Practicing the Practice of the Presence of God

            I started reading Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God with the hopeful expectation of finding sage counsel on how I might, well, practice living in the presence of God at all times. 

            When I first picked up the book, we were a family of 3, well, 5, if you count our two dogs, which I ought to.  At that point, our family’s life was mostly punctuated by rhythms of dishes and laundry, naptimes and bedtime routines.  That made finishing the book, even though it’s really short, take a while.  By the time I finished, our daughter was born.  Now add diapers, more laundry, and baby dishes and utensils to the dance that is our life, which we now mostly carry out with one arm at a time, because the other one is holding a baby or playing cars or catch with a 4-year old.  

            “Praying the hours” in the classical sense isn’t exactly on the table.  Quiet hours came in the middle of the night after you’d rocked a baby back to sleep.  Times of morning prayer are often ended now with the “Our Father,” but with our oldest waking up and calling, “Daddy!” or “Mommy!”

            There’s a holiness in all of that, for sure.  Sometimes that holiness isn’t self-evident.  Like when you’re on your third, unsuccessful attempt at laying your child down for sleep, and you hope it sticks not so you can watch your favorite show, but so you can finish the dishes and go to sleep.

            Somewhere along the line, I read this prayer from Brother Lawrence: “Lord of all pots and pans and things…make me a saint by getting meals and washing up the plates!”

            I started praying at the sink, “God of pots and pans and things, make me a saint by washing sippy cups.”  Or at the changing table, “God of diapers and wipes and things, make me a saint by changing diapers.”

            That little prayer started work on me.  Or God started working on me through that prayer.  I figured Brother Lawrence might be on to something, and I ought to listen more closely.  So I picked up the book and started reading.

            It wasn’t long before I started finding the sort of sage counsel I went looking for.  The first part of the book is a collection of conversation recorded by M. Beaufort, who corresponded with Brother Lawrence and learned from him.   He says:

            [Brother Lawrence] told me that all consists in one hearty renunciation of everything which we are sensible does not lead to God.  That we might accustom ourselves to a continual conversation with Him, with freedom and simplicity.  That we need only to recognize God intimately present with us, to address ourselves to Him every moment, that we may beg His assistance for knowing His will in things doubtful, and for rightly performing those which we plainly see He requires of us, offering them to Him before we do them, and giving him thanks when we have done.”

            The edition I read included collections of Conversations, Letters, Spiritual Maxims, and General Thoughts.  All of them pointed to, reiterated, and fleshed out this idea of “continual conversation with [God]” and recognizing “God intimately present with us.”

            I found reading the Conversations and Letters to be like overhearing two friends describing a wonderful trip they’d just taken, and I’m all the while saying, “I want to go there too!”  In this case, the “there” is the intimate and continual presence of God, where one finds peace, joy, and utter contentment.  

            If the Conversations and Letters painted the picture of the destination, then the Maxims and General Thoughts opened up the map.  In those sections I was grateful to find things like numbered paragraphs that said (in other words) things like, “Here are the steps to how you practice the presence of God.”  

            1. Practice a great purity of life, seeking to think and do only what is pleasing to God, and humbly asking forgiveness when we don’t

            2. Keep your soul’s gave fixed on God

            3. Look to God, if only for a moment, before, during, and after any task

            4. When your mind and soul wander to the world, gently bring it back with a simple prayer

            5. This is hard; keep practicing; you’ll find freedom, love, and joy

            6. Full joy in God means leaving behind all manner of self-centeredness

            Maybe it’s obvious to everyone else, but it helped me to hear Brother Lawrence say, “Make it your study, before taking up any task to look to God, be it only for a moment, as also when you are engaged thereon, and lastly when you have performed the same.”  This is a habit that takes practice, he says.  The habit starts with a pure heart and life that desires to please God.

            These later sections even included some examples of prayers Brother Lawrence would say, like, “My God, I am wholly Thine.  O God of Love, I love thee with all my heart.  Lord, make my heart even as Thine.”

            Those were the sorts of lessons I expected when I picked up Brother Lawrence’s little book.  And I was grateful for them.  But then there’s this part I wasn’t expecting, and this is the part that has made the most lasting impact on me.  In the last few letters, beginning with the 11th, Brother Lawrence writes about suffering and the practice of the presence of God.

            To his companion, he writes, “I wish you could convince yourself that God is often (in some sense) nearer to us, and more effectually present with us, in sickness than in health.”  That wasn’t the surprising part.  We hope that is true, and plenty of people describe a closeness to god in their time of need.  Think of Psalm 34:18, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted.”  And Jesus, in the beatitudes, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Mt. 5:4).

            God’s nearness to those who are suffering and in trouble isn’t new to me.  But what surprised me was this testimony from Brother Lawrence himself, “I have been often near expiring…I did not pray for any relief, but I prayed for strength to suffer with courage, humility, and love.  Ah, how sweet it is to suffer with God!” [emphasis added]

            Hardly the sort of thing I say to members of my church when they are vomiting their way through the latest round of chemotherapy, or when their parent is in the hospital with Covid-19.

            I wondered how you get to a place where you don’t pray for relief from illness, but for strength so that you might suffer with God?

            Maybe we have to back up and remember that God, in Christ, suffered with and for us.  In Jesus, we have a savior who is able to “sympathize with our weakness” and our sufferings (Heb. 4:15).  

            I started contemplating the cross, not an empty one like we usually have in Protestant churches, but the cross on which Jesus hung and died.  That is the place where Jesus suffered and was “obedient to the point of death” (Phil. 2:8).  Not only that his obedience led him to his crucifixion, but also that in his dying, he was obedient by continually trusting God.

            The cross is the place of Jesus’ suffering with and for us.  How can our own suffering lead us to the cross, where we are with our Lord who sympathizes with us?  There is a certain loneliness that comes with sickness, a feeling that even though others may have experienced something like what I am experiencing, no one really knows.  No one, except, as we sometimes sing, but Jesus.

            Maybe that’s where the sweetness comes in for Brother Lawrence?  Communion, even in suffering, with Jesus.  To know that you’re not alone, that you’ve got a friend in Jesus who understands and who will stay with you no matter what.

            Or maybe it’s that Jesus shows us what it means to suffer with courage, humility, and love.  For starters, Jesus courageously stuck to his faith and faced the cross head on.  Jesus humbly said “not my will but yours be done.”  In love, he forgave those who did him wrong; and in love, he provided for his mother by commending her to John’s care.

            Maybe when we learn from Jesus how to suffer in those ways, then we are able to have an even deeper communion with him.  And not only that, but maybe we can begin got see that while our present season of suffering may seem like an eternity, it isn’t the last chapter of the story.  Resurrection is.

            I think Brother Lawrence would probably say that sort of trust in God is “easier said than done.”  That’s why it takes practice.  He would also say, though, that sort of trust in God is simple, like a child trusting her parent will come pick her up when she cries out in the night.  

            I’m still not sure what to do with Brother Lawrence’s “how sweet it is to suffer with God.”  I doubt that’s a line I’ll use at someone’s hospital bedside.  That feels both insensitive and disingenuous, especially as someone whose not done a lot of physical suffering.  

            Or maybe there is a way to say, I’m not sure how this works, but here’s a guy who was at the point of death and found a way to experience the power of God’s presence by praying not for relief, but for strength to suffer with courage, humility and love.  What do you think of that? 

            Since reading Practicing the Presence, I’ve been practicing.  Some days better than others, but I’m practicing.  And when I do, I find that God changes my heart while carrying out daily tasks and work.  That changed heart means a changed attitude, outlook, and disposition.  It makes me more open to God and available to my family.

            I haven’t given up on a set-aside time for prayer and Bible reading.  But when a time of quiet prayer gets cut short by a little voice crying, “Daddy!,” I’m more inclined to receive that as another invitation to God’s presence rather than an interruption.

            And I hope when my time to suffer comes—while I will probably still pray for relief—I hope I might ask God for strength to suffer with courage, humility and love, so that I can taste some of that sweetness Brother Lawrence is talking about.

Shifts in Ministry

“Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and yoru father’s house to the land that I will show you. …’ So Abram went…” -Gen. 12:1, 4

Other than Jesus, is there any greater example of faith in the Bible than Abram?  The story goes like this: “The Lord said…So Abram went…”  That’s faith.  One of the most remarkable parts of this story is that Abram leaves everything he knows for a land that, in our terms, is TBA.  Abram doesn’t know where he’s going, but he goes anyway.

In a lot of ways, this is the story of faith.  Don’t get me wrong, we know the ending of the story: Christ will come again in final victory.  God’s home will be among mortals.  There will be a new heaven and a new earth.

Even though we know the end of the story, though, that doesn’t mean we can predict the end of every chapter.  What will happen with grandma?  How will this school year go?  Will the job come through?  Can we keep this relationship together?

In each of these, we often step forward in faith, trusting the Lord will lead us into and through the uncharted territory we’ve found ourselves in.

New Normal

And, wow, are we in uncharted territory now.  At one point when we thought we were in the middle of the pandemic—you know, months ago—I shared in plenty of conversations about a “new normal,” about how this experience is redefining what will be normal going forward.  That some things will return to something that at least looks familiar, but other things that have changed will stay changed.

For a little while I imagined that from the perspective of church and ministry, we were sort of doing place-holder ministry.  We were keeping things going, stretching ourselves, responding to the moment, but that soon enough we’d be able to pick back up where we left off.  I spent a good bit of time sifting through CDC and health department guidance, interpreting Conference guidelines.  I was trying to get everyone safely back to the building.

A few weeks ago, the Lord pressed on my heart that I was asking the wrong questions.  And that I needed to redirect my focus.  Hear me out.  I’m not masking my personal desires with pious God-talk.  God said, “You’re asking the wrong questions.”

What we’re doing now is not place-holder ministry.  It is ministry.

Now, don’t get me wrong, we’re going to get back to the things we know.  One day, we’ll be back in the sanctuary.  One day, we’ll get to shake hands and hug.  One day, we’ll be belting out hymns.  But in the meantime, the word from the Lord is to “Go to a land that I will show you.”

What we’re doing now is not place-holder ministry.  It is ministry.  We are not biding our time or jogging in place waiting for the safe-crossing light to come on.  We are moving forward in faith.  To do that means we need to make some shifts in ministry.

6 Shifts

From In Church to At Home.  This has to do with worship and faith formation.  This is a shift from being gathered around the Lord’s Table to gathered around a coffee table.  When it comes to worship, how can you prepare, participate, and respond in worship?  Can another person or family join you, while maintaining safe distance—indoors or out?

For faith formation, when it comes to families with children, this is a shift from volunteers teaching kids, to the church empowering parents.  How can the church provide parents with resources, content, and connection as they take on the primary role of raising their kids in the faith?

From Gathered to Connected.  While we are not together in the flesh, maintaining connections with one another is perhaps more important now than ever.  What once happened casually when we all showed up in the same place at the same time, now requires more effort.

From Doing Missions to Being Good Neighbors.  Because of the pandemic our world has all of the sudden gotten smaller.  We feel this in a real way when our travel is reduced to the grocery store and work.  For the church that means we aren’t able to be involved in missions in the way we would like to be.  But what if when Jesus taught us to love our neighbors, he had in mind the people who lived next door.  You know, our neighbors?  How can we take responsibility for those closest to us—to encourage, call, serve them?

From Isolated to Interconnected.  While in some ways our world has gotten smaller, at the same time, the world has gotten bigger.  Maybe it’s all the news watching and Facebook scrolling, but we can’t help but be affected by movements happening outside of our community.  Like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  A highly contagious virus has been a tragic illustration of how we are all connected, even when we think we’re not.  We are learning that we are, in fact, our brother and sister’s keeper.

From Doing to Being.  Formerly it was easy to be defined by what we do.  I am an athlete.  I am an usher.  I sit here.  This is how I serve.  But when we aren’t able to “do” like usual, who are we?  Our faith teaches us that our identity comes from our relationship with God.  We are God’s children.  This is a time to lean into that relationship.  That may mean more stillness, or study, or silence.  None of which is wasted.  In his book Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson remembers his grandmother saying, “When you lean in close, you can’t help but be changed.”

Shift in Metrics.  We used to look at numbers like average weekly attendance and giving to determine how we’re doing.  Those old metrics were never the best indicators of how we’re doing.  And now we’re having to discover an entirely new way of answering the question, how do we know that we’re doing what we need to be doing, and doing it well?

Some of these shifts are not novel.  And some of them are more obvious than others.  How we flesh each one out is important for how we share in ministry right now.

What will stick, and what won’t is hard to tell.  But think about it like this: We’ve gotten used to having a Temple, but we’ve got to remember what it means to travel light with the tabernacle.

Destination TBD

Abram had no idea what was ahead of him.  But he knew God was with him.  So he went, journeying on by stages, the story says.  Knowing God was with him was all he needed to have enough faith to leave behind the things that were familiar.

Let’s go together, journeying on by stages.  It’s hard to know what’s ahead of us.  But God is with us.  And that’s more than enough.


*I expect to keep fleshing each of these out, at least for my own sake and also on here.  I wonder…what “shifts” are you seeing take place in your life, the church, faith, your work?

Remember Your Baptism

And Be Thankful!

We’ve come to remember and celebrate baptisms like birthdays, which is actually what they are.  In baptism, the Bible says we die to self and are raised with Christ.  Or, another way to say that—like how Jesus says it to Nicodemus in John 3—is we are “born again.”

At every baptism (at least in The UMC) the pastor declares a blessing that says, “Having been born through water and the Spirit, may you be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ who walks in the way that leads to life.”

baptism and preachersBeing born again is kind of old school evangelical language.  I’m not sure how much people say that any more. When we talk about being born again, maybe we think about big tent revivals and Billy Graham.  We have images of dramatic conversions, or coming down to the altar and leaving behind a life of drunkenness and self-indulgence, doing a complete 180 for Christ.

Those aren’t bad images to have.  Maybe they ring true for you.  Any way you slice it—whether you had a significant moment at a revival or at church camp, or you were baptized as a baby—baptism is about being born again. Let me take a moment to write about that it two ways:

When you are born again, you are born into a new family.  Official United Methodist teachings on baptism talk about baptism as an “initiation and incorporation” into the Body of Christ.”  Which means you are not just baptized into a specific church, but into Christ’s Church throughout space and time.

You are born again into Christ’s body, the Church, the family of faith. At baptisms, I like to look out at the congregation and think of the time Jesus told his disciples, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or other or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions…” (Mt. 10:29-30).

In baptism, the person being baptized is handed over (or hands himself over) to the pastor, congregation, and God.  All of the sudden, the church has a new little sister, and she all of the sudden has a new, big family.  And that family is responsible to surround her with a community of love and care, and to show her by their teaching and example to lead a life faith.


Baptism is also about being born into a new way of life.  A few years ago, I heard another pastor, Rev. Pete Scazarro, say, “You may have Jesus in your heart, but grandpa’s in your bones.” The point he was making is that learning to be part of what he called the new family of Jesus meant learning a new way of life.  And it takes time.

The new family of Jesus is characterized by practices like forgiveness, hospitality, peace-making, sacrificial love, gratitude, care for God’s good earth. We stay connected to one another and with God through habits like prayer, reading the family stories (the Bible) and learning from them, and coming to the table together at communion.  In short, the way of Jesus is defined by the way of the cross.

The ways and priorities of Jesus often conflict with the ways and priorities of everybody else—our work, communities, friends, sometimes even family members.  Thankfully, we’re baptized into a family full of other people learning to leave behind their old ways in order to pick up the new ways of Jesus.

So you see, baptism is about being born again into a new family and new way of life.

Your baptism is a birthday, arguably, I would say, even more important than the day your parents signed your birth certificate.

So how do you remember it then?  I don’t know that there’s one right way to do it.  Maybe you bring out some of the symbols of baptism—water, a candle, a sea shell (if that was part of your baptism).  You might read a Bible story related to baptism—like Jesus’ baptism (Matthew 3:13-17), or the healing of Naaman (2 Kings 5), or the Ethiopian (Acts 8:26-40)—or part of the baptismal liturgy from the United Methodist hymnal.  Then it would be good to tell stories about the day.

If you are a parent helping a child remember their baptism, talk to them about why it was important to you for them to be baptized.  Take this as a moment to teach them about what it means to be part of God’s family and way of life.  That conversation will likely evolve and deepen as your child gets older.

Let me share with you how we help Nathanael remember his baptism:

This year we’re using a book his godmother, Emily (who also happens to be a UM pastor, and who helped with his baptism), made for him.  It walks through the baptismal liturgy, including a time to pour water, then light the candle that was given to him at his baptism, and then we’ll read him a letter given to him by Paul, one of the other pastors involved in his baptism.

God Works Through Water

At this point, with him being only a little over two, we’ll let the symbols and actions do most of the heavy lifting.  We probably won’t do too much explaining, and will opt instead to let him experience the gifts of baptism.  I’m sure we’ll also look at pictures from the day and see how many people he can recognize and name, and will talk about how much each of them loves him and how those are people he can trust, call on, and look up to.

As he grows up, we’ll probably talk some about the vows we take at baptism.  Maybe we’ll ask questions like:

  • What are the things that keep you from God?  How do you want to ask God for help with those?
  • Where do you see evil, injustice, and oppression in the world? What do you think God wants us/you to do about it?
  • When has it been especially important for you to trust Jesus lately?  What was that like?
  • How have you grown in your faith?  When have you felt most connected with God?
  • How do you think God wants to be with you this year? Where?  With whom?  Doing what?

Remembering your baptism isn’t a solemn thing, though it may include moments of recognizing that you need to bring some aspects of your life back in line with God.  Above all, though, remembering your baptism is an occasion of gratitude and joy.  We say,

“Remember your baptism, and be thankful!”

These are just a few ideas about how to remember your baptism.  Here are some other ideasfrom The UMC.  For a thorough understanding of how The UMC thinks about baptism, check out this article.

What are some ways you might remember your baptism?  If you don’t know the date of your baptism, you could start by finding out and putting it on your calendar.

When you remember your baptism, I hope you remember your place in God’s Church and God’s call on your life. 

That’s what we’re thinking about all of July at First United Methodist Church in Murphy.  We’re remembering our baptisms, being thankful.

What do you remember about your baptism?


Annual Conference Wrap-Up

Annual Conference

On June 20-23 clergy and lay delegates were gathered at Lake Junaluska for our 2019 Annual Conference (AC). Since the earliest days of Methodism, the connectional work we do at Annual Conferences has been done by an equal representation of clergy and lay members of local churches.  First Murphy belongs to the Western North Carolina Conference of The UMC (WNCC), which stretches from the western most part of the state to about Greensboro.  From there to the east is the North Carolina Conference.  There are Annual Conferences, designated by regional boundaries, all throughout the United States, and each has an annual meeting the same as ours.

This may be old hat to you—and if so, you can skip ahead to the next heading—but if not, here’s a word about Annual Conferences.  ACs are more than just a yearly meeting.  Our United Methodist Book of Discipline calls ACs the basic body in the church, organized to help equip local churches for ministry and provide a connection for ministry beyond the local church (¶601 BoD).  Practically that looks like our congregation sharing in opportunities for mission and service (e.g., supporting UMAR), resources for faith formation (e.g.  retreats at Lake Junaluska), and ministry support (e.g. guiding the process of a new building or providing grant money for ministry).  The AC is overseen by a bishop (ours is Bishop Paul Leeland), and its boundaries typically reflect the region to which a clergy person “belongs” and may be appointed.

So AC is more than a meeting.  It is a larger expression of the local church.  Think of how Sunday school classes or small groups are smaller parts of the bigger church.  It’s kind of like that.  We are connected with every other UMC in WNC, and because of that connection we have some amazing resources and opportunities available to us.

Here is a link to our Conference’s website. Check it out, and I’ll bet you can find something informative, helpful, and inspiring in no time at all.

Reports and Ministry Opportunities 

Each year we hear several reports from various agencies and entities within our AC, including reports related to Pensions and Health Benefits for clergy and a report from our Council on Finance and Administration.  This year we approved an AC budget of $16 million.  Among other things that budget reflects commitments to empower and revitalize existing churches and ministries, and to expand our witness by starting new ones.

We heard reports from United Methodist Women, United Methodist Men, the Leadership Development Team, and Missional Engagement Team.

Lots of people groan when it comes to reports at AC, but, honestly, some of the reports were really inspiring!  Like the reports related to churches that are doing innovative ministries that are reaching new people for Christ.  Over the last few years, we’ve heard a good bit about Fresh Expressions, a movement that looks at “doing church” in new ways.  Dinner Church is one form of a Fresh Expression that has really taken off in our conference.  The basic idea is people gather around a table (or lots of tables) for a meal, Christian teaching and conversation, and genuine fellowship.

I wonder what sorts of ways God is leading First Murphy to reach out and go out to new people for Christ?  What fresh expressions of ministry is God leading us into?

Esther Manchester, our lay delegate, and I went to a meeting of Rural Ministry Advocates and learned about one church that opened their parking lot as a flea market (no charge for a booth), They were intentional about getting to know the vendors, started sharing a regular breakfast and devotional time together, and found that something started to emerge that looked like church…only in their parking lot.

I wonder what sorts of ways God is leading First Murphy to reach out and go out to new people for Christ? I wonder how we can go deeper in the relationships we already have?  (Remember the connection of an AC?  We also heard about how there is financial support available to churches who are starting new ministries that intentionally reach out to new people.)


In addition to Reports, we also voted on several petitions.  I’ll summarize those actions below, and you can follow this linkto a more complete report:

  • Approved petition 17 regarding Gender Discrimination in Appointments, which request the Bishop and cabinet work with Staff-Parish Committees to promote, affirm, and practice our open itinerancy regardless of gender.
  • Approved petition 18 which forms a Child Advocacy Coalition that will promote equity, opportunities, and well-being for children in WNC, and educate, resource, and equip the church in response and advocacy for children.
  • Approved petition 19 which will adopt a procedure allowing clergy to self-nominate for elections to attend General Conference in 2024.
  • Approved petition 20 which means our Annual Conference recommends to General Conference 2020 a Jurisdictional Conference Plan as a potential approach to the current divisions within the UMC.
  • Approved petition 21 which means our Annual Conference recommends to General Conference 2020 a petition that would remove language in the Discipline referring to the practice of homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
  • Approved a substitute petition (to 22) which says our Annual Conference rejects the Traditional Plan approved at General Conference 2019 and aspires to lead the UMC to be a more inclusive body.

Let me say this about the last three petitions mentioned here…  Each of these is related the Traditional Plan’s passing at the special Called Session of General Conference in 2019 and our Judicial Council’s ruling in April that some parts of the Plan are constitutional and others not.  Each vote included vigorous debate and disagreement.  There was a 200-vote margin of separation in each, showing that while each petition speaks for the majority of the Annual Conference, it doesn’t speak for the whole.  Most U.S. Conferences passed similar petitions rejecting or otherwise stating disapproval of the Traditional Plan.

There’s no way around it: we are a divided denomination.  There are several different groups actively working to chart a path forward for The UMC.  Some, like the moderate-progressives of UMNext and Uniting Methodists are working to consider ways to hold together a diverse, global denomination who disagree but whose witness is stronger together. Others, like the more conservative Wesleyan Covenant Association, are looking to expand and strengthen the traditional legislation of General Conference 2019 and urge those who disagree to exit the UMC.

One of the songs we always sing at Opening Worship of AC talks about “fightings without, and fears within.”  I regret that so much of our denominational conversation and posturing and doesn’t look at all like how Christ would have us make every effort to maintain the Spirit of unity in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3).

There are challenges ahead and in the imminent future of The UMC.  We’ll be having more conversation about that as a congregation, but if you have any questions about this or want to talk about your own hopes or concerns, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me by phone or email.

 General Conference 2020

 Petitions 20 and 21 turned our attention toward General Conference 2020, which will take place May 5-15 in Minneapolis, MN.  Each of these petitions will go to General Conference with the endorsement of our Annual Conference.

Part of our work this year was electing delegates—and equal number of clergy and lay members—from our AC to represent us both at General Conference (GC) and Jurisdictional Conference (JC).  Here is a complete list of delegateswho were elected.

GC is the only body that can speak for the United Methodist Church.  We don’t just have 1 person, like a pope; we have around 800!  In 2020, GC will most certainly take up a number of pieces of legislation that will deal with a future for the UMC given our reality of diversity and disagreement.

We belong to the Southeast Jurisdiction.  The meeting of that JC is most especially responsible for the nomination, election, and appointment of bishops.  If GC votes to change to Jurisdictional powers and privileges, some of their work might change as well.  This Sunday, 6/30, one of our ACs delegates to JC, Rev. Julia Trantham Heckert, will be our guest preacher!

Please be in prayer for these delegates and the important work they have been elected to do.

Take Away 

If you made it all the way here, bless you!  That’s a lot of information to handle and process.  Maybe it’s kind of like drinking from a fire hydrant.  Here’s what I hope you take away though in the end: God has given us important ministry to do—around the world and in our backyards—and God’s Spirit will guide and empower us to do it.  We’ll keep talking, while we keep walking…walking in the light of Christ.



Annual Conference Update

One of my favorite moments at Annual Conference is the opening of the clergy session, which for us was this past Thursday morning.  That session of our Annual Conference gathering is limited to clergy–ordained as well as provisional elders and deacons, and licensed local pastors.  There’s always some work we do in those hours that pertains specifically to clergy.  It’s not the work part that makes it one of my favorite moments; though, I do believe in the work and think it’s good.  I love standing during the opening hymn and looking around at the faces of all my sisters and brothers, my co-laborers in God’s vineyard.

There’s nearly a thousand of us.  I don’t know anywhere close to everyone, but I know a bunch.  And there are several with whom I’m close friends, and we’ve walked through the ups and downs of life and ministry together.  I love looking out at that sea of faces because I know these are men and women who’ve given their lives in service to God and the church, and my heart swells with pride and gratitude to get to be part of that covenant community.

One of my other favorite moments comes in opening worship, which was yesterday (Friday morning).  That’s when all of us are together–clergy and lay delegates.  We sing an old song Methodists have been singing at Annual Conference for generations: “And Are We Yet Alive.”  It used to be that Methodist clergy were out on horseback in the frontier, riding through rain and snow, often alone, persevering in difficult and sometimes dangerous situations all to spread the good news of Jesus Christ.  So when they gathered together and sang “And Are We Yet Alive” they really meant it!  It was a gift to all be together, some for the first time in the whole year.

When we sing that opening song, I look around again (like I do in the clergy session), and my heart again swells with pride and gratitude.  I remember my place in God’s church and God’s call on my life.  I know that when are together we come from so many different experiences: churches that are anywhere from thriving to barely surviving, and everywhere in between.  The same is true for every person.  And we give thanks to God that we are together, a snapshot of United Methodism in Western North Carolina.  In those moments, I give thanks for First United Methodist Church in Murphy.  And my heart swells with pride and gratitude that I am part of that body and that we are part of this bigger body.

At Annual Conference, we are about the work of The United Methodist Church in Western North Carolina.  Today we’ll continue casting ballots for elections to Jurisdictional Conference, hearing reports, voting on petitions, and listening for how God might be leading us–our conference and our churches–to fresh and invigorating visions of Christ’s mission.  We have lots of work to do–it’s important, and I believe in it.  I’m going to share some links below that you can use if you’d like to follow along and stay up to date on what’s going on at your Annual Conference.  Esther Manchester, your AC Delegate, and I will find ways to share with you what’s taken/taking place at AC once we return.

Sunday, Annual Conference will conclude with closing worship.  I’ll miss being at First Murphy on that morning, though I know you will have a wonderful worship service!  It will be a gift for you to be together, just as you are every Sunday, to look around and see each other’s face.  “Glory and thanks to Jesus give, for his almighty grace!”  (“And Are We Yet Alive” v. 1).


  • For all things Annual Conference click this link.  You can find summaries of each day’s work, reports, etc.  You can also find a live stream link to watch AC proceedings if you’d like.
  • One of the cool, new things our conference communications team has published this year is a magazine that tells some powerful stories of faith and ministry taking place across the conference.  I encourage you to give it a read here.  It includes a story about Riley Howell, the UNCC student (and United Methodist) who sacrifices his life to save others during the recent shooting at their campus.
  • The Clergy have elected all of our delegates to General Conference 2020 as well as Jurisdictional Conference 2020, and the Laity have elected their full slate of delegates to General Conference 2020 as well.  They still have to elect delegates to JC.  Here is the list of delegates.
  • Some of the petitions we will vote on today are related to the 2019 called Special Session of General Conference and the Judicial Council decision that followed its passing of the “Traditional Plan.”  Follow this link, and you can read about the Judicial Council’s decision to uphold some parts of the “Traditional Plan” while ruling other parts unconstitutional.


Psalm 32 and the Prodigal Son

Every Sunday in worship we read at least three passages of from the Bible–something from the Old Testament, something from the New (other than a gospel), and something from one of the four Gospels.  We also try to incorporate a psalm as often as possible, usually as our Call to Worship.  That’s a lot of Scripture reading!

Maybe you wonder, Why?  Why not just focus on one passage from the Bible?  Keep it simple.  Dig deep.  And how on earth do we come up with these four Bible passages, anyway?  Sometimes they seem connected, and other times we scratch our heads and wonder what gives.

Let me offer a little bit on what that is all about, and also share one example from this week’s set of readings that I hope shows why/how that can be important:

The readings we use each week are given to us (the Church) by the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL or Lectionary).  The Lectionary is a 3-year cycle of scheduled of Scripture readings for every Sunday in the year (and special holy days).  Each Sunday there is a reading from the Old Testament, a Psalm, the New Testament (e.g. from one of Paul’s letters), and one of the four Gospels.  The three years are called Year A, B, and C.  If a church follows this 3-year cycle, by the end you will have heard nearly 75% of the Bible in worship.

The idea of using a Lectionary has been around for a while.  In fact, when Jesus stood up to read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah in Luke 4, he was handed Isaiah most likely because a reading from Isaiah was prescribed for that day.  Our RCL came to us in 1994 and was a collaborative work of leaders in Roman Catholic and Protestant churches.  If you want to know more about the Lectionary, follow this link.

We use the Lectionary to guide our readings and worship planning for Sunday mornings.  Others use the Lectionary to guide their personal devotional readings.  One of my professors in seminary suggested that following the Lectionary ensures a “healthy diet of Scripture”.  That is, you don’t just turn to what you know (and miss out on what you don’t) and you get a balanced look at God’s saving work throughout the Bible.  It also helps us see how the Old and New Testaments go together.

Whenever I prepare for a sermon, I consider how the primary passage I’ll be preaching from goes together with the other Lectionary readings.  I think about this as the passage’s “Lectionary context”.  Those connections don’t always make it into the sermon in an explicit way.  Sometimes they come out through allusions or borrowing language from one story to illuminate another.

Sometimes one passage (like the Psalm) is used as a Call to Worship to help set up the story and movement of worship.  The same professor who talked about a “healthy diet of Scripture” also suggested we think about worship as a story–as our way of living in the story of the Bible, and our way of letting God’s words in the Bible live in the story of our lives.  When planning worship, he suggested we think about how someone from that Sunday’s Bible reading might call us to worship if he or she were given the microphone.  Or how might they lead us in prayer?  How would they urge us to respond to God’s word?


Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son”

As an example, think about two passages we’ll use this Sunday: Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 (the parable of the prodigal son and his brother) and Psalm 32.  Try reading the passage from Luke and then the Psalm.  Go ahead, give it a try.

Can you hear the voice of the younger brother?

Psalm 32:1 “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.”  This is a psalm about the joy of forgiveness.  Do you think the younger brother had some thoughts about that?!  Here he comes home after blowing off his father and burning through all of his inheritance.  He practiced his speech all the way home–“I am not worthy,” “treat me like one of your hired hands”.  He expected judgment, but what he got was compassion and a welcome home party!  Do you think he might know a thing or two about the happiness of the whose sin is forgiven?

Psalm 32:3 “While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.”  This is where he’d come from–a place where he had no home, no money, no food, no food, and most clearly no friends.  Out there with the pigs, his body was wasting away and so was his hope.

Psalm 32:5 “Then I acknowledged my sin to you…and you forgave the guilt of my sin.”  Jesus’ parable says the younger brother “came to himself.”  Maybe he wasn’t thinking with words like repentance and contrition, but he’d found rock bottom and he was desperate to get out.  So he went home.  He remembered “the way [he] should go” (Ps. 32:8).

Psalm 32:6, 8 “Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you…I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go.”  Can you imagine how the younger son had some hard won lessons he wanted to share with others?  Maybe you’ve had adults or friends try to guide you in life saying something like, “Don’t make the same mistakes I did.”  The younger son could say that, and he could also say, “But when you do, I hope you come to your senses and know that when you come home to God, you’ll find compassion and forgiveness running down the driveway to meet you.”

This is more than just interesting to me.  It helps me imagine how the story might keep going past Luke 15:32.  It helps me as I think about the “younger brothers” I know, and the “older brothers” too.  Reading the psalm is like sitting with the younger brother himself, not as a character in the story, but as a brother I can know who both warns and encourages me on the journey of faith.  It makes me want to celebrate what God is doing in the lives of others.  How does it move you?

This Sunday we’ll use portions of Psalm 32 as our Call to Worship.  Maybe you’ll hear the voice of the younger son calling you in, saying, “Hey, come join the celebration!”  Maybe this will help you live into God’s story, and God’s story to live in you.

Next Steps after General Conference

Dear First Murphy,

The Called Special Session of The UMC’s General Conference came to a close on Tuesday evening.  The exclusive focus of the Conference was to find a way forward through our denomination’s apparent impasse when it comes to deeply convicted and divergent views on human sexuality.  At the end of the Conference, the body voted 438-384 to pass the Traditional Plan.  The Traditional Plan reaffirms the denomination’s current language around homosexuality–including the prohibitions against same-sex marriage and the ordination of “self-avowed practicing” gay or lesbian pastors, and also statements affirming the sacred worth of all persons, including those of the LGBTQ community.  The Traditional Plan added to our Book of Discipline stronger measures of accountability and punishment for those who would break these guidelines.

Some received the outcome with celebration and relief.  Others are deeply grieved and discouraged.  The vote–and, in truth, the entire General Conference–showed that the people of The United Methodist Church are not of one mind on this matter (and plenty of others).

Portions of the Traditional Plan were ruled unconstitutional (in relation to the UMC’s constitution) by our Judicial Council, so the full implications of the General Conference’s decision are not yet known.  The Judicial Council will take up this matter more fully (and finally) at their next meeting on April 23-25.

Weeks ago, at our congregation’s information session and in a recent Facebook post, I shared that we would have a follow-up meeting to share the outcome of General Conference.  Just today (Wednesday) I learned of two opportunities that I encourage you to participate in, along with a third that was already on our calendar:

  • Friday, March 1 at 2pm Bishop Paul Leeland (our Bishop in Western NC) along with two of our other delegates to GC will deliver a video message to the conference  addressing what happened and what’s next.  I plan to show that video message in First Murphy’s Fellowship Hall.  I invite you to arrive at least 10 minutes early, so we can begin that time in fellowship and prayer.  If you aren’t able to be there in person, the video will be available on our conference website:
  • Sunday, March 3 at 2pm Bishop Leeland will lead a conversation along with worship and holy communion at Hendersonville UMC.  This event will be live streamed and I plan to show that live stream also in First Murphy’s Fellowship Hall.  Again if you can arrive at 1:50, we’ll begin with a little fellowship and prayer before it gets underway.  If you aren’t able to attend in person, you can also follow the live stream here:
  • Saturday, March 16 from 10am-12pm Bishops McCleskey and Kammerer will be at First Murphy to lead a conversational forum in response to General Conference.

I will also be working with our church leadership to determine a good strategy to keep our congregation informed and involved, more than likely including me leading a session just for our congregation.

So while we still do not know the implications of the work of General Conference, and won’t for at least a little while, there are some things I believe are important, which I want to share with you below:

  • The vote to pass the Traditional Plan was far from a landslide and showed that we are a denomination that is not of one mind when it comes to the matter of human sexuality.  Our global denomination passed the Traditional Plan, while the majority of U.S. delegates (along with the majority of the Council of Bishops and Commission on a Way Forward) favored the One Church Plan.  My observations are that we too, as a congregation, are not of the same mind on this matter (and likely many others).  What do we make of that?
  • Church is sometimes messy and even ugly.  If you’ve read the New Testament, you know that isn’t new for us.  In the thick of disagreements, even when we might have good intentions, people get hurt.  I said in last Sunday’s sermon, the people who have the ability to hurt us the most are often our family.  Some have been hurt badly enough by church that they’ve left or at least keep it at arms length.  So for times and ways the church (and I / we) have hurt others or made them feel unloved, I am sorry.  I believe a life of faith is one that includes ongoing repentance–turning toward God and toward one another in reconciliation.
  • Church is sometimes beautiful and even holy.  In the midst of General Conference there were moments of holiness–in worship, in reconnection with friends, in expressions of humility and love for God and the church.  For all our warts and baggage, the church is still a means of grace in the world.  It is a place of belonging, hope, transformation, and service.
  • Through experiences in the church, I have come to know and respect people who think very differently about human sexuality.  I know people on all points on the spectrum that there are deeply committed followers of Christ who have dedicated their life to the church and are serious students of Scripture who seek to live it out in real ways.  Judgment and contempt toward those who think differently only harms the body.  A better way might be what Bishop Carter (former District Superintendent of our district) calls “convicted humility“–which says, “At our best, we hold deep convictions.  And at our best, we hold them with humility.”
  • To those who are glad for the passing of the Traditional Plan, as your pastor and fellow pilgrim in faith, I want to say I love you.  In some settings, people holding this opinion have been unfairly labeled unloving and narrow-minded.  But that misses the sincerity of heart and studied faith.  I am grateful that you are part of the body of First Murphy and for the witness of your faith.
  • To those who belong to or have a loved one in the LGBTQ community, as your pastor and fellow pilgrim in faith, I want to say I love you.  I understand there can be some real pain and disappointment at this outcome.  I am sorry.  Without question, you are of sacred worth.  Along with all people.  I am grateful that you are part of the body of First Murphy and for the witness of your faith.
  • To the whole church, as your pastor and fellow pilgrim in faith (do you know what’s coming?) I want to say I love you.  I am grateful that you are part of the body of First Murphy and for the witness of your faith.  I’m thankful to be serving a congregation that shows a spirit that rises above and resists the easy temptation to divide into camps.  I hear so often that we’re a family, and we are!  Some may have your pew, but in the living room of life I’ve seen us get up, move around, mingle, serve, celebrate, laugh, and care for one another.  Thanks be to God!
  • While we do not know the implications of the outcome of General Conference, I believe First Murphy will keep being First Murphy.  I said early on when I came to First Murphy that I expect to spend a lot of time just saying, Wow!  And I have, and I still am.  We are a congregation full of life and vitality, worshipping God in spirit and truth, serving our neighbors with selflessness and generosity.  Our mission and who we are stay the same.

So what’s next?  I understand there’s uncertainty in some places about what comes next for The UMC.  That’s sometimes the case when we don’t know everything.  It’s more comfortable when we have a clearly charted plan, and know every turn from here to there.  In moments when it’s hard to know all of what comes next, faith teaches us to take the next right step with Jesus.  This Sunday’s gospel lesson from Luke 9, the transfiguration, shows the next right step is coming down from the mountain, with Jesus,   and ministering to the community.  So what’s next?  One step, with Jesus, in ministry to others.  Then another.  Then another.

I thank God for the privilege of being here in ministry with you, and hope you know you are in my prayers.  Reach out to me any time if you have questions or want to talk.

Peace be with you,

Pastor Wil

A Word about the 2019 Special Session of The UMC General Conference

st louis

Dear First Murphy and Friends,

Today, Saturday, 2/23, marks the beginning of The UMC’s Special Session of General Conference.  I’ve already been seeing how The United Methodist Church is making various headlines, so I figured it was time I sit down and pull together an account of what’s going on.

While online and print news sources will be covering General Conference and may offer valuable perspectives, I want to encourage you follow reporting that comes from The United Methodist Church and those that are at the Conference.  UMC reporting and posts from delegates will include significance and nuance that is easily lost by writers who are not as familiar with The UMC–her theology, organization, and, mostly, people.

Some of what I share here may be familiar to you, and for others it may be new.  And for others, you’re somewhere in between.  With that in mind, I’ve tried to put together a post that you can bounce around in, looking for the bolded heading that speaks to what you’re looking for.  I’ll try to cover: What is General Conference, and why this one; What are the proposals; How can I stay informed; and What’s next.  **Wherever you start, I hope you’ll bookmark some of the links under How can I stay informed.

One thing I want to note here at the beginning: General Conference will begin with a day dedicated to prayer.  From 9am-3:30pm, the 864 delegates and countless other alternate delegates, volunteers, and observers will be praying for 1) this special session of General Conference and 2) increased effectiveness in fulfilling the Church’s mission.  Before you go further, would you pause and join those at General Conference in a few minutes of prayer?  In my own prayers, I’ve also prayed for the delegates representing Western North Carolina’s Annual Conference (to which we belong), as well as their families.  You might even remember Jesus’ prayer for his followers, “That they may be one, as we are one” (John 17:22).

Thank you!

What is General Conference, and why this one?

General Conference is the decision-making body of The United Methodist Church.  It is comprised of representatives (delegates) from every part of our global denomination.  General Conference usually meets every 4 years and does the work of governing the denomination and working to increase our effectiveness in ministry.  After each meeting, there is a new edition of our Book of Discipline, which contains our doctrines, theological heritage, teachings, and ways we order the life of our denomination and local churches.

This 4-day Special Session was called for in 2016 in order to receive and act on proposals of the Commission on a Way Forward.  This Commission is a 32-member group made up of clergy, lay members, and bishops, representing the global and theological diversity of our denomination.  The Commission was formed in order to help the denomination find a way forward through our apparent impasse around differing opinions and theological understandings regarding same-sex weddings and the ordination of gay or lesbian clergy.  You can find a summary and links to their full report here.

Currently the The United Methodist Church prohibits both the ordination of “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” and the marriage of same-sex couples, and considers the practice of homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.”  In the years since The UMC officially adopted these statements (beginning in 1972), there has been growing tension around the difference in conviction and opinion around these matters.  Some within the denomination have expressed their intention to leave The UMC depending on the outcome of General Conference; others have already left.

This General Conference hopes to resolve this impasse, and chart a path forward that recognizes differing theological understandings while also maintaining as much unity as possible.  To that end, the Commission submitted 3 proposals:

What are the proposals?

Below are very brief summaries of each plan.  You can find a larger overview here, or read the full report and detailed plan here.

The One Church Plan.  This plan removes the restrictive language around homosexuality from the Book of Discipline and allows annual conferences to make decisions about ordination, churches decide whether or not to allow same-sex weddings and their preference for clergy, and pastors choose whom they marry.  There are protections for pastors and churches to follow their consciences and varying theological understandings in these matters.

The Traditional* Plan.  This plan upholds the current position of The UMC and adds further measures of accountability for pastors, churches, and annual conferences who might violate the Book of Discipline on this matter.  It also includes provisions for pastors, churches, and annual conferences to exit the denomination if their conscience and theological understandings do not allow them to follow these guidelines.  (*What is being presented at General Conference is actually a slightly modified plan from that which is in the Commission’s report in order to meet certain requirements of the church’s constitution.)

The Connectional Conference Plan.  This plan creates three “conferences” that are determined by theological understanding around this matter: a traditional, progressive, and unity conference.  Every clergy, local church, and annual conference would choose which conference with which to affiliate.  This plan includes the most constitutional changes and reconfiguration for The UMC.

In addition to these 3 plans submitted by the Commission on a Way Forward, there are many other plans that have been put forward by groups within The UMC which the Conference will be looking at.

How can I stay informed?

Several news outlets have already picked up on what’s going on in The UMC.  Some of these offer valuable perspectives and can help us who are sort of on the inside consider how others see the church.  I find this point particularly sobering.  Plenty of people are turned off by organized religion because they’ve been burned or worn out by rancor and argument.  I get that.  I think lots of our delegates do too.  So much of what I’ve heard and read around this General Conference is the hope that even in disagreement we might give people a glimpse of a church that’s learning to live into a “more excellent way” of love.

So while you’ll likely be able to read about what’s going on in a variety of ways, I encourage you to follow these sources:

  • The United Methodist News  will provide daily updates and articles, as well as archived information on the Commission and this General Conference.
  • The UMC homepage includes lots of information as well as ways you can follow the Conference via livestream.
  • Praying our Way Forward is an initiate designed to cover the conference with prayer, and they offer ways for you to join in.
  • First Murphy’s facebook page where I will share blog posts offering perspectives from delegates and others who are attending General Conference.

What’s next?

We expect the Conference to come to some resolution by its conclusion on 2/26.  While no one can know what that will be, we’ll make sure to communicate outcomes and opportunities to interpret and reflect on what they mean.

On Saturday, March 16, from 10am-12pm, retired Bishops Kammerer and McCleskey will be at Murphy First UMC leading a conversational panel to interpret the outcome of General Conference.

Last thing

Before closing out of this page, I want to ask you to pause again for prayer, not only for General Conference, and for God’s wisdom and heart to be shown there, but for our own openness to God’s wisdom and heart to be shown in us.

You know, the church is no stranger to division and argument.  We’ve been at it for one thing or another since the beginning.  Just read the New Testament; consider it “Exhibit A”.  That’s kind of the way it is with family, though.  We can only hope that we are learning to be the sort of family that bears with one another in love and humility, and that such a witness might give hope to the world.

Thank you for your prayers, and for your prayerful engagement with this season.

How to build a parsonage

I’ve always loved the idea of a “barn raising”.  The whole community gets together and does their part in helping a family build their barn.  Some people heave parts of the building into place.  Other people are cheering on from the sides.  I imagine still others are making sure there is enough food on hand for everyone, and that someone is watching all the kids.

I’ve always loved that idea because I love how it’s such a powerful view of what genuine community looks like.  We’re not exactly raising a barn, but something like that…

Before I ever arrived at Murphy First United Methodist Church, the wheels were well into motion for building a new parsonage.  In the United Methodist world, lots of churches have parsonages where their pastor’s family lives.  Maintaining a parsonage is part of the bigger picture of “itinerancy” (our denomination’s practice of moving pastors around from time to time in order to match the right pastor with the right church for the sake of ministry).

To make this happen, Murphy FUMC formed a Parsonage Committee that studied requirements by our denomination’s Book of Discipline, found a lot and selected a house plan, made arrangements with builders and banks, planned details of the house, and consulted with the District and Annual Conference offices.  They’ve been to countless meetings and signed lots of forms. In short, they’ve done a ton of work, and still are!

It takes all that work and more to build a parsonage.  At the end of the day, the church is building not just a house, but a home, and one that will be lived in by pastor’s families for decades.  There’ll be birthdays and holidays.  Kids will grow up there, and married couples will grow older there.  Special meals and everyday meals shared around the table.  A place for gathering and fellowship, and growing in God’s grace.  What a gift!

This past Sunday (1/6/19), we invited the congregation to visit the under-construction parsonage to write blessings and Bible verses on the still-exposed frame.  The reason for doing this is summed up by one of the Bible verses that was written on the wall: “For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God” (Hebrews 3:4).  This parsonage is built with blocks and lumber, shingles, wiring, and plumbing.  But more than that it’s been built by God.

Through this process, I have been seeing how God builds homes through a community of generosity and love.

Isn’t that the hope for every home?  For your home?  That the structure of your family is framed in generosity, where there’s always enough room and time, and even when there isn’t, you make it so by sacrificing some of your own.  That your home is a place where other people can peer in and say, “Oh, that’s what God’s love looks like–it’s patient and kind, it doesn’t keep a record of wrongs, it’s full of joy.”

And it takes a community.  People freely sharing their lives with one another.  Helping each other.  Sacrificing for one another.  Sharing each other’s joys and burdens.  Playing and laughing together.  And a community that embodies Jesus’ teaching that we love one another.

I’m deeply grateful for the way that this parsonage is being built by the whole church.  And our family is grateful and blessed to be the first one to live in this special home.  I wonder how we can get help from God and build all of our homes in the same way–as a community of generosity and love?

I want to share with you the pictures of the blessings and verses that were written on the walls.  Soon they’ll be covered up by insulation and drywall.  But these kinds of blessings don’t usually stay covered up; they’ll come to life, through the grace of God, for everyone who walks through these doors.  Because God is the builder.

If the writing is too small to read, you can click on one photo and then scroll through the pictures like a slide show.


Windows in the World

Yesterday was World Communion Sunday, a day I’ll bet was hardly noticed by most of the world.  Google didn’t make an animated graphic on their homepage, and it lacked the meme-potential and social media appeal of something like National Dog Day.  But for the churches that took notice, I hope it was a powerful experience of celebrating the communion shared by God’s people throughout the world.

In my sermon, I talked some about John 3:16-17 and God’s love for the world.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

I tried to think about how these verses are a window into the heart of God.  When we peer into God’s heart we find 1) that the starting place for God is love, 2) God’s love is for the whole world, and 3) God’s mission is to save the world through Jesus.  None of this is all that surprising when we remember God made the whole world along with everyone and everything in it.  Of course God loves the world!

As much as we often think about John 3:16 as a verse about me and my decision to believe in Jesus–and that’s there, for sure–it’s more-so about God and God’s love for the world.  See I’ve come to believe that whenever we peer into the heart of God, we find another window into the world God loves so much.

I was thinking a lot about windows this past week and weekend.  I’ve learned about a Jewish tradition that says a place of worship should have 12 windows, with at least one of them facing toward Jerusalem.  The tradition favors clear glass over stained, advising that the purpose of the windows is to keep the congregation outwardly focused.  The tradition of windows comes from Daniel praying in his upper chamber, looking out an open window that was facing toward Jerusalem–that is, in the direction of his heart’s longing.

I was thinking about that, along with all the lovely stained glass windows in our sanctuary and the beautiful photographs of the church building.  I shared that with all those windows and photos, this is by far my favorite:

Murphy FUMC 1954

It is my favorite view because it looks out from the church steps into the world and reminds us of the direction of God’s longing and love.

We live in a world full of windows.

A few years back, Lea and I traveled to Chennai, India to visit a group of orphans and vulnerable children our church supported through ZOE.  Lea has powerfully told the story of our trip and what God is doing in India through photography.  One of the of the most inspiring photos she took, and which hangs in my office is this one:


I remember her taking it as we were leaving one of the group meetings.  This group was meeting in a church, and I can’t help but notice how the window reminds me of a stained glass window, sans the glass panes.  The frame is there, but the rest is open.  The window is filled by these boys.

I am particularly captured by the boy on the left.  I do not remember his name or his story.  I could fill in some details with general information I know about other kids in India who are in ZOE: he is orphaned or maybe has one living parent; no longer attends school because it’s all he can do to keep himself fed; without help he has little to no hope of escaping desperate poverty; he is vulnerable to illness, exploitation, and child slavery.  I wonder about all these things.  I wonder his name and what he is doing now.

It is interesting for me being on the outside.  Usually I’m on the inside of a church looking out of the window.  Now the roles are reversed.  He is on the inside, experiencing profound life-change, and belonging to a family of steadfast love and devotion.  I am on the outside, watching it all unfold.

His eyes and expression seem to be an invitation in, to come and see what God is doing through him.  As if he’s saying, “Watch me” or “Remember me” or “See what God will do.”  On World Communion Sunday, I remember and celebrate all that God is doing through ZOE, how children are discovering a future of hope and abundant life.  It makes me hopeful for these boys.

Stained glass windows are for the purpose of helping tell the story of our faith.  This window, this boy, helps tell the story of our faith.  It is a story about a God who loved the world so much that God didn’t just pine away at the window sill, rather, in Jesus, God climbed out of the window and into the world in order to love the world and bring us all home.  

When we were in India, we met the program directors, Jabez and his wife Ligi.  They are people who’ve learned to follow Jesus’ lead of climbing out of the window and into the world in order to love these kids.  Every Sunday morning, hear a benediction, sing a response, turn and then walk through the doorframe (or is it a window frame?) out into the world.

We live in a world full of windows that are colored by the lives of the people and the world God loves so very much.  World Communion Sunday was about more than people all over the world receiving a piece of bread and dipping it in a cup of grape juice or wine on the same day.  Our communion is about belonging to one another.  It was a celebration of kinship and connectedness.  It was a chance to peer into and through the heart of God, to give thanks for God’s love and God’s mission to bring us all home.