O the Stories We Could Tell!

What if we ran out of stories?  It doesn’t seem like we’re any danger of that.  Netflix announced earlier this year that it was going to spend $8 billion on original content in 2018.  Other media outlets are increasing their output.  Even amateurs with a smartphone are producing YouTube series.

Our appetite for stories doesn’t seem to be slowing either.  Streaming, from Netflix alone, accounts for 15% of all the online traffic worldwide.  Binging on a richly-textured series is a happy pastime for a lot of people.  (For me, too, truth be told.)

But what stories guide our common life?  It doesn’t seem that we can agree on a narrative that helps us understand the moment that we’re in.  Is it The Handmaid’s Tale? The Avengers? Game of Thrones?

One of Bishop Sharma Lewis’s key initiatives has been to encourage Virginia United Methodists to read through the Bible once a year.  Besides being a means of grace, immersing ourselves in Scripture gives us a chance to be formed by our most elemental stories.  They are by no means easy to read.  (Game of Thrones has nothing on some of the violent displays in Israel’s history!)  But they challenge us to see, behind every disturbing human episode, a divine hand and intention.

Television critics like to bemoan the fact that so many of the new TV offerings are retreads of old tales.  But here’s a basic plot that could illumine every story.  We say it every time we gather around the table.  Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

O the stories we could tell with that premise!

In Which I High-Five a Bishop


Bishop Sharma Lewis, photo by Virginia UM Communications

If you had told me last week that I would get to high-five a bishop in the middle of his sermon at Annual Conference, I would have told you that you were dreaming.  Bishops don’t do that.  But bishops do do that and there I was last Saturday as the visiting bishop from Mississippi, James Swanson, wandered the floor of the Hampton Roads Convention Center preaching about the good news at the end of the book (the Bible) and telling us, “We win!”  When he looks you in the eye and says that, what else can you do but go up top?

Swanson preached twice, each time confounding the sign language interpreters who gamely tried to keep pace as he went gleefully off-script.  He spun in a circle to emphasize a point.  He thundered.  He engineered an impromptu altar call that brought hundreds to the front.

[Bishop Swanson] wandered the floor…telling us, “We win!”  When he looks you in the eye and says that, what else can you do but go up top?

Not that it was all about the theatrics.  Or even about Swanson.  Our own bishop, Sharma D. Lewis can unsettle your expectations about preaching, too.  (And she admits that she has learned a thing of two from her mentor, Bishop Swanson.)  She ended the conference by standing on a chair in the middle of the crowd calling out young people and old people and all people to join her in a mission.

No, the thing that was most impressive about this super-charged 235th session of the Virginia Annual Conference of United Methodists, was the way it embodied the hope of a new day with a fresh outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  We didn’t just hear about the Spirit’s work; we were invited into it body and soul.


Bishop Lewis with her family

Bishop Lewis, presiding for the first time in her new role as Virginia’s episcopal leader, began the Conference by sharing that she has the gift of faith.  This sounds a little unusual.  After all, isn’t faith what we all should have?  Well, yes, in that faith is what restores our relationship with the One who made us.  But that faith comes as a gift.  If faith is just an exercise of the will it places too much confidence in our own ability to enact it.  It is a gift to trust that God has done and will do everything necessary in Jesus Christ to bring about God’s purposes. Bishop Lewis has that gift in abundance.

In her closing sermon, she cast a vision, which is “to be disciples of Jesus Christ who are life-long learners, who influence others to serve.”  We’ll be unpacking it for awhile.  It’s a deceptively simple sentence born of her many hours in Chat and Chew sessions across Virginia.  But in the context of what we saw in Hampton, it is clear that the vision is not just words – it’s a total immersion in the work of God in the world.

In the music, in the people she brought to participate in this conference, and most especially in herself, Bishop Lewis gave us the best of where she has come from.  What we saw is firmly rooted in the African-American tradition where she has been nurtured, but basic and universal enough to speak far beyond that context.

I have seen this dynamic in my bishop before.  She is always ‘on’ but when she is preparing for a big moment, there is a new gear.  It’s as if she is saying, “I know you’ve got doubts.  I know there are trials.  But I know Jesus.  So follow me.  Hop on my back if you need to.  We’re going with him.”  The Rev. Morgan Guyton noted this gear in a very insightful and personal reflection on the Conference: “All I could see was that she was all in.”*

She is.  We are.  So we go.  And I’ll high-five anybody who wants to go with me.

Fidget Spinners, Coffee Mugs, and the Hope of the Church 


photo by Alzinous

What the church really needs for revival is to be socially relevant.  No, it all starts with a great music program.  Wait, we need a mission statement that’s clever and quippy.  How about a Bible study that offers applicable principles for everyday living?  Don’t forget the giveaway mugs!

There’s no end to prescriptions for turning around churches.  And there’s an element of truth to most of them (although I wouldn’t build a revival around coffee mugs!).  But if the main actor in the proposal isn’t God, then you haven’t started in the right place.

I’m sometimes overwhelmed by the volume of advice that churches are given, (I’m sometimes the giver!), and usually underwhelmed by the amount of actual turn-around that happens as a result.  Most of our advice for church renewal stems from both an unwarranted belief in the quick fix and a deep anxiety about institutional survival.  But God knows we are called to something different.

Most of our advice for church renewal stems from both an unwarranted belief in the quick fix and a deep anxiety about institutional survival.  But God knows we are called to something different.

Our emphasis, as Virginia United Methodists, on deepening our practice of spiritual disciplines, begun under Bishop Cho, and Bishop Lewis’ current invitation to engage in daily Bible reading points in another direction.  God doesn’t need new techniques or slogans – God desires a people who have been claimed by Jesus Christ and whose identities are now inseparable form his.

God’s work is to transform us and the world.  The good news is that we get to participate in what God is doing.  If that’s true, there’s no room for our frenetic, anxious activity.  That’s what fidget spinners are for.

The good news is that we get to participate in what God is doing.  If that’s true, there’s no room for our frenetic, anxious activity.  That’s what fidget spinners are for.

Instead, we get to embody hope.  In a recent article in Faith and Leadership magazine, Allen T. Stanton says that’s something rural churches can offer to their communities – not because it’s a niche to be exploited, but because it’s who we are.  Churches should stand out because their identity is not grounded in the narratives of decay that afflict so many of our rural communities.


Alex with Bishop Sharma Lewis

“In a community of decline, hope becomes countercultural,” Stanton says. “While it would be wrong to foster a false sense of optimism or to promise that manufacturing and young adults will return, the church has a unique ability to stand in the hard realities and still preach hope.”

Why?  Because we know a risen Savior who has conquered sin and death.  Plus…somewhere around here I’ve got a mug that says that.

A Prayer for a Way Forward by Bishop Sharma Lewis


This week the Virginia Conference of the United Methodist Church will be taking the lead in a denomination-wide week of prayer for A Way Forward.  I’ll be sharing some of the conference prayer resources for the week, some of which came out of my Thousand Prayers for Unity Project.  As the commission helps us deal honestly with our divides over human sexuality and the desire to go forward together as a church that finds a God greater than our divisions and inclusive of all people, let us pray.

Prayer for April 2 by Bishop Sharma D. Lewis

Eternal God, you promised in your Word, “…do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God…”

O God, I release my worries and concerns about the future of our denomination.

O God, I choose the discipline of prayer to seek your direction in all matters of life.

O God, I intercede on behalf of the 32 members on the Commission on a Way Forward.  Grant them peace and clarity in their moments of study, dialogue and reflection.

O God, I thank you for each member that was chosen for their love, commitment, gifts and graces they bring to The United Methodist Church.

O God, grant them wisdom, and guidance as they seek your face about the future of our denomination.

Lord in your mercy. Hear my prayer.