A Quarantine Meditation

A Quarantine Meditation

By Kay Brockwell

Lay Leader, St. Paul UMC, Jonesboro

When we began Lent on Feb. 26, we were certainly not thinking about giving up this much. Not our jobs, not our family gatherings, not our dinners out and movie nights, not our worship services. We were not thinking about giving up affectionate hugs from our friends when we met them. Our teens were not thinking about giving up senior proms and high school basketball championships. Our sports fans were not thinking about giving up March Madness and the first month and a half of major league baseball.

We were not thinking about giving up community. 

What a difference four weeks make! Now we are “hunkered down,” making only necessary trips to the grocery and pharmacy and doctor’s office, and being careful to keep the prescribed six feet away from everyone else in the store. In the evenings, we rediscover our families, if we are fortunate enough to still share our homes with them. Unless we’re a health care worker or a first responder or work in what’s deemed essential retail, we’re absent the community of our workplace. Those of us who live alone may go for days without seeing another human being.

Our Lent is fashioned after Jesus’ period of fasting in the wilderness, where he was tempted by Satan, and where he withstood those temptations. He spent his 40 days in solitude. And here we are, 2000 years later, spending our days leading to Easter in solitude as well. Our churches are empty. Our Sunday morning church is conducted by Facebook live, YouTube, Zoom meeting or conference call. We, too, are tempted in our solitude; tempted by sloth, by depression, by even further withdrawal from the world we can no longer touch. We, and our church, will emerge from this period time a changed people, and a changed church; the question is how we will change, and how we’ll shape the post-coronavirus church and world.

How do we, then, survive this time in our own little wilderness? While our distractions are lessened, our opportunity to seek God grows. Without the tyranny of a schedule and a calendar, we can spend more time in His presence. We can take time to sit quietly in his presence, not petitioning, not praising, just aware of his presence in us. We can, perhaps, begin a practice of meditation and contemplative prayer.

We can spend more time showing love to those with whom we live, and to others in our community. We can craft wonderful meals, build long-awaited projects, play in the back yard; we can take a home-cooked meal to a neighbor (leaving it on their porch). We can call a shut-in or someone who lives alone and pick up their groceries when we shop. We can mail a card or a small gift. 

We can re-establish our church community through a combination of technology and inventiveness. If most of our members are elderly and not online, we can have conference call services. We can offer drive-up Communion, complete with masks and surgical gloves and individually packaged elements. We can move a pulpit and sound system to the parking lot and hold a drive-in church. We can establish online prayer groups and Bible studies.

We can reach out to those we don’t know by providing food for feeding programs, or in neighborhood “free pantries,” or to our local food bank. We can continue to provide for the many needs that don’t stop because we are quarantined – infant formula, children’s clothing, online one-to-one tutoring for school children, meeting the needs of our homeless.

Most of all, we can remember the many times God has promised that he will never forsake his people. Quarantine may separate us; let us not allow it to forsake each other.

Order to the Disorder

Order to the Disorder

By Rev. Dr. Michelle J. Morris

CouRSe Coordinator

Hope. Peace. Joy. Love.

After some significant debate, that is what we settled on, this group of pastors who was trying to remember the order of the words associated with each of the weeks of Advent. Just for good measure, I checked the source of all knowledge these days: Wikipedia. It also lists hope, peace, joy, and love. Yes! We are all in agreement.

But then I started working on the Advent devotional offered by the Arkansas clergywomen as a gift to anyone in the Conference (find it as a study in CouRSe, our online Congregation Resourcing System; go to arumc.myabsorb.com to sign up). They have the order there as hope, love, joy, and peace. Now, I know from the discussions around this resource that one of the reasons for this order is to match the lectionary passages that go with that particular week. At least they are still working with the same four words, even if they are in a different order.

But imagine my surprise when at another gathering of pastors someone mentioned the Advent resources at Discipleship Ministries (umcdiscipleship.org) has this list: peace, hope, joy, and trust. Seriously? What happened to love? Why did trust get added in there all of a sudden? I have to admit my mind went to a rather distrustful space of wondering if they were trying to subtly call us out for our lack of trust in each other, and I recognize that I proved their point if that is where they were going. But also, where is the love? That seems like a desperately needed word these days for our church.

I really don’t need this lack of clarity about my Advent weeks this year. This is not the time to get creative and try to mess around with my traditions and my expectations. Please, just let everything stay the way it has always been.

But if Advent did that, then it wouldn’t be Advent, would it?

Advent is a season of darkness and confusion. Advent, in our Christian calendar, represents the time before the light came into the world. If you are reading through the lectionary passages for Advent this year, you will notice that the words of the prophets and the psalms come from dark places – places of loss, of destruction, of abuse and desolation. In truth, Advent points out that we don’t need things to stay the same – we need a savior who will lead us out of this place. We need a change. Desperately.

I had become too attached to the wrong thing as I wrestled with these words. I had become attached to their order. When we are in dark places, order gives us comfort. But I needed to be attached to their meaning. And their meaning actually creates disorder in this space, because hope and joy and peace and trust and love all stand in opposition to the darkness we are living in, the darkness that deceives us into thinking it brings us order, when in fact it is the source of the chaos.

So now I welcome the disruption of these words. I welcome it because such disruption is making me see what I actually need to see. I need to see that my comfort comes not from predictable liturgy but instead from passionate, surprising worship. The kind of worship that reminds me to see a newborn child not simply as a baby but instead as the source of all the universe, and the one who rights all that is wrong in the world. So bring on my Advent chaos. Ultimately, it will bring order to all that is disordered.

P.S. – Discipleship Ministries didn’t drop love altogether, but instead made it the center of Christmas Eve. Thank God!

Advent Is Where We Live

Advent Is Where We Live

By Rev. William O. "Bud" Reeves

Senior Pastor, First UMC Fort Smith

We live in a world of uncertainty. We never know what the next day—or even the next hour—will bring. Not a week goes by that I don’t have to deal with someone whose world, in a moment, has radically and forever changed. A healthy, strong retiree suffers a debilitating stroke. A father of three loses his job in a corporate downsizing. An innocent driver is injured in a tragic accident. A house fire takes the life of a child. We never know what the day will bring.

We live with uncertainty on a grand scale. The political situation in our country descends closer to chaos every day. Our fellow human beings—from children in public schools to soldiers on the fields of battle—suffer the scourge of violence. “Huddled masses yearning to breathe free” are gathered outside our borders in unconscionable conditions.

And of course, our beloved United Methodist Church seems locked on a trajectory of division. After nearly half a century of often rancorous debate, it is clear there is still an intractable disagreement over matters of human sexuality, and there are enough people who are not willing to live with that disagreement that some sort of division is inevitable. (See our Bishop’s remarks from November 8.) The Wesleyan Covenant Association has distributed drafts of their new Book of Discipline and is organizing the committee structure for a so-called “new expression of Methodism.” Several plans of separation have been proposed for consideration by General Conference in 2020.

In these uncertain days, where can we turn? What can we do? Where is the hope?

As we begin the season of Advent, we find that this spiritual season (not so much the cultural Christmas) is all about the uncertain human condition. Before Jesus was born, the people were living in the midst of violence, oppression, and poverty. They never knew what the day would bring, either. Yet they longed for the promised Messiah. They never stopped hoping. Then God came as a baby to save the world. God sent the Son to live and grow and teach and die for our salvation. The Baby is Emmanuel, “God with us.”

Our response to the Advent reality may be to follow the advice of Jesus, to “stay awake” and to “watch” for the signs of the Kingdom at hand. Through Isaiah, God said, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” We should keep our eyes open for the work of God in the world. It’s there for those who can see. Maybe we can join in.

Another critical response to the uncertainty of the times is, to use the metaphor of Jesus, to keep our hands to the plow and our eyes straight ahead. He said, “Whoever puts their hand to the plow and looks back is not fit for the kingdom of God.” If we spend our time and energy bemoaning the past, second-guessing individuals or groups, and letting ourselves be controlled by fear, we will never see the way God is preparing in front of us.

The most important task in these uncertain times is to do everything we can to make our local church as strong and vital as we can. Give, serve, pray, and work so that the church family you love can withstand the tides of uncertainty and change. The worst thing would be to abandon ship. Our mission has not changed. We are still here to make disciples for the transformation of the world. We are still called to teach the children, engage the youth, encourage the families, support the elderly, marry the couples, visit the sick, bury the dead, proclaim the Word, love the neighbor, and lead the lost soul to Jesus. Whatever happens in our world or country or denomination, we have to keep steady, plow the field, and look to the future.

We have not lost hope. God who came in Emmanuel is still with us. Jesus is still Lord. We live in an Advent kind of world, but this kind of world is where we can truly live. Advent acknowledges our human condition, but it also envisions our highest aspiration. We live in the midst of uncertainty, but with the undeniability of God’s ultimate victory. We face fear every day, but we do not give up our faith. In a world full of heartbreak, we dare to have hope.

This is not news. But this is Good News. In fact, it’s the best news of all. John Wesley said it memorably, as he lay dying: “Best of all, God is with us.” True. Thanks be to God.

Feeding from the Depths

Feeding from the Depths

By Rev. Eva Englert-Jessen

Program Coordinator for the Center for Calling and Christian Leadership, Hendrix College

I’m not sure I’d be a minister today if it weren’t for church potlucks. There is something about the gelatinous salads, mac and cheese, quirky cupboard serving bowls and potluck conversation that nourishes the soul. I think Jesus knew what he was doing when he told us that coming together around simple elements — brought forth as wheat and grape from creation and nurtured into bread and wine — is a profound way to experience God’s love, and to be challenged to extend that holy Table into the world.

Food matters. Food really matters.

Churches have played a tremendous role in responding to the needs of the hungry, through a variety of food programs such as weekly meals for anyone in need in the community, summer meal programs for schoolchildren, and food pantries. This work is important; it shouldn’t stop. And yet, as helpful and theologically grounded (and important!) as food charity is, I’ve learned more and more that the complexity of problems related to food injustice and poverty require an even more robust response from the church; responses that get at the heart of the issues themselves.

Two of my favorite food justice authors Roger Gottlieb and Anapuma Joshi define food justice in terms of equity, fairness, and sustainability not only for consumers and eaters, but also in terms of how food is grown, produced, and accessed. If the food systems that create hunger are characterized by a lack of equity and fairness in any of these areas, then to respond in a meaningful way necessitates paying attention to the interaction of all of these components of food injustice.

I wonder about possibilities for deeper engagement in our Arkansas Methodist churches around this. There are so many ways to do this work creatively! Examining the roots is hard, and time-consuming, and requires asking questions that don’t always have straightforward answers or quick fixes—but is that not the road of faith we walk in our personal lives and with our fellow Christians? The task Jesus gives us to love God and love neighbor is not an easy task, but it is one we do in community.

One such example of this examination of the roots is situated in uncovering the history of lands we live on, and the ways throughout history and into our present in which land has been used to exploit God’s creation—both the land and the people—who were forced leave or to work it. As I’m learning from teachers and writers such as Dr. Cherisse Jones-Branch of Arkansas State University, Arkansas is not exempt from a past that not only enslaved Africans and their descendants, but that also upheld many programs (including programs connected to the U.S. Department of Agriculture) that continued to deny African-Americans the right to land ownership even after the abolishment of slavery. We can draw a pretty direct line from this history to the reality of what many experts call “food deserts,” where lack of access to fresh, healthy foods is clustered in specific geographic areas. Communities affected by land loss and food deserts are in or near our churches. I feel God calling us to dive more deeply into the realities that affect their abilities to live the abundant life into which Jesus calls us.

Some might read this and think I’m being “political,” a word that has become so demonized in our age of partisan polarization. But I believe that the God who calls us all to partner in what John Wesley would describe as God’s work of reconciling all of creation, calls us to reckon with the ways in which we humans are capable of both great compassion and kindness and great harm. I think this reckoning sometimes involves zeroing in on the nitty-gritty layers and systems that we move through, even when we’d much rather not look at them at all.

Even as we dive more deeply into the causes of hunger and the ways in which poverty ensnares so many in our communities, let’s not forget the abundant grace of God that is always present, always reaching out, always inviting us into deeper relationship with Christ, one another, and with the Holy Spirit that dwells within each of us. As we gather around Fellowship Hall tables for potlucks and approach a season of holiday meals and gatherings, may we be transformed by meals of grace and the Meal of Grace we partake in as Christians during Communion. May we also extend that grace into each person, creature, and moment we encounter.

Rev. Eva Englert-Jessen (Hendrix ’12, Boston University School of Theology ’17) is a provisional Deacon in the North Texas Conference of the UMC. She is serving in Arkansas as the Program Coordinator for the Center for Calling and Christian Leadership. The Center, which is based at Hendrix College, creates programs for young United Methodists to explore and discern their calls to lay and ordained ministry and church leadership.

Eva is passionate about the intersections of vocation, faith, and justice—especially related to food and the environment. As a Deacon, she is also committed to supporting and creating spaces for the church (broadly defined) to be a source of personal and social transformation.

Can We Affirm A Common Core?

Can We Affirm A Common Core?

By Bud Reeves

Senior Pastor of First UMC Fort Smith

The “Common Core” refers to an often controversial set of state standards for education that was enacted a few years ago and is still supported in most states. The Common Core is knowledge that students should know by the end of a particular grade. The goal for the Common Core is to prepare students for success in post-secondary education. If all students possess similar levels of educational expertise, the pedagogical playing field should be more level, and there should be less need for remediation. At least that’s the theory.

When I go to our Arkansas Annual Conference, it reminds me of the Common Core of Methodism in our home state. I’ve been a Methodist all my life and a pastor all my adult life—“deeply ingrained” would be an understatement. At Annual Conference I experience worship and business the way we do them. I renew relationships with long-time, well-beloved colleagues and friends. I am reminded of our Wesleyan theology and our practices of faith that are uniquely Methodist. I would be so out of place at a Southern Baptist convention or an Assembly of God conference. I am Methodist to the core.

Although I am writing this before Annual Conference, I am anticipating the presentation of a letter that will affirm our common core as Wesleyan Methodists. There is deep division within our denomination, made deeper by the General Conference of last February. As members of the Arkansas United Methodist family, several of us (of different perspectives on human sexuality) were invited by our bishop to have dialog about what unites us. We quickly came to affirm what we share in common, because what we share is broader, deeper, and perhaps more important than what divides us. The letter shared at Annual Conference included these points of commonality:

  1. We believe in the Triune God, salvation by faith in Jesus Christ, in the unconditional love of God, and in God’s grace sufficient for every need. We believe in the faith delivered to the church in the historic creeds.
  2. We cling to our Wesleyan heritage as Christians of a Methodist tribe. This includes:
    a. A Wesleyan understanding of grace—prevenient, justifying, and sanctifying.
    b. Theological and social discourse grounded first in Scripture, informed by tradition, experienced in personal and corporate dimensions, and articulated with the best of human reason.
    c. Christian discipleship consisting of both vital piety and social action.
    d. Adherence to the General Rules given by John Wesley:
    1) Do no harm.
    2) Do good.
    3) Attend upon the ordinances of God.
  3. We believe the mission of the church is making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. We affirm the trajectory of the Arkansas Annual Conference “to make disciples who make disciples equipped to transform lives, communities, and the world.”
  4. We believe that whatever happens to the structure of the United Methodist Church, we will respect our fellow Methodists, and our interactions will be characterized by:
    a. Listening well. We invite the members of Annual Conference to truly listen to one another as we share in conversation.
    b. Loving well. As disciples of Jesus Christ, love is at the center of who we are and what we are about. Jesus tells us, “Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.” (John 13:34-35)
  5. We believe we are stronger and will accomplish more working together in our social witness. We commit to support our Annual Conference initiatives: 200,000 Reasons to stop childhood hunger in Arkansas, UMCOR, Volunteers in Mission, and disaster response initiatives.

This common core is often referred to as our “Methodist DNA.” (I’m no geneticist, so cut me some slack for the sake of analogy.) Each organism in God’s vast creation carries a genetic code made up of DNA, which is enclosed in chromosomes. Every cell in an organism carries this unique genetic code. But the slightest variation in composition introduces mutations into the organism. Human beings have 46 chromosomes, but the mutation of even one of those chromosomes can produce a substantially different organism.

In 1972, a mutation was introduced into the Methodist DNA with the “incompatibility” language inserted into the Book of Discipline. Mutations can be good or bad, and opinion is certainly divided on the character of that mutation. But mutations are part of the process of evolution.

The “incompatibility” mutation and its subsequent reinforcement may indeed produce a different organism in the Methodist family. It has happened before. The species methodista pluralis has continued to evolve. My point is that most of our DNA is still intact. We share a common core. My hope for the future is that whatever organisms evolve, we can affirm that we have more in common than what divides us. We can coexist in peace, and perhaps even cooperate. We can all make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

At least that’s the theory.