Beneficial termites? How scientists grew to love a household pest

Termites. Just hearing the word makes most people say, “Ick!” But not Gregg Henderson. He says termites can be cute. Dr. Henderson is an entomologist, so his opinion is to be expected. But admiration for the critters is growing – at least among scientists. Termites have long been seen solely as the small vermin that can literally eat people out of house and home. But some of the same characteristics that make the bugs such good habitat destroyers, also make them vital players in many ecosystems. In fact, some ecosystems might collapse without them. Take the arid African savanna, for example. It should be nearly lifeless with its extreme dry seasons. But termite colonies have been found to store enough moisture to make the habitat lush. The latest chapter in the developing story of termite fascination comes out of the Bornean rainforest, where scientists found that termites helped the ecosystem weather an extreme drought. “You have to ask yourself a philosophical question,” says long-time termite researcher, J. Scott Turner. “Is the termite a pest, or is the termite just being a termite?”

Termites are a lot of things, but most people wouldn’t call them “cute.” Gregg Henderson isn’t most people.

He’s an entomologist, and has studied the social behavior of termites at Louisiana State University for nearly 30 years. Professor Henderson’s affection extends to the termites in his house – ones he keeps in buckets, that is. But at the university, his job is to conduct research that will help make better baits, insecticides, and other pest control methods.

That dissonance matches most of humanity’s relationship to termites. They’re seen almost solely as small vermin that can literally eat people out of house and home. But characteristics that make the bugs such good habitat destroyers also make them vital players in many ecosystems. In fact, some ecosystems might collapse without them.

But most people don’t care to learn more about the insects beyond how best to kill them.

Even scientists have been slow to catch on. Termite research long focused on how best to eradicate the bugs. But slowly, that has been changing. Discoveries made by a handful of fascinated scientists have inspired more interest.

And the more scientists learn, the more complicated humanity’s relationship with termites can become.

“You have to ask yourself a philosophical question,” says another termite researcher, J. Scott Turner. “Is the termite a pest, or is the termite just being a termite?”

Ecosystem protectors

The latest chapter in the developing story of termite fascination comes out of the Bornean rainforest, where termites helped the ecosystem weather an extreme drought. The discovery, which was accidental, is detailed in a paper published Thursday in the journal Science.

Researchers wanted to better understand the role termites play in that ecosystem generally. They had set up an experiment that suppressed a termite colony to see what would happen in their absence, with control plots for comparison.

Then, an El Niño drought hit in 2015. So they ran the experiment a second time, during a more typical year.

As it turned out, in the control plots, termite activity during the drought was twice what it was under normal conditions. And, as a result, there was more moisture in the soil, a greater variety of nutrients, and seedlings survived at a higher rate.

“We got quite lucky,” says study co-lead author Louise Ashton, an assistant professor at the University of Hong Kong. “It wasn’t until the system was under that stress from the drought that the roles of termites in buffering the effects of drought really became apparent.”

This isn’t the first time termites have been found to bring resiliency to an ecosystem. The critters are actually credited with making some of the dry regions in Africa lush.

“Southern Africa’s arid savanna, for example, is really largely constructed by what termites enable other things to do,” says Professor Turner, a physiologist at The State University of New York in Syracuse who has spent much of his career studying mound-building termites in southern Africa. The region’s charismatic safari animals have the “humble labors of all the termites” to thank for their survival, he adds.

Most of termites’ influence has to do with water. Like all animals, they have to stay hydrated. But unlike some animals, termites are particularly good at storing water for a dry day.

The insects have help from a different kind of organism: fungi. Researchers have found that termites cultivate a sort of fungus garden within their colony, built from chewed up grass and wood, and inoculated with fungal spores. The fungi are crucial to making termites such good wood eaters. They break down cellulose and lignin (both famously difficult to consume compounds) from the plant matter into more easily digestible nutrients.

Importantly for termites’ neighbors, those fungal structures can hold a lot of water. Inside a single colony, Dr. Turner says, there can be a reservoir of about 50 liters of liquid water. During the dry season or a drought, that moisture seeps out into the surrounds and helps organisms as mighty as trees survive.

That seepage can deplete termites’ reservoir. But, Turner says, termites are particularly adept at gathering more, digging deep down into the ground when they have to, carrying water back to the surface in pouches in their abdomens.

The processes are thought to be similar in other places, such as the Bornean rainforest. But what about the increased nutrients Dr. Ashton and her colleagues found linked to termite activity?

Termites in southern Africa and beyond are known to help redistribute a massive amount of nutrients, too. They bring plant waste from deep in soils and over a wide area back to their mounds, making the structures nutrient hotspots. Then, when wind blows and rain falls, that healthy dirt is spread across the savanna.

One termite trait that enables the critters to be (sometimes) good neighbors is their sociability.

Termite colonies work together as a cohesive unit, explains Henderson, now an emeritus professor at LSU. “They’re doing things that make sense,” he says, like communicating and grooming one another, and calmly following-the-leader away from danger rather than fleeing frenziedly. “It’s what’s allowed them to survive and be successful for so long.”

Living in harmony?

The dissonance between the benefits and costs of living with termites are uniquely felt in African agriculture. Termites are voracious grazers, and so are cattle. Farmers don’t always appreciate the competition.

Some farmers opt to wipe out the competitors. Others choose to coexist, often out of a recognition of termites’ propensity for enriching the topsoil.

But it’s not all about healthy dirt. When the mound-building termites are taken out, Turner explains, another kind of termite often takes its place. Entomologists call those “weedy” termites, because they’re more of a pest. While the mound-building termites Turner studies settle into a place for the long-haul, a weedy termite colony plunders resources and then moves on to a new habitat conquest.

Termites are quite a diverse group worldwide. But most of the termites species in North America are similar to the African “weedy” termites, Turner says, which probably explains extreme disdain for them. Even Henderson advises not to let them get close.

“As cute as they are,” he says, “don’t let them get in your house. Just watch them in your yard.”

Why the pivot to #GC2019 Connectional Conferences Plan support?

January Surprise!

It’s common wisdom that the two front-runners for the future acceptable form of The United Methodist Church (see 1000 word summary here) are the One Church Plan and the Traditionalist Plan, and a distant, distant second is the Connectional Conferences Plan (CCP).

But an odd thing happened in the past month in United Methodism. First, Bishop Scott Jones, a documented opponent of the One Church Plan, released a video calling the Connectional Conferences Plan the true “one church” plan and praised it.

Then, the moderators for the Commission on A Way Forward put out a press release reminding folks to pay attention to the CCP, stating:

“we encourage the church to wrestle seriously with the fact that God does make all things new and not set aside the Connectional Conference Plan as too complicated or too different. “

Finally, Bishop Gary Mueller (Arkansas AC) issued a white paper and a UMNews article on the CCP. And some bishops have been contacting delegates directly to encourage them to take a second look.

What gives? Why the interest now?

What is the Connectional Conferences Plan?

From our 2018 analysis, as currently written, the Connectional Conferences Plan (CCP) would do away with the five jurisdictions in the U.S. and replace them with three (non-geographical) connectional conferences, each with its own theological viewpoint and response to issues related to LGBTQ inclusion. You can imagine a progressive (full inclusion), traditionalist (continued full exclusion), and moderate (each church chooses their own way, basically a limited One Church plan) conferences, but there are probably other ways to do it.

These connectional conferences would continue to operate under the big umbrella of United Methodism, sharing common doctrinal standards, jointly supporting mission and ministries outside of the U.S., and utilizing a shared general church administrative infrastructure, although not all conferences would pay into them equally.

The process is complex: lots of constitutional amendments and legislation that would have to be done carefully. It is also the only plan forwarded by the Commission that didn’t receive Judicial Council review, because of those constitutional amendment requirements. And finally, its full implementation is 6-10 years, during which the UMC will look very different!

This was our conclusion:

The United Methodist Church has a long history of mergers, schisms, reunifications, and offshoots. Our current unique quality is being both progressive and conservative evangelical together, holding in tension our various streams of social action, holiness, pietism, and others. This plan is supported by most academic circles who see it as the best way to maintain our various streams.

But to HX, what the plan does is take The UMC back in time. Back to before the EUB merger in 1968. Back to the non-geographic conferences created in 1939. It removes our affinity and affiliations to name-only. I doubt it would increase our affections, only our animosity, as the sadly accurate joke goes.

Maybe that’s okay. Maybe we need some breathing space and to prioritize our rigid Traditions over Scripture’s call for mutual growth. But knowing the human tribalism and polarization culture that is at a peak right now, I don’t see an extended time-out helping us grow more together in love.

In conclusion, the Connectional Conferences Plan’s goal is not to create a reconciled church over the divisive debate over LGBTQ inclusion. Its goal is to preserve the institutional structures and cater our programs to our polarities. Maybe at the end of the day, that’s the best we can hope for.

I would go further now and say that, if adopted, the Connectional Conferences Plan is the first step towards an official church schism (split), which I know many American conservatives want, but many, many Central Conference (areas beyond the USA) regions absolutely don’t want.

Why the interest now?

I think there are a couple of factors that contribute to its interest now.

First, there’s the narrative that we are divided into One Church Plan and Traditionalist Plan camps, and there’s little middle ground between them. Shifting energy towards the CCP, which can be framed as a way for both camps to coexist, seems to be the driving reason to try to gauge the interest. I don’t think it is because either side is seeing erosion of their support–that would be a mistake to assume.

Second, there’s the erroneous belief that we will be forced to choose between different directions for United Methodism in a single vote, and thus drawing votes away from the frontrunners helps the other frontrunner. In this case, encouraging One Church Plan supporters to support the CCP is believed to draw those votes away from the One Church Plan, and thus benefit the Traditionalist Plan. I’ve debunked that here, but it probably continues as a tactic.

Third, I stand apart from some progressives who are saying “hey, this means they are abandoning the Traditionalist Plan!” No. Keep vigilant. As I wrote before about how manipulating the number plans affects our decision-making process, bringing the focus back to a different plan takes the heat off of the Traditionalist Plan. For progressives, our focus should be defeating the Traditionalist Plan as a violation of common dignity and our Wesleyan heritage, so resting from that opposition is a grievous error.

But there’s another more ominous problem with the CCP: is it being set up to be taken down?

Biggest problem: CCP is easiest to defeat

The Connectional Conferences Plan requires constitutional amendments to change how jurisdictions and annual conferences work. This is the second-highest threshold for a bill to become polity: 2/3 of the delegates and then 2/3 of the annual conference delegates ratify it before it becomes law. So the barrier to passage is much higher than the 50% + 1 threshold for many of the other plans.

There’s a political strategy to throwing support behind a plan that then fails…and then calling people to unite around your preferred plan. So putting false hopes into a basket that is easiest to defeat is a legislative strategy to support the Traditionalist Plan (we previously discussed this type of legislation shenanigan in this post).

But even if it passes General Conference, conservatives have killed this type of advancement before. General Conference has voted for a constitutional amendment, and then conservative annual conferences vote it down. It happened with the 2016 Amendment for women’s equality (the first time), and it happened in 2008 with the Constitutional Amendments to create a central conference in The United States. They passed General Conference, and then were defeated by conservative annual conferences.

So yes, there’s a political strategy here, at least on the part of conservative Traditionalists. Either at GC, or after, the CCP is easiest to defeat and thus continue the unjust status quo, or encourage folks to support the Traditionalist Plan. Take heed.

Your turn

Life together is hard, and the plans before us are creative, tired, or just plain mean. Delegates should enter General Conference with eyes wide open to the marketing, legislative, and emotional tactics to take our focus away from Christ and our call to be Christ’s church. May our days ahead be filled with prayer, discernment, and care for one another.


Thanks for reading, commenting, and sharing on social media.

Free Stuff Fridays (Ligonier and Reformation Trust)

This week’s Free Stuff Friday is sponsored by Ligonier and Reformation Trust.

The Bible teaches us to pray without ceasing, but many Christians struggle with prayer. Is there a right way to pray? How should we address a holy God? In The Prayer of the Lord, R.C. Sproul helps us understand how to pray according to the pattern Jesus set for us as he examines each line of the Lord’s Prayer. For one week, Ligonier Ministries and Reformation Trust are offering the ebook edition as a free download for all readers. Simply click here to request your free ebook. In addition, ten Free Stuff Fridays winners will receive the paperback edition.

You can learn more about the book here.

Enter the Draw

All you need to do to enter the draw is to drop your name and email address in the form below. (If you receive this by email, you will need to visit to enter.)

Giveaway Rules: You may enter one time. As soon as the winners have been chosen, all names and addresses will be immediately and permanently erased. Winners will be notified by email. The giveaway closes Saturday at noon.

N.T. Wright’s Lecture on Resurrection and the Renewal of Creation

Below is N.T. Wright’s lecture at the Lanier Theological Library on “Resurrection and the Renewal of Creation”

Few Christians realize what “resurrection” meant in the first-century world where early Christianity was born. It meant nothing short of “new creation” — the reaffirmation, by the creator God, of the goodness of the original creation, starting with the crucified body of Jesus Himself. Once we grasp this, we see that many lines of thought in the New Testament, particularly in John and Paul, point not just to the resurrection of Jesus’ people, but to the restoration of the whole creation. This restoration has already begun, and part of what the Holy Spirit is doing now, through the work of Jesus’ followers, is to promote anticipation of the ultimate new creation.

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N.T. Wright’s Lecture on Resurrection and the Renewal of Creation

In Flint, a future built on schools as well as safe water

Flint, Mich.

When her two-year-old son DeQuincey was diagnosed with elevated lead levels and developmental delays, Crystal Garcia-Pitts worried he might face a lifetime of health and behavioral challenges.

The infamous Flint crisis over lead-tainted water, while not definitively to blame, was a possible cause of her son’s lead exposure, as for many others in this economically depressed Michigan city.

Yet after a year at an innovative school opened in the wake of the water crisis, DeQuincey has caught up so much he’s no longer considered delayed at all.

“He’s talking more, he knows how to count to 10 already,” Ms. Garcia-Pitts said recently after a support group for mothers wrapped up at the school, which serves 220 children from months-old babies to 5-year-olds. “He’s outgrown a lot of the stuff…. If he hadn’t been here, that wouldn’t have been the case.”

Late last year, Garcia-Pitts also enrolled her 4-month-old son Leo at the state-of-the-art school, the first in Michigan to follow an innovative model called Educare, for early childhood education. The former waitress even landed a job at the school as a liaison with families.

Her encouraging experience reflects the tangible successes of broad-based recovery efforts that have gathered momentum since the crisis – all centered around the idea that success involves a definition of community health that broadens well beyond safe water in city pipes.

It’s too soon to say how effective the blend of public and private initiatives will ultimately prove to be given Flint’s myriad woes. High poverty, crime, and distrust of institutions persist in this city, which once prospered as a factory hub for General Motors.

But what’s under way here is notable for its breadth and scope – ranging from parenting classes to promoting children’s mental health, and from economic development to prescription vegetables. It could also hold lessons for other communities struggling with economic decline. 

“We all work together, so we all work hand in hand,” says Mona Hanna-Attisha, a crusading, Flint-based professor and pediatrician who helped expose the water crisis. Her research on child development has informed efforts here. “The hope is all of this holistically serves as a best practice for children everywhere who are suffering from similar toxicities and traumas.” 

‘All of these pieces came together’

Civic groups, foundations, and universities have joined hands alongside local government and public-health officials.

“We want [Flint] to be a model in terms of what to do in a recovery process,” says Ridgway White, president and chief executive of the Flint-based Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, which provided $4 million in grant funding to reconnect Flint back to a safe water source in 2015.

“The nonprofit sector was here to respond and lessen the struggles,” he says. “All of these pieces came together at a time when the government was not able to respond.”

The water contamination started in 2014 from a botched cost-cutting effort. A change in the water source, approved by a state-appointed emergency manager for the financially struggling city, resulted in badly corroded pipes. The city’s water quality has tested safe for two years, according to federal guidelines, though many in Flint still don’t trust it.

After the water crisis captured international headlines, Mott was one of 10 foundations, including W.K. Kellogg, Kresge, Ford, Robert Wood Johnson, Skillman, and others, that pledged $125 million over five years to help Flint bounce back. Of that amount, the Mott Foundation alone pledged roughly $100 million, with half going toward educational endeavors specifically, including $11-million to build Educare Flint.

Impressive as such sums are, Mr. White is cautious about how much the nongovernment players can achieve without more publicly funded support.

“We can’t claim success until a person who grows up in Flint has an equal opportunity to someone who grows up in a more affluent area,” he says. “Foundations can’t do it alone. Maybe the old model of test, scale, and have the government take over isn’t exactly what it used to be, but there is still a major role for government…. We shouldn’t be the ongoing funding source.”

With the help of state and federal funding, the city of Flint is still replacing pipes that could contaminate the water supply. It hopes that work will be complete by the end of next year.

Wider recovery for the community is a longer-term task – and much of it hinges around education.

‘Full-service’ schools

With help from various nonprofits, the Flint-based Crim Fitness Foundation has implemented a “full-service” school model, so schools are one-stop shops for parents in need of multiple types of help. A full-time community health worker and a full-time community school director have been added to every school to help parents with everything from finding housing to getting to school. This community-education model, informed by resident input, began before the water crisis, but was expanded rapidly in response to it.

“Resilience in Flint is probably the biggest characteristic to stand out,” says Gerry Myers, chief executive of the Crim Fitness Foundation. He says that, although distrust toward outside institutions runs high in Flint due to years of corporate disinvestment, state cost-cutting, and the poisoned water, the community-education effort has escaped “this frame of distrust.”

“There are big voids that are being filled,” says Danielle Green, a member of the school board.

“Before I can even get in the door at schools, parents have a lot of thank-yous – a lot of questions, and still concerns – but a lot of thank yous.” she says.

One of those voids involved play areas, with the Community Foundation of Greater Flint stepping up to fund eight new Flint playgrounds in the past two years.

Another was a gap in books. A citywide program named Flint Kids Read, with help from Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, will mark two years in operation in January and has delivered nearly 75,000 books to more than 5,000 kids and 200 classrooms or daycare-type sites. And Born To Read, a local program that provides a bundle of books and developmental materials for newborns, recently enrolled its 1,000th child.

“It’s fantastic, I just can’t believe the volume of books…. There’s no way our community could mail 5,000 books a month to our kids and for just two dollars and 10 cents per book” without all of these partners involved, says Kathryn (Kay) Schwartz, director of library services at the Flint Public Library, which is operating with 40-percent less revenue than in 2009. “It makes this program affordable for our community.”

Mental-health efforts

Other efforts seek to broaden the mental toolkit of residents. Community members including Ms. Green are teaching a form of meditation known as “mindfulness” to residents. The initiative now reaches 6,000 children and 2,000 people beyond the schools, helping them build social and emotional skills. Proponents cite research suggesting the instruction can help with things like handling stress, collaborating, and staying focused.

Marlo Thomas, a Flint resident who works as a nursing assistant, says her 14-year-old twin sons are being helped by the coaching in mindfulness at Flint Southwestern Academy, the city’s only remaining public high school. The pair of 9th graders “compromise, make better decisions, have better thoughts. It helps them with their daily routine,” says Ms. Thomas.

Crim Fitness Foundation

Crim mindfulness educator Tom Hauer teaches a free community yoga class held monthly in the lobby of the Crim Fitness Foundation in downtown Flint. The foundation is one of many nonprofits supporting public-health, eduction, and economic progress in the city since its water crisis.

Some improvements in Flint began before the water crisis. Michigan State University’s Division of Public Health began its move to Flint’s downtown earlier, but then accelerated the process and served as an anchor for development and the expansion of services for Flint residents.

Most others were launched after the crisis made national headlines. Early in 2018, the city of Flint added an economic development team, with the help of a nearly $3-million, four-year grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. The city has also created three new roles, including a chief recovery officer, all of which are funded by outside grants. And the United Way funds a new role created in 2016 – the president of Flint Neighborhoods United – to serve as a go-between among residents and those in power.

Many in Flint credit Dr. Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician-professor, with a vision and drive that has fueled the collective efforts and influx of financial support in Flint.

“Mona’s research is at the core of many of the interventions that we fund. She’s been instrumental,” says Isaiah Oliver, chief executive of the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, which among other things owns the Educare Flint building.

A focus on food

Another feature of the holistic approach to public health involves meals. About a year ago, the Hurley Medical Center where Hanna-Attisha works started screening patients for food insecurity. It refers those in need to get fully subsidized food from a Food FARMacy, which has reached more than 3,400 residents so far with lead-mitigating and other foods. And a program called Flint Kids Cook, in a partnership with Michigan State University (MSU), sits alongside parenting classes and the Born To Read program at Hurley. 

Some outside Flint are taking notice. One provision in the recently enacted federal farm bill was inspired by a Hurley/MSU nutrition prescription program.

But in a city where 60 percent of children live in poverty, numerous challenges remain.

Despite the Educare site, for example, more than 2,000 children in Flint below age 5 – nearly a quarter in that age group – are not in a licensed daycare or preschool program at all.  

Derrick Lopez, the new superintendent of Flint schools, points out that sometimes the most vulnerable parents are living so hand to mouth that they’re not aware of vital services.

“We can do more and I think that is the challenge,” says Dr. Lopez, who became the superintendent of Flint Community Schools in August. “There are more kids in crisis that we can identify…. It’s incumbent on us to make sure more parents are able to access” the expanded services available, he says.

Thanks to funding from the state and the federal Centers for Disease Control, Michigan State’s Division of Public Health launched in January. The registry is modeled partly after a similar effort supporting families affected by the World Trade Center attacks in 2001. It aims to connect current and even former Flint residents who were affected by the water crisis to more than 30 services and resources, including those for early education.

Similarly, at both Educare Flint and a sister school that serves 144 children, Cummings Great Expectations, parents can connect with a range of services. The schools serve neighborhoods with some of the highest likelihoods of exposure to lead. The Educare school is one of 23 nationwide featuring full-day, year-round programming, and classroom observation rooms manned by specialized staff. Operating on a mix of public and private funding, both schools enable parents to sign up on site for programs including Medicaid and food stamps.

Lopez says such outreach efforts make “a huge difference because you lower the barrier. Time is the commodity, and often parents don’t think they have the time to do that, so a one-stop service stop … is huge.”

Hanna-Attisha describes Flint as a “small big city,” voicing hope that it can become a model for other cities recovering from post-industrial decline.

“Our story is way beyond Flint,” she says. “It’s about kids everywhere.”

What Matters Most for the New Year


Moving into a new year isn’t as simple as merely turning the page on a calendar.

Sometimes, instead of an organized list of plans and goals the new year looks like a list of question marks.

The things of life don’t always fall neatly into place with everything sorted and resolved according to our best laid plans. When we turn a calendar page and a brand new year stares back, it reminds us how little we know about what tomorrow holds and how little control we have over events that unfold.

I have never found it realistic to believe we exert any legitimate control in this world and yet I hear people repeatedly declare how they love to be, and must be in control. When I look around, what I see is a world constantly spinning out of control.

As I enter this new year I will acknowledge that it isn’t about how much I know and how well I have planned for what lies ahead. Approaching this new year is about who I know and that is Jesus Christ. This relationship with Jesus sets the course for another new year and is the firm foundation on which my life stands.

Navigating this journey of life as a new year begins is also a process of holding tight to faith – a faith that endures the calendars of days to come.

Since the dawn of mankind in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve – to the dawn of a new year, God has been pursuing a relationship with us-built on faith and obedience in our walk with Him.

This relationship will grow and deepen when we consistently choose to seek the Lord and faithfully follow Him all the days and all the years of our lives.

As one year ends and the dawn of a new year begins, this is what matters most.

Jeremiah 29:13 And you will seek Me and find Me, When you search for Me with all your heart.”

By Kathy Cheek
Used by Permission

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What Matters Most for the New Year

Heart, Soul, Mind, Strength


Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind.” Luke 10:27

Ever wonder what the Bible means when it says to love God with your heart, soul, strength, and mind? As one who does not know either Hebrew or Greek, I am prone, at first, to interpret these English words very basically as emotions, spirit, body, and intellect. However, even the shortest online search for studies on these terms tell us it isn’t so easy.

Some writers say these terms are not intended to divvy up human nature into neat categories. Others think they overlap like circles on a Venn diagram. Still others picture them as concentric circles with some more central and others on the edges. And few agree on psychological equivalents in human experience.

That’s why I like how one writer puts it: God wants us to love and obey him witheverything we’ve got.”

Remember young King Josiah? Of him it was written: “Now before him there was no king like him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses” (2 Kings 23:25). Josiah gave it his all in line with God’s law.

In a new year we are tempted to make resolutions that are SMART—Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely. There is much wisdom here. Yet I wonder if God wished we would focus less on outcomes and more about being His person, with everything we have, enjoying His fellowship, and obeying His commands. Doing so makes loving him less about us being successful, and more about Him being Lord.

Thank you God that you have made us complex so that we can love and obey you diversely! Please be my strength and comfort as I seek to make you Lord of my world. Amen.

* Think of a way you can practically work towards giving God all you’ve got.

by Bill Strom

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Fearing Feedback

Last February, I called my friend Kelly to discuss an email that we had just received. We cohost a podcast called Soladarity—the Singleness Podcast, and at the time we were only about a month into this new passion project. One of our good friends had sent us an email giving us feedback, and I was not having it.

“Kelly, he hardly listens to podcasts to begin with, let alone creates one himself! This is so silly. I feel so offended right now.”

“But we asked our audience to email us to give us ideas and feedback,” she replied. “This was not unsolicited. I’m glad he wrote us. I love it.”

“If I’m being honest, I didn’t actually want feedback,” I admitted to her.

After Kelly pointed out that our friend made it very clear that he was just thinking out loud, that he loved us very much, and that he had some great thoughts, something clicked for me. Kelly was having an entirely different experience with this feedback. She received it with joy and peace. I on the other hand felt riddled with pride. My deep offense felt jarring and dramatic compared to her happy engagement with the email. I confessed to her on that phone call that I knew that my sin was showing.

Criticism Need Not Apply

I have spent so much of my life carefully calculating what would earn me affirmation, attention, and accolades. I wanted to be highly revered and deeply loved. I did all I could to be the good kid, the smart kid, the capable kid, the best friend, the funniest, the kindest, the holiest, the most responsible . . .

And it worked.

My roommate recently perused my high-school yearbooks and read aloud the old notes from my friends. It was true—I was loved. Admired. Championed. People called me smart, a woman of character. They joked with me, spoke of deep friendship, relived fond memories, as we do in yearbooks. I had achieved the exact kind of feedback that I had been working for all my life.

But God was merciful not to keep me in that trap. In the decade since, God has slowly but surely revealed to me that my endless striving for love and admiration has been in vain, and that if I continued after it, it would also be an ever-smoldering oven, constantly needing to be fueled and fed. It was an idol.

After my interaction with Kelly over the podcast email, I sensed an invitation from the Lord.

“Bridget, I want you to learn how to receive feedback well.”

“But I’m afraid, God,” I replied.

Receiving feedback is scary! I spent every semester of college fighting my pride in my creative writing workshops, forced to listen to 90 minutes of my peers picking apart my short stories and poetry, only to receive a singular grade from my instructors. It was vulnerable and confusing. And I still feel exposed when someone has constructive criticism for me, as it feels like they are finding out that I am not perfect, not smart, not good, not worth it. So naturally, in other areas of my life, I’ve learned to avoid the scenarios where I would have to receive any kind of criticism.

However, in every area of life, we will and should encounter feedback. This is biblical! The book of Proverbs is full of encouragement that receiving wise counsel produces more wisdom. The prophets in the Old Testament were called to speak truth to Israel—to call them out of their idolatry and back into relationship with God. And Jesus himself regularly and thoughtfully engaged with the disciples about their conversations, behavior, and beliefs.

Jesus often gave Peter, in particular, completely unsolicited advice. Luke 5 records one example. Jesus comes upon Peter and other fishermen cleaning their nets after a long night of fishing in which they didn’t catch anything. Wanting to instruct the crowd that had gathered, Jesus asks if he can borrow Peter’s boat to preach from. When he has finished, however, he tells Peter to take the boat out a little further and cast the (just-cleaned) nets once again.

I can just imagine how Peter, a professional fisherman, felt when Jesus told him to do it all over again— during daylight, no less. Probably a lot like I did when I got that email: prideful, frustrated, vulnerable, not good enough.

But still, Peter does it because he respects Jesus. And what happens next?

The best catch of Peter’s life!

Immediately, Peter cries out in humility. He confesses his sinfulness for not believing Jesus. And Jesus encourages him not to be afraid because he will now have a new purpose and a new way of life. At that, Peter and his business partners leave everything behind to follow Jesus.

Jesus’ Way Versus My Way

Their story is my story too.

Jesus has been merciful to get into my boat and let me be close to him. He and I have both witnessed that my way of earning people’s love and admiration to avoid the pain and exposure of their feedback simply does not work.

My way is exhausting. I have spent a lifetime doing all sorts of things to preemptively figure out what will earn someone’s favor and love. It has robbed me of my chance at real friendship with people—letting them love me just because, not because I did things to produce love in them for me. And it has robbed me of the true conversations and scenarios where trust is built, when you or your friend have to give feedback for the sake of moving forward.

Jesus invites me daily to do it his way instead of mine, and although his way is scary and unknown, I can trust that the results will be far greater than I can imagine. Jesus’ way is always going to result in the best catch of my life. It humbles me because it sets me free from the trap of believing I am in control. But knowing that he’s the one with power and authority over all things makes it easier to do things his way. And knowing that we have a God who is in the boat with us, who loves us no matter what and invites us to follow him, makes it easier to receive scary things like feedback. We can rest in who he says we are: a people invited into his greater purpose.

Since Jesus’ invitation to me in February, my relationships have strengthened, because every day I get the chance to choose his way over mine. I feel braver in hearing out my friends, even when it’s tricky and difficult. My heart feels softer because I am letting Jesus be the filter through which I receive feedback. And I have become better at humbly standing up for myself when the feedback isn’t helpful because I am listening to the one who helps me.

So here’s my feedback for you, my friends: it’s okay if people disagree with you on Facebook or want to give you advice, solicited or otherwise. And it’s okay if your roommate needs to tell you that you hurt his or her feelings. It’s okay to be taught something again or even to admit you’re wrong. There’s life beyond our fears of receiving feedback. Jesus has freedom for you. So will you do it your way or his?

Lindsey Graham Says AG Pick Bob Barr ‘Committed’ to Letting Special Counsel Finish Russia Probe

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s attorney general nominee, William Barr, is assuring Republican senators he will not interfere with special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.

On Wednesday, Barr met with Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-SC) ahead of his confirmation hearings, which are scheduled for next week.

“I asked Mr. Barr directly, ‘Do you think Mr. Mueller is on a witch hunt?’ He said no,” Graham recalled. “‘Do you think he would be fair to the president and the country as a whole?’ He said yes. ‘And do you see any reason for Mr. Mueller’s investigation to be stopped?’ He said no. ‘Do you see any reason for a termination based on cause?’ He said no. ‘Are you committed to making sure Mr. Mueller can finish his job?’ ‘Yes.'”
The news comes as Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who’s overseeing the investigation, announced he’s stepping down after Barr is confirmed.

Some Democrats want Barr to recuse himself from the Mueller probe because of his previous statements criticizing the investigation.

Specifically, they’re referring to a controversial memo Barr wrote last year to Rosenstein calling the probe “fatally misconceived.”

“The Senate…should subject Mr. Barr’s views to the strictest of scrutiny next week and I still believe, after the revelations about Mr. Barr’s unsolicited memo, President Trump ought to withdraw this nomination,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said Wednesday.

Likewise, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) said the memo was “deeply worrisome because in effect he says the president is above the law… that’s incorrect as a matter of law but certainly for an attorney general to have that position is deeply wrong.”

However, Graham says Democrats’ fears are unfounded, noting that Barr and Mueller are good friends of more than 20 years and their wives attend a Bible study together.

“I can assure you he has a very high opinion of Mr. Mueller and he is committed to letting Mr. Mueller finish his job,” the South Carolina lawmaker said.

Enduring the Long Winter of #UMC Discontent

Between Epiphany and General Conference, there isn’t much else to do but fight. Don’t let it happen.

Winter is coming already here

After the liturgical day of Epiphany, we enter Ordinary Time: eight Sundays until Lent begins. In the assigned Scriptures from the Lectionary, this is a time of reading stories about Jesus. But in the world of United Methodism, this is just a time for fighting.

We’ve been somewhat good up until now. There was Advent and Christmas to look forward to. Before that it was Thanksgiving, and the November elections. Before that it was the Judicial Council’s evaluation of the A Way Forward plans, and before that school and ministry years starting. Other than analysis and reactions when the Plans were revealed last Summer, we’ve had a series of distractions in the church and world from the coming drama of General Conference 2019.

But there are few distractions between now and General Conference at the end of February. Some secular holidays: MLK Jr Day, President’s Day, Valentine’s, and the Super Bowl. But no churchy holidays. No breaks or things to look forward to until the foreboding General Conference February 23-26th.

Already the contentions have emerged as caucus groups issue competing commentaries and dire warnings about the other plans, some with claims not based in polity, history, or ecclesiology at all. Just fear and contention that reflect our winter of discontent.

A January Surprise?

In secular politics, an “October Surprise” is a dubious or sensational accusation against a candidate for President. It is meant to sway popular opinion at the last minute before the November election, trusting that the populace will respond with fear rather than with rational discourse.

In United Methodism, I anticipate a similar action. Even though we’ve had many months of sitting with these plans, it is still human delegates who have the final say, and those with say can be swayed by fear. It might be:

  • A shadow proposal to replace one of the 3-6 under consideration.
  • A bloc of churches banding together and seeking to leave The United Methodist Church unless the Traditionalist Plan passes (which has already happened for some).
  • A bloc of delegates pledging to vote to dissolve United Methodism rather than endorse any plan.

This is not to say that continued evaluation should not continue–I have a rather dire financial analysis of the Traditionalist Plan that will come out next week only because it took this long to get all the data from the gatekeepers. But we should be wary of what we see in the coming days and see whether the rational content outweighs the emotional effects.

General Conference is political. And so we must be aware and wary of political shenanigans that work in the secular world–because we might see them creeping into the church world too.

Enduring all that lies ahead

All this uproar is intentional: Discontent and disruption cause humans to choose the safest path, or the one with the most personal benefits to themselves. That means choosing a plan that either ends the tension (The WCA’s plan of dissolution) or the one that casts out marginalized and minority groups (The Traditionalist Plan). There is no neutral ground in the face of such acrimony.

But we can choose a better path. While for the summer and fall, we could stick our heads in the sand and focus on the mission and ministry of the local church in front of us, we can no longer do that in these final days. We must engage and endure for the sake of those marginalized by our own church polity and those most affected by the harmful rhetoric and actions by our own church leadership, and most of all for the sake of the Gospel that we believe United Methodists have a good chance of offering well in the 21st century.

So in the days ahead, I invite you to:

  1. Pray for the delegates. Lists are in the ADCA to pray by name or region. Contact the ones you have personal relationships with or conference connections to let them know of your prayers and why.
  2. Care for LGBTQ persons close to you. Reach out to LGBTQ United Methodists in your life and ask how you can be a support or ally to them. LGBTQ Methodists are the ones most talked about, most affected, and yet least included in GC2019. Pick up the slack because GC will be a trauma unlike any other before.
  3. Continue to be educated on General Conference plans. Reading this blog, United Methodist News, UM-Insight, and other resources offer a variety of perspectives on the plans. And here’s a 1000 word primer on how we got to this point.
  4. Ask subject matter experts for any questions so no fake news or misconceptions reign. You are welcome to contact me with any polity questions through my Facebook page messenger.
  5. Engage a new spiritual practice. Try something new to sustain your anxiety or fear. Chat with a friend whenever the doom starts to overcome.
  6. Make a plan. Work on some scenarios if the different plans pass. Compare them with others so you have something to work on if one of the plans pass GC.

Your turn

This season between Christmas and Lent is the longest it can be. The winter of UMC discontent will be brutal. But the people called Methodists do not have to be brutal to one another.

My prayer is that you care for yourself, care for others, care for the marginalized, so that the discontent and disruption doesn’t cause fear to rule our hearts in the February dark.


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