Seed Planting and Brokenness

First United Methodist Mount Holly New Jersey

First United Methodist Mount Holly New Jersey

Seventy-two years ago, I was baptized in the Methodist Episcopal Church in Mt. Holly New Jersey.  Although you could call me a cradle Methodist, my family were not church goers and I didn’t attend church until a teenager. My next door neighbor a Presbyterian Sunday School teacher invested in the life of this 8th grader, which led to my going through confirmation class and eventually to a conversion at a Billy Graham crusade in Philadelphia in 1962.

1962 Philadelphia Crusade

1962 Philadelphia Crusade

 

This led to my involvement in a number of fundamentalist churches during my adolescent and young adult years. I even enrolled in a fundamental academy and later in the same institution’s University, but even though I learned a lot about Jesus and the Bible and even felt a call to full time Christian service, I never felt at home in that environment. In 1972, while working in a non-denominational youth ministry in South Texas, I was embraced by a local Methodist Church filled with Wesleyan love and grace. I knew almost immediately that the prodigal son had found his way home. From there in 1976, I enrolled in seminary, which led to my graduation and ordination in the United Methodist Church. It was during those seminary years at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary that the school’s President Dr. Harold Ockenga and my seminary professor and mentor Stephen Mott provided for me a vision to help bring renewal to mainline denominations and specifically in my case my beloved Methodist Church. My denomination had increasingly embraced a more liberal social gospel that had abandoned John Wesley’s emphasis on scriptural Holiness. 

Dr. Harold Ockenga

Dr. Harold Ockenga

Dr/. Stephen Mott

Dr/. Stephen Mott

 

For the past 40 years, this vision motivated me in my work in local churches and in my Arkansas Annual Conference. I found for the most part laity in the churches I served as receptive to the vision and for most of these years I found a receptivity within our conference. However, as the debate over human sexuality has become more vitriolic and divisive, the atmosphere in the General church and even in my conference has led to a polarization that deflated my optimism in that vision of institutional renewal. I have come to see how much bigger issues were at stake with how the Bible is read and understood and appropriated. I have come to the conviction that there is a profound brokenness that can only be healed through some form of division and separation. This is a painful realization for me and many others on all sides of this issue. I have dear friends and colleagues who are more liberal than I, have come to the same conclusion.

 

In the midst of my sadness and disappointment, I have come to realize that it is often through our brokenness in the loss of our hopes and dreams, that God brings new life. Years ago, I heard a quote from Vance Havner that speaks to this reality. “God uses broken things, it takes broken soil to produce a crop, broken clouds to give rain, broken grain to produce bread, broken bread to give strength. It is Peter weeping bitterly, who returns to greater power than ever.” This was true in the day of Methodist founder John Wesley, who God used to bring a great awakening on two continents, out of the brokenness in the Church of England. Paul reminds us in II Corinthians 4:7 that God brings treasure out of “cracked Pots” to demonstrate this all surpassing power is from God and not us.

Vance-Havner-header-01.jpg

 

I have no idea how this conflict within my beloved United Methodist Church will resolve itself, but I do know that if we keep planting tiny seeds of grace and truth in our churches, communities and in our world, God will bring new life and advance his kingdom. Remember, “In a tiny seed lies the potential of a forest.” Keep planting seed my friends.

Jeremiah, the Ultimate Optimist

Growing up in New Jersey, across the Hudson River in New York City is the home of Marble Collegiate Church, a congregation of the Reformed Church of America. As a youth I remember watching their pastor, the Dr. Norman Vincent Peale on television. Peale also founded the popular devotional guide, Guideposts read by millions of people.

But more than anything, Dr. Peale was known for the phrase, "The Power of Positive Thinking". In fact one his best selling books had that phrase as its title.  There is something attractive in such an expression.  It is clear the power of negative thinking is just that, "Negative". We have all been with groups and individuals that are so negative and cynical, we try to exit stage right at the  earliest opportunity and find the nearest shower.  Yet the marketing of the phrase seemed a bit pollyanna for me in the midst of the negative influences that surrounded us then and now.

The key issue is the source of the hope that underlies such optimism.  Some see the hope coming from our circumstances. Others would suggest, hope springs totally from within the individual. We might say that is a hopeful or optimistic person.  A third approach would suggest that ultimately all hope must spring from something outside our circumstances and ourselves.

After recently reading the book of Jeremiah, I became convinced the the prophet was the ultimate optimist. Say what?  "Optimist? Wasn't Jeremiah known as the 'weeping prophet'?"  "Didn't the king complain that he always had bad news for the him and the nation?" Indeed that is true. So what would qualify Jeremiah as the "Ultimate Optimist"?

First in spite of the fact the Babylonian Armies surrounded Judah and at any point could lay siege and dismantle Jerusalem,  God instructs Jeremiah in chapter 32 to invest in a family farm. And though this was no fire sale, where Jeremiah could buy low and later make a nice prophet, Jeremiah pays what might be a reasonable price for the field in in spite of the dire circumstances.  God in verse 15 gives the rationale for the purchase, "For this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land.". God had judged his chosen nation and they were about to suffer the consequences of their rebellion at the hands of the Babylonians, Yet God was not finished with his people. The parcel of farm land was a foreshadowing of what is yet to come.  Hope for the future is still alive. Hence an answer to the above question, hope is not anchored in the circumstances that surrounds us.  If it were the old Hee Haw song would be our chorus, "Gloom, despair, and agony on me Deep, dark depression, excessive misery If it weren't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all Gloom, despair, and agony on me."

Second, neither does our hope spring from within ourselves.  There are some days I am a cock-eyed optimist, while others, a doomsday prophet. My personal experience is like the Arkansas barometer on a spring day, when a sultry warm front is confronted with cold air arising from the Northwest. "Get to your safe place, a twister cometh! " Jeremiah 29 lays the foundation of our hope, when the prophet brings to the people a word from God.  "For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.  You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.I will be found by you," declares the Lord, "and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you," declares the Lord, "and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile." (Jeremiah 29:11-14) Our hope is anchored neither from our circumstances, nor from within our personal experiences, but hope is ultimately rooted in a Word that comes from God to us and carries us through the darkness into his light. Therefore in spite of all outward appearances, Jeremiah is the ultimate optimist.

 

Black Marks on White Paper

Davis Deer Camp

Davis Deer Camp

“In a tiny seed lies the potential for a forest”

 

The idea for Tiny Seed Blog has its roots in 1998 at the Davis Deer Camp in South Arkansas, when I was first introduced to Bennie D. Warner. He had been appointed District Superintendent of the Camden District in Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church. I was a pastor in his district and the meeting was a get acquainted time for those who would serve under him. It was there he shared his story of how a tiny seed grew into a bountiful forest.

Bennie D. Warner

Bennie D. Warner

His story begins as an eight year old in a poor Liberian village.  A visitor comes and makes Black Marks on White Paper and delivers a speech from his notes. This experience engendered a desire within Bennie to read and write. This burning desire became fulfilled 8 years later when he enrolled in a mission school in Gbanga and was given a work study scholarship.

The Missionaries who ran the school became foster parents for Bennie. They helped him not only gain a secondary education, but provided him an opportunity to receive a college degree and graduate degrees in eduction and and theology. Returning home, he served the Gbanga mission as principal and pastor of the mission church. Despite economic, educational and social challenges, Warner grew in influence through his election as Liberia's United Methodist Bishop and in 1977 as Vice President of the Republic of Liberia upon the death of his predecessor.

In 1980 while Warner was in the United States for a church meeting, there was a military coup in Liberia with the President and most of the cabinet were executed. Warner was advised not to return home as "they had a M-16 with his name on it." Warner became a man without a country. Yet in his indomitable way he decided, "God is calling me to be a missionary to America." Warner has spent the last 37 years fulfilling his childhood vision in the pulpit and classrooms of the U.S.

I will never forget that day at Davis Deer Camp. After I retired from pastoral ministry in 2009, I pursued taking film courses at Arkansas State University. After producing a short film for a graduate documentary class, my appetite was whet. 

During a reflective moment, Bishop Warner's story seemed the obvious next step.  Black Marks on White Paper took over two years to produce. It premiered in April of 2013 as a part of the Ozark Film Festival in Batesville, Arkansas. Over the last 4 years, the film has been seen by tens of thousands of people through screenings, DVD, VOD and most recently was broadcast on Arkansas Education Network, the PBS affiliate for the state.  The end of the film comes full circle in 2009, as Warner returns to his native village and promises to provide a school for its children.  The School was dedicated in 2016. What a wonderful forest was built from the tiny seed given to an 8 year old.

If you have not seen, Black Marks on White, consider watching the film by clicking on the play icon in the middle off the photo below. Also, if you would like to receive notices of upcoming Tiny Seed Blogs, subscribe by typing your email at bottom of the page and by responding to an email, which will be sent you to confirm your subscription.

My mission is tell tiny seed stories of hope and transformation in culture filled with skepticism and cynicism.