Jesus’ DNA

Dear friends, neighbors, and church members:

I’m sorry to say that today, I’ve observed some very ugly things being spoken and written about refugees from Syria.

I want to remind those of us who are Christians of a few very important Scriptural points:

1. God is love. And perfect love casts out fear. When we judge people out of fear, and not love, we aren’t reflecting the heart of our God.

2. Throughout Scripture, we encounter God’s commands to welcome and care for the immigrant.

3. Jesus himself was a refugee. In the face of violence from their government, he, Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt and made a temporary home there.

4. Jesus counted an immigrant from an enemy nation in his own family tree – check out the book of Ruth and Matthew 1. So you see, “love your enemies” and “welcome the stranger” are literally part of Jesus’ DNA. Doesn’t that mean they should both be part of ours, too?

I know that the world is a scary place. I’m scared, too, sometimes. And I know that we have to be wise in taking care of the vulnerable people within our own borders, even as we welcome others into our homeland. But let’s also remember that God doesn’t see our borders the same way we do. God doesn’t care more for “us” than for “them.” God only sees beloved children in need, fleeing from violence and despair. And Jesus says that when we welcome the stranger, we welcome him.

So even if you’re not quite ready to welcome these strangers into your home, won’t you begin welcoming them into your prayers, and into your heart? The Holy Spirit can guide us from there.

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Isolation, Money and the Church

I’ve been thinking a lot about Christian community, lately.  About human connection, in the church and out of it.  And weirdly enough, about what money has to do with those things.

See, as a pastor, I’m constantly wondering how to reach people beyond the walls of my church.  As a 31-year-old pastor, I think especially hard about creating Christian community with young adults.  And as a person who lives far away from her dearest spiritual friends, I think all the time about how much I miss those friends, because of how much authentic Christian community has meant to me in my own life.

Of course, I’ve been taught how to reach younger adults: meet in a bar, meet in a coffee shop, meet in people’s homes.  And of course, I’ve been taught that it’s important for me to be part of a community beyond the church I serve: without it I’ll grow bitter, burn out, misbehave, so retreats, vacations and continuing education with friends are all mandatory.

Here’s the problem.  After living in the real world of ministry for a number of years, I’ve realized that all of these “solutions” for creating community have one major thing in common: they all require money.  And done regularly, no small amount of it!

In fact, I’ve started realizing that most of what typically fosters “connection” in the culture to which I belong requires money.

For instance, I’ve spent the better part of this rainy Monday reading, writing and thinking in my favorite coffee shop.  For a few hours, my husband Lance sat beside me working on his sermon – one of the true blessings of sharing this clergy life together.  Coffee shops are great.  But meeting there once a week with a small group?  That costs money: meal/coffee money, and gas money, and tip money.  I might have the funds to do this – barely – but plenty of people just don’t.  

I also found a few minutes to chat online with a dear friend in Chicago about some spiritual discernment I’ve been attempting.  She invited me to visit her one day soon to continue that discernment process in person.  If God’s Spirit is directing me to do this, then I’m sure I’ll be able to manage it – but purchasing a plane ticket is still really, incredibly difficult for Lance and me to do.  In this era where so many of us scatter from each other because of jobs, schools, marriages, it costs a lot of money to maintain lifelong friendships!

Restaurants; movie theaters; vacations; road trips; shopping; coffee; sporting events; bars; clubs; parties; technology.  These are all ways I commonly see – via media, social media, and in my own life – community being fostered.  But they all. cost. money.

Now, I have absolutely no room to complain about my life’s needs being met.  I’m fed, clothed, sheltered, and grateful for it.  But in my sinful, #firstworldproblems riddled soul, I sometimes still feel isolated because of financial limitations!  Lance and I just can’t always travel to see the people we love, or go out to eat, or join our friends on vacations, or any number of other things.  And so I find myself wondering: are there other people – including but not limited to those termed “the poor” (a problematic term, but that’s another topic) – who feel isolated from this particular culture of connection because of their finances?

And then I also wonder – are there people who feel isolated from our churches, from Christian community, because of their finances???!

Judging by all the people I don’t see sitting in most churches’ pews, I’d bet the answer is yes.

The idea has slowly been growing within me that a whole lot of our current strategies for church-growth really depend on ministry to “the poor” and ministry with the privileged.  How many of our forward-thinking strategies for Christian formation require people to be financially well-off to participate?  Or at least to live in an area that has restaurants, bars, coffeeshops, yogurt shops, and bookstores in which to meet?  (I pastor in Mississippi.  This is a real issue for a lot of us.)  Or to have homes that are large enough, with few enough people living in them, and are close enough to other church members, who won’t judge their style of living, to feel comfortable hosting a small group every week?  Or to be able to afford to take time off for a weekend retreat or a week-long mission trip?

I wonder how many people might actually feel isolated by some of the church’s beautiful, life-changing, cutting-edge ministries — that are nonetheless so deeply embedded in consumerism that I’m not even sure where one begins and the other ends?  I’m not knocking these ministries.  I’ve participated in them, been formed by them, led them, encouraged them in my churches, and love them deeply.  But I wonder . . .

How can we as the Church – and for me, as the United Methodist Church, especially – foster deep Christian community in ways that are distinctly non-consumerist, non-classist, and truly inclusive?

I believe that as the Church, that’s what we’re called to do.  John Wesley found ways to do it.  It’s in the Methodist DNA.   But how are we being a force for such desperately-needed, authentic connection today?

The Fairness of God and the Pain of LSU

This weekend, my beloved Mississippi State Bulldogs played the LSU Tigers in football. The last time State won the annual match-up was my senior year of college in 1999. It has not been a fun series for the Dawgs.

Before this game, most of us fans were just praying that State wouldn’t embarrass ourselves. We’ve become accustomed to writing off the LSU game as a loss and just hoping it doesn’t derail the rest of the season.

A funny thing happened this year, though. MSU won. They didn’t just win, they dominated. At the beginning of the 4th quarter, State was up 34-10. The only hiccup was that in the last 5 minutes of the game, LSU whittle down the lead to 34-29. Overall, though, an unranked MSU team beat the #8 team in the country on their home field after a decade and a half losing streak.

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You would think that MSU fans would be more than satisfied, wouldn’t you? You would be wrong. MSU supporters who were just praying for a close game hours before were now angry that we had not kept our lead. We should have won by more. It’s not fair. How can I be happy with LSU having been allowed to come back.

Mississippi State still delivered one of the most important wins in the program’s history against all odds, and a substantial portion of the fan base were upset about it. LSU’s failed comeback ultimately didn’t hurt us at all. State is sitting pretty at #14 in the polls, up from being unranked. But we had begun to feel entitled to a big victory, and that entitlement has now gotten in the way of our excitement over winning.

I wish this was something isolated to football fans. But it’s not. This past Sunday’s Gospel lectionary from Matthew has Jesus telling a parable of a rich landowner who goes out to the town square (think the ancient version of Home Depot) in the morning, noon, and evening and hires laborers to work in his field each time. At the end of the day, he pays them all the same wage that he had promised the guys who had worked all day. Those all-day workers are furious. It’s not fair that those who had only worked for a little while got paid the same thing. It didn’t matter that just that morning, these same guys were just hoping to get hired by anyone, and probably couldn’t believe their good fortune at getting a day’s wage for a day’s pay. It didn’t matter that it didn’t hurt them at all that the Johnny-come-latelies got paid the same. It just wasn’t fair.

I think most of us can identify with the guys who’d worked all day. The boss wasn’t fair at all. Isn’t it right that the more you work the more you get paid? What? Is this guy a communist? There are whole “news” channels devoted to complaining about people who get the same for working less. We get it.

And yet, Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is like what happens in this story. That the first are last and the last are first. That no matter when you respond to God’s call, you get to be a full part of what God’s doing in the world. This is why it’s so important that we understand that none of us earn our way into the Kingdom. It’s not because God wants us to feel like we’re worms. It’s because God wants to instill a sense of gratitude in each of us. If we are so wrapped up in what’s fair and what we deserve, we miss the fact that everything we have is a gift from God.

Our sense of “fairness” (which usually amounts to wanting fairness for everyone else, but grace for me) gets in the way of our sense of gratitude. I’m thankful that God isn’t fair. I’m thankful that God is gracious.

Hail State.

On Conflict

Our dog, Paris, hates thunderstorms.  HATES them.  She whines, whimpers, and hides in the bathroom corner.  (It’s pitiful.)

Paris in a thunderstorm.
Paris in a thunderstorm.

It’s not like the thunder can hurt her.  She lives inside, with her own doggie room and people-sized futon, for goodness’ sake.  But I can relate.  I hate conflict like Paris hates thunder.  I want to whine and hide, too, when I sense it’s headed my way. 

I’m actually preaching a lectionary-based sermon series on conflict this month, which is why I’ve been thinking about this.  It’s given me a reason to consider how Lance and I have grown closer through the conflicts we’ve experienced together.  We fought our way through two years of co-pastoring.  We both experienced some pain.  But the work we did on our marriage in its aftermath has made us much more understanding of one another.  We’re more invested, more loving and more willing to really listen now than we were two, three or four years ago.

So it seems possible to me that conflict, like thunder, may not actually hurt us as much as we’re afraid it will.  Maybe some conflicts can even be an opportunity to nourish and tend the most important parts of our lives.  At least, this is something I’m considering as I prepare for my upcoming sermon on forgiveness.  What do you think?

~Paige

Idolatry, Child Sacrifice, and Penn State

I’m sure most of us have read enough about this whole Penn State scandal to make us heartbroken 1000 times over and desperately want to hide any children we might know as far away from everyone as possible. How? How could this have happened? How could so many people have let it happen? How could they have just turned away? How could an almost universally respected coach have turned a blind eye to an atrocious act by someone he knew?

More and more in the last few months, I’ve been thinking about the concept of idolatry…about how we invert our allegiance. As a Christian, I take on faith that the center of my being, my prime good, my only real allegiance, is to be God. God is to be the lens through which I am to view the world. It is God that is the ground of my, and everything else’s, being. Idolatry is taking something else, something created, even something good (most of the time, especially something good), and making that the center of your life. It can be an institution, an ideology, a belief, a person, a relationship, an activity, a nation, a political party, or whatever. Christians are by no means immune to a temptation to worship idols. Our idols go by the names of Church, Bible, Denomination, congregation, tradition, family. These, in and of themselves, are good things. They are God-given things that can witness to the love God has for us. But when we put a lesser good in place of the highest good, we have perverted that for which they were created, and our world becomes out of whack.

And the thing I’ve realized is that idols always demand the sacrifice of an innocent. Nothing good, nothing pure, nothing right is allowed to exist. How could it? An idol can only continue to exist if we put to death everything else that could pull us away from it. Idols demand that nothing else can matter to us but the idol itself.

In our modern world, we sit comfortably on our high horse as we look at the past and decry those cultures that engaged in human sacrifice, especially of children, secure in our righteousness that we would never do such a thing. But, watch the news. Look around you. We sacrifice children to our idols every day. Penn State is just the most recent example. A group of powerful people were so committed to the institution of Penn State and its football program that they allowed young children to be sexually abused rather than tarnish its reputation. They looked the other way because Penn State, or their jobs, or their lifestyle, mattered to them more than the lives of these children. Their idols demanded a sacrifice, and however reluctantly, they laid them at the altar.

How many times in recent years have we seen this play out? Churches, more devoted to maintenance of the institution than the God they should be serving, look the other way as the most innocent among them are destroyed rather than risk respectability. Families remain silent as an abusive parent or spouse or uncle destroys another generation while clinging to an image of familial perfection. We allow thousands of poor children die every day rather than part with a penny. We send teenagers off to war, watching them come home in body bags or with psychological scars that will haunt them their whole lives for “national honor.”

Idolatry leads only to destruction. How could these officials at Penn State let this happen for so long? Because their highest good was not THE highest good.

Again, as a Christian, I believe our real highest good, the real God, does not demand the sacrifice of the innocent. God categorically rejects the sacrifice of children in Genesis. God asks only that we sacrifice our idols. God asks that we give to God our desires, our relationships, our loves. And God will return them to us, but this time turned right side up. We get to continue to love our nation, our churches, our families, and even our sports. But we will recognize them for what they are; gifts, not gods. And this God will never EVER ask us to look the other way when an innocent is being abused. For this God would and did suffer abuse rather than allow anyone to hurt.

Nicaragua

As many of my friends and parishioners know, I spent a week in Nicaragua this April. We helped build a Methodist church, and worked with children. I was reminded of so much there: the way my lifestyle affects people far from me, and the impact the sins of the powerful have on those who are most vulnerable. I recognized much in my life that needs to be transformed.

I also remembered the joys of a simpler, more purposeful and more communal life. I saw the Spirit of God in the hearts of strangers who became friends. I rejoiced to see the Nicaraguan Methodist Church’s growth and graciousness, and how much we have to learn and share with each other. One church there held a night-long prayer vigil for our team. Another gave us parting gifts. Everyone humbled and blessed us with their hospitality.

Mission trips can be opportunities for repentance, or for self-satisfaction; for relationships, or for tourism. I hope I’ve been transformed for the better. I hope the communities we served have, as well. Keep Esteli, Condega and the Nicaraguan Methodist Church in your prayers.

Peace,
Paige

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On Love: From the February Newsletter

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. –1 John 4:7-8

Valentine’s saint day aside, I’m not really sure why we celebrate love in February, of all months. February is cold, and dreary, and short.  If this month is supposed to reflect something about love, it seems like someone with a cynical sense of humor must have had a hand in planning Valentine’s Day.

We all know that human love can fall short of our expectations. Romantic love doesn’t always turn out the way we hope. We argue with our friends. Our families experience division and conflict. When love “goes wrong,” we feel a lot of pain. At times, we may even turn that pain outward against other people.

No matter what, though, we can trust that God’s love is perfect. As Valentine’s Day comes and goes each year, God’s love remains steadfast, “for God is love.” And that’s a love that is bigger than all of our chocolates and cards – or even our heartbreaks and pain.

When we are filled by God’s love, we share that love with other people. Instead of turning our pain outward, it’s God’s love we lavish on others. That is the mark of following Christ: that we are filled with love for God, and for our neighbors. So this Valentine’s Day, no matter what state your other loves are in, remind yourself that God’s love is always there for you. Then take that message and share it with someone else – it’s definitely better than a greeting card.

Merry Christmas!

Christmas Eve services were a blessing, followed by dinner at Chris and Melissa Upton’s. You can see the fun we had in the first pic of Chris as/with Santa.

This morning, we began Christmas with prayer from Common Prayer for Ordinary Radicals and lighting the Christ candle. We encourage all of you to create a Christmas day worship tradition, too. Happy Incarnation everyone!

Transcendent God

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.  Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them… they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.


As we approach Christmas this week, most Christians are thinking about God’s nearness — specifically, God drawing near to us in Jesus.  The Christ child is God-with-us in the most vulnerable, humble way.  Theologians call this nearness God’s “immanence.”  We celebrate it each Christmas.  “Transcendence” is the word theologians use to talk about God’s bigness and otherness from us, but it’s not one we use often during this time of year.

Still, watching this video definitely reminds me of the bigness and otherness of God.  I see the unimaginable size and age and diversity of the universe, and I remember that God is still far and above all of that.  It’s humbling, and majestic.  All the while, Christmas reminds me that this infinite God has somehow also been held in the arms of a young mother.

I think this strange combination must have been something the shepherds in Luke’s Gospel sensed on the night of Jesus’ birth.  Surrounded by the starry heavens and glorious messengers one moment, and by stable smells and a poor newborn the next — utterly different, and yet the same.  Truth out of what seems like a total contradiction.  Completely beyond us, and yet completely present with us.  That’s our God.

As Advent draws to a close and Christmas begins, may you know God’s nearness and majesty in your own heart.  May you find peace knowing that God is beyond anything in this world, and hope knowing that God has nonetheless drawn near to us in it.

-Paige

Style and Substance

So, Paige and I have decided to start a blog. The goal here is to let the folks at Nugent UMC and our dispersed friends know what’s going on in the church and our ministry.
Why this title? We spent the better part of an hour trying to decide what to name this blog. Paige had lines from her favorite poems. I didn’t feel like those reflected both of us. I had slightly off-color ideas. Those were shot down pretty quickly.
We finally came upon “Hypostatic Union.” I don’t think anything would reflect the both of us better than this title.
“Hypostatic Union” is a play on words. It is the technical theological term for the belief that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human. It’s a cornerstone of orthodox Christian belief.
Now, Paige and I are both committed to this belief. However, it’s important to remember that “hypostasis” means “substance.” We’re also pretty convinced that our marriage is a union of substance.
Finally, and I think most importantly, it gives everyone an idea of just how deep our nerdery runs.
I hope you all enjoy our musings here. We’re going to have fun sharing them.

-Lance