I have long steered clear of the hot-button issue of abortion, but an upcoming attraction is forcing my hand.
The movie Unplanned which treats the issue of abortion from a pro-life perspective is coming to the Great Plains Theatre. The movie review site Rotten Tomatoes says it’s “a dramatic approach to a hot-button topic whose agenda is immediately clear, Unplanned will only reinforce the feelings of viewers on either side of the issue.” 
I haven’t discussed this issue from the pulpit, only in private conversations. In a nutshell, I agree with the position of the United Methodist Church, and I want abortion to be as rare as possible, but I believe that making it illegal will not accomplish that goal and will instead put the health and safety of a great many women in jeopardy. (The rise of the mob occurred during prohibition.) There are times when threats to the health (including the mental health) of a woman make abortion the least bad option. In the words of The Book of Discipline:
“Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion. But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child.
We recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures by certified medical providers.” 
I believe there are things we could do to make abortion a rare occurrence (like comprehensive sex education, the use of contraception, and a stronger social safety net—under our current system, an abortion costs a lot less than a birth). But our society has largely rejected practical measures and instead opted for a divisive cultural battle. The women I know are better equipped to navigate the ethics of their pregnancies than the collective legislative bodies found in Topeka, Kansas and Washington, DC.
My plan at present is to address this issue at the place where I feel that it can best be discussed, direct dialogue between two individuals or conversations among small groups. Both Jenny and I would like to hear what you think.
“The Resurrection is not the resuscitation of a body; it is the beginning of the transfiguration of the world.” — Patriarch Athenagoras 
Jesus didn’t come back from the dead, he went through death and came out on the other side. The same will be true for us. We will not be resuscitated, we will be transfigured. I’m going to be mulling over this quote for the rest of the day, I invite you to join me.
 Jim Friedrich, “Preaching on Easter Sunday Isn’t About Convincing People,” The Christian Century, April 4, 2019, http://bit.ly/2UGnuie.
Bishop Saenz has posted a great lenten devotional called “The Scent of Lent.” I would encourage to to make time for it.
Jenny and I have taken Dave Ramsey’s “Financial Peace University.” It helped us a great deal, and it made a lasting change in our lives. But there were parts I was uncomfortable with because he encouraged people to move beyond good stewardship and to aim for great wealth. This came to mind recently because Dave tweeted:
“If you do rich people stuff, eventually you will be rich. If you do poor people stuff, you will eventually be poor.” 
I don’t think it’s that simple. Certainly, if you do “rich people stuff” like being born into wealth and privilege or inheriting a fortune, you will be rich. But the world is filled with too much inequity for everyone to be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps—especially since some people don’t have boots. Furthermore, the above statement seems to imply that the financial state we find ourselves in is the financial state we’ve earned, even if that were true it would still be problematic. Long before twitter, Jesus Christ said:
“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20, NRSV)
and a few verses later,
“But Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” (Luke 6:24, NRSV)
Wealth is not one of the goals of the Christian life. We are called to be good stewards of what has been entrusted to us, but storing up treasure for ourselves in this life is not the way of Jesus Christ. We are instead called to be good stewards that we might be good Samaritans.
  James Martin. Twitter post, March 7, 2019, 8:02 a.m., http://bit.ly/2U3qCFc.
I wrote what follows for the bulletin. I’m reprinting it here for those of you who won’t be able to be in church on Sunday.
In case you didn’t see the ad in the Reflector-Chronicle, a copy appears directly below [here on the blog, it’s two posts down]. What Jenny and I have heard over and over again from the members of this church of all theological stripes and persuasions is that you are a church that welcomes everyone. While the recent 2019 General Conference and the negative (and often misleading) headlines it generated prompted our running the ad, the ad was not just for LGBTQ+ folks. It was for everyone who has ever doubted whether or not they would be welcome at a church. That includes a lot of people. Those of us who have always felt comfortable in church can easily underestimate how intense the fear of rejection can be for someone attending for their first time. You all do your best to welcome everyone. Jenny and I love that about you.
As I mentioned in my last post, the musical Les Miserables has a lot of good theology woven into its plotline. To make my next point, I need to immerse us in the story.
The first character we meet in the musical is Jean Valjean, working on a chain gang while serving a nineteen-year prison term for breaking a window pane to steal a loaf of bread for his sister’s child who was close to death and starving. He is released on parole only to be rejected at every turn by the wider world. The first person to not reject him is the Bishop of Digne. The bishop takes him in, feeds him and gives him a place to stay the night. Valjean repays the bishop’s loving kindness by stealing the silver and running away in the middle of the night. Two policemen bring him back to the Bishop’s home the next day. Valjean has lied and told them that the Bishop gave him the silver. The policemen rightly think this is a lie and they expect the Bishop to confirm that it is a lie. Instead, the Bishop confirms Valjean’s story and goes further, telling Valjean that he departed in such a hurry that he left the best (two silver candlesticks) behind.  The Bishop gives Valjean the candlesticks, blesses the policeman, and sends them on his way. He then speaks (actually, it’s a musical, so he sings) to Valjean saying:
“But remember this, my brother, see in this some higher plan.
You must use this precious silver to become an honest man.
By the witness of the Martyrs, by the passion and the blood,
God has raised you out of darkness.
I have bought your soul for God.”
Now, I could quibble with the Bishop’s theology, but the critical thing is that he recognizes Valjean as a human being made in the image of God. He has shown Valjean that he is beloved of God and has infinite worth. This provokes in Valjean a spiritual crisis that becomes the turning point that changes his life and causes him to show loving kindness throughout the rest of the musical. The Bishop touches Jean Valjean’s life with the love and grace of God, and then Jean Valjean spends the rest of his life doing the same for others.
That’s the plot summary, now here’s the point: a lot of people lead lives in which they are bogged down by past mistakes. They have found themselves so rejected and despised by the world that they feel like they are worthless. It is the church’s job to do what the Bishop did. To tell them that they have a soul, that they are beings of infinite worth and beloved by God. I believe that doing so will make all the difference in the world.
 Technically this is a lie, but I’m assuming the Bishop saw that a great deal more harm would have come from telling the truth. Matters of faithful living are not always completely black and white.
Last night Jenny and I went to see Plain Great Players production of Les Miserables at the Great Plains Theatre (shameless plug: you should go). I was struck by the manner in which theology saturates the play. Throughout the musical, there is a sharp contrast between the generous and merciful faith of the Bishop of Digne (and thus also the faith of Jean Valjean) with the unforgiving faith of Javert. In the end, the first leads to new life and a great deal of good for a great many people and the second leads to death for the one who practices it.
There’s also a line that has long haunted me in the song “I Dreamed a Dream” sung by the character Fantine (played in this production by Liz Collins, hence the shamelessness of plug above). The line was:
“I dreamed that love would never die.
I dreamed that God would be forgiving.”
This is sung after the young mother Fantine has fallen from the rather precarious ledge of her working-class existence into abject poverty and despair. I can understand why the character feels the way she does about God, but that doesn’t mean she’s right. The love of which she sings was the romantic love of a young man, and such love is indeed often fickle and short-lived. But God’s love never dies. It existed before creation came into being and it will persist throughout eternity. Motivated by this undying love, God is indeed forgiving. I wanted to stand up and shout this during the performance last night, but instead, I’m contenting myself with putting it down in this blog post.
Remember that God’s love never dies. Remember that God is forgiving. Choose the generous and merciful faith of the Bishop and Jean Valjean.
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Many of you are hurting. Many of you are carrying heavy burdens. Many of you are fighting hard battles. Remember that God loves you. Remember that Jenny and I love you. Remember to love yourselves and one another. In God’s grace there is strength for any struggle and forgiveness for any failure.
P.S. If you’re wondering whether or not I’m writing to you, then I am.
Today (Wednesday, December 26, 2018) is the second day of Christmas. There are ten more days to go. It’s a time when the hype has begun to fade, and we can begin to get an unobscured view of what we’re celebrating.
I haven’t yet responded to the recent headlines on immigrants, migrants, and those seeking asylum, nor the actions taken along the border between the United States and Mexico because I have simply been too heartbroken. Over and over again, the Bible tells us that we are to welcome the stranger and treat the alien among us as a neighbor. The gulf between what we are doing and what we should be doing is like that between the rich man and Lazarus. I have heard the protestations, objections, and difficulties involved in doing what the Bible tells us we are to do, but above all that din, I can still hear the voice of God, and we are not heeding it.
If you want some examples of what the Bible says here are a few highlighted in The United Methodist Book of Resolutions: Leviticus 19:33-34; Exodus 22:21; 23:9; Deuteronomy 10:19; 24:18-22; Matthew 2:13-18 (in which the child Jesus himself is the one seeking asylum); and perhaps most importantly Matthew 25:31-46 (in which the nations of the world are judged).
Here’s the video of Rev. Dr. Mark Holland of Mainstream UMC speaking on the One Church Plan a few days ago (Wednesday, October 17, 2018) here at First United Methodist Church. You can visit them at MainstreamUMC.com/.
Yesterday Jenny and I and a few other people went over to the Bishop’s town hall meeting in Salina. There were non-affirming people there, and some of them were quite vocal. I returned home even more convinced that while homosexuality is not communicable, homophobia is contagious. (And I’m not saying that everyone who is non-affirming is homophobic, but some of these folks definitely were.)