By Thomas Lambrecht
June 3, 2022
For nearly the last ten years, Good News has advocated for an amicable separation in The United Methodist Church. Following the 2012 General Conference, it became apparent that the different understandings of Methodism could not continue together in one church and remain healthy. That conclusion was only reinforced over the years since that time, with efforts at resolving our differences having failed amid the refusal of many U.S. clergy and bishops to accept the decisions of General Conference and their determination to impose the “One Church Plan” on an unwilling denomination.
Good News President Rob Renfroe has likened our conflicted situation to a cage match, where two opponents are locked in a cage and forced to fight one another until one or the other is defeated. Only then would the cage door be unlocked to let the fighters out. Renfroe’s point was that the cage could be unlocked and the fighting ended without the need for one fighter to lose and the other win, if the denomination were willing to release the trust clause and allow separation to occur.
Leaders from across the theological spectrum arrived at an agreement for such a release in the Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation. It promised an end to the cage match of our conflict via an orderly and peaceful separation process. Due to the three-time postponement of General Conference and declining support for the Protocol among some centrists and progressives, its passage looks less likely than it did in 2020.
With the launch of the Global Methodist Church, more local churches are seeking separation under processes currently available in the Book of Discipline, rather than waiting for the Protocol to possibly be adopted in 2024. Good News has asked for and hoped for an amicable and reasonable response to this desire to move forward with separation now. Some bishops and annual conferences have accommodated the need for separation with grace and integrity. Others seem determined to keep the church locked in its cage match indefinitely.
It is important to note that, for decades, bishops and annual conferences have allowed individual congregations to withdraw through a negotiated settlement, sometimes involving the “closing” of the church and reselling the property to the departing congregants. While always a sad occasion, congregational disaffiliation is nothing new in The United Methodist Church.
Faced with the prospect of larger-scale disaffiliations due to deeply held theological convictions, the 2019 General Conference adopted a process for disaffiliation in a new Discipline ¶ 2553. The intent was to provide a straightforward process that cared for clergy pensions and provided a bit of a transitional cushion for the annual conference through an extra year’s apportionments. While annual conferences could flesh out the disaffiliation process in different ways depending upon their context, the authors of the provision never intended that annual conferences could add financial terms to the requirements. Unfortunately, through a clerical error, the language in the paragraph did not explicitly state that.
Now, some bishops and annual conferences are adding costs that make disaffiliation under ¶ 2553 so costly as to be prohibitive. Some are demanding a percentage of the congregation’s property value or total assets, anywhere from 20 to 67 percent. Others are demanding reimbursement of any annual conference legal fees. (I have yet to see a reasonable accounting of what legal fees an annual conference might be expected to incur. Such fees should be minimal or nonexistent.) Other conferences are requiring the repayment of any grants given the local church by the annual conference up to ten years or even 20 years in the past (ignoring the benefit the annual conference received in higher apportionment payments in the intervening years due to grant-facilitated congregational growth). At least one annual conference has added just about any costs they could think of, including 18 months’ salary and benefits for the pastor (in case the pastor does not withdraw with the congregation), expenses for two pastoral moves, $500 honoraria for conference-approved representatives to make presentations to the local church extolling the virtues of the UM Church, and more.
To add insult to injury, one bishop is saying that none of that annual conference’s churches can disaffiliate because they do not meet the qualifications of ¶ 2553, which requires the churches disagree with the General Conference’s position on marriage and sexuality or with the annual conference’s action or inaction regarding those issues. As this bishop is interpreting the situation, a traditionalist church can only leave if its annual conference is in violation of the Discipline, since the denominational position remains in line with a traditionalist position.
Other bishops and leaders are saying that the Global Methodist Church does not qualify as “another evangelical denomination” or as a recognized denomination with which clergy and congregations can unite. They maintain that a denomination must be recognized by General Conference before it fits these descriptions. Never mind that annual conferences receive clergy from dozens of other denominations, including various Baptists, Evangelical Free Church, and others that have never been “approved” by General Conference. All of these actions are purely designed to stonewall traditionalists and delay or prevent separation from occurring.
Traditionalists had hoped that the Judicial Council would act as a brake on episcopal power, maintaining the rule of church law and restoring accountability and balance to the system. Recent decisions, however, have demonstrated that the Judicial Council is no longer a neutral arbiter, but is willing to do the bidding of the Council of Bishops. Just this week, in response to a request for clarification from the COB, the Judicial Council essentially rewrote provisions of the Discipline they felt did not address the extraordinary situation we find ourselves in. While denying the power of annual conferences to exercise powers reserved to them, the Judicial Council has no problem exercising powers they do not have. While ruling that annual conferences are not competent to create provisions for disaffiliation based on multiple paragraphs in the Discipline, the Judicial Council has no problem creating new provisions that do not even exist in the Discipline. We can be sure the COB will take these rulings and run with them, finding more creative ways to block traditionalists from establishing a new, healthy Methodist church.
Alternative Metaphors for Separation
In promoting the idea of amicable separation, Good News has pointed to the examples of Abraham and Lot in Genesis 13 and Paul and Barnabas in Acts 15. In Genesis 13, we read that Abraham and Lot both had large herds and flocks, and that there was not enough room in the land to sustain both of them. Conflict arose between their respective herders. But Abraham told Lot, “Let’s not have any quarreling between you and me, or between your herders and mine, for we are close relatives.” Abraham allowed Lot to choose which part of the land he wanted, and Abraham would take what is left. Similarly, Good News has said that those wishing to pursue a more progressive agenda could keep the UM Church structure and traditionalists would be willing to withdraw to start something new, rather than attempting to force progressives out of the church against their will. In an effort to resolve our differences in a fraternal way, we advocated for a peaceful, voluntary separation, allowing each group to go its own way. We are not interested in perpetuating the conflict unless forced to do so by not being allowed to separate.
In Acts 15, we read that Paul and Barnabas had a sharp disagreement over whether or not to take John Mark with them on their second missionary journey. Paul did not want to take John Mark because he had abandoned them during their first journey. Barnabas wanted to take him along and give him a second chance. Neither was willing to compromise. So they agreed to go their separate ways. Paul took Silas and Barnabas took John Mark and each group went in different directions. For the sake of the mission of the church, they separated and ended up multiplying the mission. In the same way, Good News has argued that, for the sake of the mission of the church, the two groups should separate and go their own way. Doing so would end the conflict, allowing each group to focus on its mission and ministry, allowing both to become more effective. In the end, it would allow for a multiplied ministry, as each group is able to reach people the other group may not be able to reach.
Unfortunately, neither of these examples describes some of the more punitive approaches UM leaders are taking. Instead, we find ourselves in a situation more analogous with the conflict between Moses and the Egyptian pharaoh. Moses persistently requested and then demanded that the pharaoh let the people of Israel go. The reason he gave was so that Israel could go into the wilderness to worship the Lord in a way not possible while they were in bondage in Egypt. But pharaoh kept hardening his heart and refusing to let the Israelites leave. God would send plagues, some of which would temporarily change pharaoh’s heart, but after he promised to let the Israelites go, he would renege on his word and hold them back. Even after the last plague, the death of all first-born sons, pharaoh had second thoughts and pursued the Israelites into the very middle of the Red Sea. He just would not let them go. Good News has argued that traditionalists need to depart from the UM Church because we worship in different ways, under different theologies, with different understandings of Scripture and even different approaches to our denomination’s governing Book of Discipline.
The feeling we get from some centrist and institutionalist leaders is that they will just not willingly let traditionalists go. Even some who agreed to the Protocol are now refusing to operate in its spirit. They are all too eager to suspend any complaints or charges against clergy who perform same-sex weddings. They are keen to approve the ordination of married gay clergy. But they are unwilling to observe the flip side of that Protocol coin and graciously accommodate those who cannot remain in a church that engages in actions that violate both the Scriptures and the Discipline.
The caution here is that the Lord is on his throne. It is he who will lead the formation and growth of the Global Methodist Church, if that is to succeed. In the words of Gamaliel, those who oppose it may find themselves fighting against God!
One thing some UM leaders fail to recognize is that their heavy-handed tactics only serve to make the case why churches and clergy should withdraw and join the GM Church. Most Methodists do not want to be part of an autocratic church run by power-conscious bishops who impose top-down conformity. Most Methodists do agree with their baptismal promise to resist injustice. Traditionalists are determined to resist the injustice being perpetrated against us by some UM bishops and conferences.
Those promoting a “big tent” Methodism are acting inconsistently with that vision when they attempt to coerce congregations to remain United Methodist against their will. How can traditionalists believe in their goodwill when we see the opposite on display in numerous situations and from the highest leaders in the church? Some even pretend that there can be a harmonious or even cooperative relationship between the UM Church and the GM Church following separation. The actions of militant leaders in these days are poisoning any possible future relationship.
It did not have to be this way. We have been and still are prepared to engage in a peaceful, fair separation. We are prepared to follow the model of Abraham and Lot or Paul and Barnabas. But if forced into a corner, we are determined to boldly stand for our understanding of the Scriptures and the Gospel. If necessary, we are resolved to follow the example of Moses, standing in faith on God’s promises and watching to see how he will glorify himself in the midst of animosity and conflict. We all know how that story turned out.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. Image: Creative Commons. Trailer screenshot, from DVD The Ten Commandments, 50th Anniversary Collection; Paramount, 2006.
Firebrand Magazine: May 1, 2022, was the official launch of the Global Methodist Church. This begins a season of transition for many pastors and churches. UMC Bishop Mike Lowry has stated that, effective on that date, he withdrew from the UMC Council of Bishops to unite to the Global Methodist Church. He takes this step in response to a notice from the Council of Bishops that the Book of Discipline prevents him from serving on the Transitional Leadership Council of the Global Methodist Church while simultaneously holding credentials in the UMC. What follows is both the initial letter from the Council of Bishops and Bishop Lowry’s response.
Letter sent to Bishop Mike Lowry from Bishop Cynthia Harvey, President of the Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church:
April 21, 2022
Bishop Michael J. Lowry
Dear Bishop Lowry:
Greetings to you in the name of the risen Christ. I pray you and your families are well and that you have found time during this season to experience God’s ongoing grace and power in your life that becomes so profoundly evident in this season of Easter.
Today, I write to ask for clarification on your relationship to the Global Methodist Church as we anticipate the pending launch on May 1. In your current role on the Transition Leadership Council, should you choose to remain on the TLC once the GMC launches, I trust that you understand that you will be required to surrender your United Methodist Clergy credentials as there is no disciplinary provision authorizing an ordained United Methodist minister to hold membership simultaneously in another denomination. Upon joining another denomination, membership in The United Methodist Church is terminated. This was upheld by the Judicial Council in decision 696. In the case of bishops, you will also be expected to resign from the episcopal office in accordance with paragraph 408.4 of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2016.
I would hope to have a conversation with you by May 1 as to your current standing with the Global Methodist Church and your decision. This is a matter of ultimate integrity to the covenant relationship you entered into at your ordination and to the United Methodist Church that ordained you, elected you, and consecrated you.
In these times of transition, our prayer is that we might bless and send each other into new forms of Methodism in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Grace and Peace,
Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey
Council of Bishops, President
Response to the Council of Bishops sent by Bishop Mike Lowry:
April 28, 2022
Bishop Cynthia Harvey,
President of the Council of Bishops, The United Methodist Church
Bishop Bob Farr,
President of the South Central Jurisdiction College of Bishops, The United Methodist Church
Dear Bishops Harvey and Farr,
I am writing in response to Bishop Harvey’s April 21, 2022 email letter on behalf of the Council of Bishops of The United Methodist Church instructing me that I must either resign from the Transitional Leadership Council prior to the formal launch of the Global Methodist Church on May 1, 2022 or face termination of my membership in the United Methodist Church and resignation from the episcopal office consistent with ¶408.4 of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2016 and Judicial Council Decision 696.
Under ¶ 360.1 of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2016, I am notifying you that I am withdrawing from the Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church to unite with the Global Methodist Church as of May 1, 2022. No certificate of conference membership was issued to me when I was ordained in The United Methodist Church. Effective May 1, 2022 I resigned from the episcopal office in the United Methodist Church per ¶408.4 of The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, 2016.
I take this action with a heavy heart and deep grief. I am thankful for the great nurturing and guidance I have received from the United Methodist Church over the course of my life. I have been richly blessed by friendships and support from a numerous cloud of witnesses across the face of the church universal, including members of the Council of Bishops. Nonetheless, Jesus is Lord. It is first and foremost in allegiance to my Lord and Savior that I take this action. Such a move on my part merits a rendering to Christians of good-will the reasons which impel me to leave the United Methodist denomination after more than 47 years of ministry and join the newly emerging Global Methodist Church.
In your letter you [Bishop Harvey] state, “This is a matter of ultimate integrity to the covenant relationship you entered into at your ordination.” While I agree that this is an issue of “ultimate integrity,” I perceive a significant disagreement over what constitutes “ultimate integrity” and where our ultimate allegiance lays. Both at my ordination as an elder and my consecration as a bishop in the United Methodist denomination my vow was, as of first importance, taken to God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Secondarily, vows were offered to the institutional expression of the branch of the Church Universal known as The United Methodist Church. I pledged to both God and that Church to uphold the Discipline of the United Methodist Church. This I have done with full faithfulness and manifest integrity. Regretfully, I perceive that the institutional expression of The United Methodist Church has strayed in significant ways from faithfully upholding its own stated Discipline and, even more so, departed from the full truth of the gospel. Psalm 119 reminds us: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path. I have sworn an oath and confirmed it, to observe your righteous ordinances” (Psalm 119:105-106, NRSV). The Apostle Paul admonishes us: “We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:23-25, NRSV).
The presenting issue, characterized by a dispute over our understanding of human sexuality, more specifically whether or not clergy should be allowed to perform same-gender marriages and whether it is permissible to ordain “self-avowed practicing homosexuals,” masks the deeper and truly significant disagreement over what constitutes fidelity to the historic confession of the Christian faith expressed in the normative nature of Holy Scripture as the primary rule of faith, the ecumenical creeds, the Articles of Religion, and Wesley’s Standard Sermons. Put succinctly, the massive iceberg beneath the roiling waters of our looming separation is the ongoing argument over just what constitutes the theological and moral foundations of contemporary Methodism.
I believe “We are in a fight for the faith delivered once for all” (Jude 3, CEB). My decision to withdraw from The United Methodist Church in order to unite with the Global Methodist Church is a response to the ongoing struggle to rediscover and reclaim the historic Wesleyan understanding of the Christian faith anchored in the Holy Trinity and welded to Christ as Lord and Savior. In our day and time, I believe that the expression of Christianity from both the so-called “right” and “left” of North American culture have been captured and co-opted by the cult of contemporary secularism in its various and diverse disguises. Bluntly, the Christian gospel is neither the left-wing of the Democratic party at prayer nor the right-wing of the Republican party soiled by a disdain for the truth. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ transcends all petty pretenders of our idolatrous worship of contemporary culture, including but not limited to hedonism, racism, sexism, greed, and rampant narcissism.
All of us, myself most definitely included, must confess to our complicity to a current cultural captivity and repent of our sin (both individually and corporately). The time for theological toleration saturated with moral indifference is long past. The reality before us is of a diseased Christianity [of both the right and left] that must be countered by “rediscovering radical allegiance to Christ, recognizing the reality of the battle we are in, and reclaiming core Christian orthodoxy” (see A Fight for the Faith Delivered Once for All — Firebrand Magazine, June 29, 2020). The offer of new life in Christ is gracefully given by the Holy and Sovereign Lord of the Universe. Throughout my 47 plus years of ordained ministry, I have been engaged in and remain committed to ministry with, to, and for all people. I believe I see a movement of the Holy Spirit in the current renewal of the Church Universal liberated from cultural Christendom. It is to this higher commitment that I rededicate myself in uniting with the Global Methodist Church on May 1, 2022.
Yours in Christ,
Bishop Mike Lowry
Image by Benjamin Davies on Unsplash
Do United Methodist congregations own their buildings? What is a trust? Can the United Methodist trust be revoked? Is there a legal process for disaffiliating from the UM Church separate from what is in the Book of Discipline? When might it make sense to use the legal process, rather than the Discipline’s process? When might a local church need an attorney, and when might it not need one? What legal steps should a local church take to prepare for disaffiliation?
During this confusing time in The United Methodist Church, it is important to have clear, factual answers to the many questions surrounding disaffiliation.
Good News sponsored a Webinar (and posted HERE) to help answer these and other questions and provide helpful information.
Understanding church trust law can help your church discern when it is appropriate to use an attorney and when it is not needed.
The presenter was Lloyd Lunceford, Esq. of the firm Taylor Porter in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He has practiced law since 1984, with emphases in higher education, mass communications, commercial litigation, and church property laws. He served for many years on the board of the Presbyterian Lay Committee, the Presbyterian equivalent of Good News. He was involved in many church property cases during the separation of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and has a wealth of knowledge and experience in this area. You can read more about him at https://www.taylorporter.com/our-attorneys/lloyd-j-lunceford.
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Kenneth Tanner
Our closest galactic neighbor, Andromeda, is 2.5 million light-years away. She dwarfs our galaxy and contains a trillion stars.
The energy that fuels all those stars and has kept them in a spiral for 13 billion years is measurable, but who has the instruments or the time? The best we can do is make estimates.
Our witness and wisdom say that a first-century baby born to a peasant Jewish teenager, a baby whose stepfather was a carpenter, is the One who spoke this galaxy into fiery substance and perpetual motion from nothing way back when.
And our tradition claims that this human is the One who spoke another hundred billion galaxies into existence from no substance that existed before – ex nihilo in the ancient tongue.
One of the scriptural stories about this human tells us that on the night before he suffered for the cosmos he created – that he loves from eternity before his own life – he took a towel and a basin of water and washed the feet of his friends.
You cannot wash someone’s feet without getting low to the ground, on your knees.
In the world of his time, the host of a meal would not be the one to wash the feet of his guests. This was the task of a servant.
When Jesus wraps a towel around his waist and washes the feet of his disciples he gives us a portrait of the unseen Father, who holds all things together – visible and invisible – as an unassuming, humble servant.
When we dare to mess around with the invisible structures by which God holds the visible universe together – splitting atoms, for instance – we witness the awesome energy generated by the smallest (unwise) manipulation of his handiwork. Yet this incalculable energy – even the smallest fraction of it leaves us in awe – is harnessed to an extreme humility.
This divine humility, incarnate in Jesus Christ, is the source of all the energy in the cosmos.
What this moment at the last supper reveals, what this washing of feet shows us, is that the power of God has its origin not in what fallen human imagination supposes – not in great demonstrations of might, of subatomic or interstellar power – but in innumerable divine acts of indiscriminate, behind-the-scenes, and costly stewardship.
He literally cares for all things, great and small, from what may even seem useless to us – the things we would throw away – to things of such exquisite beauty we are left without words.
As revealed in the human Jesus, God is the one among us who serves, kneeling on the floor of the universe, towel in hand, ready to do the menial work that holds all things together, the work of a love that does not seek attention, does not boast, is not rude or jealous, that keeps no record of wrongs, that does not fail.
What does it mean that the One who creates all stars and fuels their fires is on his knees serving humans as their human brother?
Let me suggest that it means that most human projection of what it means to be a god or the God in the history of humans – and most human imagination of what it means to be powerful – is deeply mistaken.
One makes oneself vulnerable to wash feet in a world without proper sanitation and sewers but this sacred gospel detail about humbly kneeling and scrubbing his friend’s feet is not nearly the lowest place this human (who is somehow also God) goes or will go to love the cosmos.
This human who is God descends further still, down into death, entering by his own terrible death into the death of every human, for every time the one human nature we all share dies in one of our fellow humans we all of us die again, and he dies again with us, and further still: Jesus descends into all our hells.
One of the pastors of the first Christians, Athanasius, says that Jesus keeps falling further than our hells and his descent is not slowed until he is beneath the deepest falling human, down to the edges of non-existence, to rescue us, and to give the one human nature we all share permanence.
He is not stingy with his kind of existence. He wants his fellow humans to participate in his never-ending divine life.
He gives humans not the permanence of Andromeda but his own permanence, and with all humans somehow gives the cosmos the gift of his eternity.
As a fellow human, Jesus is our mediator and advocate, made like his brothers and sisters in every way so that he might be One who rules and judges those whose existence he understands from the inside, because he lived our human story with us in the most vulnerable, authentic, and beautiful way.
In Jesus, God has a mother and a betrayer. In Jesus, God has scars and God has memories: of meals and laughter with his friends and cold nights huddled together against the desert air in cloaks, he recalls storms at sea and a grinding emptiness at the tomb of his friend.
In Jesus, God knows hunger and thirst and loneliness and pain. In Jesus, God knows the human devastation of divorce and disease and death.
In Jesus, the One like a son of man who has been given all authority in heaven and on earth is also one of us. And Jesus discloses a God who rules all things by a humility we cannot even begin to grasp. His power is disclosed in weakness and poverty, by surrender and trust.
The One who is to be our judge renders his judgment on his human brothers and sisters from the brutal cross to which we nailed him: “Father, forgive them. They do not know what they are doing.”
And he is now and forever there with the Father in the flesh, for us, and we are there close to the heart of the Father in Jesus, as his body. We are mystically one with God in the humanity of Jesus and God is one with us humans in the Son and loves us.
Jesus remains always the servant of his beloved cosmos and of everything and everyone in it and that’s what makes him truly Lord of all.
Kenneth Tanner is pastor of Church of the Holy Redeemer in Rochester Hills, Michigan, and author of Vulnerable God (forthcoming from Baker Books, Fall 2023). Image: “Christ Ruler of All,” by Lyuba Yaskiv, Iconart Modern Sacred Art Gallery in Lviv, Ukraine.
By Scott McDermott
Learning how to pray when our life is hurting is one of the most important lessons we can ever learn in life, yet so few of us have been taught just how to do it. Personal pain is a part of everyone’s experience. As Jesus teaches, the storms of life happen to all of us (Matthew 7:24-27). At times that pain may stem from some deep personal disappointments while at other times it may come from the loss of a relationship or the loss of a loved one.
It was during a season of personal pain that the Lord taught me a way to pray that has helped me get through some of the darkest seasons of my life. These six steps proved to be transformative, and I pray they will be the same for you as you walk through your own pain. These six steps are not new. Not at all. In fact, these six steps are woven throughout the book of Psalms, one of the powerful books of prayers and songs of worship in the Bible. So, as we pray them, we follow an ancient and Spirit-inspired path to healing and restoration.
1. Choose to lift your eyes to the Lord. Here is how the Psalmist describes this: “I lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from? My help comes from the LORD, the Maker of heaven and earth” (Psalm 121:1,2).
One can almost imagine the people of the Bible making their way up to Jerusalem for one of three annual feasts singing this Psalm. Their journey would take them along some difficult and treacherous terrain. The terrain they traveled must have reminded them of their very own life experiences. After all, life can be difficult. And yet this Psalm reminds us of something very important. Our help is not found in our own strength, it is only found in the strength that God can give. God is the one who can get us through all that we are experiencing no matter how difficult.
When we go through seasons of personal pain it is all too easy to become overwhelmed by it all. In lifting our hearts to God, however, we learn how to give direction to our pain. In other words, we overcome our problems by learning how to reach above them. And that is what prayer does. It reminds us where our help comes from. Prayer gives us the ability to reach above our problems to the One who gives us the grace to overcome them.
When we focus on God, his love, his faithfulness, and his goodness, we begin to find the hope and strength that cannot be found anywhere else. When I have sought to live into this, my prayers often begin with something like this: “Lord, I am looking to you and not to myself for all I need. You are the one who can help me. You are Lord over all my life and all my circumstances.” In doing so I am directing my life to look to God and not to myself for all I need.
2. Be honest with God. Being open and honest before God is the next step in learning how to work through personal pain. Many want to ignore this step, and simply skip to another theme, but that is not how true restoration comes. We can never overcome our pain by ignoring it. God won’t let us. Restoration only comes by learning how to unburden our hearts before God. Psalm 77 is a great example of this. At times it is filled with mighty declarations about God’s mighty activity, while at other times it is filled with expressions of anguish and distress. Psalm 77:2 says: “When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands and my soul refused to be comforted.” Deep faith is found in learning how to unburden your heart before God. How have I done this?
• I ask the Lord to show me where my heart is for that day. At times, especially during seasons of loss, I find that my heart was filled with sadness, frustration, anger, questions, and sorrow. By asking God to reveal what was deep inside, I permit God to search the depths of my heart (Psalm 139:23,24) so that nothing is hidden from him.
• I have learned that there is power in learning how to give expression to my own pain. By naming it I could better release all that I was experiencing to God (1 Peter 5:7).
• I learned that God welcomed my deep confession. After all, when we make such confessions we can feel embarrassed or ashamed, but the truth is God’s love never fails us. In seasons like this I remember saying to God: “Lord you know I am not proud of how I feel, but I want my life to be right before you.” And then I would make my deep confessions before him. In the lowest moments of life, God’s love and grace still abound to us.
3. Express your complete trust in God. One must be careful to never get stuck in step two. It is always easier to complain than believe. That is what makes this next step so important. Psalm 62:8 reminds us that we are to: “Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge.” I cannot emphasize enough how significant this expression of trust is for moving forward. I have seen it shift the atmosphere of my life and many others I have prayed with.
So, what does this step look like? For me, I have often experienced it like this. After pouring my heart out, I simply say something like this to God: “Lord I do not understand all that is happening or even why it is happening, but I want you to know this, I trust You! I trust even when I don’t understand.”
4. Release everything to God. Remember all those expressions of pain in step two? Now is the time to lift them before God. As Psalm 34:19 reminds us “A righteous man may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all.” Usually, I go back over all the things I have confessed in step two and release them one by one to God. I will say something like: “Lord, I release all of this to you. It is yours. My life and all my days belong to you. Take these areas of my life and use them to accomplish your purposes.”
5. Look for signs of God working. Even when we are in the darkest places of life, God never deserts us. God is always there and God is always working. Psalm 139 declares that God will make himself known even in the most difficult places of our lives. “If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.” God will always be there for me.
When my daughter had cancer, we would sit around the dinner table every night reflecting on where we saw God at work that day. Some of those days were dark and difficult and yet we always found evidence of God working in our lives without fail. One day as we traveled for one of her regular chemotherapy treatments, we were over halfway on our hour drive when my daughter informed us that she had forgotten the favorite teddy bear that she brought with her for each treatment. Due to the scheduling of the treatment, we didn’t have time to turn around and get it. I can still remember how she cried.
When we got to the hospital we made our way to the treatment room and they readied her for the next round of chemo. Some time into the treatment something amazing happened. Two volunteers were working their way around this large treatment ward passing out teddy bears to all the children receiving treatment. I couldn’t believe it. I said to my daughter, “Look Bec. Do you see this! You may have forgotten your teddy bear, but God has not forgotten you!”
God cares about our every need and he will find a way to make himself known to you.
6. Take the time to praise God. When those moments occur, remember to thank God for being so faithful. As Psalm 107:1 reminds us, “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.” Forever is a long time! Most importantly for us, it also means that God’s goodness and love will make itself known in every season of life. Even in the most difficult season. Giving thanks helps us to see the good that God is doing and helps remind us that we are not alone as we travel this road. God is always with us.
Praying this pattern doesn’t mean that restoration will come instantly. The healing of the heart takes time. As we walk this journey with this prayer, learning how to look to God, being honest with him, declaring our trust and unburdening our hearts, looking for the signs of his working, and thanking him, we can rest assured of this, God will one day bring a new day into our lives. God will get each us through our lowest moment. You can count on it! God is faithful!
Scott McDermott has been the lead pastor of The Crossing United Methodist Church in Washington Crossing, Pennsylvania since 1993. Dr. McDermott has a BA and an MA in Biblical Studies, an MDiv, and an MPh. He also has a PhD in New Testament Studies from Drew University. Image: Shutterstock.
By Steve Beard
As I watched the evening news during the haunting first few weeks of the scorched-earth invasion of Ukraine, I could not help but see Kateryna Shadrina’s vibrant image of the Madonna and Child superimposed over the video footage on television of mothers carrying their young children in a panicked evacuation of their homeland.
Although I have half-a-dozen depictions of the Mother and Child in my office, the liquid blues and electric yellows and oranges give Shadrina’s a different dynamic. The 27-year-old artist is an iconographer from Lviv, Ukraine.
Her image wreaked havoc on me.
Visual arts animate the imagination in ways that words alone cannot. To see Michelangelo’s Pietà – the sculpture of the lifeless body of Jesus being cradled by Mary after the crucifixion – is to engage a part of the mind and soul that mere nouns and verbs do not touch. Through painting, Van Gogh helped us visualize the story of the Good Samaritan, while Rembrandt illuminated the story of the Prodigal Son. El Greco told biblical stories in Spanish Renaissance fine art, Howard Finster preached the gospel through American folk art, and Marc Chagall challenged us to see the crucifixion from a different vantage point.
Let me be clear, I am not an art critic. I like what I like. But I also understand there is much to learn through the vision of an artist. “The first demand any work of art makes on us is surrender,” observed C.S. Lewis in An Experiment in Criticism. “Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.”
Four years ago, I was drawn to an essay written by John A. Kohan in Image journal about a new generation of young iconographers from Lviv. Icons are a very specialized field of religious visual art – a practice of spiritual devotion within the church dating back to the third century. Over time, stylistic peculiarities developed that differentiated icons from other forms of religious art.
Many of these contemporary Ukrainian artists are notably utilizing unusual color schemes and unexpected textures. The images are arresting and have nudged my own personal spiritual imagination in new ways.
Kohan – who had worked for Time magazine for more than 20 years and is an avid sacred art collector – had been drawn to this fresh expression of ancient spiritual artistry because of the “intriguing new variations on traditional tempera-painted holy images” and because the illustrations were being created on “unusual grounds like glass, found materials, and steel-and-copper-wire tapestry, all in an eclectic mix of abstract, neo-Byzantine, and Ukrainian folk art styles.”
His essay in Image was my introduction to the work of marvels such as Ivanka Demchuk, Lyuba Yatskiv, Natalya Rusetska, and Sviatoslav Vladyka. All these artists – and numerous others – are uniquely showcased by Iconart Modern Sacred Art Gallery in Lviv and its website.
After the invasion of Ukraine, the network evening news began broadcasting from Lviv – 40 miles from the border of Poland. That sparked my memory of Kohan’s Image story. The Rev. Kenneth Tanner, an old friend from college, also introduced me to a handful of other artists from Ukraine through Instagram.
Kateryna Kuziv. “Appearance of Jesus Christ to Maria Magdalena.”
While my low-church Methodist heritage does not offer a framework for iconography, I fully respect and appreciate that the imagery expresses a mystical spiritual dynamic for sacramental Christians that far defies the category of mere “beautiful art.” The pieces are often referred to as “windows to heaven.” Icons are meant to cultivate the soul and be an aid in prayer.
“I believe that art should testify of beauty. The search for it always leads to God as the original source – that is why I choose iconography,” observed Kateryna Kuziv (born 1993). “Beauty always points to something more, a sense of God’s presence. Creating icons for me is a pursuit of God, of paradise as a state of being with Him, a reproduction of the transformed reality, of the purified nature of humanity from sin.”
Natalaya Rusetska. “Resurrection.”
Other artists in this spiritual stream describe their work in similarly transcendent terms.
• Natalaya Rusetska (born in 1984): “My art is about the eternal, the timeless, the extraterrestrial, the hidden. One of the inherent features of sacred art is symbolism. This is a figurative creation that reveals the inner essence of the depicted. Sacred art affects and changes the spiritual state of the human.”
Ulyana Tomkevych. “Doubting Thomas.”
• Ulyana Tomkevych (born in 1981): “Painting the icon is the special conversation with the Lord and also with oneself. The silent prayer, that gives me the feeling of inner peace and harmony. This is the time for rethinking the Bible stories and the Ten Commandments in the context of the modern human life because the Bible is timeless. I think that first of all God is Love and Mercy. And the daily icon painting helps me to live my life with this understanding.”
A prescribed new vision
“My parents are doctors, so they did not plan for me to become an artist,” said Ivanka Demchuk in an interview with The Day several years ago. At a very early age, she had serious issues with her eyesight (astigmatism, farsightedness). Her ophthalmologist prescribed an intriguing treatment: “To increase the visual load in one eye, I had to obscure the other eye and then do a lot of painting, sculpting, and coloring. From that time on, I attended children’s art clubs, an art school, took an interest in classic paintings.”
Ivanka Demchuk. “Hidden life in Nazareth.”
Today, we are all the beneficiaries. Demchuk’s artistic imagination is on full display in a particularly captivating rendering above entitled “Hidden Life in Nazareth” portraying the holy family as Jesus takes his first steps as a toddler. In the background, there is laundry drying on a clothesline and a worktable with carpentry tools. I had never contemplated the first step of someone who would become known as “The Way” – but surely, there had to be one to be celebrated and pondered. Demchuk’s work helps give believers like me a more panoramic sense to the Incarnation.
Long before Putin’s bloody invasion of Ukraine, Demchuk (born in 1990) believed in the timeless relevance of stories such as the Good Samaritan and St. George the Dragon Slayer battling evil. In the context of the current barbaric war, some of her images take on even deeper significance and symbolism. “The evolution of human consciousness has not gone far enough to render us qualitatively different from people who lived two millennia ago,” she has observed. “We are facing the same problems and issues; we may become traitors just as those who crucified Christ.”
“A sword shall pierce your soul”
“Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: ‘This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too’” (Luke 2:34-35).
The soul pierce. What a gothic declaration to a young mother. Unlike any other human walking the earth, Mary knew Jesus with an unparalleled knowledge and intimacy. In understated fashion, the biblical text declares, “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).
Kateryna Shadrina’s imagery of the Madonna and Child gives an almost expansive stargazing night scope to Mary’s experience. Mother and Child have been artistically portrayed since the era of the catacombs. The great poet Dante referred to Mary as “the lovely sapphire whose grace ensapphires the heaven’s brightest sphere.” Shadrina’s brilliant color scheme reflects that poetic sentiment. Her insightful artistic collection has rejuvenated my own spiritual imagination when I revisit biblical stories I have read for decades.
Kateryna Shadrina. “Victima.”
Shadrina’s exhibition at Iconart Gallery earlier this year was entitled “Victima” and reflected her views on sacrifice, faith, and love. In addition to her artistry, her thoughts on the subjects are equally compelling.
“Where there is true love, there will always be a place for sacrifice. Sacrifice can be considered as the level at which the power of love is measured,” she writes in the exhibit’s narrative. “And the standard in this is God – the perfection of love. He sacrificed the most precious thing for our hope. But in our pragmatic world, it is very difficult to weigh the pros and cons so that one’s sacrifice is not made in vain. We are focused on the terrestrial things, we catch the moment and don’t know exactly whether to think about the salvation of the soul and the kingdom of heaven.”
Art in bomb shelters.
Because missiles do not recognize beauty, truth, or faith, Ukrainians have been storing precious artwork in bunkers. “There is an egomaniac in Moscow who doesn’t care about killing children, let alone destroying art,” Ihor Kozhan, director of the Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum in Lviv, told the Washington Post. “If our history and heritage are to survive, all art must go underground.”
There are, of course, pieces of great beauty and value that cannot be hidden in bunkers. Statues have been wrapped in foam and plastic. “The stained-glass windows of the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, founded in 1360, are covered in metal to protect them from Russian rockets,” reports the New York Times.
Maria Prymachenko in 1936. British Museum.
Early on in the invasion, Putin’s army targeted a museum in Ivankiv, 50 miles northwest of Kyiv. Housed in this seemingly insignificant civilian target were 25 paintings by Maria Prymachenko (1909-1997), a world-renowned Ukrainian folk artist who wowed both Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall.
“The museum was the first building in Ivankiv that the Russians destroyed,” the artist’s great-granddaughter Anastasiia Prymachenko told The Times of London. “I think it is because they want to destroy our Ukrainian culture.”
In a truly heroic gesture, a friend of Anastasiia’s ran into the burning museum and saved as many of the artworks as he was able. “When he saw the smoke from the museum he ran, broke the museum window and went into the fire,” she reported. “He couldn’t take everything out but he knew the most famous paintings were by Prymachenko. Since he only had a few minutes, he just took these paintings, and a few other works of art.”
Prymachenko created brightly-colored mythical and fantastical creatures and her work was called primitive, naïve, or the “art of a holy heart.” With critically acclaimed exhibitions literally around the globe, she stated her motivation in utterly tender terms. “I make sunny flowers just because I love people, I work for joy and happiness so that all peoples could love each other and live like flowers on this Earth,” she once said.
Allowing art to shine
Christianity around the globe is largely represented by three major expressions: Catholicism, Protestantism, and Orthodoxy. Within Ukraine, the vast majority of the population is Orthodox. However, Ukrainian Greek Catholicism is the dominant expression of faith in Lviv and in much of western Ukraine (the “Greek” in the title is about its Byzantine liturgical worship style, not about Greek ethnicity).
“Pilate condemns Jesus” by Ivanka Demchuk.
The contemporary iconographers in Lviv come from a spiritual lineage of survival that knows what it is like to hold fast to life and faith underground. After World War II, Joseph Stalin mercilessly attempted to dissolve and destroy the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. It was forced to worship in clandestine secrecy. The sanctuaries, art, and treasuries were summarily confiscated and handed over to Moscow’s Orthodox Church.
“Harsh repressions followed,” observed Dr. Nadia M. Diuk, then vice president of the National Endowment for Democracy, in a 2016 Atlantic Council report. “Ukrainian Catholic priests were beaten, tortured, and given long prison sentences. Tens of thousands of religious laity met the same fate. UGCC Metropolitan Josef Slipiy was exiled to a hard labor camp in Siberia. The church went underground: services were held in the forests, or in private homes where they dared. Children were baptized in secret and religious rites performed clandestinely, while the Soviet state continued its assault on priests, monks, nuns, and the Catholic faithful, offering respite within the Russian Orthodox Church or repression as the price for refusal to cut ties with the bishop of Rome.” (Dr. Diuk, herself ethnically Ukrainian, died in 2019.)
In 1994, Jane Perlez reported in the New York Times: “While many priests died in concentration camps and believers were persecuted, it was the biggest underground church in the former Soviet Union. Rites were administered, priests ordained and bishops consecrated secretly during these years.”
Part of the legacy of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms in 1989 was the restoration of the legal status to this ruthlessly persecuted church. On August 19, 1990, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church received possession – once again – of the historic Cathedral of St. George in Lviv. Tens of thousands rejoiced inside and outside the reclaimed sanctuary.
It is not difficult to see the new generation of imaginative artists and iconographers as a significantly blossoming manifestation of relentless faithfulness during decades of Soviet suppression.
“The time when I create the icon is my way of praying, questioning, searching, the time of being with God, before God, the state of happiness and peace,” said Katheryna Kuziv about her art. “The aim is to express the ‘incarnation’ of God’s Word in a visual image, where a touch of God’s reality must take place to awaken a longing for God, to promote the pursuit of Him.”
Although once viewed solely as a distinct art form within Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, John Kohan (spiritualartpilgrim.com) has hopes that an ecumenical reappraisal is taking place with a new generation. “Expanding the range of prototypes of Christ, the Virgin Mary, angels, saints, and key moments in sacred history can only make these images, which are uniquely created for personal prayer and corporate devotion, more accessible to larger numbers of Christians – a development in sacred art-making, surely worth celebrating in the universal church,” he wrote.
During the 1990s, there was not a more popular art commentator on British television than the late Sister Wendy Beckett (1930-2018). For more than 40 years, she lived in obscurity as a reclusive nun devoted to prayer in the middle of the night. However, the plain-spoken elderly nun – an Oxford-educated amateur art historian – became a media sensation with her insightful BBC/PBS tutorials on various works of art – from cave drawings to Andy Warhol, including iconography.
While she had detractors, Sister Wendy most certainly understood the spiritual dimension of icons. She knew that the apparent surrealism was often utilized to invite our eye to gaze at a world unseen. “They are drawing us out of our worldly reality into their world, the true world,” she wrote in Encounters with God, “summoning us to leave behind all that is earthly and to breathe an air more pure than we can understand.”
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News. Art above: “Madonna and Child” by Kateryna Shadrina (left) and Hidden life in Nazareth” by Ivanka Demchuk (right). Special thanks to Iconart Gallery in Lviv, Ukraine.