Subway Prophet

…and the words of the prophets were written on the subway walls…


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Meet St. Cuthbert

So, I know that today is Palm Sunday, which is super important, however, it is also the feast day for my favorite saint, Cuthbert of Lindisfarne. In the United Methodist Church, we do not have saints. They have never been an important part of Wesleyan spirituality, however, I have always had a strong attraction to saints, and my own faith is always strengthen when I read about their lives.

I first heard of Cuthbert during the year I spend studying in England. He was a shepherd, then monk, then Bishop in northern England in the 7th century. His life was marked by humility, simplicity, a love of nature, and reconciliation.

Foundations of Cuthbert's cell

The foundation of the monastic cell where St. Cuthbert would go and pray on the island of Lindisfarne. The tidal patterns cut off this island from the main island at high tide. 

My favorite story is from one of Cuthbert’s many times when he would leave the monastery and pray. Once a younger monk followed Cuthbert to see where he went and observed him wading into the ocean where he would frequently recite the psalms. When he came out, otters came and helped to warm his hands.

St. Drewbert

Me imitating St. Cuthbert’s prayer in the ocean at Lindisfarne. Sadly no otters washed my feet when I came out.

St. Cuthbert is buried in Durham and I would frequently visit his shrine in the Cathedral which was a short walk from my dorm room.The Cathedral and his shrine were places when I could palpably feel God’s presence and was for me a tremendous means of grace during a wonderful and difficult year.

On this day each year, I have a cup of tea, remember my friends in England and the ways in which God shaped my understanding of my call to ministry, and I give thanks to St. Cuthbert for helping me understand how to better follow Jesus.

Cuthbert's Shrine, Durham Cathedral

The shrine of St. Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral. 

Here is the prayer for today from the Church of England:

Almighty God, who called your servant Cuthbert from following the flock to follow your Son and to be a shepherd of your people: in your mercy, grant that we, following his example, may bring those who are lost home to your fold; through Jesus Christ, you son, our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.

 


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Seeing our Giants (1 Sam 17:32-49)

(Sermon preached at Memorial United Methodist Church, Fernandina Beach, FL on June 28, 2015)
1 Samuel 17:32-49

There are few stories as ingrained in our culture as that of David and Goliath. Anytime there is a major underdog or a surprising victory, this story’s images get pulled into the conversation. And for good reason. However, as the story gets told so many times that we begin to lose sight of some of the details. Because in this simple story there is far more than meets the eye.

Malcom Gladwell did a TED talk a few years back which brought this story into a whole new light for me. So often we picture Goliath as this huge and mighty warrior. Gladwell, however, says that Goliath may not be as strong as we have thought. He points out that Goliath’s height may have been the result of a disease known as acromegaly. It is a tumor on the pituitary gland that causes someone to be abnormally tall. It has some other side effects as well particularly giving people limited eyesight and double vision. Perhaps, Gladwell argues, this is why Goliath must be led onto the field by a shield bearer, why he sees multiple sticks in David’s hands, and why he never moves in the story. Each time he calls out to the Israelites and to David telling them to come to him.

If this was true, Gladwell’s interpretation is interesting to me because it brings a new dimension to the fear of the Israelites. How often do we too see a problem that is before us, one that seems insurmountable and impossible, and our fear makes it seem larger and more difficult than it is. Because of this, we make assumptions based on what we see before us and we never build up the courage to ask more questions and to delve a little bit deeper, or to even imagine that the problem can be solved.

As I look around our news reports today there seem to be many different Goliath sized issues that we as a church and a society feel are almost too big for us to comprehend. For example, the sentencing of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death, the botched executions of the past year, and the repeal of the death penalty in Nebraska have brought capital punishment back into the national spotlight.

The deaths of unarmed young black men and women at the hands of police officers and the murder of the nine victims in Charleston have been pushing us into a conversation about race in our society which is at least 150 years late.

There are others as well including Immigration, Same-sex marriage, and the widening gap between the poor and the rich. On their own, each of these issues is complex and complicated. They touch at the core values of our society, and affect the lives of millions of people. They ignite heated conversations and strain relationships between families and communities. Therefore, for so many years we have put them off and ignored these issues, cowering on the sidelines and waiting for someone who is courageous enough to go in our place and take them on.

Which brings us to the hero of our story, David. So often we picture him as a young boy, weak and powerless, but with a strong enough faith that God miraculously killed Goliath despite him. I am not sure that I agree with that interpretation. Yes, David is young. Yes, David lacks the experience of a trained soldier, but that in itself does not make him weak or inexperienced. Youth and experience are not opposites. In fact, it seems to be David’s lack of experience with traditional combat that helps him to see a different way to defeat Goliath. And it is David’s particular experience with a slingshot that gave him the strength and the skill needed to take down Israel’s enemy. If he had gone up against Goliath like a traditional soldier and tried to beat Goliath in a sword fight, things would have not ended well for David. However, by playing to his strengths and trusting his training, David was able to find a better solution.

If we are going to be able to take down the problems in our communities and in our society, we are going to need new ideas and fresh perspectives. Those of us who are used to being heard will need to listen to the voices of those who are marginalized in our communities. Those of us who are accustomed to being in control will need to be willing to follow the lead of those who are younger and those who have different experiences from our own.

In short, we, like Saul, need to come to the realization that our way of bringing about a just resolution may be to step aside and support someone else whom God is calling to lead.

With that being said, we as the people of God cannot just sit on the sidelines and wait for others to do the hard work of reconciliation and justice building in our community. As we follow God’s lead into the broken places of our culture we need to do so by taking David as our example. He was brave enough to engage with something that was big and intimidating. And he was victorious because he chose to be authentic to himself. Instead of being the warrior that Saul and the Israelites expected him to be, he fought against Goliath as the person who God had called and shaped him to be.

Once Saul agrees to let David fight, he offers his own armor to protect him. When David tries it on he can’t move because he is not used to wearing it. This could stand as a metaphor for how we as Christians, often try to engage the Goliaths of our culture. We try to put on the armor of a different group of people such as Republicans or Democrats, environmentalists, humanitarians, volunteers, good citizens, or just about anyone else instead of being Christians.

When we talk about the major issues of our day, do we use secular arguments and political reasoning instead of thinking out of our faith and the imagination that Scripture gives us? When we try to have the tough and complicated conversations, how often do we leave our faith at the door and rely instead on political talking points and economic arguments?

Let’s take the Death Penalty as an example. Time Magazine published a front page article a couple of weeks ago analyzing how the death penalty in the United States is beginning to come to an end. The reasons that Time Magazine gave for this shift in public opinion included the difficulty and expense of getting the necessary drugs and the constitutional problems in that it takes so long for executions to be carried out. As I read these arguments I thought about Jesus’ revisioning of the Old Testament law, “an eye for an eye,” I thought about Jesus’ staying the execution of the woman caught in adultery, and I thought about the major themes or forgiveness and redemption which are so central to who we are as Christians, but yet are often absent not only from secular discussions like the one in Time Magazine, but also from our discussions, as Christians, about criminal justice and capital punishment.

Now I am all about getting rid of the Death Penalty. It is one of the strongest positions in our United Methodist Social Principles. However, the conversations we have as a broader church do not always follow their example. Often they are not scriptural or theological and they focus more on how we do executions and less on the why. In 1972, the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional because African-Americans were disproportionally convicted and sentenced to death. The end of the death penalty came not because our society had decided that it was wrong, but because it was being done wrong. Therefore in order to bring back the death penalty, congress amended the legal system in an attempt to make it more fair. Despite the fact that people who are black or Hispanic are still more likely to be given the death penalty, The Supreme Court deemed their revisions sufficient at the time and brought the practice back four years after it had ruled against them.

Now, what if we as a Church had risen up and said with one voice that it is not our place to kill another human being? What if we had lived out the reality that even in the most dramatic and horrific cases, God’s grace and mercy are still available, and that forgiveness not vengeance should be the preferred outcome? Perhaps things would have turned out differently. Perhaps instead of making 1,411 people wait in legal purgatory for their possible day of execution, we could have given them the rest of their lives to repent and make penance for their actions. Perhaps our legal system would be able to focus less on punishing offenders and more on forming them into people who can break the cycles of violence and crime. All it would have need is a bit less political maneuvering and a lot more calls living out Jesus’ commands in all aspects of our lives. With a bolder theological argument, I believe that we as the people of God we can bring a lasting end to capital punishment in our country not because it is inconvenient, expensive, or unconstitutional, but because it is wrong. Capital punishment can eventually become more convenient, is can become cheaper, and maybe even constitutional, however, it will never stop being wrong.

Over the next year as we enter an election season, discussions on the hot topics in our society will be had around dinner tables, living rooms, and I am sure quite a few pew benches. I want to encourage each one of us as people who have been formed and shaped by the love and the grace of God, to take off the bulky armor of modern politics, to set aside the economic arguments and focus instead on having the theological discussions. As this country continues its collective conversations about guns, violence, gender, sexuality, and race, let us participate explicitly as people of faith. Let us first ask ourselves: What would Jesus say about how we treat guns in this country? What do the Old and New Testaments have to contribute to our views on on violence and our society? How do we as children of God, brothers and sisters in Christ, view people of different races, cultures, sexualities, and nationalities?

As we ask these questions and talk with one another as a church, we need to remember to listen to the Davids among us. We need to be on the look out for the people God is raising up as overlooked leaders. We need hear their opinions, value their experiences, and be willing to recognize when God is calling us through them to a different way of thinking.

Like the Goliath of Scripture, the giants we are being called to fight against may be big, and they may be powerful, but they are not unbeatable. Like David, we are called to go into the battle confident that God is on our side. Even though we do not have all the answers, and even though we may disagree on how our faith relates with an issue, we are united in the knowledge that it is God who will bring about the final justice, it is God who will bring about true peace, it is God who will create a united community and it is God who will have the victory.

What we need to do as a people of God is take off our armor, pick up our stones and follow where God is leading. Goliath is waiting.


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Day 1: Holy Conferencing

Greetings from London! Over this year, London has become one if my favorite cities. It is full of life and has a sort of personality to it that I cannot really describe. Every other time I have been here I have always been a tourist, showing people the main sights. This time, however, I have a job to do.  I am helping with the media team at the British Methodist church’s Annual conference.

Conferencing is one of the defining features of Methodism. Ever since John Wesley gathered his local preachers for the first time in 1744 Methodists have gathered together yearly (if not more often!) to share in fellowship, worship, but most importantly to make decisions about the future direction of the movement.  My first Annual Conference in 2007 was where I made my First public declaration of my call to ministry, so these meetings will always have a place in my heart.

Image

Site of Conference 2013

Conference this year is at the Methodist Central Hall. It is a beautiful venue right across from Westminster Abby in the heart of London. As I walked in from the train station past the Eye and Big Ben it was hard to believe that this was my life!

I am really looking forward to experiencing how our British cousins do Annual Conference. There will be a lot of things that are the same. Budgets need to be passed, elections need to be had and presentations need to be made about the various ministries of the church. There will also be a lot of things that are different.  A president will run the meeting instead of a Bishop, the Archbishop of Canterbury will be addressing the Conference and nature of the issues will be different as well. The best part, however, is that I will have the front row seat to it all. As part of the media team, I will be keeping the website up to date as the conference goes on, live tweeting conference events, helping with speakers and anything else that the team needs me to do. The days are going to be long, but my commute to and from London will provide some time to write and reflect on the days events. If you would like to follow the events of Conference you can go to: http://www.methodistconference.org.uk or follow #methconf on Twitter. You will undoubtedly see me and many of my friends on there with updates, thoughts and more than a few humorous asides. It is going to be a great time!

(This is a series of blog posts during the British Methodist Conference. For the following posts click here: Day 2)


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Duke Article

One of the things that I have tried to do while being here is to remain connected to Duke and the community I built there. For my first post of reflection, I wanted to share with you an article I co-wrote with the other American student who is here with me Kayla for the Divinity School’s student newsletter. A version of it is due to be published in a few weeks by the WSC in their newsletter as well. I have made a few edits to it for the sake of clarity and because I can and also added links to explain some of the terms.

Greetings from England!

In case you have been wondering where we have been, or who we are, some background is probably helpful. In September we began a one year exchange program with the Wesley Study Centre (WSC) in St. John’s College at Durham University in England. As we begin our new term, we wanted to let our Duke community know how things were going. Having been here for several months, things that initially seemed strange have become normal. Durham Cathedral (a place of prayer for over 1,000 years!) that towers over our college no longer gets called the “chapel,” having tea (with a bit of milk) has become a mainstay of any social interaction, and the words, “circuit,” “mission” and “”The Doctor” have become part of the normal vocabulary.

While these may seem like incidental changes, taken together they hint at a much more foundational change in who we are as students, ministers, and Christians. One of the most significant changes has been that by studying and worshipping with the British Methodist Church and the Church of England, we have begun to see ourselves as part of Christ’s world-wide Church. We are studying with students from South Africa, Germany, China, and Brazil, however, the whole ethos of this place seems to look outward. The two central concepts which shape the majority of conversations in the classroom and common room are mission and practical theology. How does the Church discern and participate in what God is doing in the world? How is what we are learning going to shape how we do ministry in our churches parishes?

While neither of these are new questions to us coming from Duke, the ways in which they are asked and the answers they are giving have a unique and powerful particularity. As part of our studies we have both been given the chance to be placed in a Methodist Church (similar to a Field Ed) where we are able to put some of these questions and answers to the test. After adjusting to British worship styles and hymnody, we have found that there is a great freedom in ordering the worship service. Many services are done in “café style” or are particularly shaped by the needs of children (called “Messy Church”). There was a service over the summer at a Christian conference which was called a “Goth Eucharist.” Such creativity and intentionality is a lot of fun and has given both of us permission to be creative as well. Last term, for example, we both led the daily morning prayer according to the United Methodist Book of Worship.  While some people said it “felt like a holiday,” for us it felt like a little bit of home.

It is certainly difficult in a lot of ways to be away from you all. There is no place like Goodson Chapel, of W0016, however, as you begin this semester know that as we gather to pray in a small chapel in Durham, England that you are in our hearts and prayers. We look forward to sharing many more stories and experiences next year when we return!

Kayla, LJW, and I in front of Duke Chapel.

Kayla, LJW, and I in front of Duke Chapel.

[Note: Kayla has also been blogging her trip and often includes video blogs. Some of which I feature in. If you are interested check it out: http://kbharward.wordpress.com/]


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On Politics (How the Catholic Church is teaching us how to be Christians…again)

It is rare in our constant barrage of news that a story bursts onto the scene with as much force as did today’s announcement by Pope Bennedict XVI that he would resign at the end of the month. I was in Chile when John Paul II died and the grief was palpable across the land. Therefore, when Bennedict at the age of 85 announced that he was stepping down he took the world by surprise.

Being the news junkie that I am, I immediately went online and started listening to the BBC’s live coverage (When in England…). It is always interesting when “secular” reporters and historians try and understand and analyze the Church, however, the reporting and response to this story seemed to demonstrate how Church politics should interact with the world.

The BBC news anchors wanted to get comments and responses by prominent Catholics in England, so they turned to a group of people who are never known for being camera-shy, politicians. In this case they chose several Conservative MPs who happen to be Catholic. After getting their initial reactions the anchors began to pivot to his motivations in stepping down, and the ways in which his resignation is going to make the church more conservative or progressive. All very standard questions, and ones which I am sure will be analyzed and debated from now until the white smoke emerges from St. Peter’s, however, none of the MPs were going to take the bait. Ann Widdecombe, getting notably frustrated with the questions exclaimed, “Stop talking about this as if it is politics, this is the Church, this is the Holy Spirit” (approximate quote). It was this statement which stuck with me. “it is not about politics.”

As a United Methodist, I come from a church which has a polity defined by democratic processes and a long history of church politics that is made (often embarrassingly) public every four years at General Conference. Just on Sunday I was explaining to a friend of mine at church what the “confessing” and “reconciling” movements were in the UMC. We are a Church where talking church has all too easily become talking politics.

Stanley Hauerwas is quite fond of saying that “A new political alternative began in the belly of Mary.” When I took his ethics course I was confused for the first part because of his use of the word “political.” The way society (and the Church) has trained me to use this word is in terms of Right/Left, Conservative/Liberal, Republican/Democrat. It was impossible for me to fully understand what he meant with this limited definition. I cam to realize that he used political in its purest form which is to describe the interactions between people in community. In his view, we as Christians by necessity must be reconstituted through our relationship with Jesus so that our Christ-shaped lives interact with everyone else in ways that are a radically different than those of other non-Christ-shaped people. In doing this we exist as a Church with a radically different “politics.”

As we enter into a time when our Catholic brothers (and sisters) are beginning the process to select the new pontiff, there will certainly be many news stories, rumors and secular-sounding “politics” which will dominate much of the coverage. However, it is my prayer that the Church will learn to keep its eye and focus on the Holy Spirit’s presence in this political actions, so that our Christian politics may be a witness to the world that even after 2,000 the Holy Church of Christ still operates according to our understanding of God’s will for our lives and not the petty desires of our own.


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Micro Mission: Just a Stranger On a Bus

This is the end of reading week here at Cranmer/WSC and so one would think that I would have had a lot of time to write another blog post. Well I have started several (including a Little Wesley update!), but alas, they are not print ready yet…So, I thought I would share an assignment we did several weeks ago for my Mission class. In the class we are talking about what it means to be in mission and to be a missionally minded people. This topic is one of the main reasons why I wanted to study here because the way the Church in England (both Methodist and Anglican) is thinking about mission is very exciting! The assignment was to go out for an hour an half during class time on a “Micro-Mission” and “proclaim the Kingdom of God however you feel led.” It was a daunting task, but this is the reflection I wrote about it. You can see other people’s experiences here.

What if God was one of us
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Trying to make his way home
-Joan Osborne

Mark and I by a bus stop.

One of the fundamental ideas of mission is that you don’t bring God into a situation, but that God is already working out in the world around us, and that by going out we seek to participate in that work. The question becomes how do we do that? For Mark and myself this proved to be a complicated question. We wanted to go somewhere we would have real conversations with people, but also someplace where we could break though the walls that people build up around themselves. Walls which insulate people from the world around them.

In order to do this, we decided to just get on a city bus and talk to people. It was a simple concept, but one which was a strange concept to many people who we told it to. This was not a sneaky way of trying to turn the conversation to Jesus. There was no ulterior motive. We were people of faith, we are training to be an Anglican vicar and a Methodist minister, that is who we are, and we were not going to hide it. But, the point of the mission was to talk to people, to hear about their lives, not to impose our own agenda.

So, on the day of our mission we went up the Cathedral, seeing no one on the bus, we walked down the streets of Durham greeting random people along the way until we found a suitable bus stop (the first one we came to). When the bus pulled up we explained to the driver that we wanted a ticket to the end of the line. He was not quite sure what to do with two guys who had no particular destination in mind, but he gave us our tickets and we sat down.

Over the course of our bus ride we greeted many different people. Some were eager to talk about their pets, to tell stories of their connection to St. Johns, or one woman who had been waiting to see the cathedral for 80 years. These however were the exception. Often we greeted a pair of headphones, a vacant stare, or the back of a person’s head. When there was no one to talk with, we prayed. We prayed for people even though they didn’t know it.

When the bus finally brought us back to our stop and we had to get off the question was left in our minds. Where was God? Was God in our greetings? Was God in the rejection? Was God in the people we missed? I think the answer to it all is yes. God was on the bus, off the bus, and in all places trying help us all find our way home. And, for that hour and half, both of us were just along for the ride.

-Drew and Mark


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For All the Saints.

I remember distinctly the day I fell in love with tradition and liturgy. It was All Saints day, 2007 at Trinity UMC in Gainesville, FL. For as long as I can remember my church has had the tradition where the last Sunday in October we remember all those who died the following year by showing their picture and ringing a bell. If you knew the person, as the bell is rung, you silently stand in honor of them and their connection to your life. In 2007 I had only stood up a couple of times, and almost stood up a few others, but in general had not thought very much of it.

In 2007, our church lost a young man named Chris Neiberger. He was about my age, we had been in the same Boy Scout troop for a few years, and I had seen his family a bit around church. We had never hung out, and would not have put his name on a list of friends. Chris was an Infantryman in Iraq and died after an IED explosion in Baghdad. His death struck me in a very strange way. It is the first time  I personally knew someone who had died in war, and brought the US war efforts home to me. I had not been able to make his service because of school, however, on that All Saints Sunday as his name was called, I stood. In that little action, standing next to my parents, we honored his memory, a life well lived, and a deep and generous faith. I realized in that moment the power of liturgy and tradition which allow us to make sense of the world around us. What was for many people just a yearly tradition became for me the language I needed to articulate something deep within myself that I could not have otherwise.

As I thought about All Saints Sunday today, I remembered my grandmother who died last December. Yesterday at my church, her picture was shown and a bell was rung, but I could not stand. As much as I wish I could have been there to participate with my family and my church family, the liturgy and tradition which gave me comfort in honoring Chris’ death also gives me the comfort for Granny’s as well. That is the other power in traditions, they are consistent. It does not need me to be there for it to happen because those things are not for me in the first place. The bells are rung whether anyone stands or not because as Christians we stop belonging just to our families and friends; we join a family of believers most of whom we will never meet. Most of my church never met my grandmother. But yesterday they saw her picture, heard her bell, and remembered her for me. That gives me comfort.

Today I attended the funeral of a woman named Mildred. She died right before I began working with North Road and so I never got the chance to meet her though I had met her daughter, a church member, several times. She told me that her mom, who was the child of a methodist minister, would have wanted me there–that is just who she was. It is an odd thing to attend a funeral for a stranger. But, at the same time, there is something very affirming and Christian about it. Since the beginnings of the Church, we have been a people who remembered our dead and the eternal hope which Christ offers to us, so that even though we die, will be given a new life in Him. Christian funerals (and Christian lives) proclaim this hope and celebrate it. It was an honor to be there for Mildred’s service and I was encouraged by the testimony given about her life.

As we enter into the end of the Church’s calendar and prepare to celebrate All Saints’ Day, let us remember those people we have lost who are closest to us, and those we lost and yet never knew:

For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!