The Un-tied Methodist Church

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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College Baseball and the Strike Zones of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Trifecta of Tragedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The United Methodist Sandwich

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pre-General Conference Hope

John 11:25-26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hospitality and Hope

The Coen brothers are sibling film-makers that have done some marvelous work. The movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is one of my absolute favorites with its spin on the Depression-era South and the imaginative use of Homer’s “Odyssey” as its inspiration. The dialogue is classic and includes some of the funniest truths you’ll ever hear. Without spoiling it, the main trio of characters are Everett McGill (George Clooney), Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro), and Delmar O’Donnel (Tim Blake Nelson), and they are on the run from the law. Their adventures, after their prison break, are a hoot, and there’s fodder for multiple sermons.

There’s an especially good segment that fits with this coming Sunday’s lectionary text from Acts 16:9-15. The text focuses on Paul’s visit to Philippi in Macedonia and preaching in Europe for the first time. Paul goes down by the river and meets Lydia and other women. Lydia and her whole household get baptized as Christians, and then she invites Paul and his entourage to stay at her house. The connection with the Coen movie is the river and baptism.

In the movie, vocalist Alison Krauss, sings “Down to the River to Pray,” in the background as the white-robed throng wade into the water. The three convicts look on. Delmar’s expression changes and he charges into the water to get baptized. When he comes out of the water he yells to Everett and Pete, “Well that’s it, boys. I’ve been redeemed. My sins have been washed away. Neither God nor man’s got nothin’ on me now. C’mon in boys, the water is fine.” Pete takes him up on the invitation. Everett, the semi-brainy one of the trio, has nothing to do with it and replies, “Even if that did put you square with the Lord, the State of Mississippi’s a little more hard-nosed.”

As hard-nosed as some are to forgive, the cleansing waters of baptism are just fine for everybody. That’s what Delmar, Pete and Lydia found out. God’s got enough grace to forgive what anybody might harbor against us. This isn’t to say that if we do the crime, we shouldn’t do the time. There is God’s justice to reckon with, but Jesus has taken God’s own wrath upon Himself and invites us all, “C’mon in boys and girls, the water is fine.” You might already be an almost Christian “God-worshipper” as Lydia is described in Acts 16, or a reprobate like Delmar who robbed a Piggly Wiggly in Yazoo. God is ready and willing to “warsh us clean,” using Delmar’s accent.

This passage has a lot to say about God’s welcome for us and our hospitality towards others in response. After she gets into the water, Lydia invites Paul and his group to stay at her house. Lydia becomes the first European convert to Christianity, and that makes this scene at Philippi a momentous one for most of us. Christianity makes its first foray outside of the Middle East, and, I daresay, since that’s not where most of us are from, this has huge consequences for all Christians. Lydia’s conversion and baptism literally sets the stage for the conversion of the world.

European converts carried the faith from Philippi up the Egnatian Way and the rest is history. Now, we all know that a lot of that history fostered a Christianity propagated by coercion and sword. Nevertheless, Lydia is a primary ancestor for many of us even if the methods were sometimes awful. Lydia’s being down by the river to pray changed her and the world. She experienced the same Jesus that inspired native peoples to forgive atrocities, slaves to forgive cruel masters, and poor people to forgive oppressive policies of institutional inequity. We need that same Jesus all over this world today.

So, the song, “Down to the River to Pray,” is just as important to sing now as ever. As a matter of conjecture, the song, has been attributed to multiple sources in its history. What is known for sure is that all of the groups that it is attributed to were people looking for hope and strength. They sung it as a way to keep the faith in times of darkness. Some have said it is a Negro Spiritual written and sung by African-Americans. Others say that it originated with Native-Americans, and some say it was an old folk song that gave hope to poverty stricken people in Appalachia. One of the first known written forms of the song was in The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion in 1835. Another was in a book titled Slave Songs of the United States published in 1867. Both of those specific dates remind me of Andrew Jackson’s forced removal of American Indians from the East, and the horrors of slavery.

Either way, it’s a song whose origin is born in poverty and pain. Some have declared that its lyrics which speak of going down into the water to pray, wearing a starry crown, and a desire for God to show the way are code language for oppressed people looking for a watery way to cover their tracks and scent, and an encouragement to use the stars as guides to find the way to freedom.

In a sense it’s what the words still mean today. God’s hospitality sets us free and forgives our sins, not by overlooking them, but by washing them away. Jesus is a Redeemer who is the Way, Truth, and Life. God’s hospitality is a model for us. It was for Lydia.

 

God’s Kiss

I walked on hallowed ground yesterday. In fact, it happens pretty much every day if I open my eyes. This Sunday’s Gospel lectionary text from John 13 is about love. Jesus says, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” How awesome and scary is that? Our love expressed either allows or prevents people from knowing Jesus. Yesterday I saw love.

There was a family gathering at the bedside of a loved one transitioning from earthly life to heaven. The husband of 60-something years was poignant as he stated the obvious. His beloved’s condition was deteriorating during this holy moment, but, as he put it, “She still gives good kisses.” We, the church, individually and corporately, are God’s kisses to the world.

That sounds like a mission statement of sorts for Christians, but our mission statements are usually so nice, catchy, alliterative, and wrong. Sometimes we have created them without much regard for God’s mission. I’ve done it myself. “MD4C” was one of my favorites: “Making Disciples for Jesus Christ.” It passed the tee shirt test because it was short enough to fit on one. It was long enough to be memorable, and short enough to be memorized. It met all of the secular benchmarks of an effective mission statement, but when I think about the love I witnessed yesterday and the ways that God gets our attention in the Bible, I’m a bit ashamed of “Seek, Save, Serve” even though that’s a pretty good one. The mission statement I saw in that family yesterday was “Love” and that’s what Jesus was talking about in John 13:34-35.

There’s even a website that can help you generate a mission statement. Go to the address www.netinsight.co.uk/portfolio/mission/missgen.asp, and press the “play” button and presto! As someone said to me, “Substitute ‘church’ for ‘business,’ and you’re in business. Ha! A better place to find mission statements for the church is in the Bible, but they aren’t so catchy or cute: “Die on a cross.” “Leave your home, and go somewhere I’m not going to tell you.” “Marry a Hooker.” “Go speak to people you hate.” These are all in the Bible and are tough! I daresay that they boil down to “Love,” which is tough, tender, and time-consuming. Oh, there I go with 3 “T’s.” Sorry.

In one of his sermons, Walter Burghart tells the story of a surgeon’s observations of a couple much like what I witnessed yesterday. He says, “I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face postoperative, her mouth twisted in palsy, somewhat clownish. A tiny twig of a facial nerve, the one to the muscles of her mouth, had been severed. She will be this way from now on. I had followed with religious fervor the curve of her flesh; nevertheless, to remove the tumor in her cheek, I had to cut the little nerve.”

He continues, “Her young husband, at least that’s who he might be, is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed and together they seem to dwell in the evening lamplight, isolated from me, the moment is a private one. Who are they, I ask myself? He and this wry mouth I have made, who gaze at each other so generously, so lovingly. The young woman speaks. ‘Will my mouth always be like this?’ she asks. ‘Yes,’ I say, ‘it will. It is because the nerve was cut.’ She nods and is silent. But the young man smiles.”

The story unfolds, “’I like it,’ he says, ‘it’s kind of cute.’ All at once I know exactly who he is. I understand and I lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with a God moment. Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth and I am so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate hers, to show her that their kiss still works.”

I wonder how this world and our church might change if our mission statement was to reinforce the fact that God so loved the world that he has leaned in toward us, and has contorted himself to show love to us – even allowing himself to be twisted on a cross for us. What would it mean for us to truly live the Biblical mission statements rather than concoct our own, to be God’s kiss to the world?

Kiss Me Pic

 

GC 2016 and Peacemaking

Maybe you’ve heard the story of the guy who fell overboard into the water. Another guy tried to rescue him, only to grab different 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 Methodist Church and what God is trying to say to us. It is one of the big questions as we go into General Conference 2016. Will we split? Will we opt for a solution that gives local options on hot-button issues, or will we stick together?

Our connectional identity as a denomination promotes unity over schism. In my mind, that’s the identity of the whole church: one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Ephesians 4:5). Bishop and friend, Tom Bickerton, recently wrote a book that he has shared with General Conference delegates and the whole church, What Are We Fighting For? Its subtitle says a lot: “Coming Together Around What Matters Most.” He uses stories and anecdotes in a winsome way that promotes a win-win outcome for the UMC.

Tom and I might arrive at different positions. I honestly don’t know. One thing I do know is that his question is a good one: what are we fighting for? To some his question is about much more than a peripheral issue. It connects to bedrock non-negotiable tenets of the faith. To others, human sexuality debates are about the nature of God and God’s love for all humankind, and that’s also non-negotiable. These positions beg the question: Can we stick together?

Many people have already given up hope for a peaceful resolution for our church. They’re coming to Portland “loaded for bear.” Many want to collaborate and find ways to move forward as a church. Others are holding fast to their positions because they feel certain that some issues are already decided in God’s mind and theirs, and don’t even want to be civil toward those who differ. Many want to disrupt and hold the conference hostage. I think most of us want the Holy Spirit to envelope the convention center and light the fire of revival that will move us past this extremely personal and heart-wrenching issue.

I am reminded of the late Dr. Scott Peck whose book The Road Less Traveled begins with the line, “Life is difficult.” He was right about that, especially concerning our denominational struggles. His best book, however, is titled, A Different Drum: Community Making and Peace. He says that the first stage in achieving real community is “pseudo-community” where everyone gathers together and glad-hands each other in superficial ways at Christmas, family reunions, or General Conference. There is an air of “How’ve you been?” or “Wow, it’s so good to see you.” He says that this huggy stage can last a short time or forever. I think that the UMC is way past a shallow pseudo-community unless we don’t know which side another person is on. If we don’t know, we sort of “fake it” and smile and steer clear of any conflict. Pseudo-community is the story of much of Christendom’s intra-familial and interpersonal squabbles.

The second stage can last a short or long time, too. Peck appropriately calls it “chaos.” Some groups, denominations, and families stay in chaos. How long has the UMC been in the chaos stage? It’s been a long time, at least since 1972. How much longer can we stand it? There are folks, however, who feel this is one of those subjects that is worth the chaos, no matter how long it takes. To follow Scott Peck’s advice, we must let chaos run its complete painful course or we’ll never appreciate or arrive at the next place on the journey to true community.

The third stage is called “emptiness.” It can also last forever or not. It is a place where persons still have their differing opinions, but they are able to survive the tension because they care more about the other person(s) than they care about the presenting problem or themselves. Many are at that point in the UMC. It is a place of valuing, not demeaning, a place where “sacred worth” is a reality. It is rare to see such “emptiness” around human sexuality debates. Our words sometimes slide over the “sacred worth” language of The Discipline and we accent the “incompatible” part of the sentence. Both sides need to tread carefully and allow a holy emptiness to settle upon us. But we need to move on. Staying in emptiness seems laudable, but it can also be a depression-filled place of inertia.

Of course, the last stage is “community.” Scott Peck doesn’t describe it as a homogenous place where everyone thinks alike. Instead it is a place and space where there are distinctions or diversity of opinion, but there is also a unity. Unity is hard to define because it is seldom seen. We talk about it. We promote it. I’m oft to say, “I believe in the unity of the church,” but what does that really mean or entail. What is that going to look like or make me do? My personal biggest fear is that some who assume they have arrived at “community” have actually slipped back into “pseudo-community.” If there’s no honest dialogue and valuing then it’s a sham which by definition is pseudo.

So, what do you think? We can choose to move up and down, and back again on these stages of community. We can stay in places along the way too long or not long enough. Is there hope to reach emptiness, or are we stuck in chaos? I daresay most of us would prefer to go back to the superficial stage of pseudo-community than accept what’s happening now. But, maybe we can count all this contention and process as a holy gift. We have a real chance to have a significant movement of the Holy Spirit in Portland if we actually try to move through these stages.

You can’t legislate “community.” It has to be experienced. I long for the day when we reach it, and pray we’ll stay there for a real long time!

Community

 

A Fisherman’s Tale

Easter came so early this year that I feel like I missed it. We had a huge number of people in church. The music was grand. Everything went well, and immediately after the last service I changed into my camping duds, left my suit at church, and took off for the mountains to enjoy 3 days of respite and relaxation. I wanted to catch another trophy. Last May 29 at 12:15 in the afternoon using a Mossy Creek “Rebel” Teeny Weeny Crawdad, I landed a 26 inch Rainbow Trout. Funny how the specifics of that are more easily remembered than much more important things.

This last week’s trip was the earliest I had ever been on the New River near Jefferson, NC. It showed. It was cold and there wasn’t a leaf on a tree. Heavy frost and below freezing temps made my -40 degree sleeping bag a welcome place to snuggle inside my 4-season one-man I-tent. The usual fish that I catch like Redeye, Smallmouth, and Sunfish all had lock-jaw. The trout fishing, however, was the best ever.

It wasn’t a 26-incher, but I missed catching a giant Brown trout except for forgetting to put the net in the canoe. I did catch a beautiful little trout that looked like a cross between a Rainbow and a Brown, pink spots at the top and dark ones at the bottom. Gorgeous, but the fishing went from good to bad by the last day when in 6 hours only 4 fish were caught.

You’re probably wondering why in the world this fishing and camping expedition is on my mind, and there is at least one reason: most ministers need some time off after a hectic Easter! But, the main reason this is on my mind today is that I’ve been looking at the lectionary texts for this coming Sunday. The Gospel for April 10 is from John 21 where the disciples encountered the Risen Christ on the Sea of Galilee. He met them doing exactly what they were doing when he called them to join His ministry. They were fishing.

There’s something comforting about going back to the familiar after a life-changing event. Maybe the disciples were just hungry, but, for whatever reason, they went back to catching fish instead of their charge to be fishers of people. Going back to the same-old, same-old is about as disappointing as the drop in attendance from Easter to the Sunday after. It’s not called “Low Sunday” for nothing.

What’s impressive in John’s account is that when they hauled in the miraculous catch of fish, he says the fish are large and they’re exactly 153 of them! Sounds weird, doesn’t it? It makes the account sound a little fishy, but at the same time it adds precisely what the Easter narrative needs after two weeks of going back to our normal schedules. The size of the fish and the specific number add authenticity, reality, Truth.

For the fisherman in me who just got off the river – cold and wet, with precious little to show for my supposed time away, it shows that Easter lasts longer than a special day. It is Good News that comes in handy when we’re doing the ordinary, the usual, and the work-a-day stuff of life. Jesus met the disciples, and meets me, and you, too, more in the natural ebb and flow of life than He does at Empty Tombs or Mountains of Transfiguration. Those don’t mean near as much if they don’t impact where you and I spend most of our time.

Maybe what I need to do today is count fish. Rather than lamenting that Spring Break is over, I can go one better by noticing the miraculous in the mundane. Instead of daydreaming about my next excursion, I can focus on the awesomeness of now. In this strange semi-down time after Easter, it will do my soul more good to ponder the exactness of 153 fish caught and how big they were. Ours isn’t a make-believe faith built on myth and fabrication. Jesus’ resurrection is real. It gives tangible hope in our ordinary lives.

So, whether you’re facing a doctor’s news, test results, hours of rehab, spring cleaning, the spreading of new mulch, or the nuts and bolts of prepping a flower bed, then know this: there is nothing more extraordinary about ordinary life than when you know Jesus is alive! I don’t have to escape to future far-off oases, or to past good old days when the Living Lord is right here and now. If I count them, I’ll guess that there’s 153 large God-moments with my name written on them, just waiting for me to haul them in. How many “fish” have you caught today?

Trout

 

Brussels and a Proper Response to Evil

In Brussels sheer evil has once more been visited upon the innocent. We must not yield to the terror of jihadists and forget that democracy most resembles God’s Kingdom of freedom and love. Democracy represents the basic human attribute of choice. Didn’t Jesus, who could have called 10,000 angels to save him, choose to die on a cross to set us free from death’s oppression? Wasn’t it Jesus who chose to say from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” Those Roman soldiers made a choice to follow orders and knew what they were doing. ISIS knew what it was doing and individuals chose to follow. I usually know exactly what I’m doing, too, when I choose to do something wrong.

Easter is God’s answer to our poor choices. It says that evil’s cycle of violence can end if we choose the power of love over the love of power. Jihadists want the West to become as closed minded as they are. The controlled environment that their religious totalitarianism provides is tempting in our freedom-gone-amok world, but at what cost? If God’s will is always done, why would the Lord’s Prayer include the words, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven?” The answer is, “Because it isn’t!” and we’re most often the reason. We abuse freedom, but it is foundational to our unique identity as bearers of God’s image. What we need is Easter’s resurrection power to guide our choices, and use our freedom for the common good.

Freedom of choice, however, is a risky business. I daresay that the West’s unfettered embrace of freedom and extreme individualism is what incites fundamentalism that pushes societies toward coercive control. Many of us, like them, would prefer a society where we put a funnel in people’s heads and the result would look something like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” But we can’t do that without lessening freedom, one of the key ways that we reflect God.

Since God’s exists in the three distinct persons of the Trinity, yet is one indivisible God, then we must honor both diversity and unity, too. Freedom isn’t the only way that we are made in God’s image. Responsibility is another, and aren’t we grateful for responsible parents, adults, youth, children, institutions, governments, and more.

The rub for most us is in determining whether or not certain actions responsibly reflect God’s best intentions for humankind, or not. When nothing is out-of-bounds then anarchy results. When structures of common decency become so porous that nothing is either sacred or profane, the pendulum swings toward the radical fundamentalist voices that provide what seem like easy answers in a complex world.

It’s just not that simple. It would help if we made sure that the Ten Commandments weren’t “Ten Suggestions.” It takes hard work to shape civilization’s values. Jesus proved that during the first Holy Week as he stood both before Pilate and endured the cross. He wants us to make those same stands today for good, but I wonder if we have the “want to” to do it. I’m afraid that we’d rather browbeat or bomb our opponents into submission, and, all the while, I can hear Jesus say to Peter in Gethsemane, “Put away your sword, Peter. They that live by the sword shall die by the sword.”

This isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be swords, but our faith puts boundaries on the use of power. We are not to take personal revenge or resort to vigilantism. The government is supposed to be the entity that protects and fights for common decency (Romans 13:1-5). Unfortunately, government sometimes is the perpetrator of wrong-doing. It is, therefore, incumbent upon us to elect the best leaders that we can. We must ask ourselves which persons can best stand in the gap and stop the xenophobia that separates countries and foments violence.

There’s a difference between “violence” and “war.” They are not synonymous. The U.S. has only had 11 “declared” wars, but over 125 shooting conflicts/wars in our history, not counting the so-called “Indian Wars,” one against the Apaches that lasted a horrific 46 years. It seems to me that the constitutional rule of law should dictate that we be clear about responses that are lawfully sanctioned by the government. That is democracy in action. It is not a unilateral decision by one person.

Terrorism is violence. What the US has done to Native Americans has been violence. Jim Crow laws and racial profiling by police are violence. The list of abuses of power in inappropriate ways is a long one, 125 versus 11 at the least. This isn’t to say that I prefer Augustinian “Just War” theory, but I do support the notion that there are some wars that have to be fought against evil, injustice, and oppression. I come up pretty empty on that score except for World War II and the Civil War. We shouldn’t answer violence with violence, but with a reasoned response that may opt for a serious governmental action called “war,” always as a last resort when all attempts at diplomacy have failed. For democracy and the rule of law to prevail, we must rise above vengeance and enforce justice.

I admit that I’m no “Dove” when it comes down to it, but I am not a “Hawk” either. Complex issues have layers of truth and untruth. I know that I cannot sit back and let injustice and terrorism win the day, but I also cannot simplistically write off every Muslim. Sure, I sincerely believe that salvation is only found in Jesus, but it is also true that violent crusades do more harm than good. I am caught between legitimate use of force and pacifism. The international debate is how to legitimize our actions before a God who loves all people and wants us to treat one another with mutual responsibility and promote freedom. God’s Easter response to our dilemma demands a new approach. We have a lot of work to do to find that answer. We’ve tried about everything else and it hasn’t worked. God help us!

Peace dove