The Glue of United Methodism

Some Bishops, Annual Conferences, Boards of Ordained Ministry, and clergy have broken their vows to uphold the Discipline of the United Methodist Church (UMC). Many lay persons have done the same thing by not upholding the teachings of the UMC as was promised at either their confirmation or church joining. Leadership preaches unity and cite Jesus, but doesn’t practice unity. They are disobedient to the primary way that we as United Methodists practice unity – Connectionalism!

John Wesley’s genius in theology centers around his understanding of how we humans reflect the imago dei (Image of God). There are three primary ways: The Social Image, the Moral Image, and the Legal Image. Think how the Social Image affects Wesleyan theology. If the Trinity is God in community, we should also live in a similar, interdependent reciprocal mutually accountable relationship. That’s why we confer so much; i.e., the word “conference” occurs every whipstitch in how we do church. Conference is a way we live into the social image of God, whether it is through band meetings, class meetings, charge conferences, church conferences, district conferences, annual conferences, central conferences, jurisdictional conferences or General Conference. Furthermore, I would contend that Connectionalism is the primary engine that makes the Social Image such a wonderful reality.

The Wesleyan Way of mutual accountability leads to the other two ways that humanity reflects God’s image. The Moral Image is exhibited in Wesleyanism via an emphasis on sanctifying grace. Since God is Moral, so should we be. John Wesley took seriously that if God is perfect, that possibility is ours, too (Matthew 5:48). Personal piety and social holiness are always done best in the context of corporate discernment – the same conferring already mentioned.

Lastly, the way that we reflect God’s Legal Image of stewardship over creation is different from a personal or nationalistic greedy dominion-like selfish ownership or destruction of God’s good earth. Wesley’s little home remedy book, The Primitive Physick, is an example of his desire that we reflect the Legal Image as mutual caretakers of people’s bodies and souls for the common good. Corporate mutuality preempts any individualistic strip-mining attitude that turns the Legal Image into a license to feather our own personal nests. Connectionalism, once again, is a very important ingredient of our theology. It makes us sensitive to what is best for everyone, and why we have hospitals and schools everywhere, and a UMC Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

Here’s where I’m going with this: if Connectionalism is so important to who we are as United Methodists, why are we tossing it aside? Frankly, I don’t see Traditionalists doing that. It’s Progressives that are ignoring or breaking the unity of Connectionalism to which we have mutually pledged our allegiance. The Wesleyan Covenant Association and other renewal groups’ best preference is that we keep and strengthen the unity that we already have in the Book of Discipline.

So, ponder this, as we reflect on the document received from the Liberian Annual Conference this week. In response to the “Protocol,” they have gone on record by saying that we should stick together, and keep our current vows, name, logo and historic sexual ethics. In essence they have expressed the hope that we remain a global orthodox denomination, and live into what Connectionalism provides as a way forward. Rather than embrace splits, regionalism, and separation, why don’t we stick with what we have, and let those who can’t abide by it go their own way for their own conscience’s sake?

Our problem, therefore, isn’t just about authority of Scripture versus interpretation, culture wars and sociology, or ordination vow-keeping. There are all kinds of ways to frame and reframe a potential denominational split. What I hear when some promote a communion of separate branches of United Methodism under one umbrella is a denial of our Connectional ecclesiology. It would give a lot of latitude, yet keep us together, but at what cost?

The cost will be the loss of Connectionalism which is the essence of UM ecclesiology, the study, appreciation, and promotion of how we do church, and how that identifies and promotes the “Method” in Methodism. Being a “connectional” church, and how that shapes or reframes this whole sexuality discussion should honor our ecclesiology. If we can hang on to that, we will celebrate the imago dei in truly Wesleyan ways.

Connectionalism is who we are. Some may prefer a congregational or diocesan polity, but the word “Connection” appears 181 times in the 2016 Book of Discipline (BOD); “Connectional” appears 175 times; and “Connectionalism” 6 times. Clearly Connectionalism is more than foundational to our ecclesiology. It is part and parcel of how we fulfill Wesley’s system of mutual accountability that promotes sanctifying grace.

Note how Judicial Council Decision (JCD) 411 emphasizes our connectional nature by stating:

The Constitution clearly provides that the principle of Connectionalism should be always primary in any organizational structure of The United Methodist Church.

Or similarly, ¶132, 2016 BOD states:

The Journey of a Connectional People—Connectionalism in the United Methodist tradition is multi-leveled, global in scope, and local in thrust. Our Connectionalism is not merely a linking of one charge conference to another. It is rather a vital web of interactive relationships.

But, what body of the UMC determines what Connectionalism is in practice? It is only the General Conference, and not any lesser body that defines how connected we are. The 2016 BOD, ¶16 of the Constitution states emphatically that the General Conference (GC):

shall have full legislative power over all matters distinctively connectional (emphasis added), and in the exercise of this power shall have authority as follows: … 8. To initiate and to direct all connectional (emphasis added) enterprises of the Church and to provide boards for their promotion and administration.

 JCD 364 forbids the GC from delegating its Connectional legislative functions:

The General Conference may not delegate legislative functions and responsibilities which are assigned to it by the Constitution.

Therefore, the GC cannot yield to the Annual Conference its constitutional responsibility as stated in ¶16.2:

To define and fix the powers and duties of elders, deacons, supply preachers, local preachers, exhorters, deaconesses, and home missioners.

So, the Annual Conference Board of Ordained Ministry and Clergy Session may not negate, violate or ignore Church law, as stated in JCD 7:

It is inconceivable that the General Conference should have full legislative powers so that it can enact uniform legislation for the whole Church, and that at the same time each Annual Conference could also have the right to enact diverse and conflicting regulations, on the same subject. The reservation of the right to the ministerial members of an Annual Conference to “vote on all matters relating to the character and Conference relations of its ministerial members,” is not a distinctively legislative function but is rather an administrative function. It can only mean that the Annual Conference has the right as well as the duty to pass upon and determine the facts and apply the laws in all such cases in accordance with the uniform regulations and provisions which the General Conference may enact in reference to the same. In other words, the right reserved to the ministers of an Annual Conference to pass upon the character and Conference relations of its ministers does not mean that it has the legislative right to set up standards to measure the character and Conference relations of the Ministers except insofar as such standards do not contravene or are not covered by provisions enacted for the whole Church by the General Conference.

Judicial Council Decision (JCD) 1321 is a masterful summary of the limits of local options by Annual Conferences in ministerial credentialing. It cites JCD 7, 313, 536, 544, and 823. For instance, JCD 544 states:

The Constitution, Par. 15 [now ¶ 16], gives the General Conference the power to fix the basic requirements for ministry, while it becomes the responsibility of the Annual Conference, as set forth in Par. 36 [now ¶ 33], to measure, evaluate, and vote upon candidates, as regards the minimum standards enacted by the General Conference. Ordination in The United Methodist Church is not local, nor provincial, but worldwide. While each Annual Conference is a door through which one may enter the ministry of the entire church, the Annual Conference cannot reduce nor avoid stipulations established by the General Conference which must be met by the church’s ministry everywhere. An Annual Conference might set specific qualifications for its ministerial members, but does not have the authority to legislate in contradiction to a General Conference mandate or requirement. Judicial Council Decisions 313, 318, 325, and 513 speak to the authority of the General Conference, under Par. 15 [now ¶ 16] of the Constitution, to establish standards, conditions, and qualifications for admission to the ministry. In Decision 536, we held that “An Annual Conference may not subtract from the disciplinary requirements for conference membership, but it may under certain circumstances adopt additional requirements not in conflict with disciplinary provisions or their spirit or intent.” This was again underscored in Decision 542 at the May 1984 General Conference. “Under Paragraph 37 [now ¶ 33] of the Constitution, however, it is the Annual Conference, as the basic body of the church that decides whether those standards have been met.”

Though the Annual Conference is called “fundamental” (¶11) and the “basic body in the Church” (¶ 33), it is also true that Annual Conferences and Boards of Ordained Ministry do not have the freedom to do anything that would deny our connectional definitions of clergy, as that determination is solely reserved by the General Conference. JCD 1341 is definitive in its location of the authority for setting ministerial standards:

The General Conference acted within its constitutional authority when it established universal standards for the ministry in ¶¶ 304.3, 310.2(d), 341.6, 2702.1 (a), (b), and (d)

 JCD 1341 further declares:

It is settled Church law that the General Conference has full legislative authority to set uniform standards for the ministry, which Annual Conferences shall not abrogate or modify. Therefore, it acted within its constitutional powers when it legislated ¶¶ 304.3, 310.2(d), 341.6, and 2702.1 (a), (b), and (d). The Annual Conference may enact additional requirements that are not in conflict with the letter or intent of these disciplinary provisions. JCD 313, aff’d, JCD 318, 536, 823, 1321.

The reach of the General Conference and Connectionalism extends from top to bottom of the church. ¶246.1 BOD reinforces it at the local level:

General Provisions—1. Within the pastoral charge the basic unit in the connectional system of The United Methodist Church is the charge conference. 

In extrapolating Connectionalism to local church practice, JCD 694 speaks clearly to the discretion of any clergy member to perform ministerial duties such as weddings:

It is the responsibility of pastors in charge to perform their duties in compliance with the Discipline and be obedient to the Order and Discipline of the Church. (Par. 431.9 now 304.1(j))

As it pertains to same-sex weddings, JCD 1185 clarifies the sacred difference between civil and Church law, and this decision also rejects local options on connectional matters:

The Church has a long tradition of maintaining its standards apart from those recognized or permitted by any civil authority. The Church’s definition of marriage as contained in the Discipline is clear and unequivocal and is limited to the union of one man and one woman. Consequently, the Church’s definition of marriage must take precedence over definitions that may be in operation in various states, localities and nations or that may be accepted or recognized by other civil authorities. To do otherwise would allow the Church’s polity to be determined by accident of location rather than by uniform application.

In summary, how does Connectionalism shape who we are with respect to human sexuality? To regionalize or break covenant with what the General Conference has decided will be the death-knell to a critical component of our identity, both as individuals and as a denomination. Clergy have made promises to uphold the Discipline of the UMC, and willingly lay aside their own prerogatives. Annual Conferences are called to be agents of the connection, but cannot dictate what only the General Conference can and must decide. Local churches, comprised of laity and pastors, cannot abrogate their allegiance to the connection or the General Conference. None of us are free agents that are laws unto ourselves. We are either a connection, or we’re not. What do you think our ecclesiology should look like? John Wesley thought Connectionalism was the best answer. What say you?

United Methodist Protocol Possibilities and Perils

Will the United Methodist Church separate into two or more denominations? Only the General Conference can say for sure. There’s a lot of traction behind the “Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation.” The news and social media plus the blogosphere have been reporting things as if the Protocol Proposal is a done deal. As a veteran of 7 General Conferences there is more unity around this solution to our 48-year impasse than I’ve ever seen. Some would say our stalemate has been over sexuality. I would rather frame it as a huge difference in understanding the authority of Scripture. This is the bottom-line: Will your understanding of the Bible allow for actively gay clergy and same-sex marriage, or not? The new Protocol aims for a parting of the ways on these two issues. That doesn’t mean, however, that I’m sold on it, or that it won’t be amended into an unrecognizable mush at General Conference.

At first glance it looks pretty good. It pleases many Progressives and Traditionalists, and the majority of Bishops as well. I am not thrilled that there were many more bishops and progressives than traditionalists in the negotiating room. Afterall, the vote, not just at last February’s Special Session, but all twelve General Conferences since 1972 have upheld the same stance of the church that says we welcome everyone and find all persons of “sacred worth,” but the “practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” This isn’t just the teaching of 48 years. It is the teaching of 2000 years of the church, and more than that if you count 2000 additional years of our Jewish heritage. I also think the Traditional view would be upheld at this May’s General Conference, too.

This is the reason many people wonder why the Traditionalists seem to be shown the door. Why do we have to give up the name “United Methodist?” I think it’s a valid point, but there’s another reality at work. That reality is the name of the denomination has not only changed a lot over the years anyway, but it actually has enough baggage to be a detriment to faithful Bible-believing Discipline-keeping United Methodists. For instance, my own mother was a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, then The Methodist Church, and finally The United Methodist Church. It begs the question, “What’s in a name?” My personal preference is that Traditionalists get to keep “Methodist” somewhere in our name. It is who we are in our practice of faith.

But, I also know that branding is important to my friends and colleagues outside the US where governments are friendlier to churches tied to the States. I’ve personally seen that first-hand in the Philippines, Mozambique, South Africa, Bulgaria, North Katanga in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, and Zambia. What I have also seen is the faithfulness of people to Scripture over denomination. If the UMC, now or later as the more liberal post-separation UMC, supports a laxness in sexuality standards then the rank and file of church members especially in Africa would overwhelmingly support traditional marriage and ordination standards. Even the Anglican-communion style notion of a US Regional Conference will not satisfy those whose values will not permit them to be in close association with those whose actions are in violation of Biblical standards. One only has to look at how the Methodists of Cote D’Ivoire joined the UMC because they could not stomach the liberalization of the Anglican Communion.

To those who live outside of the Bible-Belt in the US, and a few places in the US South, the name “United Methodist” has become synonymous with liberal humanistic pluralism more than with the saving and sanctifying work of Jesus Christ and a belief in the authority of Scripture. I sincerely wish those who will not live under our Book of Discipline would simply go their own way, but the sin of racism in the church has come back to haunt us. Everyone knows about our schism in 1844 that created the MEC and MEC, South. That racism got further institutionalized in 1939 with the rejoining of North and South and the Jim Crow-creation of the Central Jurisdiction that segregated African-Americans. Southern whites were adamant that the only way we would rejoin the North would occur only if a religious apartheid was enforced. The joining of the subsequent Methodist Church with the Evangelical United Brethren in 1968 thankfully did away with the Central Jurisdiction, but kept a seriously flawed part of the 1939 compromise.

Until 1939 bishops were elected at General Conference. Southern whites wanted their “own” bishops so jurisdictions were created for the first time, and bishop-elections were moved to those more local settings to ensure that every place got someone who would support the local biases and culture. Now we see how that has come home to roost with at least one whole jurisdictional College of Bishops defying the Discipline and the Judicial Council. At best guess there are only 7 bishops out of 46 in the US who would be considered Traditional. Moving bishop elections closer to home has widened the gap between General Conference and local adherence to what the General Conference has decided. So, we can have a Traditional Book of Discipline, but who is going to enforce it? We need to repent of what we did in 1939!

As much as I would love to see Traditionalists remain and Progressives leave, we’re stuck with an overwhelming majority of bishops who will not enforce things, and seemingly cannot be held accountable. With recent elections of progressives on the clergy side in most annual conferences in the US, there might not ever be another Traditional bishop elected. Add to that the liberal slant of most, if not all, denominational boards, agencies, and their staffs then no wonder many of us are ready to hit the exits. If Traditionalists leave, good luck to those who are left in trying to pay the freight. Restricted funds will remain off-limits, and apportionment dollars will dry up as congregations and conferences vote to leave.

Of course, my preference is that votes happen at the annual conference level to leave, and spare local churches the stress. I also hope that Local Pastors know how powerful their voice is in this matter. I’ve heard some talk that Local Pastors won’t be allowed to vote on this at annual conference. That is impossible. Paragraph 602.1(d) is clear that Local Pastors can vote on EVERYTHING at annual conference except delegates to Jurisdictional and General Conference, constitutional amendments, and conference relations of clergy. Local Pastors need to show up at annual conferences and vote! Local Pastors might be the best hope to save us from those clergy who have abandoned historic Christian teaching.

There is much to ponder and pray about. I hope that we can make it through all this without losing sight of our mission to make disciples for Jesus Christ. God bless the delegates as they discern our future. If the Protocol is the best solution we have, then I’ll take it.

Impeachment: A Fair Fight?

Care what you will and say what you want about President Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi’s decision to move forward with Articles of Impeachment will only solidify the base of the anti-Trumpers and the pro-Trumpers. In the meanwhile, Washington’s “Great Distraction” will paralyze the nation. I’m tired of feeling like I need to choose a side in the moral morass of our modern culture whether it’s about Trump, or anything else.

I want to pull a Rip Van Winkle and wake up when all the distractions are done. Of course, this isn’t an option for either a good citizen or Christian who wants there to be justice and change for the better. I cannot be like the ostrich that buries its head in the sand and says, “Because I can’t see it, it’s not happening.” Now we know it’s happening, but what are we going to do about it? Are we going to go quietly into the night, stay on the sidelines, or are we going to do something productive?

Someone recently said that the greatest threat to democracy isn’t vitriol, it is civility. In this impeachment climate, I long for rational civility, but civility and tolerance has made us more divided. If we believe that some things are right and some things are definitely wrong, no matter what the context or who it involves, then civility is the enemy of truth and justice. For “nice” moral people to be quiet and acquiesce to the rancorous squeaky wheels on the extremes is a dereliction of duty. Following St. Paul’s dictum, “In your anger, do not sin,” does not mean that people who believe in Absolute Truth should roll over and play dead when attacked as bigots.

I’m all for everyone’s civil rights including free speech and the right to assemble, but the first rule of common law and parliamentary procedure is that, “The minority must be heard, but the majority must prevail.” The problem is that the loudest voices on the ends of spectrums have silenced the majority of those of us in the middle, and they have stalemated any hope of clarity or unanimity in important matters.

To say we need more vitriol doesn’t mean that we need to hear from the extremists, but from the folks in the center. What do they or we have to say? In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. famously lamented the “white moderate” who “prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” He also acknowledged the importance of tension to achieving justice. “I have earnestly opposed violent tension,” King wrote, “but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.” Americans should not fear that form of tension. They should fear its absence.

So, we need to embrace tension because it helps reveal our core values. Tension provides clarity about what’s really important to us. Tension can lead to open honest dialogue rather than strong-arming or shallow hail-fellow-well-met pleasantries. In authentic democracy there is due process that makes room for both differences of opinion and fairness. Civility without enough vitriol makes people hide their real feelings, and sides just get more and more entrenched.

Maybe you’ve heard the story of the guy who fell overboard into the water. Another guy tried to rescue him, only to grab arms, legs, whatever and finding each time that a prosthetic appendage came loose. The man in the water kept yelling, “Save me!” In frustration, the would-be rescuer said, “I would, if you would only stick together!” I wonder if that’s an analogy for the United States and what God is trying to say to us and our two-party system. Can we stick together for our country’s sake while we embrace a little vitriol? Is it possible to have a fair fight? We will see soon enough, won’t we?

King Jesus: A Bigger Blockbuster Than Impeachment

Within a span of less than two weeks we have a US-centric, but mostly world-wide, triple-header on the church calendar. This coming Sunday is the last day in the Christian year, and is always designated as “Christ the King Sunday.” Appropriately, we remember that Jesus Christ is King of kings and Lord of lords. He is the One to whom we bow and owe our unwavering allegiance. Next Thursday we will celebrate Thanksgiving and show our gratitude to God for all of His blessings and providence. Almost every country does something like this though it may be at a different time of year. Sunday week, December 1, will be the beginning of Advent when we commemorate Jesus’ first coming and solemnly prepare for His Parousia; i.e., the Second Coming.

How easy it is to think all about Thanksgiving and miss the bookend Holy Days of Christ the King and Advent season. It is apparent in US society that we would do well to pay attention to all three. How would I act differently if Jesus were truly King in my life? Is Thanksgiving merely a time of stuffing both a turkey and my face? Is our Advent focus mostly about Christmas? Do we follow the Scout motto of “Be Prepared” because Santa is coming or Jesus is returning?

The whole notion of holidays is so misunderstood. As recently as a few weeks ago I overheard people talking about Halloween aka All Hallows Eve as a “holiday.” All Saints Day on November 1, the real holiday/holy day, was totally overlooked. Halloween is no holy day. It’s quite the opposite! We have many secular special days, but they’re not holidays per se. As much as I would like to make the mundane sacred, it appears to me that we have more often made the sacred profane. This begs the question of how holy we actually make our Thanksgiving festivities and church events. What does a proper Advent look like in our “Frost Fest” world when we take Christ out of Christmas and give the season and its trees and other accoutrements nonsensical politically correct names?

Let’s take up the challenge and make the coming season holy by putting God first and not ourselves. If Jesus is my King how does that affect my perspective on the President and the Congress. Elected officials come and go, but according to Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” If Jesus is King then how does that change my views on injustice, the unborn, drug addiction, homelessness, and mental health? The list could go on and on.

How can I have a proper Thanksgiving if I don’t have a God to thank? It would be pretty ludicrous to thank myself, or just the special people who have made significant contributions to my life. Thanksgiving that honors humans over God is either narcissism or a mis-directed adulation otherwise known as idol worship. If Thanksgiving doesn’t cause thankfulness toward God Almighty then it isn’t a holiday at all. It’s just the day to stock up on our energy before we face the shopping frenzy of Black Friday. Football and food are no match for the spiritual nourishment of giving God His due.

An Advent season that jumps too quickly into Christmas Carols props up our overemphasis on Baby Jesus instead of King Jesus. We use purple altar cloths and stoles in church during Advent because it is about our need for penitence in the face of a regally clad King. I’m all for Christmas, but a “good” Christmas doesn’t neglect the guest of honor at His own party. We desperately need to grasp that Advent is less about a birthday party than a victory banquet. The real purpose of Advent is to get us ready for the Marriage Feast of the Lamb when He comes to set things right and redeem his Beloved, the Church.

To embrace the holiness of this season is to enrich it, to lift up God who, in turn, lifts us beyond all of our “Great Distractions,” whether in DC or wherever and re-centers our attention on what is most important. The bigger question for me during this season is not whether the President should be impeached. It is whether I and my shallow worship practices should be. Making the upcoming days all about us and our machinations or shenanigans misses the true glory and grandeur of God.

There is a wonderful anonymous parable that really makes me want to watch out who/Who is on the throne of my life. Think about this story and look with me into a mirror:

Horville Sash had a very important but humble job in the offices of the largest corporation in the world. He worked as a mail clerk in the lowest reaches of the building doing what he could do to help other people with their jobs. Often, he wondered what went on the floor just above his. He could hear their footsteps every day and he would think of the exciting jobs they must have while he worked in the basement. Then came a day when Horville found a bug scurrying across the floor. As the mailroom clerk, Horville had only bugs to command. He raised his foot to flatten the bug when the bug spoke: “Please don’t kill me,” said the bug. “If you let me live, I’ll give you three wishes.” Horville figured that even if he didn’t get the wishes, a talking bug could make him a lot of money. So he let the bug live, and the bug asked him what he wanted for his first wish. “To be promoted to the next floor,” said Horville. The next day Horville’s boss came in and told him he would move up to the next floor that very day. Horville walked into the next floor offices like a conquering general, but soon he heard footsteps on the floor above him. He said to the bug, my second wish is to be promoted floor by floor until I reach the very top; until I am in charge of the company. “Done,” said the bug, and floor by floor he moved his way through the ranks: 10th floor, 20th floor, 50th floor, 90th floor, and finally to the very top floor. He was as high as he could go: Chairman of the Board; CEO of the company; corner office on the top floor of the building. But then one day Horville heard footsteps above him. He saw a sign that said: STAIRS so He went up to the rooftop and there he found one of his clerks standing with his eyes closed. “What are you doing?” Horville asked. “Praying,” came the answer. “To whom?” Pointing a finger toward the sky the boy answered, “To God.” Panic gripped Horville. There was a floor above him! He couldn’t see it. He couldn’t hear the shuffling of feet. All he saw was clouds. So he asked, “Do you mean there is an authority higher than me?” Horville summoned the bug. It was time for his third and final wish. “Make me God,” he said. “Make me the highest. Put me in the kind of position that only God would hold if he were here on earth.” The very next day Horville Sash awakened to find himself back in the basement, sorting the mail, and doing what he could to help others be the best that they could possibly be.

The upcoming season is our chance to humble ourselves before the One True God and worship him above all others, especially ourselves. Happy Holidays! Amen.

The US Mint Offers A Great Opportunity

The US Mint is trying to increase the public’s interest in numismatics otherwise known as coin collecting. It’s interesting how they’re doing it. Of the nearly 2 billion America the Beautiful quarters put in circulation this year the mint has dispersed among those only 2 million with a “W” mintmark for the West Point mint. Since there are 5 ATB quarters in 2019: Lowell, Massachusetts, American Memorial Park in Saipan, War in the Pacific Memorial on Guam, San Antonio Missions for Texas, and Frank Church’s River of No Return in Idaho, that means there are only 400,000 each of these “W” mint mark 2019 quarters out there. There’s a 1 in 185 chance that you might find one, and, because of the rarity, they’re selling for as much as $70 to $200 per quarter based on condition – a hefty return on investment for 25 cents! For $10 a roll you get 40 quarters to look at, and an opportunity to have a little bit of an early Christmas. What the US Mint is doing is wise as they try to get us to look at our money more closely.

The same thing is true for most churches at this time of year. The fall harvest season is usually the time for stewardship programs. As we approach Thanksgiving and Christmas we don’t want to forget the guest of honor at His own birthday party! To whom do we ultimately owe our thanks – God! So, take a hint from the mint and look at your money more closely. It can make a huge difference in fulfilling God’s ministries for the Kingdom.

Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi are the three post-Exilic prophets of the Old Testament, and they each preach a lot about us putting God first. With specificity, Haggai (1:2-11) tells the people to get busy rebuilding the Temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonians. For 20 years they had been looking at a pile of rubble and saw it as too mammoth a task to undertake. They focused on themselves and their “paneled houses,” while God’s house remained a ruin. Haggai told them to get their priorities in order. Malachi does the same thing. He tells the returning exiles that they have been robbing God, and when they ask how, he tells them it’s in tithes and offerings. In the midst of rebuke, he offers hopeful words. In Malachi 3:10, God speaks through Malachi and says, “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.” Wow!

What’s interesting is the wording in how all three of these post-Exilic prophets encourage the people to put God first. More than any other writers in the Bible they use a specific designation for God: “Lord Almighty”! They want to inspire the people to give God his due because this is no wimpy God, but one to be revered. In Haggai’s 38 verses “Lord Almighty” is used 14 times; in Zechariah the same name is used 53 times, and in Malachi it is 24 times! These prophets were speaking to a people without a king for the first time in 650 years, or rather to a people who had always had a king, but forgot WHO that king is – the Lord Almighty! Our giving reveals whether or not we remember who our King is!

We are a greedy bunch and use any excuse to not give to the church. Boiled down, our excuse is usually greed and selfishness. We need to remember what Jim Cramer said on the TV show “Mad Money:” “Bulls make money! Bears make money! Pigs get slaughtered!” Money can be made whether the stock market is on a high or a low, but if you or I get greedy, we’re going to lose and lose big! We all want to do well on our investments, and investing in the ministries of the church are the best investments that we can make.

Recently I went through the refinancing process to lower both my interest rate and length of amortization. It was a good deal! It dawned on me that refinancing is exactly what we as Christians do with every stewardship campaign, indeed every Sunday and every day as we fulfill our promise to uphold the church with our prayers, presence, gifts, witness, and service. We are literally giving the church our capital to spend on its ministries. Those ministries are worth our investment. Our giving answers an important question, “Do you know how to tell the difference between a flower that’s alive and one that’s dead?” The answer is, “The one that’s alive is growing.” Our resources grow the Kingdom. Our giving refinances God’s goals. Churches that are growing are filled with people who know that we make a living by what we get out of life, but we make a life by what we give. If the US Mint wants us to look more closely at our money, we certainly need to follow God’s advice to do it, too.

Play Ball! Ethics in a Postmodern World

The World Series in Baseball begins October 22. I love baseball, especially college play. The NCAA limits the number of scholarship players to 11.7 so there’s about 23 out of a total of 35 who are playing because they simply love the game. It’s one of the purest sports left on the athletic landscape. The College World Series in Omaha is a treat that should be on everyone’s bucket list. I’ve been 6 times. Once driving straight-through by myself, once with Cindy, and four times with our youngest son, Caleb. It’s great!

As I think about our postmodern culture wars there are two statements that come to me from my experience with baseball, from my own playing and managing days, as well as from enjoying the game from the seats: “Remember what’s fair and what’s foul;” and “Always think about what you’re going to do if the ball comes to you.”

The chalked lines and foul poles near the stands around the baseball field determine what’s a fair and foul ball. What’s good and kosher, and what isn’t. In our pluralistic culture we are confused about what’s fair and foul. Instead of relying on what is timeless as an arbiter of truth, we make up our own rules. The resulting anarchy of self-defined values has left our culture on a chalk-less field. At best, we are confused, and at worst we are dead wrong.

Christianity has become so enculturated that we often stand for nothing. The means of deciding boundaries of God-endorsed behaviors has been tossed out of the game. For quite some time, what is known as the “Quadrilateral” has been the guide for Christian ethics. Think of the Quadrilateral as a three-legged stool with Scripture as the seat of the stool. It is primary. It is God-breathed and inspired. Using the stool analogy, the Bible is seen through the lenses of the three legs: Tradition, Reason, and Experience. It is also wise to remember that Tradition, Reason, and Experience are also seen through the lens of Scripture. That is a large part of what our world is missing!

In our confused and misguided world, we tend to put individual Experience first and disregard corporate experience that distills the actions that we hold in common as best. Next, we have redefined Tradition to mean just the last 30 years instead of 4, 000 years of Judeo-Christian values. Then we have remade Reason into what science, mostly meaning what psychology and social sciences, tell us. The Mind of Christ and/or empirical studies have given us hard evidence of unwelcome truths about identity determinants. No wonder then that Scripture is last on our list of sources of truth because hardly anyone trusts it, much less, treats it as the primary guide for ethical thought and actions. Few people actually study it, much less put it into practice.

Then comes the last statement that is paramount to a good baseball team: “Know what you’re going to do if the baseball comes to you.” Every day we are faced with moral questions – What’s right and what’s wrong, in other words, the foul and fair line questions. What are we going to do if the questions, the ball, comes to us? Are we going to use Scripture as primary backed up by centuries of a thorough examination of God’s truth through tradition? Are we going to promote selective reason and biased studies over the plain sense of what’s good? Are we going to make our individual experience the most important arbiter of what’s right and wrong?

What are you going to do if the ball comes to you? How are you going to answer the hard questions of life? As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. I would rather stick with the tried and true than the untried and unsure. Play Ball!

Handling Our Diferences

Someone has said that our greatest strength is diversity, but it is also our greatest weakness. Jesus prays for his followers (John 17:21) to be one, but the Gospel passage (Luke 12:49-53) for this coming Sunday seems to suggest Jesus promotes division. The two passages seem contradictory, and the latter passage doesn’t particularly sound like Jesus. It doesn’t sound like something anyone who loves unity, especially church unity, would say: “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled. But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

Surely, Jesus spoke the words from Luke against the backdrop of the end of the world and the final judgment. He is stating a fact that what we believe about Him is going to put us in different camps. This is a hard word. We struggle with doing everything we can to hang on to unity in our relationships, families, and the world of politics. We very much live in a time of division where unity is hard to find. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Movement, said these famous words: “In essentials, let there be unity; in non-essentials, let there be freedom; in all things, let there be charity.” The dilemma is discerning the difference between what is essential and what is non-essential.

Some contrast helps! This is a new take on things for me. I would prefer everyone to get along with each other, and keep the fireworks of life at a minimum. Frankly, I’m learning that the Proverbs are right in 27:17 when it says, “Iron sharpens iron.” To distill the truth in complex situations we actually need to go through the wrestling of diverse opinions. This is why debate teams only get better in the challenging crucible of taking different sides on issues and articulating them.

Could this be what we hope for in the church in what we call “holy conferencing”? We confer, converse, look for compromise, or resolution. We try to discern the will of God through debate and discourse. Sometimes we simply have to say, “In Christian love I think that it’s best we move on. Further interaction is going to hurt both of us, and we should not do one another harm by ripping open this same wound over and over again.”

That is a hard place at which to arrive. It seems un-Christian almost, but it may actually promote healing. It’s not a cold shoulder or snub. It is caring enough to confront the other with the truth, and live and let live, apart or together. It cuts down on the perpetuation of acrimony. There are people that I will never ever agree with, but by struggling through the conflict we can actually better affirm our mutual care of one another. It’s the stages of peacemaking that Dr. Scott Peck presents in his seminal work The Different Drum: Community-Making and Peace.

He proposes that the first stage in a relationship is “Pseudo-Community.” It’s the stage where everything and everyone is chummy, hail-fellow-well-met like a honeymoon or a high school reunion – all hugs and no shrugs, but it isn’t real. That’s why it’s called “pseudo.” However, if you allow for honest dialogue and truth-telling, which is necessary for any genuine relationship, then you arrive at “Chaos” where differences are exposed. Most people don’t like chaos, but it’s a mandatory stage in order to get to where we want to go in our dealings with people. So, church people should welcome chaos that at least gets beyond the fakeness of the prior stage. A disclaimer: There are some people who love drama and get stuck not just in the chaos stage, but in any of them or go up and down the continuum at every whipstitch. But, if you plow ahead then you move out of Pseudo-community and Chaos, and get to Emptiness – a live and let live humility as opposed to my-way-or-the-highway, an honest care for one another, but empty of venom and vitriol. This can be a wonderful stage, but if stuck in “emptiness” it leads to a passive sublimation of genuine feelings and people simply shut-down. Emptiness can be apathetic instead of empathetic. Empathy, in spite of differences, leads to the last stage which is Community. Community is marked by transparent love and a prioritization of group health more than individual satisfaction. Community fosters deep communal relationships through individual self-definition.

Where is your family, church, civic club, and national ethos on this scale? Let me give you an example of a healthy sense of community through a story shared by Dr. Len Sweet, a United Methodist clergyperson and professor. He tells the story of when university chaplain Tom Wiles picked him up from the airport in Phoenix, Arizona. They didn’t know each other. Tom was Dr. Sweet’s ride to a conference he was leading. Tom was driving his brand-new Ford pickup. Len Sweet was still mourning the trade-in of his Dodge truck. Though the two guys didn’t really know each other, they immediately bonded as they shared truck stories and laughing at the bumper-sticker truism, “Nothing is more beautiful than a man and his truck.”

Here’s what happened next in Sweet’s own words: “As I climbed into Tom’s truck for the ride back to the airport a day later, I noticed two huge scrapes on the passenger door. ‘What happened?’ I asked. Tom replied sadly, ‘My neighbor’s basketball post fell on the truck.’ ‘You’re kidding! How awful,’ I said. ‘This truck is so new I can still smell it.’ Then Tom said, ‘What’s even worse is my neighbor doesn’t feel responsible for the damage.’ I immediately rose to Tom’s defense and asked him if he had contacted his insurance company, or thought about other ways he could make his neighbor pay up.

Then Tom replied in an unforgettable way: ‘This has been a real spiritual journey for me. After a lot of soul-searching and discussions with my wife about hiring an attorney it came down to a simple thought. I can either be in the right, or I can be in a relationship with my neighbor. Since my neighbor will probably be with me longer than this truck, I decided that I’d rather be in a relationship than be right. Besides trucks are meant to be banged up, so I got mine initiated into the real world a bit earlier than I expected.’”

A better person than me.

US Society: Going to Hell in a Handbasket

This week’s lectionary text from Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 couldn’t be more appropriate given the context of our national pain and shame:

The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom;
listen to the instruction of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
“The multitude of your sacrifices—
what are they to me?” says the Lord.
“I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.

When you come to appear before me,
who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts?
Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening.

Your hands are full of blood!

Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong.
Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.

“Come now, let us settle the matter,”
says the Lord.
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool.

If you are willing and obedient,
you will eat the good things of the land;

but if you resist and rebel,
you will be devoured by the sword.”
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Can we take a hint from God?  Doesn’t this passage offer an indictment upon our so-called faith and rituals? Faith that is real does something and it’s genuine. God asks for willing obedience, not empty words. Isaiah knew what he was talking about. He had been a prophet through the reigns of four separate kings of Judah. He had seen it all, just like we have in our media-saturated world. But God made sure that Isaiah wasn’t too used to what had become commonplace. God woke him up to ask hard questions of his own people.

We also must ask and answer a hard question, “What’s wrong with America that 31 people were gunned down in the span of 14 hours?” Before we show our political bias and reach the easy assumption that both shooters were cut from the same cloth, think about the fact that the perpetrators came from very different ideological perspectives. The one in El Paso was anti-immigration specifically of Hispanics. The one in Dayton was a supporter of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Beats me, and I don’t dare think there’s an easy answer to the problems, the hot-button issues that our country is facing. White privilege is real and is a culprit, but in a man-on-the-street poll this morning, I did a survey asking individuals what they thought were our most pressing problems that could lead us to this horrible place in which we find ourselves. Here are the results in no particular order: assault guns, drugs and opioids, racism and tribalism, quality education, the demise of the traditional family, homelessness, suicide, protecting the unborn and vulnerable adults, slick as boiled okra politicians (there are some good ones), godly values and morality, mental illness, domestic abuse, child abuse, social media (including television), liberals, conservatives, and xenophobia. It runs the whole gamut, doesn’t it? And, there’s more, I’m sure because nobody said Iran, the economy, North Korea, healthcare, or even the recently ratcheted up trade war with China.

Now, here’s what ticks me: What are we going to do about these issues? Gleaves Whitney, college professor, said, “I want you to know that we are only one generation from barbarism. Think about it. If teachers and parents and the clergy fail to transmit the culture, then in just one generation that civilization can lose significant knowledge of its heroes, models, ideals, and principles, and then an enervating nihilism can set in.” Enervating nihilism is a debilitating destructiveness. Something that enervates is the opposite of something that invigorates and energizes, and nihilism is the rejection of all religious and moral principles in the belief that life is meaningless. This is where we are right now. We have become so desensitized to the ubiquitous problems that we’ve simply given up. We seldom have the energy even to say, “We’re going to hell in a handbasket!” Hell is already here especially in the minds of the shooters.

I read of a young Frenchman who stood on a dock in Calais, France, and watched two Englishmen get off a tourist boat. As soon as they were on the dock, he immediately shoved them off the side and into the water. As the Englishmen scrambled back up and did their best to shake off the water that had soaked them, one of them asked the Frenchman, “Is this any way to treat a foreigner? Why did you do this?” The Frenchman replied, “That was for burning Joan of Arc at the stake.” Then the Englishman said, “But that was 600 years ago.” The Frenchman retorted, “Oui, but I just learned about it this morning.” This is our immediate conundrum, too. In the face of all of our problems, we focus on the ones that are most immediate, that we have some personal stake in, or finally drive us to do something!

What defines the “tyranny of the urgent” for you? I’m sick of ignorantly and recklessly blaming one person or another, even the deep-pocketed gun lobby. What are WE going to do about our problems whether its gun violence, immigration, or opioids? Instead of enervated passivity, our children deserve better. It is time to quit sitting on our hands or wringing them with inaction. Enough is enough! Do we have the moral fortitude to be like Jesus and tie together a whip of cords and run the evil out of our society?

As our seminary intern, Douglas Herlong, said to me yesterday, “Words are words. Promises are promises. Excuses are excuses. Performance is reality!” Aren’t we sick and tired of words, promises, and excuses? I sure am. There are injustices and wrongs all around us. What are we going to do? What are you going to do? Our hands are bloody, according to Isaiah, and it’s time to wash them!

A Fool and His Money

August 2 would be my Dad’s 103rd birthday and one of his favorite sayings is appropriate for this coming Sunday’s Gospel text: “A fool and his money will soon be parted.” Indeed, you can’t take it with you! I just finished David Baldacci’s book Fallen about Memory Man, FBI agent Amos Decker, who gets involved in a crime thriller while on vacation. Without giving the plot away, there’s a John Baron, IV whose ancestor John Baron I, founded a town, made a fortune, but left the family penniless. The spoiler alert is that the family is sitting on tons of gold so to speak, and people are willing to kill for it. The hint is that John Baron the First wanted to take it all with him, but we all know that there are no U-Haul’s behind hearses.

This week’s Gospel text is about the rich guy who wanted his inheritance and asked Jesus to intervene with his brother and tell him to liquidate their assets so each could get their respective part. In response Jesus tells a parable about the “Rich Fool.” The rich fool wants to take it with him, build bigger barns, and make all he can to keep so he can enjoy a life of ease. Wishful but faulty thinking!

A story comes to mind about a rich guy who also wants to take it all with him. His will is read before the burial, which is a bit unusual. He bequeaths $10 million in cash to his banker; $10 million in cash to his doctor; and $10 million to his minister. He demanded that they place the cash in his casket at his funeral. They each walked up solemnly and dropped envelopes into the casket just before it was lowered into the ground. On the way back to the funeral home to get their respective cars, the minister gets antsy and confesses to the banker and doctor that he had skimmed $1 million off the $10 million he was supposed to cough up. He rationalized was that the church really needed the money so he only put $9 million in his envelope. His confession prompted the doctor to fess up, too. He explained that the local hospital needed a new MRI machine that cost $5 million so he only dropped $5 million in his envelope into the casket. Then the minister and the doctor looked suspiciously at the smiling banker. The banker said, “Don’t look at me like that. I did exactly what the man said! I wrote him a check for $10 million and put it in the envelope.”

Smart guy! The truth of the matter is that none of us can take it with us, but we can certainly send it on ahead by helping worthy causes here and now. It was Martin Luther who said that God divided the hands into fingers so that money could more easily slip through. A lot of us have finally realized that money can’t buy happiness so now we use credit cards! Not too wise since the average family’s ambition is to make as much money as they’re spending. Money, money, money – no wonder Jesus talked about it more than any other subject. It’s wonderful, but deadly if we get too greedy.

Sixteen out of Jesus’ thirty-eight parables are about how to handle money and possessions. In the Gospels, one out of 10 verses (288 in all) deal directly with money. The Bible as a whole gives us 500 verses on prayer, less than 500 verses on faith, but more than 2,000 verses on money and possessions. Money reveals a lot about the condition of our spiritual lives. More than that, what we say and do with the subject of money speaks volumes about every area of our life. For instance, an ad appeared in the classified section of the newspaper that read: “I would like to announce that the ad I put in this newspaper last Saturday was in error. I will be responsible for any debts incurred by my wife, and I will start paying them off as soon as I get out of the hospital.”

Today at 2 p.m. the Fed will announce whether or not it will cut interest rates. Everyone with a 401k or similar instrument is hoping for good news. The stock market has been on a tear, but “More is better,” right? I must admit that I subscribe to the advice: “If you make money at poker, that’s gambling. If you make it playing bridge, it’s a social activity. If you make it outguessing the stock market, it’s a miracle.” Well, if you need a miracle to retire well and cover your living expenses plus your burial, or to even just get by right now then the best investment will be in eternal things where no moth or rust destroy and no thief can steal. Eternal things might be your children, your church, a charity of your choice, whatever will last way beyond you that does good! Trust me, the ERS (Eternal Revenue Service) will treat you much better than the IRS! Trust Jesus and it’s all a good investment.

When You Haven’t Got a Prayer

Have you ever thought that the “praying hands” emoji is really the one for high-fiving someone? They sure look alike, and there is an online debate about which is the correct answer. I like high-fives, but I need prayers more. I need a high-five from God that can come from prayer! “Turn your worries into prayers,” is a phrase I often hear from my wife Cindy, who is a wonderful intercessor. She has tried to keep me from worrying about worrying, which I easily do. List-making, added to more than a little bit of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and a semi-eidetic memory are just a few of the ingredients that cause me to naturally worry. If only, I could turn my worries into prayers.

I remember the first days and years of my faith when I could literally feel God close. God was nearer than my breath, the Grand Thought behind all my thinking. God overwhelmed my sub-conscious. God is still there. I’m the one who has usurped His responsibility and moved more towards my will than His.

Remember the days when front seats in a car were one long bench without a gear-shift console divider? There was an older man and his same-aged wife who were traveling in such a car. The guy was driving and his wife was sitting next to the passenger side door when they came up on a young couple who were in the car in front of them. The young couple was sitting so close to each other that they looked like a two-headed monster. The older woman pointed to the young couple and asked her husband, “Why don’t we do that anymore?” Her husband replied, “I haven’t moved.” Ouch!

God hasn’t moved either. Our worries do not consume us because God is distant, but because we have become distant from God. Prayer is the connecting link that we have not exercised in a long time. It is that needed exercise for both our souls and minds. Prayer strengthens us spiritually and emotionally. And, it’s a dialogue. Too often it’s a time when we tell God everything we need or what those we love need. Effective prayer is a two-way street where we listen for God’s nudging responses and clarity.

Recently I did a funeral for a wonderful man who was an engineer to the core. He puzzled out problems for a living. In my mind he had one of the most delightful ways of turning things over to God. He would get up in the middle of the night, fill a bowl of ice cream and pray. He told his family, “By the time I finished that bowl of ice cream everything was all figured out.”

Some of us pray while we drive. Some of us, out of desperation, pray while we ride with others, or when we’re about to face some sort of health scare. Others of us pray like it’s our second breath, breath-prayers exhaling our worries and inhaling the Holy Spirit’s answers to our worries. Sally Deford puts it this way in her poem and hymn, “Prayer is the Soul’s Sincere Desire:”

Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire
Uttered or unexpressed
The motion of a hidden fire
That trembles in the breast

Prayer is the burden of a sigh
The falling of a tear
The upward glancing of an eye
When none but God is near

Prayer is the simplest form of speech
That infant lips can try
Prayer, the sublimest strains that reach
The Majesty on high

Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath
The Christian’s native air
His watchword at the gates of death
He enters heav’n with prayer

Prayer is the contrite sinner’s voice
Returning from his ways
While angels in their songs rejoice
And cry, “Behold! He prays!”

Nor prayer is made on earth alone
The Holy Spirit pleads
And Jesus at the Father’s throne
For sinners intercedes

O thou by whom we come to God
The Life, the Truth, the Way
The path of prayer thyself hast trod
Lord, teach us how to pray

 

May God hear your desires and give you peace, in Jesus’ name. Amen.