Christmas Weddings and Wakes

Christmas memories are forever, good ones and not-so-good. My mother’s parents’ wedding anniversary was December 25. Since they lived with us, we were the hub where everyone gathered on Christmas Day. We laughed, exhibited our favorite gifts to one another, shot fireworks, and ate turkey, dressing, ambrosia and caramel cake. It was hilarious and holy all in one. I can hear Papa’s laugh and Grandmother’s orders. I can see Mother’s every-year-a-different-theme of decorations adorning the seventeen-stepped hall bannister. I can also see heavy-set Uncle Lee waddling up those same stairs to see the children play, the only adult brave or caring enough to dare invade our space.

He was also the one who gave us the strangest, yet most precious gifts. Uncle Lee would wrap a signed $2 bill around a pig’s ear, foot, or some other part then bundle it up in meat wrapping paper and grace each child with semi-macabre joy. I still have those treasures including a silver dollar with his “L.J.” initials in red fingernail polish across the coin’s face. The memories were mostly happy and they should have been. We found our cedar trees and cut them down. We were like explorers looking for treasure every year as we went Christmas tree hunting. Christmas was magical.

Christmas elicited the most marvelous experiences and memories. For instance, my call to ministry was shaped by Christmas Communion by candlelight at Trinity Episcopal. I can sense the awe and the love of God incarnate in Jesus right this minute. The Lord’s Supper never tasted so real. God marked me at Christmas. To this day, Christmas Eve services without communion just aren’t enough.

Christmas brought out the best in most people. I sold fireworks for my Uncle Homer every day of the holidays, a continuation of his son Jackie’s business. I nearly froze to death in that tiny little stand. I was warmed with very little heat thanks to all the gunpowder at hand. It was a happy joy to help a myriad collection of people celebrate the holidays. That was a gift in itself.

Christmas always meant love was in the air, too. It was not only my grandparent’s wedding anniversary, but my Mother and Father got married on December 23. In doing some family research this seems to be an automatic thing. Multiple generations have December weddings. Cindy and I got married on December 20, 41 years ago this year. We honestly didn’t think about any familial connection. I thought we were just too enamored with one another to wait until June.

But Christmas was a sad time, too. Uncle Lee died suddenly on December 23, 1974. Grandmother died sixteen days before our wedding on December 4, 1975. Uncle J.C. died on December 8, 2000. Weddings and wakes have been our family’s December experience for generations. Christmas has been the best of times and the worst of times. That sounds a lot like the first Christmas with Caesar Augustus and the Pax Romana, the enforced peace of Rome cobbled with a taxation to fund it. Good times and bad ones. That’s life, isn’t it?

And Jesus entered it, just like He always does. Jesus comes when we’re having a blast and making good memories, and He’s with us when times are tough and hard. Some of the chairs will be empty around the Christmas table again this year. Some of them will be filled by new mini-me’s of the latest iterations of our collective progeny. That probably won’t lessen the pain, but it certainly helps.

That’s our story, your story, humanity’s story. Maybe my family has been shaped by Christmas more than most as we ride the roller coaster of weddings and wakes, but, if anything, it has made us real. We’re such a Faulknerian Southern family. We have more saints and sinners than a story-teller like me can use, but authenticity is never a problem for us. Even better this Advent and Christmas is the Good News that Jesus is more real than us. He is the authentic, fully Human, fully Divine Savior. Whoever we are, whatever we’re going through, as my late brother Carlee always repeated, “Best of all, God is with us.” Emmanuel has come! He came to deliver us from everything that needs to be left behind. He came to make all things, including memories, new. Hallelujah!

Halloween Masks, Elections, and Christians

Halloween and election season are intersecting well this year! Which candidate is wearing the biggest mask? As I make my final decisions about the presidential campaign and weigh the pros and cons of each person, I have a number of values that I hold dear. A couple of those are authenticity and transparency. Neither candidate is totally forthcoming. One has a lack of clarity about tax returns and charitable contributions. The other has an email saga and a “pay for play” history with their namesake foundation. It’s a sad state of affairs when I am left trying to discern the most honest and least hypocritical of the people running for the highest office in the land.

The word hypocrite ultimately came into English from the Greek word hypokrites, which means “an actor” or a “stage player.” The Greek word itself is a compound noun. It’s made up of two Greek words that literally translate as “an interpreter from underneath.” That strange compound makes more sense when you know that the actors in ancient Greek theater wore large masks to mark which character they were playing, and so they interpreted the story from underneath their masks.

It’s difficult for any religious person to avoid the charge of hypocrisy. We are human, after all. It would be wonderful if our actions and beliefs were 100% in agreement, but they aren’t. So, we keep trying, and we put on a good show. We would prefer to look like we’re bosom-buddies with God than look like the reprobates that we are. Schmoozing has replaced doing as the object of the hypocrite’s charade. We want to look busy, even if that’s all we do.

Some have described the path of hypocrisy as “all show, and no dough.” I wonder how much truth will be in that statement in the fall financial campaigns? Saying one thing and doing another is the picture of hypocrisy. Famous churchman, D.L. Moody, said it well: “Most people talk cream and live skim milk.” The truth of the matter is that our sins of hypocrisy find us out far more quickly than we can imagine. As a seminary professor once explained, “People may not live what they profess, but they will always live what they believe.”

Halloween is a perfect holiday for hypocrites. Hypocrites hide behind masks all the time. They play-act at religion. But like the empty void that Halloween candy leaves, fake religion hardly satisfies either. I need the real thing in these perilous times. In the storms of life; i.e., Hurricane Matthew, I need a real relationship with Jesus.

Hypocrisy is easy-come-easy-go religion. It’s not about a relationship with a risen resurrected Lord. Hypocrisy is like a television show during sweeps month. It’s all about the ratings. Who cares if the writing or acting was any good? The only thing that matters is whether or not people watch. No wonder there’s so much junk on television. Hypocrisy plays to the crowd, not the Director.

We all want to look good, to be sure. I do my best to match colors in my attire, but the truth of the matter about who I am isn’t found in my color-matching ability. It’s found in how I act. Hypocrites care more about the cover than the book, the clothes rather than the person underneath.  It’s high time for us to synchronize the content of our character with our actions.

There is a “Peanuts” cartoon in which Lucy – that bossy, assertive, always-take-control character – is playing her role as psychiatrist. She sits in her booth with a banner on the top that says, “Psychiatric Help – 5 cents,” and then down below there’s a sign that says, “The Doctor Is In.” Charlie Brown, of course, is the patient.

Lucy says to Charlie Brown, “Your life is like a house …” In the next frame, she asks, “You want your house to have a solid foundation, don’t you?” Charlie Brown has his usual blank look on his face. Lucy says, “Of course you do, Charlie Brown!” Charlie Brown is still silent – saying nothing. Then in the fourth frame, psychiatrist Lucy says, “So don’t build your house on the sand, Charlie Brown.” About that time, a huge gust of wind comes up and blows the psychiatrist’s booth down. In the final frame, Lucy crawls out of the rubble saying, “Or use cheap nails …”

You don’t want to use cheap nails in building a house, or building a life. Hypocrisy is using cheap look-alike materials instead of the real stuff. In the storms of life we need the real Jesus with real discipleship.  This Halloween, and election season: take off your mask and quit playing somebody else. Be the best person that you can be. Be the real deal in and through Jesus!

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Donkeys and Elephants, Oh My!

Who am I going to vote for? Someone even suggested that I could help the congregation discern the right path by using code phrases in my pastoral prayer this week, tipping people off as to whom I think is the better candidate. That’s not going to happen, however well-intentioned the request. I hesitate to even mention it in prayer for fear that someone may read into my words some ulterior meaning. In many ways I really feel like Yogi Berra as he was playing catcher behind home plate. He was watching the opposing batter standing in the box making the sign of the cross across the plate with the bat. Berra said to the other guy, “Why don’t we just leave God outta’ this one and just play the game.”

Wishful thinking or stupidity! I know we can’t leave God out of our national politics, but if there was ever an election year for God to lay low, this might be it. Why? I don’t think God needs to take the blame for the mess we’re in. We’ve done it to ourselves all on our own. Why pray now when God has been bumped to the sidelines for too long already? Democrats and Republicans and every party in-between claims to be on God’s side and leaves my mind reeling. Give me a break! This election season has been nasty and I’m sick of it. I really appreciate the bumper sticker I saw the other day: “The Donkeys and the Elephants are fighting. If you want peace, turn to the Lamb!”

So I don’t want to leave God out! No matter who wins we need to pray that the Lamb wins. The answer to America’s problems are spiritual more than political, and until we get that through our thick heads we’re doomed. This country is always in better shape when we turn to God. I saw proof of that in Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago. Cindy accompanied me to my meeting with the General Commission on Religion and Race. As a group we toured the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. It was a powerful experience. It was easy to see how an oppressed enslaved people turned to God in their abject situation. On her own, Cindy saw more evidence of how people find strength from their faith in tough times. While I was in meetings, Cindy toured the Holocaust Museum and the Museum of the American Indian. These are clear examples of how America’s people have repeatedly turned to God and filled our houses of worship when times are tough.

On a free afternoon together we meandered down Capitol Hill and saw in linear fashion: The National Archives, The Willard Hotel, The White House, Blair House, the World War II Memorial, the Reflecting Pool between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, which we entered after seeing the Vietnam Memorial and Korean Memorial. The order of our steps held a deeper meaning upon further reflection, pun intended.

I literally reflected on our journey as a nation from lofty ideals to written words to the actions of soldiers and statesmen like Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. whose “I Have a Dream” speech was given from the very spot where I stood. Ponder our journey and see the connections. We started with the archives and viewed the original Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. Next was The Willard Hotel where presidents used to go hang out in the lobby and were approached by those who courted favors. It’s the lobby of The Willard that has given us the word “Lobbyist.”

Next we went to the White House, and as many times as I’ve been to D.C., I had never made it over to it. I was shocked by how small it looked. The Executive office Building next door was massive in comparison, and the Blair House, which is home to the Vice-President, smaller still. Then we went further on to the National Mall and the war memorials.

I couldn’t help but connect the dots from the documents of our founding, to the lobbyists who try to use every loophole as an advantage, to the White House where Presidents attempt to lead our republic, and to the war memorials that exist because that leadership either excelled or failed. Commanders-in-chief have often invoked the Constitution goaded on either by higher ideals of freedom or by self-serving lobbyists, both resulting in soldiers having given that last full measure of devotion in blood. Standing near those memorials I couldn’t help but recall how as a teenager I attended the funeral of Bennie Clayton who died as a grunt in Vietnam.

If I can’t vote for God as Commander-in-chief then it’s going to be hard to vote for anyone, but I’m going to vote. I just don’t want us to become a more divided nation of winners and losers with mutually assured destruction and retribution that will consume news channels, court picks, congress, and everything else. A choice between a donkey and an elephant isn’t much of a choice, but the consequences are real. If you don’t believe it, then walk the streets of Washington, Aiken, or stroll the Freedom Trail in Boston. Walk the cemeteries, and see the tombs of those who gave their lives. Pray that there will be hallowed halls in Congress, the White House, and your house. Please, God, help us to do your will. Amen. Help us to pray for the USA and every leader.

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Airplanes, Storms, and God’s Providence

The last few days have been quite interesting. Cindy and I went on an overnight trip by plane last Thursday. We didn’t have any luggage to check for such a short trip. All we had was just a carry-on with some essentials. We were supposed to fly United out of Columbia, go to Dulles for a 47 minute layover with barely enough time to dash to the next plane. Then we were to fly to Dayton, Ohio and on to Chicago, our final destination. Unfortunately, as our plane taxied out to the runway the pilot informed us that there was a mechanical problem and we would need to go back to the gate and deplane. There went our 47 minutes at Dulles, and that was the last flight to get us anywhere near Chicago. We were stuck.

United called a cab and paid for us to be ferried to Charlotte and gave us tickets on an American flight. In the process of putting Cindy’s purse and our one satchel into the cab, I left my black leatherette folder with my sermon in it on the ledge beside the ticket counter. On the way to Charlotte the driver called the agent at the counter and asked them to hold it until we got back on Saturday morning. I also called the hotel in Chicago to let them know that we would be a late arrival and please save our room. Little did I know that things were going to get worse.

In Charlotte, the folks at American said our ticket wasn’t valid. It had not been entered into the system correctly by the United agent back in Columbia. So we had no ticket, no flight, and they were the last flight to Chicago and it was already overbooked. So back to United and after some more confusion they got us on the last row of a Delta plane. We were going through 3 different air carriers to get to our destination, a record for me. Then the closest they could get us to Chicago was Detroit. Finally we had a short flight from Detroit to Chicago on whatever carrier I have no clue. Late Thursday night/Friday morning we got to our hotel with a marvelous 5 hour window for sleep before the next morning’s itinerary started.

And we kept monitoring the hurricane. So mid-Friday afternoon we noticed that Columbia, where my car was parked, was still open. We took the hotel shuttle back to O’Hare and went to the ticket counter. The flight to Columbia was still open, but my anxiety rose as the agent kept mixing up the airport codes for Columbia (CAE) with Cleveland (CLE) which might be the reason we ended up in Cleveland at about midnight Friday night. It was practically deserted and our next flight toward Columbia was going to board at 5:15 am headed to Dulles in DC. Cindy and I tried to sleep in those wonderfully firm seats, but it was very hard, pun intended.

As dawn approached we got on a plane to Dulles and kept watching the storm on the weather app radar. Upon arrival at Dulles we found out that everything to Columbia was cancelled. The closest they could get us was Charlotte. Remember my car was in Columbia. I had a smidgeon of hope that Columbia would clear by the time we got to Charlotte mid-morning on Saturday. It didn’t. We got off the plane in Charlotte and scurried to a ticket counter hoping for a taxi voucher for Columbia. The agent said, “Sorry it’s not our fault. It’s an act of God.” I replied, “I work for Him and I don’t think He did this!”

She looked at me unamused and said a tall guy was trying to make it to Columbia, too. She said for us to hurry and we might spot him in the rental car area across from the terminal. We didn’t see a tall guy, but there was this small pony-tailed leprechaun-like dude walking toward the rental counter. I spoke from behind him and asked, “Hey Buddy, are you trying to get to Columbia?” He said that he was and if we wanted a ride, we could. I said I’d be glad to pay and he said it was on the company. Wonderful news!

But the next problem was that there were no cars available, only a truck. Our new-found friend said he didn’t drive trucks. We saw why when he peered between the steering wheel and the dash. He was height-challenged, indeed, but by the grace of God, just over 24 hours after we started trying to get to Columbia, we got there – and by then it wasn’t raining anymore.

Storms are not “Acts of God,” or Jesus would have never rebuked the wind and waves on the Sea of Galilee and said “Peace, Be still!” The act of God in our situation was a small-framed guy named Bryan who disappeared as soon as I went inside to retrieve my folder with my sermon inside. We got it and made it home, but my sermon changed. Psalm 66 became a message about praising God in the storms of life, storms God doesn’t cause, and about what God does best and that is to enter the storms with us in the most providential ways. I’ve got a stack of boarding passes about 3 inches thick to prove however crooked our paths may be, God can straighten things out. Thank You, Jesus, and thanks for Bryan.

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Tea Olives & Seasons of Love

The seasons of life are often unpredictable. The Broadway hit “Rent” has a song that always lights me up, “Seasons of Love.” 525,600 minutes are the time span of every year, but it can never adequately describe what happens in that year. What makes for a good year or a bad one depends on the content of each moment. We should make them count, but we live our lives in counter-productive ways that waste both time and money. We live as if our mantra is: Spend it; Save it; and Share it, when our values would better reflect God’s if we reversed the order: Share it; Save it; and Spend it. In the words of “Seasons of Love,” “that’s how to measure a year in a life!”

How do we measure a person’s contributions? Is it our obituary, the influence we’ve had on others, the fruit of our labors, a tree planted years ago? I’ve often told persons who serve on the Staff-Parish Relations Committee of their local church that service on SPRC is one thing for sure that ought to be in their obituary. It’s such a tough, but important committee. Most of us have read the poem “The Dash” by Linda Ellis (http://www.linda-ellis.com/the-dash-the-dash-poem-by-linda-ellis-.html). It is a reminder that the most important thing on anyone’s tombstone isn’t the birth and death date, but the dash in-between and what it represents.

So I’m planning to go shopping in a little while for a fragrant tea olive. We have a spot beside our house that is begging for something to go there. I love tea olives. Their fragrance immediately takes me back to walking past The Russell House at USC in the fall. How wonderful it would be that our presence with others would transport them to a pleasant memory. I want my grandchildren to smell this tree and say, “That’s MacMac’s tree!” We’re all God’s trees planted for a divine purpose. How’s our fruit and fragrance?

Sometimes my years are more measured by my distance rather than my closeness to God. It is really a daily, weekly thing. A diet and good eating habits are only good if they are habits. The same with spiritual disciplines. We all have spells when we get off the wagon of healthy living, and it’s so hard to get back on. If today is the first day of the rest of my life then some changes need to be made. Planting that fragrant tea olive is a baby step. Going to the Y in the morning will be a bigger one. I have 35 days until my annual physical. If I want to have more seasons to love, I’ve got to do my part to make sure that it happens.

Good stewardship isn’t just about our material wealth. It includes our health, too, spiritually and physically, but the silken snare of disinterest and apathy are hindrances to good habits. I loved playing hide-and-seek as a child. Living in a large creaky semi-spooky house with lots of places to hide was a boon. Younger cousins would be toughest to play with because they couldn’t count as well, or they cheated. They would count off to one hundred and say those familiar words, “Ready or not, here I come!” Unfortunately, their counting to 100 often went 1,2,3,4,5, on up to 20 or so, then skip to 94,95,96,97,98,99, 100 and then the warning of “Here I come.”

Because it was my home, I, of course, knew all the best places to hide. Here’s what I discovered. After they went by me for the umpteenth time and I had held back my snickering, I finally got bored. Yes, I would get bored even though the object of the game was not to be caught. I would invariably knock on a wall, or try to throw my voice in order to get caught. I can hear them now, “I found you! I found you! You’re it!” I wouldn’t let on that I let them find me. That would be admitting my own disregard for the rules and purpose of the game. To admit being bored is embarrassing.

Truth be told, however, that’s the way I am with life sometimes. I don’t want to admit that I’m bored when I squirrel away my money for some new splurge, get tired of my unapproved past times, or start disagreeing with my stated opinions on touchy subjects. I end up hiding from God and others, and I know what I need to do.

 I need to admit that boredom and fess up. There comes a time to get caught because the alternative is being stuck in some crack of a hiding place in a creaky old house. That creaky old house might be our own body, soul, or mind. We’re better off coming out from our hiding places and planting a tree, going to the gym, visiting a relative, writing a thank-you note, or a sundry other things that make our dash a joy about which people will smell a tea olive and say, “That reminds me of Tim!” and it’s a joy for them to remember us and not a curse. I’m headed to the nursery to buy a tree! What are you going to do? Come out, come out, wherever you are!

Scripture, Me and the UMC

The interpretation of Scripture is at the heart of many of our societal and denominational woes. As much as I enjoyed A.J. Jacobs’ book, The Year of Living Biblically, and its experiment of Jacobs trying to follow the Bible verbatim with resulting hilarity at times, I am disturbed by our culture and church’s extremely low view of Scripture. With as much information as we possess, we are terribly ignorant of God’s Word.

I even need a fresh start. We all do, so I’m going to buy a new Bible. Thirteen years ago I bought 3 identical Bibles so that they could be interchangeable with the same translation, format, print size and font. I wish that I had bought 5 or more. It’s time to replace these tattered and well-worn treasures with my illegibly scribbled notes obscuring the printed words. I hit Amazon a few minutes ago to see if I could purchase my favorite and was shocked at the prices.

My Bible of preference is published by Oxford University Press, New International Version, single-column, and no red letters for the words of Jesus. The words of Jesus are important, but if we believe, like Paul, (2 Timothy 3:16) that ALL Scripture is God-breathed and inspired then I don’t want to have red-letter highlights that distract me from the whole message.

Speaking of The Message, the Bible paraphrase by Eugene Peterson, it is easy to understand its popularity. It sounds cool, hip, up-to-date, but I prefer a translation over someone else’s paraphrase any day. There’s a big difference between interpretation and translation. I had 2 semesters of classical Greek at USC, 3 more years of NT Greek in seminary, plus 3 years of Hebrew. I like languages, have a knack for them. In college, I minored in French and took two semesters of German so I could pass the German Reading Test to get into grad school. French and German haven’t been that practical, although I pull out my French Bible once and awhile. Spanish would have been much better! Greek and Hebrew have been invaluable!

A good translation, therefore, is important to me. None are perfect. All have some bias, but they at least address the latest textual and linguistic discoveries when offering us a fresh translation. Some are downright unbearable to me. I was asked a few years ago to review the CEB (Common English Bible). That didn’t go well. I couldn’t get over their switch of Jesus being called the “Son of Man” to “The Human One.” The Human One – give me a break! The New Revised Standard Version is good, albeit, more politically correct in places as it stretches the meaning of the actual Greek or Hebrew. Just an opinion. The New International Version does a better job of translation and doesn’t shy away from textual variants when it offers, for instance, that the Septuagint, the Greek version of the OT, might have a different word in a certain text.

One of my personal tests of a translation’s quality is to look up certain texts. A key one is Revelation 2:23b, “Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds…” which actually in Greek is Νεφροὺς καὶ καρδίας, “kidneys and hearts.” In the King James Version it reads “reins and hearts.” When I think of reins, I think of reins on a horse, when the word actually means “kidneys” as in renal failure. The actual meaning in Greek thinking is that your soft parts á la kidneys/belly is the seat of emotions as in “belly laugh,” “butterflies in one’s stomach,” or “punched in the gut” with a sudden death. The heart was thought of as doing our thinking. So the text should appropriately be translated, “I am he who searches your thinking and your feeling…” Therefore, I may not like the KJV’s rendition of Revelation 2:23 and its use of “reins,” but I do like the King James’ poetic rendition of the 23rd Psalm.

Why is any of this important? The subject of Holy Writ, the Bible, Scripture, and inspiration versus infallibility is terribly important these days as people of every denomination determine their position on hot-button issues. What does the Scripture say about homosexuality? What do “malakoi” and “arsenokoitai” really mean? Did Jesus talk about same-sex marriage? Are same-sex relationships condoned or condemned in Scripture? Bottom line, how far does our Biblical hermeneutics (methods of literary interpretation) allow us to pull a Thomas Jeffersonian Jesus Seminar-like cut and paste of what God’s Word contains? Is the Bible God’s Word or just contains the words of God?

Adam Hamilton, well-respected UM pastor and author, does not impress me with his attitude toward Scripture. I appreciate him, but his notion that there are “three buckets of Scripture” is past the point of orthodoxy in my opinion. His book Making Sense of Scripture contends that one bucket of Scripture contains “Scriptures that express God’s heart, character and timeless will for human beings.” Bucket two, he says, contains, “Scripture that expressed God’s will in a particular time, but are no longer binding.” He describes his last bucket as containing, “Scriptures that never fully expressed the heart, character or will of God.”

That statement is beyond my personal ability to comprehend so I am not going to waste my words undoing his undermining of the Word. Rather, I will take heart in what the UMC’s Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith say. Article V of the “Articles of Religion” says that “Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not required…” Article IV of the Confession of Faith says similarly, “The Holy Bible… reveals the Word of God so far as it is necessary for salvation.” Further it is the “true rule and guide for faith and practice…”

I think that these statements of the UMC promote a high view of Scripture that does not leave room for separate buckets that diminish the ability of the Bible to speak accurately and completely to both salvation and current issues. To use Hamilton’s words that there are, “Scriptures that never fully expressed the heart, character or will of God,” is very contrary to Scripture’s own self-declaration and to the God who inspired it all.

Anyway, I’m going to read on and pray for the Holy Spirit to open my mind and heart (thinking and feeling), to God’s message to me today. I need it, and I don’t need a personal veto to muddy the water! There’s enough there that I fully understand to keep me from tripping over the parts that I can’t.

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Me, You, Colin Kaepernick and Commitment

Someone remarked that their church’s attendance was up and down, “up in the mountains or down at the beach.”  Labor Day is that last break before summer’s end, one last respite for teachers, students, and parents, and everyone else who wants a get-a-way. Labor Day is a celebration of how we all shoulder the load in our respective ways to keep the wheels of life in motion. It’s a day to take a break and relax as a reward. God has given us specific gifts that are needed, holiday or not. We should all contribute to the common good, if we will. It takes commitment.

Too often I am a person of divided allegiances. I’m no Colin Kaepernick who will only stand for the National Anthem when he feels that the country has done its part for him or others that have suffered injustice. Certainly, our flag has stood on the side of oppression many times, and I must admit that when I stand at Rotary and pledge allegiance to the flag, I have often hesitated on the line that says, “with liberty and justice for all.” I know full well that justice can sometimes be bought with expensive lawyers that the poor can’t afford. Nevertheless, it’s our flag, and I’ll keep standing for our national anthem and pledge allegiance.

A clergy friend wrote his Master’s thesis on how long it took the South to start celebrating July 4th after the Civil War. His research concluded that it took years and years of healing to make it a truly national holiday again. For instance, when the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi surrendered to the Union on July 4, 1863, it took 81 years before it celebrated the Fourth of July again. Truth be told, every national symbol has been treated with contempt at one time or another. The flag has been both burned, and used as an instrument of injustice, but I don’t think that I have the moral rectitude to denigrate it and be ungrateful. For all our faults, there has been much more good that the U.S. has done, and the world is better for it.

That flag represents us all, for good or ill. Think about Native Americans and how poorly they have been treated by the government, yet they are staunchly supportive of the U.S. The Department of Defense has said that if the rest of the population had enlisted in WWII at the same rate as Native Americans there would have been no need of a draft. It is common knowledge that Native Americans, per capita, have served in the U.S. military more than any other ethnic group. That’s been a fact throughout U.S. history, and it’s true even now. Consider that the Native American population of the U.S. is .8% of the entire amount, but the number of American Indians in the military is 1.7%!

Citizenship requires commitment and some people, like Native Peoples, know that better than most. To change the things that are unjust takes being involved. This is especially true in an election year when many people are tempted not to vote for either major party’s candidate. Commitment is a supreme virtue especially when we live in times like ours. It’s not a time to sit down, but to stand up and do the right thing. If you want to change the system, you don’t do it from the sideline, you get involved.

I think, therefore, that Colin Kaepernick can accomplish more by standing and singing the National Anthem than by sitting down. He can push for change from a position of commitment rather than apparent disloyalty. As it has been said, “America: Love it or Leave it.” At his salary he can do a lot to defeat injustice. He has a 6 year $114,000,000 salary with a $12,328,766 signing bonus, $61,000,000 guaranteed no matter what happens, meaning that he has an average annual salary of $19,000,000. Pretty sweet deal.

Commitment needs to be consistent to mean anything. The Sports Section of a local newspaper carried the recent news of former South Carolina QB Connor Shaw’s broken leg while playing a preseason game for the Chicago bears. He is the epitome of consistent commitment. A friend pointed out something askew in the article that came from a fellow player and Carolina alum. Pardon the language, but pick up on the inconsistency. The player said, “It’s a tough break, man. He was having a hell of a camp. He was doing a hell of a job out there … I told him ‘Damn, I hate it for you. Just keep the faith. Just trust in the process with God.’”

Hmmm… expletives mixed with God? I guess we all have consistency problems, not just Colin Kaepernick, but me, too, all of us, maybe! On another football note, a friend sent me this recently, “Just have to share. A friend of mine has two tickets for the 2017 Super Bowl. Box seats plus airfares and hotel accommodation, but he didn’t realize when he bought them that this was going to be on the same day as his wedding – so he can’t go. If you’re interested and want to go instead of him, it’s at St. Peter’s Church in New York City at 5 pm. Her name’s Brenda. She will be the one in the white dress.” Commitment? We all have work to do, don’t we?

Kaepernick Photo

Family Systems and the UMC

Family Systems Theory is fascinating, especially when I think of our United Methodist denominational situation. A couple brings in a 14 year old to see the counselor because the teenager is thought to be the family’s problem. The counselor knows that the teenager is the “identified patient,” and everyone in the whole system has issues. It’s just like a mobile over a baby’s crib when one piece is hanging lower than the others and out of sync. It’s not just a problem with one piece. The whole mobile is unbalanced.

The counselor defocuses attention from the identified patient and looks at the whole family system. In detective-like probing, the counselor determines who is the strongest person in the system and coaches, twins, or otherwise nudges that person to change. When that happens, the inter-locking triangles that have been targeting the teenager as the system’s “dumping ground” begin to fall, tension is defused, and the system resets.

In the UMC, we’re organized as a triangle with General Conference, The Council of Bishops, and the Judicial Council. A triangle might be the most stable structure on the planet á la the Pyramids, but triangulation can cause terrible problems in families and organizations. There’s usually an issue about which two corners of the triangle don’t agree, but they’re afraid of speaking directly to each.  They don’t want to risk total ruin of their relationship so they pull in a third corner and both other corners try to get that corner to pick their side of the argument. The third corner, either due to the way the organization/family/denomination is formed and/or due to well-meaning but harmful co-dependency, seeks to alleviate the stress exhibited by the other two corners and ends up being the relief valve and victim of the other two corners’ tension. They become the dumping ground, and pulled both ways.

In the UMC, we spread the stress around all three corners and swap off dumping grounds pretty fluidly. At first I thought the Judicial Council was absolutely wrong in deferring the decisions about Karen Oliveto, but now I think it is actually healthy. Family System theorists suggest that, in order for us to get out of being the dumping ground in a triangle, we need to do two things: defect in place which means to stay in relationship with the other two corners of the triangle, but not become too enmeshed or helpful; and have a non-anxious presence that self-differentiates without taking on the tension and dysfunction of the unbalanced system.

This sounds like what the Judicial Council is doing. The whole denomination has a choice to add fuel to the fire or let the process work. The Judicial Council has stated that they see the Oliveto case as hugely important. The Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops asked that they expedite their ruling and give less than the usual time for briefs, pro and con, to be filed. Now instead of dealing with it on their October docket, it will be addressed next May. Instead of criticizing, I think this is great leadership.

Rabbi Edwin Friedman who wrote the seminal work on Family Systems theory, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, also wrote a telling book about what we are witnessing both in the Judicial Council’s deferral and the creation of the Council of Bishop’s “A Way Forward Commission.” His book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, actually defends what some, including me, have called “kicking the can down the road.” According to Family Systems Theory, the Judicial Council and the COB have given us appropriate and helpful time to pause, reflect, have non-anxious presence, and defect in place. The question is, “Will we?”

The cycle of ecclesial attacks and reprisals need to end so that we can have a denominational reset. Our local churches and clergy, plus general agencies and bishops need calm so that the best clear thinking will prevail. Let’s let go of the tension and allow the Holy Spirit to lead us. There’s a better chance that we will end up where we need to be if we lay down our swords. This will not sit well with people in two corners of the triangle (Progressive or Conservative), but we all need to chill out, take a breath and quit being distracted away from our primary mission to make disciples.

I’m not saying that we should be false prophets who proclaim peace when there is none, but let’s preach Jesus Christ as Lord while this is all sorted out. I’m sure there will be people, including me, who will still discuss, attend events, strategize, and ponder next steps, but we need to let the tension in the system escape, not by scape-goating, but by valuing one another for the common good. What difference does it make if I’m right if the cycle of tumult continues?

A wise man once said, “There is no way to peace, peace is the way.” The following Jewish folktale reminds me that if peace is to be experienced, someone must stop the cycle of anger and retribution:

“The otter rushed in to see the king crying, ‘My lord, you are a man who loves justice and rules fairly. You have established peace among all your creatures, and yet there is no peace.’ ‘Who has broken the peace?’ asked the king. ‘The Weasel!’ cried the Otter. ‘I dove into the water to hunt food for my children, leaving them in the care of the Weasel. While I was gone my children were killed. An eye for an eye, the Good Book says. I demand vengeance!’

The king sent for the Weasel who soon appeared before him. ‘You have been charged with the death of the Otter’s children. How do you plead?’ demanded the King. ‘Alas, my lord,’ wept the Weasel, ‘I am responsible for the death of the Otter’s children, though it was clearly an accident. As I heard the Woodpecker sound the danger alarm, I rushed to defend our land. In doing so I trampled the Otter’s children by accident.’ The king summoned the Woodpecker. ‘Is it true that you sounded the alarm with your mighty beak?’ inquired the king. ‘It is true, my lord,’ replied the Woodpecker. ‘I began the alarm when I spied the Scorpion sharpening his dagger.’

When the Scorpion appeared before the king, he was asked if he indeed had sharpened his dagger. ‘You understand that sharpening your dagger is an act of war?’ declared the king. ‘I understand,’ said the Scorpion, ‘but I prepared only because I observed the Turtle polishing its armor.’ In his defense the Turtle said, ‘I would not have polished my armor had I not seen the Crab preparing his sword.’ The Crab declared, ‘I saw the Lobster swinging its javelin.’

When the Lobster appeared before the king, he explained, ‘I began to swing my javelin when I saw the Otter swimming toward my children, ready to devour them.’ Turning to the Otter, the king announced, ‘You, not the Weasel, are the guilty party. The blood of your children is upon your own head. Whoever sows death shall reap it.’”

Are we willing to defect in place, have non-anxious presence, self-differentiate, and have enough patience to act as good leaders? I hope so. Our Wesleyan witness and the blessing of God is depending on us to get this right. If we were right yesterday, we will be right tomorrow, but the Gospel’s work today needs us to clear-headed and full of the Holy Spirit. We must all stop our vicious cycle of infighting for the sake of Christ and a lost and hurting world.

Family Systems Picture

Expanded Prayers for the UMC Judicial Council

The United Methodist Church’s version of the Supreme Court, otherwise known as the Judicial Council, will be ruling in October about Karen Oliveto’s consecration as a UM bishop, and they’ll be adjudicating whether an annual conference’s Clergy Session and Board of Ordained Ministry can properly have before them persons who have self-avowed behaviors that are in violation of the United Methodist Book of Discipline. It is basically a question of whether an annual conference’s prerogatives outweigh General Conference’s actions.

The first major Judicial Decision which established that General Conference is preeminent in legislation and supersedes annual conferences’ administrative function, was made back in 1972. In reference to the establishment of the General Council on Ministries, the Judicial Council  stated in Decision 364, “The General Conference may not delegate legislative functions and responsibilities which are assigned to it by the Constitution.” This specifically helps us pray for the Judicial Council because at issue is who outranks whom in our checks and balances system. The bottom line is exactly what the Book of Discipline says in Par. 509.1,2: Only the General Conference has the authority to speak for the church.

Judicial Decision 1321 that was rendered at GC2016 also covers this in great detail and cites previous decisions of church law (All Judicial Council Decisions can be researched online at http://www.umc.org/who-we-are/judicial-council). Decision 1321 reinforces that the General Conference certainly has full legislative authority over all things “distinctively connectional” (Par. 16), including matters of defining minimum clergy credentialing requirements (Cf. Judicial Decision 536). There are plenty of Judicial Decisions that make the recent actions of certain annual conferences null and void, even the election of Karen Oliveto. My interpretation of the aforementioned decisions is that it is impossible in our connectional polity for an annual, central, or jurisdictional conference to contravene the General Conference. Read the specifics of Judicial Decision 1321!

It really doesn’t matter if an annual conference says persons are in “good standing” if they have already self-avowed that they are in opposition to The Book of Discipline. The declaration of the General Conference is the last word, and the “right to trial” guaranteed to each UM clergyperson is moot when someone precludes the need of a trial by their own volition. Judicial Decision 980 is very specific if an annual conference’s Committee on Investigation refuses to certify a bill of charges and ignores stated facts that ipso facto would convict a person. The Decision reaches two very pertinent conclusions: “Should members of the Committee on Investigation be unwilling to uphold the Discipline for reasons of conscience, such members must step aside…” and  “persons who state that they cannot in good conscience uphold the Discipline are ineligible to serve on a trial jury.”

As a historical aside, after the 1956 GC had approved full clergy rights for women, a specific case arose about some who refused to enforce the GC’s action. This Decision is a great help in understanding our denominational jurisprudence and the rights of whole entities in the church to ignore General Conference actions. The Judicial Council rendered Decision 155 in 1958 which stated clearly that everyone had to abide by the same Book of Discipline. This was a wonderful decision in many ways, and in this case by setting a legal precedence (Par. 2611 BOD) of the Book of Discipline over all other documents and entities. It alone speaks for the UMC and is the voice of General Conference.

Similarly, Judicial Decision 886 offers clear guidance in our current milieu. In its opening “Digest of Case,” the decision says, “The Discipline is the law of the Church which regulates every phase of the life and work of the Church. As such, annual conferences may not legally negate, ignore, or violate provisions of the Discipline with which they disagree, even when the disagreements are based upon conscientious objections to those provisions.” It seems obvious that connectionalism is based upon mutual covenant keeping, or the whole house falls.

The United Methodist position on the practice of homosexuality extends both grace and definite boundaries. It is a complex issue. Not only is the authority of Scripture involved, but also our ecclesiology. My sincere hope is that our denomination can work through this. My plea is for us to honor the Study Commission and pray for them as they do their work on “A Way Forward” on this issue. Our most urgent prayer in the timeline is to pray fervently for the Judicial Council.

In the meantime, all of us need to keep covenant, whether pro or con in changing the language of the Discipline about the practice of homosexuality. We pray and hold fast in the interim. I remind all UM clergy that Judicial Decision 986 says that any pastor that deliberately encourages withholding apportionments is liable for a charge of disobedience. BOD Pars. 340.2(c)(2)e, 639.4 and 247.14, last sentence, are very instructive. Let’s remain calm and let the judicial process work.

This is about the rule of canon law and covenant keeping in a connectional church. These are tenuous times for us. We can either obey the General Conference or fracture into something we’re not. I wouldn’t want to be anything else than a United Methodist. Every person who has been ordained promised to keep our rules and stated that he or she agreed with them. I made that promise, and I’m still keeping it by the grace of God.

Judicial Council Book Pic

Prayers for The UMC Judicial Council

The United Methodist Church’s version of the Supreme Court, otherwise known as the Judicial Council, will be ruling in October about Karen Oliveto’s consecration as a UM bishop, and they’ll be adjudicating whether an annual conference’s clergy session and Board of Ordained Ministry can properly have before them persons who have self-avowed behaviors that are in violation of the United Methodist Book of Discipline. It is basically a question of whether an annual conference’s prerogatives outweigh General Conference’s actions.

The first major Judicial Decision which established that General Conference is preeminent in legislation and supersedes annual conferences’ administrative function, was made back in 1972. In reference to the establishment of the General Council on Ministries, the Judicial Council  stated in Decision 364, “The General Conference may not delegate legislative functions and responsibilities which are assigned to it by the Constitution.” This specifically helps us pray for the Judicial Council because at issue is who outranks whom in our checks and balances system. The bottom line is exactly what the Book of Discipline says in Par. 509.1,2: Only the General Conference has the authority to speak for the church.

Judicial Decision 1321 that was rendered at GC2016 also covers this in great detail and cites previous decisions of church law (All Judicial Council Decisions can be researched online at http://www.umc.org/who-we-are/judicial-council). Decision 1321 reinforces that the General Conference certainly has full legislative authority over all things “distinctively connectional” (Par. 16), including matters of defining minimum clergy credentialing requirements (Cf. Judicial Decision 536). There are plenty of Judicial Decisions that make the recent actions of certain annual conferences null and void, even the election of Karen Oliveto. My interpretation of the aforementioned decisions is that it is impossible in our connectional polity for an annual, central, or jurisdictional conference to contravene the General Conference.

It really doesn’t matter if an annual conference says persons are in “good standing” if they have already self-avowed that they are in opposition to The Book of Discipline. The declaration of the General Conference is the last word, and the “right to trial” guaranteed to each UM clergyperson is moot when someone precludes the need of a trial by their own volition. Judicial Decision 980 is very specific if an annual conference’s Committee on Investigation refuses to certify a bill of charges and ignores stated facts that ipso facto would convict a person. The Decision reaches two very pertinent conclusions: “Should members of the Committee on Investigation be unwilling to uphold the Discipline for reasons of conscience, such members must step aside…” and  “persons who state that they cannot in good conscience uphold the Discipline are ineligible to serve on a trial jury.”

As a historical aside, after the 1956 GC had approved full clergy rights for women a specific case arose about some who refused to enforce the GC’s action. This Decision is a great help in understanding our denominational jurisprudence and the rights of whole entities in the church to ignore General Conference decisions. The Judicial Council rendered Decision 155 in 1958 which stated clearly that everyone had to abide by the same Book of Discipline. This was a wonderful decision in many ways, and in this case in setting a legal precedence (Par. 2611 BOD) of Book of Discipline over all other documents and entities. It alone speaks for the UMC.

Similarly, Judicial Decision 886 offers clear guidance in our current milieu. In its opening “Digest of Case,” the decision says, “The Discipline is the law of the Church which regulates every phase of the life and work of the Church. As such, annual conferences may not legally negate, ignore, or violate provisions of the Discipline with which they disagree, even when the disagreements are based upon conscientious objections to those provisions.” It seems obvious that connectionalism is based upon mutual covenant keeping, or the whole house falls.

The United Methodist position on the practice of homosexuality extends both grace and definite boundaries. It is a complex issue. Not only is the authority of Scripture involved, but also our ecclesiology. My sincere hope is that our denomination can work through this. My plea is for us to honor the Study Commission and pray for them as they do their work on “A Way Forward” on this issue.

In the meantime, all of us need to keep covenant, whether pro or con in changing the language of the Discipline about the practice of homosexuality. We pray and hold fast in the interim. I remind all UM clergy that Judicial Decision 986 says that any pastor that deliberately encourages withholding apportionments is liable for a charge of disobedience. BOD Pars. 340.2(c)(2)e, 639.4 and 247.14, last sentence, are very instructive. Let’s remain calm and let the judicial process work.

This is about the rule of canon law and covenant keeping in a connectional church. These are tenuous times for us. We can either obey the General Conference or fracture into something we’re not. I wouldn’t want to be anything else than a United Methodist. Every person who has been ordained promised to keep our rules and stated that he or she agreed with them. I made that promise, and I’m still keeping it by the grace of God.

Judicial Council Book Pic