It’s the morning after the election, and how are you and I different? Our candidates may have won. They may have lost. A survey posted on Facebook said, “1 in 5 Americans think that if their candidate loses, either human civilization will be doomed or America will cease to be a great nation and they will move to Canada.” Yet still, we are here. And, today, we proclaim unity – as Christians – as one body – as one through God.

I’ve been thinking that I were a candidate without a label, what would I stand for? What would I stand against? What would they say about me…for me…against me? And today, no matter who was elected, how I would be the change I want to see in the world – how I would change over the next four years. I’ve been thinking about how God works as a ground swell…from the roots of the trees upward and outward and how no matter the level of justice that our top courts and government provide, you and I are the ones who can also choose to oppress or set free…you and I are also the ones to live our lives in ways that demonstrate the very principles by which we vote.

In Bishop Trimble’s article “Voting and the Common Good” he poses the questions by which he chooses candidates:

•       Will they champion the best interest of children, the marginalized and the most vulnerable citizens?

•       Will they work with other elected officials of the opposite party?

•       Are they accessible to all the people they desire to represent?

One of my favorite authors, Charles Dickens wrote:

If the leaders of our great nations would but cast their eyes upon the lowly byways where disease and poverty now walk, many low roofs would point more truly to the sky than the loftiest steeple that now rises from their midst to mock them by contrast. (paraphrased-The Old Curiosity Shop)

We may look to the questions that we personally have asked of our candidates.  What is it that you based your votes on?  Were they based on personal preference, or communal good? How do these questions honor God in communal life? How do they respect life in all forms? How do they build God’s kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven?

No matter if your candidate won, we – you and I – have work to do. We may want to pick someone else to do the job, but we’ve got to have some skin in the game. We can no more delegate our civic duties that we can delegate our discipleship. God created us to be in community with each one of us vitally important to the overall health of the body! We are Christians first – citizens of heaven – souls who will journey beyond this earth. What will we invest our time in? Many like to say that we’re a Christian nation, and see certain words on our dollar bills and in our courthouses. But unless words are lived, they are empty and meaningless.

Excerpts from Isaiah 58 (The Message)

“This is the kind of fast day I’m after:
to break the chains of injustice,
get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
free the oppressed,
cancel debts.

What I’m interested in seeing you do is:
sharing your food with the hungry,
inviting the homeless poor into your homes,
putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad,
being available to your own families.

Do this and the lights will turn on,
and your lives will turn around at once.
Your righteousness will pave your way.
The God of glory will secure your passage.

If you get rid of unfair practices,
quit blaming victims,
quit gossiping about other people’s sins,
If you are generous with the hungry
and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out,
Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness,
your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.

I will always show you where to go.
I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places—
firm muscles, strong bones.
You’ll be like a well-watered garden,
a gurgling spring that never runs dry.

You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew,
rebuild the foundations from out of your past.
You’ll be known as those who can fix anything,
restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate,
make the community livable again.

    And it concludes in another translation,

“You will be called Mender of Broken Walls”

I don’t know about you, but I’d like to be called a mender of broken walls. I’d like to participate in this work – beyond my voting and into the very core of my life. I’d like to show that beyond the
voting polls, my life stood for something that represents much more than my personal interests – but that through my actions, I exemplify the principles on which I vote.


No Social Security, no Medicare, no retirement account. What is life like when you can’t work anymore and there are no safety nets? For United Methodist pastors in the Central Conferences (Africa, Philippines & Europe) there is reliance on God providing daily bread, and on the generosity of strangers. In a way, it’s a life put into reverse…while they spent their lives caring for others, they are now living at the mercy of those who will show God’s love to them.

Rev. Karmah Early, Liberia, heard God’s call to ministry when she was a little girl and says she was “happy” to be a pastor. She has been blind for several years.

In these parts of the world, local communities provide what they can for one another, and simple gifts of shared grain may prompt a celebration of how God has provided. But when the body aches from aging, and there is no Tylenol or Advil, no affordable or free clinics, these pastors just suffer. There’s nothing much that the local community can do when so many are also living in poverty.

I remember once seeing a commercial about starving children, and my mom angrily saying, “If there is a god, why would he let children suffer like that?” I think God might say the same about us. God has given creation enough for everyone to have what they need.  Either we don’t like to share, or we don’t know how best to share with those who need it the most.

CCPI (Central Conference Pension Initiative) is addressing the pension crisis for pastors in Africa, Asia and Europe problem in a just, equitable and compassionate way. I don’t give that much but because of automated withdrawal, it’s consistent. I think of it as if I’m taking a couple of these pastors out to a restaurant monthly. If each U.S. pastor who has a retirement plan did something similar, together we could make a huge difference. Some facts about CCPI:

“The Initiative has two objectives. One is to provide pension support to central conference clergy and surviving spouses already retired or when they retire. The other is to help define and establish long-term self-funded sustainable pension programs, so all future retirees will receive support. There are now ten CCPI-sponsored pension projects approved across the central conferences (Angola, Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Russia, Nigeria, Philippines and East Africa), and three more programs currently in development. By the end of 2012, all thirteen pension programs will be operational – two years ahead of schedule. CCPI is focused on helping these conferences create pension plans they will fund themselves so that, over time, all pension plans will be self-funded and self-sustaining.”

It’s a blessing to give back to those who’ve made creation a better place…to those who’ve increased the world’s joy through weddings and baptisms, at the birth of children and the milemarkers of life that without ritual would go unnoticed. It’s a blessing to give back to those who’ve helped the world bear its sorrows – in death both natural and death from war, poverty and disease; in hardship that if suffered in isolation may have blanketed the light that God still shines. It’s a blessing to give.

Watch this video,  donate online or get resources to share CCPI with others.

Yesterday I attended the memorial service for Elizabeth Michelle Smith…a member of 61st Avenue UMC. “Liz” as we all called her died unexpectedly a couple of weeks ago. The last time I saw her was three days before she passed. She excitedly told me that she had finally gotten a disability hearing scheduled – hopeful that she’d start getting disability pay.

She was one year younger than me, but she had illnesses that took away her vitality. I remember the time when she had her first amputation and I was with her at the hospital. She leaned over and touched my foot to show me what they were going to remove from her foot. That hit me hard –it made me feel her pain a little deeper.

When Liz got off the streets, she was so happy – not simply because she would have a place to stay, but excited because she was going to take in all of her friends who didn’t have a home. It was her way of living! If she got something good, she had to share it with other people – whether it was information or her “own” things. In the end, a few of her street friends spoke at the service – one of them calling Liz his godmother, and saying that it’s because of her that he enrolled in barber school and is living into her belief that he is “too smart” to not better his life.

In attendance at the service was another lady who is so dear to me – Linda. Linda is intellectually disabled and her appearance is one that I’ve written about before. Linda came to me after the service and said that even when she passes she will pray for me every day. Because of her looks and disabilities, she’s gotten ridiculed and put down all her life. She told me that she loved me, Pastor Paul, and Brenda because we’ve been kind to her. I thought when I left there that I feel more privileged being loved by someone like her than if I were loved by a superstar.

Leaving the church, there was a man lying by the side of the road – in the opposite direction from where I was going. The weather here in Nashville was 109 yesterday! I drove to him and got out of the car. He had collapsed and couldn’t walk, so I called 911. People from the church all walked down the street once they knew so they could be there for him as well. He was treated with care and taken to the hospital accompanied by his girlfriend.

Just a little while before this incident, I’d heard the medical caseworker at Liz’s service say, “No one is a nobody in Christ Jesus.” Truer words could not have been spoken in a church where the down and out are received and welcomed as loved guests. This is my church home. This is where I’m planted and growing in faith because I come face to face with some pretty hard stuff every day. So when I write about my support of “Obamacare,” equal rights for gay and lesbians, the right to vote for those who do not drive and have no home, immigrants, etc. you’ll know why. I sit amongst people who are rejected by society because they may not contribute to the financial growth of this country. But for a country of so many citizens who claim we are a Christian nation and that we should be pro-life, I say, these lives are worthy of fighting for as well…they are worth listening to and letting their opinions count.

Christ said that when we serve the naked, hungry, thirsty, poor, those in prison, we serve him. Yesterday I got a good taste of Christ’s presence, in the broken hearted and outcasts. The taste was sweet…God was touchable and real among those who embody the scriptures:

Matthew 5 (The Message)
When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said:
“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.
“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.
“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.
“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.
“You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.
“Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.

So, rest in peace, Liz. We’ll do our best to care for those you loved. And say a prayer for the rest of us, ok? We need it.

Today is Mother’s Day – a day first celebrated as a national holiday in 1914 under Woodrow Wilson. Efforts had begun actually much earlier than that to get women everywhere to rise up for the efforts of peace. In 1870, Julia Ward Howe, who had written the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” during the Civil War, wrote a Mother’s Day Proclamation. This, after she had worked with women, children and soldiers both Union and Confederate, having seen the devastating affects of war and having come to the conclusion that the two most important things are peace and equality…and seeing the world at war once again:

Arise then…women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly:
“We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

From the voice of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with
Our own. It says: “Disarm! Disarm!
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.”
Blood does not wipe our dishonor,
Nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil
At the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home
For a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace…
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God –
In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality,
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.”

Mother’s Day was not imagined by Julia to be a day where flowers were purchased and women were to be tenderly remembered for bedtime prayers and lullabies. It was a day where women would rise up to the full occasion of motherhood of the earth and all humanity to give birth to a season of peace.

As we remember this Mother’s Day– whether it be through flowers & chocolate, or by other means, let us call to mind Christ’s mother, her burden and her gift.

John 19:25-27
Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.

This is a poignant story of adoption – adoption by a mother of a son and adoption by a child of a mother – Jesus last act of compassion for others before he gave up his spirit and embraced death on our account. The following verse begins, “Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” Think about that…All was now completed…the joining of loved ones together so that they would have comfort in the days to come was Christ’s last act.

We have probably all heard the expression, “blood is thicker than water” – what does that mean to you?

By Christ’s blood, we are given a new meaning of “blood relatives.” We may or may not be related – us here in this room. We may not be first, second or third cousins – even twice removed! But by Christ’s sacrifice, we are blood relatives in an even more powerful way – one that stands the test of time – even throughout eternity.

To those present at the time of Christ’s death, this adoption meant that just because Jesus was dying, Mary’s motherhood was not over. Her son was dying on the cross and her agony must have been immense. Yet Christ knew part of her – the mothering part – would not die with his physical body, so he united her with one who would need care, the beloved disciple – the one whom Jesus had turned to and cared for and nurtured and the one who had followed and obeyed and loved. These two persons needed one another – because in losing one whom they both cared greatly for, they would also lose a part of themselves – a part that could only be restored through relationship.

Isn’t that still what Christ does in the world today? Restore us through relationship? Bring out the best in us, the gifts that God has given us that can only be fully revealed through relating to others?

John Wesley once said that there is no religion but social; no holiness but social holiness. In the scripture read today, we see the need for connection – the need for us to be in relationship with each other. We cannot live the life of faith in seclusion or isolation! We each have a part to play in the creation of God’s kingdom on earth and we can only get there together!

So when we think back on our families…looking at how we were raised, how we are being raised, and how we are helping to raise others, we must expand that view to see that our roles as caregivers, nurturers, instillers of the faith are not limited to simply those whom we can trace in our family lineage.

We have a responsibility now to care and to be cared for by others. We must let God break into our midst and shed light on those who He seeks to connect us with as Christ did Mary and the beloved disciple.

Now I know that we can get off course sometimes can’t we? We get our sights set on doing things that seem right to us – that seem to be the logical thing to do – yet if we examine these things a little closer God may reveal to us that we are failing to do the very one thing that is the most important. Sometimes we focus more on institution than on kingdom…whether that institution be of family, of denomination, or of nationality. Sometimes we forget that Christ calls us to be blood relatives with all of humanity!

Years ago, I was working with a group of people on a project to create affordable day care for impoverished children. We kept meeting and meeting and meeting. And the meetings often involved talking about the building – which was necessary – but certainly not the main thing. One night in the midst of this planning, I had a dream…I dreamed that the building that was to house the daycare was in tiptop shape. I dreamed that when I entered the doors, there was a great celebration going on for those who had made this thing possible…who had made this building great…it was a policeman’s ball and there was dancing and eating – people even dancing on tables. But when I looked around, I remember wondering where the ministry was. There were no children present. I walked throughout the building only to find the children in a room to themselves, sitting on a wood floor with no toys, no supervision, isolated from the party – forgotten by those who celebrated their own accomplishments.

In our family, in our congregation, in our community, in our world, who now sits in a room by themselves? Who awaits the care that we as their blood relatives should give? What things can we do to create a Christian home, not just in the conventional, limited, institutional sense, but in a broader, kingdom sense, where the world is the home and Christ dwells within it?

There are people right here in Nashville who need mothering and to mother. Children whose birth mothers cannot care because of poverty or drugs or alcohol. Programs like the one at 61st Ave UMC that need tutors is one example. There are women who need to remember their motherhood because their sons and daughters have been lost to them – in war or illness or accident or miscarriage. There is a need for blood relatives here in Nashville!

There is a need for blood relatives in America! For us to get past the divisiveness of a nation that sometimes lives out of fear more than out of faith, so that we can live into the courage that God brings to unite us so that we may see one another as brothers and sisters regardless of age, nationality, or citizenship!

There is a need for blood relatives in the world! In Zimbabwe, where children are living on their own, as heads of household because they’ve lost both parents to AIDS, there is a need! And God has given us in this day and age a means by which to reach them physically and financially. We barely have to give them the scraps from our tables in order to make their lives sustainable.

There is a need for blood relatives everywhere we look. And if we listen, and if we look, Christ is right there among us, calling to unite us with one another so that through his suffering we may find peace, true peace in the union of souls bound by the sacred blood of God.

In praise to God, let us sing now with vigor the chorus to Battle Hymn of the Republic, as a prayer that God’s truth will truly march on…let us sing,

“Glory, glory hallelujah! Glory, glory hallelujah! Glory, glory hallelujah! His truth is marching on!”


King's Montgomery Kitchen

Photo by Leslie Clagett.

Years ago, I visited an art museum in Memphis, Tennessee – meandering about until I found an exhibit on the civil rights movement. I still remember how I felt reading about Dr. Martin Luther King’s “kitchen table” experience and how it set me on a path of striving to live with greater purpose. This is a story from his life that many haven’t heard.

In January of 1957, Dr. Martin Luther King struggled for courage to keep up the fight that would later become known as the civil rights movement. After having his life threatened, King went to his kitchen table and had a conversation with God – expressing his doubts as a leader and asking for guidance.

“I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward…The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. ‘I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid…I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.’

At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.” (Stride Toward Freedom)

The art exhibit featured a kitchen table with a coffee cup humbly displayed along with those words.  The table was simply made, but it echoed the holiness of communion – Christ at the table – feeding one who was hungry with something more than physical sustenance – the power to go on.

King’s table experience empowered him to feed others – to share a vision of something much larger than any one life – and to inspire others to fight for that something more. Elsewhere in the exhibit were pictures of lives lost and maimed, exposing the ugliness of humanity’s bent toward oppression. Yet that ugliness was diminished and overshadowed by the power to overcome, and it was that power that dominated my experience.

As I walked through the museum, I read another quote of Dr. King’s – one that is reflected today on the monument in Washington, DC:

“If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice; say that I was a drum major for peace; I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind.”

I left there thinking about life differently – I felt challenged to live a life that’s not as much concerned over personal welfare as much as leaving the world a better place. If you’ve ever had to clean out someone else’s stuff after they’ve died, you know that it’s not their material leftovers that matter – it’s the other leftovers of their life that count. These may be their ideas, their love, their way of being in community –  all things you can’t measure with money. Kind of like crumbs of the soul left behind to feed generations to come. A committed life echoes and informs future generations to make life better – for the whole of creation.

King’s life showed the power of not just letting things lie, but that by taking risk together we can create the beloved community intended by God. There’s still so much to do in the world today – things that need to be discussed and acted upon by people committed to leaving leftovers from their lives that are worthy of consumption.


“Everyone is somebody.”  This sentiment marks the walls of the entryway to Sukumbva village in Zimbabwe, where Rev. Sophirina Sign embodies this message in the lives of the seven displaced and orphaned children whom she has given a home. I met Rev. Sign through a young girl named Thandi, orphaned by the AIDS pandemic in 2009. Thandi’s mother, Nora, had been shunned by her family upon diagnosis, but received as family at the Old Mutare Mission among other HIV and AIDS patients. When a prescription could not be filled, Nora died and Rev. Sign (then pastor at the mission) received Thandi into her care.

Thandi greeting Rev. Sign at door of home.

I met with Rev. Sign and Thandi at St. Peter’s United Methodist Church in Mutare, then traveled with them to their home. Driven by Sign’s driving instructor and friend, Shadrac, we arrived at the home to find not only the seven children, but their friends as well. “This is my family,” Sign announced proudly, telling the names and stories of each.

The stories of childhood diminished by the loss of parents were compelling. So is the story of this woman pastor, who takes seriously Christ’s commandment to “Feed my sheep.”

The first children Sign received (10 years ago) were twin boys, born to a mother named Evelyn whose village did not accept twins. She was sent away, and planned to abandon the babies at the mission.  Sign felt the Holy Spirit stirring something inside her to receive the mother and the baby boys into her home. She helped Evelyn learn job skills to support herself and her children, so they could eventually make a home for themselves.

Ten years later and the boys are back with Rev. Sign after having lost their mother and another couple who had taken them in temporarily.  Their bright smiles and laughter hide the pain they’ve lived through in just ten short years. These are now brothers to Thandi, who is quick to laugh at their antics. The other children include a 14-year old girl who gave birth seven months ago to a boy, and two other young girls close in age to Thandi.

When asked how she feeds so many, Rev. Sign responded, “By grace!” With beans, sudza, rice and other basics, these children do not go hungry. Nor do they lack spiritual nourishment. Gathering around a large table, the twins moved a bench and quickly seated themselves, volunteering to read scripture for the devotion. Christ’s love was visible at the table, as the children sang, played the table as a drum, prayed and laughed heartily.

Rev. Sign's newest family member

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote, “Number one in your life’s blueprint, should be a deep belief in your own dignity, your worth and your own “somebodiness.” Don’t allow anybody to make you feel that you’re nobody. Always feel that you count. Always feel that you have worth, and always feel that your life has ultimate significance.”  Rev. Sophirina Sign has provided these children with that deep belief – that they are somebody. Her dream is to live into the name she is often called – Mother Teresa – that she may be able to provide even more children with that sense of somebodiness.

To read more about Thandi’s story, click here.

To watch video of Rev. Sign and her family, click here.

Neighbors and Family

Irene and Bianca

Mother and child

Irene Carrera is a member of Sixty-First Avenue United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, where I serve as deacon. Irene’s thoughtful reflections on those in need continually challenge us to rise above complacency and do something. It’s a privilege to have her as my guest blogger.

Hi, my name is Irene Carrera. I am a mother of five, and my family and I have faced some very tough times, but we are still fortunate.

I have watched the news and heard first-hand experiences from my fellow sister-in-Christ, Neelley Hicks on the extreme starvation, dehydration, illnesses and famine in Somalia and other African Nations. The need of the children as well as adults there tug at my heart, because no matter how hard I have it or many Americans have it, we have resources to get assistance and in Africa they do not.

They are suffering with illnesses due to very poor or no medical care at all. They are starving due to not having safe water to drink or cook with, and they also have a low supply of food. In Africa, there are no food banks, no free or low-income clinics, no hospitals for miles, no Department of Human Resources and no public housing. They are living in tents in mud cottages or just on the ground.

I feel that it’s my human responsibility to do all that I can to inform my children of the extreme suffering that they face over there. I want them to understand that there are people worse off than we are. I also feel that it’s my responsibility to make people here in my church and community understand that we need to do all that we can to help our brothers and sisters in Africa – they are not only our neighbors, they are our family.

In hard times, family is supposed to pull together. I proposed that our church takes a five-gallon water bottle, and start a collection with the children’s Bible study classes to collect any spare change they may have. I want them to understand that there are children their age (even younger as well as older) who do not have enough to eat, drink, wear or make them well when they are sick. I also want them to know that there are families that need us, and, as their neighbors, we have to do all that we can.

“Love they neighbor as thyself” does not only mean the people next door, on your street or in your neighborhood.

To learn more and to give, go to http://new.gbgm-umc.org/umcor/newsroom/releases/archives2011/hornofafrica/

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