Welcome to the website of Good News, A Forum for Scriptural Christianity. Since 1967, Good News has been the leading evangelical witness and ministry within The United Methodist Church. We are a voice for repentance, an agent for reform, and a catalyst for renewal within our denomination.
Original artwork from Hannah Griffin (www.HannahGriffinArt.com). You can also find her work on Instagram at hannahgriffinart. Photo by Ayla Wells.
Leonard Ravenhill once said, “there is no greater tragedy than a sick church in a dying world.” The United Methodist Church is hurting and sick. It is one of the few things that people across the various divisions all seem to agree on. When the UM Church, or any church, is walking through this kind of travail it is important, in the words of the liturgy, to “lift up our hearts” and regain clarity on a few points that have been used to discourage United Methodists.
Is the Church of Jesus Christ “exclusionary”?
It is common for voices within the “progressive” wing of the UM Church to declare that those who adhere to historic orthodoxy (whether doctrines such as the uniqueness and sole sufficiency of Jesus Christ for salvation, or historical ethical positions such as defining marriage as between one man and one woman for life) as being exclusionary.
This charge was reinforced this past May at the ChurchNext conference hosted by the Rev. Adam Hamilton at the Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas, and attended by over 600 United Methodists. The accusation that “traditionalists” are exclusionary has been made so often in recent blogs and sermons and full page ads in local newspapers, that it requires a response.
Previously, we had three distinct “groups” within the UM Church: traditional, centrist, and progressive. The centrists claimed to honor both the traditionalist and progressive positions as pastorally sound and morally equivalent. Now that the One Church Plan has been voted down at the 2019 General Conference, many centrists are abandoning the position of “let’s agree to disagree and respect that both views are honorable” and are moving to align more with the full progressive agenda which seeks to silence and shame those who adhere to the global and historic position of the church regarding the definition of marriage. This includes resisting the traditionalists, with the narrative that Christians around the global connection who continue to hold a traditional view of marriage are exclusionary.
However, it is important to remember that the church of Jesus Christ is the most inclusive, diverse, multi-ethnic, and multi-linguistic movement in the history of the world. More people, from more countries, speaking more distinct languages, belong to the church of Jesus Christ than any other movement, whether religious or secular. The church of Jesus Christ is growing faster and including even more diverse peoples and ethnicities today than at any time in the history of the world. The very idea that the church is becoming exclusionary is a false narrative.
Second, the reason the church is able to take root and flourish around the world among so many diverse cultures is because we share a common faith in Christ, and a common commitment to the Word of God, including a shared ethic as set forth in the New Testament. The “progressives” within the UM Church stand on neither historic nor biblical grounds by trying to introduce a unique set of ethical guidelines for one particular movement within the grand body of Christianity.
Indeed, the very reason for the church’s diversity is that its message is not rooted in any one culture or people, but reflects the universal truths of divine revelation. The meager attempts by a few in our midst to try to demonstrate that this new ethic is actually consistent with Scripture have failed the basic test of understanding Greek words; namely, the consistent way they are actually used by the authors and readers of the New Testament in the time in which they were written. In other words, original meaning is the gold standard in interpretation, and recent attempts to narrow the meaning of key biblical terms in order that they might conform a passage to modern sentiments has no lexical support.
The word “inclusive” understood both biblically and within the marvelous, expansive view of God’s grace, refers to the universal gift of salvation which is extended to all peoples, in all the earth. In other words, the gospel, properly understood, is inclusive. God’s grace extends to everyone. Therefore, our churches should extend wide, enthusiastic, and open arms to everyone. However, the word inclusive is now being used to embrace the idea that we should be morally inclusive of a wide range of ethical positions within the church regarding human sexuality and gender identity. This is unwarranted. All peoples, from all cultures, throughout all times have come to Christ and submitted to the teaching of the New Testament. That’s what it means to be part of the church. That’s what Charles Wesley celebrated in his beautiful hymn, “Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast.” Everyone is invited, but those who do come, must come to Christ on his terms, not ours.
Are those who uphold the biblical and historic view of marriage unleashing irreparable harm on people, particularly those in the LGBTQ community?
It is truly remarkable how a position which has been clearly held and affirmed by the church of Jesus Christ for its nearly 2,000 years of existence can, almost overnight, become regarded as hateful, harmful, and exclusionary. It is painful to be a United Methodist Christian and hold to a position which continues to be the official position of our denomination, but be held in such open contempt and shame by many even in leadership. We are now being told that we represent “evil, injustice, and oppression” (words of the Rev. Junius Dotson, “Planning New Directions for the Church,” United Methodist News Service, May 22, 2019).
However, the United Methodist Church has explicitly affirmed biblical marriage between one man and one woman since our inception. It is true, that from the 1972 General Conference onward, this position has been challenged. Yet, the General Conference has voted down a range of proposals to redefine marriage a dozen times over the years, and a thirteenth time at the recent General Conference in 2019. In light of this history, let’s remember a few points.
First, there has been no change in the United Methodist Discipline since the beautiful double affirmation of 1972 which declared “all persons are of sacred worth” but that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” In short, there is nothing “new” in our actual position before or after the most recent General Conference in 2019. The only change has been an attempt to legislatively hold pastors and bishops accountable to a Discipline that they have already sworn before God to uphold. Admittedly, this is embarrassing. But, as it relates to the actual position of the church, no change to the position of the church has been made. So, if there is “harm” it is not a new harm, but it is the harm which is inherent in this position for those who disagree, which has always been the UM position.
Second, there is an underlying assumption that the church must never hold a position which causes someone any pain or discomfort. This has been called the post-modern “tyranny of niceness.” It declares that the church, above all else, must never say anything that offends someone, because it may cause them pain. However, I am reminded of Søren Kierkegaard, in his Attack Upon Christendom, where he declared, “Christianity is the profoundest wound that can be inflicted upon us, calculated on the most dreadful scale to collide with everything.”
When someone says that the message of the church has caused “harm” we should not put our heads down and apologize. Rather, we should say, “Yes, the gospel both blesses and bruises us all.” Every true Christian has been bruised by the demands of discipleship, the call to die to self and to live holy lives, “taking up our cross to follow him.” We are all asked to give up our greed, our propensity to gossip, our jealousy, our disordered affections, our anger, and so forth. It is a long list which eventually encompasses every one of us with all the various sins we have a propensity to commit. Are we born this way? Yes, we are. It is known as the Fall. We are all members of a race full of sinners. There are no exceptions. Our hearts are deceitful and we need redemption. The gospel nails us all to the cross with Christ (Colossians 2:14). But, once that happens, it raises us up with Christ and gives us new power for holy living.
Christ rightly orders our affections. He takes away our greed and self-orientation. In short, those of us who have been bruised by the gospel, are now being blessed by the gospel. The blessing is always greater than the bruising. Whenever God says “no” to us, it always feels like “harm” and “hurt.” But God’s “no” is always his deeper “yes” since the way of righteousness and holiness is always the path of human flourishing.
John Wesley’s phrase from his general rules that we are to “do no harm” (cited regularly as the basis for defying the Discipline) has nothing whatsoever to do with dismantling the call to holiness and the pain which we all must accept when our lives pass through the cross of Jesus Christ. This point, of course, provides no license for any Christian to speak in a hateful or mean way to anyone. We must always be clothed with kindness and compassion, but yet resolute in defending the integrity of the biblical witness. Even as we affirm the biblical witness, there remains a vital and needed pastoral response to those who genuinely struggle with their sexual orientation or gender identity. This challenge calls for the church to develop and teach a more robust theology of the body as we disciple new Christians. A biblical theology of the body would move us away from being merely “against” something, to a more positive vision which celebrates the unitive and procreative vision of Christian marriage whereby we stand as icons of Christ in the world, reflecting the mystery of Christ and the Church, as well as the mystery of the Trinity.
What lies ahead? In the recently released pastoral letter titled “A Common Word from the Council of Bishops,” it appears that the bishops are searching for legislation which creates a “new way of embodying unity.” This probably means some form of restructuring or de-structuring the denomination which will allow for an amicable separation. I think the bishops are right to open this door and we should spend the next year focused on that, rather than simply repeating the pain and trauma of the 2019 General Conference.
The progressive clergy, in contrast, are unleashing a widespread plan of resistance which will defy the Discipline in order to try to destabilize the church so much that a majority will finally adopt a more progressive outcome at the 2020 General Conference. However, because of the growth of the church outside North America, the church is slowly becoming more aligned with historic orthodoxy. Therefore, there is no reason for traditionalists to exit the denomination as there might have been had the One Church Plan prevailed. Instead, the momentum has shifted and the UM Church is clearly moving, ever so slightly, from being a mainline Protestant denomination in decline, to becoming a vibrant member of a growing global, Wesleyan movement. Within the next fifty years, if we are released from this cycle of conflict, we could become more, not less, mindful of our glorious heritage, and draw increasing strength from our slow, but steady, return to historic faith. Our focus now should be on the legislative work necessary to present an “amicable separation” plan which creates two or more separate denominations.
Throughout this process, let us take seriously the Council of Bishops’ call for “a season of deep listening.” But let’s be clear what the focus of our listening should be. That “deep listening” should be first and foremost to the Word of God as revealed in the text of Scripture.
Timothy Tennent is a United Methodist elder in the Kentucky Annual Conference. He is the author of several books, including Christianity at the Religious Roundtable, Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church is Influencing the Way We Think About and Discuss Theology, and Invitation to World Missions: A Missiology for the 21st Century. This article is adapted from Dr. Tennent’s blog timothytennent.com.
“Boat in the Storm” by Sadao Watanabe (1913-1996).
Why do I continue to believe in God?
I asked myself this question as I was listening to Maybe God, a podcast hosted by the Rev. Eric Huffman, a United Methodist pastor in Houston. This episode featured a conversation between Huffman and Mr. Bart Campolo, son of the Rev. Tony Campolo. In the interview, Bart Campolo stated that he had become a secular humanist, giving up on God, because his prayers repeatedly went unanswered.
I remembered many prayers that were not answered the way I had thought they should be – the healing for my mother’s cancer that did not come, the death of my two-year old nephew who had heart disease, our church members’ broken marriages, their financial situations, etc.
I still believe in God, though. I scream. I cry. I pout. I question God in the midst of it all. Sometimes, it almost makes sense to give up on God.
And yet, the question remains. Why have I not stopped believing?
Theodicy, or the problem of evil, is one of the reasons people often give for not believing in God. If God exists, they reason, and if he is good and omnipotent, why does he allow bad things to happen?
As I listened to the podcast, my mind went back to the first time I encountered God. “God, if you are real, please help him!” This was my prayer when I was asked to pray for my friend’s brother who was in a bicycle accident. I was a senior at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, where I had met this friend. Methodist missionaries founded the university in the 19th century, and my friend was a third generation Christian, who came from a devout Christian family. I, on the other hand, grew up in a Buddhist family, with a large ancestral worship altar, and a little Shinto, household shrine.
I had no idea if God the Creator existed or not, so when I was asked by my Christian friend to pray for him, I did not know to whom I would pray. And, although I, and others prayed, my friend’s brother died a few days after the accident.
Prior to the accident, my friend had invited me to go to a Christmas concert that was sponsored by her campus ministry group. The concert featured a former Japanese pop singer, who had become a Christian singer, and I had agreed to go with my friend. The day before the concert, she called me to make sure I would go, though she could not.
In the middle of the conversation, I said to her, “I don’t understand. If God is real, why would He let this accident happen to a good Christian family like yours?” She responded that she did not know why, but she felt like the ocean during a storm – though the surface was rough, she had peace deep inside.
The next day I went to the concert, and for the first time in my life, I heard the Gospel. The preacher spoke from John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” For the first time in my life, I believed that God exists, God created me and loves me, and he gave me Jesus so I can go back to him. The preacher said Jesus is the first Christmas gift for us, and I decided to receive the gift!
I felt like God grabbed me tight with his love. In a strange way, I felt like I was given “permission” to exist in the world, and at the same time, I felt ashamed that I had lived my life as if God did not exist. How could I ignore God, when he loves me so much? God became so real to me that I could not deny him. I wanted to go back to him and be with him forever!
I never got the answer as to why my friend’s brother passed away. God did not answer my prayer by healing him, but God answered the first part of my inquiry: “If you are real….”
While listening to the podcast, I asked myself why I still believe. I returned back to this first encounter with God. I had never felt that my ancestors or the gods of the Shinto shrines loved me. But God was different. He loves me and he wants me. I used to offer food to our ancestors’ worship altar to please them, or to appease them. I gave money at Shinto shrines so that gods would answer my prayers. All of this was transactional faith, but my faith in God now is relational.
The day after the concert, I called my friend, told her what happened, and asked her if she knew of any church I could attend. As we talked, she shared with me the Philippians passage her brother had highlighted: “For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.”
I knew God loved him, and I believe he knew that, too. No, it did not make the death all right, or easy to go through, but I felt like I understood a little bit of the peace my friend was experiencing in the middle of the storm.
One of the thoughts I had after I became a Christian was, “Why had no one ever shared such a Good thing with me?” We do not have all the answers to the question of evil and unanswered prayers. There are times we doubt and question God. However, we do have the Good News to share with the world, a world that is so accustomed to hearing bad news.
Ten years after that Christmas concert, I met that preacher face to face at a conference in Japan. I shared with him what had happened at the Christmas concert, and thanked him. He smiled big and said, “Thank God! Thank God!” I realized then how many people must have been praying for the concert — the preacher, my friend, and her campus ministry group.
God answered their prayers.
God is at work, seeking those who are away from him. In Genesis, after the fall, when the man and his wife were hiding from God, God called to them, saying, “Where are you?”
Jesus said in in the Gospel of Luke “For the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost.” God wants people to come back to him, and he took the initiative in beginning a relationship with us, by sending Jesus. He works in us and changes us to be more like him, so that we can participate in his work with him.
Pray for people who have no idea if God is real or not, or who might actually be praying, “God, if you are real…” Continue to invite people to places they can meet God, and share the Good News. The Gospel has power. In the middle of a tragedy, the Gospel had the power to bring me, even me, to God.
Nako Kellum is co-pastor in charge at Tarpon Springs First United Methodist Church in Tarpon Springs, Florida. She is also a member of the Council of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. This article was first distributed by the Wesleyan Covenant Association and is reprinted here by permission.
Bishops confer over the issue of whether the legislative committee can refer items to the denomination’s Judicial Council for review during the 2019 United Methodist General Conference in St. Louis. Clockwise from lower left are Bishops Thomas Bickerton, John Schol, David Bard, Julius C. Trimble, and Cynthia Fierro Harvey. Photo by Mike DuBose,
Neil Sedaka summed it up best: Breaking up is hard to do. For congregations that want to leave The United Methodist Church, a breakup also could get very expensive.
Delegates to the special General Conference in February approved two measures that enable churches to exit based on disagreements related to the status of LGBTQ people in the church. The disaffiliation plan in effect suspends the denomination’s centuries-old U.S. trust clause under limited conditions. That means for the first time in its history, the denomination has set procedures for U.S. congregations to withdraw from the denomination and take their buildings with them.
Before a departure, those congregations could be on the hook for anywhere from tens of thousands to more than a million dollars.
Annual conferences – church regional bodies – have the final word on what their churches owe. As U.S. annual conferences meet this year, some already are reckoning with how to calculate those costs. “This is a new day with the new legislation,” said Wilson Hayman, outgoing president of the United Methodist Church Conference Chancellors Association – comprising conference attorneys. Hayman is the chancellor for the North Carolina Conference. Previously, he said, his conference would close a church and sell its property if a congregation lost too many members to be viable.
The new rules change the dynamic, but conferences still need to account for the financial impact of a church’s departure. For an exiting church, the biggest cost will likely come from what their conference determines is a fair share of unfunded clergy pension liability – that is, what conferences will owe retirees.
A church’s pension contribution not only supports the church’s current pastor but those who previously served the congregation, said Andrew Hendren, general counsel for Wespath Benefits and Investments. Wespath manages investments for pensions and other retirement-plan assets on behalf of conferences. Conferences are pension plan sponsors and legally responsible for paying benefits. “Every local church in an annual conference has in some way benefited from the promises that these pension programs represent,” he said.
The special General Conference made dealing with the future of U.S. clergy pensions their top priority even before passing the Traditional Plan that strengthens bans against same-sex weddings and “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy. They later passed legislation that permits disaffiliation by Dec. 31, 2023, “for reasons of conscience” related to homosexuality. The disaffiliation legislation is now the new Paragraph 2553 in the Book of Discipline, the denomination’s policy book.
In upholding the legislation, the Judicial Council – the denomination’s top court – spelled out that any disaffiliation must include:
• Approval for disaffiliation by at least a two-thirds majority of a church’s professing members present at the vote.
• Establishment of terms and conditions between the exiting local church and the conference board of trustees.
• Ratification of a church’s disaffiliation by a simple majority at annual conference.
Exiting churches also must satisfy any loans from the conference and pay for transferring the building title or other legal work. They additionally must pay two years of apportionments – the amount conferences apportion to their churches to support regional, national, and international ministries. Still, pensions are where the dollars can add up because conferences have substantial obligations for increasingly long-lived clergy in an uncertain stock market.
The South Georgia Conference acknowledged this challenge at June 2-5 meeting when its members approved its own pension and disaffiliation policies meant to augment what General Conference passed.
The Rev. Derek McAleer, the conference’s treasurer and benefits officer, told those gathered that the conference has to make sure it can pay the promises it has already made. “The amount of money is so huge that everybody has to stop and take a deep breath,” he said. “We’re talking about 586 churches and $30 million bucks. There is no way to divide $30 million into 586 and get a small number.”
The South Georgia policy includes a formula based on what churches pay in salary and housing for clergy members — using seven years between 1990 and 2019 to represent the pension liability over a span of pastors.
The United Methodist Church Conference Chancellors Association also addressed the new legislation in an April 27 resolution. The resolution urges conferences to follow the Golden Rule “in all matters related to disaffiliation and allocation of unfunded pension liabilities” regardless of a departing church’s stance on human sexuality. The resolution also calls on Wespath to provide current information on unfunded liability no later than Oct. 1.
That’s something Wespath essentially already does, Hendren said. Each fall, the pension agency provides each U.S. conference with a report on its pension valuation, the basis for long-term contributions, and the market valuation that would be required if church plans were subject to the federal pension law, Employee Retirement Income Securty Act. The report also includes an appendix that lists the liabilities of other U.S. conferences.
What’s different under the new legislation is the requirement that Wespath determine total funding obligations of each conference “using market factors similar to a commercial annuity provider.” Commercial annuities contract to make regular payments.
Hendren said that a commercial annuity provider would charge about 110% of the market value of liabilities to account for the increased assumption of risk, such as increasing lifespans. Basically, it’s the cost of paying out all benefits immediately plus a premium to cover risks such as market downturns and longer years in retirement.
Wespath has a process for a conference chancellor, treasurer or benefits officer to request, at any time, this valuation for the whole conference. However, Hendren said, the valuation is only good for three months. “After that, we suggest a conference request a new one from us because the assets in the plan may have changed with market fluctuations, and sometimes the plan liabilities may have changed based on interest-rate movements,” he said.
In determining what churches owe, Dale Jones — Wespath’s managing director for church relations — urges conferences to consider a congregation’s financial capacity. Generally speaking, the larger a church and more pastors on staff, the larger its pension obligations are likely to be.
It will take time to deal with the full ramifications of the new legislation, said Hayman. “The chancellors I know are all working with their bishops, boards of trustees, treasurers, and other conference officers to try to determine the best path forward, to interpret the legislation and to move on with this with all deliberate speed,” he said. But he added, “Nothing happens quickly in The United Methodist Church.”
Heather Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for UM News Service.
Progressive and moderate leaders have an interesting dilemma. Do they partner with leading traditionalists to create and pass a path for amicable separation at General Conference 2020? Or do they fight on, hoping to overturn the church’s teaching on sexual ethics?
Some progressives and moderates have stated they favor amicable separation. They are as tired of the fighting as many traditionalists are. They tell us that The United Methodist Church is no longer viewed as a welcoming church with “open hearts, open minds, and open doors.” As a result, many of their members are hurting and some are leaving for what they believe to be more accepting denominations. Instead of repeating the pain and the ugliness of St. Louis, these liberal leaders have decided that a respectful parting is best for the UM Church and for their local congregations.
Other progressives and moderates want to fight on, resist, disobey the Book of Discipline, and attempt to change the church’s ordination standards and its definition of marriage. They believe they are fighting for justice, so they are willing to put us through another “St. Louis Slugfest,” aka “Mayhem in Minneapolis.” If people are hurt and the witness of the church is harmed, as was the case in St. Louis, “winning” will be worth it. The ends will justify the means.
But there’s another reason why some progressives and moderates are willing to fight on – even if they believe they will lose in 2020. Their thinking goes something like the following. “If an enhanced traditional plan passes in Minneapolis, we will stay and we will disobey. We will marry gay couples and ordain partnered gay clergy. Our progressive bishops will not enforce the Book of Discipline or hold us accountable. Traditionalists will come to learn that no changes in the Discipline will be able to stop us. Eventually, they will become so frustrated that they will leave and we will possess the church’s name and all of its assets.”
This “we will resist until the traditionalists leave” strategy was shared with me by centrist leaders in St. Louis, telling me “even if you win, you won’t win. You can’t make us obey.” This same strategy has also been verbalized by some of the 600 who attended the recent conference of moderates and centrists at The Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas – both publicly and, again, to me privately. They have the mistaken idea that the Wesleyan Covenant Association’s primary desire is to leave the church. All it will take for a conservative exodus, they believe, is a few more years of progressive resistance.
The problem with that strategy is that we’re not leaving. We will work for an amicable separation that is more than fair for centrists and progressives. We believe that a respectful parting of the ways is the best option for our hurting, divided church. But we will not be bullied into leaving the church we have given our lives to simply because progressive bishops and pastors will not live by the church’s teachings.
Of course, if something like the One Church Plan should pass in Minneapolis, many traditional UM congregations would leave. We cannot be complicit with a church that promotes a sexual ethic that we believe contradicts the word of God and does spiritual damage to vulnerable people. But that is a very different scenario than an enhanced traditional plan’s passing and progressives disobeying it.
Barring a change in the church’s position, traditionalists will not leave the UM Church. Why won’t we leave? Because the United Methodist Church is every bit our church, as much as it is anyone else’s. Because every General Conference for the last several decades – despite intense pressure – has affirmed the traditionalist convictions regarding marriage and sexuality. Because recent U.S. annual conferences appear to have elected enough traditionalist delegates to the 2020 General Conference that the majority of delegates will continue to support a traditional approach to marriage, sexuality, and accountability. Because in many parts of the U.S., we are in traditional annual conferences with orthodox bishops, and progressive disobedience does not disrupt traditionalist congregations or cause them to want to leave. Because traditionalist integrity will not allow us to walk away from our faithful brothers and sisters in the central conferences who have stood with us in the most difficult of times and who for decades have suffered the hateful, demeaning comments of progressive leaders and, still, have never walked away from us. We will not abandon those who have never abandoned us.
One of my great sorrows concerning General Conference 2019 was that progressive and centrist leaders – lay leaders, pastors, and bishops – would not listen to us when we told them (1) we could not abide the One Church Plan (OCP) and (2) we would defeat it. They talked mainly among themselves, were convinced that the OCP was a plan that all reasonable people could accept, and felt certain the OCP would pass. They failed to listen to us and the results were disastrous.
I hope and pray they do not make the same mistake of ignoring our voice as they prepare for 2020. We will not leave The United Methodist Church simply because progressives are disobedient to The United Methodist Church. We will work with progressives to create a plan for separation. That is our preferred option. But we will not be bullied into leaving our church. If that is the progressives’ plan, it will fail. Instead, let’s work together to set each other free from the pain of fighting the same old battles the same old way. We can do better. For the people called Methodists and for the Kingdom of God, we must.
Pastor Victor Gonzalez (left) and his wife Marta Interian (fourth from left) and friends at Riverside United Methodist Church.
In the heart of Little Havana, just west of the Miami River, sits an anomaly – Riverside United Methodist Church. It’s in a neighborhood that struggles with poverty, inadequate housing, and social isolation.
There are plenty of churches, but most are storefronts with just enough room for a small crowd on Sunday morning. They don’t have facilities most churches take for granted, like kitchens and education buildings.
Riverside is different.
Even though it has only about 70 members, many of them just as poor as the surrounding community, Riverside has three buildings on a sizeable lot.
That’s because it’s a legacy, a church formed nearly 100 years ago by the former, relatively prosperous Anglo residents of the near-downtown neighborhood.
Today, its members use those facilities and resources for mission work to help the residents of their surrounding neighborhood.
They have little money, but they reach out with what they do have – their time, their buildings, a parking lot, and even their own homes.
Academy of Missionaries and “Casas de Pacto”
The church started what Interian calls “an academy of missionaries,” training their members in Bible study and theology. With members trained, they began programs called “Casas de Pacto” – Houses of Covenant – in the missionaries’ homes, bringing the ministry into the neighborhood. They now have five Houses, including one in the parsonage, for discipleship, worship, training, and children’s programs.
In the children’s Casa, they read Bible stories, do crafts, have snacks, and can connect with a “spiritual guardian” or mentor.
In its Rescue in the Corner program, the church opens its corner door and invites people in for a soup dinner and fellowship.
Then there is Proclamando de Maravillas or proclamation of wonders – mall, impromptu prayer services held in the evenings around a table at a McDonald’s or in a local supermarket. Church members will buy dinner for a family or pick a family in a line for a cash gift.
Why at McDonald’s? Many families in the neighborhood depend heavily on cheap fast food because they can’t cook at home, Interian said. The power may be turned off, the landlord may forbid cooking (illegally), or with two or three families sharing one house there isn’t enough time and kitchen space.
So, sometimes it’s necessary to take the church into the neighborhood.
“You can walk around (the neighborhood) and see all kind of needs,” said Marta Interian, who is the church’s education and children’s minister, volunteer secretary and wife of the pastor, Victor Gonzalez.
“Many small churches in this town are struggling and worried about space, but not Riverside. We feel a big responsibility about how to use the wonderful properties we have.”
Their outreach is small-scale because the church is, but they partner with other organizations that do bigger things. One of their buildings is a halfway house for newly released prison inmates, usually housing about 70, run by Riverside Christian Ministries. The church holds dinners for those residents and their families and does mission work among them.
Another building is used by Urban Promise Miami, which provides after-school activities, a summer camp, and high school-aged “street leaders” for younger neighborhood children. The church recruits kids to attend.
The Riverside members also do what they can. They started a few years ago with a barbecue and yard sale with clothes, shoes, toys, and household items, held about every three months in their parking lot. Every item is priced at $1, and families can take home dinner or attend a service and meal in the church. Most of what they sell are gifts from affluent households in other parts of the city where the Riverside members work cleaning houses or tending yards.
Interian and her husband arrived in 2012 from Cuba, where they had helped found a seminary that trains both pastors and lay leaders, and they come from a family of Methodist pastors. Gonzalez’s father, uncle, and brother also are Methodist pastors in Florida.
In true Wesleyan tradition – “The World is my Parish” – the church members feel privileged to be able to use the legacy facilities for the benefit of the community.
“Even though they are poor people,” Interian said, “they love helping people in need.”
William March is a freelance writer based in Tampa. This story is reprinted with permission of the Florida Annual Conference.
Chris Arnade earned a PhD in theoretical physics and spent 20 years on Wall Street making piles of money as a bond trader. In a season of disillusionment with his lucrative career, he began walking around New York City to relieve stress and take photographs of graffiti artists, Schwinn bike clubs, and pigeon keepers. That hobby led him to eventually become an irreplaceable photojournalist and chronicler of the down-and-outers and drug addicted in our ferociously polarized society.
For three years, he went in search of those who “lived under bridges, in abandoned buildings, in sheds, in pits, in broken-down trucks, on rooftops, or, if they scored enough money, in per-hour motels,” he writes in Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America (Sentinel 2019).Traveling more than 150,000 miles to has-been communities struggling to survive, he photographed and interviewed the poor and strung out in places such as Buffalo, New Haven, Cleveland, Selma, El Paso, and Bakersfield. “In each of these places, people have a sense of being left behind and forgotten – or, worse, mocked and stigmatized by the rest of the world as it moves on and up….”
Several years ago, he wrote an article for The Guardian in the U.K. titled, “The people who challenged my atheism most were drug addicts and prostitutes.” That was the first time he told the story of meeting Takeesha as she was washing her face at a trickling fire hydrant in the South Bronx. “She was working, wearing thigh-high faux-leather red boots and leopard-print tights, waving at every car or truck that passed by.” In conversation, he discovered her devastating backstory: Her mother’s pimp put her on the streets at twelve, she had her first child at thirteen, and was addicted to heroin. Arnade asked her the question he asks everyone he photographs: How do you want to be described? She replied without a pause, “As who I am. A prostitute, a mother of six, and a child of God.”
Sociologically, Arnade views the well-educated and upwardly-mobile (himself and his friends) as the kids who sat on the front row of the classroom, “eager to learn and make sure the teacher knew we were learning…. We valued what we could measure, and that meant material wealth. Things that couldn’t be measured – community, dignity, faith, happiness – were largely ignored because they were hard to see, especially from so far away.”
The subjects of his portraits were from the back row of the class, those who “couldn’t or didn’t want to leave their town or their family to get an education at an elite college, the people who cared more about their faith than about science.” Dignity is a humane and insightful mosaic of their images, dreams, and disappointments. Some of the narrative is gut wrenching. Yet the descriptions of the ravages and bondage of addiction are mixed right in with heartwarming stories of small groups of widows and widowers bonding over morning coffee at McDonald’s.
“Often the only places open, welcoming, and busy in back row neighborhoods were churches or McDonald’s. Often the people using the McDonald’s were the same people using the churches, people who sat for hours reading or studying the Bible at a booth,” writes Arnade.
“When I first went to the Bronx, I expected that the people there, those most affected by the coldness and ruthlessness of the world, would share my atheism. Instead, I found a strong belief in the supernatural, and a faith that manifested in many ways, mostly as a belief in the Bible.
“Everyone I met there who was living homeless or battling an addiction held a deep faith. Street walking is stunningly dangerous work, and everyone has stories of being cut, attacked, and threatened, or stories of others who were killed. Everyone has to deal with the danger. Few work without a mix of heroin, Xanax, or crack. None without faith. ‘You know what kept me through all that? God. Whenever I got into the car, God got into the car with me.’”
Arnade describes the dirty Bibles found in crack houses and the “picture of the Last Supper that moves with a couple living on the streets. Rosaries, crucifixes, and religious icons are worn for protection and good luck. Pages of the Bible are torn out, folded up, and kept in pockets, to be pulled out and fingered nervously, or read over in times of stress, or held during prayers.”
In a world that is confused and terrified about how to deal with junkies, those sticking needles in their arms for a high are still clinging to the hope that the Good Shepherd does not turn his back on lost causes. Mainline seminary professors may not buy into demons and the reality of evil, but Arnade’s circle of drug-addicted friends certainly do. They’ve seen the dark side up close.
While churches of all stripes are currently getting bad press – and rightly so, in some cases – Arnade’s experience of low budget storefront churches is surprisingly redemptive. There are no hip coffee bars, but there are hugs and acceptance – even if your clothes smell like cigarettes and you have liquor on your breath.
“For many back row Americans, the only places that regularly treat them like humans are churches. The churches are everywhere, small churches that have come in and taken over a space and light it up on Sundays and Wednesdays,” Arnade writes. “They walk inside the church, and immediately they meet people who get them. The preachers and congregants inside may preach to them, even judge their past decisions, but they don’t look down on them. They have walked the walk and know the sh*t they are going through, not from a book, not from a movie, not from an article, not from a study, but from their own lives or the lives of their friends. They look like them, and they get them.”
These congregations understand the back row people of America, Arnade believes. “The churches are also the way out of addiction, a way to end the cycle,” he writes. “The few success stories told on the streets are of relatives, friends, or spouses who found God, got with the discipline and order of a church, and moved away: ‘Princess met a decent man who was dedicated to the Scripture. She got straight, got God, and last we heard was on a farm upstate.’ ‘Necee went to her grandmother’s and found God, and she now has her one-year chip.’”
Those testimonies ring true with legitimacy to a front row observer like Arnade. “When I walked into the Bronx I was an atheist. It was something I was sure about. After years of traveling America, I wasn’t so sure….,” he confesses at one point.
“I could no longer ignore the value of faith, not as a scientist, not as a person who claimed to want to learn from others. Yet I still saw it as a utility – something popular because it worked. Still, after attending hundreds of different services I was beginning to realize there was more to it than that. My biases were limiting a deeper understanding: that perhaps religion was right, or at least as right as anything could be. Getting there required a level of intellectual humility that I was not sure I had.”
Reading Arnade’s book in search of a big conversion story or a fix-it program with a magic wand will be disappointing. He simply wants to give the displaced, addicted, and marginalized their moment to express their dreams for life – a sliver of dignity – and give us the chance to hear from our back row neighbors.
“On the streets, few can delude themselves into thinking they have it under control. … It is easier to see that everyone is a sinner, everyone is fallible, and everyone is mortal,” he writes. “It is easier to see that there are things just too deep, too important, or too great for us to know. It is far easier to recognize that one must come to peace with the idea that we don’t and never will have this under control. It is far easier to see religion not just as useful, but as true.”
The Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost. “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them” (Acts 2:1-4).
In Luke 4, as he sits among his people, Jesus casts a vision for a radical change in the spiritual climate. He stands up in the middle of church one day and reads from a scroll unrolled to the words of the prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).
This is Jesus, standing on the authority of the Spirit, staking his claim as the first apostle and prototype of this good news. Yes, Jesus was and is an apostle! Had you considered that fact before? The term in Greek literally means, “sent one.” In that sense, Jesus most definitely fit the definition. He was sent to earth by the will of God the Father with very specific marching orders — to reveal the Kingdom to the poor, the prisoners, the blind, the oppressed, and those who have never felt favor with God. He was sent to cast out demons and cure diseases, to heal the sick, and proclaim the Kingdom of God.
That’s Luke, chapter 4. From there until chapter 9, it is wall-to-wall ministry. Then in Luke 9, there is a shift. Jesus recasts the vision, but he does it this time by way of transfer. He pulls the twelve disciples together and “he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick” (Luke 9:1-2). Can you imagine? This was a high calling for this gaggle of misfits.
Can you even imagine what that charge must have felt like for those first followers of Jesus? To be told they now have both the authority and power to do what they’d seen only one other person do, and what they saw was so remarkable that they assigned divinity to the man doing it. It must have been stunning. Those regular, not-the-brightest-bulb-in-the-box people were sent out to drive out demons and cure diseases and proclaim the Kingdom and heal the sick. They would become the culture changers! They would welcome and advance the Kingdom of God by bearing fruit in their “sent-ness.” This the first work of the Twelve, whom we call apostles — the “sent-out ones.”
There is a catch, of course, to this kind of sending. To drive out demons, you have to get within spitting distance of demon-possessed people (many of whom spit!). To heal, you have to touch people with all manner of disease. To proclaim the kingdom, you have to associate with heathens. You must get up close and personal with the poor, the prisoners, the blind, the oppressed. That is the offer on the table because that, Jesus said, is how climates change and the Kingdom comes.
Now, hold that paradigm up against what many of us experience in the American church today. Unless I miss my guess, most of us in the western world do not have a wide experience with casting out demons and participating in physical healings. It happens in developing countries where first-generation Christians don’t know any better (that is a bit of missional humor; of course, our friends in other countries certainly “know better.” In many other countries, Christians are running circles around us in spiritual revival right now).
Our culture has come to accept an hour in church and a blessing before meals as the center of the Christian experience. Meanwhile, driving out demons is just weird. That, we relegate to the fringe. But folks, when I read in my Bible how Jesus defines for his followers what it means to be sent out to represent the very best the Kingdom has to offer this world, this is what I hear: that followers have power and authority to drive out demons, cure diseases, proclaim the Kingdom of God, and heal things that destroy people’s lives.
This ought to be our target as we progress in the Christian life. We are not shooting for tolerable. We are shooting for transformation, and for lives that carry power and authority. Let that sink in.
Years ago, I had the experience of seeing a demon leave a man’s body. He’d come to my office to complain, and that day he was in a seriously contrary mood. He complained about everything and as he went (on and on, for about an hour), his complaints became more and more personal. Eventually, I’d had enough. It might not have been my best pastoral moment, but I got angry. I began to — let’s say, discuss with some vigor — how I felt about his attack. Almost immediately as I began to speak, however, I had the sense that the person to whom I was talking was not this man in front of me but a demon inside his chest. My eyes were drawn to his chest and I began to speak directly to the demon. The experience became pretty intense rather quickly. I’m sure I was louder than I meant to be. I was clinging to some authority that rose up within me, and I was not about to let that thing, whatever it was, get the upper hand.
I kept yelling at it until I sensed it was gone. For a moment after I went silent, the guy (who never moved or said a word while I was casting this demon out) stared at me. Then, he sank down in the chair almost as if he were lifeless. He didn’t fall out of the chair, but I could see that all the energy it took to hold himself up was gone.
We stayed in a silent place for a few beats, then the man looked at me and said, “It’s gone. I feel absolutely no anger. In fact, I can’t make myself get angry with you right now. It’s gone.” We prayed again, and he left my office. He later told me he could hardly make it to his car before he collapsed in exhaustion. He stayed in the parking lot for half an hour, then drove home and slept through the rest of the day.
Lest you assume I was indoctrinated into this practice early in life, think again. I am probably more like you than not. I grew up in a mainline Protestant church. I could hardly explain the Holy Spirit, much less experience him. When I entered seminary in my thirties, let’s just say I was not the brightest bulb in the seminary box. And yet, God has filled me and schooled me in the Holy Spirit and I believe this is what he wants for all of us. I believe he longs to see his Church acting as if he is a supernatural God and ours is supernatural power.
Not only do I believe that Jesus has given us power and authority over demons, but also over physical and emotional illness. Recently, I witnessed a miracle. A woman who was blind in one eye (the result of a stroke six months prior) had been told by a doctor that the loss of her eyesight was permanent. He likened it to a lightning bolt shooting through her eye.
The weekend I met her at a women’s retreat, she was blind in one eye, unable to drive any more, and resolved to live with it. Then the Holy Spirit showed up. At the retreat, she was given the gift of profound inner healing. She experienced a touch that left her feeling worthy and loved. She went home and told her husband she’d never felt so free. The next morning, after a strangely peaceful sleep, she awoke to find she could see her husband. Since he was laying on the side nearest her blind eye, that was kind of a big deal. Her blind eye wasn’t blind any more. For the next two hours, they tested her eye in every way they could think of to make sure this was real. It was.
What if this woman’s inner healing opened the way for her physical healing? What if it is all much more connected than we realize? How do we know when (and how) God is going to move? After decades of praying with people in faith and watching the results, here is my best, most spiritual answer to your question: I don’t know.
Seriously … I don’t know.
But in the absence of knowing, I subscribe to the Nike School of Thought on this. Just do it. Just pray for people. Pray for them like Jesus is listening, and like Jesus wants to see healing at least as much as you do. And on the days when you don’t believe it will ever happen, pray in obedience as the scripture commands (see James 5). I figure, if we do our part and pray, he’ll do his part and show up.
And here’s the thing: If you’re wrong, nobody dies (I stole this line from Mike Pilavachi). If you pray and nothing happens, at least you prayed. At least you called on some force greater than yourself, and you practiced faith in the process. Those are good things, their own kind of miracle, because hope in a supernatural God is a rare and glorious thing.
A friend in our community often argues with me (in a good way) about the mark of the Holy Spirit in a life. I say the mark of the Holy Spirit is a supernatural ability to love. I base my thoughts on Paul’s teaching. He writes in Galatians 5:22 that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. All these flow from the Spirit, and you’ll notice from that list that love is the headwaters. Our ability to love is not self-generated or self-taught. It comes to us directly from the Holy Spirit.
The mark of the Holy Spirit is a supernatural ability to love … right?
My friend argues the mark of the Holy Spirit is power and he looks to Acts 1:8 to make his point. Jesus said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Clearly, Jesus wanted his followers to know that power to evangelize would come with the call to go. “You will receive power,” Jesus said. Not “you might receive,” or “if you’re lucky you’ll receive …” Nope. “You will receive power …”
So, which is it? Love, or power? The answer — wait for it — is yes. I suspect (though I’d really rather be right) that we’re both right and that in Kingdom terms love and power are two ways of talking about the same thing. In the Kingdom of God, love is power, and power is always loving. Power is never self-serving, and love is never wimpy (you should underline that). When Jesus gave his followers power, it was the kind that drove them out to heal, along with a heart broken for those who hurt. Love drove them out to meet people exactly where they were, with power strong enough to call out demons and overcome disease. In other words, they were not sent out with raw power and no heart. They were sent out as Christ-bearers, to be and do incarnational ministry in both the love and power of Christ.
To be “incarnational” means to embody the spirit of Christ. It means we don’t go on our own power and authority, but on his. And that brings up a critical point made in Luke 9. Getting this point is crucial: Kingdom power and Kingdom authority are gifts from God. We don’t generate them on our own steam. Our power and authority to carry out supernatural ministry are gifts, an anointing of the Holy Spirit. And this is why we must pursue the infilling of the Holy Spirit. Without him, we are sunk.
Hear this: Don’t attempt supernatural ministry on your own strength. Because here’s the thing: You can actually do ministry without the Holy Spirit. People do all kinds of good things without supernatural power. All day every day, people operate out of their own talents, on their own authority. Take the word of a recovering striver. Plenty of us are driven by ambition or fear or even a good heart and good intentions to do good things (I am literally sitting across the table right now from an atheist I’ve befriended who works at a food bank). And when they do, they achieve natural results, not supernatural results.
But folks, this is not the biblical call. Our call is to receive the power and authority offered us by Christ himself, then to go forth as he sends us to drive out the darkness and expose the Kingdom of God. If we’re going to give the world a better definition of “church,” we need the infilling and empowerment of the Holy Spirit, so we can actually witness supernatural ministry.
This invitation to participate with the Holy Spirit in the works he wants to do in the world is an invitation into a partnership. It changes how we approach life. It is about becoming open to the opportunities around us. If you have accepted the Holy Spirit into your life, you are a tabernacle — a sent-out person with Kingdom power to see miracles happen. This is who you are. You are called to go, and you take with you whatever you are given, with the absolute confidence that God will use it to advance his Kingdom on earth.
Carolyn Moore is the founding pastor of Mosaic, a United Methodist congregation in Evans, Georgia. She is the author of numerous books such as The 19: Questions to Kindle a Wesleyan Spirit. This article is excerpted with permission from Supernatural: Exposing the Kingdom of God, to be published by Seedbed in 2020.
I love trees. I always have. I love looking at them. I love sitting in their shade. I love hearing the sound of wind rustling through their leaves. But what can trees teach us? Specifically, what can trees teach us about the nature of God and his love for us?
Nearly two decades ago, during a difficult season of my life, I began to search for answers to these questions. At the time I did not believe in God. I was trained in the sciences as a physician.
One Sunday morning at the hospital, I found myself with no patients, so I went looking for something to read. On a coffee table, among back issues of People and National Geographic, I found a Bible. I had never read one. Although we had thousands of books in our home, we didn’t own a Bible. So … I stole it.
I started reading the book of Matthew. Within a few pages I was presented not with answers but with the Bible’s great question: “What say you of Jesus?” Right away I recognized that Jesus was unlike any person I’d ever met. He was both more human and more godly than anyone I’d known. Although my coming to faith was a process, it soon began transforming every aspect of my life. Over the next two years, my son, then my wife, and then my daughter came to believe, as I did, in Jesus as their savior.
Soon after, we started going to a church where the congregation became like family and remain so to this day. The church is a conservative one. That’s why we went there. But when I volunteered to plant trees around the church’s grounds, one of the pastors said I had the theology of a tree hugger. This was not meant as a compliment.
Back then our whole family was new to Christianity. My daughter hadn’t yet married a pastor. My son wasn’t a missionary pediatrician in Africa, and I’d yet to write books on applied theology or preach at more than a thousand colleges and churches around the world. What did I know about the theology of trees? But ever since I encountered the gospel for the first time in my forties, the Bible has been my compass. So when I was called a tree hugger, I turned to Scripture to get my bearings.
God’s trail of trees
Other than God and people, the Bible mentions trees more than any other living thing. There is a tree on the first page of
Photo by Jeff Rogers.
Genesis, in the first psalm, on the first page of the New Testament, and on the last page of Revelation. Every significant theological event in the Bible is marked by a tree. Whether it is the Fall, the Flood, or the overthrow of Pharaoh, every major event in the Bible has a tree, branch, fruit, seed, or some part of a tree marking the spot.
Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser” (John 15:1). The wisdom of the Bible is a tree of life (Proverbs 3:18). We are told to be “like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season” (Psalm 1:3, NRSV). Moreover, every major character in the Bible appears in conjunction with a tree. In the Old Testament, Noah received the olive leaf (Genesis 8:11), Abraham sat under “the oaks of Mamre” (18:1), and Moses stood barefoot in front of the burning bush (Exodus 3:2-5).
Daniel was given a breathtaking vision of heaven. A vast tree at the center gave shelter to birds and shade to beasts and fed all living creatures on the earth (Daniel 4:10-12). Amos cared for sycamore fig trees before God called him to be a prophet (Amos 7:14-15). King Saul met his councilors under a tree (1 Samuell4:2), and King David was called to battle by God’s Spirit in a tree (2 Samuel 5:24). David’s ambitious and vain son Absalom was caught in a tree by his hair (2 Samuel 18:9, NLT).
In the Psalms we walk under one tree after another. “The righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God. They still bear fruit in old age; they are ever full of sap and green” (92:12-14). Conversely, God’s foes are like “those who swing axes in a forest of trees” (74:5). I could go on and on with all the trees in the lives of the prophets and kings and in the Wisdom Literature.
Christ the True Vine
From Jesus’s birth in a wooden manger to his death on the cross, the life of the Messiah is inseparable from trees. The entire New Testament is filled with roots, fruit, soils, branches, vines, and seeds. From the opening words of Matthew’s gospel describing Jesus’s family tree to Revelation’s closing image of the tree of life at the center of heaven, we encounter a forest of trees.
Think of Zacchaeus climbing the sycamore fig (Luke 19:1-4), the blind man seeing people as if they were trees walking (Mark 8:24), and the disciples gathering on the Mount of Olives (Luke 22:39). The apostle Paul asserted that if we have gone for a walk in the woods, we are without excuse of knowing God (Romans 1:20). Paul also wrote that Christians are like branches grafted into Israel’s tree trunk, with roots that help us stand fast and firm no matter what troubles come our way (11:17-18).
Jesus himself declared that the kingdom of heaven is like a tree (Matthew 13:31-32). The only thing that Jesus ever harmed was a tree (Mark 11:12-14, 20-21), and the only thing that could harm him was a tree. After Jesus was resurrected, he was mistaken for a gardener (John 20:15). This was not a mistake. Jesus is the new Adam who has come to redeem all of creation.
From Genesis to Revelation God has blazed a trail of trees through the Bible. The reason so many people love trees is because we are created in God’s image. God loves trees, and so should we.
The Tree of Life
Photo by Jeff Rogers.
Trees are not randomly placed in Scripture. They mark the most important events, including the Creation, the Fall, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection. This is not a coincidence. The Bible is one interwoven book, written by one God.
God chose a tree as his symbol of life. The largest and longest-lived form of life on the earth is a tree. Whether dead or alive, trees are always supporting life. It is not surprising then that the author of life would put a tree at the beginning, middle, and end of his message to us, the Bible.
Within the first two chapters of the Bible, life, death, human agency, respiration, food, aesthetics, human purpose, and a connection to God all are tied to trees. The link between plants and animals isn’t just an academic curiosity; it is an inescapable fact of life. Without humans, trees would manage just fine. Without trees, people would perish. Everything on the earth that moves uses energy that is stored in bonds between carbon atoms, first formed in a green plant through the process of photosynthesis. You, me, earthworms, ants, bees, tigers, sloths, and aphids: we all run on trees. And it’s not just that we use plant energy (calories) to power our brains and bodies. We need the oxygen from trees to burn this fuel. The tree of life is aptly named on every level.
Genesis 2:8-9 states that God placed the first human in a garden, and then God planted “every tree that is pleasant to the sight.” If you are new to the Bible, this phrase may not seem unusual. But it is without parallel. It represents God’s weighing in on the issue of beauty. If you like the looks of trees, you’re not alone. You share your aesthetic with God.
Trees in Paradise
God planted two special trees in the middle of Eden: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The tree of life stands for all life created by God, and he declared it “good.” It is a tree of justice, beauty, truth, love, light, and righteousness. While in the garden, Adam and Eve ate freely from the tree of life. To eat from, be grafted into, or take hold of this tree is to obtain everlasting life. Thus, by definition, the tree of life stands for Christ.
The other tree planted in the middle of paradise was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This tree opens the door to pride, evil, greed, arrogance, hatred, cruelty, malice, ugliness, and callousness. To eat from this tree is bad, while to consciously avoid this tree is good. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil symbolizes death, and death is bad.
God put the poisonous tree in the middle of the garden, where Adam and Eve couldn’t mistake it. “This tree will kill you the minute you eat from it,” God warned. He then offered some helpful advice: “The tree of life is always here right beside temptation – just to remind you.” Beside every bad decision in life, there is a good alternative.
Crown of thorns, crown of glory
When I read the Bible for the first time, one thing that came through to me was that I could trust Jesus. He never lied. He was unaffected by the vanities and failings of the people around him. He had no personal ambition. He had no economic incentives that drove his work. The more famous he became, the less attention he paid to the crowds.
Jesus said he had to be lifted up and hung on a tree, and I believe him. Some believe that science and faith are incompatible. But I think of my faith in Jesus and what happened on the cross as the ultimate science experiment. It takes only one life and the faith of a mustard seed to find out the results. If I’m right and Jesus is the one to be trusted above all else, the reward is great. If I’m wrong, I suspect I’ll never know.
When Jesus died on the cross, he balanced an equation. He took the sins of all humankind on himself. The crown of thorns around his head represented the curse of the earth – the thorns and thistles Adam was burdened with in Genesis 3 – and this curse was absorbed by Christ.
Three days after Jesus was crucified and buried, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb to pay her respects. The tomb was empty. With her eyes burning from crying for days, Mary turned and saw Jesus. But she did not recognize him. She thought he was the gardener (John 20:14-16). This was no mistake. Jesus is the gardener. He is the new Adam (Romans 5:12-18), come to dress and keep the garden, not destroy and plunder it.
Like the pattern of trees we’ve been tracing, the larger creation-care mandate runs from Genesis to Revelation. “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” Psalm 24:1 thunders, signing God’s name to the earth’s title and deed.
The earth and everything on it belong to God, not us. We are given dominion as God’s appointed stewards, but that dominion implies tremendous responsibility. We should pass along the earth, from one generation to the next, in as good or better shape than we received it. We are but sojourners; God is the earth’s rightful and permanent owner.
Every time our bejeweled planet completes another circle around the sun, God gives every tree on the earth a new ring. Tick goes the clock, and another year goes by. This year will we see the trees? Will we heed the call to protect them? Will we plant the small tree today that the next generation will climb and the following one will find shade under? Will we plant in faith? Will we be called “oaks of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:3)?
Two opposing forces are at war on this planet. One says, “Look to yourself. It’s all about you.” The other says, “Love God, and love your neighbor.” The man who said the latter claimed to be the true vine and the tree of life.
The hands that crafted humanity from the dust are the hands that grasp Mary’s finger as she looks on her infant God with awe. The divine finger that etched the commandment concerning adultery into the stone on Sinai is the human finger that drew in the sand as the frenzied crowd picked up stones to slay the adulteress. The hand that wrote on the palace wall that Belshazzar, the pagan king, had been weighed in the balance and found wanting is the hand that was nailed to the tree and bled for the failures and imbalances of every human tribe. The fingers that set the moons and stars in the cosmos like a master jeweler, smear mud on the eyes of the blind so that they might once again behold the light of heaven. And even as the cosmos is held in his hands – suspended on his charity, all things set in motion by his energies – his sacred hands are contained and constrained for nine months within the womb of the virgin. The hands that deliver Israel from slavery in Egypt are the hands that offer the paschal cup that promises and will in time deliver the renewal of all things. He opens his sovereign hands and feeds all the woodland, pasture, and desert creatures and his calloused carpenter’s hands take, and bless, and break the bread that grants life without end, the bread of Christ. As the right hand of the Father, Jesus touches lepers, dines with tax collectors, offers living water to the woman whose people are the enemy of his people, and washes the feet of his followers – cleansing everyone he meets, because the Son only ever does what he sees his Father doing – and is the risen, transfigured right hand that rests on the shoulder of John in the apostle’s great vision of the world that is coming to this world, and says to his beloved friend in a still small voice: “Don’t be afraid! I am the First and the Last. I am the living one. I died, but look – I am alive forever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and the grave.”
Kenneth Tanner is the pastor of Church of the Redeemer in Rochester Hills, Michigan. His writing has appeared in Books & Culture, The Huffington Post, Sojourners, National Review, and Christianity Today.
The Renewal and Reform Coalition understands that the exit path passed by General Conference poses a potentially impossible expense for local churches desiring to exit from the denomination. The high cost is driven primarily by the need to provide for the pension promises made to current and former clergy who served that congregation. This is an obligation that all churches of an annual conference have agreed to assume together. When one congregation leaves, it needs to provide for the means to keep that promise, so that retired clergy do not suffer loss from that congregation’s departure.
We have been told that a congregation’s obligation under the pension provision could range from four to eight times the congregation’s annual apportionment. One factor that makes the expense so high is that it is calculated as a “worst case scenario.” The value of the pension liability takes into account the possibilities of stock market downturns, interest rate hikes, and increased longevity of beneficiaries. However, the “worst case scenario” might never happen. The money that a church pays in 2019 to depart might sit in an investment account and never be needed because the “worst case” does not happen.
All through the process, the Coalition’s intent was to provide a generous exit for congregations that could not live with the decisions of the 2019 General Conference, balanced by the need to keep the promises made regarding pensions. The exit path passed by the General Conference was not the one submitted by the Coalition, but we worked in St. Louis to make it more acceptable and generous.
The Coalition continues to work on ways to lower the high cost for churches to depart. Possibilities we might propose to the 2020 General Conference include:
• Reducing the amount of apportionments to be paid from two years to one year.
• Ensuring that funds held by the annual conference designated for pensions are used to help offset the unfunded pension liability calculated by Wespath.
• When a departing local church joins another denomination or entity, reassigning the pension liability to that new denomination, so that the local church need not pay any pension payment.
• When a departing local church becomes independent, requiring the church to pay one-half of its unfunded pension liability share, splitting the risk equally between the congregation and the annual conference.
Wespath has conceded that the adopted exit path and pension provisions were conceived in light of a few congregations exiting the denomination. Where there is a plan of separation or large numbers of congregations departing, a different method of dealing with pension liabilities will be needed. In this, as in all matters related to potential separation or departure, the chancellors’ advice to follow the Golden Rule is well taken.
Thomas Lambrecht is the vice president of Good News and was a member of the Commission on a Way Forward.