UMC: What’s Next?

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)

Since last Friday, I have flown roughly 2,890 miles, taken countless selfies, and fluctuated emotionally between awe, despair and hope. Throughout the last five days and two conferences, two things are clearer for me than ever: the Spirit of our living God is still with us; we are stronger together (though we will continue to explore what being together looks like). Please take these words to heart and nestle them there; hold onto this hope during the turbulence ahead.

On Friday evening, people of color (poc), trans people (t), queer folks (q), and those who live at the intersections of these identities gathered with allies at Lake Harriett UMC in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This summit (#OMFSummit) is essential to the continuing conversations of the future of Methodism because it centered the voices of marginalized peoples—the conversation was with us and not merely about us.

At this summit, we not only discussed the importance of allyship (“having our back”), but also of radical solidarity (being with marginalized groups and seeing your own personal liberation as tied to the liberation of all people—especially poc/t/q people). When we see the hurt of our poc/t/q neighbors as our own hurts, our hearts are softened and can be molded into hearts of Christ. The Rev. Dr. Jay Williams from Union UMC in Boston named a non-negotiable for the ensuing dialogues: “We cannot compromise queer liberation.” Whatever comes next, it must be a Church which liberates queer people—not one which simply allows us to participate—but one which celebrates and affirms our gifts and callings; one which lets us lead.

And inextricably tied to this queer liberation is the dismantling of white supremacy, the recognition of our racist history, and a confession of the present inequality which black and brown clergy and laity face in our United Methodist Church. This movement of liberation must also address the inequality between female clergy and their male counterparts. We must admit and commit to change the fact that many female pastors have experienced sexual harassment in our Church, that they are disrespected and devalued by many of their male clergy colleagues and male parishioners.

To be in radical solidarity means to participate in the liberation of all people.

These conversations continued as we discussed the possibilities of remaining and resisting from within, of starting something new, and of some middle ground between leaving and staying which would accommodate for the diversity found in our various contexts. This work was just the beginning of the conversation, and you can read the UM-Forward proclamation here. On Sunday evening I flew to Kansas City with representatives from every annual conference in the U.S. for the UMC Next event.

What was powerful about both of these events was the true community I experienced. Unlike General Conference, I felt no need for protest or fear; I entered a community which sought to love more boldly and center the voices of LGBTQ+ people like me, and of people of color, in the identity of our Church. I experienced the beauty and hope found in our connection. I heard stories of small reconciling communities in Alaska and Georgia which have made their unconditional welcome known by joining Reconciling Ministries Network. I heard from pastors and lay people in Mississippi, Texas and Florida who are creating safe spaces for queer people in their United Methodist churches. I heard from the Western Jurisdiction about their coordinated effort to provide “safe harbor” to queer clergy from other conferences whose credentials are threatened.

I heard United Methodists from all over the U.S. share what they are doing to build the inclusive Kin-dom of God. Together we are making a difference and saving lives not only in the U.S., but as centrist/progressive United Methodists around the world. We are stronger together, and we are reclaiming our Church together.

At UMC Next, we were placed around 78 tables with folks from other conferences and identities as we discussed several questions each day. The questions ranged from what are your hopes/fears, would you support exit plans if necessary, could you lead your people through the process of remaining and resisting? We also discussed several plans for the restructuring of the denomination and clearly affirmed together that “we will not abide by the Traditional Plan,” and that we demand the removal of discriminatory language from the Book of Discipline. This is the Church which we long for and invite all of us to create together.

No, we did not create a consensus as to whether we should stay or leave, but this is only just the beginning. This is one of the first times that progressives and centrists (who are the majority in the U.S.) came together to discuss how we can be the Church which we see God calling us to be. The Wesleyan Covenant Association sold our global siblings a lie by suggesting that the Traditional Plan would not fracture our connection or destroy the boards and agencies which support ministries around the globe. The majority of the U.S. Church will no longer stand by as discrimination runs rampant through our denomination, neither will German United Methodists abide by the discrimination against LGBTQ+ people found in our Book of Discipline.

A new thing is coming. Like never before, folks are standing up in rural churches and cities, in countries where same-sex acts are still illegal, and we are proclaiming that the year of the Lord is upon us; that justice will fall like a mighty rain and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

So, as the majority of the U.S. Church continues to discuss our strategies for creating an inclusive Church—whether that be by reforming our current denomination or by creating a new denomination—our connection to each other as centrists and progressives is essential. As of now, Church of the Resurrection (the largest UMC in the U.S.) plans to remain, resist, and reform from within our current structure, while developing plans for a new denomination. I intend to do the same.

As the plans for a new denomination are progressed through further conversations, we are not powerless. We are equally committed to continuing the decades of resistance. More churches than ever are joining Reconciling Ministries Network, more individuals are becoming reconciling individuals, and we are coming together as centrists and progressives to build a network, to say that we will not abide by the Traditional Plan, nor any discrimination against poc/t/q children of God.

You are not powerless. You have a voice in the future of what God is doing with Methodism. Encourage your church to boldly profess that you affirm and celebrate people of all sexual orientations, gender identities, races, and abilities. Share your story of why inclusion is important to you—share with your pastor/congregation, share with your conservative neighbor, share with your bishop. Resistance and reform are active processes which require all of us to act boldly together.

May God continue to inspire our imaginations; to open hearts, minds and doors; to empower us to boldly proclaim the justice and inclusion of all people—especially poc/t/q people. No matter what the future holds, I have hope because we are moving forward together. We are not alone.

And best of all, God is with us.

Peace,

J.J. Warren

Forward Together: A Call for Prophets

This past weekend I had the opportunity to take my Forward Together tour to Hope Church in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois. Next week I’ll travel to Oneonta NY, followed by Wisconsin, and then my undergrad graduation, followed by four months of twenty-first century John Wesley style circuit riding via cars, planes, busses, and trains. I am continually reminded that our God surpasses all understanding and expectation. I thought I would travel around my home state of NY and see a California church or two this summer—I did not expect to travel to eight states and nearly 30 communities! 

This hectic new reality which has become my life reminds me of the theme verse for the summer, Hebrews 11:1. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, a conviction of things not seen.” 

We, as followers of Jesus, believe in the “absurdity of faith” (a phrase from Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling). We live in this paradox: we are completely obedient to the will of God—even if that means sacrificing everything like Abraham was willing to do with Isaac—and yet we simultaneously have hope that God will provide far above what we could expect. We must believe in the absurd, be convicted by the things not yet seen—including a Church which celebrates LGBTQ+ people and our callings.

While at Hope Church, I had the opportunity to hear from other young people who are in the process of discerning callings—and some specifically feeling called to ordained ministry in the UMC. Many of these young people, like me, identify somewhere in the LGBTQ+ alphabet soup. If you’ve ever heard someone articulate their calling, you know it’s a powerful experience. As these young queer folks described their “burning bush moments” with me, I witnessed God’s continued presence with us—God is still at work! God is using all of us to be vessels for a time such as this, we just have to listen and then act boldly. 

I mentioned to the congregation that one of my favorite sermons by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is “But if Not.” In these powerful 23 minutes, King used the action of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego as a biblical example of civil disobedience. He said, 

“There were those individuals in every age and every generation who were willing to say ‘I will be obedient to a higher law.’ I must be disobedient to a king in order to be obedient to THE KING.” 

Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, we are called to stand boldly in defiance of injustice, for we abide by a high law. These boys wouldn’t have made it into our bible if they had just decided to pack up shop and join other like-minded folk in a village outside the reach of Nebuchadnezzar. These boys were influential because they decided that truth must call out the injustices of power, that their God was calling them to boldly embody civil disobedience from within. 

May we be like Amos and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; may we boldly speak truth to power and be obedient to a higher law. May we commit to join together through resources like Reconciling Ministries Network, to boldly remain and resist; to claim this ground as holy and all people as sacred—especially LGBTQ+ people and people of color. We are the Church, and we will go forward together into this unseen future believing in the absurd: that we can reclaim the Church as a vehicle for divine justice and love. 

Is the UMC Dead?

We are in a time of great division and pain. To have a global denomination in countries where same-sex acts are still illegal—and with countries like Brunei which just recently codified their condemnation of homosexual people to death by stoning—to be a Church in all of these places, and to expect us all to agree is preposterous. And yet, we tried to do the same thing over again; we tried to use a broken system to fix its own brokenness. To see a majority of the Bishops stand and weep with us at General Conference as the Traditional Plan gained traction illustrates just how broken our system is. What can we do if even our leaders no longer have the ability to lead within our structure?

I stepped off the voting floor once the TP passed and I wondered: “where is the Good Shepherd in this? Is this decision truly the work of the Holy Spirit?” And when we confront these questions, we are faced with an even more alarming one: is our denomination able to discern the will of God? Has The United Methodist Church died, has it ceased in its ability to serve God and serve all people for the transformation of the world?

When I reflect on this question, I think of Jesus’ approach to the city of Jerusalem before his crucifixion. As he approached the city of God’s chosen people, what was set aside to be a holy city of God, Jesus wept. Now this little verse doesn’t get much credit but the only other time we see Jesus weep is over the loss of his beloved companion, Lazarus. And yet, as Jesus looked at the so-called “city of God,” and he wept. Many of the Bishops, the majority of those gathered in St.Louis, and those around the world looked at our denomination on Tuesday, February 26th and we wept.

Jesus wept and said, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44 They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” (Luke 19:42-44)

If only we as a global denomination had recognized on that day—and on this day—the things that make for peace. Those who seek to do harm to neighbor, or whose theological convictions somehow “justify” real harm on the children of God, have hemmed us in, trying to crush our spirits and grind us into this holy ground because they do not recognize our visitation from God. Jesus wept for the supposed city of God because he knew that without justice, there is no peace; and peace is not just a heavenly reality—it’s something that can be witnessed and worked for here in this life—in this world. Jesus is essentially the first one to express the chant which many social-justice marches use: “No justice, no peace.”

I believe that through this great pain—through the death of what we understood to be The United Methodist Church—there will be a glorious resurrection. Already there are over 40,000 reconciling United Methodists—individual Church embers who have pledged to support the full inclusion of LGBTQIA people in the life and ministry of the UMC. There are over 1,000 reconciling communities now in our global connection.

Let me be clear as to my position: The United Methodist Church—as currently structured—is dead, but we are already witnessing a glorious resurrection! We will not allow the river of justice to be damned, nor will we allow our deeply flawed general Church structure to silence sound of the Spirit. WE are the Church, and I am committed to forging forward with congregations around our connection to reclaim our United Methodist heritage and tradition—TO RECLAIM OUR CHURCH. I cast my vote now for no confidence in the General Conference as a body which can discern the will of God. I, along with many other inclusive leaders in the UMC, do not know what the next step for our Church will be, but we are inviting all of us to enter into deeper conversation–and holy resistance–as we discern the movement of the Spirit together.

May we continue not only to discern the Spirit, but to take action in bold ways as we follow the Spirit of justice. Silence at this time cannot be an option, we must boldly affirm and celebrate the life and ministry of LGBTQ+ people because without justice for us and others excluded by the Church, there will be no peace in the land of the Lord.

Star Dust: Reimagining Lent

Yesterday many Christians around the world attended an Ash Wednesday service to mark the beginning of the Lenten season. Ash Wednesday, though not formally practiced in the books of the Bible, is steeped in a rich tradition of meaning–both biblically and scientifically–and carries great significance for us today.

“You are dust, and to the dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19)

This verse always startled me because it forces us to come to terms with our humanity; not only with our mortality, but with our humanness as well. We are ALL dust. And in fact, we are all star dust! When God caused the Big Bang (in my opinion), a little dot of matter (scientists say it was no bigger than the period at the end of this sentence) exploded into a beautifully complex and diverse universe. All of the original “dust” of the universe is the result of stars which have “died;” they have come to the end of their cycles and their matter is scattered. This matter helps create something new. This star dust was then knit together by gravity (and Divine intervention) to form Earth. And this star dust makes up you and I as well.

So, what can we learn from this brief physics lesson? (And no, I claim no knowledge of physics, and I’m sure that my physicist partner will correct me on many details.)

Nonetheless, we see that there is great power and potential in the most minute places. It takes the violent “death” of a star to create new life. Dust comes from the ancient stars which continue to make new life today. We are all dust, yes, but we are star dust. We are made up of an intergalactic substance which has persisted through time and space; a substance which will always be part of our identity even if we no longer recognize the source. And it’s a substance which undeniably makes up ALL people. No one is less of a star than anyone else.

So when we contemplate the reality that we are dust, I hope we will remember that our substance is something mysterious, full of potential, and knit together from the far reaches of the universe.

Though the United Methodist Church may have experienced a painful explosion last week in St. Louis, new life is being formed. Churches which previously had a don’t ask don’t tell understanding, are making statements of affirmation and support. Conservatives are emailing me to tell me that they are deeply sorry, and that their opinions about LGBTQ+ people have changed. Moderates are stepping out from their places of privileged and are speaking up for God’s inclusive love and justice. Our exploded star dust is settling, and God is using us to make something new; something which is of the same substance as the old, but is different.

May our Lent be a beautiful exploration of our humanity and our interonnectedness; may this pain birth something beautiful; may our Churches, no matter how small, explode with the radiance of God’s multi-colored love for all people–especially LGBTQ+ people.

UMC Transfigured

As the Church around the world wrestles with the uncertain impacts of this special General Conference, it feels as though we have just left the mountain top. Like the disciples, we followed Jesus to the precipice of a mountain and the results were not what many of us expected.

Peter, John, and James saw three figures: Moses, Elijah, and Christ. The disciples expected to stay with God and the prophets upon this hill, but all that was left was Christ. The others were important, yes, but Christ was the only essential. No matter how deeply the disciples wanted to stay and build three dwellings, Jesus brought them down the mountain for there was work to be done.

No matter which of the three plans we wanted to pass at the General Conference, there is work still to be done, and there was no complete healing in any of them.

As soon as Jesus and his companions descended the mountain, a father ran up and begged for Jesus to attend to his son. “Your disciples were unable to help him,” the man said, as he earnestly wept at the feet of Jesus. Though his disciples sought to do their best–not to change the boy, but to cast away the harm being done unto him–they failed. Though the Church seeks to do its best, we fail. We fail to heal and instead inflict pain; we fail to protect and instead exclude; we fail to love and instead impose shame.

For those leaders in our Church who write their conferences, districts, and churches, and yet fail to name the harm done unto us LGBTQ+ folk, I urge you to amend your statements. Weep for our pain like the father at the feet of Jesus. Tell us that we are valued despite the decision; show us that you will work for justice; affirm for us that the Church is stronger with our gifts; and at the very least, confess to us the faults of the Church in its attempts to determine our God-given callings or the ways in which we express our love.

Jesus wept. The father wept. Why won’t you weep with us?

For our moderate siblings, those who faithfully seek to maintain our connection even while maintaining differing opinions, this is your time to descend the mountain. You can’t build three dwellings on the one mountain in St. Louis–no plan is the answer to the pain we experience. This is your time to descend and assist. The queer people in your pews are weeping; are you? This struggle must not be carried by us LGBTQ+ people alone. The struggle to reclaim the United Methodist Church as a global Church for ALL people is a struggle for ALL of us to take up–together.

We will descend this mountain and forge through this wilderness of pain TOGETHER to do the work of God.

It is time for our conservative and moderate siblings to do as Isaiah envisioned, to “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation (or caucus) shall not lift up sword against nation (or caucus), neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isa. 2:4) May we study war no more; may we seek to be in dialogue with one another; may we seek to truly understand each other and recognize our equally authentic faith. May those who perpetuate harm to me and other LGBTQ+ people weep at the feet of Jesus for the pain you have caused us and our families. May we move beyond internal strife so that we may engage in the transformative work of Christ around the world.

And may we, the LGBTQ+ community and allies in The United Methodist Church, commit to moving forward toward the Promised Land of justice and equality together. May we stay the course. May we speak truth to power like Amos; may we follow our beloved spiritual mothers like Ruth; may we bring healing, justice, and love like Christ. As the psalmist said, “Though our weeping may last through the night, joy does indeed come in the morning!” (Psalm 30:5)

Travel Like Abram (General Conference)

I am currently sitting at gate B39 in JFK airport. It’s 7:30 a.m. As I look beyond the glass windows at the constant clockwork of planes taking off and landing, I wonder how many people know what’s going on in our Church. How many of these travelers are aware that the second-largest protestant denomination might crumble under the weight of injustice and fear?

Though these passengers–or your non-UMC friends–may not be aware, this weekend affects millions. It’s greater than any of us; but, after all, isn’t that how God always works–calling us, like Abram, on a journey.

Like Abram, we in The United Methodist Church are being asked to travel beyond our communities of comfort–beyond our understandings–and into the unknown. Though the promises of God may seem far-fetched–like Sarai giving birth despite her old age–we are called to follow the God of justice wherever they lead. Abram followed the nameless God and though the odds seemed stacked against his prosperity, he traveled to the new places that God had called him, and he and Sarai became the originators of a new people; them became Abraham and Sarah.

Today, it’s our turn. It’s time for us to transform, to follow, and to become what God is calling us to be–however murky the vision may currently appear. Like Abraham and Sarah we must follow God beyond what we understand to be reasonable by human standards because we, too, know that it’s not just about us. My fellow 864 delegates to this called General Conference in St. Louis must remember that though the passengers next to us may not be aware of the seriousness of this weekend, millions of lives will be impacted.

Not only will Queer people around the world be talked about (and not with), this conference affects more than us. There are those in the Church who seek to use this opportunity to break away; those who see that God is calling the Church in a new direction and yet decide it’s not where they want to go. And so, rather than turn from the path of justice with deep sadness, they seek to disassemble the Church before it can arrive in the Promised Land of equality. They seek to damn the river of justice, and run dry the stream of righteousness–and take the Church’s assets with them.

We are never promised that the road to righteousness is easy, but we are promised that it is the right road to take. May we be transformed and transfixed by the power of God this weekend; may we follow where the God of justice leads. May we become Sarahs and Abrahams; may we be the Church which God calls us to be.

Contemplating Advent

This year I have had the wonderful opportunity to start an inclusive Christian community on my campus. Most of us have experienced new beginnings of some form or another; whether it’s a new job, a new school, a new relationship, or a new phase of life. In all of these events, the newness can carry with it fear, excitement, anticipation–even confusion. These feelings which newness brings–these are the feelings that I think Advent is intended to foster in us each year. For me, some times Advent feels less like an experience of newness, and more like ritual procedure. We light a candle every week, we sing the same songs, and hear similar readings. We know the story–how can it feel new? 


This Advent season I began to question, what exactly it is that we are anticipating. I found out that “advent” comes from the Latin word adventus, meaning arrival. Sine the first arrival already happened–we call this event the Incarnation (God taking on human flesh)–Advent is a time where we not only remember this arrival, but we anticipate the next; we excitedly await the realization of God’s new world order. But what does this new world order look like?

For the first week of Advent this year, one of the readings from the UMC lectionary was Jeremiah 33, which reads: “In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous branch to spring up for David; and he will do what is just and right throughout the land.” (Jer. 33:15)

We are anticipating a new world order in which justice for all is the motivation of rulers, in which righteousness is sought by all so that no one harms another. In this new world order will follow Jesus’ command in Matthew 5 to not only love our neighbor, but to “love your enemy as well.” We will be people who care for the earth–being aware of how our lives impact all creation. We will be people who love the tax collectors and prostitutes–not despite their “sins”–but because they are loved by God and there is no greater justification. We will not only accept, but we will celebrate the LGBTQ+ community; we will be equal with our siblings of color; we will have no borders; and the Tree of Life, which stands in the center of this new city, will “provide healing to the ALL of the nations.” (Rev. 22:2)

This Advent season I have invited my new Christian community to not only anticipate–but to participate in creating God’s new world order NOW. They have wonderfully met this challenge and each week we have focused on how we can be involved in seeking the justice which the prophets spoke of. We have written Christmas cards to those in immigration detention centers by sending them to TODEC; we have started to collect compost at our dining hall; and this week we have challenged our campus to make a pledge to reduce our use of one-use plastics. I invite you to reflect this holiday season on how you can participate in building this long-anticipated world order which began to restore creation through the first Advent of Jesus, and which God will finish with the second.

National Coming Out Day

One of the many reasons why I love my university, is because of it’s proximity to NYC (of course it’s not all rainbows and sunshine though). On Tuesday night I had the opportunity to see Troye Sivan perform at Radio City Music Hall. I was so excited because 1) I don’t go to concerts often (once I went to a Justin Timberlake concert for my 16th birthday), and 2) Troye Sivan is an openly gay performer who is close to me in age. This second reason may sound trivial or silly, but even just 5-10 years ago as I was growing up and going through grade school, I didn’t see gay people in popular culture (unless it was for a bad reason). In the past two years, “Love, Simon” was released and brought gay teen romance to the main screen; “Call Me by Your Name” won an Oscar and (whether I liked the story line or not…) brought the production value of LGBTQ+ films up tremendously; India repealed its prohibition of gay marriage; a lesbian women was elected as a Bishop in The UMC; and I saw Troye Sivan in concert with a best friend. Our voices are finally too loud to be silenced–though we are still excluded, beaten, and tortured around the world.

On February 22nd, I will fly to St. Louis with roughly 800 other delegates from United Methodist Churches around the globe. Over the course of four days, we will be voting on whether or not our Church will accept and celebrate the ministry of LGBTQ+ persons. No matter what happens, I have learned that legislation does not change people. Yes, it grants access to those who were previously deprived of it, but it does not change the minds of those who vote “no.”

Whatever happens, the conversation of inclusivity has been forced into Church discourse, and LGBTQ+ isn’t only a title whispered secretly. A Church/country/family which struggles together and admits “I don’t quite understand where you’re coming from, but I’m willing to learn,” is a Church/country/family I’d be a part of. Regardless of rules, people will always fear what they do not understand. When we, LGBTQ+ people, stand firm in who we are, we cause cognitive dissonance: the “straight” world that people thought they lived in is suddenly shattered.  LGBTQ+ is not just an “issue,” we are people like all others: complex, and yet having the basic need to love and to be loved.

So, on this national coming out day, I give thanks to the brave LGBTQ+ leaders before us–those who rioted for our rights and died at the hands of unjust governments; to the out and proud leaders in media who make our existence un-closetable; to the young teens struggling to find their voice and fearing what will happen when they do. We are all in this together. I continue to proudly live as a gay man, and as one called to ordained ministry. May it be so for so many others who do not have this same privilege. May we each have this conversation, humbly approaching each other to better understand–to truly see and to love.

Does Hell Exist?

It’s the beginning of my senior year at Sarah Lawrence College, and I’ve resumed many responsibilities which I missed while abroad. My favorite activity is leading a new progressive Christian group on campus, “Rise.” Now, it’s helpful to know that my campus is the second least religious in the U.S., and the most LGBTQ+ friendly; so Christianity isn’t exactly popular. People come here with wounds from other “Christians,” being rejected by churches, being shut out because of who they are.

And then there’s me, the openly gay soon-to-be pastor; my atheist boyfriend comes to church with me when he’s here, and one of my mentors was a conservative evangelical. My denomination is on the brink of schism—possibly leaving me without funding for seminary, or without a Church to call home.

Nonetheless, I, like so many others, press on for the continuation of the good that we know God can do (when God isn’t bogged down/confined/defined by religious authorities and oppressive institutions).

Now, down to business!

I’ve begun hosting a weekly discussion called, “Tea-ology.” Every Thursday we sit around with tea and discuss theological issues. This week’s topic was Hell (a nice causal start).  It must be admitted that the Church has used and abused the concept of Hell as an instrument of power, to exploit profit, and to control behavior. How did this idea of everlasting torment begin, and is it actually in our Bible?

Here’s a (very) brief overview: *Translation is a MAJOR problem*

-In the Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament) there is no concept of hell or heaven—everyone goes to the same place. In Hebrew שְׁאוֹל (sheol) means: “underworld.” (see Brown-Driver-Briggs) Jews were more concerned with living this life properly, so that their children, and children’s children would continue to have God’s blessing. If you see a passage (like Psalm 86:13) which says “Hell” in the King James Version, you know that they have chosen to translate Sheol improperly.

-In the New Testament Jesus refers to Hell 15 times. When Jesus says “Hell” he almost always uses the word: γεέννῃ (Gehenna), which is a Greek word used as, “the name of a valley or cavity near Jerusalem.” (see Strong’s Concordance) The valley of Hinnon was the city dump: it’s where garbage was disposed of. A constant fire burned to consume the garbage, dead bodies which were not claimed by relatives were thrown there, and the sound of animals gnashing their teeth as they fought for food was heard. Hell, Gehenna, was an actual place that the people of Jesus’ day would have been familiar with. “If one part of your body causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it into Gehenna. It’s better you do that then throw your whole body in there.” (Matthew 5:30 paraphrased)

In Summary: Hell is not an eternal place of damnation in the Old or New Testaments. This is not a heresy to say, in fact it’s orthodox. Jesus’s listeners would have heard his words and understood that Gehenna was an actual and disgusting place, somewhere really terrible. So when Jesus tells the religious leaders that it’s better to cut off a hand and throw it into Gehenna than to continue in sinfulness, they knew it was about this life and how they interacted with each other. Jesus challenges us today to reflect on how we interact with others, and essentially says that bad behavior belongs in the dump, not in the Kin-dom.

This leaves us with many questions, like if there’s no Hell what happens to people who “sin”? Or, if there’s no Hell, is there a Heaven? Stay tuned as we continue to speculate about this with the ancients!

*I must say that Rob Bell’s book, “Love Wins,” has been a wonderful aid and inspiration for this series.*

Renewal: 384 miles Later

In the past month since I’ve been back in the U.S. from England,  I’ve travelled 384 miles to four churches around New York State. Each community is different, and what I take away from each of our experiences together helps me to grow in my own journey. I get to see God working through so many different people in so many different places. From the ethnically and economically diverse community in Syracuse, to the home-town churches of central and western NY, I have the privelege of seeing and experiencing our Methodist connection.

Now, for those of you who aren’t United Methodist (well, if you’re reading these posts you’re basically a Methodist because of how often I talk about us…), you may not know that our Church is in a decisive time. We have to decide whether will we embrace God’s inclusive love and once again be a Church of the “Social Gospel,” or not. Of course, there is much debate and perhaps I have over-simplified the current situation here. But injustice is injustice and we cannot ever allow politics, law, or even Church doctrine to complicate human rights—to over-complicate what I believe to be the essence of God: love.

In the Message paraphrase of the Bible, Galatians 5 says, “Why don’t you choose to be led by the Spirit and so escape the erratic compulsions of a law-dominated existence?” Now, my very sweet and compassionate atheist boyfriend said, “The Bible says that?! The Bible is the most law-dominating text I can think of…” And he’s right. We have so many laws in the Tanuk (Torah: books of law; Nevi’im: books of the prophets; Ketuvim: writings of the history), and even in the New Testament (some of Paul’s/pseudo-Paul’s misinterpreted letters for example). So how can the Bible say “escape the erratic compulsions of a law-dominated existence?” How can Christians live under governments which exploit and yet we are called to escape these?

The best way I can reconcile this obvious contradiction is with the theme of renewal. Renewal means the resuming of an activity or state after an interruption. According to the Old Testament,  humanity’s relationship with God was interrupted because of sin. God, however, didn’t give up on humanity and so God sent Jesus to renew us; to allow us to continue in this relationship.

But this isn’t the only renewal I believe Jesus brought/brings. Jesus didn’t just die, he rose again and appeared on this earth; he was mistaken as a gardener by Mary Magdalene (John 20). His reappearance signifies that this world: the ecosystem, the social structures, the religious and political structures, the family and neighbor structures—that all of these things would be renewed; that all of these things would cease to be interrupted by greed, self-interest, “first-world” economies which profit off the exploitation of other nations—that all of these things would be transformed through love.

As I’ve preached to the churches I’ve visited thus far:

1) Renewal is the resuming of an activity, which means that God has already been—and will continue to be—working through us for justice.

2) Renewal is a recommitment to the here and now; it’s a reaffirmation of God’s dedication to this world.

3) Renewal is active; it requires voices of truth to speak, and people of truth to act.

So for all of us, those reading this and the remaining four churches on my tour of renewal, may we use our voices and act out of love to transform this world into the kin-dom of God. May we all be people of renewal, enabling the process for all people to reach fruition into their full and authentic selves.