Three-legged Chickens and Enthusiam

As a preacher I have found myself trying to drum up enthusiasm for all kinds of things. Stewardship campaigns are aptly named because it carries a military connotation. If it takes a “campaign” to get people to give then the war is already lost. We clergy-types want people to sing with gusto, give cheerfully, and serve faithfully. We want to pay off that building loan. We want the numbers in attendance to stay up without a slump, rain or shine. We like enthusiasm.

Not too much or it’s distracting, but we rather have a few smiles while we’re preaching, if not a few people saying “Amen!”  But, “Happy Clappy” people can turn a good worship service into a free-for-all with little decorum even though there’s evidence in the Bible to promote clapping in worship and even dancing! The bottom line is that everything that we do is to glorify God, not anyone else. Unless it brings honor to God, we’ve failed in our worship! I think we know when to clap at a worshipful rousing anthem by the choir. The joy just rises up from the congregation and spills over into overt enthusiasm.

You’ve heard the story of the circuit-riding preacher who needed a new horse. He went to someone who told him that he had the perfect horse for him. He said that the horse understood religious language. If you wanted him to stop, you said, “Amen.” If you wanted the horse to go, you said, “Praise the Lord!” The preacher bought the horse and started on his way when he came to a steep cliff. He couldn’t remember how to stop. Finally, as he was about to go over the edge, he remembered that you had to say “Amen” to stop the horse. With great relief, he then said, “Praise the Lord!” and both horse and rider plunged over the edge. Some people are too reluctant to say “Amen” and others are too quick to yell “Praise the Lord.” Enthusiasm does not need to be blind emotionalism. We’ve all seen people go off the religious deep end, and are so heavenly minded they’re no earthly good.

That being said, most of us preachers do like feedback on how the sermon went. Often we subject ourselves to the brutal honesty of our spouses and children. Humor us and tell us how it went, gently and with courtesy, and show enough enthusiasm to let us know you got the point. I think that’s the purpose of enthusiasm. It shows the Good Lord that we’re on the same page with Him. We want to be enthusiastic disciples!

Have you ever been to a football game and sat beside someone who either acts like they have no interest in the game or knows nothing about it? It’s annoying at best. They stand at the wrong time, clap in the wrong places, and they don’t usually look at the field! You wonder what in the world caused them to be there. Maybe it was a free ticket or something, but, at least, you wish that they had researched the game – something! There are a lot of people in church and outside the church who profess faith, but act like they don’t know a blooming thing about the Lord. God help when these folks get put on a committee. It’s usually a disaster.

We need enthusiasm! We need people who want to REALLY know Jesus and make Him known! Lent is our church season to wake us up. It should be a time when we rise every day to an ever higher crescendo of discipleship. I’m not talking about somber dull faith. We need folks who are on fire for Jesus with enthusiasm overflowing. John Wesley, our Methodist founder, said of our movement’s success and its cause, “Set yourself on fire with passion & people will come for miles to watch you burn.” Amen to that.

The story is told about a city man who was riding along at 55 mph when he looked out the window and couldn’t believe his eyes. He saw a three-legged chicken running beside the car. He accelerated to 60 mph and the three-legged chicken kept up with him! At 70 the chicken took off and left him in the dust. The man pulled over dumbfounded, and stopped in a farmer’s yard.

He rolled down his window and asked the farmer if he had seen the chicken dash by. The farmer said, “Sure, I saw it. I’ve seen plenty of them.” “What was it?” asked the man.  “The farmer said, “That was one of our three-legged chickens.” “Three-legged chickens! What do you mean, three-legged chickens?” “Well,” said the farmer, “there are three of us in the family: my wife, my boy, and myself. We all like drumsticks so we decided to breed three-legged chickens. That way we all can get a drumstick.” “Well do they taste good?” asked the city fellow. The farmer shook his head and replied, “I don’t know. We’ve never been able to catch one.”

May our enthusiasm keep us from being caught by laziness or a lack of faithfulness. Let’s outpace the world and outrun the Devil! Run on!

Three-legged chicken

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!

GC Logo


If You Haven’t Got a Prayer, Pray Together!

Prayer has been on my mind a lot in the past few days. The United Methodist Council of Bishops has asked the whole denomination to pray for General Conference. Our congregation has had many illnesses and deaths. We had a 14 hour prayer vigil last week for a marvelous thirteen year old who had a kidney transplant. I have found myself in the last few days praying at bedsides, over the telephone, and with people in hallways of the church.

Yesterday one of our ESL teachers had a medical emergency and fell unconscious on the floor. It was time to pray. Whenever nudged, we shouldn’t just say “Let’s pray about it,” but try to do it right then and there. Saying we’ll pray is only as helpful as we do it. Praying is like rocking in a rocking chair. If you don’t rock, it’s just a chair. Saying “I’ll be praying for you” is just a nice salutation unless we actually do it!

The one quality that gives me the sense that my prayers have gone further than the ceiling is focus. By focus I’m talking about “fervor,” I guess. Fervor isn’t just excitement or desperation. Fervor is more than getting worked up about something. When Powerball got to a billion dollars there was a lot of fervent let’s-make-a-deal prayer, but that was a shallow kind of prayer that only lasted a short time. When someone does something with fervor it isn’t a passing fancy or whim. It is dedicated, serious, constant, and passionate.

But appropriate and effective fervent prayer is easier to identify than to define. It’s something you can tell, though. At least that’s my experience, but even Biblical writers had a hard time with this. For instance, the Greek adverb ἐκτενῶς (EKTENOS) or “earnestly” only occurs in Luke’s writing in the New Testament, and both times it’s about prayer! It is first found in Luke 22:44 concerning Jesus praying earnestly in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Then it is found, again by Luke, in Acts 12:5 about Peter being imprisoned and about to be executed. The exact quote in Acts is, “So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.” It’s interesting to me that Luke, the doctor, is the only Biblical author to use this adverb. It makes sense, though, since doctors often know the urgency of things better than the rest of us.

As I have found myself deluged by life, it is earnest prayer that gives me a sense of peace. God and I have an actual conversational dialogue rather than a one sided Tim-toned monologue. When I pray earnestly I can tell it’s working when my voices wanes and God’s gets stronger. I quit listening to myself, and listen to God.

But, the most unique lesson that I get from Acts 12:5 is that the whole church was earnestly praying for Peter. A dedicated group of Believers passionately praying about the same thing is almost too marvelous to comprehend. This corporate expression of prayer bathes a church and its ministries in God’s power. A church-wide conversation with God has to result in a rich fruitfulness. How I long for that to happen at the United Methodist General Conference 2016.

The best hymn I know to help us get “prayed up” for whatever is before us is # 492 in The United Methodist Hymnal, “Prayer is the Soul’s Sincere Desire,” by James Montgomery. It goes like this:

1. Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,
unuttered or expressed,
the motion of a hidden fire
that trembles in the breast.

2. Prayer is the burden of a sigh,
the falling of a tear,
the upward glancing of an eye,
when none but God is near.

3. Prayer is the simplest form of speech
that infant lips can try;
prayer the sublimest strains that reach
the Majesty on high.

4. Prayer is the contrite sinners’ voice,
returning from their way,
while angels in their songs rejoice
and cry, “Behold, they pray!”

5. Prayer is the Christians’ vital breath,
the Christians’ native air;
their watchword at the gates of death;
they enter heaven with prayer.

6. O Thou, by whom we come to God,
the Life, the Truth, the Way:
the path of prayer thyself hast trod;
Lord, teach us how to pray!


 Prayer pic

Who Gets Written Off?

I’ve got a different angle on the whole transgendered bathroom discussion. There are schools and institutions that are trying to dictate where people who were born a certain way need to go to a specific bathroom. This flummoxes me. I get it that I would feel awkward if a woman and I were in the same restroom, and I imagine a woman would feel the same way if I went into a women’s restroom.

But, my mind is going in all kinds of directions about civil rights; dads or moms with their opposite gender children needing a unisex option everywhere, including the church; and my European experience of it not mattering. What about campouts, cabins at church camps, single-gender activities, or even single-gender colleges? However, my thoughts today are more practical than thinking about something that I haven’t faced yet as a pastor. My mind is not wondering about being anatomically correct in our protection of people. What do we do with folks who are just odd?

They are a tad beyond socially awkward and cause more people to leave the church than come to it. They’re not just annoying. They are just plain difficult. You want to be Christian and accepting, but you might not want to sit by them. If you give them attention, they want more. Peeling back the onion layers you often find there’s a legitimate source of their personality quirks, but they don’t get help, won’t take advice, and leave you wondering whether or not you need to look out for the majority and send them packing. This is the parable of the ninety-nine and the one in Luke 15:1-7.

Jesus said to go after the one. However, as a District Superintendent, pastor, parent, friend, or whatever, it has been my experience that it is poor stewardship to give too much time and attention to the minority of malcontented well or ill-intentioned dragons that suck the life out of a church. Doesn’t it make better sense to work with the fruitful and prune the wastrels?

It might make better sense, but it seems unloving and discriminatory. I’m conflicted because everybody is both sinner and potential saint. Aren’t we all both sinner and saint at the same time? Romans 7:14-25 certainly makes it clear that the Apostle Paul experienced the tug of an angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. I daresay that his spirituality and Christian commitment was far better than mine.

Like the one lost sheep, we have all been the one left out, isolated from the majority, and culled or lost from the flock. If I use the UMC’s Par. 244.3’s Book of Discipline standard for a church leader then a lot of church council seats would be empty. It says that church leaders SHALL be: “persons of genuine Christian character who love the church, are morally disciplined, are committed to the mandate of inclusiveness… are loyal to the ethical standards… set forth in the Social Principles, and are competent to administer its affairs.” This weeds out a lot of people.

This is the perennial church conundrum: how do we get along with people who have a difficult time fitting in with the norm of our context? How do we protect the ninety-nine without making the one feel like they’re unwanted? To take it up a notch, what do we do with the emotionally unstable who thankfully are under the ministry of the church, but make life tough for those who are a smidge less neurotic? Par. 4 of the UMC constitution is helpful to ponder: “… All persons without regard to race, color, national origin, status, or economic condition, shall be eligible to attend its [the UMC’s] worship services…” What’s left out of this list of attendees? Gender is one thing, but the thing that is primarily on my mind is “mental or emotional condition.” Was this intentionally left out of Par. 4 so that we can exclude those who are wild cards in terms of behavior? That just doesn’t sound like Jesus to me, so what do you think?

Perhaps this is unanswerable, but Jesus is daring me to think outside of regular parameters and I’m feeling a little stuck. What do we do? I would love to write-off a few people, but that means I have to write myself off, too. No thanks. Are we willing to leave the ninety-nine and rejoice over the one who was lost and now is found? A good hard question.

Jesus with Sheep

Human Relations DaySSSS!

Sometimes we just don’t get along with one another and we don’t know whether to lash out or just eat our anger. We can glad-hand it away and pretend it didn’t happen by seething inwardly, or we can go ballistic. Is there a middle way that is both truthful and therapeutic? In Charleston, SC there were no riots. A middle way was found because the families of the Emanuel Nine spoke the truth of their hurt, but also modeled grace.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave us profound insight in how to live in this middle place: “We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.” Violent co-annihilation may be tempting when we’re dealing with what appears to be an intractable stalemate. This makes me think of North Korea versus the world; Iran and Saudi Arabia; Democrats and Republicans; and pro-this and con-that people that are on opposite sides of a multitude of subjects. Isn’t Dr. King right? Co-annihilation and evisceration doesn’t help. Chaos-promoting language is an oft-used campaign tool that appeals to many people, but it disregards the fact that rhetoric which foments mutually assured destruction ends up causing it. It’s co-annihilation.

The US government thought they could annihilate native people’s ways by creating boarding schools where tribal ways and languages were beaten out of our people. So-called Christian missionaries tried to destroy native spirituality to create “white people” out of a people who had a deeper understanding of God than they could dare imagine. Isn’t it strange that the church has adapted and accepted pagan customs over the centuries just as long as they came from people whose skin looked the same? Annihilation also came to native peoples through outright murder and ghettoization through events like the Sand Creek and Wounded Knee Massacres, or reservation-induced dependency and abject poverty.

January 17 will be Human Relations Day and is the Sunday nearest Dr. King’s birthday. Its purpose is “…to recognize the right of all God’s children in realizing their potential as human beings in relationship with each other. The purpose of this day is to further the development of better human relations.” This is our day to make up for past failures and to embrace something better than nonviolent coexistence. Peaceful coexistence is better than violence, but love is more than tolerance.

In our unresolved conflicts, whether they are between people, countries, or cultures, we must be both truthful and therapeutic. I think that the genius of Dr. King’s statement about a choice between nonviolent coexistence and violent co-annihilation is not in the either-or choice of toleration or destruction. His statement is most prophetic when he says, “This may well be humankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.” Tolerant coexistence isn’t truthful or therapeutic. It puts scabs on wounds that need lancing before any real healing can take place. To choose chaos isn’t really helpful either, though it airs out the truth. The middle way that promotes real healing is what Dr. King called “community.”

How do we work for real community? Thankfully, the United Methodist General Commission on Religion and Race gives us clear tangible guidance. GCORR’s ministry model first promotes the teaching and implementation of Intercultural Competency. Second, it models for us how to have genuine, transparent, uncomfortable, and healing Vital Conversations between persons of disparate cultures and viewpoints. Last, GCORR’s ministry is to foster the creation of lifestyles and operational systems that value Institutional Equity, not just for some, but for everyone. The desire is that all aspects of every society’s structural life is fair to all.

If this ministry model is incorporated into our daily lives then we can have Human Relations Day every day. The questions for me: Will I do my best to learn about people who are different from me? Will I engage in substantive conversations that will promote cross-cultural understanding? Will I do the hard work that ensures that every person has an equal chance to be a reflection of God on earth? I pray that I will do all of this and more. What about you?



Saving the Children

Have you ever been in a restaurant or store and overheard or watched a child being reprimanded by a parent or another adult? Most of us are intuitively aware when things have crossed the line into child abuse, but we usually remain silent and walk away. Children are a gift, and we shirk our responsibility as a society every time we remain silent when one of God’s own gets hurt.

I had a professor in seminary, Dr. Gary Pratico, who had done archaeological work near Carthage in North Africa. He studied the same Phoenician culture that produced atrocities against children by the Israelites in the period before the Exile. Contrary to God’s value for children, the Israelites sacrificed their children to the gods Molech or Baal, fertility gods of the ancient Middle East.

I’ll never forget the day that Dr. Pratico brought a small urn that had a cover to class and poured out its contents on his desk. There were multiple small charred bones. They were the bones of a child 0-3 years of age that had been bound over a stack of wood, throat slit, then set on fire and burned to death. He said they found thousands of similar urns in the area around Carthage in North Africa. The Jewish people of the same period buried their urns in the valley of Ben Hinnom outside of Jerusalem in a place called Tophet, a word meaning “burning,” or “hell” – a place where they burned their children to death.

Why did the Israelites do such a thing? Like all people who want to get rich, they worshipped fertility gods and made sacrifices to them, including their children, so that they would be rewarded with more children, more cattle, more sheep, more crops, more land, and more, more, more of everything. They wanted these fertility gods to be happy and, in return, make them happy, healthy, and prosperous. Too bad they didn’t just trust the Lord.

Children’s Sabbath in the life of most of our churches has just come and gone where we focus on children and their welfare, but our society’s violence against children persists, and we must do something to stop it! Maybe you’ve heard the story of the people who were standing by a river and they noticed a baby floating down the river. People jumped into the water and rescued the baby. A short time later they saw another baby thrashing in the water and more people jumped in to rescue the child. This went on and on and everyone was pressed into rescue service. Finally, one man who had been part of the bucket-like baby brigade walked away. Everyone yelled at him and asked where he was going and pleaded with him to stay and help rescue all the babies. His reply was, “I’m going upstream and stop whoever is throwing all these babies into the water!” Amen!

That’s our situation, too. Children all around us are being harmed, neglected, abused, killed, and we’ve got to do more than just wait until they float downstream into our grasp. We need to find the source of the evil, and stop it. The United Methodist “Nothing But Nets” anti-malaria campaign is one way. Another is our Orangeburg District campaign to help children in a remote village in Ghana get the educational opportunities that will mean the difference between life and death for them. Our church hugely supports the “Life for Children’s Ministry” for AID’s orphaned children in Kenya. There are so many things that we can do. There are more things that we must do!

For instance, South Carolina’s school districts that are underfunded must be better funded. The State Supreme Court mandated a year ago that the legislature has to do more than provide a “minimally adequate” education as dictated by our state constitution. Nothing has been done yet, and that is appalling. Children are being thrown into the river; into life’s deluges and we’re not even rescuing them, much less trying to stop the inequities that exist.

I am not a socialist, but I am a Christian, and my faith tells me that I should do something to protect and provide for the “least of these.” Jesus said about children that “of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Luke 18:16). The time has come, in my mind, for us to do more than pick a Sunday and call it “Children’s Sabbath.” We need a lifestyle that protects children, supports them, and sacrifices for them!

I remember hearing of a preacher traveling from Atlanta to a conference at Clemson University in South Carolina. A young woman was to give the evening devotional and walked up with her legal-size yellow pad. Everyone was expecting something long, ill-prepared, and perhaps awkwardly painful. Her voice was low and she spoke in a language that wasn’t English. Then she spoke in another language that wasn’t English, then again, then again, and then again. According to the preacher that was listening, she then said something that sounded like German and he thought that he recognized it. Then it was in French and it was more recognizable. Finally, she said the same thing that she had been saying the whole time in English: “Mommy, I’m hungry.” Then she sat down, and it was awkwardly painful, and it was needed!

The preacher thought about what she said over and over again as he traveled back to Georgia, and as he entered the outskirts of Atlanta he saw a billboard that said this: “All You Can Eat $5.99.” All you can eat $5.99, a real good deal, but in his head all he could think was: “Mommy, I’m hungry.” God help us to quit sacrificing our children on the pyres of greed and indifference. Jesus said to Peter, “Feed my lambs.” Food for stomachs, minds, hearts – food for thought, isn’t it? How many children can we feed for $5.99?

School Children Hands


Dogs and Cats as Christians

How would politics change if there was no more mud-slinging? We’re over a year away from the election and it is ridiculous. How about a requirement that we follow Jesus’ “Golden Rule.” It is never out of date or style, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It’s a rule that is pertinent to the immigration crisis in Europe and the U.S. It hits home with issues of racism, prejudice, and the general animosity we feel toward everyone that irks us. It works behind slow drivers, in front of slow clerks, and beside inattentive wait staff. We want to be treated fairly and nice, so we need to treat everyone else the same way. How would our day, life, ministry, marriage, and demeanor change if we simply follow Jesus’ advice and treat people the way we want to be treated?

Consequences and ripple effects come to mind. Bad deeds reap repercussions and good ones pay kindness forward. Welcoming the stranger, immigrant, and the family outcast is an act of grace that we ourselves desperately need. No one has a corner on the market of either goodness or evil. In Romans 3:23 we get the Lord’s perspective on the universal human predicament, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” In John 3:16 we see God’s worldwide remedy, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” God’s judgment on our sin is always bracketed by Jesus’ grace.

Of course, it’s not cheap grace. Jesus’s death came at an ultimate cost. Reconciliation costs everyone! Following the Golden Rule is extremely difficult! To forgive an offending party is hard. Just ask the families of the Charleston Nine. I listened last night to two of the survivors and was struck once again by the magnitude of their grace. They made it clear that the only way they have been able to forgive is because they themselves have been forgiven. We can welcome the unwelcome and love sinners because there’s not that much difference between us. We all need Jesus, don’t we? The reciprocity of the Golden Rule is common to all, so why don’t we practice it?

I know my usual reason is my own hubris. Many of us make the assumption that we’re better than others and look down our noses at them. Since we think we’re better, then we don’t think it’s fair or right for us to have a Golden Rule quid pro quo equanimity in our relationship with the lesser-thans. How elitist and not at all like Jesus. Plus it’s just not true. We are ALL guilty and deserve God’s wrath, “Except for the grace of God, go I…”

I’ve been reading a book, Cat and Dog Theology, that is subtitled “Rethinking Our Relationship with Our Master.” It makes an interesting analogy that discloses my self-centered smugness. It offers a suggestion that Christians can either be like cats or dogs. Cats are finicky and pretty much think that the world revolves around them. Dogs are eager servants and loyal to a fault.

These are generalizations and there are certainly exceptions. Some dogs are mean and lazy, and some cats will purr you into a good mood with their affection. Nevertheless, the analogy is effective in convicting me of being too self-centered to follow the Golden Rule. Rather than please the Master, I often think I’m the master. I want to be a loving dog-like Christian that welcomes the stranger, and not like a cat in a room full of rocking chairs that is too scared to budge because I might get hurt.

It takes risk and courage to follow the Master. My experience is that dogs do leashes better than cats! Cat or dog Christian, which are you? Consider the story of two thieves to help you decide. They barged into an old man’s room and demanded all of his valuables and money. They told him that there was no way for him to stop them. He replied, “I don’t want to stop you. Here, take what money I have and anything that you can use.”

They took everything they could see and one of then pilfered a new shirt he saw in the old man’s closet. Just as they were leaving with all their booty, the old man said, “I didn’t realize that you were interested in clothing. Here, take the coat that I bought this afternoon. I’m certain it will fit you.” One of the thieves demanded, “What’s your game, old man? Why are you offering me the coat?”

The old man replied, “I try my best to live by the commands of Christ. He told his followers not to resist those who are evil and that if someone takes your shirt to offer him your coat as well (Matthew 5:39-40). The two men listened with amazement to the man’s simple words. Then they carried everything they were stealing back into the house.

As they left, the first man whispered, “Pray for us, old man.” The second one just shook his head and said, “I didn’t know there were any Christians left in the world.” Live the Golden Rule and watch how the world will change. Cats can be casual observers of life and its hardships. The world needs us to go get help. Woof! Woof!

Stop Domestic Violence!

Tony Stewart, Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Greg Hardy, Jameis Winston and I have a lot in common and it’s not football or NASCAR, and it’s certainly not domestic violence. What we have in common is that they made bad choices and so have I. We all have, but is that an excuse for more bad behavior? The Scripture (Romans 3:23) says that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. There are no exceptions, but I’m not in a confessing mood about my personal preferences and penances. Therefore, although we may not have committed the same shortcomings, we have all made mistakes. However, is knocking a woman out cold a mistake or allegedly committing a sexual assault, stealing crab legs, or yelling obscenities about women sophomoric hijinks? Will there be more facts added to the ongoing sagas about a racetrack death or child abuse by NFL players?

The answer is, “Probably,” and all of the above are more than “mistakes.” When I do something wrong, we need to call it what it is – “sin.” We need to recapture the appropriate word for our actions in our loosey-goosey society. We need to use the language of sin to reinforce that wrong is very, very wrong. A culture of permissiveness has encouraged too many people to shirk personal responsibility and want to let bygones-be-bygones, turning sin into miscues, mis-statements, and misogyny. South Carolina is the worst state in the US in terms of misogyny and violence against women and it is SIN! The two-word phrase “domestic violence” doesn’t even begin to capture the despicable nature of this epidemic.

Well, as United Methodists we don’t believe Jesus saved us to let us wallow in our same-old-same-old condition. We believe in sanctification – that God saves us through Jesus Christ to transform us for the transformation of the world. We believe it when Titus 2:11-12 says that God’s grace teaches us to say “No” to sin and empowers us to live new lives.

Differences in theology make a difference in whether or not we accept personal responsibility. If I think that it’s definite that I’m going to heaven no matter what I do then what I do doesn’t really matter in final analysis. If a person has a “low” view of sin they sometimes slip into a moral coma and think live and let live is an okay philosophy for everyone; i.e., “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Then there are those who think if there’s no hell, there are no consequences. Just keep smiling away.

Let me give you an inadequate illustration of all three views. Maybe you heard the semi-humorous story about the difference in Baptist, Methodist, and Humanistic Positive Thinking attitudes about Judgment and Hell. Three men went out fishing. The first was a Baptist who believed, “Once saved; always saved.” The second was a Methodist who believed one could backslide and lose salvation, but there was little clarity about why and when that might happen. The third was a Positive Thinker who followed the doctrines of ministers like Robert Schuller and Joel Osteen.

A storm arose and the three men drowned. They were shocked to end up in the fires of hell. The Baptist cried out, “I thought I had it, but I didn’t. I thought I had it, but I didn’t.” The Methodist wailed, “I had it, but I lost it. I had it, but I lost it.” The Positive Thinker was curled up in a corner with his hands over his eyes, chanting, “It’s not hot, and I’m not here! It’s not hot, and I’m not here!”

But we are here, and it’s not funny. Baptist “What’s-In-It-For-Me” indifference, Methodist over-emphasis of grace over sin, and Positive Thinking’s prosperity theology makes it difficult for us to counter-attack our primary culprit to holy living: Sin. Sure, I know that all Baptists, Methodists, and Mega-church Perpetual Smilers aren’t the same and simplistic labeling probably isn’t helpful and I apologize, but I sincerely hope that all of us who call ourselves “Christian” will get our acts together and fight back against sin. We have let it go on for one reason or another for too long and it’s winning.

We all need Jesus to save us and no one sin is worse than another from God’s perspective, but we need to stand up today for respect, love, covenantal faithfulness, and common decency before it becomes utterly uncommon. If we don’t do something then we have failed all of our wives, women, daughters, sisters, mothers, and sons. The violence needs to stop NOW!


Humbled in D.C. by Religion and Race

This past week I was in Washington, D.C. to work with a colleague at the United Methodist General Commission on Religion and Race as we were writing legislation in preparation for the 2016 General Conference. We were incorporating GCORR’s ministry model into its legislative mandates: Intercultural Competency, Institutional Equity, and Vital Conversations about Faith & Race. Too many things in the news demand that we excel at all three.

We finished our work a little early one afternoon so I decided to walk down behind the Capitol and check out some museums. I especially wanted to go to the National Holocaust Museum. I was breath-taken by the solemnity and horror of what I felt and experienced. Walking through the railcar that transported people to death camps was worse than chilling. Seeing the thousands upon thousands of shoes taken from people about to be murdered was overwhelming. Not a soul in the place spoke louder than a whisper, if that. Holocaust survivors were present with tattooed arms. The visit really put my work with the Commission on Religion and Race into perspective. We must say “Never Again!” to all genocide, racism, and murderous atrocities. The Islamic State must be stopped from beheading people. Russia must retreat from Ukraine’s sovereign borders. Christians in Iraq, Nigeria, and China must be protected from persecution.

We must all do our part, wherever we are, to stop heinous acts that take the lives of the unborn, the elderly, the Roma, and not to forget those innocent Hispanic children at our borders or those African-Americans who have been profiled and targeted. Indeed, Ferguson, Missouri is a tragic reminder of the U.S.’ racial history and a microcosm of the genocidal acts that have been perpetuated across the planet. Turks tried to wipe out Armenians in the early 20th century; Nazis tried to kill all the Jews; and the evidence of hatred goes all the way back to Cain killing Abel. We can say “that” would never happen in our community, but sadly it does every time I look over my shoulder and profile the people around me as I get in my car. When does careful vigilance cross the line into profiling?

We don’t want to call it discrimination or racism but we really do cling to what our differences are as human beings. Being unique is cause for celebration most of the time – until you’re the only one who thinks differently or doesn’t look like the majority. What a challenge for the church! We believe and preach Colossians 3:11 and Galatians 3:26-28 that in summary say that, in Christ: skin color, gender, and social status don’t matter – what matters is Jesus! Unfortunately, however, churches are mostly homogeneous like-minded clubs of similar people. Even with the rich diversity of the United Methodist Church, one of the most diverse denominations in the world, we are 92% white in the U.S. and 60% white worldwide. How do we create community when we would rather separate into different ethnicities? It begs the question of whether it is in our DNA to be prejudiced and want to be with own kind.

In D.C. I also went into the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian. Talk about mistreated. I was hoping to find a T-Shirt that said, “Fighting Terrorism Since 1492,” but I didn’t. It was a somber place to me. If the majority of this country doesn’t “get it” about the Washington NFL team that has a nickname that American Indians NEVER call themselves, then we’re in serious trouble. I am even more offended by the Cleveland Indians mascot “Chief Wahoo” whose cartoon-like features are blatantly insulting.

 I have other questions in the wake of Ferguson, Missouri.  I wonder why most persons of color assume the police have an agenda of targeting them, and why most persons who are white trust the cops. I’m torn, too. I want to believe that the authorities are just doing their job, aren’t racial profilers, and want to keep the peace. Unfortunately, our experiences differ when it comes to the color of our skins, the neighborhoods we’re from, and the accent of our voices.

People assume Southerners are ignorant because we speak a drawling version of Elizabethan English. Others assume Yankees are rude and impatient with their fast clipped dialects. Why do we assume that Asian kids are better at math, black kids are better at sports like basketball and football, and white kids are football linemen, the occasional tight end, fullback, or quarterback and little else?  Why in the world do we somehow think that Latino/Hispanic persons have a corner on the landscaping market? Are these facts, or are we racists of sorts?

We have turned the American melting pot into a salad bowl where we do our best to keep the tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and lettuce separated. With that kind of attitude we don’t need to wonder why Ferguson, Missouri happened, Wounded Knee, or the Holocaust. Look at the facts and know that out of nearly 3 million people incarcerated in the U.S. 38% are African-American and that 1 in 3 African-American males will be imprisoned at some point in their lives. What makes these stats even more disturbing is that African-Americans only make up 13% of the U.S. population. Why is there such a high rate of incarceration? Is it due to a lack of opportunity? Are African-Americans somehow ill-equipped by nature or nurture to break the cycle of poverty? Is it because of the lack of a male presence in families? Is it institutional racism?

By the way Hispanics are 17% of the U.S. population and 21% of the prison population. Asians are around 5% of the U.S. population and 2.5% of that of prisons. Whites comprise 78% of the population and 35% of prison inmates. What are we to make of all this when thinking about Ferguson, Missouri and the museums on Constitution Avenue in D.C.? Have you ever heard of the phrase “white privilege?”

Privileged or not, the U.S. is made up of all kinds of people from all kinds of places and I am not ignorant of the fact that there are millions of white people who are poor and marginalized, too.  The bottom-line for me is that we must take individual and corporate responsibility for the ways that we treat people. We must look critically at systemic causes of poverty, discrimination, and racism. There is no easy answer to any of the questions raised. We live in a complex world where people learn early to discriminate between themselves and others. Maybe God had it right in becoming flesh in Jesus, a Jew from the Middle East – not African, not European, Not Asian – from right in the middle of all humankind. Jesus ably represents all of us, and gave us the words to combat racism and genocide in Matthew 7:12, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Holocaust Museum



Stopping the Shut-down: Me and U.S.

Reading my devotional this morning I found myself in John 5. It is chock full of the value of intimacy to God over the rote traditions of the religious, but what caught my eye and heart was Jesus’ question to the guy who’s been paralyzed for 38 years. The man has been lying there next to the Pool of Bethesda waiting and hoping for an angelic stirring of the waters, and perhaps the bigger miracle that someone would help him get into the water first. I guess the most desperate or the ones with the most friends beat him out every time.

For 38 years this guy has been waiting, wanting his life to change, to be healed. Jesus seemingly asks him the dumbest question ever in John 5:6, “Do you want to get well?” The question almost seems mean-spirited, as if Jesus is making light of the man’s condition. At best, it appears insensitive. Of course, we know Jesus is never that callous, especially to those who are suffering. So what’s Jesus getting at?

Then I think about the government shut-down in Washington, D.C., or me with some of my afflictions and foibles. Sometimes we enjoy the status quo more than the risk of real change. Think about it. When Jesus asked the man if he wanted to get well, he didn’t answer. He just made excuses about not having anyone to help him get into the healing waters. So as usual something else is going on here. Do our political parties really want things to get better, or does their very existence dictate intractable conflict. Without some kind of fight going on they don’t have a reason to be. It’s that simple.

I don’t know about you but I’m ready for real change, and not just the appearance of wanting change by sitting by the healing waters of the Pool or the Potomac. What does Jesus say to the man and perhaps to our laissez-faire government that gets more PAC money the longer the partisan bickering and stalemates last? Jesus says, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” Jesus says, “Get over yourself and your excuses. Tell the powers that be who want to keep you paralyzed and shut-down to get over themselves. It’s a new day. If we’re going to be about the Father’s business, it going to be about healing and not hurting. The nuts hung up on process have taken over and it’s time to let them go so that the real prisoners can be set free. It’s time – Do you want to get well?”

Do I want to get well? You? Aren’t we a lot like the invalid? We want our prayers answered, but are afraid we might miss the sympathetic attention if they are. We would love freedom, but are comfortable captives. We want to change, but we don’t want to change too much. Instead of answering Jesus’ question about getting well, we make excuses. Good Lord, we’re as divided in our souls as Congress is. Apparently, we prefer a woe-is-me existence over change and risk.

Today, this day, we need to take a chance and take up our mats, leave what paralyzes us behind and walk into a new day as individuals, as a people, as a country. We must be willing to leave old ways behind. To know Jesus is to know that nothing will ever be the same again. And it’s worth it for those who dare to do what Jesus says. It’s time for Congress and us to make changes! We may look foolish if we try to make a difference in a jaded world, but the real fools are the ones still sitting on their hands and doing nothing. Take up you mat and walk! Today!

Carrie Underwood’s “Change” is a good reminder to us and our government that we can set the prisoners free. Sometimes the prisoner is me – locked into my own personal status quo of inertia, perhaps enjoying the stalemate in my heart a little too much. It’s time to be a fool for Christ and embrace change, use change, and move literally off the stuck dimes of our lives.