Thursday, September 24, 2015

A Scarlet Letter

Jesus says in Matthew 6:25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life” (ESV).
Paul writes in Philippians 4: 6 “do not be anxious about anything” (ESV). 
Our theme at Hilltop, where I serve the people of Sandy, Utah, in October, 2015 was “Let your faith be bigger than your fear.” Great idea and I promise not to advocate exiting a perfectly good aircraft without a parachute: with a parachute is an act of faith, without a parachute is an act of lunacy. Safety is important. I always fasten my car seat belts for even the shortest trip, well, almost always. But are we sometimes overly safety conscious? The late Rabbi Edwin Friedman offers we live “in a ‘seatbelt society’ more oriented toward safety than adventure.” I think he is on to something here. Let's hold that thought briefly and come back to it later. 

Many of the clergy I interact with have reached a place where one of the harshest direct criticisms we can level on another clergy is, “you are an anxious presence.” It has a mystical, red letter, scriptural authority. Immediate penance and repentance is expected when this is uttered, immediate. Hester Prynne, Hawthorne’s heroine in The Scarlet Letter, was required to wear a Scarlet A, for adulteress, on her dress. In my world the Scarlet A is for anxious, and we within the clergy world avoid that A as if it were a virus. A leader endowed with non-anxious presence boundaries repels anxiety as a virus. 

Here is the issue: who gets to define what anxiety is? 

Anxiety might actually be a reaction to another’s desire for urgency. Urgency is often required to bring about change. Some of that change could be altering the status quo. Anxiety might be our preference to hang on to that comforter that is the status quo.

Is it a good idea to let anyone and everyone be the true definer of what is anxiety? Friedman urges us not to give excess power to the most anxious presence in the room. I posit conversely should the one in the room with the largest stake in the status quo decide what anxiety is. If we don’t want to allow the most anxious presence to have the power, I don’t wish to empower one person to define what anxiety is. Dialogue is called for, and honest disagreement may emerge. But a dismissal with the remark, ‘you are just an anxious presence’ needs to be expunged from our leadership tool belt. 

Your anxiety may be my urgency. Your anxiety may be my raising the temperature in the room to bring about change. 

John Kotter is an expert in leading change. To paraphrase Kotter: ‘The first step in leading change is creating a sense of urgency.’ Urgency might mean we need to move from a too comfortable world. The poet Brian Andreas writes: “Most people don't know there are angels whose only job is to make sure you don't get too comfortable; fall asleep ; miss your life.” Overcoming comfortable and missing our life’s call might require urgency. 

I believe the church may have reached a place where we need to listen to angels that endeavor to be sure we are not too comfortable and wake us up.

Jesus and Paul and Friedman urge us not to be anxious. What element of our leadership life have angels looked at and said “wake up, you are letting comfort dictate what is going on, following the call of Jesus may not be comfortable or safe.” 

There is an irony in my use of Hester Prynne: she is arguably the person of most character in The Scarlet Letter. Her Adulteress A is gradually transformed to an item of beauty, embroidered as a reflection of her inner character. What if allowing others to brand us with an Anxious A is actually a mark of our own transformation, an item of beauty?

Returning to Friedman: What might it take for us to leave the 'seatbelt society' and instead seek a holy adventure in some presumed unsafe wilderness? (Exodus meets contemporary safety standards.)  

To be clear, Jesus says to not be anxious. Paul says to not be anxious. It is scriptural to not be anxious. As we jointly tackle an uncertain future, let’s understand that the issue here is urgency and moving from the status quo, and not allow anxiety to define us.

But we need clarity within community as to why and what defines us as anxious. For Hester, her Adulteress A became a scarlet letter of distinction and honor. Maybe if others label you with a Scarlet Anxious A, but you are, in holy humility, confident that you are a Jesus-like and Paul-like non-anxious presence, let it be a scarlet letter of honor. Urgency and raising the temperature in the room so that the status quo is chased does not immediately equal anxiety. 

If the issue is urgency and changing the status quo, I believe we can wear that scarlet letter with honor. 

Selah, Dennis

Saturday, September 12, 2015

A Few Strategic and Operational Thoughts

What follows is from the final chapter of my Wesley Theological Seminary, Doctor of Ministry “Project” looking at New Church Starts in the Rocky Mountain Conference of the United Methodist Church.  I am mindful that parts of this will read like the 3rd act of a three act play, but I think the flow, drift will help with the context.  I wrote these words between 2010 and 2012.  Elements apply today. Three Faiths were three closed United Methodist churches in Cheyenne, Denver and Pueblo who had choices to make.  They made three different ones but the choice was theirs. 

What Does All of This Mean?

Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” [1]  
Proverbs 4: 23

“The Road Not Taken” -- Robert Frost, 1916

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth ...

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. [2]

Frost’s iconic poem suggests we only understand the paths we travel later in our life journey.  We stand in time and look at what lies before us.  Looking indefinitely is not a viable option; we must choose.  Both paths appear to be good, but with a “sigh,” we understand the significance of a life altering choice only later. 
We need to aware of this in our analysis of new churches and how they fared.  We stand in our own time and listen to stories and say most assuredly they chose the right path or the wrong path when they made this particular choice.  Were it only so clear.   
How does one know whether saying “no” to a SonRise, a Frontier, or a Mountain Vista will spur them on to success or whether saying “no” to another will dispirit them, lead them to quit and embitter them?  When the choice is made, one does not know.  Conversely, Cornerstone, Spirit of Hope, Genesis, and Green River experienced forks requiring choices:  three encountered darkness and one has struggled.  With this understood, there are universal truths we can gather from these success and failures.
Having a connection with another church, be it an Antioch or an Elijah produces fruit.  Repeatedly in the birthing stories of Sunrise, SonRise and others, resources and people were critical in the delivery and nurture of a healthy church. 
People matter.  When you have the right people in the right seat on the bus, “great” things happen.  “Great things” requires both the right lay and clergy leadership.  Both are necessary.  Quality clergy with “entitled” laity leads to problems.  Quality laity with dysfunctional clergy leads to problems.  There are not two leadership buses, one for laity and one for clergy; it is the same bus.  Further, when the system is started by a dysfunctional leader, clergy or lay, that dysfunction spreads organically through the family it creates. A functional, healthy team is necessary.  When the team becomes one as in 1 Corinthians 12 and treats their respective gifts as building up the corporate body, success is achieved. 
People have roles.  An idea that permeates the story is that there is a time for a leader to accomplish specific tasks and then move on.  This is an issue of great delicacy on the part of conference leaders.  How do you know when is the right time?  In the case of Cowell (Sunrise) and McArthur (Smoky Hill) it appears the timing was perfect.  Second pastor Harris (Heritage) offers that his predecessor would have been remembered more favorably if he had left once Heritage got into the building. 
Show appreciation of founding pastors.  Building a new church is hard work and is often underappreciated both at the local church and at the conference.  A number of those interviewed mentioned this.  The hurt was described in different ways, but the absence of corporate gratitude for the difficult challenge was a common lament.  Lillie in his post Spirit of Hope assessment labels this as essential.  The conference can provide support and encouragement, and genuine gratitude is inexpensive:  the return on our investment is infinite.  
Further, they said support of clergy colleagues is invaluable.  For example, Mead posits when Janet Forbes arrived at Cheyenne First, the climate changed.  The other UM churches there began to see Frontier in a different way. 
Conference Money.  Dave Lillie labels the perception of the conference as an inexhaustible well of money as “insidious.”  We survey the corpse and conclude “it didn’t have enough nurture by the conference.”  To suggest the lack of conference funding is the cause for failure implies in success conference funding was present.  That was not the case.  In fact, the cessation of conference funding actually led to choosing the path that “made all the difference.”
Extension societies.  The story of the extension societies is a story unto itself.  They were a vital part of preparing the field for the eventual arrival of those who would cultivate in order to produce fruit.  They no longer exist in this conference and their role was vital to portions of this story.  Heritage, Smoky Hill and St. Luke’s all moved to land initially acquired by, if not completely paid for, as part of a planned development by an extension society.  This baton needs to be picked up.  The Saints of Hebrews 12 have run their race and are ready to hand off the baton to the next generation, and no Saints are there to take up the functionality of this baton, if not the name Extension Society.  As the Weems Organizational Life Cycle plays itself out over the next ten to twenty years and churches currently at their individual tipping points collapse into death, some of them most assuredly have the potential to be Elijah’s.  Others can be used by the conference to purchase land where people are not, but are expected to be.  Sunrise, SonRise, Mountain Vista, Heritage, St. Luke’s and Smoky Hill were all visionary projects providing a Methodist presence where people were building homes. 
An organic, bottom-up approach.  Most of the successes we have had, be they Acts to an Antioch, Elisha to an Elijah, or a different model, have emerged organically from a bottom-up, local mentality, rather than a top-down, conference-directed model.  We need to adapt our systems to reward churches for starting new local churches.  It is easier and consistent with the Kotter idea of generating small wins, to create small coalitions of one, two, three, or four churches that have their world views adapted to plant a new congregation, rather than to force a change across the conference.  Linsky and Heifetz write:  “Indeed, the single most common source of leadership failures we’ve been able to identify … is that people, especially those in positions of authority, treat adaptive challenges like technical problems.”[3]  
I have avoided with great intentionality describing models for growth post germination.  All discussion about worship models within the Linsky and Heifetz paradigm is about a technical solution.  Even though the type of worship model chosen has an impact on whether the overall project will work, it is a step we take after we have achieved the harder adaptive work with a church that will be an Elijah or Antioch.
When we hear “you must do this,” we are hearing technical solutions.  Paraphrasing Frontier founding pastor Gary Goettel – ‘I attended classes to help me understand how to start Frontier and most were good and they gave me some ideas on what to do next, but the most important core value I held was the situation at Frontier was unique.’  The solutions he selected were for Frontier.  Goettel was exercising adaptive thinking.  Others in this story also led adaptively.   
Top-down solutions are generally technical solutions and perceived to be “cookie cutter,” not relevant to local implementation.  The vastness and diversity of the conference mitigates against “one-size-fits-all” solutions.  What works in Pueblo West may or may not work in Cheyenne.  To impose it without regard to the conditions on the ground in Cheyenne is a technical solution.  It is for the conference leaders to adaptively capitalize on local creativity using a biblical framework of 2 Kings 2 (Elijah) and Acts 13 (Antioch) and to identify conference systems that can empower local churches to be the headwaters for a stream of new local churches. 

Kotter Major Change Process

John Kotter’s “Eight-Stage Process of Creating Major Change” [4] provides us a potential template for change.  It offers a technical framework we can use adaptively to deal with our particular context.  His eight stages are:
1.      Establish a Sense of Urgency.
2.      Create the Guiding Coalition.
3.      Develop a Vision and a Strategy.
4.      Communicating the Change Vision.
5.      Empowering Broad-Based Action.
6.      Generating Short-Term Wins.
7.      Consolidating Gains and Producing More Change.
8.      Anchoring New Approaches in the Culture. 
To cover all eight of these in great detail would be to create a technical solution to an adaptive problem.  However, starting with some idea of what to do next is necessary for potential discussion. 
Establish a Sense of Urgency. [5]   The RMC is not in crisis.  We have many thriving and strong churches.  We experienced in 2009 and 2010 a small increase in worship attendance.  We resolved a number of major financial issues between 2008 and 2011 while in the midst of the most significant economic downturn in seventy years.  We do need to approach the task before us with urgency. 
The conference leadership is identifying potential Elijah’s, but without an Elijah imprimatur.  In 2010 and 2011, The Reverend Stephanie Munoz on behalf of the conference visited fifteen “legacy” churches.  Her goal:  to invite prayerful consideration as to where they were in their life cycle and where they thought they might be in the foreseeable future.  By all accounts this encounter was handled gently in love and bore immediate fruit:  Boulder Bethel decided to close in response to that invitation.  Bethel simply closed, it was not an Elijah.  Words were said in Boulder and at Annual Conference that Bethel “did not die,” but we made the integration of their story into another church story almost impossible.  The nature of the closing and sale of the property does not lend itself to the ascendant Bethel making a spiritual and biblical connection to an Elisha church.  Applauding the work of Munoz, we should invite other congregations to see the potential for their mantle to be passed explicitly by pointing to the stories of Colorado Springs Aldersgate and Pueblo Faith.  Those stories have power.  To see the mantle passed from one church with a story to a new church with a potential new story is inspiring, whereas seeing property sold and divided into piece parts going to ten or fifteen other churches diminishes the impact of the departure.  Instead, give resource transfers a biblical and theologically based name. 
Create the Guiding Coalition.  The guiding coalition at the conference level starts with the Bishop, the District Superintendents, the Director of Connectional Ministry, and the Treasurer.  Agreement on a need for strategic change witnessing the Elijah/Antioch historical success is the issue for that guiding coalition.  Local fields need to be plowed and prepared for potential seeding, and here the large church pastors and their lay leadership are the logical initial “go to” creators and implementers of a local guiding coalition.  The Colorado Springs First success between 1978 and 1987 in starting three churches needs to be celebrated, and a return to continuing that history needs to be made part of their vision for the next decade.
Communicating the Change Vision.  Kotter writes:  “a gallon of information is dumped into a river of routine communication, where it is quickly diluted, lost and forgotten.”[6]  Kotter suggests in order to effectively bring about change every opportunity to communicate the idea of change must be used.  Starting new churches, Antioch or Elijah-like, needs to be a key discussion topic at every gathering of conference leaders and in conference news and stories.  This will be a challenge.  Our progressive ethos will lead us to discuss only what we should be doing as the church about those on the margin (social justice) rather than what we should be doing for “evangelism.”[7]  This should be “both/and” rather than “either/or.” 
Empowering Broad-Based Action.  The migration of the emphasis from a conference initiative to a local one is about empowerment.  Local implementation and adaption often lead to success.
Anchoring New Approaches in the Culture.  We must rediscover within ourselves our denominational DNA that includes starting new faith communities.  Our successes from 1945 to 1985 are forgotten:  we have no memory within the conference that starting local churches was something we successfully accomplished. 
Linsky-Heifetz suggest true leaders are willing to engage in the dance on the floor but also journey to the balcony to observe the dance as it plays itself out on the floor from that level of disengagement.  This is a Linsky-Heifetz balcony opportunity. 
Studying the successes of those in the Antioch-Acts or Elijah-Elisha models is a component part of a journey of rediscovery.  It has been eight years since our last charter.  Many reasons exist, not the least of which is our shaken confidence.  We have retreated into the safety of our own local enclaves and adopted the words Diamond uses in Collapse:  ‘it’s somebody else’s problem’ – ISEP.  Within a connectional system, it isn’t somebody else’s problem; it is, in fact, a problem for all of us to deal with and all of us are invited¸ if not compelled, to be part of the solution.  We lack vision and faith
Currently, church planting is not a core value of the conference.  Several key leaders quietly believe it is not a core value because, in part, the most recent strategy laid out in 2004 was hopelessly naïve in scope and was not made important within the conference.  Collins in Good to Great suggests a “big hairy audacious goal” (B-HAG) is good. [8]  But the goal does need to be attainable.  To accomplish the stated goal of starting thirty-six churches or ministries in eight years would have required a success that exceeded the post-World War II church growth explosion.  Here, an unattainable goal is tantamount to having no goal.  Even if not attainable, following Kotter, it needs to be part of our everyday discourse within the conference.  This B-HAG should have been, but was not, an emphasized goal.  It was treated as any other.  It is said when everything is important, nothing is important. 
The explanations for our failure lies in a jumbled mix of individualism run amok, no strategic priorities from conference leadership that would rise to the level of importance to local churches, and no communication strategy.  Our current new local church strategy combines a nonexistent theology, naïveté, weakness, lack of leadership, and a near-religious faith in diversity for the sake of diversity. (Color, italics and bold not in the original and added in 2015 for emphasis.)
Starting churches is high-risk work.  In a world of risk/reward tradeoffs it is seen as too much risk for too little reward.  We operate from a logic of tomorrow’s problems will occupy me tomorrow and I will deal with today’s, today.  Thus, our local church leaders rarely move their leadership gaze to the horizon to see the possibilities of new local churches.  Part of the cause for this is we just do not see the starting of new local churches with the same enthusiasm as our denominational forebears.  Additionally, we do not see the opportunity for fruitfulness in challenging a dying church to be an Elijah or in a creating a coalition of churches together to act as an Antioch in their local setting. 
We are content to live in Pharaoh’s kingdom making more bricks.  To journey out into the wilderness toward the common good requires we have faith God will provide while we are wandering -- simultaneously refined and tested -- before we get to our Promised Land.  Our efforts require the adaptive leadership of a Moses. 
The Weems Organizational Life Cycle model grinds on:  in the next decade we could have ten to fifteen churches that are candidates in to be Elijah Churches.  Are we ready to facilitate the passing of their mantles? 
The story of the three Faiths is there for us.  For those near the end of their life cycle, we can have the story of Pueblo Faith or we can have the story of Denver Faith.  For those still thriving and fully alive, we have the story of Cheyenne Faith and their statement of hope and sharing.  The choice is ours.

[1] Proverbs 4: 23.
[2] Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken” (accessed January 23, 2012.)
[3] Heifetz and Linsky, 14.
[4] Kotter. 
[5] Kotter, 88-94.
[6] Kotter, 88.
[7] Kotter, 88-94.  From page 94: "Each of the firm's twenty-five executives pledges to find four opportunities per day to tie conversations back to the big picture" Kotter compares version A which is an article, four announcements and something else with this version B and he gets 12,000 repeats.
[8] Collins, 197-204.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

A Remembrance Day

September 2, 2015, should be a remembrance day[1]:  seventy years since the end of the most horrific war in world history.  The world, in theory, was at peace after ten years of “world war” with a twenty-one year armistice in the middle.  War was declared in June, 1914 and on September 2, 1945 victorious and defeated nations stood on the deck of a relic of the modernization of war, the U.S.S. Missouri and said collectively “enough.”  Between the two world wars over 77 million people died.  World War II was by far the more catastrophic with over 60 million killed.  To get an idea of the carnage, slaughter and pervasive quality of the war, if you were alive on September 1, 1939, you stood a one in thirty-three chance of being killed by the war by September 2, 1945. 

“It is well that war is so terrible, we should grow too fond of it” has been attributed to Robert E. Lee after the battle of Fredericksburg, Virginia.  President Abraham Lincoln after seeing the reports of the same battle reportedly said:  “What has God put me in this place for?”

War is terrible.  It is a terrible waste in so many ways.  The conditions that led to the two World Wars are incredibly complex and refuse distillation into a vital essence to answer the question of “why?”  We might say because Europeans could not get along.  We might say because the Japanese saw what Americans and Europeans did to economically cripple and colonize China in the 19th Century and said we understand, ‘might makes rightand we want a piece of this.  We might offer many explanations of because but the ‘Why We Fightepisode in the TV miniseries, Band of Brothers, named it:  we sometimes fight so that ‘might does not make right.’  The men of ‘Easy Company’ in that episode are appalled that women and men would be exterminated simply because they were Jewish.  I might add or because they were homosexual or Jehovahs Witnesses or “disabled”… but I expect you get it. 

I wish this did not happen anymore, but sadly it does.  

My belief in our exceptionalism is that if a U.S. Army Battalion had been guarding Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in 1995 that the leadership would have said “our mission is to protect these people, and protect them we will.”  I of course sadly report, that the people charged with that protection mission failed, and thousands were massacred.  In a different continent but proximate time, President Bill Clinton once lamented not doing more in Rwanda in 1994.  A force of maybe as few as 10,000 might have prevented half of the slaughter, maybe 500,000 lives. 

There is at times a cost of doing nothing in the face of evil.  

I encourage all of us to regularly stop and pause to think about what evil really looks like and where we might in some way have been a part of evil.  Silence and inaction in the face of evil is to my way of thinking, evil. 

I confess:  I just committed the sin of looking at Srebrenica and Rwanda and said “what we should have done was …”  On this I guess I join the ranks of those who criticize decisions rendered so long ago for which we dont have all the answers or details.  But the annual angst over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, unless conducted over and against the angst of that long period of war itself is to my way of seeing this shameful.  Somewhere I was led to believe that context matters.  For example, every week I preach Gods word and the context of the time of the text matters.  As I read out from sacred scripture meaning for us in this century, what was understood in that century are in theory important.  Why is the context not relevant in terms of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? 

I might retreat into a world of ‘our cause is more moral than their cause’ if I am not careful.  I don’t wish to do that.  But in 1945 the prospect of an invasion of the Japanese home islands seemed so horrific an idea, leaders were willing to resort to almost any idea that stood any chance of successfully ending the war.  The casualties on both sides in places like Tarawa, Okinawa, and Iwo Jima were seen as minor, and they most assuredly were not minor, if an invasion had to occur.  The Japanese fighting man simply did not surrender.  Read Laura Hillenbrand and Unbroken for a glimpse into the context of 1945:  the Japanese did not appear to be moving towards surrender.  Do we know better now?  I don’t know, but the issue as it relates to the decision to use the nuclear weapons had to be made in 1945 with what those leaders knew then and I would posit, with full recognition of what had transpired at precisely places like Tarawa, Okinawa, and Iwo Jima. 

When we examine what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, can we do it against the backdrop of the entire war.

We should focus on the whole war, including the intervening years of appeasement and non-action, and not only the events of two days of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as horrific as they are. 

The period of the conflict that went from 1914 to 1945 claiming millions needs to be remembered and cause us to say “never again” to all of it, not simply two events in a war claiming so many in such an obscene and awful way, and those two events in a horrific way, may have ended the suffering.  We will never know with absolutely certainty, thus our angst. 

War is terrible but I wonder if, its very terribleness drives us in the direction of the terribleness of not waging war?  French President Rene Coty explored that on the 10th anniversary of D-Day in 1954:  young people die when old people decide appeasement is superior to confrontation. 

Lee reportedly said “war is so terrible” and almost as if in response Lincoln reportedly asked:  “What has God put me in this place for?” 

I am at times very much with both Lee and Lincoln.  As a result, demons haunt us.
Maybe September 2nd should become an international day of remembrance on the simultaneous futility of war and the futility of doing nothing in the face of evil.  

I know that is a conundrum, but then war is a conundrum.  Or maybe it is a chance to stare those demons square in their faces and truly contemplate the implications of doing nothing in the face of evil.  

Maybe God has put us in this place to contemplate all of it and truly ask why, and at the same time, be prepared to answer, because. 

Peace .... 

[1] I say this with full knowledge that in the United Kingdom, what we call Veteran’s Day is celebrated as Remembrance Day.  That ‘war to end all wars’ did not in fact, end all wars.  I also know that the events of September 2, 1945 did not end all wars either.  But at least, it brought a temporary end to the hot World War that had started in 1914.  

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

One of Us

I like Brian Andreas as both a poet and an artist. A piece of his art and poetry graces the entrance to my study. It is on the wall nearest where I often hear the joy of children animating the life of Hilltop.

One of my favorites is: “I once had a garden filled with flowers that grew only on dark thoughts but they need constant attention & one day I decided I had better things to do.” I am at an excellent, light-filled, place right now: I do not have time to tend flowers grown by dark thoughts. My life is full of tremendous light, but I wonder if this thought piece might not be helpful in moments of darkness?

This is my thought: How much energy do we spend cultivating flowers that only grow on our darkest thoughts?

In the Gospel of John we are told that darkness is a hopeless drill if we are really followers of the Christ: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5 ) and later that same community, if not the same author would write in 1st John – “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:5-7) and later in the Gospel of John "… But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” (John 11:10)

But we all stumble and commence with watering and caring for flowers that only grow from dark thoughts. But watering and caring for those plants that thrive on dark thoughts – they can be at times so beautiful; the colors they display so addictive. I know how to create problematic beauty out of gossip, low expectations and self-indulgence, including the most self-indulgent idea of all … the dark idea that everyone else needs to change, but I am just fine, thank you, very much. How dark is that? 

Sticking with John “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” (John 3:19-21) -- so Jesus gets it. When we gossip and have low expectations and we are focused only on “our” needs we are acting as Jesus said we would and we love what Jesus said we would – darkness: Human Condition 101.

We say, “But those flowers in the garden are so alluring, so gorgeous – don’t tell me I have to give them up ….”

Paul would say to two of his churches in Thessalonica and Colossae – “For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness” (1 Thessalonians 5:5) and “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13).

I think what Paul and Jesus and John, and yes, maybe even Brian Andreas are all saying is that caring for plants that thrive on darkness doesn’t work. I wonder what would happen if we made a choice to try and be Stained Glass People. An anonymous poet once wrote – “People are like stained glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out. But in the darkness, beauty is seen only if there is a light within.”

George Fox – the Founder of the Quakers – believed that with enough study, enough self-reflection, enough time set aside to truly focus on scriptural and personal holiness, we could with God’s help learn how to turn on that inner light. Maybe Fox was suggesting just a moment or twenty that we should reflect on how we really let this light of the world (Jesus), really light our world. I guess the alternative is to keep caring for those flowers that only grow on dark thoughts. The choice is ours … and cultivation within ourselves the light of God’s understanding can be a thing of beauty … all we have to do is recognize that beauty takes us to a higher place … maybe evenly a heavenly higher place …. Where do we want to be and what do we want to be?

Returning to Brian Andreas and this is what is on my wall nearest the children: “Someday, the light will shine like a sun through my skin & they will say, What have you done with your life?; though there are many moments I think I will remember, in the end, I will be proud to say, I was one of us.”

I am proud to be “one of us.” Us is the us that are followers of the Risen Lord, the "People called Methodists", but perhaps most proud of all, a people who seek to manifest belonging, believing and becoming in their very essence, to be people of light, not darkness, to be like Stained Glass.

Let me invite all of us to pray the following daily: 

"O God of Light – continue to pursue us with your love so that through your Grace we can reject the darkness that comes with gossip and self-indulgence and other sins that we commit when we forget that your son – Jesus the Christ – is truly the light of this world. Amen.”

Selah, Pastor Dennis