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

I’ve got Lenten music on my mind this morning. Should it be somber, sober, and dark? Sundays in Lent aren’t technically Lent because the season’s 40 days don’t count Sundays since they are “Little Easters.” However, hearing the choir and congregation sing upbeat Easter-type music would feel more than a little weird. It would feel like we’re getting ahead of ourselves, wouldn’t it? On the other hand, doesn’t our faith hinge on Easter? Without Easter, Christianity falls apart. So as much as I would like for these Sundays in Lent to focus on penitence and preparation for Jesus’ suffering, I think it is a theological imperative for us to have a big dose of Easter every chance we get.

I feel it especially this week. There was a funeral for a 62 year old last Sunday, an 85 year old on Monday, and a 73 year old this Saturday. I have another family whose 59 year old daughter just died, too. I don’t need to hear gothic dirges. I desperately need to hear some Easter joy. There is no doubt that music has carried the faithful through every season of worship and life for eons. I’ve been comparing the Passion Narratives in the Gospels for a church-wide Bible Study, and I noticed that, just before Jesus’ arrest and after the Last Supper, the Lord and his disciples sang a hymn before they headed to the Mt. of Olives and his subsequent arrest in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:30).

“Hymn” or “Hymns” are interesting biblical words, and not used much – four times for the former and four times for the latter in the entire Bible. Of course there are other words like “song” or “songs” that rack up about 40 instances each, but this begs the question, “When is a song a song or a hymn?” We almost might wonder, “What’s the difference?” I think I have some semblance of an answer, but it’s a tad confusing. Is a hymn so designated because God specifically is the audience, and a song is directed at many recipients, including human ones? According to the dictionary, a hymn, coming from the Greek “humnos,” is an ode or song to a to a G(g)od or a hero. With more specificity the modern usage of the word denotes that it is a religious song of praise to a G(g)od.

Doing biblical word studies add more of clarity, and let’s know that the differences aren’t enough to fret over. Colossians 3:26 uses three almost synonymous terms, “admonish one with all wisdom, as you sing psalms “psalmos,” hymns “humos,” and spiritual songs “odais.” Maybe people back then knew the distinction but modern scholars are less certain of any differences at all. What I get out of this is that it is in our spiritual and, perhaps, human DNA to break out into song, especially when we feel moved by either tragedy or triumph. That must have been the reason that Jesus and the disciples sang a hymn as they were leaving the Last Supper. It was an encouragement for them to praise God.

Typically at Festival days like the Passover, the setting for the Last Supper, devout Jews sang the “Hallel.” The word literally means “praise’ and its words are found primarily is Psalms 113-118. These are the psalms that every Jew used during the Passover. There are other “Hallel” psalms in the Old Testament, especially 136, but Psalms 113-118 are the ones that Jesus would have used during the Passover. Therefore, it might be good for us to reread them and ponder them, even sing them, during Lent.

We need to recapture the word “Hallelujah” anyway. We almost use it as a colloquial “Whew!” when we’re relieved or things go our way. It’s actually a word that means “Let us,” which is the “u” in Hallelujah; “praise,” which is “Hallel;” and “jah,” which is short for Yahweh, the Name of Israel’s God. “Hallelujah,” therefore, is a sacred important word that is praising the Lord. It always is an act that not only lifts up the Name of the Lord, but it encourages us.

So, if and when, you’re in a week surrounded by literal funeral dirges or the emotional dregs of ordinary or overwhelming stress, SING!!! Singing about the Lord’s might and power gives us strength, hope, and the fortitude to thrive.

My favorite passage besides the one in Matthew 26 about Jesus and the disciples singing a hymn on the way to the Lord’s betrayal is found in Acts 16:25ff. Paul and Silas were in prison in Philippi. They had been stripped of their clothes, beaten, feet locked in wooden stocks, and severely flogged, but they sang! It says, “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.” I would have been listening, too. Here were two guys who had been horribly mistreated and it was midnight for crying out loud, but instead of crying out loud and complaining, they chose to sing praise to God. The result shouldn’t be surprising. The very next verse says, “Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake … that the prison doors flew open, and everybody’s chains came loose.”

Praising the Lord, especially when our circumstances are dire, reminds us that we have a God that is strong and on our side. When we praise, we let the Lord do battle with our grief, bondage, and despair. He sets us free and our chains fall off! So during this Lenten season let’s take a cue from Jesus and remember to offer praise on Sundays even if we bemoan our need for penitence the rest of the week. We are and will ever be an Easter People. Dirges don’t open prison doors. Sing out praise to God on Sundays and every day, and see what the Lord can do!

Curing Optic Rectosis

I don’t feel too great today physically or emotionally. It’s cold and rainy, but at least it’s not icy or snowing. Nevertheless, I just feel more than a little bit yucky. Some of it is because I’m a bit uneasy about a few things: Narcie’s next MRI is upon us, another young clergyperson’s cancer has come back with a vengeance, one of our fine associate pastors has declared that he wants to move, we have some folks in the hospital that are going through tough times, and there are others with issues, too. I fly out tomorrow for a meeting in Washington, D.C. where I am the point person on legislative matters for the General Commission on Religion and Race. I am also waiting to hear from a dear soul who I hope will help with our 2014 taxes. Ours are going to be more complicated this year and it scares me. I guess all of this has put me into a funk of sorts. I’m tired of winter!

I doubt most of you have heard of optic rectosis, but I imagine that most of you have had it. Before you think you have some new malady, it’s really not a disease per se. It’s an attitude, outlook, and perspective. Its meaning is “looking at life through your backside; i.e. a messy outlook on life.” It doesn’t seem very Christian but Jesus did have his moment in the Garden of Gethsemane where he agonized over his impending death and “sweat great drops of blood.” The Greek word for what happened is “Agonizomai.” Jesus agonized. We agonize, and ours pale in comparison not only to Jesus but to most other people. I look around and there are plenty of folks who have more legitimate reasons to be upset.

Laughing off our troubles has been attempted by some of the world’s best comics. It sometimes works for me. Sometimes it just makes me feel worse. I was reading about a guy who woke up one morning in a puddle of water in his king-size water bed. In order to fix the leak he decided to wrestle the mattress outside and fill it with extra water so he could more easily locate the leak. Anyway, the waterbed mattress was impossible to control once he got it outside. It started wiggling and jiggling on the hilly terrain and waddled down the slope right into some pretty sturdy bushes. Now he had holes poked all through it. Disgusted he threw out the whole water bed frame and moved a standard bed into his room. The next morning he woke to find a puddle of water in the middle of the new bed. The upstairs bathroom had a leaky drain. Have you ever thought that you fixed one problem and ended up with more? Sometimes what we think ails us is only symptomatic of something we least suspect.

What is really the cause of my malaise this morning? What is the real culprit? I just got a phone call about a member’s tenuous hold on life. It feels like every which way I turn that there’s another shoe about to drop. I am about to get in the car and make rounds at several hospitals. The life of a minister can be a heavy load. One thing I know that I can count on is that Jesus has already agonized about every situation and more. He went through the pain of crucifixion and defeated death. There is no problem or situation that He can’t handle. He is Emmanuel, God with us. He is the balm and medicine for all of our dilemmas.

I watched my mother and father take their last breaths. I have probably seen a couple of thousand people cross from this life to the next. For most of them it was a necessary and anticipated transition. They were loved enough by their families that no one wanted them to suffer any more and the only place they would be well again would be in heaven, but the loving cords that bind us are broken and life will never be the same. That reality is so painful, though I know and believe in the Communion of Saints, that there is a mystical comingling of our loved ones who have died in the faith with those of us who are left. This doesn’t diminish the painful reality of death, but it helps. It is our Christian hope that sustains us and helps us to move beyond the shadows and embrace life once again.

Whatever your burden is today, however your eyesight and perspective are overshadowed by a litany of worries, then know this, Jesus is with us all and will see us through. I heard this song this morning and it helped. It’s David Crowder’s “Come as You Are.” Jesus knows our every sorrow and bids us to give him all our burdens. Amen.

“Baby, It’s cold outside!” is true for the weather, but sometimes it’s an indoor reality, too. There are too many people who are so poor that they cannot heat their homes adequately. I wish that we did as much about that as we worried about the temperature in the sanctuary. Cold churches are worse than a blizzard, and I’m not talking about the thermostat. I’ve been reading a lot lately about the welcoming ministry of the church and its correlation to church growth.

In my mind the number one reason for “Nones,” the people with no religious affiliation who stay away from church, and “Dones,” those who are done with church and don’t plan on coming back, is an unfriendly exclusive church that shortchanges and diminishes JESUS. People are tired of the notion of worship as “plop, pray, and pay” where everything is done “decently and in order.” Methodists used to be known as “Enthusiasts” and “pew-Jumpers” because we got so excited in worship!

Just last night at a marvelous Ash Wednesday service a so-called saint claimed “their” pew and shooed some folks away. This goes against the mantra of the denominational plea of the United Methodist Church that we want to reach, “new people, younger people, and more diverse people.” We are a 92% white denomination that doesn’t demographically reflect our societal milieu. What are we doing to invite people to experience the transforming power of Jesus Christ? I guess we need to let Jesus transform us first!

When I was a District Superintendent I had several churches that probably needed to close. I never closed any, but I not only thought about it, I also suggested to several churches that it might be in their best interest and more so for the community around them if they did. These were churches that had a pathological inbredness about them. I walked the cemetery of one of them and noted that there were four different spellings of the same last name, and they wondered why they weren’t growing. They couldn’t even get along with each other, much less dream God-sized dreams for their community. It crossed my mind that it might have been better for them to post a message on their sign that said, “Closed Until Further Notice – Renovations and Repairs Underway,” so they could get the spiritual malaise of their members corrected. How in the world could you want someone to actually attend an unhealthy church?

Of course, I am reminded that there are no perfect churches, pastors, or people. We wouldn’t need Jesus if that were the case. So we need to make clear to people that if you visit, join, or otherwise associate with our congregation, please don’t expect perfection, inclusion, or genuine love for everybody, because we’re still under construction. We’re not closing our doors, but we do need to promote truth in advertising!

I am pretty sure that the “Nones” and “Dones” have either experienced or heard about that straw-breaking insensitive church member, inadequate preacher, church fight, or whiny plea for money and they either want none of it, or they’re done with it. My sincere hope is that we can still turn the tide before US churches resemble the empty museums they call many “churches” in Europe.

I think the tide will turn if we ratchet up our friendliness factor. We need to be honest, “Yes, we’re human and have problems, but, thanks to Jesus, there’s hope. We may not be perfect, but we’re trying to do better every day, and we need your help. There’s strength in numbers and us plus God can thaw out the coldest deepfreeze.” This sounds fine, but it sounds desperate, doesn’t it, and desperation isn’t attractive either in inviting people to church or to get married.

Maybe a better approach is to focus on the benefits and the advantages of church attendance. After all, doctors say that there is a direct correlation between church attendance and good health. It’s called psycho-immunology, but inviting people to church in such a mercantile fashion strikes me as a little bit overselling and maybe promising more than we can deliver. It sounds like giving away coupon books for discounts at church connected businesses, or, worse, a ticket to heaven when the only heaven we represent is either stale, in turmoil, or dead. If people judged a lot of Christian worship as a foretaste of heaven then I’m afraid that we would be hard-pressed to get any takers.

So, I’m back to the friendliness factor that suggests that how we treat people is key in getting people to darken our doors and come back. The main thing that I would add isn’t a thing as much as it is an experience: the mystery and power of Jesus Christ. Unashamed, let loose, unreserved, genuine, authentic, undeniable, real – that’s the worship that I’m talking about. Our services should be, “Here’s Jesus, the One-and-Only, matchless, loving, forgiving, and empowering God who loves you!” It may be too simple for our sophisticated minds and sense of decorum, but let’s let Jesus be Jesus and watch what happens. It’s like what John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said: “I set myself on fire (for God), and people come to watch me burn.”

No self-immolation is intended, but I just think if people saw how great Jesus is to us, then we’ll be people of passion and conviction that exhibit all of Christ’s attributes. Our friendliness factor, therefore, is directly proportional to our faith factor. Who is Jesus to you, to me, to us? If He’s who He says that He is then everything will be as alright in our churches as it can be on this side of eternity.

Listen to Rev. S.M. Lockridge and his description of Jesus. If this doesn’t inspire you, I don’t know what will. If this Jesus is presented to our world in encouraging inviting ways then there won’t be anymore “Nones” and “Dones.” They will be undone by Jesus!

The Power of Love versus the Love of Power is the perennial problem of our world, as stated by British Bishop N.T. Wright of the Anglican Church. He is an excellent author whose book Simply Good News just came out. It is amazing. Its message is similar to his book How God became King. Both books are so accessible and add such clarity in a world that sees more gray than black and white. His premise is that Jesus has been made King through the power of love, not the love of power.

He makes salient points about the contrast between the split-world understanding of creation by neo-Deists who want to promote the relegation of a powerless God to the nether regions of some far-off heaven, and the “Sweet Jesus” theocrats who not only want Jesus on the throne of their hearts, but in every sphere of life as well. The former group is so earthly minded that God is left out of all decision-making, while the latter group is so focused on having Jesus in their hearts and getting to heaven that they’re so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good!

Tom Wright wants us to see Jesus and his Kingdom as a present reality that is truly Good News, not just the pabulum most churches offer through “good advice.” The Gospel of Jesus Christ turns the kingdoms of this world on their heads, defeats evil, death, and oppression, and asks all Christ-followers to join this grand project of deliverance in the here and now. Secularists are more than willing to believe in progress even though anyone with good sense knows that we’re heading in the opposite direction.

“Gress” is the Latin word for “step,” so “progress” means to “step forward,” “digress” means to “side step,” or go in at least two directions, “regress” means to step backwards, and, interestingly enough, “congress” means to “step together.” How’s that working for the US Congress? The US congress hardly ever steps together on any one issue. Our red state vs. blue state world pits people against people, along with religions, ideologies, theologies, and about every other divisive matter.

Tom Wright writes in a most pithy way about the bifurcation that we all experience in this world of opposing opinions. Two perspectives are central in our world conflicts. One either claims God has “left the building,” or one is only interested in the things of earth enough so that we’ll get our ticket punched for heaven. Wright splits the difference between these opposites, and proclaims a Jesus who radically alters our current lives for his Kingdom here. Certainly, he doesn’t give up on the Biblical claim of an after-life, but declares that real “Good News,” the kind of Good news that forever changed the course of human history, did so not because of its otherworldly focus but precisely because it lived the real power of Jesus’ love in the mire and muck of humanity’s existence!

Listen to his statement that says it much better than I can attempt, “Part of the good news in our own culture is that this split-level world doesn’t have the last word. There is an integrated world-view, and it’s available right now. The trouble is that both the secularists and fundamentalists are committed to not noticing it. The secularist lives downstairs and has locked the door at the bottom of the stairs (to keep God out). The fundamentalist live upstairs, though he constantly shouts down the stairs to tell people they should be coming up to join him.” Oh, too accurate!

Jesus, the God who has become King, is not dependent on human progress. So-called human progress gave us two world wars, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and more efficient ways to communicate our disdain for each other. Videos of beheadings and fiery deaths remind us that we humans cannot solve our own problems. We can make advances in medical science and educational instruction, but one cannot root out our core problem through progress. If we expect the Lord’s Prayer to come true, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” then we need to confess and believe this extraordinary news: His kingdom has come. At least it has been inaugurated until its ultimate and complete fulfillment. In the mean time we cannot think that being civilized people will save us from self-destruction. Using good advice is helpful, but who believes that “playing nice” will bring justice for all and make the world “a better place?” No, we believe that Jesus alone conquered sin and death and that reality redirects, sets right, transforms, and redeems the people and institutions of this world. Through Jesus the whole creation finds an answer for its groans.

The question raised by N.T. Wright’s Simply Good News is whether we will be a church that offers good advice to people on how to live, behave, and get along or whether we will embrace the sheer glory of Jesus Christ, our only Savior, and not only ours but the Savior of the world. If we do the latter we will experience the birth pains of God’s kingdom, the already and not yet, his mighty will done on earth. The church hands out good advice all the time like a band aid on a gaping mortal wound when it is high time for it to proclaim GOOD NEWS: Jesus wins! Not this side, that side, progressive or traditional, red state or blue. Until this planet reflects Isaiah 11:1-10 and trumpets Psalm 96 we will flounder after this and that “solution” to what ails us when the Good News has already dwelt among us. Let him who has an ear, hear! Good news that depends on us and what we do or think is neither good nor news. It has been tried before and found wanting. I think that it’s time to believe and live the statement, “Jesus Christ is Lord!” Jesus is better than a band aid!

Jesus Heals

Retaking Valentine’s Day!

I recently read of a guy who went to buy a Valentine’s card and asked a clerk to help him pick out one. She looked and finally held one up. She read it to him, “To the one and only love of my life, Happy Valentine’s Day!” The guy replied, “Great, I’ll take 4 of them!” It sounds like he might have commitment issues, but at least he was ready for Valentine’s Day.

St. Valentine’s Day is nine days away! I hope every love-bird is getting ready for the big event. I know that I’ll be making a trip to Hallmark and try to get just the right card for Cindy. Her other perennial favorite is for me to purchase cut flowers from Fresh Market and arrange them myself. It’s all in the effort, I guess, but isn’t it always with love?

St. Valentine has been purported to be the patron saint of lovers for centuries. Pope Gelasius in 496 A.D. set aside February 14 to honor St. Valentine. However, the history behind the actual person and his actions is cloudy at best. Some say he was a priest who secretly married couples during the reign of Roman emperor Claudius II. Claudius had outlawed marriage so that he could draft more single men for his army. Supposedly after his arrest Valentine sent notes to Christians that were signed, “From your Valentine.” There are stories of his officiating at his jailer’s daughter’s wedding, too. According to tradition Valentine was beheaded by the emperor on February 14, 269 A.D.

What makes all this so interesting is that February 14 is the same day that had been dedicated to Roman love lotteries for over 800 years. Love lotteries were a Roman matchmaking scheme whereby eligible singles in towns and villages drew names of the opposite sex so that they could be paired for a specified time period. These love lotteries were held on the day before February 15, which is, of course, the 14th, the day dedicated to the Roman god Lupercus, so that couples could be matched. I guess they didn’t need eHarmony or match.com.

Needless to say, 800 years of a coupling custom was hard to undo even when the empire became mostly Christian. After all, love is what makes the world go round. Therefore, whether there was ever a guy named Valentine who sent love notes or not is immaterial to the greater worship of love. So, conveniently, Valentine, or the story of Valentine, was canonized and made a saint so that Christians could usurp yet another pagan holiday and turn it into something good.

Ironically, the suspicious origins of Valentine’s Day caused the Roman Catholic Church to drop it as an official Feast Day in 1969. In reversal of the church’s co-opting of a Roman mating ritual, our contemporary pop culture recaptured the original intent of February 14 – a day with an emphasis on Lupercalian tokens of love. The irony is that what was pagan-turned Christian has now been co-opted by the candy makers and greeting card companies, plus a host of other suppliers. So maybe we’re not sure if it’s love that makes the world go round or money.

Valentine’s customs through the so-called Christian centuries have been celebrated in a variety of ways. In the Middle Ages, for instance, young men and women drew names from a bowl to see who their Valentines would be. They wore these names on their sleeves for a week. It’s where we get our notion about people “wearing their hearts on their sleeve,” meaning that it’s easy for other people to see or know how they’re feeling.

Here’s how I feel about Valentine’s Day, saint or not. I’m all for showering our true loves and loved ones with expressions of affection. It never hurts to let people know that they are appreciated, valued, and loved. As a matter of fact, it’s time for the church to take Valentine’s Day back from the culture. When it comes to love we don’t need to prop up some semi-historical figure like Valentine when we can do better. There’s no better example of love than Jesus Christ. If we love people like Jesus loves then chocolates will be in order year-round! Go get that perfect card!

Valetine's Day

“Boy, do I have an opportunity for you!” are words that most United Methodist clergy have heard or will hear during their ministry. Within the next 6 weeks this phrase will be used a lot! The difficulty is that one person’s definition of “opportunity” may not match someone else’s. It is a statement usually said by district superintendents who are on the front-line of making appointments. They are at the point of the triangle between churches and clergy, matchmakers who have on-site knowledge of their churches and ministers. This knowledge is shared with the bishop’s whole cabinet, and through shared discernment, matches are made.

In the UMC system defining an “opportunity” is always a matter of perspective. It takes conferencing about the perspective of the local church and its perception of desired leadership needs; the perspective of the clergy and where they are in their ministry or the importance of family considerations; and the perspective of the bishop and cabinet who are scanning the needs of the whole annual conference and doing their very best to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

Connectionalism and working together is part and parcel of United Methodism. Therefore, appointments are made by the whole cabinet, though the Bishop alone is given constitutional authority (Par. 54, 2012 Book of Discipline) to do so after “consultation with the district superintendents.” Consultation includes local churches and clergy, too, and that appears in the form of church and clergy profiles. Therefore, everyone takes a hand, not least God, in our system of clergy deployment. Staff-Parish Relations Committees complete Church Profiles that describe the church, and clergy fill out Pastor Profiles that offer insights into their situations. By the way, both need to understand the importance of a well-presented profile. Those profiles will be pored over with microscopic attention when appointments are made. Please at least use spell-check!

A key paragraph from my perspective about appointment-making is found in Par. 428.4 which says, “All appointments shall receive consideration by the bishop, the district superintendent(s), and the cabinet as a whole until a tentative decision is made.” This fleshes out for me that our appointment-making system is a collegial effort, though the final decision indeed belongs to the bishop. As a former district superintendent who maxed out my tenure after 8 years, and one who is absolutely relishing being appointed to a thriving congregation, I think that a key word as we ramp up for the annual anxiety-laden period of possible clergy transitions is “perspective.”

The bishop and cabinet have a perspective about clergy and churches and the needs of the whole conference, and sometimes they have to make decisions about which only they know all the facts. Churches have their own unique perspective and rightly so if they can only count on one hand the number of effective ministers they have had in any given person’s lifetime. Clergy certainly have a unique perspective shaped by their family needs, and their sense of their gifts and graces and how they might be best utilized. So, what we have as we approach “appointment season” in the UMC is an “intriguing dance of perspectives,” a cooperative connectional effort to discern who goes where and who gets whom.

I pray for all those who are feeling the tensions rise in anticipation. Being on a trapeze with one hand letting go of one bar (pastor, church, friend, etc.) and willing to trust God enough to reach out for that the next bar (church, pastor, friend, etc.) is daunting, yet potentially thrilling. Throughout the whole process, as it is bathed in prayer, we absolutely must believe that God is in this enterprise, that Jesus will be glorified, however saddened or distraught we might be. In other words, we need more than a human perspective. We must affirm that a heavenly perspective is of highest importance. In our system we yield ourselves to a scary and vulnerable process not unlike the risk Jesus took in his incarnation.

So the word is “Perspective,” both divine and human. This is the essence of our belief in the system we call “itineracy,” the moving of clergy. John Wesley called itineracy the “apostolic plan of evangelization.” He thought that our “sent,” not “called” system was and is one of God’s best ways of mobilizing and energizing God’s salvific plan for humanity. I agree and have yielded myself to our peculiar process. Trust me, I haven’t always seen the wisdom of the bishop and cabinet, nor have all of my appointments been rosy. I do know this, however, that God has provided for me, my family, the local church, and the community. When we yield to a divine perspective all other perspectives come into focus!

Some people claim that their personal perspective is supreme and that their needs and/or agenda supplants and trumps everyone else’s. That’s not our system. I’ve seen people finagle their way upwards using manipulation and maneuvering, but, sooner or later, their solitary and self-promoting perspective will come to a halting stop. They have elevated what they want over saying “Yes!” and yielding. God help the UMC if that kind of personal aggrandizement ever wins the day.

Let me share a story that illustrates the illusion that getting our way and making what we think are unseen jabs is the way to go in appointment-making, whether by churches, clergy, district superintendents, and even bishops. Good appointment-making values everyone’s perspective, especially God’s. The story goes like this:

“During World War II, a general and his aide, a lieutenant, were traveling from one base to another. They were forced to travel with civilians aboard a passenger train. They found their compartments where two other folks were already seated – an attractive young lady and her grandmother. For most of the trip, they conversed freely. The train entered a long and rather dark tunnel. Once inside the tunnel, the passengers in this particular car heard two distinct sounds – the first was the smack of a kiss; the second was the loud sound of a slap.

Now, although these four people were in the same compartment aboard the passenger train, they came to four differing perspectives. The young lady thought how glad she was that the young lieutenant got up the courage to kiss her, but she was somewhat disappointed at her grandmother for slapping him for doing it; the general thought to himself how proud he was of his young lieutenant for being enterprising enough to find this opportunity to kiss the attractive young lady but was flabbergasted that she slapped him instead of the lieutenant; the grandmother was flabbergasted to think that the young lieutenant would have the gall to kiss her granddaughter, but was proud of her granddaughter for slapping him for doing it; and the young lieutenant was trying to hold back the laughter, for he found the perfect opportunity to kiss an attractive young girl and slap his superior officer all at the same time!”

Perhaps our so-called “opportunities” are not at all what they seem, or they are fleeting chances for us to “work” the system and “slap” the “Man” by bucking authority. We better be careful not to be so creative in our massaging the system that God’s video cam doesn’t catch us and we end up as our own worst enemy. I would rather trust the communal perspective of our appointment-making system than end up getting what I finagled for and be absolutely miserable. So, let’s trust everyone’s perspective, especially God’s! Everyone’s input insures a better opportunity for fruitful ministry.

Me, Narcie, and Josh at Josh's Ordination

Narcie, Josh, and I at Josh’s Ordination

The red Stoles represent the Yoke of Christ saying that We YIELD to where we are SENT!

Je suis Charlie

Some people are so narrow-minded that they can see through a keyhole with both eyes. As I think about the upcoming Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and the terrorist attacks in France, I wonder how narrow-minded I am. As a planet we seem hell-bent on emphasizing our differences rather than our commonalities. I admit that diversity matters and that there are valid reasons for differences of opinions.

For instance, I’m a Christian and not a Muslim. Therefore, without apology, I am not one who believes that all religions are just different trains going to the same place. I do believe in the unique work of Jesus Christ to save us. I uphold, without reservation, what it says in Acts 4:12 about Jesus, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given by which we must be saved.”

Nevertheless, I do believe in common grace and that all humanity reflects the image of God. I am perfectly fine if the doctor who operates on someone that I love is Hindu or Muslim, just so they’re the best! I will resist the temptation to think that all Jews are money-grubbers, all Muslims are terrorists, all Chinese are math whizzes, and all Christians are hypocrites, although I resemble that last observation! In Biblical parlance (Romans 3:23), “We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” and at the same time we’re all equally valued and loved by God.

All of this ramped up tension between Islam and Christianity makes me think about how we navigate our differences. I am reminded that this Sunday is Human Relations Day. I wonder how far we have come since Dr. King’s efforts. Paragraph 263.1 in the 2012 United Methodist Book of Discipline, describes Human Relations Day: “This Sunday occurs during Epiphany, the season of manifesting God’s light to the world. Human Relations Day calls the Church to recognize the right of relationship with each other. The purpose of the day is to further the development of better human relations.”

How can we promote better human relations? The quick answer is, “Love!” However, love for sheer love’s sake may be misguided, co-dependent, or, worse, do more harm than good. The United Methodist Church’s General Commission on Religion and Race (GCORR), of which I’m a member, embraces a three-fold strategy for promoting better relationships that I think is practical and attainable: Intercultural Competency, Institutional Equity, and Vital Conversations. It may be helpful to think about what each of these means.

When I think of intercultural competency I think of ways that we can help more people exhibit the innocence of children. People aren’t born racists. Somewhere along the way, it’s learned. We need to unlearn it! That takes understanding another person’s culture, even within races. Church is so socio-economically driven and homogeneous. We belong to different denominations more by net worth than a common baptism and Lord.

I have to ask myself: Whom am I overlooking and thereby judging as having less importance? The only way for me to overcome this tendency is to get to know people that I assume are different from me. I have to ask why I’m the way that I am and why they are their way. Bottom line is that intercultural competency takes effort, vulnerability, and invitation. Who are the strangers in your life that might become friends if you worked at it, opened up, and invited them into the sphere of your daily interactions?

Institutional equity isn’t about monitoring who speaks at a meeting and whether they’re this race or that, and whether or not they represent a particular gender. Institutional equity has at its heart a bigger question of “Who’s not at the table?” which means to me that we need to make all the playing fields in society fair, and not just cater to specific demographics. Jesus came to save the whole world, not just my people or my segment of the culture.

GCORR asks it this way about institutional equity and the church, “How do we transform churchwide structures and practices so that decision-making and priorities reflect the whole people of God, including  younger people, more diverse people and people for whom English is not their first language?” Again, my summary of this asks that whenever a key decision is made that affects more than just me: “Who am I leaving out of the conversation?” It’s another way of asking the question of who’s not at the table, and if you ever had to sit at a child’s table where you went last and had to be quiet, you get what institutional equity is.

Finally, vital conversations are the engine to make this world a better place. I can learn about another culture and never get out of my chair, or so I might think. I can say I treat everyone fairly, but if I don’t have vital conversations and literally put my energy where my mouth is, I’m wasting time. Vital conversations are a must! On too many issues we are either Fox News or CNN and not much in between. Our government is polarized and I’m worried that the events in France will make us more “us and them” rather than “we.” I resonate with those who declare, “Je suis Charlie” because we are all “Charlie.” The US should have been better represented because America can’t fight terrorism alone. It is a human problem and we have to work together. Vital conversations are needed between disparate ideologies and peoples. Maybe when people can put a face on those that are different, then they’re not so different!

I am all for honoring the fine women and men in blue who protect us, but I, like many, have been taken aback by events in Ferguson, Missouri, New York, and even the hung-jury in Eutawville, SC where a white police chief shot and killed an unarmed black man. I know there is conflicting evidence and I honestly lean toward believing law enforcement over Citizen Joe no matter what their race or religious persuasion. But I wonder if I have been too trusting of authority and blind to those who are profiled into fear whenever they’re out in public. Such fear has no place in an equitable society where liberty and justice are indeed for all.

But frankly I am a profiler, too. Aren’t we all to an extent? I must get beyond my narrow-mindedness and my prejudices. I don’t want to resemble William James’ remark, “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”

We live in a difficult time where circumstances and world events make it easy to judge those who are different. We must not, however, allow fascism to re-emerge. Martin Luther King did not die in vain and neither have the citizens of Paris and many other cities and locations. We have to do better and this MLK Day. I am pledging to follow GCORR’s advice by promoting Intercultural Competency, Institutional Equity, and Vital Conversations.

MLK

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