Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Death Penalty: Resources for Study

Nebraskans will be voting this fall on whether to retain our current law that abolishes the death penalty in our state. The Great Plains Conference of the United Methodist Church, which includes both Kansas and Nebraska, passed a resolution at our June meeting asking all congregations to study the death penalty.

What follows are some resources that I think would be suitable and helpful for congregations anywhere in the US - not just Nebraska and Kansas.

Christian Reflections on the Death Penalty: Discussion Guide. Published by Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, this four-page discussion guide is found under the “resources” tab on the their website,, or by clicking here:
The discussion guide includes scriptures from both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, and provides questions for reflection related to the scriptures, which are grouped into thematic areas, such as “An Eye for an Eye,” “Redemption, Compassion, Mercy,” and “Jesus’ Teaching.” Statements from faith groups on the topic of the Death Penalty and a current fact sheet about the death penalty are also included.
I think this guide could be used as a single-session class, or split into 2-3 sessions if your group is one that enjoys a longer conversation. Because it is available online, it could also be shared via social media on a congregation’s website or facebook page for those who are unable to attend a small group conversation.

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson, 2015 Spiegel and Grau (division of Random House). New York Times bestseller, available in paperback, and listed as a “bonus book” in the 2016 United Methodist Women’s reading program list.
    Would you believe I read a book about the death penalty while I was on vacation at the beach? The topic was sobering, but this non-fiction, first-person narrative was so compelling I had a hard time putting it down. While the book is broken into 16 chapters and Stevenson shares about many different cases and many different laws that relate to the death penalty, he weaves the stories together in such a way that I think this book would be best discussed as a whole or perhaps in two sections, allowing for a check-in at the halfway point and then a full discussion after everyone in the group has completed the book.
    I think this is the kind of book that could be shared: as a book review in a Sunday School class, church newsletter or UMW group; in a one- or two-time discussion for people who have already read it or listed to the e-reader version; or as a promoted book for the UMW reading program.
There is another option: the accompanying (Common Core-approved) world’s most thorough book discussion guide, which is found on the author’s website. I regret not finding this until after I had read the book, as I might have benefitted from checking in after each chapter to see the discussion guide overview and related questions.

Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It’s Killing Us, by Shane Claiborne, 2016 HarperCollins.    
    I met Shane for the first time when he visited the church I pastor, South Gate UMC, in Lincoln Nebraska on the second day of his book tour for this book. I wondered out loud, “why would he be coming to Nebraska to launch a book tour?” and finally realized that it was on purpose - he’s committed enough to ending the death penalty and current enough on national politics to know that the Nebraska fall ballot initiative is significant for the lives of many. 
     Claiborne's book has 14 chapters, which can be read in order, out of order, or individually. This means it is well-suited for a weekly study group that may have members that are unable to attend every week; a class that plans to focus on just one chapter for one meeting; or for a group that either hears a book review or reads the whole thing and gathers to discuss the book in its entirety. I find this flexibility attractive for local churches, as discussion leaders may be able to focus on a particular chapter that they think would be of the greatest interest to their congregation as a way of introducing the topic (or the book) to a group. 
     The website that goes with the book is found here: and includes a video interview of Shane, a resource page, and other information. A study guide is also available from Harper Collins. 

Monday, August 1, 2016

PokemonGo: Embrace

     Ahhh... PokemonGo. My adventure started Tuesday, July 12th. I was trying to figure out whether South Gate UMC, the church where I am pastor, was a PokeStop, and I quickly realized the only way to find out was to download the game onto my phone and find out for myself. I was in a car, driving a carpool from Lincoln to Wichita, when this realization hit me. 
By Tuesday evening, I was walking on the Wichita riverfront from my hotel to the next hotel over, trying to figure out how to navigate the new-to-me world of Pokemon. Fortunately, a number of other people were out playing and were very willing to help me. "Are you playing PokemonGo?" two young adults called to me. I replied that I was trying to and that I thought I needed help. By the time I reached my destination, three groups of people had taught me the basics of the game. 
      By Sunday, July 17th, I was back at South Gate UMC, and was able to verify for myself that the church is PokeStop, a location where people playing the game can stop to reload on virtual items that are needed for play. Here's what our Stop looks like when players visit.
By Sunday, July 24th, I was leading a Sunday School class for youth, adults, and a 3-year old on the topic of PokemonGo. Why? I had observed people coming to our front yard to play the game, and I will admit I had developed a concern that we might turn into a church version of the cartoon character in the Scooby Doo cartoons who shakes his fist at the heroes and hollers, "you kids get off my lawn with your silly games!" 

Rev Steph's Overview of PokemonGo for the Admittedly Barely Interested:
 1) It's a game. It might be a fad, who knows? For now, it's a game that people are playing, many churches are utilized in the game, and for this reason if you are a pastor or member of a church I think it is a good idea to have at least a minimal knowledge of how the game works. 
a) The game uses mapping, and doesn't really work unless the player is walking around. The basic goal of the player is to capture wild Pokemon (short for Pocket Monsters) by flicking a magic ball at them (this is a swiping motion on a phone screen). 
2) The game uses locations in two ways. 
a) Some locations are PokeStops, where players collect virtual items that they use to play the game. Many, many, churches are PokeStops. So are many sculptures, murals, and historic markers. 
b) Some locations are Gyms, where players "battle" to win control of the location. Some, but not all, churches are Gyms. In the neighborhoods I live, two ice cream shops, two churches, an insurance company and a park are Gyms. 
3) These locations were determined by the game designers, and are left over from another, earlier, game that also used mapping and locations. If you really, really do not want your location to be a PokeStop or Gym, you can use a link on the PokemonGo website to request that it be taken down. In most cases, I think having extra foot traffic at a church is going to be beneficial at best, benign at worst. In our case, the photo of the church that Nintendo displays each time a player visits to gather Pokeballs at our church showcases our worship times. I say, HOORAY! 
4) If you are curious whether your church is a PokeStop or Gym, an easy way to find out is to download the app, register to play and see for yourself. It's free, and if you have trouble figuring out how to play, I promise someone will appear who will be willing to help you. Just last night, a nice young man from Osmond Nebraska helped me figure out how to help capture the gym at Zesto on 11th Street. We also discussed how much he enjoys the UMC he attends in Yankton, SD and he promised to come visit South Gate the next time he is in town on a Sunday morning.
5) You might meet some neighbors while you are out playing. Prior to my Zesto excursion, I headed the opposite direction on 11th street to the neighborhood mural that is the other local Gym. There I met the proprietors of the new helado shop, Letty's. We discussed the importance of quality ice cream popsicles, and after I placed my Flareon at the gym (isn't it cute?) I made my way home while enjoying a banana/nutella ice cream popsicle (only $2, you really should come visit).
6) What's the answer to how to interact with someone who stops by the church to play PokemonGo? 
Do say any of these things:
come back any time!
what level have you reached?
have you picked a team yet? 
I sure am enjoying how many people have been stopping by lately
Are you playing PokemonGo? 

Do not say:
I heard you could get killed playing that game
I hate games
No one ever works any more

I realize PokemonGo is not for everyone. That's fine. I do think that a present reality is that it is a game for some. Because those some are visiting our churches to play, and because some of the active players are members of our congregations and are enjoying playing before and after worship services, I think it is better for those in the church to know the basics of how the game works and be prepared to welcome those who are playing than to not be prepared to welcome them. In the meantime, I'll look forward to seeing you - at the South Gate PokeStop, and at the neighborhood Gym.


Tuesday, May 17, 2016

GC #4 It's not the Apocalypse

I woke up this morning thinking about the candidates for ministry that I mentor. They are a diverse group, comprised of pretty much all the seminary students in the Great Plains not enrolled at St Paul. We meet via facebook group and individual phone calls, skype and emails and I know them much better than you might think given the distance and time zones involved. I care about them, pray for them and worry about them. Below you will find what I wrote to them this morning. I want to think it applies to all members and pastors of the United Methodist Church church as well. 

Friends - this could be a rough day at General Conference. I can't protect you from alarming news and the accompanying social media posts.
Word came as I was preparing to sleep of a plan for schism that may or may not have been proposed by our Bishops.
As with all news from GC, I advise to proceed with caution for these and other reasons:
1) the hearer of the news is likely tired and comes to the news with more stress than they usually might
2) the communicator of the news is likely tired and comes to the news with more stress than they usually might
3) anything that happens in the next three days can be overturned, amended, reversed, reconsidered and/or thrown out on Friday. or any of the other days between now and the time we leave.
Finally - please know that no matter how much we appear to be fighting, God cherishes all candidates for ministry - including the ones we have told to wait, the ones who are LGBTQI, the ones who are no longer young adults, and the ones who have taken "nontraditional paths" - and I think our denomination does as well, we just don't have all the words quite yet.
Thank you for allowing me into your lives, I appreciate your trust.
If you have room for those of us in Portland in your prayers, please include us. It could be a difficult day.
Closing with this: I believe in the God who created and is creating, who makes all things new.
Love to you. SA

Here's a photo, because I feel like blogs should not just have words. 
 Sky was my parents' "young associate pastor" when they lived in Martin TN. I was a student at Vanderbilt the first three years they lived there, and Sky invited me to preach at their church. !!!! It was my first sermon EVER at a church. He wasn't my "real" mentor, but he is one of many informal and very real mentors I've appreciated on my faith journey. Now he is a District Superintendent, and a candidate for Bishop in the Southeast Jurisdiction.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

General Conference #3 The Veneer is Chipping

Ahhh.... Day 6. I find that as a group we can usually make it until Day 6 of General Conference in a general state of benign something-ness and then the veneer starts to chip. Perhaps you have been to a flea market and seen what was once a lovely piece of furniture, dresser or library table that in its glory days appeared to be sturdy and impervious to harm; a side table that has seen contact with a wayward bowling ball, a spilled bottle of ink, a teething puppy, and a forgotten glass of water or two - and has developed a wobble, a few ripples and some dents. This is one way to describe Day 6 of General Conference. 

Some, however, were already well aware that the flea market find had its issues. The Love Your Neighbor Coalition has been working to prepare for General Conference, seeking to help our denomination figure out to live into our hope of being the denomination of Open Minds, Open Hearts, and Open Doors and I think more importantly living into our hope of being a people who worry more about embracing a more theologically and functionally consistent notion of what it means to love our neighbor. The photo above is from opening worship, which included Communion. You'll see Bishops at planned Communion stations; in between you will see a banner that says "remember me," held by two volunteers from the LYNC coalition and two more volunteers holding communion elements. I took this photo from my seat in the visitor/reserve delegate section. The (apparently) headless suited man on our left of the banner is a social media friend of mine. I was so excited to see him that I didn't even notice the alternative communion station! All I could think was, I hope I get ushered towards the station near Will so I can thank him for holding that sign up!!! Only when I got back to my seat did I realize I could have headed to the alternative communion station. 
I've been receiving texts, emails and messages throughout the week from friends asking me what I think will happen. That's a rather large question. The people asking probably are referencing whether or not our denomination will split over homosexuality, and whether that action will happen by the end of next Friday. I think there is another question to consider, and it goes like this: Will we allow the institution of the Church to be just that? The Church isn't God, it is a collection of structures that humans organized to make it easier to do the work some people agreed was good to do to teach others about God. Back on the flea market metaphor, if you spend all your time trying decide which color of shabby chic paint to select for your reclaimed dresser - you might forget to measure to see if the dresser fits in the space available. I feel like in the flea market of life, and in the United Methodist Church, there can be, should be, and is room for all the furniture, all the orphaned salt and pepper shakers, all the mildewed cookbooks, and all the unmarked starting-to-rust car keys stored in cardboard cigar boxes that are not sturdy enough to be turned into purses. I am pretty sure Jesus said somewhere that God is the ultimate collector, and I think as disciples we are called to keep looking until we find the treasure in one another.

I like to post garden photos - here's one from Portland. Keller gardens, near Portland State University and the hotel where Rebecca and I are staying. I don't know the story of the rose petal heart - but it was a gift to find this sign of love shortly before we headed to the Convention Center to register for General Conference.

Friday, May 13, 2016

GC Post #2 - Stories are Powerful

I like stories. I like telling stories, listening to stories, reading stories. Yesterday, we endured a debate about stories that reinforced for me the power of story. 
The topic was Rule 44, my summary of which goes like this: if adopted, Rule 44 gives the General Conference permission to vote to break into small groups to discuss the topic at hand in small groups using a structured story-telling format. Not some crazed, wildcat, yelling thing. But a facilitated small group conversation for a set length of time on a particular topic. And when that time is up, Roberts Rules goes back into effect and things are very much back into the kind of order that is "usual." It has been fairly clear that Rule 44 offered as a way to encounter the topic of homosexuality in the church in a different way than in the past, but it has also been clear, at least to me, that if adopted it could be used for other topics if the body voted to do so. I will allow someone else explain those details, you can find them here: Rule 44 from UMNS. 

This is my 4th General Conference. I've been a member of our Jurisdictional delegation five times. This means I've been a close observer of the proceedings, in both a literal and physical sense, for 16 years. The debate never feels good. Sometimes it starts well - perhaps we hear that the committee work has been honest and true, maybe we hear there is a willingness to remove language that some find harmful. Then we get everyone on the floor together in the second week, group debate begins, and I watch as the committee members who bring their work from the first week with a spirit of hope - crumble before my eyes. I was hopeful that Rule 44 might give everyone a break. A break from speeches made by one person at a microphone that feel like yelling, a break from words that some experience as a rallying cry that others experience as eviscerating. 

Here's a happy photo of a rainbow unicorn. I found this at the Penny Pincher cafe in near Pioneer Square. It's a reward for reading this far.

So. I was interested in the debate about whether to adopt Rule 44. The first thing that happened was it took a while to get to the part where the delegates voted on it at all. The next thing that happened was that it sounded like those who were opposed to Rule 44 really did not want to hear stories. I don't think they were concerned about not wanting to share their stories - I base this assumption on the amount of words they used to voice their opposition. I honestly think they were afraid of hearing other people's stories. If I had to re-write some of the debate as a cartoon, the word bubbles would say "I refuse to honor your truth as real!" or "stop talking, I want to do all the talking!" or "I forgot the part of the Bible where Jesus says there's enough love for everyone!" I find this distressing. I'd like to see us listen to each other. I think we can be compassionate and not agree with each other, all at the same time. I think we can make space for all the stories. 

General Conference post #1 - There's Hope

I had to use my fingers to count up how many days I've been here: the answer is five. I also figured out that it is Friday. General Conference is like that - a vortex, a time warp, a specific geographic place with a specific cast of characters that some of us inhabit for about two weeks in person and others visit via live streaming, social media and sometimes in person. Friends ask how it's going, and it can be hard to answer. So far this week I have succeeded in accompanying a friend to not one but to urga-cares, helped negotiate a logistical problem involving a hotel business office, worked with a small group to vet clergy and laity who have been nominated by our Bishops for the Judicial Council, and ordered the same breakfast burrito three mornings in a row. I've also forgotten to eat lunch twice, misplaced my nametag only to discover I was wearing it, and accidentally started a debate about trans bathrooms. It's a mixed bag, as my father-in-law would say. 
Here's something fun from Wednesday night. I was walking from the Max lightrail stop to a friend's hotel and spotted a Pizza Shmizza. I started babbling, "Oh! my friend Jake from Omaha works at one of those, but there's like 20 of them in Portland and I'll never find him... wait! there he is!" 
Yup. From across the street, through the window, I spot Jake. Who only works at that spot on Wednesday nights. My friends were stunned, I was delighted, and Jake? Speechless. 
Most of us are using the light rail to travel to the convention center, which is on the east side of the river, to our hotels - which are mostly west of the river or to the south. I saw this mural near one of the Max stops two days ago. 
 I've already heard words spoken in plenary sessions that I found less than hopeful; I've heard speeches and phrases that I found mean-spirited, patronizing, unkind and designed to confuse. I have also heard helpful, hope-filled words. Bishop Dyck's sermon this morning is a stand-out example. You can the video of the service here: May 13 General Conference morning worship I am a hopeful person and I think that the church is a place where we are called to figure out how to find hope together. Not a "should" kind of hope, as in "I hope you get your act together," but more of a "I have hope that we will discover what new thing God is doing in our midst" kind of hope. I hope that as we proceed together we will remember to look beyond the immediate moment towards the future to which we are being called - with hope.