constitution have made it nearly impossible to remove a bishop who refuses to enforce the Discipline.
So, the question is: After 47 years, how much longer do we continue to fight the same battle with the same results — good legislation that doesn’t change the reality of the church? How many more years should we spend precious financial, emotional, and spiritual resources on this same issue?
The decision was made that what was most important was allowing churches and annual conferences (where traditionalists are in the majority) to step into a vibrant Wesleyan connection with all their properties and with no payments required to the UM Church or to their annual conferences.
In other words, it was time to move forward in a positive way for the sake of mission and witness.
In all honesty, I fully understand those who are upset about the use of the denomination’s name. I realize the name is important to many, but others view our brand as having been so tarnished that keeping it is not a long-term benefit.
I understand people who say, “The progressives and centrists want to change the UM Church — they should leave, not those of us who want to be who we have always been.” I get it when people say, “GC 2019 was called to resolve this matter and it did. Traditionalists won. Those who want to change the Book of Discipline should leave, not us.” People who say those things are right. That’s the way it should be.
But, these were political negotiations. And in politics, the question is not what should be but what can be. And this is about as good a “can be” as I can imagine.
This move into the future will be difficult for many of our congregations. I am deeply sorry about that. This is where many of our bishops have brought us. There will be pain for many of our churches and annual conferences. I wish I could change that, but this is where we are. What we can do is listen to everyone, acknowledge their very real concerns, and resource them in every way to make this transition less painful than it might be.
I hope people can focus on the positives. Churches will be free to join a new evangelical Wesleyan movement. They will have lower apportionments. They will have more say in who their pastor is. And we will be done with this battle.
One last thought: When we countered those who would move the UM Church away from the Scriptures, it was easy to be unified. But now we are going to create something new. The process will be painful for some and messy for most of us. And we will have real differences about how the new church is to be structured. But we must stay together. There’s something bigger than whether the new church will have bishops, and if so what their tenure will be, what the new name will be, or even agreeing on all the ins and outs of ordination.
We are being given the privilege and the responsibility of beginning a new denomination — one that we will share with people like you, one that will be committed to the Scriptures as God’s word and to Jesus Christ as Lord of all, one that will be led by men and women, black, white, Hispanic, Pacific Islander, Asian — whom we admire and respect.
This is a future we can look forward to. Let’s go there together.
Rob Renfroe is a United Methodist clergyperson and the president and publisher of Good News.
By Chappell Temple –
I’ve been getting their emails and letters almost every day, so it seems. In preparation for the upcoming General Conference of The United Methodist Church in St. Louis, a group advocating for one of the plans being proposed has been more than “methodical” about getting their message out.
The problem is, however, that “Mainstream UMC” seems to have a more casual relationship with truth than I think is merited. And in terms of respectful dialogue with those who think differently, they’ve exhibited instead a censorious and unkind spirit at best, and a downright slanderous one at worst.
They’ve suggested, for instance, that the advocates of maintaining our current stance on homosexuality have “recreated the climate of 1844” when the Methodist Church split over slavery. But the traditionalists are not proposing a split at all, only a continuation of what the greater church has repeatedly and increasingly believed to be a faithful response to some of these difficult questions.
They’ve claimed that the Commission on the Way Forward (COWF), which created the three plans that will be before the delegates in St. Louis, dåid not introduce the idea of a gracious exit, but that’s simply untrue. It was originally in every one of the three plans that the COWF developed until the bishops took it out when they reviewed those plans.
They’ve said that only a “few rogue bishops” hastily wrote the Traditional Plan. But they neglected to mention that the reason that plan was assembled rather quickly was that the bishops as a group told the Commission not to work on it and then, as the Commission was winding everything up, they changed their minds and reluctantly agreed to include that option after all.
They’ve likewise almost libelously labeled two of our bishops, Scott Jones and Gary Mueller, as “WCA bishops,” referring to the Wesleyan Covenant Association, simply because they accepted the invitation to attend a meeting of that group of United Methodists. Indeed, in contrast to many of his progressive colleagues, Bishop Jones has gone out of his way to remain neutral and not endorse any of the three plans publicly.
They’ve warned that there’s simply not time to carefully craft any exit plans before 2020, despite the fact that numerous folks have been working on them for more than a year and versions have been available for delegates to read since the early fall. And some even falsely accused Maxie Dunnam of promoting the exit plan so that traditional churches can get money from the denomination on their way out, when the truth is that he did so to help progressive congregations who may not wish to stay if the current standards are maintained.
They’ve misrepresented the One Church Plan as not requiring anyone to change their positions if they chose not to do so, when in reality it will change our denomination’s definition of marriage for everyone. And should the plan pass, traditional United Methodists will still be forced to pay into an episcopal fund that underwrites openly partnered gay bishops. What’s more, even many proponents of the One Church Plan have admitted publicly that it’s simply a transitional step towards an eventual mandate for full inclusion by the whole denomination.
Most of all, Mainstream UMC has, in a dazzling display of redirection, argued that traditionalists are simply trying to force the church into schism when in truth it is progressives who have blatantly disobeyed our Discipline that have already done so. For I have heard of no conservatives who have broken their ordination vows, disobeyed church law, ignored our covenant, or blatantly defied the discernment of the whole church in favor of their personal opinions or beliefs regarding this issue.
It’s one thing to argue a position and try to persuade others to adopt it. But in misrepresenting the facts so blatantly, and twisting the position of their opponents so maliciously, so-called “Mainstream” proponents of the One Church Plan have plainly turned from progressives into simply pro-aggressives.
And if that sentiment prevails, I have a feeling that the decline in our worship attendance – already almost one million down from just 18 years ago – will only get worse.
Chappell Temple is the lead pastor of Christ United Methodist Church in Sugar Land, Texas, a southwestern suburb of Houston. He is a General Conference delegate from the Texas Annual Conference. This guest commentary appeared on ChappellTemple.com. It is republished by permission.