Thursday, January 12, 2017

Circumcision of the Heart

The first week of 2017, I shared with the Connectional Table members that I would be reading a Wesley sermon each week over the next year.  Using Outler’s Anthology of the sermons I started with the “Image of God” and this week have read “The Circumcision of the Heart,” a sermon he first preached in 1733.  Wesley describes what it means to be in a right relationship with God and attempts to offer words of wisdom that might guide the hearer’s thoughts about this relationship.  In particular, he states:

“To be more particular: Circumcision of the heart implies humility, faith, hope and charity.  Humility, a right judgement of ourselves, cleanses our minds from those high conceits of our perfection, from that undue opinion of our own abilities and attainments, which are the genuine fruit of a corrupted nature.”

Over the weekend, I gathered with seasoned scholars from our Methodist connection and new scholars from our Methodist family.  We had interesting and robust conversations about the future of The United Methodist Church.  Some felt fairly certain that our church had reached the point of no return and that our irreconcilable differences would be that which leads us down the road of separation.  Others felt that the questions we have about sexuality are dwarfed by the missional needs of the world.  I pointed back to our Disciplinary language in the preamble to our Constitution about unity and acknowledged our history of brokenness and humility.  Out of it all, despite our deep differences, participating in the conversation reminded me that each person in this conversation is a beloved child of God.  Whether I fundamentally disagreed with their conviction made them no less important in the eyes of God. 

Therefore, out of the dialogue, I spent time with several of these scholars, both individually and in groups and was blessed.  By approaching them with humility, I was able to see and experience their humanity.  And in the midst of these conversations my faith was deepened, hope in my heart arose and a sense of charity was extended to one another from all of us. 

I am fully aware that it is easy to say this when there is relative safety in the engagement of our dialogue.  I’m not at risk of having my very identity challenged, nor am I at an immediate risk of being arrested or convicted of my opinion.  But, if the church could provide safe spaces for people to have these kinds of conversations and offer ways to have deep authentic dialogue, then maybe together we can explore further what Paul was saying to the Romans in chapter 2 and what Wesley was saying to his listeners in this message.  What I do know is that it will take a change in our hearts to find the gifts that God has offered us to be together as the Body of Christ, united by his love and grace.

May it be so.

With God's Love,
Rev. Dr. Amy Valdez Barker

Imagio Dei

Welcome to the New Year!  I pray that God has blessed you with the gifts of reflection on the many blessings you experienced in 2016.  I pray that you were able to note where the Holy Spirit was at work in your life and in the lives of those around you.  I pray that you were able to see the Holy Spirit’s work in and through the people called United Methodist in the places and spaces where you engage in ministry.  God’s blessings are always all around us, even when we find it hardest to see.

As we begin 2017, we have much that is before us in the work of the Connectional Table and the life of our denomination.  I hope you were able to read the update on December 23rd from the Moderators of the Commission on a Way Forward (LINK) and remember the gift of the Imago Dei within each of us.  They write:
Our way forward, as women and men created in the image of God, is to seek reconciliation with one another. It is not that we do the work of reconciliation so that we can later share the gospel through evangelism and mission. There is no evangelism, no mission, no gospel apart from reconciliation. 

And so we enter into the work of the Commission on a Way Forward, seeing it not as an interruption to our real mission, but as essential to our calling. To be for or against each other, or a cause, is less than God desires for us. We are created in God’s image, to be forgiven, reconciled and made holy. – Bishop Yemba, Bishop Steiner Ball, and Bishop Carter, Moderators of a Way Forward

I have committed to reading and meditating on one of John Wesley’s Sermons each week this year using the book put together by Albert Outler and Richard Heitzenrater, John Wesley’s Sermons: An Anthology.  I invite you to join me in this practice this year.  There are 50 sermons and the first one I read is entitled “The Image of God.”  This sermon was preached at St. Mary’s at Oxford University in 1730 and remains relevant to the challenges we face when we consider Christian anthropology. 

This is what Wesley reminds us about God and the Divine image created within us:
(God’s) affections were rational, even, and regular—if we may be allowed to say ‘affections’, for properly speaking he had but one: (hu)man was what God is, Love. Love filled the whole expansion of his soul; it possessed him without a rival.  Every movement of his heart was love: it knew no other fervor.  Love was his vital heat; it was the genial warmth that animated his whole frame.  And the flame of it continually streaming forth, directly to him from whom it came, and by reflection to all sensitive natures, inasmuch as they too were his offspring, but especially to those superior beings who bore not only the superscription, but likewise the image of their Creator.

God is LOVE!  So much so that it fills the expansion of our souls, if we so allow it and choose it.  How might LOVE be our central grounding place for our lives and our ministries this year?  How might we examine and ponder, explore and discover all the aspects of love as part of the Divine imagination?  Will we allow LOVE to govern our thinking, our decision-making, our being and our actions the way God created it for our lives? 

His sermon goes on to challenge us to consider where we have fallen out of this image and invites us to consider ways to pursue the image of God.  In the last paragraph is his call to Discipleship, he writes:
We, lastly, have daily opportunities of knowing, if Christianity be of God, then how glorious a privilege are they thought worthy who persuade others to accept of its benefits.

May, by Christ’s great gift of grace, we pursue LOVE with all of our hearts, with all of our souls and with all of our minds this year. 

Let us continue to pray for one another as we begin this New Year!

With God's Love,
Rev. Dr. Amy Valdez Barker

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

A Fruitful Connection, Focused on the Future

A Fruitful Connection, Focused on the Future

(Photo Credit: Mike DuBose, UMNS) 

Greetings from General Conference 2016!

Yesterday in Portland, Oregon the Connectional Table shared a report with the members of General Conference and those streaming around the world celebrating our continued focus on increasing vital congregations across the church through ministries in the Four Areas of Focus. 

We have strategic and achievable goals before us as we look to the next quadrennium…

1. We will develop Principled Christian Leaders through a commitment to recruit, train and engage 3 million difference makers – to transform the world as they put faith into action.

2. In the area of new places for new people, we will form one million new disciples who profess their faith in Jesus Christ.

3. We will follow Christ’s command to be in ministry with the poor, as we commit ourselves to building 400 vibrant, faith-filled communities addressing issues of poverty.

4. And, building on the infrastructure and success of Imagine No Malaria, we will continue our commitment to global health as we commit to reaching one million children around the world with lifesaving health interventions.

We are committed to these Four Areas of Focus because we believe that working collaboratively toward these strategic goals helps us accomplish our call to THEREFORE, GO and make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.   We believe we are stronger together when we stay focused on this mission.

This quadrennium, the Connectional Table has focused on building bridges, establishing trust and deepening relationships as we connect strategies that help us achieve this mission.  We remain committed to increasing vital congregations across the United Methodist connection and believe that we can do this best when we take into account the diversity of our worldwide church in our strategies and in the allocation of our resources.

Earlier this quadrennium, twelve annual conferences banded together as Team Vital and met four times over a two-year period to share best practices for increasing congregational vitality.  We are stronger together when we work together across annual conferences. 

The National Ministry Plans funded through World Service are addressing the changing landscape of the mission field in the United States.  The Hispanic/Latino population today in the U.S. is approximately 53 million  (17% of the total population), and is projected to grow to 30% of the total population by the year 2050.  The National Latino Hispanic Plan submitted a budget reflective of their commitment to engage a minimum of 24 annual conferences to develop strategies of church growth across the US, and to create a regional strategy in Central America.  We are stronger together when we know who are neighbors are and how we can best be in ministry with them.

Working with leaders from the Council of Bishops, the Connectional Table and the four program boards, the Vital Congregations and Four Areas of Focus Missional Collaboration Group built trust and established accountability among denominational leadership for the goals set in these Four Areas of Focus this quadrennium.  This group also supported grants to be funded for entrepreneurial and experimental programs to increase congregational vitality. These funds were administered by Discipleship Ministries and distributed to 23 creative ministries.  When we bless creativity in ministry, we build relationships and trust and we are stronger and more focused on the mission.

We are bearing fruit.  And we are focused on moving forward.  Doing this work collaboratively is challenging, but it is also true to who we know ourselves to be as Wesleyan Christians.  We are a connectional church.  We are stronger together.

Here in Portland, our General Conference is busy deliberating on petitions and plans for mission and ministry.  Each of these pieces of legislation have been crafted by the people of The United Methodist Church out of their desire to serve God and fulfill our mission in the world. As we listen to these petitions over the next few days, let us focus our conversations and our hearts on our covenant with Christ to love our neighbors as ourselves through the strength of our connectionalism and the fruits of our ministry together enhanced by our commitment to cultivate, harvest and share God’s abundance.