A Potter's Perspective on Life, the Church, and Culture

As Pentecost approaches on May 24, I am reminded that each Christian is gifted by the Holy Spirit. As much as we like talking about our Trinitarian beliefs, the Holy Spirit often gets short shrift in both theology and practice. It is the Spirit, however, that unites us as a body made of different parts and supernatural abilities (I Corinthians 12). Sometimes our natural abilities and aptitudes are exactly synonymous by the Holy Spirit’s unique gifting of us, but sometimes not. Rather than digressing into the question of how you can tell which, I think that it is better to affirm the Biblical truth that every Christian has unique “gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will (Hebrews 2:4b).” Whether one feels like they have something to offer is irrelevant because we all do!

The Holy Spirit’s presence was let loose by God on an unsuspecting populace in Jerusalem and the world was turned upside down by an explosion of spiritual power. As I read the Pew Research Center’s newest religious poll of America’s faith habits this morning I was dismayed that the “none’s” with no religious affiliation are growing while those professing Christ are declining. I cannot help but wonder if it’s because we resemble the words of 2 Timothy 3:1-5a, “But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God – having a form of godliness but denying its power.” Sounds quite descriptive of us, doesn’t it? A form of godliness but denying its power.

The power that supplies godliness is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the dunamis, “power” in NT Greek, from whence we get our word “dynamite.” The early church saw miracles and exploded with growth. The Wesleyan Movement saw the same effects and England, America, and most of the rest of the world have witnessed the unleashing of God’s Spirit through our church. Lately, however, we have become too domesticated. Where is the power of the Gospel in our midst? The Holy Spirit is our dynamite!

An interesting article was written several years ago in a journal called The Public Interest by Roger Starr, a professor at City College in New York. He is a liberal, Jewish Democrat. (Remember that; it is important to the story.) Starr concluded that there was only one other period in world history that matches the day in which we live.

  • It was 18th century England. There was a problem of addiction – they had just discovered gin alcohol. Families were falling apart, children were being abused. Domestic violence was rampant.
  • There were problems of pollution, crime, and violence – problems very much like our own.

When he discovered this, Roger Starr wanted to know what saved England, or brought them out of their situation.

  • And would you believe? This liberal, Jewish, Democrat argues that the only thing that saved England was someone that he had not really heard much about – someone by the name of John Wesley who started a movement called Methodism.
  • “Now, I don’t even know any Methodists,” says Starr. “I don’t know anything about them. But this Wesley started a movement that literally saved England. It was a movement that had profound social, economic, and political consequences and transformed and indeed saved that nation. Maybe what we need to do is to study those Methodists to find out how they did it, and to duplicate what they did back in the 18th century.”

About a month later, George Will wrote an editorial for The Washington Post. George Will is a conservative, Roman Catholic Republican. (Remember that; it is important to the story.)

  • Will wrote, “I never thought I’d agree with anything Roger Starr has ever written. But you know, this liberal has actually got a point. It is that in the 18th century you have the German and French revolutions, and other revolutions around the world; but you don’t have an English Revolution. But they did, you see. It was called the ‘Methodist Revolution,’ because these Methodists turned their world upside down. Maybe what we need to do is to take Roger Starr seriously and look at what was the secret of those Methodists.”
  • Then he added, “I know this is going to sound strange for me, saying that we need some more Methodists to save the world; and I hate to end the column this way, but does anybody out there have a better idea?”

About a month later, Fred Barnes, editor of The New Republic, wrote an article. Fred Barnes is an evangelical Episcopalian moderate. (Remember that; it is important to the story.)

  • He writes, “Can you believe this? We have George Will and Roger Starr agreeing on something. I can’t believe it! But the more you think about it, they are exactly right. But they forgot one thing. What they forgot was that basically the Methodist Movement was at heart, a spiritual awakening.”
  • Barnes continues, “Yes, it had tremendous economic, social, and political consequences, but it began as a spiritual revival – a spiritual awakening. And unless we get in this nation a spiritual awakening and a spiritual revival that will create these kinds of economic and political implications…in our day, it won’t work. It’s got to have a new generation of Methodists who will do for this day what they did in the 18th century.”

What I meant by saying that we should remember the particulars of the three authors is that other people, from very disparate viewpoints, think there is something that Methodism still has to offer. In reality, the genius of Methodism isn’t a thing, but a Who – the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Living Christ, the embodiment of the Father’s great love for all humankind.  The question is whether or not we are full of the Holy Spirit, or full of ourselves? A tree is known by its fruit. Pray for a new Pentecost, and I know it needs to begin in me!

pentecost1

 

Mothers of God

Theotokos or “Mother of God,” is an expletive to some and a name for Mary for others. To most of us it is a vaguely familiar expression that we somehow recall as being “Catholic.” Sadly Protestants are often a little leery of our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, especially in the veneration of Mary. But, on this Mother’s Day, can’t we agree that “Ave Maria” is just as appropriate in a Protestant church as much as in a Roman Catholic one?

If it weren’t for Mary’s humble willingness to endure the ire of Joseph and surely that of the rest of Nazareth’s townspeople, we would be without a Jesus born both of God and of humanity. Jesus had to be human to satisfy justice, and he had to be divine for his death to save the whole world. I dare say one reason for Jesus to have a human mother is to claim that the very best representatives of humanity are women. Too often more is made of the political incorrectness of God as father when we miss the greater affirmation of women found in the person of Mary.

Meister Eckhart, famous theologian and mystic of the fourteenth century, described our affinity to Mary this way: “We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: when the Son of God is begotten in us.” Like Mary, we should all birth the Christ!

Of course, women are ahead of the game in this regard, whether they have had a child or not. For instance, I am reminded of a somewhat obscure passage of Scripture found in Paul’s lengthy greeting at the end of Romans. In this list he greets a host of people that have meant something to him. One such greeting includes a special word to every woman who has been a spiritual and emotional mother but maybe not a biological one. In Romans 16:13, Paul states, “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too.

Haven’t we all had women in our lives like Rufus’ mother, someone who has nurtured us, taught us, cared for us? A lot of my mothers were actually my real mother’s helpers. Aunts and school teachers come quickly to mind. Included would be the wise women of my first parish that taught a young inexperienced minister the way to care. My mother-in-law certainly was a mother to me, and with deepest sincerity I humbly admit that my wife has been like a mother to this her “fourth child” more often than she should have.

Mothering isn’t about biology. Like Mary and Rufus’ nameless mother, we can all fill in the blank of those women who have mothered us. We are grateful! This day is for every one of you. Our prayer, like Meister Eckhart’s, is that your grand unfathomable love might be born anew in us, that we might become Theotoki, bearers of the Christ child, as well as you. This is our tribute to you who have borne Him so well. This is our prayer of dedication. No greater compliment can we pay, no greater Mother’s Day gift can we purchase save the desire to be like you in birthing Christ in the world.

Mary and Child

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Where are our society’s foul lines? Baseball has foul lines to let us know if a ball is fair or foul. Basketball, football, volleyball, soccer, golf, and pretty much every sport has designated areas of play, and there are always penalties for breaching the boundaries. It saddens me that I can’t remember the last time I blushed. The Supreme Court is making a momentous decision about what’s fair. The people on the streets in Baltimore, both police and demonstrators, are trying to do the same thing. The issue is too simply put, but it’s about what’s right, legit, moral, and just in our individualized society. Is everything okay or can we as a people agree on positive helpful expressions of what’s in the best interest of all?

Tonight we have a Charge Conference, which in United Methodist-speak, is a meeting of elected church leaders who get to discern the proper and God-pleasing course of action on a particular issue. I will be presiding using predetermined boundaries of procedure and decorum. Our order of precedence in discerning what’s in order or not is fourfold: The United Methodist Book of Discipline, the Standing Rules of the Annual Conference, the Rules of Order from the preceding General Conference, and, finally, Robert’s Rules of Order.

The more basic determinant may be simpler than these four: Does what we do and say uphold love of God and neighbor? The basic parliamentary dictum and the premise of most people is that, “the minority must be heard, but the majority must prevail.” The problem with that dictum is that the majority may be wrong and deluded by faulty group-thinking as in the coed raped on a “spring break” beach in front of hundreds of onlookers. The dictum is also destructive if the minority seeks its hearing through violence. Without sounding like a fundamentalist, we need to do what I’ve heard coaches say when their team is struggling: “We need to go back to the fundamentals of the game.”

Can we agree on what is fundamental and basic to humanity’s best self? Can we agree that everyone is special and worthy of civility? We have all been made in God’s image. We carry God’s Moral Image and can do what is right. We are also made in God’s Social Image which reminds us that if God needs to dwell in the community that we call the Trinity, so we need each other, too! Therefore, we need to personally and corporately promote the things that are right, and that support community.

All this being said, I firmly believe that some things are out-of-bounds, past the foul lines, sidelines, and every other boundary. All of us have stepped across the chalk into foul territory. As much as we have been made in God’s image, we have also embraced the darkness of unbridled self-interest that doesn’t care a bit about anyone else. We can laugh at the Mark Sanford’s of our society who go off and say they’re hiking the Appalachian Trail when they’re really in Argentina with their so-called “soul mate.” Give me a break!

But, giving us a break is exactly what God does. Romans 3:26 describes God as both “just and justifier of those who have faith in Jesus.” What that says to me is that though I have sinned and God is just in pronouncing judgment on me, God also makes things right between us through the bridge built by Jesus. This also begs my attention to being nicer to everyone around me. I can’t point my finger at anyone else without three pointing back at me. Someone said, “There’s a court more Supreme than the one in D.C.!” Yes, but God lets the rain fall on the just and the unjust. God’s punishment and grace are upon us all. O Lord, give us divine help in dispensing them out fairly and justly!

So with all the uproar in Baltimore and the deliberations at the Supreme Court I recall the words of author James Michener, “I was born to a woman I never knew, and raised by another who took in orphans. I do not know my background, my lineage, my biological or cultural heritage. But when I meet someone new, I treat them with respect. For after all, they could be my people.” As the psalmist said in Psalm 100:3, we are all God’s people. I pray every day that I’ll act like it – with respect.

 

 

A blessing in disguise is a rare event for me, but I’ve had several this week. First we had a situation with a medicine that one of us takes. There’s never been any problem with getting it refilled, and it has been a regular medicine for years. The pharmacy, however, said it was disallowed by the insurance company. To make a very long story short, it’s been quite a saga of calling the doctor’s office, speaking to just the right nurse who could read the file, going through a committee of the pharmacy provider, getting an automated message last night that it was approved, “Yay!” and then 3 phone calls this morning to get a whopping three pills because the pharmacy has to order this med because it’s about to go generic. Whew!

You’re probably asking, “What was the blessing in disguise?” In the midst of all the events surrounding this saga, it dawned on me that a med that I’ve been taking for years seemed to be running low when I opened the bottle last night. I remembered that I had talked to my doctor about a refill several weeks ago, and his nurse called me to make sure that she had the right number for the call-in prescription line. I didn’t think anything more about it, safely assuming, I thought, that it would arrive shortly in the mail. But in the midst of dealing with the other medicine situation it dawned on me that I usually would have received the meds by mail by now so I went on-line this morning and checked to see if it was on the way. It wasn’t!

So I backtracked with the doctor’s office ad infinitum and called our mail-pharmacy number. Now things are straight on both meds and they’re on the way, plus the rest of the first pharmacy order should be here tomorrow. Breathe! The blessing in disguise is that if I hadn’t had a problem with the first medicine then I probably wouldn’t have remembered that the second one was delayed or noticed that it was running low. By the time I would have figured that out, I would have been out of that one, too!

Blessings in disguise are hard to see when you’re in the throes of anxiety. No wonder the British Navy has a whistle they blow just before they come to “battle stations” in a crisis or emergency. It’s called “The Still.” Their thinking is that if we will pause before we get freaked out then we’ll be better able to think and handle the situation in a much more productive manner. I just finished reading a book called The Chaos Imperative by Ori Brafman and Judah Pollack that makes the same point. They suggest that a little unstructured space or pausing can provide insights and innovation. They call it “white space.” White space allows us to recognize more clearly the blessings in disguise that we have written off as horrible intrusions. As Christians, we call this space: prayer, meditation, Sabbath, or doing our devotions. Whatever we call it, our times apart allow us to see God’s perspective on our anxious moments and recognize blessings in disguise.

My second “Aha!” moment of a blessing in disguise occurred over the weekend into yesterday. Last week was my week off. After trips to see grandkids, I was looking forward to a weekend of catching up on favorite TV shows that we had DVRed. I particularly wanted to watch the Masters. Guess what? Our TV went out. I called the cable company and the first night they said that it was an area wide issue. The next day it happened again and the person that I finally reached said it was just a service issue unique to us. Don’t you just love all the “press number” hoops you have to work through to get to a real person! Anyway the person had me reprogram our remotes, unhook the cable, re-do it, send a reset order over the line to the cable box, and on and on until 45 minutes later on Saturday afternoon they said there was no hope, and that the earliest we would get a service call was going to be on Tuesday – yesterday. Goodbye “Master’s” and “Elementary,” and “Bones,” “Antiques Roadshow,” and “Last Man Standing.”

The blessing in disguise was that instead of freaking out, Cindy and I were disconnected from our cyber-lives for a blessed few days and simply sat in our den and talked and read, went to bed early, and rested much better. On top of that when the repairman did come yesterday, it not only was a very simple fix, but he and I had a very helpful serendipitous conversation about faith and hope. It became a sacred moment – all because the TV went out and we went beyond a having a hassle-filled hissy to being still. The next time I get frazzled I’m going to latch onto Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God,” and give purposeful pausing a chance. There are blessings in disguise that I need to see. How about you?

Chaos Imperative

Taps or Reveille?

I don’t think that it ever hit me until this week how our country went from triumph to tragedy so quickly 150 years ago. On Palm Sunday 1865 General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse to Ulysses S. Grant of the Union Army, effectively ending the American Civil War. Five days later, on Good Friday 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was shot and died the next day. A horrible war with brother against brother, state against state was capped by another horror. From triumph to tragedy in just a few days.

I am looking out my study window right now and can see the graves of 26 Union soldiers who died 5 weeks before the Civil War ended. How awful to be so close to the end of the carnage and yet die. Historical accounts of the Battle of Aiken, SC on February 11, 1865 list 53 Union soldiers killed, 270 wounded and 172 captured for a total of 495 casualties for the North. On the Confederate side there were 31 killed, 160 wounded, and 60 captured for a total of 251 casualties. I cannot imagine the awful grief that gripped the families of these young men who died so close to the war’s end.

Jesus had his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday and five days later was killed on Good Friday, too. Both Jesus and Lincoln were killed, but Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, Illinois is occupied, and Jesus’ is empty. Nevertheless, I am struck to the core by the juxtaposition of life and faith. We live in a world of bad news, and yet we believe in Good News. We believe in a God who can go with us from the peak and valley of triumph to tragedy and still redeem it all for good. Today is Friday, but Sunday’s coming.

I just met with a mother whose child is in that in-between crucible of surgery and prognosis. So many of us have been on that roller-coaster ride between the peak of “We got it all,” and the valley of “There’s something suspicious.” Right now, two very special people, Revs. Chris and Elise Barrett, are on this roller-coaster and are facing it with a brave Easter faith that doesn’t gloss over the very real sense of mortality that so many seek to deny or avoid. Chris’ lymphoma has come back with a vengeance and he and Elise are doing the very best that they can to fill a bucket list of memories.

We all know people all over the world who are experiencing Good Friday crucifixions but try to live Sunday’s Easter faith. They are inspirations. For all who live in this tension between a won war and the tragedy of after-action casualties, we need to celebrate Easter all the more. Jesus rose from the dead with scars – pierced hands, feet, and side, to remind us that the reality of pain isn’t touched up by the makeup and brush of a mortician’s hand. Jesus continues to carry the marks of what life dealt him, but he is very much alive.

Therefore, we can all get on with our bucket lists and dare life to deal us its worst blows because God is the conqueror of death. Sure, we all would rather not have the pain of Good Friday, and would rather go peak to peak from Palm Sunday to Easter, but that’s not reality. The deaths that we die are not the way God wants it for God loves us so much that he would never cause us harm. Bad things are never God’s will (James 1:17), but what God does best is that through Jesus Christ he walks the solemn path with us, and defeats every foe. This is our life as Christians: triumph to tragedy to triumph, over and over again, but through Jesus the last scene will always be one of triumph, not the sounding of “Taps,” but “Reveille.”

Palm Sunday is a mixed up day for the church. We know the rest of the story too well and want to get there too quickly. We know the following Sunday is Easter and there are anticipatory smiles all around. We want a taste of that joy on Palm Sunday, too, as if to soften the gruesome events of Holy Week. We even call the day of Jesus’ crucifixion “Good Friday” when it was anything but good for Jesus.

Our rushing the week to an early happy conclusion by celebrating Palm Sunday with such gusto is indicative of our culture’s enthrallment with happy endings. But if we don’t speak on Palm Sunday about what Jesus went through then the only opportunities left are Maundy Thursday or Tenebrae services, which are usually not well-attended. What a disservice and underestimation of the depth of Christ’s love and pain.

Our desire for a “good outcome” and selfish “me-ism” trumps an adequate appreciation of what we’re really commemorating. We jump from high point to high point and skip the horrible events of mid-week. Doing so, to me, is too much in tune with Satan’s challenge for Jesus to jump off the pinnacle of the temple. That was as if the devil was saying to him, “Bypass all that suffering, Jesus. Here’s a shortcut. Show them who you are and you won’t have to die.”

Who wouldn’t want a shortcut or bypass suffering? I know that I resemble that remark! For instance, I want to know ahead of time if a movie concludes well; i.e., has a “happy ending.” Life is difficult enough. I don’t want to see a movie that’s a downer. I need a lift, and desire entertainment. Therefore, I’m not much on watching anything sad or tear-jerky. I recently watched a rerun of Nicholas Sparks’ movie, “Nights in Rodanthe,” and it was a bummer and I am cured from being a fan of the sad and sappy genre.

Is this a universal desire to skip the sad and welcome the glad? Is this why we focus on the children waving palm branches and giving Jesus the Red Carpet Treatment, rather than castigate the throng who begged for Jesus’ death later in the week? Do we prove our aversion to pain by our preference in calling the day “Palm Sunday,” rather than “Passion Sunday,” or the phrase “Holy Week” over “Passion Week?” The word “passion” derives from the Latin “passio” which means “to suffer.” No wonder we don’t use it very much, or have changed its meaning to something steamy and erotic.

Here’s the rub. Changing the name and the emphasis doesn’t change the facts. Jesus suffered. If we rush over Jesus’ sufferings and go from one little Easter (Palm Sunday) to the real Easter, then we’ve missed the point of the Incarnation. Jesus, God-In-The-Flesh, came and suffered with us, for us, to save us from trying to save ourselves through entertainment or attainment. Nothing we do to inoculate ourselves from the world or evil’s consequences will work. It’s all been attempted and failed miserably. God comes to us and allows Himself to be subjected to the worst in humanity to restore us to the best selves humanity can ever imagine.

Therefore, don’t rush from mountaintop to mountaintop this coming week without pausing in the valley of the shadow of death. It is in the valley that God does what God does best. There in the trenches where you and I struggle with personal sin, fears about health, finances, or relationships is where we see Jesus at His best. In the midst of Holy Week, He struggled with whether or not He would take up the cross. He dealt with the betrayal of two of his disciples and the desertion of all the rest. He agonized in pain from the scourging that He received, and suffered a death the likes we have never imagined.

It is in the valley that Jesus lets me know full well all of that from which I can be redeemed. If I rush from Palm Sunday’s parade to Easter’s glory, I might miss that. My solemn promise is to attempt to walk the Via Dolorosa with Jesus so that I might relish even more the victory that He’s won. I hope that we all have a blessed Passion Sunday and a solemn Passion Week.

 

Friends, colleagues, and church family, in anticipation of this year’s Annual Conference and elections for the 2016 General Conference, I felt compelled to share the following message with clergy in South Carolina.  I want to share it with you as well and ask you to start praying, or to continue to pray, for all of our delegates and for our whole Connection.

Friends,

I have had a lot of folks ask me if I want to be elected as a delegate to General Conference. I understand the reason for the questions. After coming so close to being elected bishop in 2012, I told our jurisdictional delegation that I was “done,” and it was a good reflection of my feelings in the moment. But I have also never ceased to try to discern God’s call and to offer faithful service at all levels of the Connection. God willing, I have 13 more years to serve and I plan on doing it! I look older than I am!

After much prayer, I am not ready to give up the hard fought efforts that I think are necessary to preserve and renew the UMC. With so many people trying to push the denomination into intractable corners, we must be extra vigilant to maintain our identity. One of the issues coming up in 2016 is a subtle approach to split us into a regional polity that would allow UM’s in one region or another to have their own separate Book of Discipline. It is a circuitous method to move towards local options that are the antithesis of our connectionalism.

On hot-button issues this brand of congregationalism, in my opinion, would make lawyers extremely happy and could ultimately cause a mass exodus of faithful United Methodists who would rather stay together.  This was evident during the four years I spent as a member of the Worldwide UMC Study Committee, which was established by the 2008 General Conference to engage these very issues throughout the global church, and it remains so today.  I want to keep working for our denomination to find fresh ways to serve new, younger, and more diverse people without compromising the core values of our beliefs. I firmly believe in a mission statement that makes disciples for Jesus, and affirms through the Connection that “Together We Can Do More!”

So, as you vote for clergy delegates, please prayerfully consider voting for me. I love being back in the local church as the pastor of St. John’s in Aiken, but I still feel gifted and called to serve on the larger stage of our denomination. I need your help to speak up prophetically. I agree with Wesley: “In essentials, let there be unity; in non-essentials, let there be liberty; in all things, charity.” We are at a critical juncture of discernment in the UMC as we carefully define the essentials and the peripheral. Thanks!

Tim McClendon

Involvement in the United Methodist Connection

Effective local church pastor; Delegate to 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012 General Conferences; District Superintendent (8 years); Conference Parliamentarian (21 years); Chair, Annual Conference Restructuring; Denman Evangelism Award recipient; Exec. Comm. Bd. of Ordained Ministry; Member of General Council on Ministries; Native American Forum; GBHEM Native American Scholarship Committee, SC AC Comm. on Native American Ministry

Connectional Table (8 years); World Wide Nature of the UMC Study Committee, Taught “Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit” and “UM Discipline and Polity” at Candler (12 years), and UM History at Lutheran Seminary; Chair, SEJ Rules Committee, and two quadrennia on SEJ Episcopacy Committee (second longest tenure on the comm.); 2011 Candler Distinguished Alumni Award; current member of General Commission on Religion and Race (GCORR)

General Conference and BOD legislation writer for 4 General Agencies of the UMC; published in Circuit Rider numerous times; and author of “A Potter’s View” Blog which has been frequently cited on UMC.org

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