Monthly Archives: May 2015

United Methodists, Please Don’t Lose Our Witness!

Dear Fellow Followers of Jesus in the United Methodist Church,

One year from today, the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church will have concluded. One year from today, people I dearly love will breathe a sigh of relief that it’s all over for another quadrennium. One year from today, people I dearly love will be heartbroken, perhaps to the point of leaving our church. One year from today, people I dearly love will be elated and filled with joy and hope.

I can’t foresee how the debates will proceed about human sexuality and other topics that are highly charged–emotionally, spiritually, missionally, and otherwise. Nor do I know how our church’s Book of Discipline will change, if at all. But I feel certain of this–one year from today, some United Methodists will feel that they’ve won, and others will feel that they’ve lost.

One year from today, people who outwardly consider themselves brothers and sisters in Christ will leave Portland, Oregon, feeling that they have either triumphed over or been defeated by their opponents. I find that heartbreaking, and I can’t help but feel that God finds it heartbreaking too.

I have seen the divide very clearly in my own circle of friends and sphere of influence in just the past few days. When United Methodist Communications released the story on Monday about our Connectional Table’s proposal to remove the Book of Discipline’s prohibitive language about sexuality, my Facebook friends were seemingly equally divided and equally convicted in their responses. Some were exuberant. Others were disgusted. Some derided the Connectional Table for sounding another peal of our church’s death knell. Others praised the Connectional Table for offering our church a new potential route toward vitality and life.

I have no problem with my friends’ differing perspectives. We will always have differences of opinion and conviction. God made us, and God made each of us differently and uniquely. What causes my heart to ache is when we Christians vilify and demonize the people who don’t share our perspective, when we view a person as an opponent to be out-argued, out-maneuvered, and ultimately out-voted.

We let ourselves off the hook because we convince ourselves (seemingly regardless of our perspective and conviction), that we are taking a stand, making a case, winning an argument, and maybe even fighting a fight in the name of God. When we understand ourselves to be the ones who are standing up for God, it’s fairly easy for us to believe that anyone who disagrees with us ultimately disagrees with God. Since we see ourselves standing on the side of God, and therefore on the side of good, the one who opposes us must be standing on the side of evil, or at least on the side of something less than holy.

At worst, sometimes very subtly or almost even imperceptibly, our vision becomes impaired. We lose our ability to see fellow children of God, fearfully and wonderfully knit together in his image in our mothers’ wombs. We lose sight of fellow lambs of the Good Shepherd’s flock. We can no longer see fellow members of the Body of Christ or fellow neighbors to be loved as we love ourselves. We become blind to the reality that we are all fellow sinners of God’s redemption.

Instead, we see adversaries, opponents, even outright enemies to the redemptive work of Jesus Christ in the world.

Adversary. Opponent. Enemy. Any one of these is an acceptable translation of the Greek word/name satan. God forbid that we see or treat each other as adversaries!

There, my friends, is the danger. Regardless of our place on the theological spectrum, it’s awfully easy to fall into a polar worldview, in which we see ourselves as the defenders of the cause of Christ, and we see others as, well, other.

How does that happen? Again, I believe it’s a matter of vision. We become so focused on principle that we fail to see people. In our zeal to glorify God by embracing, espousing, and arguing a cause, we overlook the one commandment that Jesus says is comparable to loving God–the commandment to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

Notice the emphasis in that last sentence. Christians, that’s what’s different about us. As Jesus said, everyone loves the people who love them back. What sets apart followers of Jesus is our love for those who disagree with or even persecute us. Jesus commands us to love. It’s a requirement.

Jesus ups the ante even further. Not only does he expect us not to see the other as an adversary, not only does he command us to love the person with whom we disagree, but in his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, he warns us about our very attitudes toward each other:

21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”

That tells me loudly and clearly that we should be very humble in our praying, discerning, conferencing, debating, and voting. To see the person who may stand on the other side of the issue as a fool is to imperil our own souls.

Humility is the key, isn’t it? It’s humility that allows us to embrace and be embraced by God’s saving grace. It’s humility that enables us to see others as our neighbors, equally lovable as ourselves. It’s humility that enables us to realize that we need the other members of the body, and furthermore, that we just might grow from hearing their perspectives. It’s humility that enables us to love them (as we love ourselves) enough to really listen to them.

What if we really believed that the people with whom we disagree really meant what they said when they stood in front of a congregation–just as we did–and renounced evil, rejected wickedness, and confessed their faith in Christ? What if we believed that they were striving to love God and to follow Jesus just as fervently as we are? What if we were humble enough to ask ourselves, “What if I’m wrong?”

It’s a question that begs to be asked. Consider the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the scribes, the chief priests, the elders, the council, and the teachers of the law, and so many others in the gospel stories. In retrospect, we see them as the bad guys in the gospels, the antagonists to Jesus. Yet all of them were striving to lead Israel to a deeper devotion to God. They all had (or at least began with) very good intentions. They all were striving to make their land a little holier. They all thought they were teaching and doing God’s will.

At times, they disagreed with, argued with, and even scorned each other, because each claimed God’s endorsement. Their common ground was that they rejected and felt threatened by Jesus, ultimately to the point that they could no longer tolerate his presence in their midst or even on this earth.

Theirs is a humbling example. Their insistence that they were right led them to hate, rather than to love. In their zeal to protect and defend their corner of the kingdom of God or their part of the revelation of God’s will, they couldn’t or wouldn’t recognize the very presence of God in their midst. God save us from that kind of zeal!

Am I suggesting that we abandon our principles? Absolutely not! Any person of strong faith ought to be a person of strong convictions. Anyone with a strong faith ought to have a strong witness to share, even (and perhaps especially) with fellow followers of Christ. We help to shape each other’s convictions as we walk together in the footsteps of Jesus, going on to perfection together.

I’m simply asking that we lead with love. I’m praying that we will see the image of God, the neighbor, and the brother or sister in each other. I’m praying that we refrain from calling names, casting aspersions, lobbing rhetorical barbs, and assigning blame toward each other. We all lose when we see the adversary, the enemy, the opponent in each other.

Let’s remember Paul’s counsel to the Ephesians, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” In other words, the real adversary, opponent, or enemy is the very one, Satan, whose name is defined by those words. When we see each other as opponents, the victory is his.

Maybe the most important consideration and realization of all is this: we get in the way of our very mission and meaning when we treat each other as opponents. Years ago, one of my mentors in the faith planted a very helpful concept in my heart and mind. He said that we Christians can inadvertently “lose our witness” when the impression that we give to others is that we’re joyless and confrontational. We proclaim love with our lips but don’t reveal it in our relationships within the church. Too often, our dialogue becomes disagreement. Our conversation becomes conflict.

We United Methodists can all agree that our mission is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” We can do neither very well when so much of our passion is consumed in an effort to remodel what we perceive to be the other side of a divided house. We lose our witness when the cacophony of our internal bickering drowns out our external efforts to tell the story of Jesus and his love. People won’t believe our message of grace if they don’t encounter that grace in us.

May I suggest this? Instead of writing off a person with whom you are at odds, write a note. Invite him or her to share a meal or cup of coffee. Instead of shaking the dust from your sandals, shake the hand of a person who doesn’t share your perspective. Sit down to a conversation about your common love of Jesus Christ and his church. Find that love that binds us all together. Let’s follow the example of Jesus and learn to love each other before we try to change each other.

One year from today, the 2016 General Conference will be history. That means we have twelve months, fifty-two weeks, three hundred sixty-five days to get it right and to show the world how brothers and sisters in Christ live in communion and community with each other even when we disagree.

Fellow followers of Jesus Christ in the United Methodist Church, the world is watching. I believe a great cloud of witnesses is watching. Above all, our Lord Jesus Christ is watching. They not only await the outcomes of the General Conference, but they watch with hopeful expectation for the love and grace we will extend to each other as we work, talk, and vote toward those outcomes.

Many people whom I love dearly have very definite ideas about where the church ought to be. I pray that we’re all equally concerned about how we get there.

One year from today, we’ll see.

We’ll see.

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Heart Rate & Heartbreak: All in a Mother’s Heart

This Mother’s Day marks the end of a full season of grief. Exactly three months ago today, on February 10, 2015, a date which will live in infamy, Suzanne and I heard the four most painful words of our lives: “no fetal heart rate.”

Only a few weeks earlier we had learned that we were expecting our (gulp!) fifth child, and we had experienced the emotional gamut in the wake of that news.

First, there was shock. After all, we are supposedly a fertility-challenged couple. Eleven years ago, when our Grace was almost three years old and we were trying to have a second child, a fertility expert told us that it would be virtually impossible for us to conceive a child without some medical intervention like in vitro fertilization. I asked, “If we’re unable to conceive, how do we explain our daughter Grace?” The doctor said, “I don’t know what to tell you. She’s a fluke.”

Fluke number two arrived nine years later when our Sage was born, but still, even after two conceptions and births, I don’t think either of us really believed that there would ever be another fluke. That’s why we were initially shocked when we learned in January that our family would grow again.

At moments, we felt overwhelmed. Our house has bedrooms for four children. How and where would we make accommodations for the fifth? I recalled the CNN story I had seen a few months earlier about the rising cost of raising a child to age 18. I had joked that we only needed a million bucks to raise four children. Now, seemingly overnight, we needed $1.25 million–and that was before college tuitions!

Our two year old Sage was just growing past the most difficult stages of infancy, and it made us tired to think of starting over again with a new child, especially at our ages.

Anticipated exhaustion gave way to laughter as our ages inspired hilarious thoughts and conversations. We calculated our ages at various milestones in the baby’s life. I joked about how people would ask me which graduate was my grandchild, since I would be sixty-two at his or her high school graduation. Suzanne imagined herself as the sixty-one year old mother of the bride or groom, if the baby married at the same age as she had. We joked that we would have children involved in the church’s youth ministries for twenty consecutive years, from Grace’s sixth grade year through the new child’s graduation.

Moments of laughter paled in comparison to the moments of outright joy! We imagined all the fun moments ahead as seven of us Jonases packed into our Honda Odyssey. We dreamed of how many grandchildren would gather at our house for future celebrations of Thanksgiving and Christmas. We felt blessed that two people who had no apparent reason to expect that they would conceive once were now expecting for the third time!

Bursting with the need to share that joy with the world one weekend, I put together a cute little video announcement that came closer to going viral than anything I had ever posted on Facebook. We felt warmly embraced by the congratulations, hugs, and Facebook “likes” that our friends and family piled upon us!

Just eleven days after posting that video, on a cold February Tuesday, Suzanne and I sat in the ultrasound lab as we had so often throughout two previous pregnancies. A couple of weeks earlier, she had gotten to see the tiny flicker of a heartbeat, but I had been at the pediatrician’s office with one of our other kids and had missed that ultrasound appointment. I was eager to see the tiny heart’s movement for myself.

As the technician began the scan, I knew that we wouldn’t be able to see any distinct features this early in the pregnancy, but I also knew to look for the heart flashing rapidly like a tiny computer cursor. I didn’t see it, but I didn’t worry. I couldn’t imagine there was any need to. The technician casually asked whether our doctor wanted to see the ultrasound for himself and said that she had better go invite him just in case. When they returned, he looked and listened for only a few seconds before he turned to us and said, “I’m afraid I have bad news. There’s no fetal heart rate.”

I feel certain that he said more, perhaps something about the hardest part of his job, but I didn’t really hear any of it. Once again, we were in shock, but for an entirely different reason. My mind and heart were stuck on those four words: no fetal heart rate. Just that quickly, we were no longer expecting parents. We were grieving parents.

And we have grieved.

But it’s a different kind of grief with an unborn child. There are none of the usual cultural trappings of grief–no obituary, no visitation, no funeral service. Rather than the customary surge of emotion that washes over a family over the span of one or two days with those public expressions of love and grief, we have experienced more of a tidal ebb and flow. Rather than sharing tears with a hundred people at a service, we’ve shared a hundred different moments with people over the past ninety days.

It’s a different quality of grief too. In every other experience of a loved one’s death, I’ve grieved because of a shared past. We’ve had a special bond and shared special experiences in the past, and I have mourned because there would be no more moments like those in the future. In this case, I grieve that I never got to have a past or future with our unborn baby.

In fact, for me, the mourning is best expressed in an almost endless series of we nevers. We never got to hold our baby, know if our baby was a boy or girl, know his or her hair color, smell his or her skin and breath, make comparisons of her or his physical and personality traits with other members in our family, settle on a name, and maybe most importantly, whisper “I love you” against soft baby hair or ears . . .

There are just too many we nevers. They’ve been my constant companions over the past three months as I’ve grieved my loss. What comforts me most is the image of Jesus holding my baby until I can.

But I haven’t just grieved for myself. I have grieved for my Suzanne.

Seventeen years ago, during our exactly fifty-one weeks of dating before we were married, Suzanne and I had a conversation about vocation. She was completing her preparations to be a French teacher, but she said to me that day, “What I really want to be is a mommy.”

We knew there would be fertility challenges, and because of that and her deep maternal desire and calling, we prayed and prayed for a baby. When we learned we were expecting our Grace, it only seemed natural to name her Grace, since we genuinely believed she was a gift from God. Her name became all the more meaningful when she was born two days after the 9-11 attacks. Grace became even more precious to us when we learned, in the words of the aforementioned fertility expert, that she was a “fluke.”

From the beginning, Suzanne was a natural. I’ve learned almost everything I know about being a parent from her. Sure, my parents taught me to be loving and compassionate, and my dad showed me what it means to be a nurturing dad, but Suzanne taught me the skills like diaper changing, bottle preparation, bathing, towel wrapping, and others. She’s still trying to teach me how to brush daughters’ hair and how not to be a pushover with our kids. Hey, I’m a work in progress, but she’s a natural.

When we had the conversation with the fertility expert and made the subsequent decision to adopt, she didn’t hesitate for a moment. She loved Brett before we ever saw him, and when we did see him for the first time in a hotel lobby where several adopting parents were meeting their adopted children, she spotted him across the room and said, “That’s my baby!” He has been ever since.

When our adoption agency called to let us know that Brett’s birth mother had given birth to another baby boy, she didn’t feel overwhelmed. She was thrilled! Micah bonded with her immediately and looked at me with suspicion. When I held him, he screamed, but when she held him, he was content. When we brought Micah home that December, she was the stay-at-home mom of three children under the age of five. I can imagine very few tougher jobs–and hers came without a paycheck.

When Sage (fluke #2) came along at a time in our lives when we didn’t expect to have an infant in the house, Suzanne talked about how much fun it would be to have four children in the house, and she was excited that we had greater odds of having lots of grandchildren.

You should see the relationship she has with Sage now! That two year old bundle of red-headed spirit thinks her mommy is the world’s MVP! Mommy does everything better than Daddy, or anyone else on earth, for that matter. Mommy is her security blanket, the gravitational pull at the center of Sage’s every orbit. Mommy is her best buddy.

In fact, if you’ve seen Suzanne with any of our kids, you didn’t have to hear the words. You know from watching that what she really wanted to be is a mommy.

And so, when we discovered in January that the fifth Jonas child was on the way, there were some nearly overwhelming moments at first, but Suzanne quickly started nesting. She had already made room in her heart, and she was making plans for the space this child would occupy in our family and home. No matter how early in the pregnancy, she was clearly this baby’s mommy, and this precious child was her baby.

Then four words–no fetal heart rate–broke my Suzanne’s heart.

We’ve both grieved, but her grief is different from mine. I joyfully expected a baby, but she carried our baby. She felt the changes in her body. She loved that baby right through the nausea and fatigue. She provided within her body the only earthly home our baby ever knew.

Because of that, her we nevers are accompanied by a million what ifs. She wonders what if she had eaten differently, acted differently? What if? What if? What if?

I have grown to hate the word miscarriage, and I refuse to say it. Like mistake, misuse, misappropriate, miscue, and all those other mis- words, miscarriage implies that someone did something wrong, resulting in an unwanted outcome. She did nothing wrong, and I hate that her grief is accompanied by second, third, and millionth guessing of herself. Next to God’s, our baby knew no greater love than Suzanne’s.

So, on this Mother’s Day, we’ve come to the end of a season of grief, but our grief has not ended. Suzanne no longer carries our baby’s body within her, but she still carries the love, the memories, the we nevers, and the what ifs. I suppose she always will.

Today will be a day of great joy for my Suzanne. She will be surrounded by two sons and two daughters who love and cherish her! She will celebrate that she’s living her dream and being what God made and called her to be–a mommy! But this Mother’s Day, the first since we loved and lost our fifth child, will also hold some grief.

Suzanne has adopted twice. She has been pregnant three times. And today, though she will only hold four of those precious children in her arms, I know she holds all five in her heart.

Will you please hold her in yours?

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