Time to get talking

I engage in conversations all day long. Some of them are short, sweet and to the point, accomplishing exactly what needs to get done. Others meander slowly to a destination that is not worth the investment of time I put into it. But others are so deep and poignant they almost seem sacramental. That’s because we are honest with other, vulnerable enough not to worry about impressing anyone, and, by far most importantly, somewhere along the way we discover that the Holy Spirit is prompting us in what to say. It’s nice simply to share holy conversation with someone about those things that ultimately matter most in life; especially in a life saturated with social media, unsubstantiated claims, 24-hour news cycles and more information in a day than you can process in a lifetime. So what constitutes a holy conversation so powerful it seems sacramental? Conversation about the grace Jesus offers that is unconditional, transformational and invitational. Talk about what is truly important—and not just what seems important—in life. And reflection on one of the most important questions you can ever be asked, “How is it with your soul?” These conversations are increasingly important as I grow older because I am more and more aware of how much I long to discover soul connections with others. So I am looking forward to talk that matters with those with whom I have shared so much for so long. But I also am anticipating new conversations with all the people God is putting in my path every day. I’m not sure whether anything I’ve said connects with you in any way at all. Indeed, I know how far I have to go to fully live out these aspirations in my own life. But I do know this. Jesus came to offer life that is eternal and abundant. And somehow, we experience the most abundant life through these kinds of relationships with others. Time to get talking! Grace and peace, Gary E....

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Editor’s Corner: Last meal

“What would you have for your last meal?” It can be a whimsical question asked among friends, similar to naming one’s fantasy dinner party guests, but for Ledell Lee on April 20, the question of what he would like as his last meal became all too real. This death row inmate, who proclaimed his innocence until his life’s end, chose Holy Communion as the last food he would eat. I’m not weighing in on Lee’s guilt or innocence; I don’t know enough about his case to declare an opinion. What I do know is that he was denied an opportunity to have physical evidence in his case examined with current DNA testing technology. And that he was once represented by an attorney who showed up drunk. I also know the difference between justice and revenge, and I believe that on the night of April 20, the State of Arkansas carried out the latter. Lee was given two opportunities to speak last words. He declined both. None of us can presume to know what was going through his mind in his last moments. But when I awoke April 21 to news that his execution had been carried out just before midnight, I know that my mind filled with the words of Jesus: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Like many other people of faith who oppose the death penalty, I haven’t always felt that it was wrong. But the more I study the words and actions of the One I claim to follow—the only person in human history to quite literally defeat death after an unjust execution by the ruling powers—the more I believe that we cannot kill as an effective way to show people that killing is wrong. I never met Ledell Lee, or anyone associated with his case or with the murder victim. I know I’m far removed from that particular situation. But if I take at face value his final meal on the last day of his life, it sends the clear signal that he was my brother in Christ. And if I take seriously my status as an Arkansan, it means I had a hand in killing him. If I were to receive an opportunity to order my last meal, with no input from outsiders, I’d probably make sure it included a steak and a giant dessert. I cannot say in all honesty that it would even occur to me to choose Holy Communion. Does that make Ledell Lee, convicted murderer, a better person than I am? I don’t know. But, at least in that moment, it does make him a better witness to the love and grace of Jesus Christ. To reach me, send an email to...

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Let’s stay together

(…with apologies to the Rev. Al Green) By William O. “Bud” Reeves Special Contributor We were privileged recently at First United Methodist Church Fort Smith to have a visit from Bishop Ken Carter of Florida.  Bishop Carter and I attended seminary together, and he came to share a weekend of spiritual renewal at the church. But a great deal of interest was generated by his position as one of the conveners of the Commission on a Way Forward, the group that is devising a plan for the future of our denomination, despite conflicting views on homosexuality. At a Monday morning coffee, Bishop Carter spoke candidly about the commission and the issues around it to a group of Northwest District clergy and laity. The most important aspect of the discussion was for us to see a real live human being who is involved in this crucial process. What we saw was a calm, wise, personable, humble leader who nevertheless had a firm grasp of the complexity of the issues facing the church. He assured us that with all the diverse opinions on the commission, nobody wants to do harm to the church or to each other. We all came away with our anxiety level considerably lower. Bishop Carter offered six reasons he thought the denomination should avoid splitting (as has been consistently rumored of late): God desires unity among God’s people. (See John 17:11 and Galatians 3:28.) We believe in the doctrine of progressive grace. Every person is a child of God, endowed with sacred worth, justified by faith in Christ and on a journey of sanctification. There is disagreement about what sanctification looks like. Can an LGBTQ person be on a journey to holiness? Yes. We already have LGBTQ persons in our churches—“they” are “us.” We need to live in love and harmony with our brothers and sisters in faith. The United Methodist Church has a tremendous global mission. United, we do too much good together to diminish our mission by fragmentation. The next generation of the church wants unity. For most younger people (under 40), sexuality is not a deal-breaker. Even if they don’t agree with homosexuality, they live with its acceptance daily. The institutional piece is not insignificant. The United Methodist Church has billions of dollars in assets, from the pension fund to colleges and hospitals, not to mention all the local church property which is held in trust for the denomination. Do we really want to spend untold resources dividing, untangling and litigating for years at the expense of our real mission? As intractable as the issue of homosexuality has been, there is hope. There may be new definitions of unity that will allow us to disagree on some important issues (oh yeah, there’s also abortion, war, capital punishment, climate change and politics!) while still being united in our mission and resources for building the Kingdom. Human sexuality includes a multitude of important issues. But none of them are the main thing or the central purpose of either the church or the disciple. We are here (as Bishop Mueller has taught us) to make disciples of Jesus Christ who make disciples equipped to transform lives, communities and the world. Homosexuality is not a problem to be fixed; it is a reality to be addressed with the...

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Letter to the Editor: April 7, 2017

Response to executions set for April I haven’t always been against the death penalty. In fact, when I was younger, “an eye for an eye” sounded pretty good. I have close friends in the legal profession. They assure me they would never seek the death penalty unless they felt the crime was so heinous, the person so evil, that their removal would make this world a better place. However, where does grace enter this equation? Can God continue to work on a heart? Can God take something horrible and turn it into something beautiful? I believe God can—and that executions deny God that opportunity. To my knowledge, no state has executed so many prisoners in such a short amount of time since the Supreme Court revived the death penalty in 1976. Also, by state law, a minimum of six Arkansas citizens must witness each death. I find it interesting that these execution orders were given the week Lent began—the season we ponder the meaning of that first-century capital punishment, the cross. We can celebrate Jesus’ resurrection on April 16, but it may be a little premature; for eight men, those witnesses and our state, the season of Lent grew by 10 days this year. Rev. P. Jay Clark Chair, Arkansas Conference Board of Church & Society Pulaski Heights UMC Little Rock Letters to the Editor policy The Arkansas United Methodist (AUM) welcomes the opportunity to hear from its readers. To be eligible for publication, letters to the editor must meet the following guidelines: All letters must be signed with the writer’s name, city and church, and include a phone number or email address. Letters may be sent to editor@arumc.org, or to 800 Daisy Bates Drive, Little Rock, AR 72202. The editor reserves the right to edit letters for style and length. Letters longer than 200 words will not be considered for publication. The AUM will not print letters containing personal attacks. The AUM reserves the right to publish Letters to the Editor in print, online or...

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Practical Divinity: John Wesley and the power of Christian doctrine

By Andrew C. Thompson Special Contributor John Wesley was passionate about doctrine. In fact, his love of doctrine is one of the more underappreciated (and sometimes even unknown) parts of his leadership of the Methodist movement. Wesley was such a believer in the importance of doctrine that it was—ironically—one of the things that caused him to get in trouble with his own Church of England. We see an example of that in a sermon from 1789 called “Prophets and Priests.” In answering critics who claimed that his actions amounted to separation from the church, Wesley responded: “I hold all the doctrines of the Church of England. I love her Liturgy. I approve her plan of discipline, and only wish it could be put in execution.” His appreciation for the way that the church’s doctrine and discipline were laid out on paper led Wesley to want to see them truly put into action. In fact, he believed that’s what the Methodist movement was attempting to do. When people would criticize him for planning Methodist services in the city of Dublin at the same time as regular church services, one of the reasons Wesley gave for why he did such a thing was to ensure that the people would have a chance to hear “that sound doctrine which is able to save their souls.” Nowadays there are all kinds of misconceptions about the nature of the message that Wesley preached and wrote about. Sometimes he is depicted as an excitable evangelist that just wanted to get people pumped up about their faith. Other times you’ll hear people make comments like, “I just really appreciate Wesley’s message about grace.” Both of these points of view miss the fact that there was actually a lot of concrete content to what Wesley was trying to get across. It wasn’t just about being energetic for Jesus (though that is certainly a good thing!). And it wasn’t just a generalized message about grace or love. Wesley’s understanding of the Christian gospel had fundamental doctrinal content—and he believed that content was of paramount importance for people to hear. When pressed to summarize the Christian doctrine he thought most central to the Bible, Wesley typically spoke in terms of a three-part scheme: the doctrine of sin and the need for repentance; the doctrine of justification by faith and new birth; and the doctrine of sanctification or holiness. He imagines these three doctrinal heads as the porch, door and house of religion in a famous example from the Principles of a Methodist Farther Explained in 1746. Wesley writes, “Our main doctrines… are three, that of repentance, of faith, and of holiness. The first of these we account, as it were, the porch of religion; the next, the door; the third is religion itself.” Wesley’s intense commitment to core Christian doctrine can be explained by the fact that he really believed people’s salvation was at stake in what was being preached by Methodist preachers. The pulpit was not a place to go off into flights of theological fancy, nor was it the proper arena for the preacher to test out his own pet theories about the Bible. It was a place solely meant for the preaching of the meat-and-potatoes gospel of Jesus Christ. One of the last retrospective essays Wesley...

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