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

UM IDENTITY: A WAY FORWARD

Identity is huge! Olympians display their identities by their country’s symbols and flags. Children and youth attending new schools or grades establish their unique identities pretty quickly in the ways that that dress or who they choose as friends.

Tattoos speak volumes about identity. Last names carry identity. Red State and Blue State, Republican and Democrat, are labels that carry identities especially in places where you have to register for one party or another. The upcoming college football season will bring out other identifiers like Garnet & Black or Solid Orange.

All this talk of identity has made me think about the identity crisis of the United Methodist Church. It helps me to start with what it used to mean. Having grown up as a Methodist, it meant we were middle to high church in music and worship, loved family night suppers, Vacation Bible School, and were mostly moderate in all matters inside and outside the church. We called our pastors “Mr. _______” more than “Reverend _______.”

There weren’t many “Ms.” or “Mrs.” clergy back then, but it would have been perfectly fine. We were proud to be middle-of-the-roaders. Frankly, what I liked the most about church was light green pistachio-pecan congealed salad and deviled eggs, plus a whole lot of positive vibe. Church gave me hope when my Dad was given 6 months to live when I was 8, and when I had encephalitis and had to relearn how to walk. The church exposed me to faith as a community.

I wonder if you resonate with the way Garrison Keillor of Lake Wobegon fame characterizes us:

“We make fun of Methodists for their blandness, their excessive calm, their fear of giving offense, their lack of speed, and also for their secret fondness for macaroni and cheese. But nobody sings like them. If you were to ask an audience in New York City, a relatively Methodist-less place, to sing along on the chorus of “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” they will look daggers at you as if you had asked them to strip to their underwear. But if you do this among Methodists, they’d smile and row that boat ashore and up on the beach! And down the road!

Many Methodists are bred from childhood to sing in four-part harmony, a talent that comes from sitting on the lap of someone singing alto or tenor or bass and hearing the harmonic intervals by putting your little head against that person’s rib cage. It’s natural for Methodists to sing in harmony. We are too modest to be soloists, too worldly to sing in unison. When you’re singing in the key of C and you slide into the A7th and D7th chords, all two hundred of you, it’s an emotionally fulfilling moment. By our joining in harmony, we somehow promise that we will not forsake each other. I do believe this: People, these Methodists, who love to sing in four-part harmony are the sort of people you can call up when you’re in deep distress.

 *If you’re dying, they will comfort you.

*If you are lonely, they’ll talk to you.

*And if you are hungry, they’ll give you tuna salad.

*Methodists believe in prayer, but would practically die if asked to pray out loud.

*Methodists like to sing, except when confronted with a new hymn or a hymn with more than four stanzas.

*Methodists believe their pastors will visit them in the hospital, even if they don’t notify them that they are there.

*Methodists usually follow the official liturgy and will feel it is their away of suffering for their sins.

*Methodists believe in miracles and even expect miracles, especially during their stewardship visitation programs or when passing the plate.

*Methodists think that the Bible forbids them from crossing the aisle while passing the peace.

*Methodists drink coffee as if it were the Third Sacrament.

*Methodists feel guilty for not staying to clean up after their own wedding reception in the Fellowship Hall.

*Methodists are willing to pay up to one dollar for a meal at the church.

*Methodists still serve Jell-O in the proper liturgical color of the season and think that peas in a tuna casserole adds too much color.

*Methodists believe that it is OK to poke fun at themselves and never take themselves too seriously.

And finally,

+ You know you are a Methodist when: it’s 100 degrees, with 90% humidity, and you still have coffee after the service.

+ You hear something funny during the sermon and smile as loudly as you can.

+ Donuts are a line item in the church budget, just like coffee.

+ When you watch a Star Wars movie and they say, “May the Force be with you,” and you respond, “and also with you.”

+ And lastly, it takes ten minutes to say good-bye!”

Does our local experience of United Methodism correspond to the macro view of our denomination, or is it the other way around? As much as I have been involved with our denomination at the 30,000 ft. level of general boards and agencies and 6 General Conferences, I am convinced that we are a better denomination when we view the church from the bottom up, not the top down. Everything done at the upper level is far from practical unless it makes the pistachio-pecan salad taste better on the local level.

So, who are we, and who do we want to be? Maybe if we start with answering those questions from the perspective of our thousands of local contexts then we can put to bed some of the things that divide us. What makes your local church unique? Is it having a great choir or sensational band; lively worship and practical sermons; bereavement meals that are unbelievable; an Apple Fest or annual event not to be missed; delectable church meals and scones; social action projects like soup kitchens, ramp ministries, home rehabbing; wonderful support groups of Sunday School Classes, UMW Circles, or UMM; great faithfulness for connectional giving and missions that are both far and near; youth and children’s ministries that excel; a thriving Mother’s Day Out; Bible Studies and/or Disciple; and can’t the list go on and on? In other words, “What makes your church, church?”

My challenge in the impending war over our identity as United Methodists is to let local churches define us more than anyone else. What does our common ethos declare? Let’s name everything that we all love at the local level, then ask what connectionalism looks like from that perspective. Book of Discipline Paragraph 120 sets the tone of what I’m describing as a genuine way forward for the UMC: “The mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Local churches provide the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs.” Paragraphs 132 and 701 are right up there, too. Let’s ask ourselves these questions: “When you recall the church of your youth, what do you remember?” “What do you think will be remembered 30 years from now about your church?” “Are we doing things that are truly memorable and why?” Our answers to these questions will determine the identity of the UMC where it counts in the eyes of God, the world, and our own.

Pistachio Salad

Scruples: Too Many or Not Enough

Scrupulosity is an interesting phenomenon. Some might call it perfectionism or a kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder. God bless those folks (I’m not one of them) who use up a bottle of hand-sanitizer every day. They have to physically or mentally touch base with all their possessions or routines ad infinitum in order to bring order out of their personal chaos. They are over-achievers who have high standards, and beg the question in our morally lax culture, “Is it possible to have too many scruples?”

“Scruple” is an old word, “a small piercing stone,” the kind that gets caught in your sandals as you make your way to the beach lugging all the chairs, towels, and suntan lotion for the family. It’s literally a pain to stop, put everything down and shake out the offending pebble. In ancient days people actually put scruples in their sandals as reminders, sort of a “to-do list” to keep them from forgetting something important. A person with scruples, therefore, is a person quite aware that there are things worth remembering, especially when it comes to morality. When I was a child we tied strings around our fingers to remember things. I don’t think we do much of anything to do it today. The absence of these reminders is dangerous, but there must be a balance between being over and under scrupulous.

Sometimes scrupulosity takes remembering your Mother’s admonitions to the max: “Don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t chew, and don’t hang around with those who do.” Being obsessive about scruples leads to a perfectionism that is not forgiving of others and even worse on oneself. It can also lead to the fate of the hyper-religious. Hyper-religious people can take sin so seriously that they become callous to all those sharp little stones and forget that there’s anything wrong. Over-sensitivity can led to insensitivity.

It’s like the Native American story of people’s conscience being shaped like a diamond in their chest. When they do something wrong the diamond turns, and it hurts. However, if they continue to do wrong things and the diamond perpetually turns, pretty soon the edges of our conscience have worn down and our wrong-doing doesn’t hurt anymore. Building a rock pile out of scruples can actually lead us into worse trouble. Those with an over-the-quota number of scruples have little or no tolerance for slackers or sinners. They have set the bar so impossibly high that they become judge and jury on the rest of the world.

Frankly, the swing back and forth between being judgmental or non-judgmental is cultural and religious quicksand. Not having enough scruples is just as dangerous as having too many.  It’s pretty weird that we spend so much of our time sanitizing our hands while we let our minds, bodies, and souls go to pot. Can’t we find a place somewhere between grace and judgment? My wife uses hand sanitizer religiously thanks in no small part to her beloved nurse grandmother and germ phobic mother, but then she kisses me! See the problem?

It strikes me that as a church and as individuals we aren’t sure what to do about scruples. We are either too holy and self-flagellate ourselves with a list of sins, or we preach prevenient grace a lot more than sanctifying grace and end up with a mushy goo of over acceptance of sin. Sure we believe that God draws us through pre venio grace, a grace that comes before we ever come to God, but some of us want to theologically and personally stay in this warm fuzzy place and never judge anyone or move toward real change. We’ve given up on transformation. There is no need for justifying grace. We have reduced sanctifying grace into little more than an extension of prevenient grace, except on steroids; i.e., “God loves everybody so let’s do it even more!” Wow, that’s 20th century United Methodism defined.

We missed the step in the three-fold Wesleyan stages of grace that calls for Jesus’ righteousness to supersede our own and entails repentance, humility, and a clinging to Jesus as our only savior. With our focus on prevenient grace we have called everything good as if that stage is our end all of the Christian faith. We have become so pre-loving due to prevenient grace that we forgotten that God has prejudged us and found us all wanting. We need to move beyond a shallow blind acceptance of the way things are, and we need some more sharp rocks in our sandals, standards in our hearts, and values in our society. We cannot keep on accepting things the way they are and sitting back as if this is the way God meant it to be. God wants better for us. God didn’t send Jesus to leave us the way that God found us, but to transform us for the transformation of the world.

21st century United Methodism is trying to find a way to the middle of grace and judgment. We must not clean the outside of the cup like the Pharisees and leave the heart as-is. We can’t make ourselves perfect no matter how many rocks we put in our shoes, but if we let Jesus rule our hearts then there’s a winning chance that by the sanctifying grace of God we might actually change.

Do you want things to stay the same old way every day in your life? I don’t think so, and neither do I. I also don’t want so many scruples that I become desensitized, callous, and careless in the way I live. Neither do I want to lose all my rocks, marbles, and moral compasses and end up lost forever. We cannot have it, whatever it is, both ways, but there has to be a middle way!

Hand sanitizer pic

The Un-tied Methodist Church

As most of you know, I wasn’t elected Bishop last week, and to let everyone know – I’m fine. I might not carry a shepherd’s crook like a Bishop does, but will always seek to carry a shepherd’s heart. I am so happy to remain as pastor of St. John’s, Aiken. What a wonderful church! Our future is bright as a congregation, and I am happy to still be on the journey with you.

The future is not so bright for our denomination. I love the United Methodist Church, too much to “go quietly into the night.” I’m talking about events in the Western Jurisdiction with its election of a person who self-proclaims that she is living in a relationship that’s not in agreement with our beliefs. I find this both schismatic and sad. Any hope of a special called session of General Conference to hear the findings of a Council of Bishops’ Study Commission about the complexities of balancing the practice of homosexuality with Scripture have been circumvented, if not completely derailed. While I was in Portland for this year’s General Conference, a person who is married to her partner, said to me, “We don’t have the votes to overturn the Book of Discipline, but we’re going to burn the house down as we leave.” Wow!

Though it is just as chargeable an offense to withhold apportionments as it is to be a self-avowed practicing homosexual, we’re at a tipping point when the actions of the Western Jurisdiction and the promoters of this way of thinking don’t care anymore. There are people whose ways of interpreting the Bible can justify anything, both left and right. I would rather be on the side of 95% of Christendom on this issue than not. We are a house divided. Some contend that they are doing God’s will, that they are keeping a higher covenant than ones made at their ordination. In my understanding, a covenant is a covenant, none higher or lower than another. We are at a place I hoped that I would never see, but I knew a day of reckoning would come.

We are paying for our past sins. When the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, The Methodist Episcopal Church (North), and the Methodist Protestant Church reunited in 1939 we built in a regionalism born of racism. We created the Central Jurisdiction to segregate African-Americans, and we created 5 other jurisdictions with semi-autonomous powers in matters like the election of bishops. The election of bishops had heretofore been under the purview of the General Conference. In 1939 we created a regionalistic protection against adverse influence by other jurisdictions. This was the last gasp of the “Lost Cause” of the South. We didn’t want those “_______ Yankees” telling us who to get along with or elect.

Now it’s appropriately coming back to haunt us. There are constitutional protections that allow each jurisdiction to elect whom it will, and Boards of Ordained Ministry, that are solely nominated by their respective bishops, as to whom they declare fit for ministry, subject to approval from the Clergy Session. The Western Jurisdiction has proven how far this built-in permissiveness can be manipulated. The “United” in Methodism has now become “untied.” It’s all in where one places the “i.”

I want us to remain a “we,” and constitutionally we are if we believe that the power of the General Conference supersedes all other lesser bodies, and has sole authority over all matters that are distinctively connectional (Par. 16). Therefore, I urge the Council of Bishops to act quickly and ask for a special session of General Conference to try and prevent schism. More than that, we must affirm Biblical obedience before it’s too late to escape the eternal consequences of our disobedience.

The Judicial Council must not wait until its fall docket to adjudicate the request for a declaratory decision by the South Central Jurisdiction on the election of self-avowed and practicing lesbian, Karen Oliveto, as a bishop in the Western Jurisdiction. We either have a covenant, a Book of Discipline, or we don’t. There are those who sincerely feel that this action by the Western Jurisdiction and similar actions by others are God’s will and celebrate. They lump together Martin Luther’s disobedience to the Roman Catholic Church, John Wesley’s to the Anglican Church, and our own reversals of thoughts about women clergy and civil rights for people of color, but forget the non-violent methods of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. By breaking covenant they have done harm to the whole United Methodist Connection. Violence and “burning the house down” is the way of the world, not Christ. Isn’t this really about a higher matter than winners and losers? Isn’t it really about our understanding of Scripture. Everyone gets to have an opinion, but not God, and I’m tired of it. I’ve read all the positions, heard it all, and I’m sick of the polarization and duplicitous actions that have moved us from being a “purple” denomination, and made us a polarized “red” and “blue” one.

I am not worried about St. John’s UMC. I am worried about The United Methodist Church as a whole. A true story keeps banging in my brain. When South Carolina still flew the Confederate flag over our Statehouse, there were many of us who were ashamed. My wife and I were two of those people. Somehow everyone didn’t get the message about our personal feelings on the subject, got confused, or whatever, and an individual gave us a framed print of the Statehouse dome with the US flag, the SC flag, and the Confederate flag still flying. Cindy took it back to the gift shop and said she wanted to return it. The lady there said they didn’t give refunds. Cindy replied, “I’m not asking for a refund. I just want to get rid of it.” The lady responded, “But you’re a Southerner. This is your heritage.” Cindy prophetically replied, “This is NOT my heritage. This is my history. History is something we’re supposed to learn from. Heritage is something you want to pass on to your children.”

For too long the history of 1939 and its regionalistic racism and barriers have held us in bondage to the past, and we haven’t learned from it. Our Wesleyan heritage of grace and holiness hasn’t been passed on well enough. Some would say that this is the fault of our seminaries and publishing house. I grew up in the wake of the “God is Dead” existentialist neo-orthodox anything goes era. Those days are back again, under a new guise, and it’s killing us.

We must now choose both orthodoxy and orthopraxy, not separating right belief from right action. We must value all humans, but not yield to the temptation to say that everything is good. God said everything was good before Adam and Eve’s Fall, not afterward. God has been trying to undo the consequences of sin ever since, supremely through Jesus.

Therefore, our divisive structures must be destroyed. We must be united in our covenant, or let those who want to disobey leave in peace. Having a single US conference doesn’t help at all. It trounces Wesley’s tenet that the world is our parish. In our global UMC, it would also tell the world that we believe western liberalism and its values are the 21st century’s version of colonialism. We must have a common Book of Discipline and form a “more perfect union” by letting go of a sinful history and forging a new way based on a common heritage. We must bow before Jesus and pledge allegiance to Him, humble ourselves, and repent. Let us learn from history and pass our Godly heritage on to our children, before it’s too late!

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College Baseball and the Strike Zones of Life

Most who know me are aware that I am a big fan of college baseball. I actually think that it’s one of the purest sports left today. Only a handful of each team’s players are on scholarship. The rest play because they love the game. I’ve been to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska 6 times. I stay in a tent for $11 a night at Lake Manawa State Park across the Missouri River in Iowa, about 5 miles from TD Ameritrade Stadium. It’s a blast and a definite bucket-list item for anyone who loves baseball.It’s big time on my mind today because tonight the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers will play the University of Arizona Wildcats for the National Championship. I’m pulling for the Chants! The whole thing has gotten me to thinking, especially as we approach Independence Day. There are the usual notions about teamwork, and the ways that each person is important, an e pluribus unum sense of “out of many, one.”

I cannot help but think about a baseball field’s foul lines. Some things are fair and in play, and some things are foul, out of play. Tolerance is the key word on my mind as I anticipate how much leeway tonight’s umpire will give to the strike zone. Every ump seems to call it differently. By rule, a strike is supposed to go over the plate somewhere between the batter’s knees and the midpoint of the torso. Sometimes they get it right, and sometimes they don’t. I’m almost ready to let a machine do it, except for making baseball’s history of stats meaningless.

Home plate in baseball, all the way from Little League to the Majors, is 17 inches across – every time. It doesn’t change based on the pitcher’s ability or anything else. It stays the same. Shouldn’t some things, some rules of behavior, morals, or whatever you call them stay the same, too? Do we have too much independence? Baseball has a degree of order and rules, but our country is so conflicted over who’s right and who’s wrong.

Can we agree on anything? Sure, we all know that terrorism is wrong, and all children are precious gifts. Lots of things are right and lots are wrong, but in our good old USA we have confused tolerance and love. We have blessed and embraced our inalienable rights to the point that they are harmful to civilization. We don’t know what’s fair or foul or any clue as to the strike zone. The biggest victims are our children. They have to survive our self-destructive bent toward too much freedom that really isn’t free!!!

British theologian N.T. Wright has something worth hearing as I wonder about baseball, Brexit, Western pluralism, and all the precious children who have got to grow up and try to make sense of what’s right and wrong in our confused world:

“I was going to quote a Beatles song, but then I remembered that you have to pay a lot of money even to quote a single line. But the song is well-enough known, declaring that the only thing one might need is love. It’s ironic, of course, that you have to pay through the nose to quote a song whose whole message is that love matters and money doesn’t.

That irony haunts the mood, and the philosophy, of a large swathe of Western culture over the last forty or fifty years. ‘Make love, not war’, ran the slogan from those who were protesting against the war in Vietnam. Nobody was going to say that love was a bad thing. Surely life would be simpler and better if we all agreed to love each other and not fight any more. But the protests, insisting that love is better than war, contained a dark note of hatred against Western governments and ways of life, a hatred which easily spilled over into a different type of violence. What happened to all that love?

The trouble is, of course, that ‘love’ covers far too many things in our language today. Yes, as Peter says, ‘love covers a multitude of sins’ (I Peter 4:8, quoting Proverbs 10:12). But it is clear throughout the whole New Testament, not least in the teaching of Jesus himself, that ‘love’ was never meant to mean one of the main things which, sadly, it has come to mean today.

Today, ‘love’ is regularly supposed to mean ‘tolerance’. You should never insist on anything, but always ‘love’ the other person who does things differently. You should never say that anything is actually wrong: that’s ‘unloving’ to the person who is not only doing it but claiming that it’s the right thing to do. You should never say, either, that this way of doing things is ‘right’, still less that it is the only ‘right’ way to live: how ‘intolerant’, how ‘arrogant’, how ‘unloving’. That is where a large part of our culture now stands. So strongly is this view held that if a Christian attempts to challenge it they are accused of being, well, unChristian.

But, as with protest movements, this passion for ‘tolerance’ only extends so far. Such a position is in fact extremely ‘intolerant’ of people who take a more definite stance – which includes the mainstream of adherents of many traditional faiths. This shows up the cult of ‘tolerance’ for what it is: the moralistic invention of the modern secular world, borrowing Christian language to refer to something very different. Underneath the nice language this view is just as ‘arrogant’, just as ‘intolerant’, as those it opposes. If anything more so, because it effortlessly claims the high moral ground without taking seriously the claims of other world-views…

Is it ‘intolerant to warn people that they should not drive down that road, because the bridge has been weakened by floods and might collapse? Is it ‘unChristian’ to insist that if we are to worship the God we know in Jesus we can’t simultaneously be worshipping one of the very different gods who are on offer elsewhere? Of course not. Is it a failure of Christian charity if we warn people that certain styles of behavior lead to ruin rather than to life?

Of course not – though, naturally, we need to be sure we are standing on the firm ground of the gospel, not on a point that just happens to embody our particular prejudices. All of that has to be worked out. No doubt this challenge is too hard for some. And, yes, it is difficult to know where to draw the line today. It’s quite unlikely that we will be faced with people teaching what John’s opponents were teaching. There may well be other issues which, when we understand what’s at stake, function as flash-points…”

What are the flashpoints where we need to take a stand? Is it too late? What is the “firm ground of the Gospel” and is it too broad or narrow? Is the Scripture inspired to give us the Word of God more than words of God? What is Christian? Our strike zone is all over the place with conflicting answers. Lord Jesus, help us, help me, to find our way back to you. Amen.

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Trifecta of Tragedy

There’s been much pain with the horrific events of Orlando’s massacre, the death of a two-year-old at Disney, and the anniversary of the heartless deaths of Charleston’s Emanuel Nine. I have been leery of treading on the holy ground of these emotionally-charged tragedies. Somehow, in my mind, this right is reserved for the families and friends. However, as the church has done through the centuries, we can use the megaphone of pain, to paraphrase C. S. Lewis, to speak to the world.

What will the Church say? To answer that adequately, we must look to Jesus. Philippians 2:5 says that our “attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” In the immediately following verses it defines Christ’s attitude.  Jesus emptied himself and died. Therefore, humility and service must flavor everything we do in response to all the world’s crises. I am dared to ask if my attitudes reflect Jesus or me.

This is the Church’s question today just as it has been from the beginning. Ten years ago sociologist Rodney Stark, in his book The Rise of Christianity, postulated why the church grew so fast. It has been suggested that for Christianity to have reached the size it did in the time it did, it must have grown by 40% a decade for three hundred years! According to Stark, the Church grew because early disciples of Jesus were more compassionate than others. They out-loved and out-served others.

He cites several examples. In A.D. 165 an epidemic spread throughout the Roman Empire. It was probably smallpox. Within 15 years a quarter to a third of the whole population died. The same thing happened in A.D. 251 except that measles was the likely culprit. Whole towns and regions were decimated. Unlike the pagans around them, Christians took care of not only each other, but their neighbors.

A bishop named Dionysius described their actions this way: “Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains.”

This same bishop wrote of pagan behavior as follows: “At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead … hoping to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease.” A hundred years later the Roman Emperor Julian praised Christians for their “moral character” while berating pagans for their selfishness. In Rodney Stark’s assessment it was Christian compassion that brought order out of chaos, and community out of abandonment. He says, “Christianity offered a new basis of social solidarity.” They loved and served others without concern for themselves.

Much of the basis for solidarity today is Facebook and social media, and that’s not enough! Instead of selflessness, we are quick to take selfies. If pain is a megaphone to a complacent world then we have a choice as to what we shall say and what we shall do. Will we vilify, politicize, and navel-gaze at our complicity in a self-centered way, or offer solace, comfort, and declare Jesus’ perspective? To answer “yes” or “no” too quickly in any direction leads to second-guessing our motives, and also makes me wonder what good we have actually done for the victims and survivors. To be sure, a flag needed to come down in South Carolina, especially in light of Charleston’s massacre; Disney needs to protect its guests; and all God’s children need to be valued and protected, but blanket position statements often diminish appropriate actions.

So what do we do or say? Will we talk about theodicy and why bad things happen? Will we point the finger of responsibility to one individual’s evil toward others, or creation’s perfection gone amok that allows for nature to turn in on itself and drown a child? Should we get into the blame game or politicize these events? Or do either? I will not blame the parents of little Lane Graves. I support the sacredness of all human beings. I struggle with living in a fallen world where freedom allows for all sorts of chaos, by creatures and corporations. I am challenged to do something about righting wrongs with the compassionate clarity that declares that being loving and supporting doesn’t imply wholesale acceptance, but it does absolutely require total subservience and servanthood.

 

The United Methodist Sandwich

Someone asked me the other day where I’ve been, as in blogging. General Conference left me and our denomination in a kind of fog. There were high moments of grace when the Arapahoe and Cheyenne forgave us for the Sand Creek Massacre that was led by a Methodist Lay Preacher. The depth of heartfelt grace in the convention center was palpable. I felt a lot less grace when a thousand points of order, derisive accusations, and stalling tactics derailed any hope of recapturing Methodism as a movement.

Sure, we made some good, even great, decisions. A new hymnal was approved and that’s such a wonderful thing. We are much better at singing our faith than articulating it. In other good news, we gained 1.2 million new members, raised $75 million dollars to help eradicate preventable diseases like malaria, and we celebrated milestones like the 60th anniversary of full Clergywomen’s rights, the 30th year of Disciple Bible Study, and the 25th year of Africa University.

There was so much more for which to be grateful, but where are we really as United Methodists? The aftermath of General Conference has left me speechless for the most part with intermittent bouts of verbalized frustration. I’m somewhat at the point of thinking of us as a sandwich. There are two slices of bread on either side of the middle, and though the bread is extremely important, what’s in the middle is what’s most important. It makes it a sandwich. Perhaps if we focus on the middle we can find reasons to celebrate and move forward. I honestly think the middle is where most of us are.

The middle is a scary place and it’s usually not a very satisfactory place to be. The June 6, 2013 edition of The Atlantic has a helpful article by Larry Alex Taunton. It’s about college students who were formerly Christians, but now count themselves as atheists. The author observed these commonalities: they had attended church; the mission and message of their churches was vague; they felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions, they expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously; ages 14-17 were decisive; the decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one; and, finally, social media factored heavily into their conversion to atheism.

Since the theme of GC2016 was “Therefore Go,” implying a focus on making disciples of Jesus, then we need to listen to these young adult atheists. All of Taunton’s observations strike me as especially pertinent to United Methodism. Several even more so: “the mission and message of their churches was vague,” and “their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions.” Did we come out of GC2016 with vagueness? Will the creation of a special Commission add to our lack of clarity, or will it actually help answer life’s difficult question about the practice of homosexuality?

Interesting, isn’t it? On one hand there’s a sense that we became vaguer even though the Discipline’s language on homosexuality did not change, and, on the other hand, the Commission is going to try to tackle one of the most difficult questions of our time. All the while, I want young adults and every one of every age to come to know Christ. On that, we must not be vague. In a paraphrase of systems-thinker, Ed Friedman, “Clarity equals maturity,” but, self-differentiation is difficult in a one-size-fits-all denomination that values equanimity and consistency. So our struggle is about what can we be clear about, and what can we leave ambiguous.

We can agree that Jesus is Lord, even while we hold to very different meanings of the atonement. Connectionalism is a core value, but worship styles may vary. We certainly agree that together we can do more than if we’re apart. Our seemingly insurmountable impasse is said to be about homosexuality, but I think it’s also about covenant. We are in the thick of a battle between competing covenants, and some of us claim that our understanding of covenant is more sacred than another’s. But are there different levels of covenant? Perhaps, and that’s the source of much of our conflict.

To illustrate, our W-2’s, voter registration cards, military oaths, federal loan agreements, and driver’s licenses represent civil covenants with the government, and all of these implore people to act responsibly. Our ordination documents and the Book of Discipline are at a different covenantal level, very much like marriage. When we were ordained we knew what was expected and required. Marriage vows are very clear, too, “in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish.” Certainly, there have been people who just went through the motions of a wedding without due consideration of the gravity of these statements, but that’s no excuse for violating, ignoring, or devaluing the holy covenants we’ve made.

That word “holy” may make all the difference. Some covenants are actually holy, while others only rise to the level of a “deal” or a “transaction;” i.e., like the ones that I enumerated about citizenship, though Memorial Day makes me feel the weight of holiness as I ponder how much is owed by so many to so few.  Nevertheless, systems theory and doing a transactional analysis of GC2016 may actually help the UMC. The Council of Bishops’ Commission gets to rethink what is or isn’t a vow. Hopefully, they will study the theological impact of “covenant” on both homosexuality and our ecclesiology, our very identity as a church.

Someone came by my office this morning and made me ponder our denominational situation with two statements. The first was, “Help me to choose the harder right than the easier wrong.” Secondly she stated wisely, “Help me to bring gentleness to the hard places.” We’re so afraid of the hard places, but being between a rock and a hard place is the meat of the sandwich that we call United Methodism. I pray that I can choose rightly and bring gentleness to the hard places.

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Pre-General Conference Hope

John 11:25-26

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

For at least the last decade in the UMC, we’ve been beating to death the idea that, according to the numbers, the church in the U.S. is taking a beating and declining toward death. Two of my children who are young United Methodist clergy are quick to point out that this message has dominated their entire ministry, from seminary to the present, and it still swells larger without offering enough fruitful direction or hope. We continue to receive data that confirms the impending “death tsunami.” We also continue to be inundated by articles, workshops and seminars in response, with a repetition of familiar themes: How we got into this mess; How we can still avert catastrophe; How we must change everything (or change nothing); and the ever-popular, How death always precedes resurrection.

Like my children and perhaps so many of you, I am weary of the rhetoric. Not because the trends aren’t real. Not because I haven’t sometimes shared in these anxieties, and responses. Not because we shouldn’t think critically and strategically. Rather, because conversation must ultimately give way to necessary action, and I think now is the time to simply get back to being and doing as Christ calls us.

And the deepest truth of all — the best possible news for us — is that authentic disciples always outlast death, and they lead others in the same.

We have a straightforward call, summed up well by the UMC as: “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” This mission is not conditional. We didn’t choose to carry it forward because it carries a wholesale guarantee of success, or an assurance of longevity, or institutional security. At least I hope not. Regardless of the circumstances, and even if the UMC one day ceases to exist, the Lord still calls us today to simply make disciples for him. And the deepest truth of all — the best possible news for us — is that authentic disciples always outlast death, and they lead others in the same.

With this in mind, like the first Christians, the first Methodists, and certainly like those United Methodists at the forefront of missional growth around the world, let’s have both a discerning faithfulness today and also a holy disregard for worry over tomorrow. Let’s refocus on the present task, which is for each of us to continue to be in the making as the Lord’s disciples, and to participate in the making of more, new disciples. It will require a healthy level of humility: to be “in the making” is to admit that we’re unfinished. It also means holding ourselves to an expectation of real-world fruitfulness, since being “in the making” implies that Christ is intentionally forming us into some new future something as a people. It doesn’t sound easy but we can do it. We are uniquely equipped as United Methodists for it because, like John Wesley, we proclaim that any and every person can actually change, in behavior and attitude, heart and action, through God’s prevenient, saving, and sanctifying grace.

In other words, we must not define ourselves as an institution that is “in the declining,” “in the grieving,” or “in the dying.” Instead, we are “in the making,” a people and movement that can be grounded in the ongoing creative action of God. My passion for the church, and my vision for General Conference 2016, is for a return to this kind of disciple-making. Not merely to try to slow the impending death tsunami or to gain back statistical ground. Not merely out of a sense of self-perpetuation. But out of a desire to live the very hope of Christ.

As we hear on the way to Lazarus’ tomb in John 11:25-26 — and as we proclaim in every United Methodist “Service of Death and Resurrection” — the plain truth is that Jesus is the Lord of Life. Even more, he promises to share his Life with his followers, so that a true disciple of Christ never dies. If that’s so, then Jesus goes on to pose the one question that could possibly remain: “Do we believe it?”

I believe it. I think most of us do! I believe this promise should drastically alter everything, especially this upcoming General Conference. It should empower the ministry of our church to shape disciples. And it should invite us, above all, to pursue a life in the making with Christ Jesus and with one another. The theme of GC2016 is “Therefore go” from Matthew 28:19. Will we be in the making, or will we lament our divisions and prepare for schism at this General Conference. It depends on what or Whom you believe!

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