God’s Right Hand Man, Ours, too!

Ascension Day doesn’t really make the hit parade of Christian holidays, but it should! It proves Jesus’ triumph and exaltation to “the right hand of God the Father Almighty,” as the Apostles’ Creed declares. Easter is the highest point of our faith and has, of course, always been tied to Passover. The reason the date of Easter shifts is because Jesus’ death and resurrection coincided with the Passover. So, ever since the inaugural Easter, it has always come on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. Easter, therefore, can range between March 22 and April 25 each year.

Ascension Day is always 40 days after Easter because Luke says in Acts 1:3, “After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.” Forty days after Easter is always a Thursday. This Thursday is Ascension Day!

We need to recapture its importance because it gives so much hope and encouragement, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Ascension Day confirms that Jesus has been elevated to God’s right hand. That act symbolizes his identity as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He’s literally God’s Right-Hand-Man! We usually shake hands with someone using the right hand because the right arm is most people’s side of strength and where a weapon might be held. Shaking right hands reveals that a person comes without a weapon, in peace.

A right-hand-man is, therefore, exalted, strong, dependable, the first to be called upon, and a representative of the one at whose right hand they sit or stand. When you see one, you see the other; and we know Jesus said when you’ve seen him, you see the Father (John 14:9). There are many passages about Jesus sitting at the Father’s right hand: Luke 22:69, Colossians 3:1, Psalm 110:1, Hebrews 12:2, Hebrews 8:1, Matthew 26:4, I Peter 3:22, Mark 16:19, Acts 2:33, Hebrews 10:12, Revelation 3:21, Hebrews 1:3, Ephesians 1:20, Mark 14:62, Acts 5:31, and there are more! Please read them this week and be encouraged!

Ascension Day’s importance as evidenced in Scripture gives great hope. Jesus is too tough to tame. He’s king of the universe, an embodiment of the Father’s glory, power, and strength. There is nothing too big or bad that can defeat him. He has already defeated everything that comes against us, and it keeps getting better and better because He ascended. Jesus told the disciples that it was better for them if he ascended so the Holy Spirit would come (John 16:7-16).

In other words, Jesus said that his ascension triggered the outpouring of the Holy Spirit 10 days later at Pentecost. Jesus could only be in one place at one time, but the Holy Spirit, which is His Spirit, can be everywhere. This is what Peter meant in his first sermon after Pentecost when he spoke about Jesus and what was happening, “Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear (Acts 2:33).” Amen!

Jesus’s exaltation through the Ascension gives us the Holy Spirit and confidence so that we might have forgiveness of sins and be empowered by the Holy Spirit!  Over and over in the Bible it tells us what Jesus is doing while He is at the Father’s right hand. He’s praying for us, you and me! What could be more encouraging? Romans 8:34b says, “Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” Hebrews 7:25 says, “Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.” He is interceding for us, intercedere, as our literal “go between,” as the word itself means. Jesus becomes our “Right-Hand-Man,” along with God the Father’s, in speaking up for us, defending us, doing everything possible to help us. What an encouragement!

The most powerful example of Jesus interceding for us is with what happened to the first deacon, Stephen, in Acts 7:54-60. Stephen is being stoned to death as the first Christian martyr when, as he was being executed, says “Look, I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:56).” This is amazing confirmation of the importance of Ascension Day and what Jesus continues to do for us who believe.

The interesting thing is that it portrays Jesus, the One that the Scriptures mostly say is “seated at the right hand of God the Father,” as standing at God’s right hand in this passage. Some say this is Jesus giving Stephen a standing ovation! It leads me to believe that there are times, tough times, in our lives that Jesus stands up and shows up in mighty ways on our behalf. Amen! Amen! This is my prayer: “Please God, remind us this Ascension Day, this Thursday, that you have been exalted and are ever ready to pour out your Holy Spirit to comfort, empower, and teach us. You are interceding for us, STANDING UP for us when times are difficult. We are so grateful! In your powerful name, we pray; Amen!”

Press Conferences, Presidents, and a Search for Truth

When do we reopen the church? Is it safe to eat in a restaurant? Can people go visit family members that are in care facilities or hospitals? Is COVID-19 mutating? Will warm weather, UV light, or a pool’s chlorine kill it? How much alcohol content in a cleaner kills it? Can I go on vacation at some point, and will it be safe to sleep on a rented beach house bed? When can I safely go back to the gym? Should states reopen? Do we shut down our meat processing plants because they are the American version of a Wuhan wet market? Is it safe to buy “Made in China,” or is it time to bring all our manufacturing back home? What mitigations should we put in place so we can open Sunday Schools? Is it safe to reopen the church, and how many people can attend?

Ask any of these questions, others like them, and there will be more than one answer. There are webinars, seminars, advertisements and pronouncements on all of these questions. I get promotions and pronouncements everyday about which products the church needs to buy in order to open up. I’m thankful for the information, but, unfortunately there’s not a lot of clarity. Scientists are all over the map because there is still so much unknown about COVID-19. Politicians have seemingly politicized the situation, so much so as to make me doubt their veracity. The news media certainly has used this as a tool to bloody the President, and he is poking China in the face over the whole situation. A former President is throwing gas on the blame-game fire while the current administration defends itself.

I am so tired of watching the charade of what is supposed to be a “news briefing” at the White House when the President, whether one likes him or not, is baited and treated with out-of-bounds berating and disrespect by so-called reporters. It is appalling. It will be a long day in you-know-where before any clergy have an open-mic talk back session after a sermon. Somebody just give me the news. Give me the unadulterated truth! I long for Walter Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley, Harry Reasoner, somebody, anybody that is unbiased without an agenda. At least a short time ago it seemed as if everyone’s agendas were hidden. Now the agendas are so blatantly apparent that it feels like there is no truth. No wonder Russia’s state newspaper is named “Pravda,” or “Truth.” Yeah, right?

Pontius Pilate asked Jesus at his trial, “What is truth?” It’s really the same question, the penultimate question, behind the plethora of all our questions. We want the unvarnished truth. We want some certainty in the midst of our anxiety-ridden world. Unfortunately, we have entered the days predicted in 2 Timothy 4:3-4, “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine (TRUTH). Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the TRUTH and turn aside to myths.” Oh, how this so accurately describes our day and age. We want to make wise choices, and we can’t trust the information because we don’t trust the sources.

This isn’t just about our problem with COVID-19 information. It’s the story of our whole post-modern narcissistic world. We wrongly assert that what we think is the sole determinant of truth. We demythologize the Bible into what we want it to say as if we, the readers, are more important than the God who brought forth the Truth in the first place. We have fallen into the same abyss as one popular Christian author, one who wrote a book, Seeing Gray in a Black and White World. He is so wrong. I don’t trust my eyes to see that well, so I would rather let the Biblical text and its Author do the talking. Maybe then we will see black and white in a gray world.

Where do you think all this confusion about truth is coming from? Why do you think we are so at odds over what the truth really is? Jesus (John 14:6) said He is the way, TRUTH, and life, so He’s certainly not the author of confusion, but guess who is: Evil. Jesus, speaking in John 8:43-44, nails our current reality on the head, “Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil … for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”

So I pray, “Please, Lord, open our ears to the truth, and expose the lies and liar for what they are. Wipe away all the confusion, and give us clarity, especially to our scientists, those who govern us, and to all spiritual leaders. We need your truth. Speak, for your servants are listening; in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

The Wisdom in Waiting During Quarantine

A man had just had his annual physical and was waiting for the doctor’s initial report. After a few minutes the doctor came in and said these fateful words: “There’s no reason why you can’t live a completely normal life as long as you don’t try to enjoy it.” Man, that is exactly how I feel today in quarantine. God bless those individuals who have already been experiencing social distancing because of treatment regimens or due to physical and other limitations. I have not had enough sympathy, and I’m sorry. This quarantine thing is harder work than I thought.

The first few weeks were filled with catch-up items from lists of things that have been lingering around for quite some time. Now they’re caught up, and as a “Do-it-right-now” kind of person, I’m about to go bonkers or slip into a Dr. Seuss-like Oh, The Places You Will Go “Waiting Place.” To be sure, there’s still work and ministry taking place, more than ever, but done so differently that it’s almost like running in place. I’m talking with parishioners every day; just got off two back-to-back Zoom meetings; have done research, written sermons, planned programs, talked budgets, and prayed and prayed ad infinitum, but it’s weird, isn’t it? Time seems out of joint.

Many of us have spent time in the hospital and know that there are some common experiences that everybody shares. One that comes to mind in these days of quarantine is losing track of time. If you’re in the hospital even for a short stay, pretty soon your days and nights are all mixed up. You wonder what day it is. Normal routines are out the window.

That’s what’s on my mind today. Is it Monday or Tuesday, whatever, and forget about what date it is. Is this what retirement will be like? That sounds pretty good at first glance, but here I am whatever the number of weeks we’re into this isolation, and sometimes I don’t know what to do with myself. One thing I know is that I need to wear a mask, not to help me avoid the virus, but to keep me from eating more than I should. I do read and pray, and have already Netflixed through every episode of some shows I had never heard of before.

In reading the Bible, the pastoral epistles of I and II Timothy, and Titus were great, but I felt quite un-pastoral without a tangible, huggable, handshaking flock to enjoy. Then came I & II Thessalonians, the Gospel of Mark, but things took a sharp turn down a dark alley this morning when I felt led to read Ecclesiastes. I should have never done that! Talk about depressing? It’s called “wisdom literature,” and it very much is, but Ecclesiastes calls into question much of what I/we valued before COVID-19, and it seems the most often repeated word in it is “meaningless.” It’s a downer, except that it’s true. Just like these quarantined days, it makes me question my values, purpose, and destiny.

Before you promise NOT to read it, let me implore you to do it. It strips away pretense and gets to the heart of what’s important in our lives. I won’t tell you how it ends except to say that it ends well. It is the most accurate assessment that I have encountered about my life in a long time. It may speak to you in a different way, but that is the wonder and power of the Bible. Even if we reread a passage, The Holy Spirit can bring forth new wisdom at just the right time.

The Byrds’ song “Turn, Turn, Turn,” that is straight from Ecclesiastes 3, says that there are seasons, juxtaposed and seemingly opposite, but to be embraced because when these vastly different things are combined we encounter real life – not some sham, not seen through rose-colored glasses, but REAL life. Maybe that’s what I’m feeling today – the depth and richness, not of busyness, but of the interplay of my inner thoughts, even God’s Spirit dwelling within, closer than my closest breath.

Nathaniel Hawthorne has been called “a dark romantic.” This is what he said about these kind of days when we ponder the meaning of life: “Happiness is a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” May this week take you to a new place of self-reflection and discovery, even happiness? God bless and protect you and us all. Amen.

The Sky Isn’t Falling!

“The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” is what Chicken Little yells when nothing but an acorn falls on its head. Chicken Little decides to tell the king and on its journey other animals join the scared little band of creatures. They all have rhyming names like Henny Penny, Cocky Locky, and Turkey Lurkey, but the names aren’t what’s important. This is a folk tale that makes light of paranoia and mass hysteria, and it doesn’t end well. From the panic of a single acorn, Chicken Little and its friends get invited to a fox’s lair for supposed refuge and end up as lunch. The moral of the story is to not get freaked out, and make matters worse.

Well, the COVID-19 pandemic is no acorn. It’s real and it’s eating our lunch! People are dying, businesses are closing, jobs are being lost, and there’s even a run on toilet paper! Just when I think the church’s doors ought to be wide open, we’ve been told to shut them. I get it, but it feels so sad and wrong, but we don’t want to spread germs and make things worse. Church services, daily devotions, blogs, live-stream and every means imaginable are being used to keep hope strong among the faithful.

If there’s ever a time to need Jesus and proclaim hope, this is it! The Scripture is filled with those who faced adversity and survived, even thrived. Hebrews 11 defines faith and lists quite a few people who lived with confidence in perilous times. Then Hebrews 12:1-3 offers a summation and challenge based upon all the ways the faithful hung in there. It gives all of us the encouragement to keep the faith, too.

It says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

There’s a cloud of witnesses around us, too. Even when we feel alone or isolated because of mandatory social distancing, God is with us, and so is the church. Don’t yield to negative thinking. This crisis can be the seedbed for the next great awakening for America and the world. Spend your time in prayer and Bible reading. Ask God to fill your heart with the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. We may have social distancing, but through the union of faithful hearts in the Spirit we will never have emotional and spiritual distancing!

Throw off the sin that so easily entangles like panic, fear, and worry. Sure, my retirement has lost big time, but what good does it do for me to look at that. I would rather sit here and pray through the faces of my family and friends as I look at the pictures around our house or in the church pictorial directory. God knows what each person needs, and I can call, text, or email them, too! I can count my many blessings, as the old hymn goes, and name them one by one! There’s so much that I can do to spend these last days of Lenten season as a spiritual preparation for the best Easter ever.

This is an opportunity to let God recalibrate my life, to get my priorities in order, to give on-line to the ministries and missions of the church, to soak up the Word, and write notes of encouragement to those whom God lays on my heart. I just need to listen, and if I can’t hear His voice now then there’s something terribly wrong with me!

Mostly, I can do exactly what Hebrews 12:1-3 says: I can FIX my eyes on Jesus, what He went through on the Cross for me, and all of us. He is the pioneer and perfecter of my faith, the pathfinder and the road-paver, of what’s important. I’m not going to freak out during this crisis about the future of the United Methodist Church, my pension, or anything else. If I can concentrate on Jesus, it’s all going to be alright! Look what He went through, and how that turned out. Sure, it was horrible on Good Friday, but Easter Sunday’s coming! Take heart! Read: 2 Corinthians 4:16-18; I Peter 5:6-11; Jeremiah 29:11; Psalm 23; Romans 8:28-39; Isaiah 40:27-31; Psalm 46. Pray for revival!

United Methodist Protocol Possibilities and Perils

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Handling Our Diferences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A better person than me.

Upstaging the Ump

The difference between democracy and anarchy isn’t much nowadays. In a democracy the will of the people is decided by the ballot box. Anarchy, on the other hand, exists when it’s everyone for themselves resulting in mass confusion. Our society’s polarization exhibits democracy and anarchy simultaneously run amok. The line between them are so blurred that we don’t know how to act. We’re uncertain about what to tolerate anymore.

Did we see democracy or anarchy in the 2016 US presidential election? Donald Trump got around 26% of the vote, and Hillary Clinton got roughly 26% of the vote. As a matter of fact, she received more votes than Trump, but in our homage to state’s rights, each US state is delegated a certain number of electoral votes based on the latest census records. Though Clinton had more popular votes, she had less electoral votes. Donald Trump won, but both candidates combined got just 52% of the popular vote. Neither one came close individually to a 50+1 majority because 48% of those eligible to vote didn’t! Both candidates lost 74% of eligible voters.

Who would want to serve with 74% either against you or too ambivalent to vote? Someone this week said that the highest electoral turnout in the US is for county sheriff’s elections. It makes you wonder why that number is higher than the presidential one. Is it because of the old adage that “all politics is local?” We care who our sheriff is because of our individual personal safety or that of our loved ones. Is it about our property values and local quality of life? Is it because we have a personal investment in the outcome because we actually know the candidates?

It’s an interesting enigma, but we choose between democracy and anarchy every day. Is it my way or the highway of anarchy, or is it whatever is best for the common good of democracy? I certainly hope that I’m a kind of person who values the common good over personal desires. The foundation of civilization is an agreed upon set of values and a uniform adherence to those precepts. Unfortunately, we have rules interpreted in a way that’s all over the map. Left-coasters see things one way, and New England’s Down-Easters see it another way. The Midwest has another opinion. Southern Bible-belters espouse yet another set of virtues, and the South West another. Texas is big enough to have it all.

Here’s the problem as I think of American democracy on the edge of anarchy. We have lost touch with what our values are, both personal and national. We care about who our sheriff is because we’re so darn self-centered. We have snubbed our nose at both common sense and God. It used to be that everyone had the same curfew. Everybody in town knew what time it was, and every date got home on time. Not anymore. The Ten Commandments are 10 suggestions, not laws, and the Golden Rule has been changed to “Do it unto others before they do it unto you.” It is quite literally a sad state of affairs.

Here’s an example of what happens if we can all do our own thing and upstage the umpire. In Cuba they love baseball and they know the rules. However, not that long ago, Cuba’s former dictator, Fidel Castro came up to bat in an exhibition game against Venezuela. The game was held in the Cuban capitol of Havana. The Cuban dictator grabbed an aluminum bat and walked up to homeplate. Not to be outdone, the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, went to the pitcher’s mound. The first pitch from Chavez to Castro didn’t even reach the plate. Castro kept his bat on his shoulder. The next pitch went over the plate, and Castro swung and missed. In short order the two heads of state were locked in a 3-2 full count. The next pitch went across the plate straight down the middle and the umpire called Castro out.

“No,” Castro said. “That was a ball.” He walked to first base. No one argued. Chavez said nothing. The opposing team said nothing, and neither did Chavez or the umpire. Later Castro joked, “Today just wasn’t Chavez’s day.”

It’s hard to get the batter out when he or she has the power to overrule the umpire’s calls. That’s the way most of us have been behaving about a lot of things. Someday there’s going to be a payday when God’s Word will be final. No more upstaging the big Ump! What are our values? What’s right, and is anything wrong anymore? Jesus said in Matthew 7:13-14, “Broad is the way that leads to destruction and many enter it, but narrow is the way that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Is the ball fair or foul?

 

US Liberty or Libertines: Church and Society

Pondering the news from the Harris Poll yesterday that Millennials are less tolerant of others on progressive social issues has me a bit dumbfounded. It gives me hope that America might be on the brink of a newfound morality, but doesn’t Jesus call us to love, not just tolerate? Walking a thin line between grace and judgment is the path we Christians tread: hating sin, loving the sinner; standing for something, so we don’t fall for anything. We’re living in the tension between Fourth of July freedom and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. That clause says that all laws must apply to everyone. It’s about properly defining the common good for our society, and balancing that with our individual or constituency group’s preferences.

Alexis de Tocqueville, in visiting the US in the 1830’s, said, “America is great because America is good.” Polarization on issues has inflamed Congress and Churches alike. Jesus implored in Matthew 5:13, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” How salty are we? Is the Church composed of paragons of virtue, or panderers of moral relativity?

It’s so easy to believe that God wants us to be forgiven, but being “saved” doesn’t just mean having our tickets punched for heaven. That notion makes heaven about us more than an eternal worship of God. In our own self-centered American way, we have made the after-life another what’s-in-it-for-me consumer product – a sad commentary on our priorities. No, we’re saved not just for heaven, but for now. “Saved” means “changed.” Its that big word that maybe our Millennials are grasping better than the rest of us: Sanctification. Sanctification is believing that, through the power of the HOLY Spirit, Jesus died to save us FROM our sins; i.e., keep us from them, deliver us, and set us free. That’s the kind of freedom we need to celebrate on July 4th!

The Equal Protection Clause has been mistakenly co-opted by people and courts to mean that everybody can do whatever they want, no matter what. Orthodox Christendom says, “Not at all!” The Equal Protection Clause is really a way to determine how WE can live together in commonly agreed upon ways that support the protection of what’s right and the punishment of what’s wrong. None of us should be able to do whatever we want to without regard for common decency.

But, to those who say that the church should stay out of the public sphere, I say it’s impossible. If we truly want the world to be a better place and honor God’s laws, we must obey Jesus’ words and be the salt of the earth. If not, we’re doomed and the world is doomed with us.

Here’s a wake-up call story: A guy wanting to buy some salt went into a little Mom and Pop grocery store and asked, “Do you sell salt?” “Ha!” said the owner. “Do we sell salt? Just look!”

The owner proceeded to show the customer an entire wall of shelves stocked with nothing but salt: Morton salt, iodized salt, kosher salt, sea salt, rock salt, garlic salt – every kind of salt imaginable. The customer couldn’t say anything but “Wow!”

The owner said, “This ain’t nothing. I’ve got more!” So, the store owner showed the customer a backroom that was filled with more and more salt everywhere. There were boxes, bags, and bins of salt. The owner in a daring way said, “Well, what do you think? Do we sell salt?” The customer exclaimed, “Oh, yeah! You’ve got salt to sell! This is unbelievable!”

The owner then said, “There’s more!” and led the customer down some steps to the basement. The basement was huge, at least triple the size of the backroom, and it was filled from floor to ceiling with, you guessed it, more salt of every kind, even 20 lb. salt-licks for cattle. “Incredible,” said the customer. “You really do sell salt!” Then the owner said, “Yep, except for one small thing. We almost never ever sell any, but that salt salesman – hoo-boy, does he sell salt!”

Paraphrasing Jesus, “Salt that stays on the shelf doesn’t do any good at all.” Come on, Church, let’s get to work and help the US and the world to know the transforming grace of Jesus Christ!

Advent and Tommy Luck

Advent is the season the Church lives in all year! To live in the light of Christ’s coming is to be fully aware that He has come and will come again. It is a belief in the First and Second Coming of Jesus that gives me hope and strength in this bewildering in-between time. We don’t like to wait. We make fun of people who aren’t very fast by saying that they are “Slower than Christmas.” Well, right now that’s quick and before we know it, Christmas will be upon us, barreling down on us. How are we to handle the hustle and bustle?

Are you an elevator button pusher? Do you try to make the elevator go faster by pushing the “close door” button over and over again? It doesn’t really help. Thanks to the American Disabilities Act of 1990 the “close door” button is really just a placebo, a fake designed to make us feel better. All elevators are programmed so that no matter how many times you push the button, there’s enough time for persons with wheelchairs or other ambulatory aids to get on and off without fear of the doors closing on them.

Maybe we need to stop doing the things that don’t really help us deal with stress and impatience. It would be better for us during this Advent season and year-round to chill out and relax. This should be a time of peace, not panic. Do you know anyone named “Irene?” Irene is a name that isn’t very much in fashion these days, but it is letter for letter in English the Greek word for “peace.” We don’t need to sing “Good Night, Irene.” Instead we need to welcome Christ’s peace that passes all understanding. The basis for patience is trusting in God’s peace.

Ambrose Bierce wasn’t keen on patience, and I bet that he was a “close door” elevator pusher. He said, “Patience is a noun, a minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.” How wrong. Patience only becomes a form of despair if we forget Jesus and the peace and confidence that He brings. One of my favorite short stories is the one by Bret Harte, “The Luck of Roaring Camp.” Harte tells of a Wild West mining town that is full of gruff dirty miners in deplorable conditions and only one woman, “Cherokee Sal.” Cherokee Sal is pregnant and, sadly, during childbirth, dies. The miners name the baby boy, “Tommy Luck,” hoping for good luck from his birth.

They didn’t exactly know how to take care of a baby, but they work it out. Little by little, baby steps and giant leaps, the hamlet of Roaring Camp changes. For Tommy’s sake, the miners start bathing. They clean up their ramshackle houses. They built a church and got a preacher to come. They even invited decent God-fearing women to come and they did. The luck of Roaring Camp changed because Tommy Luck came into their midst. Jesus’ presence in coming as a child changed this roaring world for the better, and when Jesus comes again, all things will be made right – no more cancer, dementia, poverty, injustice, racism – nothing bad.

So to inspire our patience, we need to focus on Jesus. To have a better Advent we need to trust in the greatness of God. If we will do that, the whole world will notice that there’s something different and better about us. How great is your God? The answer to that one question will determine the peacefulness of our lives. A man said to his friend, “When my wife and I were on our honeymoon we decided I would make all of the big decisions and she would make all the small ones.” The friend asked, “How’s that working for you?” His buddy replied, “Fine, I guess. We’ve been married for 30 years, had 3 kids, bought and sold 3 houses, and purchased at least 15 cars; and I’m still waiting to make a big decision.” I hope God makes all of our decisions, big and small! How great is our God?

Think about it through the context of this story about a man who was late in getting a package mailed for Christmas delivery. The post office employee told him that for $47.10 it would get to its destination just in time. The man said the price was fine, and added, “It’s for my Dad. His birthday is Christmas Day, and I’ve got to get his present to him.” The customer directly behind the man who thought the cost was exorbitant said, “I’m sure glad that I don’t know anybody born on Christmas Day!” Another customer, who was evidently a Christian, said, “I’m sure glad that I do!” Are we glad we know Jesus? So are we ready for His birthday? We don’t want to forget the Guest of Honor at His own birthday party?

Jesus is coming, ready or not. There are 39 books in the Old Testament in 4 groupings: 5 books of Law; 12 of History; 6 of poetry; and 16 books of prophecy – and ALL 4 groups speak of Jesus’ second coming. We would all say that “new birth” is a major theme of the New Testament, but it’s only mentioned 9 times. “Baptism” is another key NT theme, but it’s only mentioned 20 times. “Repentance” is a NT key, and it’s mentioned 70 times. Guess what? The Second Coming of Christ is mentioned an astounding 380 times in the NT, one out of every 25 verses. Why is it so important? Why does it give us peace? It helps us because it lets us know that the future belongs to God. Wait for Jesus’ coming patiently and with confidence. Everything is going to be better than alright!

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The “None-Church Plan” of the UMC

I was invited this past weekend to a meeting that alleged that it was a gathering of theologically diverse opinions on the practice of homosexuality in relation to The United Methodist Church. We made declarations that the press would not be invited and that our discussions would be kept private. I even turned down an interview by the United Methodist News Service though someone had evidently already ratted me out as holding a certain opinion. It should have been little surprise that yesterday I saw a news article that had a multitude of folks from the same meeting sharing their opinions, all of which were different than mine.

I find it very disingenuous when it feels like progressives have invited a few token traditionalists to their meeting. I was not going to fall into the trap of being provoked to speak up in opposition. That would have only led to more demonization of the traditional perspective and victimization of those on the left whom I genuinely count as persons of sacred worth and many as friends. Those who really know me are certain of my integrity and love for the UMC. The final straw came out yesterday evening when I was informed that some people who went from the meeting in Nashville to the Uniting Methodists meeting in Dallas reported that the Nashville meeting was unanimous in its support of the One Church Plan. Since then I have been informed that report was erroneous. Actually it was basically stated that there was consensus of support except for 5 people. I have heard all sorts of reports, either true or apocryphal, of overwhelming support for the One Church Plan, but let me tell you from first-hand experience, it is not the case everywhere, and it was not in Nashville.

Unanimity couldn’t be further from the truth. Bear in mind that the Nashville meeting was decidedly a progressive group. Someone volunteered that the leaders attempted to have more traditional voices present, but they refused to come. I don’t know that for sure, but what I am certain of is that when we as a group were asked to vote by secret ballot only 10 persons said they were 100% all-in for the One Church Plan (OCP); 26 voted that they would support it, “but it’s not perfect;” 15 voted “Yes, with reservations;” 3 said “Yes, only if changes are made;” and 2, including me, voted “I’m not in favor.” A progressive bishop presented his pitch for the OCP and said that there were problems with it, the Connectional Conference Plan, and the Traditionalist Plan, but when pressed by questions about what he liked about each, he could not name anything he liked about any plan except the OCP. He couldn’t name anything wrong with it either.

What does this narrative say about so-called unanimity and the hard-press sell by members of the Council of Bishops? First, there was no unanimity. There were people on the left and the right who oppose the OCP because it is either seen as a further slap in the face to progressives who want more extensive full inclusion of gays and their allies, or it was a slap in traditionalist’s faces because it is ruinous to our ecclesiology and Biblical hermeneutic. Only 10 people out of 55 were “all-in.”

So we have bishops who are disregarding the promises made in the Council to stay out of the fray of support or non-support. It seems that the only bishops holding to their promises are the conservative ones. The bishop who spoke to us also gave some telling numbers of the vote on the plans at the Council of Bishops (COB). He stated that 58% of the COB wanted to support just one plan, not three. When that was decided he said 60% voted for the One Church Plan. I thank God for the 40% especially since I thought via news media or word of mouth that the number of progressives was much higher. Then he reported that after the OCP was made the main plan, 90% of the COB wanted the OCP plus the other two plans presented. The obvious conclusion is that there is not unanimity in the COB.

I do worry, however, whether or not whomever decides the presiding bishops for the Special Session of General Conference can find someone genuinely unbiased enough to adequately preside. I hate to think such a thought, but given the propaganda machine out of the COB for the One Church Plan, it makes me wonder. The bishop that presented to us in Nashville even suggested strategies to get the One Church Plan passed. I am grateful that the Judicial Council basically forced the COB to refer the whole matter back to the Commission on a Way Forward instead of it coming straight from the COB. There is no way, by Judicial Council precedent, that the COB could refer anything straight to the General Conference without violating the “separation of powers” that exists in our ecclesiology.

The subject of ecclesiology and the One Church Plan weigh heavily on my opposition to it. We are a connectional polity. That’s our means of governance. Local churches don’t call their preachers because we are a “sent ministry.” So stay awake when progressives want to say that yielding on the issue of homosexual practice won’t hurt us because it didn’t hurt the Presbyterians, Lutherans, UCC, Disciples of Christ, Episcopalians, and Cooperative Baptists, etc. Well, we do things differently than all of those. Every one of them in some fashion or another call their own pastor. That’s not who we are. If the One Church Plan passes then we will run down the road toward congregationalism where every church decides who they want for their clergy. Who will lose? My daughter, who is a UM Elder, for one. Churches that still want the proverbial white male in their 30’s with 3 children with an impossible 30 years of experience are often unwilling to have a female pastor or person of color even if they are much more qualified. Congregationalism will destroy our unique “sent ministry.” By the way, the Episcopalians, ELCA Lutherans, PCUSA Presbyterians, and all the rest who have loosened their stance on homosexuality have lost an average 30% of their membership in just a few years. So much for Making Disciples of Jesus Christ. If this issue affects these “call” and “modified call” systems this way, the ramifications for us will be worse. It will be a sea-change for our connectional system.

So the One Church Plan sends us down an awful precipice where everyone decides their own prerogative on same sex behaviors and marriage and would necessitate local church votes, annual conference votes, and individual clergy decisions on whether they can perform same-sex unions, allow their churches to do the same, and if bishops can’t in good conscience ordain, commission, or license someone who is self-avowed and practicing then another bishop who is willing to do it must be brought in. This all smacks of confusion and not connectionalism. For all you Judicial Council readers like me, look at Judicial Decision 544 which says this as it pertains to same sex unions and behaviors in relation to our ecclesiology, clergy standards and appointments:

“Although the paragraph under consideration relates to homosexuality, the question presently before the Judicial Council is not restricted to that particular issue. The matter before this body is one of the connectional system within The United Methodist Church and the relationship of the ministry to both the General and Annual Conferences. The Constitution, Par. 15, gives the General Conference the power to fix the basic requirements for ministry, while it becomes the responsibility of the Annual Conference, as set forth in Par. 36, to measure, evaluate, and vote upon candidates, as regards the minimum standards enacted by the General Conference. Ordination in The United Methodist Church is not local, nor provincial, but worldwide. While each Annual Conference is a door through which one may enter the ministry of the entire church, the Annual Conference cannot reduce nor avoid stipulations established by the General Conference which must be met by the church’s ministry everywhere. An Annual Conference might set specific qualifications for its ministerial members, but does not have the authority to legislate in contradiction to a General Conference mandate or requirement.”

Every African and whomever else has been falsely promised that this One Church Plan won’t affect them needs to know that it does! “Ordination, etc. is worldwide,” and our minimum standards are global. The One Church Plan has a huge constitutional hurdle when it promotes annual conferences as the arbiter of minimum clergy standards. The General Conference cannot delegate its power to a lesser body. We are not a diocesan polity where each area does its own thing. Pargraph 543.7 2016 Book of Discipline says that the BOD can be adapted, but only “as the special conditions and the mission of the church in the area require, especially concerning the organization and administration…” So, the OCP’s so-called promise of local adaptation simply doesn’t ring true. Do you want to be part of a denomination where Christian faithfulness, money, resources, and reputation are linked to that which God, the overwhelming majority of Christendom and the General Conference have declared incompatible with Christian teaching?

Our connectional polity brands how we’re different from other denominations, and why we need more uniformity in our minimum credentialing standards. How in the world will bishops and cabinets decide which clergy fit with which church if the standards are all over the place? The One Church Plan is the most deceitful title of any plan I know. Instead of unity of the church, it fragments it even more. Rather than promoting unity, it reduces The United Methodist Church to a shell of what we’re meant to be in making disciples as a connectional enterprise.

Certainly, there are many things incompatible with Christian teaching, and I often feel the dishonesty and pain of singling out just one thing. I am sorry for my sisters and brothers who have experienced harm over this issue. However, I have been harmed, too. The whole denomination has been harmed by the religious terrorists that have co-opted sessions of General Conference, the Connectional Table, and lots of other church venues with their protests. We have been sidetracked, distracted, and harmed as a denomination. One leader this past weekend offered a telling statement, “Everyone’s truth is the truth.” No, it isn’t. Jesus said, “I am the way, the TRUTH, and the life.” The bishop presenting the OCP this weekend said the Traditional Plan is “un-Biblical” even though it represents orthodox Christian teaching from the church’s inception.

God did have something to say about marriage, as evidenced in the complementarity of Genesis 1 and Romans 1. God wants us male and female in relationship because that partnership best defines the Biblical plan for human interaction. Jesus said in Matthew 19:5-6 and Mark 10:7-9, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.  So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” The same words are repeated in Genesis 2:24! The issue, therefore, of homosexual practice is a bell-weather issue about the authority of Scripture, the nature of humankind, the doctrine of sin, and much more. If everyone’s truth is the truth then why did Jesus need to die on a cross? On women’s leadership in the church and on questions of race there is clear evidence in Scripture that supports women’s ordination and the fact that God calls people of every nation and race, plus there are passages to the contrary. But, in the case of homosexual practice, the Bible consistently denies its validity in every instance. As Wesleyans we believe in Sanctifying Grace; i.e., that God doesn’t save us through Jesus Christ to leave us the way God found us, but to transform us for the transformation of the world.

So, I’m not giving up on the UMC, but we need to be ready for 2019’s Special Session of General Conference. Traditional delegates from the US, Africa, Europe, and the Philippines must not compromise and pass the so-called One Church Plan. Enough is enough! The “progressive” tactic isn’t new. This will be my 7th General Conference. I’ve seen this all before. For instance, the 32 constitutional amendments of 2008 were an attempt to separate us into theologically diverse regions and those amendments overwhelmingly failed. The Connectional Table’s Local Option Plan didn’t even make it out of committee in 2016. By a mere 23 vote margin the Commission on a Way Forward was created and it has been dominated by bishops under a cloud of secrecy.

The One Church Plan preferred by progressives and 60% of the COB is not a way forward. It will do more harm than good. With thanks to the faithful members of the Commission and the 40% of the bishops who value our ecclesiology and the Gospel over expediency and yielding to culture, I have to still say without any equivocation: “Vote the One Church Plan down!” It is really the “None Church Plan.”

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