Lateral Thinking and the UMC

There are decisions to be made in the United Methodist Church about our future, either together or separate, as Traditionalists or Progressives. There are those who are already touting plans, and I am hesitant to throw another plan into the mix. Number one, I don’t have one yet, and secondly, enough of you presume my name is synonymous to an opposite view than yours that you wouldn’t give it a passing thought. No matter, and needless to say, I’m concerned about our future. I’m not concerned about St. John’s UMC because it is thriving by making disciples and not getting stuck in ecclesiological word problems. We will keep doing what we do best by growing the church and its ministries no matter what.

Most of us are consumed by worry. It may be acute anxiety because of an immediate crisis, or it may be caused by chronic anxiety due to a lingering worry that rears its head only occasionally. Either way, worry too easily consumes us. We take vacations to try to get away from it all, but find ourselves needing a vacation from our vacation. We tell ourselves if we had enough money all our worries would disappear. Watch the news just one evening and you’ll find that being rich and famous aren’t solutions to worry.

Mary and Martha were two sisters in the Bible and both have wonderful attributes. Mary-types are into emotions and empathy. They love worship, Bible Study, and learning all that they can from Jesus. Martha-types are more practical and make lists of the things that they need to make sure Jesus and his disciples are well fed. You might recall Joanna Weaver’s book, Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World. It suggests that Jesus prefers Mary-types over Martha’s. That is what the Bible says, but I don’t think that Scripture denigrates Martha’s as much as some might think. The world needs both kinds of people, plus those who are a mixture of the two, and it’s the same for both sexes.

There are men and women who are gifted in the practical, necessary, and mundane things like Martha, and there are those who can write the best poetry, prayer journals, thank-you-notes, and whose emotional I.Q.’s are extraordinary as they sense things. Most of us get it. Any of us, if pressed, can be both dreamers and workers, Mary and Martha’s. Who’s to say that dreaming isn’t work. That’s how we got to the moon 50 years ago. On the other hand, thank God for the people who did the grunt work to make the dreams happen. General Conference 2020 in the UMC is going to take the best of both dreaming and doing.

Sometimes I find myself pondering a problem with a practical head-on solution. Other times I’ll wait and discern until I can come at it in a new creative way. Edward de Bono who champions what he calls “Lateral Thinking,” says that it’s better for both Mary and Martha to beware of attacking a problem head-on. He suggests that we come at our dilemmas from the side. He discovered this principle when he found himself locked outside the double-walled enclosure of his university. As he climbed the outer wall in the dark he discovered that he climbed the wall at a corner and ended back on the outside. Then after he found a way to get over the wall at a place that put him where he wanted to be, he started climbing the next wall. Three-fourths of the way up he noticed a shorter gate nearby, a lesser height if he happened to fall, and a much easier climb. Assuming the gate was locked, he climbed to the top of the short gate only to feel his forward momentum cause the gate to open. Since it wasn’t locked, he hopped off and pushed it open.

He said he learned two things which are at the essence of lateral thinking: “No matter how good you are at climbing walls, you should always pick the right one;” and “Some walls don’t have to be climbed if you can enter through a gate that you never imagined.” Lateral thinking is a mixture of Martha’s practicality and Mary’s imagination.

For instance, de Bono was asked by a corporation to help with a problem. They had too many people at the end of the workday for their elevators to handle in their large building. They tried attacking the problem head-on and thought they could stagger quitting time or use a system to split up the numbers in manageable numbers. They even thought about adding new elevators outside the existing building. Before they spent all that money, they invited de Bono to come in and take a look, to hopefully add a new perspective via lateral thinking. He did just that! He looked at the elevators from a lateral vantage point, literally from the side, and a new idea hit him. It struck him that all the company had to do was to cover the walls around the elevators with mirrors, and it worked! People stood together waiting on the elevators, but spent their time waiting either looking at their own reflection or those of their coworkers. They didn’t even notice the delay!

Lateral thinking lets the Martha’s and the Mary’s do what they do best, and it cuts down the anxiety and worry. I know that the deadline for General Conference 2020 petitions is September 18, but can’t we think about this in a new way? Step to the side and get a better angle.

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!

The United Methodist Church IS…

I am so tired of the spin from Mainstream UMC supporting the One Church Plan (OCP). The latest missive came this morning and promises that the OCP is a “strong, calm oasis” in the midst of what its leaders call the “stark contrast of the chaos and crisis ginned up” by supporters of the other plans. They even dare to say that the OCP is “not radical.” Malarkey! The tactics and words of the OCP are just plain wrong.

We are not the “United Baptist Church!” The OCP fundamentally changes how United Methodists embrace our identity as a connectional people. We would be left with a “conscience-driven” local option congregationalist denomination where local churches and clergy get to decide what’s right in their own minds about sexual ethics, and everything else. When that occurs we have destroyed who we are as United Methodists. We will have a UMC in one part of town that believes one thing, and one nearby with a different opinion. A house divided against itself cannot stand.

I was in Williamsburg, Virginia last week for the Southeastern Jurisdiction’s Committee on Episcopacy. Williamsburg is a beautiful city, home of Colonial Williamsburg where the capitol of Virginia was located during the American Revolution, not far from Yorktown where the US won its independence from Britain. I started thinking about United Methodism and US history. The US started its self-government with the ratification of the Articles of Confederation in 1781 which preserved the independence and sovereignty of each state. This worked okay until the need of a strong central government proved that just being loosely linked wasn’t in the best interest of everybody. So, in 1789 we passed our Constitution that created a unified whole, a union, which only partly solved the problem of state’s rights over the common good.

Basically, Americans discovered that a confederacy didn’t help enough people, nor did it collectively protect the country as a whole. Of course, any student of American history knows that it took the Civil War in 1861-1865 to return us to a strong central government, and change our self-understanding as a country. Until the Union’s victory over the Confederate States of America the US was used in plural form in sentences, “The United States are…,” and after the Union defeated the Confederacy sentences about the US read, “The United States is…”

Here’s the point that I get from this: The United Methodist Church is better as a union, not a confederacy. The OCP makes us a confederacy, not a union. The Modified Traditional Plan (MTP) keeps us unified, doesn’t overturn thousands of years of Judeo-Christian teaching on marriage, and uses our connectional ecclesiology to spread the Gospel. Every other plan splits us. As attracted as I am by my fall-back plan, the Connectional Conference Plan (CCP), I also know from American history that although the Union won the Civil War, there were Jim Crow abuses and it wasn’t until 1954 that “Brown v. Board of Education” made it the law of the land that “separate but equal” schools for black and white children was completely wrong and false. There was no equality. There was segregation, and it is a sin that still haunts us. The OCP and the CCP and all the rest of the plans except the Modified Traditional Plan attempt to make all United Methodist churches separate but equal. Get a clue, it’s impossible.

So, we need a union that does the least amount of harm. If the Modified Traditional Plan doesn’t pass there will be a mass exodus of people, church closures, and litigation of the worst kind. What kind of witness will that be for the world? The mis-named One Church Plan isn’t going to keep us together for the Gospel’s sake. It’s going to fragment us into oblivion. For instance, the OCP doesn’t have an exit plan for those who don’t want to be held hostage. That fact should raise everyone’s eyebrows. Why wouldn’t the OCP have an exit plan? Could it be financial fear or something more sinister? OCP supporters have to know that without Traditionalists they can’t pay the bills, but it doesn’t seem to matter to them. One so-called progressive told me at the 2016 GC, “We know we don’t have the votes to win, but we’re going to burn the house down when we leave.” Sounds like the OCP folks are the real noisy gongs that are radical. This will be my 7th General Conference and I’ve never been spit on or slapped by a Traditionalist, or seen a Traditionalist break a Communion Chalice and Paten. I sympathize with the pain that many feel with the MTP and our current Disciplinary language, but the best way forward to me is to keep what we have with greater accountability.

MY sincere hope is that the Modified Traditional Plan is overwhelmingly supported so that a clear message is sent. Let’s be in ministry with all people and hold them in sacred worth, but in 2020 we need to move on. I know one GC cannot bind another, but my hope is that we can call a moratorium of some sort. We are not a United Baptist Church. We are not a confederacy. We are not promoters of separate, but equal. The United Methodist Church IS a Bible-Believing, Soul-Saving, Jesus-Praising movement of the Holy Spirit to redeem the world!

Judicial Decision 1366 Reflections

The One Church Plan takes the method out of United Methodism. That method has been connectionalism and it has been grossly redefined by the OCP and the Judicial Council: “As a primary principle in any organizational structure of The United Methodist Church, connectionalism denotes a vital web of interactive relationships—multi-leveled, global in scope, and local in thrust—that permits contextualization and differentiation on account of geographical, social, and cultural variations and makes room for diversity of beliefs and theological perspectives but does not require uniformity of moral-ethical standards regarding ordination, marriage, and human sexuality.

These profound words make dozens of previous Judicial Decisions null and void, except for the fact that Judicial Decision 1366 did affirm that the General Conference can set minimum standards. This is exactly what we need to do to restore our connectional identity. Without any minimum standards it’s anything goes, literally. The One Church Plan is a blank check for a “diversity of beliefs and theological perspectives,” except that by the grace of God United Methodist connectionalism can be preserved by GC action. By a simple majority the Special Session can shut the OCP down and reclaim our heritage.

What the OCP does to the annual conference and the local church is harmful. Up until now the anxiety and conflict has been left to the elected delegates at General Conference. But, if the OCP passes, every annual conference clergy session will decide what that conference’s sexual ethics are, and the tension will be seen and felt. Annual conference clergy sessions, that only have a few laypersons on them, will decide all of this for the whole AC and the acrimony between laity and clergy will be exacerbated. Think about the ramifications if your bishop refuses to ordain a self-avowed practicing homosexual and another bishop is called in to do it. That’s visible disunity.

The harm to local churches is extraordinary even though the OCP literature says it will “most likely” not change local church practice. Pastors may do same sex ceremonies, but local churches will have to hold church conferences and vote by simple majority to allow them. Every vote will be personally painful for those who have family members affected by this. Clergy in full connection will still have a guaranteed appointment even if their perspective on the practice of homosexuality differs from their local church, but how long do you think that pastorate will last? It’s a switch from connectionalism to congregationalism and who loses in that scenario? The freedom to contextualize will hurt more than help.

Churches will have to declare their stance, and so will clergy. The OCP brings the fight straight to where it will hurt the most: the annual conference and local church. How in the world will that help anybody want to be United Methodist, much less a Christian?

So what options are left? The Judicial Council didn’t say anything at all about the Connectional Conference Plan because it needs a slew of constitutional amendments to pass, and if that happens, so be it. There’s no need of a review by the JC. But, frankly, I don’t think it has a chance. It revives the language of the racially segregated Central Jurisdiction, except with 3 different theologically based jurisdictions. It’s just too complex, and, like the OCP if it passes, how could we ever call ourselves UNITED Methodists?

What about the Traditional Plan? After all, the JC said a good bit of it is unconstitutional, but my reading and re-reading of JC Decision 1366 is that the TP was not gutted. As a matter of fact, most of the things that were nixed were about the Bishops policing themselves, or about AC Boards of Ordained Ministry and DCOM’s being fair in their examination of candidates for ministry in light of all the parameters of the Discipline, not just about human sexuality. The JC also said the Traditional Plan is in order when it proposes that an annual conference can withdraw from the denomination; when it expands the definition of a self-avowed practicing homosexual; and its prohibition of bishops consecrating anyone as bishop who is one.

Concerning the bishops, the JC said that the TP’s process violated an individual’s right to trial. As a lover of our polity and Discipline I pray that someone comes up with a constitutional way to put teeth in our accountability so that we don’t have bishops and other entities or individuals all over the map doing their own thing. It is hopeful to note that the Traditional Plan’s petition on minimum sentencing wasn’t shelved by the JC. There are some language tweaks that need to be done so that minimum penalties aren’t just about sexual behavior, but we all should be good with complete adherence in all matters in the Discipline.

So which plan does the most damage to our denomination and witness to the world? I know our current language hurts, but I think the OCP will actually do more harm to the people it’s intended to help. In a connectional system we need clear boundaries and norms, not wholesale carte blanche.

GC 2019 pic

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

Resurrection Dust

In seminary a bunch of us students would unwind by playing the board game “Risk!”  The game is all about world domination, and the winner is the one who conquers everyone else. There was this one guy who would always quote Jesus’ words, as he perennially went down to defeat, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” I can hear him even now. The rest of us thought that it was just a game, not a theological exercise.

I’m afraid that’s the attitude many people have about their faith. Life is a game to win or lose, and one tries to fit God in wherever one can. Like Peter admonishing Jesus about the absurdity that the Son of Man must die, many of us think it’s better to gain the whole world than carry a cross. Carrying a cross seems like losing, game over. So, we are convinced that it is a hard journey to carry a cross. Jesus says that without this self-sacrifice we are doomed. Jesus is the only One who conquers everyone and everything else!

We have to let him “conquer” us so that we give up our wants and wishes and accept God’s will. If we don’t, everything is lost. We need to move from being WAM people and become WAY people. “What About Me?” people are always looking out for themselves while WAY people consistently ask, “What About You?” It is even better if the “You” in question is God. WAY people are selfless, not selfish. The way of the cross is about what’s right and pleases God. It’s the ultimate choice to do the right thing, no matter what the personal cost.

Christians have been called people of The Way before. It takes faith in action. Lent is our season to drill down and discover our faith’s bedrock. It’s a time to ask ourselves what we really believe, whom we really follow, and will we carry a cross. The song by Matt Redman, “Jesus, it’s all about you,” sings and sounds well enough, but is so hard to do in our self-absorbed world. It is usually the poor who get this truth before anyone else. They depend on the power of resurrection to be real. Actually everybody I know depends on this truth if they’re honest enough.  All of us need an Easter faith. So, Lent and Easter come at a perfect time. We want winter to be over and warmer weather to arrive.

I’ve been nursing an amaryllis since Christmas a year ago. Trying to get it to re-bloom after more than a year has taken more effort than I imagined. I’ve followed all the rules about letting the leaves absorb sun throughout last summer. Finally the time came for me to stop watering so that the leaves would die before last fall arrived. I cut the old fronds away, then stored it in the fridge. I was careful to keep any apples away because their proximity causes sterilization.

Finally I pulled it out 8 weeks before Christmas and expected it to be a holiday delight. I repotted, watered, and put it in as much sun as I could. It turned an ugly rotten brown. I figured I had overwatered it and firmly felt underneath it several times to see it was soggy and too far gone. It felt okay, so now, three months late, it finally started sending out green shoots. I went from being in Dr. Seuss’ “waiting place” in Oh, The Places You’ll Go to Resurrection time, and I’m looking forward to the blooms!

Has this been a “waiting place” of a winter for you? If so, there’s hope! Pollen has begun to fall and cover our cars in our temperate Southern climate. My daughter, Narcie, calls pollen “Resurrection Dust.” It wreaks havoc on sinuses, but it’s a wonderful sign that no matter how long the winter, or how hard the journey, or how heavy the cross, there’s a resurrection coming. Spring is on its way to scatter away the last vestiges of winter’s chill. “Resurrection Dust” sprinkled over our lives gives us renewed hope.

This makes me hear echoes of Natalie Sleeth’s “Hymn of Promise” – “In the bulb there is a flower…, a spring that waits to be…, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.” My amaryllis was done for, but now it’s alive! God’s “Resurrection Dust” is a sign! If nature recognizes this pendulum that swings from death to life, why don’t we? Look out at the yellow pollen and be grateful. Easter’s coming!

Mardi Gras, Lent and The Hypocrisy Meter of the UMC

Today is Fat Tuesday when we have our last indulgent splurges before Lent begins tomorrow. Mardi Gras and masks go a long way back – a self-protective way to dive into devilment without being found out. We have to take our masks off during Lent or we have robbed the Gospel of its power to set us free. This is our season of confession and repentance, and for me and the UMC, all of us perhaps, it’s a journey. So, off with the masks and let’s get real!

We take a Lenten “journey.” We don’t say an Advent journey though Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem, nor an Epiphany one even with the Magi traveling from afar. Easter and Pentecost seasons aren’t called “journeys,” either. But, Lent is definitely one, down from the heights of the Mount of Transfiguration to the pit of Gethsemane, Golgotha, and a stone-cold tomb. It was a journey that Jesus made, and dares us to make. It is a hard journey that begins with Ash Wednesday’s words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

This is the journey that every human being will make from birth to death. The solace in this bleak journey is that God has taken it, too, in Jesus. We are not alone in our sorrows. Even Jesus’ baptism shows Christ’s solidarity with us. Though he was in no need of repentance, Jesus submitted to John’s baptism. His ministry began with obedience at the Jordan River and ended with obedience on the cross. How unlike my fickle allegiance. Thus, I need this Lenten journey every year, a journey of penitence and repentance. It’s hard to get the devil off your back if you won’t admit he’s there.

Hypocrisy is the age-old complaint about church goers. We say one thing and do another. At the end of a concert a patron noticed that two ushers standing near his seat were applauding harder than anybody else in the theatre. It was impressive to the man that these ushers who, no doubt, had seen many great performances would be so appreciative. His hope in humanity was dashed when he overheard what one usher said to the other, “Keep clapping. If we can get them to do another encore, we get overtime!”

Selfish gain is the essence of hypocrisy. There are lots of issues: personal, political, and ecclesiastical that are loaded with hypocritical bias and deception. I am one who follows the news both secular and sacred. Both are easily nuanced and have hidden agendas to me. I’ve tried network after network to find the untarnished secular news, and it seems an impossible task. On the church front I read United Methodist news outlets to glean the latest about our denomination’s upcoming special session of General Conference. Everyone wants to do God’s will, but use themselves to define what that means. It is so difficult, if not impossible, to separate bias from truth as we try to discern God’s will.

Everyone says that they want contextualization in deciding what’s right and wrong, but too much local contextualization interpreting God’s will leads to spiritual anarchy. In my mind, we’re either United Methodists or un-tied Methodists. You can’t have it both ways. We’re either connectional or we’re not. Jesus said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand!” Here’s my problem! I am tired of all the political, financial, and so-called spiritual arm-twisting to get people to vote to either loosen our stance on certain practices or make it more stringent.

I have seen people across the theological spectrum parse words, redefine words, and make up new words to try and push people into one camp or another. My word of warning is that we take off our blinders and don’t let the wool be pulled over our eyes, whomever is talking! I’ve heard progressives say that they’re moderate and they’re not; and I’ve heard traditionalists say that they are moderate and they’re not. I’ve heard moderates say a little bit of everything. Give me a break. Let’s at least be honest or there is no hope for a way forward either for the UMC or as individuals. On this Lenten journey we must be clear that we are serving the Lord and not our own personal agenda. Off with the masks!

hypocrisy

Opening My Heart to Jesus

The mystery of the Incarnation is overwhelming. That God-in-the-flesh would come and dwell among us is amazing. Prophets had been sent to no avail. Laws had been given that did more to confirm our guilt than make us better people. God took the greatest risk of all and was born to fulfill both the Law and the Prophets. The Eternal God embedded in time and born! How could it be? It is as incomprehensible as any miracle. A virgin with child? He had to be different from us, yet essentially the same – one of us but completely divine, too. We should all be grateful that Joseph believed in the Virgin Birth! That’s a sticking point for many modern naysayers, but how else could Jesus be the Second Adam, born without Original Sin, and with the ability to say “yes” or “no” to temptation, and, having been found without sin, he died and rose again because “the wages of sin is death,” and since Jesus always chose God’s way, death could not hold Him, and He burst forth from the tomb! He lives forever!

Think of parallels between the first century and today. Leaders back then and now misinterpret God’s ways more than understand them. Herod wanted the Magi to keep following the star and report back to him so he could kill this newborn threat, but a baby born in a stable isn’t a sign of a weak and powerless king. It is a sign of real majesty, and at least Herod grasped that and shuddered. What he missed was that true royalty embraces the power of love over the love of power. A God who would be born in the humblest of circumstances is a sign of a ruler who is secure and knows who He is. It’s a sign of the tremendous love that God has for the lowly likes of you and me.

The message couldn’t have been written more poetically and so genuinely believable: Poor Mary with her obedient heart yielding herself to God; Joseph, a doubter and who wouldn’t be, yet he gave his dreams credence and believed; Magi who in faith followed a starry sign to God knows where, but came they did to see a king and present Him with their homage; Poor shepherds, the lowest of the low, left their flocks, their everything, to see the Savior born; and Angels who followed God’s bidding to sing a song that echoes to this very day. What a message! It continues to stir humankind, and rightly so.

God is always the best Author. I have my favorite writers in my preferred genres of history and mystery, but God out-writes them all. I also have my favorite Christian authors. Clive Staples Lewis is at the top with classics like The Chronicles of Narnia, Mere Christianity, and A Grief Observed. C.S. Lewis is hard to beat with his imagination, authenticity and clarity of thought. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his works on community and ethics have informed me since I first became a Christ-follower: Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship are two treasures. His absolute heroism in the face of Nazism and his ethical decision to take part in the July 20, 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler has resonated with my warrior-spirit within. He was hung as a martyr on April 9, 1945 as the result of Hitler’s last orders. In C.S. Lewis and Bonhoeffer you can smell the smoke of faithful discipleship.

I wonder at this Christmas season if that smoky smell is as apparent on me. The rush and the thick of things that clamor for our time mask the musky smell. The materialism run rampant tramples goodwill. Can I smell the manger straw and hear the cattle lowing? I long to mean it when I sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and its words: “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in, be born is us today.” Can I make room in my heart for the Christ who is both Child and King? Can our world? O, Lord, be born in me today. In us. Amen.

Nativity Scene

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

I work out at the Y early in the mornings. The elliptical machine is my friend. Treadmills kill my knees and hips. An episode of “Matlock” lasts an hour, so that’s how long I do the elliptical. I plug in my ear buds and watch and perspire. Ben Matlock, played by the now-deceased actor, Andy Griffith, believes in the American justice system’s premise that a person is “innocent until proven guilty,” but he always asks if the person did the crime before he takes a case. He never takes the case of someone that he suspects is guilty, but Jesus does it all the time!

Jesus knows we’re all guilty and loves us anyway. The historic Christian faith is very similar to Napoleonic law. It labels accused criminals as “guilty until proven innocent.” As harsh as that sounds to Americanized ears, it’s so true from a Christian perspective. We’re all guilty, and the only way to be proven innocent is through God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

My Dad taught me my first theology lesson about guilt and innocence, and it was about original sin. As a teenager when I thought I was doing some “new” sin that was historic in the annals of our family, my Dad said to me: “You surely don’t think that you’re the first one in this family to try that. Your brothers tried it. Your uncles did. I did. So did your grandfathers. There ain’t nothing original about Original Sin.” He was so right in many ways!

Sure, Jesus’ work of redemption erases just enough of Original Sin so that we can respond to God’s prevenient grace, but it’s still God’s action and not some inherent goodness in humankind. We may be made in God’s image, but the only place Wesley and Calvin agreed is that all humanity is totally depraved. We are lost. We cannot save ourselves! If we gloss over or pretend away the effects of that total depravity then we have reduced grace to a self-help farce. The only cure for the ills of this world, stretching from Charlottesville to my den, is Jesus Christ. Without Jesus, I am hell bent and hell bound. Those are strong words, but anything less is humanistic claptrap.

For example, I dearly love my grandchildren. I love stories about how innocent all children are. One, in particular, comes to mind as I mull all this “innocent until proven guilty” or “guilty until proven innocent” stuff over. In the story a guy asks a 7 year old girl, “What is life all about?” She replies, “The purpose of life is to be kind and loving, to be here for other people, to make the world a better place than before you came.” The impressed guy then asks, “Did you learn all this from your parents?” The little girl replies, “No.” They guy asks, “In school?” “No.” “At church, then?” “Uh, no.” “Well, where then did you learn such things?” asks the guy. The little girl thinks and finally says, “I just knew them before I came here.”

Ah, yes, before we came here. I know that the longer any of us live the more we’re affected by the corrupt world. However, in all honesty, the world doesn’t do the corrupting. Adam and Eve and all their children, including little children and big ones, do the corrupting. I don’t know how Original Sin is transmitted. I’ve studied the arguments and listened to angles that suggest some sort of biological answer, or a theoretical legal argument that since Adam was our representative, we, too, are corrupted. Frankly, it matters little to me how we got to where we are, but I know that every human from both a Biblical perspective and personal experience is in need of a Savior. We cannot save ourselves. From our earliest cries we are self-centered and the Image of God in us is marred beyond any self-made solution to our ills.

Therefore, I deplore any kind of supremacist attitude. Pre-judging is an anathema to me, but one thing is certain: we have all been weighed on God’s balance scales and found wanting. God in Jesus has pre-loved us though. “Even while we were yet sinners,” says Romans 5:8, “Christ died for us.” The foot of the cross is level because none of us is better than anyone else, as much as I think some people will go to hell a lot more quickly than others. But, I’m not God. God knows that we all have messed up, came into the world that way, and in Wesley’s words have both “inherited sin” and “actual sin.” The Good News, however, is that God loves us enough to offer us redemption. Unlike Original Sin, redemption is not inherent in each person, but it’s possible. It takes a choice. Do we choose to look down our noses at others? Sure. Do we choose to race-bait and kill? Yes. So, how can we be redeemed? Choose Jesus! He has already chosen us!

Jesus provides grace, but one has to accept it. There’s a story that makes sense to me in this process of redemption: There was a young monk who sat outside a monastery every day with his hands folded in prayer. He looked pious as he chanted his prayers day after day thinking that he was somehow acquiring grace. One day the head priest of the monastery sat down next to the young monk and started rubbing a piece of brick against a stone. Day after day he rubbed one against the other. This went on week after week until the young monk finally blurted out, “Father, what are you doing?” The older priest said, “I’m trying to make a mirror.” “But that’s impossible!” said the young monk. “You can’t make a mirror from brick.” “True,” replied the mature priest. “And it is just as impossible for you to acquire grace by doing nothing except sitting here chanting all day.”

We can’t earn grace, but we can accept it. I wish I could get that through my thick head. There is no room for racism, prejudice, or any sense of supremacy. Only Christ is supreme. My prayer is that we will all invite Him to sit on the throne of our hearts.

Matlock Picture