Sunday, October 3, 2010

Evangelism for Everyone

Grace and Peace to you, in the name of Christ Jesus!

Last weekend at Worcester Fellowship, a worship service for the homeless on Worcester Common, a young boy, no more than eleven, raised his prayer concern. “I want to pray for all of those kids who are treated badly at school…” He broke down, crumbled in half, fighting tears. A gray haired man piped up from a park bench. “I know how he feels,” the man began. “I was bullied in school, bullied at work, and I’m bullied today because I am a gay man.”

A few days ago, the news reported the sad story of Tyler Clementi, a gay freshman at Rutgers University who committed suicide after being bullied by this roommate at Rutgers University. Earlier, a 13-year old boy, Seth Walsh, passed away after he was driven to hang himself when fellow students mercilessly taunted him over his sexual orientation. Another 15-year-old, Billy Lucas, hanged himself because he was harassed by students who judged him to be gay. Asher Brown, 13, took his life with a gun after his parents unsuccessfully tried to stop ongoing bullying after he came out. Tyler Wilson, 11, was taunted with homophobic remarks by classmates who later broke his arm. All of this happened in September.

Of course, we all remember Matthew Shepard, who was beaten, tied to a post on a windy prairie, and left to die over ten years ago because he was gay.

Why aren’t things getting better? What is our responsibility in all this?

Sure, we should hold those who bully accountable for their actions. It goes without saying.

Sure, we should sit with the parent grieving the loss of a child. It goes without saying.

Sure, we should comfort the man in park who has been bullied all of his life. It goes without saying.

Sure we should encourage schools to teach tolerance. It goes without saying.

Here is something, however that must be said. Our churches must stop demonizing homosexuality. Our churches must stop must stop ostracizing and rejecting gays and lesbians. Our pastors must speak the truth from the pulpits of this nation: God commands us to love one another. Period.

Today, Eddie Fox, infamous throughout the United Methodist denomination for his exclusive position regarding those who are welcome in the United Methodist church, is speaking at FUMC about, ironically, evangelism. He is well known for his actions at the 2008 General Conference, sustaining the condemnatory language in our bylaws that state “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers this practice incompatible with Christian teaching.” At the same General Conference, Brother Fox went on to lead the charge against a constitutional amendment that would have made it clear that all persons were welcome by the United Methodist Church. He even wrote and produced a video supporting that position.

We must ask ourselves and Mr. Fox, is the Gospel for everyone, or only for those who comply with the exclusionary reading of the scriptures that suits Eddie Fox?

Dr. Gary Brewton, M.D. at a meeting at Perkins School of Theology, commented, “Those who say the homosexuality and Christianity are not compatible cannot escape the consequences of that statement: homophobia kills kids. Theology is indeed a matter of life and death.” Let’s all work together to decrease hatred against the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (lgbtq) people in this world. Let’s stop the hatred in the very dark corners of the Church. Let’s transform the world by spreading the good news of Jesus Christ to everyone.

Evangelism is, after all, for everyone.

In Grace and Peace,

Rev. Leigh Dry

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Ordinary Days

“Some days he exalted and hallowed, and some he made ordinary days.”~Sirach 33:9

“The ordinary acts we practice every day at home are of more importance to the soul than their simplicity might suggest.” ~Thomas Moore

Are there any ordinary days?

This past week was one of the saddest of my life. My little beagle buddy, Harley, had to be euthanized. She had been my best friend for the past 13 years. Over the Labor Day weekend, she escaped our home for the last time, and was hit by a car. Despite the best efforts of students and faculty at Tufts, her multiple injuries continued to complicate her prognosis, making a complete recovery impossible. We could not watch her suffer any longer without hope of resuming her normal “ordinary” life.

I think about waking up in the morning with her soft brown eyes looking up at me, breathing her doggy halitosis in my face, waiting to be taken outside for her walk. I remember her excited barking and baying when I’d come home from an evening meeting. When I was in my office working, she would curl up in her special bed in the corner of my den. If I went upstairs to get something, she would be at my heels. If I sat down to watch television, or meet with a friend, she was at my feet. It all sounds so ordinary, doesn’t it?

Yet, the meaning in our lives derives from the ordinary. I think of time spent with a friend who died this summer after a long struggle with cancer. We did nothing exceptional, just sharing our lives and our hopes and a cup of coffee or tea. I also remember sharing good food and company with a missionary friend. We laughed at his adventures, only to shed tears months later when a senseless murder cut short his life of healing and hope. Such ordinary things: empty cups, dirty plates, scattered napkins, are all memories recalling extraordinary times together.

Our lives are filled with the ordinary. They become so familiar that we forget the enormous blessings in ordinary things: children’s coats lying on the floor, mud tracked into the house, dirty dishes in the sink, wet kisses, school buses, panting pets, the smell of clothes after a day of work, sharing leftovers, the rustle of leaves, the resonance of laughter, the relief of tears, and someone’s dirty handprint on the wall. All of them become our memories, and later, we may recall them as hallowed and sacred times. They are moments that are in no way ordinary, in fact, they are sacred moments that will never be again.

For the past few years, I have swept dog hair off the floor and tossed the nuisance in the trash. Now, each time I find a bundle of the stuff in a corner or under a chair, I take a moment to remember, and yes, tears do well up in my eyes. No, there are no ordinary times, for us, or for our friends…just sacred moments given to us as a gift from God for the time when they are no more.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Remembering Tom Little

“And I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord. Yes, says the Spirit, they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.’” ~ Rev. 14:13

I want to write to you about our friend, Tom Little. It’s hard knowing where to start, so let me begin by telling you that Tom came from a small pleasant town in upstate New York. His father was an accomplished doctor, and Tom had a first rate education from Tufts University. He and Libby had every opportunity to live a comfortable, privileged upper-class life in the United States. Instead they chose to make their home in Afghanistan. For a ridiculously low salary, Tom worked at all aspects of eye care, from grinding lenses and dispensing eye drops to performing operations and setting up hospitals and clinics. He traversed the country’s rugged terrain, hiking for days, to reach those most in need. Along with his devoted wife, Libby, they raised their three daughters in Afghanistan. Communist and Taliban regimes did not deter them. They spoke the language, observed the customs and ate the food. They chose to live in Afghanistan because they loved the people there. They lived in Afghanistan because Christ called them to do so. They did not visit Afghanistan. They visited the United States. Their home was Afghanistan.

Tom was an optometrist. In 2008, he graduated from the Advanced Standing International Program at the New England College of Optometry, where he also served as adjunct faculty of the college. During that time, Tom and Libby stayed in a small house in Hopkinton while he worked on his degree. That is how I met him. Tom and Libby chose to attend a small Methodist Church called Grace in Hopkinton. They chose to gift our tiny congregation with their immense, understanding hearts and humble, gentle spirits. We offered them a church home for a small portion of their Christian journey.

We were blessed by Tom’s preaching at Grace. He spoke to us about forgiveness, and the great gift of God’s pardon for us. He spoke about the struggle to embrace that gift, and warned us about the amazing things that happen when we open our hearts to the transformational love Christ offers! He shared his work in Afghanistan with us, and we all ran out to read The Kite Runner hoping to glimpse the world he described.

Tom was a Christian: a follower of Christ. That’s why he lived in Afghanistan. He had a degree from Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. When Christ called him to devote his life to the Afghan people, it didn’t matter to Tom that their religion differed from his. What did matter was that Christ called him to be their friend, to give them sight, and to heal their wounds. Tom didn’t impose his faith on anyone, Afghans or Americans. He simply lived it out in their midst. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and longsuffering: Saint Paul may have written about the fruits of the spirit, but Tom Little truly lived and shared them with the world.

The people at Grace were blessed to know Tom and Libby Little. During the two short years I was privileged to be their pastor, they showed me the power of Christ in the most meaningful and tangible ways I have ever known. Tom’s most concrete legacy may be the NOOR hospital he envisioned and built, but it will never overshadow the hundreds of Afghans he trained, the thousands of Afghans he treated, and the model of true Christian living he offered the world. I have truly been blessed by Tom and Libby Little.

I thank God for the life and legacy of Tom Little. May he rest in peace in Afghanistan, the home Christ gave to him.

In Grace and Peace,

Pastor Leigh

Friday, August 27, 2010

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I was naked and you clothed me, I was in prison and you visited me…Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine you did for me. ~Matthew 25: 35-40

Grace and peace to you in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and our Savior!

What did you do on your summer vacation?  The quintessential question that marks the beginning of a new school year. So, what did you do this summer?  Did you take a family trip to the mountains or the beach? Did you visit Europe or explore the ruins of an ancient civilization?  At Grace UMC, a group of us took a mission trip to a less exotic, but equally interesting spot.  We went to Cookson, Oklahoma, and participated in a way of life quite foreign to our own experience.

When our Volunteers in Mission team arrived at the United Methodist Mission in Cookson Hills, Oklahoma, we were stunned by the 110 degree temperatures, the diminutive size of the town, and the rural surroundings. We came to provide mission assistance to the Native Americans living in the area, but where were they? What need is there for ministry at the fringes of the Ozarks? Why did God send this group of motivated volunteers to the middle of nowhere to do mission work?

The answers started to appear even before the questions escaped our lips. Rev. Meri Whitaker spent an afternoon sharing information about her parish, and we learned that one does not need to travel to a developing nation to find extreme poverty. It is here, in America, in our own backyard. She shared with us that Native Americans are second only to Haitians as the poorest minority in the Western Hemisphere. In her church, the average person “lives on” $5,000 each year. Resultantly, we found many of the Cherokee living in shacks in the back woods. The rate of violent crimes, particularly rape and aggravated assault are staggering and rising in this remote area. White supremacists populate the county’s heavily wooded forests. It is not surprising to learn that Timothy McVeigh found refuge in this area after the Oklahoma City bombings.

Yet even in the darkest places, God’s hope can be found in the church and love of Christian mission. Cookson Hills had 1 ½ staff when Meri arrived 24 years ago. Today, the center has 20 staff, and most are recovering from addictions and have prison records. The center has provided creative ways to use peoples’ gifts and to provide employment opportunities to those otherwise unemployable. The church is active, despite a significant percentage who are completing jail terms. Cookson is in a “hot spot” for drug and alcohol abuse, with 7 houses cooking crystal meth for every church/mission in the area, which is why the General Board of Global Ministries has kept a mission program there for over 60 years.

And that is why missionaries are assigned to this area. Jen Chickering works as a US2 Missionary, sent by the United Methodist Church to provide medical assistance to Native Americans populating Cookson Hills and the surrounding areas. She lives in a tiny trailer on the Cookson Hills site that she sometimes shares with other missionaries. As a US2 missionary, she is supported by Grace UMC, and is committed to live in Cookson for two years.

During our week, the team worked in a variety of areas, building a porch, painting, working in the thrift shop, providing meals to the seniors and children in the daycare facility, and even working in the nursery. We attended church and bible study and committed ourselves to prayer for our eight days together. Mostly we established new relationships and friendships among our brothers and sister in Cherokee County.

All of us at Grace are committed to assist Jen for her tenure at Cookson Hills, where she feeds and waters the hungry, clothes the naked, cares for the sick and visits those in and out of prison. God is alive and well in Cherokee County Oklahoma, and manifests through the work of Jen and all the mission groups who support the United Methodist mission in Cookson Hills. 

So, tell us about your summer vacation.  What did you do?  Who did you meet?  Who did you help?  Who helped you?  Let us know about your mission, your hope, your dream for a better life, or your dream to make someone else's life better.  What did you do on your summer vacation?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Grace Who???

“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can,

at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”

~John Wesley

That was our goal when we started: to do as much good as we could, in all the ways we could imagine, in all the places our small group could reach out to, throughout the months and years of our existence, to each soul that we might touch, for as long as the good Lord would allow us to exist. I still think that was a worthy and genuine goal for First United Methodist’s satellite church in Hopkinton. So, with a grant of $20,000 from the Annual Conference, and a contingent of about 27 people, we set about the work of doing the impossible with insufficient people and inadequate resources. We knew the odds were against us, we had detractors (still do), but we tried anyway.
Teilhard de Chardin said, “It is our duty as human beings to proceed as though the limits of our capabilities do not exist.” So the folks at Grace proceeded. We donated over 150 pairs of blue jeans to kids starting school; provided mosquito nets for families in Africa; gave solar cookers to refugee families in Darfur; raised funds for ophthalmic care in Afghanistan and contributed to Katrina Church recovery; sent devotional books to our troops deployed overseas; furnished thousands of dollars to UMCOR; donated hats, scarves and mittens to the Mustard Seed; sent money, supplies and missionaries to our friends in Paraíso, D.R.; provided critical and confidential help to needy families; baptized babies; sang, praised, prayed and worshipped our triune God; served the Eucharist and confessed our sins; transfigured and transformed; walked for peace; taught children to work for peace; purchased a heifers, countless chicks, bees and geese; welcomed over 77 children to Vacation Bible School; made blankets for babies in Afghanistan; established a unique relationship with the Episcopal Church in Hopkinton; donated over 400 health kits to Haiti; and participated with 900 other United Methodist Churches to “Change the World” last weekend. We even paid mission shares when none were assessed and contributed to “Together for Tomorrow.”
Still, there are people who wonder who we are, what we do, where we do it, and why. There are people who question whether Grace has any future. After working in this ministry for nearly eight years, I can tell you, we are the ones who do the impossible, with insufficient people and inadequate resources. We are a satellite of First United Methodist Church, a dream that FUMC had in May of 2001, but most have forgotten. Of the 13 “Long-View Goals for the Year 2010” established at FUMC in 2001,the Grace satellite is one of a handful accomplished. We may not be the largest faith community in the area, but big hearts live at Grace. A local reporter asked me, “How do you do so much with so little?” “We believe,” is all I could say.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

My Farmville Addiction

“Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.” ~ Romans 14:13

Some of you are familiar with Farmville, the cute, seemingly innocent game on Facebook. Farmville allows you to create your own virtual farm, to plant crops, acquire animals, harvest trees, and help your neighbors with their farms. You earn coins, farm bucks and experience through all of your “hard work” on your farm and your friends’ farms. Innocent enough, right?

My children have been telling me for weeks that they think that Farmville is … well … “a stupid waste of time” (their words, not mine). Frankly, I saw little, if any, harm at all in planting my crops, returning at exactly the right time to harvest them, then planting more. I rather enjoyed growing my homestead, plowing and seeding my fields, and reaping the rewards of my “labor.” And there was no downside. In Farmville, there is never a drought, never a flood, and never a bad crop.

There is only one problem with Farmville…it is addicting.

Some of you psychology students might remember a concept called “operant conditioning,” a learning mechanism using different schedules of reinforcement. Farmville operates on a fixed interval schedule of reinforcement. The player knows that after a particular period of time, they can expect their crops to be ripe and ready to gather. The more you reap, collect, pick and mow, the higher your level becomes. You receive more coins, plant more crops, and wait, again, for the harvest. The game begins to influence your daily schedule, and your work patterns. You become more and more competitive, watching your game rank increase, your coins amass, and your time diminishes. You know you are hooked when you actually buy “farm bucks” on your PayPal account. That’s right, when you spend real money to gain fake value, esteem, and status.

It is estimated that 75 million people play Farmville today. It is fun. There is nothing sinful, pornographic, or hateful in the game. There are worse things that people could do…really, lots worse. In fact this is really not about Farmville at all. It is about leading others into tempting situations when we engage in social behaviors that can be harmful in the extreme: buying lottery tickets, playing keno, or drinking alcohol. Our United Methodist Discipline calls gambling a “menace to society,” abstinence from alcohol and drugs “as a faithful witness to God’s liberating and redeeming love for persons.” These are not just suggestions for stodgy, uptight Christians, but ways to avoid hurting other people through our example. We may be perfectly able to stop after one lottery ticket, or one glass of wine, but our friends may not. To answer Brother Cain in Genesis 4:9, “Yes, you are your brother’s keeper.” So, is abstaining from addictive games a part of our faithful witness?

I have been thinking about these things lately, as I consider the more obvious ways we offend others. The troubling thing about some games is that they are insidious and accepted, like children’s rhymes or mottos that seem innocent enough at the time. When they grow into a monster all their own, an addiction, a racial slur, or an ungodly belief, they harm the other. Paul tells us we are not to judge the other, but we are not to lead others into compromising or addictive situations either. I am also reminded of our baptismal vows, calling us to resist sin in whatever ways or places it finds us. Finally, John Wesley warns us to “do no harm.”

I guess that means the end of Farmville for me…

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Why Haiti? Why Paraiso? Why Lent?

“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”

~Luke 4:1-1

Recently, I was listening to a sermon by an esteemed colleague who had visited Haiti. He said there were two reasons why he went to Haiti. First, he was concerned he might easily forget the devastation of the nation, and second, he wanted to bring back ideas to help the United Methodist Church meet the future needs of the Haitian people. While I believe it will be hard to forget the destruction in Haiti, I am grateful for those who recognize and act on our long term commitment to the poor and oppressed. “The poor will always be among you,” our good Lord reminds us, and calls us to intentionally be among them.

By the time you read this, the season of Lent will be underway, and I will be traveling in the Dominican Republic with a team of eight Volunteers in Mission. We will be visiting a very poor village called “Paraíso,” which means paradise. Despite severe monetary poverty, there are some elements of paradise in Paraíso. There are beautiful, loving children too young to know of their own destitution. There are struggling mothers and fathers living in faithful obedience to God, offering hospitality and protection, as scripture commands, to visitors who have much more than they will ever acquire. There are beautiful views of a dangerous ocean and sweet breezes that cut through the pounding heat. Paradise can be deceiving.

Why do we go to Paraíso? Why did my colleague go to Haiti? We go for the same reason we put together health kits for Haiti, or collect cans of soup for the food pantry, or donate animals to Heifer International. We go because Christ calls us to do more than watch as others suffer, the Spirit compels us to service, and God prevails upon each of us to offer mercy to God’s struggling children.

At the beginning of Lent, we remember Jesus’ first act after his baptism was to go into the desert. There, he opened himself to temptations he would face his entire time on earth: temptations of the body, of the world, and of the spirit. These are the same deceptive temptations we experience. We hunger and thirst in solidarity with the poor, but only for the Lenten season. We consider our own privileges in the power structures of the world, but dismiss them as necessary evil. We face our spiritual pride, even as it is cloaked in scriptural distortion.

Perhaps you still are asking, why go to Paraíso or Haiti? Why fast? Why explore oppression or pride?

The best answer I can offer is this: when we answer God’s call to serve, to suffer, to pray, or study, we invite God’s transformative power to heal us from our own self deception. Jesus was different when he emerged from the desert. My colleague changed in Haiti, and I will come back from Paraíso changed too. Your children will not be the same when they return from ASP or UMARMY. God invites us into the Lenten Season to mold us, to change us and to use us. It is up to us to accept the Lenten invitation.