Pentecost’s Power for Today

The pandemic has stripped us of a lot of things, but many of us are little changed. Many clergypersons have hoped that one of the life-altering things to come out of all this drama would be a national and international return to God. What do you think so far? Has this been a speed-bump in our lives, or a Come-To-Jesus moment that stops us in our tracks and makes us take stock of everything? As Pentecost Day approaches this coming Sunday, It’s something we need to ponder. Is Pentecost a watershed moment in the life of the church and us as individuals, or is it just another lesser known day on the church calendar?

As a cradle-Methodist, I don’t recall hearing much about the Holy Spirit growing up, not even on Pentecost. About the only time I remember hearing anything about the Holy Spirit was in the pastor’s benediction. I did go to a tent-revival, invited by a Baptist or Pentecostal, I think, and heard more than I wanted to hear about the Holy Spirit. Pretty much I had a generic belief in God, and semi-understood that Jesus died for us, but I don’t recall anyone saying how you made sure that you had salvation, forgiveness, and faith. Heck, it was the 60’s and we went through confirmation, and we got enough religion from that to inoculate us so that we wouldn’t catch the real thing. We weren’t fanatics. We were Methodists.

Then my mother’s dad died. Papa never went to church, but he belonged. Then in short order, Uncle Lee died suddenly, and just like his dad, he didn’t go to church. I remember the conversations around the edges of both funerals. People were actually wondering if they went to heaven. What!? My safe 60’s assumption was that everybody went to some sort of heaven, but Papa and Lee’s deaths rattled me. Grandmother must have noticed. I don’t recall her ever going to church either, but she told me that she would give me a dollar if I watched Billy Graham every night of his TV crusades and could tell her what he preached about. A buck is a buck, and I’m no dummy. I watched every time.

I still went to Sunday School, grateful for Mrs. Eaddy’s tutelage. I had been confirmed, but had no clue about faith being any more than a notion that “Jesus loves me this I know.” As a pre-teen trying to navigate life with the deaths of two of my most favorite people, I found myself sitting on the edge of my twin bed watching Billy Graham on a small 13” TV. Three nights in a row, I prayed for Jesus to come into my heart. I was that desperate to know for sure that my faith was real.

I learned about the Holy Spirit shortly thereafter, and it wasn’t at church. I started meeting with a bunch of teenagers who were way more than a youth group. We sat on the floor of Miss Margaret Lyon’s house and shared Bible passages and talked honestly about faith, temptation, and Jesus’ presence in our lives through the Holy Spirit. That was welcome news to me. I knew I couldn’t live a Christian life in my own strength, so I asked Jesus’ Spirit to fill me as I exhaled out my own prerogatives and inhaled His. The Holy Spirit is who changed me from a “churchian” to a Christian.

Several years later I was meeting with a denominational committee about going into the ministry. I was in college and planning to go to seminary. They were trying to grill me about my faith and Christian experience. One asked me when I became a Christian. I told them about sitting on the edge of the bed watching Billy Graham and praying to receive Christ. Another said in a high-and-mighty way, “Well, since you already were confirmed, you were already a Christian.” My response seemed to silence the group, “I may have already been a Christian, and God might have known it, but I didn’t.”

Does any of this resonate with your story, or your spiritual journey? The purpose of Pentecost is to remind us that the Holy Spirit lets us know we’re saved, made right with God, transformed, whatever words that you want to use. The Holy Spirit turns our head knowledge into heart knowledge. Sitting on that bed listening to Billy Graham, I began to know it, but being filled over and over again with the Holy Spirit ever since has made it real. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. The Holy Spirit is real! Ask Him to fill you up, and Pentecost will be one of the best days of the year for you. Amen.

God’s Right Hand Man, Ours, too!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Press Conferences, Presidents, and a Search for Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

National Nurses Day, Teachers, and Mother’s Day

Today, May 6, is National Nurses Day. It is the beginning of a weeklong celebration that culminates on May 12, the anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth. She was the “Lady of the Lamp” that modernized nursing in the field hospitals of the Crimean War that was fought between her native Britain and the Russians in the 1850’s. Those of you who are nurses or related to one have attended those “Lighting of the Lamp Ceremonies” in which a nurse is given a small white ceramic lamp with a candle in its holder on one end to remind them to pierce the darkness with care and compassion. This is exactly what Florence Nightingale did in the cramped conditions of Crimea, and what nurses are doing today.

As Christians during this pandemic we join in this effort to bring light to those in the throes of darkness. Mothers have also taken on the role of nurses during this pandemic trying to bring light to children and families. Those who weren’t teachers by profession have been tasked, along with Dads, to make sure school packets have been thoroughly vetted with reading assignments, math, and all the rest completed. Nurses and Moms alike have had to console children and patients of all ages while they can’t see or play with their friends or have visitors, even family, as they are sequestered in hospitals. Nurses have been the last family some dying persons have known. God bless them in handling this profound responsibility.

It’s what nurses, and Moms do, others, too, and moms and nurses come in every imaginable guise. Some nurses are men, and some Moms are “Mr. Moms.” This isn’t about gender-bending, it’s about all of us as grandparents, parents, medical personnel and others each doing our part to pierce the darkness. As much as parents have been overtaxed, and out of their element in teaching an unfamiliar way to do math, and children are missing their friends.  Think about another group – teachers who are not only missing their children and colleagues, plus they have been thrown into distance-learning without much, if any, preparation. God bless the teachers during this difficult time.

Medical personnel, nurses, doctors, teachers, children and youth, churches, ALL of us have been learning on the fly. All of a sudden our worlds have been turned upside down. There is no NBA, no golf tournaments, Major League Baseball, no college hoops and baseball, or spring football practices. We don’t even know if sports will gear back up in the fall, much less our favorite TV shows. Instead of sports and Hollywood celebrities in the spotlight, our heroes have been frontline nurses, doctors, medical personnel, and teachers who are being valued like never before. It’s about time for all of these first responders, last responders, and everyone in between to be honored. Maybe, instead of the world being upside down, it’s finally right side up for a change. If only we would carry these new values into the future, and those in helping professions get paid as much as a movie star or a top NFL draft pick!

Right now we have a values war taking place. Some of us want our freedom so much that we will fight to be able to go to the beach, or wherever we think our right to freedom of assembly will lead us. Others of us, are wanting to be extra careful, wear our masks and gloves and sanitize everything. Perchance, we’re trying to answer the wrong questions between what are my rights as a “Don’t Tread-On-Me” libertarian and a “What-Is-Best-For-Everybody’s-Protection” law-abiding citizen. The better question might be, “What does God want me to do?”

To answer that question as simply as I can while honoring mothers for Mother’s Day, nurses during National Nurses Week, other medical personnel, store shelf stockers, first responders and anybody else who is exposing themselves in harm’s way is with this one thought, “What would my Mother want me to do?” That’s a good question as we reopen the country, continue social-distancing, and try to save lives as nurses or anyone else. Mother never steered me wrong. What would she do, and what would she want me to do? I never left home without her admonition and love ringing in my ears, “Be careful. I love you.” I never heard her say, “Make sure you do something risky today,” or “Do whatever you want to do and don’t think about how it affects anybody else.” It was always the opposite.

As a matter of fact, her voice and phrases sounded a lot like God’s. Maybe the best way that we can honor Nurses and Moms this week, and everybody else we need to value is to ask what’s God’s voice telling us? W.W.J.D. for me this week is going to sound more like W.W.M.D. – What Would Mother Do? That question turns my world right side up!

If you’re a nurse or Mom or just overwhelmed and maxed out then I’ve added two songs by Matthew West. The first titled, “Quarantine,” is a bit of comic relief, and the second is for all of you on the front lines at home and the hospital, “Hope Returns.”

 

I Miss Church!

Where is the church in these quarantine days? It’s everywhere, and that’s a good thing. We certainly miss being together though. Let me start with where the church staff is. We miss everybody and being together. Zoom meetings are nice, but still not the same. We’re steady at work, maybe more than ever, just in a different way. Everybody needs a pat on the back every now and then, and this crew has earned it, so thanks for all the notes of encouragement. Every two weeks I have been writing reports for our Staff-Parish Committee so that I can affirm what each staff member is doing during quarantine. Each person has gone above and beyond! We don’t know when we will be back together, but we’re certainly doing ministry in the meantime.

You are doing ministry, too! It may not feel like it sometimes, but you are. This church is all about the mission of Christ. You’re doing ministry wherever you are, and your cards, calls, Facebook posts, emails, texts, and continued giving are a witness to it. The church is deployed, not unemployed. During COVID-19 we may not be physically in the church building, but let me tell you that the church, staff and congregation alike, is busy. Satan may think he’s won by closing churches down, but we’re not closed. We’ve just left the building! We’re meeting by Zoom, phone calls, texts, mail, Facebook Live, and last, but not least, by prayer. We’re having church in people’s houses and rooms, and all sorts of places. We’re proving the fact that the church is not a steeple, it’s the people.

This doesn’t mean that 104 Newberry Street isn’t important, or that we don’t miss it. While we’re doing church offsite we also want our facilities to be in their best shape when we get back. We’ve discovered that this is a great time to catch up on some repairs. It is also a great time for us to disinfect the whole building. We want to make sure that St. John’s is the safest place in Aiken when we’re able to come back together.

 There’s already been one complete top-to-bottom disinfecting done to our huge facility. We will do it again before we return. Yesterday our Trustees voted to purchase 3 motorized disinfecting atomizers and 100 gallons of a liquid virucide that can be sprayed on every surface, and kill coronavirus and every other germ in five minutes. These machines can do 5,000 square feet in 15 minutes, and our buildings are about 25,000 square feet.

The reason why we’re doing this is quite apparent. The church building itself is a physical, emotional, and spiritual sanctuary for all of us. For instance, we call the most used worship space a sanctuary – a sacred safe place! There are towns that have bird and squirrel sanctuaries. Well, the church is our people sanctuary. Maybe you’ve noticed the ceiling in the sanctuary, and how it is shaped like the interior hull of a ship. It’s meant to look like that. For centuries, churches ceilings have been reminders that the sanctuary is like Noah’s ark that saves us from life’s floods by floating us to safety.

Every part of the church, from the Faith Center’s Cross and Fronds sculpture to the outdoor signs, carries spiritual meaning and encouragement. As a side note, I’ve seen some hilarious, helpful, and pointed church signs during the pandemic: “Give us clean hands, O Lord, and a Purell heart,” “Services cancelled. God is now making House Calls,” “Jesus rode an Ass into Jerusalem. Keep yours at home!” and “6 Feet Apart is better than 6 Feet Under.” Well, sorry if these may have been a bit over the top, but, while most of our bodies are at home, we want our signs, ceilings, and symbols to communicate that Jesus is Lord, and that He will defeat COVID-19.

Church members and staff are deployed beyond the walls, with most of us working from home. As we think about getting back to worshiping together, we all need to get prepared: What can we do to disinfect our lives, and clean up our individual temples of the Holy Spirit? The church has left the building, and that is always a good thing, but what kind of shape will the church building be in when we come back? How about us? I think we’re finding out that the church is the people and the steeple. It’s both/and nor either/or. Thanks for who you are, St. John’s [insert your church’s name]!

 

Assault on Mt. Mitchell

Some of you have heard of the “Assault on Mt. Mitchell,” and a few of you may have done it. I’ve seen it, and witnessed the literal gut-wrenching agony of many of the participants, but I haven’t done it. The Assault is a 102.7 mile bicycle race that starts in front of the Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium in Spartanburg, SC and goes 11,000 feet up to the top of Mt. Mitchell near Burnsville, NC. The winners are usually able to accomplish this feat in around 5 hours. It is grueling to say the least.

Does this sound familiar as we make our assault on COVID-19? Have you ever had small kids on a trip ask every whipstitch, “Are we there yet?” That’s what is on everyone’s minds right now. “This too shall pass” is a popular phrase, especially when we are ready to move on. Even as I think of the eloquent, but simple language of the 23rd Psalm, there are lots of us that focus on the part that says, “Even though I walk THROUGH the valley of the shadow of death,” as if to say we’re only going to be in it for a short time until we come out on the other side. What if it’s not going to be a short time? What if we’re not there yet? What if we haven’t climbed that last hill on the way to the top of Mt. Mitchell or in our assault on COVID-19?

It seems like we’ve been in COVID-19 quarantine forever, but that’s exactly where we still are. We’re not through it, are we? Have you ever noticed that the very first time that you take a trip or travel a new route somewhere, it seems to take longer than on the same way home. Why? Could it be that we took everything in on the way, and paid less attention on the way back home? I don’t know the exact reason, but this is my experience. No matter the reason, a first time trip somewhere always seems longer than the trip back.

Well, this pandemic is a first time trip, and we aren’t back to normalcy yet. I’m not even sure if we’ve turned around yet. I am going to assume that we’re still on the trip. We’re still in the assault stage. We’re not ready to coast downhill. We need to stay the course right now, and not jump too quickly to the downhill side. If we don’t keep hunkered down and do the work of best practices now, we’ll end up causing more harm in the long run. I refuse to waste what this uphill battle has already cost us. I want the trip back home to normalcy to go by quickly.

So, let’s absorb all the info we can while we’re still on the way so that we can protect others and ourselves on the trip home. I don’t want anyone to die on the way to or from. I’ll have to admit I’m torn on the reopening issue. Sure, some businesses need to start. Economic disaster is tantamount to death for lots of people. We need to reopen everything at some point, but we’re not there yet, are we? We’re not through this yet.

The governor of Georgia thinks we are on the other side of this enough so that we can get our nails done and have massages. Are you kidding me? I want gyms and churches and everything that’s been closed to reopen, too, but is it safe yet? Thankfully we have a Bishop who will determine when our church will begin to have face-to-face worship. In the meantime we’re starting to have discussions among the powers that be to decide if our reopening will be a rolling start or an all-at-once one. I’m thinking a determined gradual reopening is best for safety’s sake.

One of our three rules that we Methodists live by is “Do no harm.” We will not violate that! We’re going to use these days of continued assault on COVID-19 to make sure we beat it completely! Thinking out loud or at least in print, we will most certainly avoid handshakes, hugs, and high-fives. We will have 6 ft. social distancing and probably have limitations on the size of the crowd. We may have to take reservations for attending church, block off pews and seat people on either ends and make sure that they’re staggered so no one is behind anyone else. There probably won’t be any Sunday School to start with. We’ll have to keep doing a lot of that by zoom.

We might have to have certain services for specific groups of people delineated by age, illness or whatever criteria works to mitigate risk. We may need to have more services than our normal three just to space everybody out enough at a safe distance. We will need people at preset entrances in full hazmat gear to take forehead temps of people. Children’s Ministry and Youth are already meeting by zoom. The choir is doing that, too, but letting there be face-to-face choir practice or sitting in the choir loft together is going to have to be a work in progress. Needless to say, it is going to be interesting. Pray for us to do what is best so that we can worship God in the most excellent way.

So, we’re doing what we can in this in-between time to get ready. We will do whatever it takes to get to the top of Mt. Mitchell. We’re just not there yet, so let’s use this gap-time wisely to pray and think it all through. In our impatience to crank back up, let’s put the brakes on enough to do everything we can to be smart. God gave us brains, so let’s use them. Let me encourage you, we will get wherever “there” is, but right now we are going to stay in this valley, and do what it takes until we can all come out on the other side as safely as we can. We want this assault to lead to complete victory, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

The Wisdom in Waiting During Quarantine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How To Defeat Social Isolation

How do we deal with the change in our social habits? We humans were made for interaction, and now we can’t. In South Carolina the governor has placed coronavirus restrictions on groups of three or more in public. Social distancing has become social isolation. Some people have “cabin fever” from being isolated so long, and can’t wait to get out and go somewhere, anywhere. Others have become contented cave-dwellers. The last few nights have taken me on a journey that has kept me both safe and sane. It’s been a trip down memory lane. I have gone back to my childhood home and pictured everyone and everything as they were at their best. This may be an effective way for us all to stay engaged and human in these days of distancing.

You’ve done something similar before, I imagine. Over the years I have played the best golf I’ve ever played on familiar courses in my head just before going to bed, only to watch the wheels come off when I played the same course the next day. To get to sleep and to think “happy thoughts” has led me to walk beside, canoe or john-boat the still waters of places I’ve fished. There are a handful of ponds that I know every inch of because I was around when they were first excavated. I’ve replayed special football games, remaking interceptions or fighting for a loose football. When counting sheep isn’t good enough to give you the peace to fall asleep, where do you go? What are you doing in your mind’s eye?

To fight the ill-effects of social isolation, I dare you to go back to your best memories of your childhood. Picture the people, the smells, and the placement of things and see them where they were. Our childhood homes might not be the best place for some of you because of trauma, but for many of us it was the most idyllic place ever. When my Mother died, Daddy sold our home place, dispersed my brothers’ and my inherited pieces of our home, and had a log-cabin built with very few reminders of his grief. He did keep the “courting bench” that sat on the front porch, painted in thick multi-layers of Charleston Green. Its 1 inch wide rounded rustic stringers was where he and Mama got up the nerve to elope on December 23, 1937.

Most of our childhood, however, was dispersed to new homes. I’ve got the silver epergne that was always under the chandelier in the dining room of our childhood home. I also ended up with the dining room furniture which was quite ironic. I don’t ever remember graduating from the bar in the kitchen. I never even made it to the kitchen table, being always at the bar on a stool. We now have the silver covered platter that wasn’t for meat, but the ever present caramel cake that Grandmother made. Some of this is in the attic or already passed down to our children. I guess the point in giving us all this dining room stuff was to make up for being made to sit with the rest of the kids. I did like, however, sitting at the bar on a regular basis. It was there that Daddy had the end seat, then it was Ralphie, and I was last. The table was reserved for Grandmother at the end, brother Carlee, Mother, and Papa on the other end.

What we have here at home or at the church are the have-to items, the things that are too emotionally important to pack up or give away. There’s my Papa’s chaise lounge that he napped on every work day to collect his thoughts. I was named after him, and he taught me how to preach crawled up in bed beside him. He would say, “Timmy, I’ll start a story, and you finish it.” That was better sermon instruction than any homiletics class. God has been doing that to me ever since.

There are pieces of Edgefield Pottery that didn’t come from our very-own pottery museum, but from the family collection like my Great Grandmother Dorn’s lap churn. It’s just a small green-alkaline glazed thing, but the story is that she didn’t have the strength to use a full-size churn. This small 12 inch high one with the original ladle and top did the trick just right. There’s also the Edgefield pottery batter bowl that I saw my Grandmother repeatedly use banging the dough-covered spoon off the rim with her effort to make up her mix. The old 13-paned secretary still has drawers full of items that probably haven’t been moved in 75 to a hundred years, plus its old ornately carved chair in front. At the church are two oriental rugs that I can see in my mind’s eye in the same exact spot that they were on for the first however many years in our possession. They’re at the church because one has an intricate worship space woven into it with candlesticks as pews, a front door on one end, and an altar on the other.

My trip down memory lane includes two final items: my Daddy’s ring that goes from youngest son to youngest son. I remember as a little boy that it was so big it rolled around my finger like a hoola-hoop; and the best for last is the music box, a Polyphon with big records that supposedly came from my great-grandfather Thomas’ country store where it sat on the counter with Large Cent slots on either side as sort of an original juke box that played tunes on 19 ½ inch metal records. I have around 30 of those records. It sounds amazing. Like everything else, I can see where it perpetually stood in the hallway from the main house to what we called the Front Room. I can see Daddy or Mama showing it off, or just winding it up to play a tune for the heck of it.

Anyway, going back in my mind to the home I grew up in has kept me from going stir crazy, but more importantly it has helped me remember the first social connections that I ever knew. You might want to try it with your own childhood home or apartment, Grandmother’s house, old elementary school, or church. Picture the things, and you’ll see the people. Better yet, you know the best thing this exercise has really taught me: If I can know all this and picture it with my feeble memory, then God knows us even better. Just as these memories make special people come alive so that they are closer than my next breath, God is closer still and knows me. I am never isolated, especially not from God. Good memories!

The Sky Isn’t Falling!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Glue of United Methodism

Some Bishops, Annual Conferences, Boards of Ordained Ministry, and clergy have broken their vows to uphold the Discipline of the United Methodist Church (UMC). Many lay persons have done the same thing by not upholding the teachings of the UMC as was promised at either their confirmation or church joining. Leadership preaches unity and cite Jesus, but doesn’t practice unity. They are disobedient to the primary way that we as United Methodists practice unity – Connectionalism!

John Wesley’s genius in theology centers around his understanding of how we humans reflect the imago dei (Image of God). There are three primary ways: The Social Image, the Moral Image, and the Legal Image. Think how the Social Image affects Wesleyan theology. If the Trinity is God in community, we should also live in a similar, interdependent reciprocal mutually accountable relationship. That’s why we confer so much; i.e., the word “conference” occurs every whipstitch in how we do church. Conference is a way we live into the social image of God, whether it is through band meetings, class meetings, charge conferences, church conferences, district conferences, annual conferences, central conferences, jurisdictional conferences or General Conference. Furthermore, I would contend that Connectionalism is the primary engine that makes the Social Image such a wonderful reality.

The Wesleyan Way of mutual accountability leads to the other two ways that humanity reflects God’s image. The Moral Image is exhibited in Wesleyanism via an emphasis on sanctifying grace. Since God is Moral, so should we be. John Wesley took seriously that if God is perfect, that possibility is ours, too (Matthew 5:48). Personal piety and social holiness are always done best in the context of corporate discernment – the same conferring already mentioned.

Lastly, the way that we reflect God’s Legal Image of stewardship over creation is different from a personal or nationalistic greedy dominion-like selfish ownership or destruction of God’s good earth. Wesley’s little home remedy book, The Primitive Physick, is an example of his desire that we reflect the Legal Image as mutual caretakers of people’s bodies and souls for the common good. Corporate mutuality preempts any individualistic strip-mining attitude that turns the Legal Image into a license to feather our own personal nests. Connectionalism, once again, is a very important ingredient of our theology. It makes us sensitive to what is best for everyone, and why we have hospitals and schools everywhere, and a UMC Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

Here’s where I’m going with this: if Connectionalism is so important to who we are as United Methodists, why are we tossing it aside? Frankly, I don’t see Traditionalists doing that. It’s Progressives that are ignoring or breaking the unity of Connectionalism to which we have mutually pledged our allegiance. The Wesleyan Covenant Association and other renewal groups’ best preference is that we keep and strengthen the unity that we already have in the Book of Discipline.

So, ponder this, as we reflect on the document received from the Liberian Annual Conference this week. In response to the “Protocol,” they have gone on record by saying that we should stick together, and keep our current vows, name, logo and historic sexual ethics. In essence they have expressed the hope that we remain a global orthodox denomination, and live into what Connectionalism provides as a way forward. Rather than embrace splits, regionalism, and separation, why don’t we stick with what we have, and let those who can’t abide by it go their own way for their own conscience’s sake?

Our problem, therefore, isn’t just about authority of Scripture versus interpretation, culture wars and sociology, or ordination vow-keeping. There are all kinds of ways to frame and reframe a potential denominational split. What I hear when some promote a communion of separate branches of United Methodism under one umbrella is a denial of our Connectional ecclesiology. It would give a lot of latitude, yet keep us together, but at what cost?

The cost will be the loss of Connectionalism which is the essence of UM ecclesiology, the study, appreciation, and promotion of how we do church, and how that identifies and promotes the “Method” in Methodism. Being a “connectional” church, and how that shapes or reframes this whole sexuality discussion should honor our ecclesiology. If we can hang on to that, we will celebrate the imago dei in truly Wesleyan ways.

Connectionalism is who we are. Some may prefer a congregational or diocesan polity, but the word “Connection” appears 181 times in the 2016 Book of Discipline (BOD); “Connectional” appears 175 times; and “Connectionalism” 6 times. Clearly Connectionalism is more than foundational to our ecclesiology. It is part and parcel of how we fulfill Wesley’s system of mutual accountability that promotes sanctifying grace.

Note how Judicial Council Decision (JCD) 411 emphasizes our connectional nature by stating:

The Constitution clearly provides that the principle of Connectionalism should be always primary in any organizational structure of The United Methodist Church.

Or similarly, ¶132, 2016 BOD states:

The Journey of a Connectional People—Connectionalism in the United Methodist tradition is multi-leveled, global in scope, and local in thrust. Our Connectionalism is not merely a linking of one charge conference to another. It is rather a vital web of interactive relationships.

But, what body of the UMC determines what Connectionalism is in practice? It is only the General Conference, and not any lesser body that defines how connected we are. The 2016 BOD, ¶16 of the Constitution states emphatically that the General Conference (GC):

shall have full legislative power over all matters distinctively connectional (emphasis added), and in the exercise of this power shall have authority as follows: … 8. To initiate and to direct all connectional (emphasis added) enterprises of the Church and to provide boards for their promotion and administration.

 JCD 364 forbids the GC from delegating its Connectional legislative functions:

The General Conference may not delegate legislative functions and responsibilities which are assigned to it by the Constitution.

Therefore, the GC cannot yield to the Annual Conference its constitutional responsibility as stated in ¶16.2:

To define and fix the powers and duties of elders, deacons, supply preachers, local preachers, exhorters, deaconesses, and home missioners.

So, the Annual Conference Board of Ordained Ministry and Clergy Session may not negate, violate or ignore Church law, as stated in JCD 7:

It is inconceivable that the General Conference should have full legislative powers so that it can enact uniform legislation for the whole Church, and that at the same time each Annual Conference could also have the right to enact diverse and conflicting regulations, on the same subject. The reservation of the right to the ministerial members of an Annual Conference to “vote on all matters relating to the character and Conference relations of its ministerial members,” is not a distinctively legislative function but is rather an administrative function. It can only mean that the Annual Conference has the right as well as the duty to pass upon and determine the facts and apply the laws in all such cases in accordance with the uniform regulations and provisions which the General Conference may enact in reference to the same. In other words, the right reserved to the ministers of an Annual Conference to pass upon the character and Conference relations of its ministers does not mean that it has the legislative right to set up standards to measure the character and Conference relations of the Ministers except insofar as such standards do not contravene or are not covered by provisions enacted for the whole Church by the General Conference.

Judicial Council Decision (JCD) 1321 is a masterful summary of the limits of local options by Annual Conferences in ministerial credentialing. It cites JCD 7, 313, 536, 544, and 823. For instance, JCD 544 states:

The Constitution, Par. 15 [now ¶ 16], gives the General Conference the power to fix the basic requirements for ministry, while it becomes the responsibility of the Annual Conference, as set forth in Par. 36 [now ¶ 33], to measure, evaluate, and vote upon candidates, as regards the minimum standards enacted by the General Conference. Ordination in The United Methodist Church is not local, nor provincial, but worldwide. While each Annual Conference is a door through which one may enter the ministry of the entire church, the Annual Conference cannot reduce nor avoid stipulations established by the General Conference which must be met by the church’s ministry everywhere. An Annual Conference might set specific qualifications for its ministerial members, but does not have the authority to legislate in contradiction to a General Conference mandate or requirement. Judicial Council Decisions 313, 318, 325, and 513 speak to the authority of the General Conference, under Par. 15 [now ¶ 16] of the Constitution, to establish standards, conditions, and qualifications for admission to the ministry. In Decision 536, we held that “An Annual Conference may not subtract from the disciplinary requirements for conference membership, but it may under certain circumstances adopt additional requirements not in conflict with disciplinary provisions or their spirit or intent.” This was again underscored in Decision 542 at the May 1984 General Conference. “Under Paragraph 37 [now ¶ 33] of the Constitution, however, it is the Annual Conference, as the basic body of the church that decides whether those standards have been met.”

Though the Annual Conference is called “fundamental” (¶11) and the “basic body in the Church” (¶ 33), it is also true that Annual Conferences and Boards of Ordained Ministry do not have the freedom to do anything that would deny our connectional definitions of clergy, as that determination is solely reserved by the General Conference. JCD 1341 is definitive in its location of the authority for setting ministerial standards:

The General Conference acted within its constitutional authority when it established universal standards for the ministry in ¶¶ 304.3, 310.2(d), 341.6, 2702.1 (a), (b), and (d)

 JCD 1341 further declares:

It is settled Church law that the General Conference has full legislative authority to set uniform standards for the ministry, which Annual Conferences shall not abrogate or modify. Therefore, it acted within its constitutional powers when it legislated ¶¶ 304.3, 310.2(d), 341.6, and 2702.1 (a), (b), and (d). The Annual Conference may enact additional requirements that are not in conflict with the letter or intent of these disciplinary provisions. JCD 313, aff’d, JCD 318, 536, 823, 1321.

The reach of the General Conference and Connectionalism extends from top to bottom of the church. ¶246.1 BOD reinforces it at the local level:

General Provisions—1. Within the pastoral charge the basic unit in the connectional system of The United Methodist Church is the charge conference. 

In extrapolating Connectionalism to local church practice, JCD 694 speaks clearly to the discretion of any clergy member to perform ministerial duties such as weddings:

It is the responsibility of pastors in charge to perform their duties in compliance with the Discipline and be obedient to the Order and Discipline of the Church. (Par. 431.9 now 304.1(j))

As it pertains to same-sex weddings, JCD 1185 clarifies the sacred difference between civil and Church law, and this decision also rejects local options on connectional matters:

The Church has a long tradition of maintaining its standards apart from those recognized or permitted by any civil authority. The Church’s definition of marriage as contained in the Discipline is clear and unequivocal and is limited to the union of one man and one woman. Consequently, the Church’s definition of marriage must take precedence over definitions that may be in operation in various states, localities and nations or that may be accepted or recognized by other civil authorities. To do otherwise would allow the Church’s polity to be determined by accident of location rather than by uniform application.

In summary, how does Connectionalism shape who we are with respect to human sexuality? To regionalize or break covenant with what the General Conference has decided will be the death-knell to a critical component of our identity, both as individuals and as a denomination. Clergy have made promises to uphold the Discipline of the UMC, and willingly lay aside their own prerogatives. Annual Conferences are called to be agents of the connection, but cannot dictate what only the General Conference can and must decide. Local churches, comprised of laity and pastors, cannot abrogate their allegiance to the connection or the General Conference. None of us are free agents that are laws unto ourselves. We are either a connection, or we’re not. What do you think our ecclesiology should look like? John Wesley thought Connectionalism was the best answer. What say you?