What comes next still matters

What comes next still matters

By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

This month, the long-awaited Special Session of General Conference takes place, and most of the folks I interact with on a regular basis are – understandably – very nervous.

The Commission on a Way Forward, at the direction of the Council of Bishops, have come up with three proposed plans that 864 delegates from all over the world will have a chance to vote on: The One Church Plan, the Traditional Plan, and the Connectional Conference Plan.

As the editor of the Arkansas United Methodist: Living Our Faith, some people might be looking to me for an opinion on the three proposed plans and an endorsement of the plan that I think would serve best the people of the United Methodist Church as we head into an uncertain future.

There’s no reason not to think I would offer an opinion; I’ve seen many editors – on both sides of the debate – do just that. But quite honestly, they aren’t adding much to the discussion that hasn’t already been said a thousand times before.

Here’s something that might strike you as odd; my opinion on the proposed plans does not matter.

My vote holds no weight in a debate that has rolled on for decades through the sanctuaries, family dinner tables, and minds of United Methodists, and one that I have only recently been pulled into.

If I were to choose one plan over the other, using some method of logical reasoning coupled with sound theological understanding and a lot of prayers, what difference would it make? After more than two years of debate over the proposed plans, and decades of debate over the issue of human sexuality, no one’s mind will be changed by anything I could write in this article.

I settled this debate in both my heart and mind long before I knew about the Commission, General Conference or the three plans.

It’s not my job to tell delegates, members, leaders, or even seekers of the United Methodist Church what they should believe, why they should believe it, and how they should vote at the special session of General Conference.

I’m not here to point fingers, call people names, and convince you that you’re wrong about any of your deeply held, deeply personal beliefs.

I’m not here to offer an opinion, but rather to provide a bit of hope.

I will be right here after General Conference, doing the same work I did before the vote; telling the stories of the excellent work of the Arkansas Annual Conference and its faithful members.

The message of love and grace found in Jesus Christ will continue long after the special session concludes and those who fought so vehemently in favor of their “side” return to their homes and churches.

And above all, whatever the outcome of General Conference, remember that people still need to hear the message of redemption, hope, and endless love found in the pages of a millennia-old book from a foreign country.

I encourage you not to focus all of your energy on these three days in St. Louis but instead, focus on making disciples of Jesus Christ who make disciples.

That’s what I’m doing this month and the month’s after, and that’s what I’ll continue to do as long as I am able.

We won’t be left in the dust

By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

Caleb Hennington, Digital Content Editor

The six months that I’ve spent working for the Arkansas Conference have felt like an entire year.

Not because my team and I have been slacking off, merely coasting through the summer months into the fall; it’s quite the opposite.

Since taking over this position in mid-June, the Arkansas Conference has undergone a lot of change and growth.

In early August, our team, led by Hendrix College senior Jacob Turner, gave the arumc.org website a much-needed facelift; updating the design of the site as well as making it mobile-friendly for the thousands of people who now access Conference information on their phones rather than their computers.

Not long after that, we relaunched the Arkansas United Methodist newspaper into the Arkansas United Methodist: Living Our Faith digital magazine, switching from a print-first publication into a digital-first endeavor.

As you might have already assumed, this was my favorite thing we accomplished this year.

Journalism is my passion.

It’s why I chose to spend four years of college at Arkansas State University learning the tools of the trade, and it’s why I spent the limited free time I had working for the school’s newspaper, The Herald.

Running a publication isn’t the easiest task to take on these days. Not only has certain inflammatory rhetoric made it harder than ever to gain the public’s trust, but with the advancement of the internet — and the rate at which information travels in the modern age — it’s difficult to gain people’s attention as well.

With information so freely accessed and readily available at the click of a button, it’s no wonder why many well-established publications have had to rethink the way they disperse information to the public.

You can even see this change in many of the publications here in the Natural State.

The Arkansas Times, the most well-known free alt-weekly in the state, recently switched its publication strategy to focus on digital journalism, ending its longtime weekly printing schedule and changing to a monthly publication.

Even the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette has undergone significant changes this past year, upgrading its website to be easier to read on mobile devices and focusing its sales tactics on special deals for digital-only subscriptions.

And just this month, Arkansas Life — which has been free since its launch in 2008 — is asking people to pay for subscriptions or else the print version will cease to exist.

I say all this to make the point that journalism is not dying; far from it, it has evolved with the technology of the times and figured out new ways to reach the most people with the most accurate information available.

The Arkansas United Methodist — although operating on a much smaller scale with a more specific audience than other publications in the state — is right there with the others.

We won’t be left in the dust when it comes to getting you the information you need, because we understand that unless you evolve with the changing world, you’ll never grow your audience.

We’re excited this month to be moving our digital publication of the AUM to a new platform: Issuu.

With this new platform, you’ll still have access to the full publication on your desktop computer, but when you’re on your phone or tablet, the stories will fit your screen perfectly for easy reading.

No more pinching and zooming to read the text.

This new digital platform is just the next step toward meeting our goal of providing you the resources you need and sharing stories of the good work being done in our Conference every day.

Happy New Year, and let’s make 2019 just as amazing as 2018!

The season of outrage!

By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

Caleb Hennington, Digital Content Editor

The holidays are one of my favorite times of the year.

Not just for the typical festivities like family gatherings, gift exchanges, the colorful lights, good food, the beauty surrounding the celebration of the birth of Christ, and eggnog – yes, I am a believer in the delicious, sugary, fatty delight that is holiday nog; don’t tweet at me.

But I also just love the spirit of the season. It’s a time when good cheer is aplenty, and folks seem to realize they can take things a little slower and learn to relax – if only for a few days.

Unfortunately, it also happens to be the season for holiday outrage!

If you’re one of those people that love to get outraged around the holidays, the mere fact that I’ve yet to mention the word “Christmas” in this article has probably already gotten your blood boiling.

Why is that?

It never fails; every year Christians seem to have some new inconvenience that sparks the flame of outrage deep within their souls. And they just have to post about it on Facebook.
Red cups! People saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas!” Too many secular Christmas songs! Millennial nativity scenes, complete with selfies and soy lattes!

Each one of these outrages is perceived by Christians as an attack on not only the meaning of Christmas but also their deeply held beliefs in their faith. However, if you just take a few moments to examine each individual outrage, you begin to realize there’s a good explanation for all of them.

  • The holiday cups from your favorite coffee shop were never intended to represent Christianity in the first place; they’re meant to represent a general celebration of Christmas, and red just so happens to be a very Christmas-y color.
  • People also say “Happy Holidays” around this time because Christmas isn’t the only holiday celebrated in December (Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Boxing Day, Omisoka).
  • A lot of secular Christmas songs can be just as beautiful as those traditional religious Christmas songs – have you ever heard Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas”? I rest my case.
  • And that millennial nativity scene? Don’t you think that Mary and Joseph would have been snapping selfies with the newborn Savior of the world had he been born in 2018 instead of thousands of years ago?

Ed Stetzer, author of the book “Christians in the Age of Outrage,” says the problem with outrage starts with the willingness of Christians to create, what he calls, “echo chambers of ideology.”

“The echo chamber first affirms your ideas, then it amplifies them, and you can start to believe the worst things about people you don’t agree with,” Stetzer said, in a recent CNN interview about his book.

As Christians, we need to understand that – while there are plenty of reasons to be righteously indignant these days – losing your temper at people who celebrate the holidays differently than you do is not a productive way to win people over to Christ.

In fact, there’s a strong chance that this holiday outrage from Christians is the very reason that many people choose to steer clear from the faith.

And I don’t blame them! How bad does it make Christians seem when all people see from you are the things you’re angry about rather than the things that bring you joy?

How are we reflecting the love of Christ when we point our fingers at the “other side” and accuse them of “taking Christ out of Christmas,” when they might not know the birth of Christ is the reason we celebrate this holiday?

Wasting time on the cups we drink our coffee from, the songs we sing, and the greetings we say to each other isn’t worth the energy; but taking care of your friends, neighbors, and community is always worth it.

Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas and do your best this season to “do no harm.”

From the Editor: Being thankful when it’s tough

By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

Caleb Hennington, Digital Content Editor

It’s finally November; a month typically associated with giving sacrificially and being thankful for your blessings.

At least, that’s what November is supposed to be about. But these days, I feel like it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to reflect on what I’m thankful for in this world.

Maybe it’s because I’m keenly aware of all the pain and sadness that’s going on in the world. As a journalist, I can’t help but pay attention.

When I turn on the news at night, or open up Facebook and Twitter, or read the breaking news notifications that seem to constantly ping on my phone these days, the reality of how bad this world has genuinely gotten comes fully into focus.

Immigrant children separated from their families at the border; homeless individuals forced to beg on the streets and sleep stretched out on benches during cold, harsh nights; not enough food to feed all the hungry mouths and empty bellies; folks who can’t afford to visit a doctor because of rising health care costs; violent and vulgar rhetoric constantly streaming from a place historically revered in American society as an honorable institution. If you take the time to stop and think about all the things wrong with the world today, you run the risk of spiraling into a deep, dark and depressing place.

Recently, I was able to get away from it all for a weekend camping trip at one of my favorite places in The Natural State: The Buffalo National River in the majestic Ozark Mountains. My wife and I, along with our pup, spent some time in nature, truly roughing it in a small, 4-person tent, cut off from running water, electricity and any trace of a decent cellphone signal.

And it was wonderful.

Cut off from texting, calling, tweeting, posting, emailing, and – most importantly – the 24-hour news cycle, I was forced to retreat into the quiet of nature and my personal thoughts.

It was the perfect environment for reflection; not just on the things that make this world tough but the things that make it beautiful, as well.

I can tell you this, there’s no better place to think about the elegance and majesty of God’s handiwork than when you’re sitting in an 8-foot by 9-foot tent with only a thin layer of polyester separating you from the cold chill of an autumn thunderstorm and the flooded ground outside, slowly creeping its way up to your tent.

And I did reflect. I reflected on the things I’ve been blessed with so far: a great life, married to a beautiful woman who cares for me and helps me to navigate my way out when I fall into the trap of dark thoughts. A fantastic job that allows me to tell the wonderful stories of the good people who belong to the United Methodist Church in Arkansas. My amazing support group of family and friends that are there when I need to vent about something that’s bothering me or share the joy of something that’s making me laugh that day.

And a God that cared enough about me – a person who’s just a minor hiccup in the timeline of creation – to create an escape plan from the sin and hurt of this world through the sacrifice of his Son more than 2,000 years ago.

So, as we move into November and everything that comes with this season of thankfulness and giving, remember that no matter how bad the world gets, there’s always a reason to be thankful.

There are countless ways you can learn to give back to others who may not be feeling so thankful about their life situation right now, like volunteering at food pantries or donating clothing and other supplies to shelters.

And if you need to, take a page from my book and learn to get away from the distractions of this world that seek to cause you stress. You’ll be glad you did.

Finding Hope After Tragedy

By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

This past month has been a tough, confusing, and at times, chaotic month for many Americans across the East Coast of the United States.

Hurricane Florence — a Category 1 storm that had been labeled by North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper as a “1,000-year rain event” — made landfall on Sept. 14 on North Carolina’s coast, and brought with it heavy rain, high winds, and dangerous flooding as it slogged its way across the Carolinas.

When natural disasters like Hurricane Florence happen, many people’s first response is to ball up their fists, raise them toward the sky, and cry out “Why? Why did you allow this to happen to us, God?”

I don’t think that’s an odd thing to question. Why does this happen? After all, God is in control of the entire universe; everything that happens — from the tiniest butterfly emerging from its chrysalis to the awe-inspiring and luminous galaxies that speckle the night sky — can be wiped out or put into motion at any instant by The Almighty above. It would make sense that if God wants his creation to thrive and live happy lives, then he wouldn’t allow us to suffer, right?

If you’re looking for a quick and easy answer to “why do we suffer?” in this column, then I’m afraid you’ll need to turn your attention to someone much smarter than I. I’m not a pastor. I don’t have a fancy theological degree from a prestigious seminary. I don’t have the right answers. I have just as many questions as you do.

As Christians and Methodists, we know that the Bible teaches that suffering is a direct result of sin and evil entering the world. But knowing why something happens doesn’t necessarily bring comfort. In all honesty, understanding why something happened often brings even more pain because you then begin to think about all of the things you could have done differently to prevent the results.

Even John Wesley couldn’t answer the question of why humans are forced to suffer tragedy, saying in one of his many famous sermons “we cannot say why God suffered evil to have a place in his creation; why he, who is so infinitely good himself, who made all things ‘very good,’ and who rejoices in the good of all his creatures, permitted what is so entirely contrary to his own nature, and so destructive of his noblest works.”

But even though we can’t answer the question of “why did this happen?” it is completely within our power to answer the question “what are we going to do now?”

As troubling as the news coming out of the East Coast has been these past few weeks, I am also not completely without hope. I have heard countless stories of the amazing ecumenical work that Christians have done to help folks who are no longer able to help themselves.

United Methodist congregants, both clergy and laity, sacrificed their resources — and at times their own safety — to ensure that no one was forgotten and left out in the storm.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief gave $10,000 in emergency grants to the North Carolina and South Carolina conferences.

Even those who do not reside in the conferences affected by Florence continue to give what they can through donations of money, food, clothing, soap, shampoo, bedding, clothes and more.

We’re never going to be able to find the answers we seek for why suffering and tragedy happen. It’s just not within the capacity of our tiny little human brains to understand. But when I hear stories like this of good people coming together to sacrifice their own time and resources to give others the assistance they need, I no longer ponder the question “why?” Instead, I reflect on the goodness of people and the hope I have that when disaster inevitably strikes again, there will always be a helping hand available – both heavenly and earthly – to pierce through the darkness and pull us out of despair.