The Way Forward


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Oregon Convention Center (two towers) where General Conference 2016 was held

The Way Forward proposed by the Council of Bishops at General Conference potentially provides a way to deepen the dialogue within the United Methodist Church on matters of human sexuality. It also gives us some breathing room to see how diversity can actually contribute to unity, rather than trying to force unity (perhaps I should say uniformity) through institutional pleading and legislative action.

As an LGBTQ ally and advocate for an inclusive church I am grateful for the leadership of the bishops in inviting respectful conversation that reflects the wideness of God’s mercy. However, I am also saddened and angry that justice is once again being delayed for many of my sisters and brothers in Christ by the harmful language that will remain in the Book of Discipline for at least two or three more years, and very possibly longer. In the meantime, many more gifted leaders will give up on serving in a church that does not accept them as the beloved children of God they are. In the meantime, many more young people will look elsewhere for open and affirming faith communities where they do not have to wonder if friends or family members will be accepted. In the meantime, many more loving and committed couples will be turned away from the ministries of a church that does not honor their love or value their witness. In the meantime, many more clergy will be forced to risk their livelihood and their future within a church they dearly love because the calling God has nurtured within their lives will not allow them to do otherwise.

So while I applaud the thoughtful leadership of our bishops and will pray and work to support a rethinking of the church’s stance on human sexuality through the special commission to be established, I am mindful of the deep pain and mistrust that many will continue to experience as a result of this outcome. Even though every paragraph in our Book of Discipline regarding human sexuality will be examined by the commission and a special session of General Conference could be called in 2018 or 2019 to act upon the commission’s recommendations, we cannot predict how these processes will play out and whether they will create more just and grace-filled church structures and laws. What we do know is that we need to pray earnestly and work expectantly for the future God has in mind for the people called United Methodist, a future shaped by the justice and mercy at the core of the Gospel.

Words (c) 2016 Mark Lloyd Richardson

It’s Time


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It’s hard to know where to begin as I reflect on my two days spent in our church’s quadrennial meeting known as General Conference. I continue to believe in the incredible gifts our church has been given to offer the world. We are truly a church of social witness from the time John Wesley first took to the streets to announce the good news of Christ to the poor. We have a vast humanitarian reach throughout the world that brings hope and healing to many lives. We are a people who use our feet and hands to move into a hurting world with peace in the name of Christ. We have so much to offer, which makes our persistent wrestling with sexual matters all the more troubling.

Yet there is much pain in the midst of our ecclesial body. There are children of God who feel invisible when others refer to them as an “issue” because of their sexuality. There are children of God who are forced to be secretive about their sexual orientation knowing they may be judged ineligible to be in ministry. There are children of God who know they will not receive the ministry of the church when they commit themselves to one another in marriage. There are children of God who are being silenced and pushed aside by a church that will not recognize their giftedness and beauty as people of sacred worth. The pain is magnified because it is caused by the very church that has nurtured them in faith and trust in God.

It’s time that the church stop harming those who are beloved of God. It’s time to allow ministers and churches to honor and bless the marriages of two persons of the same sex. It’s time to recognize the gift and graces of ministry candidates who identify as LGBTQI and not disqualify them from serving the church solely on the basis of their sexual orientation. It’s time to recognize that the discriminatory language related to sexuality in the Book of Discipline reflects heterosexuality and homophobia and needs to be removed. It’s time to stop acting from fear, misunderstanding, and intolerance. It’s time to reclaim our heritage as a church grounded in Christ’s grace! It’s time to let love overwhelm hate. It’s time to breathe in the Spirit of the Christ who welcomed persons into the presence of God without conditions.

It’s time!

Words (c) 2016 Mark Lloyd Richardson



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Ganna Walska Lotusland, Santa Barbara, CA

Blessing is
the feeling you get
when the day’s gifts
are more
than your gratitude can hold.

Blessing sings
in the sunlight
and dances in the rain
each is irreplaceable.

Blessing favors
no one
it is not stingy or reluctant
it seeks new ways
to express itself each day.

Blessing sleeps
on the pillows
of the just and the unjust
yet truly awakens only in those
who seek God with pure hearts.

Blessing reaches
the furthest limits
of human endeavor
and sets those who receive it
on holy ground.

Blessing surprises.
Blessing breaks open that which is closed.
Blessing speaks to our deepest need.
Blessing wraps us in God’s grace.
Blessing completes.

Copyright (c) 2016 Mark Lloyd Richardson

What Tugs at Your Love


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Version 2When Jesus met the disciples on the beach a week or so after being raised from the dead, he prepared them a breakfast of fish and bread, and in those holy moments they recognized their Lord. As Jesus gives them food for their hungry, tired bodies, he is giving them himself, the bread of life. They are just beginning to understand that whoever comes to Jesus will never be hungry. After a long, frustrating night on the water catching nothing, Jesus guides them to let down their nets in a place that produced abundance.

The gospel of John then relates the conversation between Jesus and his most impetuous, risk-prone disciple Peter.

When they finished eating, Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me more than these?”

Peter replied, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.”

Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.”

A second time Jesus asked, “Do you love me?” and Peter replied in the same way.

Jesus said to him, “Take care of my sheep.”

When Jesus asked Peter a third time if he loved him, it seemed to cut deep into Peter’s sense of identity as a loyal disciple. He replied, “Lord, you know everything; you know I love you.” It was clear that his feelings were hurt.

Jesus once again said, “Feed my sheep.”

Peter may still not fully grasp how life-changing his relationship with the rabbi Jesus the Nazarene is going to be. It’s as though Peter is willing to be on board a train that holds the promise of shifting the world’s power structures, but he isn’t quite convinced that the empty tomb has clinched the deal. Peter’s love is of the brotherly Philios kind and he hasn’t yet come to understand the immensity of Christ’s unconditional Agape love for the world.

The Lord’s challenge to him to feed and take care of those who are within the fold of God’s care – a much larger fold than any of us dare to imagine most days – is a challenge to go beyond the limits of our usual affections. Peter and the other disciples encounter the love of God embodied in their crucified and risen Lord and it calls each of them into deeper expressions of love that hold the power to change the world.

These post-resurrection gospel stories are wonderful antidotes to a faith that is lazy or content. Like Peter, we are being called toward a sacrificial love in which we share with our neighbors the spiritual nourishment we have received from Christ. This may involve inviting persons to worship or other places we experience Christian community. More likely though, it is about the ways we reach out to people through supportive, hands-on forms of self-giving love with no personal return in mind.

In what ways do you and I allow the Spirit of the risen Christ to breathe new life and love into our lives? This is the post-Resurrection question we face in the 21st century.

Pastor Steve Garnaas-Holmes, in his April 8th blog on Unfolding Light writes:

Jesus asks deep, self-giving love of us,
love not for our sake but his.
Sometimes the best we can do
is lightweight friendship.
And in his deep love for us,
Jesus takes whatever we can offer.

And directs that love, whatever it is,
toward the rest of our kin,
for that is where we really love God:
“Feed my sheep.”
Sometimes we discover our love for God
by loving others.

Always Jesus invites us deeper.
“Follow me.”
Peter may not expect much of himself,
but Jesus promises that he will go on:
“You will be led where you did not choose.”

Pay attention to what tugs at your love,
however weak it may seem.
Let it lead you deeper.

Words (c) 2016 Mark Lloyd Richardson (except where noted)

Breath Prayer


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Alice Keck Park SB March 2016 (1)

Alice Keck Park Memorial Gardens, Santa Barbara, California

On this lovely day
with a heart that is restless and unsure
I am gladdened by glory’s simple display
and grateful for sun-warmed sacred moments
as color catches the corner of my eye
while I walk in the park
with no purpose or intention
other than

to breathe in
the life around me

and breathe out
the troubles of the day.

Words (c) 2016 Mark Lloyd Richardson

Where I’m From


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Hay bales VA

Photo credit: Dallis Day Richardson

“If you don’t know where you’re from, you’ll have a hard time saying where you’re going.” This idea from Wendell Berry suggests that our personal and family roots are very illuminating in understanding our place in the world.

I did something recently that I haven’t done before. I read aloud some poems I have written to a group of women in our church who meet weekly to discuss books and support one another in the life of the Spirit. In their invitation to me they had made it clear that they wanted to get to know me better, so I read some poems I’ve written over the years that reveal where I’m from, specifically some about the people who have significantly shaped my life, especially my grandparents.

The first poem I read was based on a poem template that author and speaker Enuma Okoro provided to a large group of United Methodist clergy who were meeting together in September 2015. I just loved how Enuma (who, by the way, is a delightful person, and with whom I enjoyed a long conversation over breakfast one morning) invited this diverse group of Christian ministers to use a template she provided to write about themselves. Then, as people read aloud their poems, it was amazing to feel the sense of our shared humanity even in the midst of very different life experiences.

The original poem called “Where I’m From,” written by poet George Ella Lyon, has provided a framework for many others to explore how their own lives have been shaped by the people who were present at formative times in their lives.

Here’s my poem titled “Where I’m From.”

I am from hay bales and milk pails,
from Lincoln Logs and prairie dogs.
I am from the creaky two-story at the end of the alley in small town U.S.A.
From evergreen forests and snow-capped mountains.
I am from singing around the piano and staying out of the spotlight,
from Sarah and Gerard, Norval and Irene.
I am from hard work and private devotion.
From boys don’t cry and swallowed tears.
I am from camp meeting and the old rugged cross.
From Holland, England and Wales.
I am from canned ham and scalloped potatoes.
I am from tides that rise and fall, from partially cloudy skies
and the heart that wanders.
I am from cornfields and desert, from the islands and the long winding road.

There are stories to be told within each of the phrases in this poem, and that is the point. Our lives are stitched together by the many meaningful interactions and relationships we have with one another and the larger stories in which our lives reside.

You might want to write a poem for yourself called “Where I’m From.” If you do, I’d love to read it!

May you have grace for your journey, Mark

Words (c) 2015 Mark Lloyd Richardson

Renewed in the Waters of Grace


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A scripture text from Baptism of the Lord Sunday still rings in my ears. To a people living in exile, the prophet Isaiah speaks of courage to believe that God is still up to something. “Do not fear,” comes the word of the Lord, “for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”

We hear these words as we remember and renew our baptisms. We come to the baptismal font knowing that God is actively involved in redeeming our lives and this world. Fear loses its threatening grip in the shadow of such immense promises. If the Lord of Creation claims us and calls us to live in the freedom of such promises, who are we to let fear get in the way?

The Israelite exiles were on the edge of extinction when they heard the words, “Do not fear.” They were scattered and despairing of their future when the prophet reminded them of God’s covenant with them. They were “a tiny, miserable, and insignificant band of uprooted men and women,” according to Old Testament scholar Claus Westermann, when the prophet declared their new and different identity as a people supremely valued by God. “You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you,” God says to Israel in spite of their shortcomings.

The waters of baptism lead us to new life – a life surrendered to the God who knits us together in our mothers’ wombs, a life of belonging to the community of the redeemed, a life of learning at the feet of the Rabbi from Nazareth what it means to be fully human and how it feels to be whole. “When you pass through the waters,” the Lord says, “I will be with you.”

The Rev. Dr. Israel (Izzy) Alvaran, Western Jurisdiction Organizer for Reconciling Ministries Network, was our guest preacher this past November. His message was in essence his testimony. Here is a young man who felt called of God at an early age to become a pastor. However, he was also aware of the church’s ban on openly gay people being ordained. He had a dilemma – how to respond to the call of God knowing that the church would not welcome someone like him in leadership if his sexual orientation were made known.

Years later as he stepped into his first pulpit to preach, it was in the very church where he had been brought by his father to be baptized as an infant. It occurred to him in that moment that baptism is a means of grace in which God blesses us with the name “son” or “daughter,” in which God calls us “beloved.” The church and its clergy may administer the sacrament of baptism, but God is the One who calls us by name and claims us as God’s own! No one can take that holy identity from us. No one can remove the sign of God’s grace that rests upon us.

When Izzy came out to his parents recently he felt their unconditional acceptance. He reported, “I am overcome with grace to know they love me.” What the church will do with LGBT people who simply wish to serve God freely with their gifts remains an open question. However, the walls of fear are crumbling. Baptism does that. Embracing our identity as sons and daughters of God does that. Trusting in the God who sides with the oppressed and the marginalized does that.

We are to live as a people named and loved by God. The delight that God takes in you and me is akin to the delight I’ve seen in the eyes of grandparents as they interact with their grandchildren. For that reason, God’s voice through the prophet still rings in my ears, as God gathers together the whole human family at the water’s edge and says, “Everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made,” come my beloved, receive grace, trust grace, be renewed in the waters of grace, preach grace, practice grace, live grace, breathe grace!

Words (c) 2016 Mark Lloyd Richardson

The Light of Epiphany


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Three Kings on AltarMatthew’s story about the magi who set out in search of a child king is the story of a spiritual journey. These were scientists – astronomers whose scholarship involved studying the desert night skies for signs of significant events. Their discoveries of what was beyond the earth in the heavens opened their minds to consider the meaning of a particularly bright and bold star one night and summoned them to take up their journey to Bethlehem.

From Matthew’s point of view, the magi were authentic spiritual seekers. A more accurate picture of their physical journey would be of a large caravan including more than three magi, as well as servants, animals, and supplies, traveling for weeks if not months. Their spiritual journey, on the other hand, was a journey toward the light of God’s presence.

These astrologers from a foreign land are the first to acknowledge Jesus as God’s anointed king, the first to see the light of God shining through this newborn child. Their journey to Bethlehem shows that it is God’s intention to welcome everyone into the joy of God’s eternal home.

In a sense, the journey of the magi points us toward the conclusion of Matthew’s gospel where the final command of the risen Jesus is to carry the gospel to all the nations, and to include all people in the baptismal blessings of God’s new covenant. Just as the light from the star shone on the place where the Christ child was born, so Matthew calls us in our discipleship to a kind of shining. “You are the light of the world,” Jesus says. “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (5:14, 16).

Epiphany reminds us of the light of Christ that shines for all people. We participate in shining this light. At the same time, the story of the magi cautions us not to think that we have all the light we need within our religious tradition. There is a universal human quest for reunion with the author of our lives that finds expression in other religions, cultures, and nations. We need one another in this vastly spread-out human family to practice humility in acknowledging that we are more alike than different when it comes to searching for the light of God’s presence.

So the task of the church is not to protect certain practices or beliefs or traditions. The task of the church is not survival in the midst of huge cultural shifts and increasing secularism. The task of the church is to show hospitality to all who seek God’s light. The task of the church is to reflect the radiance of the Christ child in the world. The task of the church is to live in the light and be a beacon for all who are on their own journey toward spiritual wholeness.

Our lives are meant to radiate the light of Christ in the world as we reach out to new people with the grace and peace of the Gospel message. As we grow in our own faith, we invite others to the life of faith. We humbly acknowledge that we are on a journey as well, that we don’t have all the answers, and that we simply seek to know God more deeply through prayer, worship, and the community of faith.

This Epiphany, may we be as determined as the magi in following the signs that lead to Christ. May we bring our gifts – the gifts of our love, our lives, our humility, our friendship, and our seeking – faithfully sharing them with those we meet along the way. May we give testimony to the light that shines in our midst, the light of God’s love in Christ Jesus, the Word made flesh.

Words (c) 2016 Mark Lloyd Richardson

A Child Has Been Born For Us


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(Originally preached on Christmas Eve 2015 in Santa Barbara, CA)

The world has had a rough year! I suppose that could be said of any year, but there seems to be a heavier sense of worry and fear in the air these days for reasons we all understand. Parents may sense a greater burden when the world feels like it’s going off the tracks. All of us feel the burden though – grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, first responders, counselors, health care providers – all of the adults who care about the generations being raised in today’s world.

Fear is being hyped these days. It’s being bottled and sold on the political trail along with sides of protectionism and militarism masquerading as patriotic fervor. That’s not to say there’s no basis for the fear, only that the escalating rhetoric benefits the ones using it more than it does the public good. Tough talk lets people feel safer in the short term but doesn’t significantly change anything for the better.

The prophet Isaiah wrote during a time of national chaos and despair. In fact, things were about as bad as they could get for those living in the kingdom of Judah. In the midst of geo-political upheaval and shifting alliances in the Middle East, King Ahaz refused to listen to the counsel of the prophet Isaiah who offered him a word promising God’s deliverance from their aggressive neighboring kingdoms. The resulting destruction of Damascus, annexation of large portions of Israel, and deportation of much of the population forms the backdrop of darkness Isaiah describes at the beginning of chapter 9.

The light of the nation had grown dim. It was not just King Ahaz who had chosen this path of destruction; it was the people themselves who were looking for easy solutions to their fears without stopping to listen to the God who had rescued them before. It was the people themselves who had opted for darkness – the darkness of warfare, violence, oppression, and inhumanity. Darkness describes those times when we do not allow the better angels of our nature to come out.

The psalmist, in perhaps the most familiar poetry in scripture, describes darkness as the “shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4). “Even though I walk through the darkest valley,” the psalmist reassures, “I fear no evil; for you are with me.”

We long to be in that state of grace that would enable us to face all of the challenges of life and the troubles of this world without fear, knowing that God remains near. We long also, I believe, for an end to the violence and conflict that touches us not just on an international scale, but much closer to home, and sometimes tragically even within people’s homes. We long for the light of God’s peace to spread throughout the communities and nations in which we live.

Sometimes it is difficult to relate the message of scripture, written in a different time, in ways that will be fruitful and relevant to our lives. Isaiah spoke to a people who had been mired in dark times, their freedoms under threat, their spirits troubled, and he said that God had not given up on them, that God had already broken the yoke of their oppressor.

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness –
on them light has shined. (Isaiah 9:2)

As we gather around the manger, we come to embrace the child of the light! With hearts that ache for this world, with hearts longing for peace, with hearts open to the healing word of God, we come and kneel before the holy child of Bethlehem.

Indeed this is the sign offered by the prophet Isaiah that a new divinely inspired dominion is upon us:

For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
for this time onward and forevermore. (Isaiah 9:6-7)

Stephen Boyd comments, “In the face of the fear, even terror, it is tempting to put our trust in the powerful – those who, seeking their own interests, promise to protect us. In this, our own darkness, Isaiah poses the questions: Will we make room for the Prince of Peace, who orders the world with justice and righteousness? Will we prepare to follow him in peacemaking?”[i]

At Christmas, kneel before the Christ Child who is the very light of God. Poet Ann Weems, in her poem “The World Still Knows,” leads us to the manger with these words:

The night is still dark
and a procession of Herods still terrorize the earth,
killing the children to stay in power.

The world still knows its Herods,
but it also still knows men and women
who pack their dreams safely in their hearts
and set off toward Bethlehem,
faithful against all odds,
undeterred by fatigue or rejection,
to kneel to a child.

And the world still knows those persons
wise enough
to follow a star,
those who do not consider themselves too intelligent
too powerful
too wealthy
to kneel to a child.

And the world still knows those hearts so humble
that they’re ready
to hear the word of a song
and to leave what they have, to go
to kneel to a child.

The night is still dark,
but by the light of the star,
even today
we can still see
to kneel to a child.[ii]

Let us pray:
God of all ages,
in the birth of Christ
your boundless love for your people
shattered the power of darkness.
Be born in us with that same love and light,
that our song may blend with all the choirs of heaven and earth
to the glory of your holy name. Amen.[iii]

Words (c) 2015 Mark Lloyd Richardson (except where noted)

[i] Stephen B. Boyd, “Theological Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, p. 102.

[ii] Ann Weems, Kneeling in Bethlehem, Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1980, p. 55.

[iii] The Revised Common Lectionary website, Year C – Christmas, Nativity of the Lord – Proper I (December 24, 2015), Vanderbilt Divinity Library.

In a Stable Lowly


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Starry night

Photo credit: Pai-Shih Lee, Flickr Creative Commons

With allusion to Mary’s Song in the gospel of Luke, I wrote these song lyrics several years ago that can be sung to the melody of “In the Bleak Midwinter.”

In a stable lowly comes the One foretold,
wrapped in swaddled clothing warding off the cold.
Stars drift in the evening sky, glisten in the trees,
for this infant holy, born to set us free.

Creatures great and small come gather ‘round his bed;
children poor and friendless sound the earth’s lament.
God throws down the proud and lifts the humble high;
in his strength and mercy, souls are magnified.

God comes near to Mary, Joseph and the child,
blesses and beholds their family strong and mild.
God comes near to humankind in this gentle way,
bends to earth and leads us toward a brighter day.

In this holy season what gifts shall we bring,
to lay before our Savior, Christ the newborn king?
All the treasures we possess have no meaning here;
only hearts flung open, loving and sincere.

Words (c) 2015 Mark Lloyd Richardson
[You may use in worship with my permission]