A Time to Pause and Reflect on the Special Session of General Conference of The United Methodist Church

The Rev. Todd R. Goddard, Pastor

West Walworth: Zion and East Rochester United Methodist Churches

March 1, 2019

 

The mission of The United Methodist Church is to make “disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” After the 2019 Special Session of General Conference, few are paying attention.

Our unique Wesleyan DNA places a particular emphasis on God’s grace and Christian living. The world witnessed the division and conflict exhibited at General Conference in February with disbelief. How can such hurtful words and actions come from Christians known as United Methodists?

A FEW OBSERVATIONS:

1) Decades long conflict over human sexuality continues to undermine and obscure our mission. There is no mission and there is no vision for a denomination at war with itself.

2) We are divided; minds are already made up. Churches know where their congregation stand. Clergy have each come to their own conclusion. Lay people know where their convictions are leading them. Arguing theological and Biblical points of contention will not change deeply held beliefs. It feels like trench warfare, going nowhere, that never ends.

3) Our differences are irreconcilable. We are a global church with great diversity of world views, beliefs, and experiences. The negative side effect of diversity are cries of discrimination. Instead of celebrating the benefits of diversity, we have allowed our differences to usher evil, injustice, and violence into space that should be Holy and safe.

4) The authority of our bishops was significantly undermined when their recommended One Church Plan never made it out of committee and the Traditional Plan was passed 53% to 47%. I wonder how effective our bishops will be in carrying out the discipline of the Traditional Plan.

5) There is nothing Holy about conferencing. Winners are often those who work Robert’s Rules of Order more effectively than losers. Many pray for the Holy Spirit to come, then shut it out with points of order.

6) Reading reflections and listening to many colleagues and lay members makes it clear everyone lost the battle, the wounded are being dragged away, blood trails are everywhere, no one knows where to go next. This is a time of waiting. Leaders who led this bloody fight to a stalemate have had their pride and privilege exposed. Who wants to be led by those who would sacrifice the Church of Jesus Christ simply to get their own way?

MY PERSONAL, PRAYERFUL, VISION MOVING FORWARD:

1) Cease fire. Stop fighting. End the violence. Lay down all weapons, leave the trenches, be brave enough to walk across no-mans land, and extend a hand of love and charity to those so bitterly opposed. Love enemies. Pray for those who persecute you. The world is watching our behavior and listening to our rhetoric. It better be genuine.

2) Repent. It’s time for sack-cloth and ashes. Let us vow never to allow ourselves to so harm each other ever again. Those who led us to the abyss should surrender authority. Pride, privilege, and ego nearly killed us; it’s time for humility, confession, reconciliation, and love.

3) Agree to a graceful, amicable divorce. No one gets the house. Assets and liabilities should be fairly divided. Allow the divorce to extend to the basic element of Christian faith: the local church.

4) Strip the Discipline of the United Methodist Church of everything except for a common Christ-centered theology with a Wesleyan emphasis on grace. Allow the global United Methodist Church to become an umbrella under which all those of like minds and hearts are encouraged and welcomed to gather.

5) Three beautiful plans are already on the table. Each speaks to a particular group of United Methodist. Each plan could serve as the groundwork for establishing three new denominations moving forward, united by a global United Methodist communion. Encourage clergy, laity, congregations to organize and affiliate with those most closely aligned to their beliefs and conscience.

6) End the fallacy of holy conferencing. Replace it with the Holy Spirit. Make sacred and Holy space for discernment. This requires establishing relationships and building trust that the Holy Spirit is at work in the lives of others as well as at work in my own life. What will this looks like? I don’t know; but I’d love to explore the possibility further.

MY COMMITMENT:

1) I will love the people who are entrusted to my pastoral care and will serve to the best of my ability as their spiritual leader.

2) I will listen, counsel, love, and pray with all people, regardless of their theological and Biblical beliefs.

3) My sack-cloth and ashes will be a disciplined tongue and tempered behavior that contributes to healing.

4) I will pray and discern the movement of the Holy Spirit in others and in myself. I will look to movement in our Episcopal leaders, our District Superintendents, and our conference delegates, giving them the safe space necessary for progress to be made. I will listen to colleagues and laity alike, listening for the Holy Spirit at work, watching for the presence of the Spirit’s fruits.

5) I will remain true to my ordination vows, to the very best of my ability. I will serve where called and submit when it is the Spirit’s will.

I look forward to the day when we will bring laser clarity to our mission as United Methodists, when our every effort moving forward is to glorify Jesus Christ and to propagate his Gospel, when we can be united by the love and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Love, always- Pastor Todd

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Who Am I?

Updated 5/20/2019

I am a disciple of Jesus Christ; he claimed me at my baptism and I claimed him at my confirmation as a youth.

I’ve been called and ordained to be a pastor, whose role is to

  1. Word: proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ
  2. Sacrament: celebrate the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion
  3. Service: to serve the needs of the Body of Christ
  4. Order: ensure the administrative order of the parish is Biblical and Disciplinary

I’ve been appointed by the Bishop to serve as your pastoral and spiritual leader.

In my opinion, the role of the congregation is to “live the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to be God’s love with our neighbors in all places.” It is my role to keep people redirected back to the core values and vision of our congregation.

I believe Christ calls us to empower people with encouragement, tools, and resources to be successful. Every person has been endowed with God given potential that requires nurture and encouragement to blossom and grow.

I believe the Holy Spirit speaks through all people, making collaboration essential for success.

I believe in permission giving, way more than permission withholding.

I favor grace more than law.

I believe the community of faith’s role is discernment of God’s will – individually and collectively.

I believe prayer is an essential means of communicating directly with God.

Worship is our core activity. It must be done with excellence and to the best of our ability.

Worship that is combined with mission serves as the best way to grow our church family. Mission provides depth and meaning to the spiritual journey.

All are welcome at the table. Since all are guilty under the law, I prefer to leave judgment up to God.

Programs ebb and flow; it is just as okay to let go as it is to create. This comes from a confidence in God’s timing.

The only metric I’m concerned with is

  1. Is your heart warmed by Christ?
  2. What are you doing about it?

I believe God has given us all the money we need. If needs become known, it is important that the congregation is informed. The happiest, most satisfied disciples of Christ are those who are most generous.

I tithe because it is the Biblical standard, it serves as an invitation to others to join in the tithing lifestyle, and it helps keep me spiritually healthy.

I believe God gives us all the people we need. If we need more, God will provide. If we are not good stewards of the people we’ve been given, our numbers will decline.

I believe strongly in Safe Sanctuaries and the protection it affords children, youth, and vulnerable adults.

My politic is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I am a lifelong United Methodist. God’s grace, as articulated by John Wesley, is a part of my identity.

It is important for me to be as transparent and authentic as humanly possible.

Also, I don’t like to have access to church money. The only way I should know what you contribute is if you tell me. Giving is fun; and opportunities to spread the joy should abound!

I dismiss all anonymous complaints. If I offend you, please seek me out and tell me! If you see me headed in an uninformed or reckless direction, please inform me!

Guatemala: Cold, Warm, & Sizzling Hot

It’s 37 degrees Fahrenheit outside here in Rochester, New York and I am cold. A killing frost is threatening to strike any morning. Winter is coming and I don’t like it one bit. The only thing between a hundred inches of snow falling from a prolonged ice-cold winter  and me is a pair of long underwear, a double layer of socks, and a closet full of flannel shirts.

The cold makes me think of Guatemala.

Yes, it gets cold in Guatemala, even during the summer, high up in the mountains. 5,000 feet of elevation with no furnace and intermittent hot water is a recipe for bone-chilling cold! I learned from my first trip. The second trip I packed sweat pants and a hoodie for the cold nights.

While we stayed in local hotels, the cold always made me think of the countless Mayan families covering the countryside, spending the cold night in houses made of cornstalks, sticks, plastic, and tin. Lord, have mercy.

This past summer we were blessed with a hotel that featured a central campfire pit. It was great to relax after a hard day’s work around the campfire, talking about the profound and the sublime, the deep and the shallow, making attempts at humor and suffering groans worthy of the pun. Our team of dissimilar Christians from across the North East and Mid West  became friends and bonded in a wonderful way.

An older gentleman who worked for the hotel would stay late each evening to kindly build us a fire. One evening he brought his guitar and sang for us Guatemalan songs from his youth.

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I’ll never forget the one riff he played that was common to every song. More importantly, I’ll never forget what a blessing he was to all of us gathered round. Indeed, on that cold evening, he brought the warmth.

It is my experience that the people we serve in Guatemala always brings the warmth. A widow raising three young boys invites a neighbor, friend, single mother with eleven children to move in with her. You know, some tasks are done better together than by yourself. That’s some warm love, right there. Brings tears to my eyes.

Family members that cry, hug, and kiss your hand because you just fit their elderly loved one to their first wheel chair never fails to warm my heart. Staffers who volunteer to work both week-end days to serve as translators do so because … well, that’s just how much they love their neighbors, especially those who are most vulnerable – single women and children.

Despite the cold evening temperatures of mountainous Guatemala, what has always warmed my heart is the genuine hospitality and love that I’ve received in return. While it may be our natural tendency to be wary of strangers and to take time to warm up and trust them, I’ve come to know that the warmth I’ve experienced on short-term mission trips is nothing other than a gift of God’s grace and love.

After all, some one, some how, some where has to warm them up!

I’d suggest that what warms people to one another is the heat of God’s grace and love. Divine love burns red hot, like a Louisiana chili pepper, liberating us for a life of discipleship and service, loving God and loving neighbors. Forgiveness and salvation are the twin pinnacles of God’s searing love for us.

God’s love, and his burning desire to share his love, knows no bounds. It doesn’t recognize political borders. It makes no distinction between languages. It doesn’t discriminate due to status, wealth, influence, skin color, or where one goes to worship.

God’s blistering love is bound to warm up everyone serving on a short term mission trip. Yes, everyone gets warmed, even those gathered around a camp fire on those cold mountainous evenings.

Reentry and the Blessing of Guilt

FB_IMG_1534425282693Our short-term mission team recently returned from a week of service in Guatemala. It was a great week. We bonded into a strong, close-knit team. We accomplished a lot of good work in the name of Jesus Christ. Two single mother led families received new houses, 52 people received new wheelchairs, and a lot of food and clothing was distributed during our numerous home visits.

To God be the glory!

FB_IMG_1534509860013My return carry-on bag was packed with filthy laundry and I was wearing the only clean tee shirt and over-sized gym shorts on the flight back home. Pulling into my driveway at 1:30 am felt nearly as good as the hot shower that followed. For the next week, it felt like I could sleep for 12 hours each day. Boy, did my own bed feel good!

Going to work was hard. My body ached. My mind wandered. I felt like it was hard to stray very far from a bathroom. After a few days of adjustment, I was able to determine that I had lost a total of eight pounds, even though we had eaten very well.

Slowly, gradually, life has returned to normal. With the passing of time, I began to discern that something had changed.

A trip to the local supermarket to obtain food for tonight’s dinner cost me about thirty bucks. My internet bill for the cottage is due, totaling seventy-eight bucks. I just paid my thirty-five hundred dollar VISA bill. On Sunday morning, I wrote my weekly pledge check to the church. “Yikes!” I thought to myself, “Money seeps out of our household like sand between your fingers.”

Then, it occurred to me.

The cost for just one good or service is equivalent to the annual income (or substantially more) of most of the families I had just been serving. Income inequality smacked me flat in the face like a shovel, and has left me with a whopper of a guilt laden hangover. I don’t own the entire responsibility for all the economic sin of this world, but I do own my own share of it. What can I say when there is no defense?

“Your honor; I stand guilty as charged.”

Recognizing my own guilt, naming it, and taking responsibility for my own guilt is the beginning of redemption.

What a blessing!

There is no shame in confession. There is no shame in conviction. There is only shame in denial and stubborn self-refusal.

I can’t fix global income inequality. I can’t fix poverty. It is beyond my ability to save the world. This is why we’ve been given a Savior, and it isn’t you or me. His name is Jesus.

It’s a blessing to live in the grace of Christ’s redemption. Jesus Christ confronts our sins, cleanses us of our sins, and rehabilitates us from our brokenness and the brokenness we have caused. He confronts us with our guilt, then leads us down the road towards the redemption and salvation of the world. The price paid for our guilt was his crucifixion. By his blood, our sins are forgiven. By his grace, our redemption, and the redemption of the world, is progressing full steam ahead.

Who could ever imagine that an admission of guilt could become a blessing in God’s kingdom? I couldn’t just a month ago; but, I can today.

I am guilty. At the same time, I am blessed because of my guilt. A difficult re-entry this month from a short-term mission trip to Guatemala taught me this. What else can serving teach us about ourselves, each other, and our God?

Sign me up for another short-term mission trip. Are you in?

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Managing Risks

Jesus walked through the storm on the sea. He came near the boat. The disciples were terrified. “But he said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.'” – John 6:20

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In seven days I’ll be joining a team headed to Guatemala for another short-term mission trip. We will build two houses, fit 50 people to newly re-manufactured wheelchairs, and distribute food and clothing to many households … mostly single mothers raising children living on the brink of malnutrition. 20170813_083617

Most importantly we will be making friends while sharing the love of Christ.

There are some new members of our team; there always are (which is a good thing!). Undoubtedly, fears and anxiety will surface, not only in their minds, but in the thoughts of their families, friends and loved ones. “Will it be safe?” “What happens if … ?” “I just saw on the news …” “Maybe I made a mistake and should back out.”

I know about fears and anxiety because I’ve been there. This will be my 5th trip to Central America in six years, three of which have been to Guatemala and two to Nicaragua. I still get a little nervous, but each trip gets easier.

A few thoughts.

It is impossible to eliminate all risk. This is true, both home and abroad.

Natural disasters happen. Earthquakes roll and volcanoes blow. Mudslides, floods, and fires happen. Other than taking some common sense precautions, there isn’t much that can be done to manage mother nature.

People can be cruel to one another. Sin manifests itself in violence, oppression, and injustice. God’s laws and civil laws are broken by those who live a life of crime. Ego, hubris, greed, and pride incite atrocious acts, locally, regionally, and nationally.  Tribalism, partisanship, populism, and history can add gasoline to a burning fire. Oh, yes; don’t forget to add in religion, especially deeply held divisive or extremist issues and values.

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Our police escort were all business for the photograph. Immediately after the photo we all broke out in smiles, laughter, and high-fives!

It is possible to do something about the human factor. It is possible to manage risks in such a way that overall risk is reduced to an acceptable or tolerable level. This is my strategy; I pray it can be helpful for you:

  1. Partner with a stable non-governmental organization (NGO) that is based in the location of your mission. Local personnel know the neighborhoods, the security network, the police, and community leaders. Bethel Ministries International in Guatemala know when police are needed for an escort and which neighborhoods to avoid. Bethel works months ahead of time with clergy and faith community leaders to build a network of  support in an area where we will be working.  Trust is built. Friends are made. Risk is reduced.
  2. Follow the rules. Your NGO will provide some basic guidelines for your safety. This is one time where it is essential that you completely comply with their rules. Rules from past trips have been: Travel in pairs. Never walk more than a block from the hotel. Don’t leave the safety of the hotel after dark. Leave the driving up to locals. Handle money with modesty. Keep your passport on you at all times. Trust in the experience and wisdom of those who live locally. They know how to enhance your safety. Risk is reduced.
  3. Follow the example of your team leader and fellow team members who have served on previous mission trips. Listen. Watch. Learn. Then, relax and make a friend, or grow a friendship that has already started. Follow in the footsteps of experience and Risk is reduced.
  4. Draw upon your faith. God has made possible this awesome opportunity to serve and love our neighbors; do you think we are called but meant to fail? No! God gives us partnerships with our NGO and its members. God sends us people to protect us, guide us, even direct us. God gives us the power of prayer, not only for ourselves but also for for those who are supporting our mission. God softened your heart for a reason. God filled it with love to share for a reason. God’s gift of grace is everything. Because of God’s gift, Risk is reduced.

Keep your eye on Jesus. “It is I,” he tells his frightened disciples. “Do not be afraid.”

Have a spectacular, spiritually moving mission experience!

Volcanic Faith

The eruption of the Volcano of Fire has me concerned for the friends and relationships that I’ve made and built over the past couple of years in Guatemala. Friends on Facebook have posted that they are safe, which leads me to believe that the tragedy is much worse than what can be conveyed in the press or on television.

Last summer, in the weeks before I returned, a terrible fire in an orphanage killed many children and led to national outrage. This year, a volcano that served as a beautiful landscape prop for a roof top dinner in Antigua has brought tears, anguish, and death to  many families and neighbors.

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The peak of Volcán de Fuego is hidden by cloud cover on this beautiful August 2015 evening.

Human suffering is so painful.

There is a lot of suffering in the world, some nature made, some caused by humankind. Living with a disability makes everything harder.  Poverty, injustice, and oppression tends to magnify suffering. People endure such difficulty day-in, day-out. Then the mountain explodes.

If only I could take it all away. Suffer no more.

In my experience, the only meaningful response to suffering is empathy.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It begins with being present. In other words, show up. Empathy takes root when you’re able to place yourself in the situation of another person. Open your heart. Open your eyes. Listen. Pray. Empathy matures with a conviction to respond. Be receptive to the movement of the Holy Spirit and act accordingly.

Empathy is the channel, through which God’s love and grace is poured into the world.  Empathy allows love and relationships to become reciprocal, with God and with neighbors. Every occasion I have made a short term mission trip, I returned having received much more than I ever could have given. Love, kindness, humility, grace … you name it.

Empathy makes it possible for rescue, recovery, and rebuilding; for healing and restoration; for new life to become more than can ever be imagined. Empathy even makes it possible for individuals to disagree yet remain united by Christ.

Serving as a short term missionary builds empathetic capacity in my life. Serving with empathy could likewise benefit you, too. Join me?

The world would be a much better place.

Lone Sat the Man

Lone sat the man on a plastic chair in the center of a covered pavilion. His son was draped face down over his lap. Everyone else had left. Everyone else had been served.

Flies buzzed. You could cut the air with a knife.

Once or twice each minute his boy would arch his back and become rigid, teeth clenched, and eyes shut tight. He was eight years old, but barely 40 pounds and wearing diapers under his jeans.

Epilepsy is painful to watch.

With patience and gentleness this father held his son, stroked his head, and spoke quietly in his ear. His bulging muscles could have come from working road construction. His soft hands told a different story.

Forty-nine children and adults had been fitted to wheelchairs earlier in the day, shrinking the crowd of perhaps 200 down to a lone man and his son. The second-to-last pediatric wheelchair, which takes longer to properly adjust for a good fit, was holding up the line.

We’d been squatting and running, adjusting and tightening, drilling and sawing, smiling and praying, and of course, everyone poses for a selfie with each overjoyed family. For some, this was the first wheelchair they’d ever received.

Some were carried in. Some scooted in. Others rolled in; wheeling in broken down, warn out, dilapidated chairs. One pulled himself in a discarded janitorial mop bucket. Each of the 50 selected to be given and fitted to a newly re-manufactured wheel chair had been chosen by some unknown lottery. Everyone, but one, had been served. This father and his son were the end of the line.

We were tired. Everyone showed sweat stains on our shirts. Guatemala City can be hot in August.

My station had fitted six or eight adults and I was done. I opened a sports drink from our mission team cold chest, looked up, and saw this lone father. Gathering up four or five unopened bottles and a spare chair, I walked over and offered him one. He smiled and nodded yes. He didn’t speak English and I don’t speak Spanish, but a smile and a cold drink on a hot day is universal.

I sat down with dad and his son. No one should have to sit alone.

The seizures continued, as certain as the sun rises each morning and sets every evening. We waited with patience for his turn, the final turn of the day, to have his son fit to a new chair. I wondered how my friends who were specialists in fitting children would go about helping this child who arched his back so severely with every seizure.

I held the child’s hand, uncertain if he was aware of my presence. Dad smiled at me. He was aware.

Others began to bring over a chair and join together as a group. Two became three, three became four, four became more. One of our team who is bilingual began to learn his story. Mom had left her husband. She couldn’t take the burden any longer. Dad had to quit his job to attend to his son full time. They had lost their house and their home, moving back in with extended family.

Dad was on his fourth or fifth sports drink by the time the specialist team members were ready to start. It was go time.

lonesatthefatherUsing specialized straps and blocks, pads and extenders, and other assorted modifications this boy was perfectly fitted into a reclining specialized pediatric wheel chair. Some of my fellow mission team members are wonderfully talented experts. As soon as his body touched the chair, his muscles relaxed, and he settled in as if he was sliding into a familiar pair of shoes.

Dad cried with joy.

Our entire group gathered around for the selfie. We paused and bowed for prayer.

Thank you God. Thank you for a chair, and those who provided it. Thank you God, for the fit of a perfect chair. Thank you God, for the love of a father. Thank you God, for your love; perfect love from you, our heavenly Father.

This is why we come. This is why I return.

Our trucks were loaded and we saddled up. With two taps on the door we headed home, swirling dust down the parched streets of Guatemala City.