A Family Systems Approach to COVID-19 and Every Other Drama

How have you been handling the prolonged stress of the pandemic? Has your fuse gotten shorter? It appears the whole world needs therapy. How do we survive the madness we’ve been seeing? We have taken up sides on whether to mask or not, to buck “The Man” and become libertarian super-spreaders, or to hunker down and Lysol everything. What is going on? Whatever it is, we’re becoming afraid and frayed as a society. Anxiety is rampant. World civilization is at stake at the same time as the relationships in our own homes. We need help!

Family Systems Theory may offer a helpful strategy. It gives us a macro view of our society in the midst of COVID-19, but it also goes to the micro view as family stress is in everybody’s home. We need to recognize that what we’re seeing is a personal, communal, national and international systemic crisis. Systemic crises are like sepsis in the body that causes total organ failure, one after another. It’s the domino theory made very real. Seeing and treating COVID as a systems problem may actually help us survive, and find an emotional vaccine, if not an actual biological one.

Think of it like pulling in a medical team that looks at all of a person’s ailments instead of just the presenting problem. To help the person, you need to look at multiple body parts and interconnections. Edwin Friedman is the author of the two most-used books by therapists and clergy in situations like this. These two books are helpful to anyone. The first is his seminal work, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. The second book is one that anyone in a family, church, local community, or nation needs: A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.

Most of us are individual-centered in our diagnosis of issues both in our personal family and nation. It’s like the couple that comes to see me so that their teenage son can get help. In family systems theory what happens to one member of the family happens to every member of the family. The teenage son is the identified presenting patient, but the whole family system is really in crisis. It’s like a baby’s mobile that is attached to the top rail of a crib. If you weigh one piece of the revolving objects down, it throws all the others off balance. Everything and everyone are interconnected.

The same is true in a community, church, country and world. As much as we would like to fix a particular identified patient or group, that only masks what’s wrong with the whole system. You can switch out individuals like Trump, Pelosi, Schumer, Barr, or whomever and things might seem to get some immediate relief, but it doesn’t take long before things revert to the same patterns. It’s called homeostasis or the “same state.” We try to change things, but the more that we try, inertia makes it all spring back into the same place. The names may change, but there’s still anxiety in the system. It shifts around, but that’s about it. We can blame it all on one thing like the “Deep-state” bureaucrats in the swamp, but the reality is that the whole system is a swamp, you and me included. As the saying goes, “We have met the enemy, and they are us!” We need a cure that really works, rather than one that just shifts the blame.

So, what should we do? This is where Murray Bowen of Bowenian Theory leads the way in an overarching manner, though, frankly, practitioners like Edwin Friedman and Monica McGoldrick make family systems theory more accessible to the masses. Whether one is talking about a family, country or world, the same principles are at work. The world needs to be in family therapy right now. We need to understand that it’s going to take a group effort to analyze our condition, and work our way out of it through some serious conversations. We don’t need to focus on individuals or even be sidetracked by constant fact-checking. Most conflicts are about emotional processes, not the facts. It’s often not what we say (facts), but how we say them (emotional process).

Joe and Sue get married and bring all sorts of expectations into the marriage from their families of origin. They are more in heat when they get married than in love. Along comes Baby, and their “perfect” world changes. They fall back on instincts, primordial cross-generationally transmitted patterns of values and ways of being. Tensions rise and guess where the tension goes – to Baby. Whenever we find ourselves stressed we tend to avoid risking our relationships with our key partners, so we pull in a third party or issue to be the dumping ground for the stress in the whole system.

We create a triangle to relieve the pressure. This triangulation has been on full display during the pandemic. We’re mad as hell at one another, but to salvage our relationship we put the onus on China, W.H.O., the CDC, Andrew Fauci, the President, the Congress, the Deep State, those pesky Russians, whomever, and somebody. Triangles are normal. As a matter of fact, triangles are the most stable form of construction on the planet. The pyramids are examples, but triangulation in a family, city, or country just picks a relief valve in one corner who then gets sick on behalf of the whole system. The problem is that it keeps us from figuring out what’s really eating us.

What we need is self-definition, or as Bowen, Friedman, and McGoldrick call it – self-differentiation. We need to step away from the triangles, defect-in-place while remaining in relationship, and exhibit non-anxious presence. We continue in relationship with the other parties in our many inter-locking triangles, but we refuse to play the stupid self-defeating blame games anymore. We need to metaphorically super glue our feet to the floor, and keep our mouths shut except only to make “I-Am” statements that define who we are. Differentiation and self-definition don’t mean we’re going to take our ball and go home through an emotional cut-off or fake distancing that really doesn’t help. You can move halfway around the world and still be caught in a triangle. Rather than cutting others off or emotional distancing, we promise to stay in relationship and work through what the real culprit is in our personal, national, or international crisis. It’s called leadership, responsibility, and engagement. It’s hard work!

What we’re after is like a crime drama, a psychological who-done-it where we ponder together where the anxiety in the family system is coming from. Once we can name the real reason for the drama, we can actually demythologize it and do something productive about it. We move from subjective emotional processes to objective reasoning. We need to keep asking the same question, “What’s really going on here?” Rather than blaming, shaming, or going for the obvious easy answer, we should avoid quick fixes and look at EVERYTHING, as if we were all observant Persian cats, taking it all in and figuring out, “Ah, this is where this is coming from.”

No doubt the answer ultimately comes from John 10:10, “The thief comes to steal, kill and destroy,” but Jesus says, “I came that they might have life to the full.” Amen, but to hear Jesus above the din of all the drama, we need to calm down and ponder. Ask the right questions. Don’t jump to conclusions. Take a step outside of yourself and take a big view of things. What is causing this, not WHO is causing this? Remember, what happens to one member of the family, happens to all. Let’s work on this together, by the grace of God!

Needing a New Exodus

Do you think things are improving, going sideways, or backwards in our world? N.T. Wright’s book The New Testament in Its World is proof-positive that the world has seen worse days than ours, but it also wonderfully lays out God’s plan in Jesus Christ to redeem the world, and set things right. It has been a timely study with all that we have going on. It addresses our COVID-19 ravaged and racially distraught world with mascots changing, statues toppling, and every other kind of turmoil.  It begs the question, “Where do we turn for an expectation that everything is going to be okay?”

 Decades ago we saw impoverished and victimized people find hope in Liberation Theology. The leaders of this movement were primarily in Central and South America, with people like Gustavo Gutierrez, Jose Bonino, and Oscar Romero. The 60’s and 70’s gave birth to similar movements in the US with the work of James Cone and Carol Christ with Black Liberationist Theology and the Feminist Movement. Though some have said that Liberation Theology is a relic of the past, recent events have given it new life.

If Jesus is King, though some might find the notion of royalty offensive, then how does that shape our current theology of God’s Peaceable Kingdom? How do we keep things both orthodox and sensitive to the plight of the oppressed? One way to do that is to use what the earlier practitioners used. They based their whole premise of God taking the side of the poor on the Exodus events. The Exodus became an outright call to revolt and protest in an earlier generation, but what many find most hope-filled about the Exodus is that God does the action, the saving, and the liberation. We’re actors in the drama, but God is the Director.

The Exodus is, therefore, not as much about anarchy and lawlessness, but non-violent witness. If focused on what God does, then it truly represents the original Exodus. The Jews in Egypt didn’t fight back. God did it for them. This has been the most successful model of real liberation. Although it is not natural for any of us to be passive, even Jesus’ “exodus” from the tomb wasn’t by his own hand. God delivered him, and He can deliver us! It is God’s mighty acts in salvation that give us hope. No protest movement or revolt will long live unless God be the Warrior that defeats pharaoh’s armies and parts the waters!

The Exodus events are echoed throughout the entire Bible and human history. Think about how its themes are repeated. Moses is called from childhood to be special as he was saved as an infant from drowning and raised as an adopted child of pharaoh. Jesus certainly had a unique birth through the Virgin Mary. Moses worked many signs and miracles, and so did Jesus. God provided Moses with bread from heaven in the form of “manna,” while Jesus fed the multitudes and called himself “the Bread of Life.” Moses liberated people, and Jesus frees us from sin, death and so much more. Moses led the people through the wilderness to the brink of the Promised Land, but Jesus takes us all the way in! Jesus is Moses on steroids. Jesus delivers and gives real hope that lasts.

There are more similarities than imaginable. For instance, it is perfectly appropriate for, “The Ten Commandments,” with Charlton Heston to be shown at Easter, an Exodus movie that merges with Jesus’ own exodus/departure from the grave. The Jewish deliverance commemorated via the Passover meal is fulfilled in Jesus, as it says in I Corinthians 5:7, “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast!” Jesus becomes the unblemished Passover lamb that was sacrificed to protect us. He is called “the Lamb of God” by John the Baptist (John 1:29), and “the lamb that was slain before the creation of the world” in Revelation 13:8. The connection with Jesus and the Passover meal in Exodus are obvious!

There are also plenty of similarities between Moses and Jesus. One is the comparison of Moses on Mt. Sinai and Jesus on the Mountain of Transfiguration. In their respective mountaintop experiences, we see that Jesus is transfigured and his face and clothes are brighter than lightening, while Moses’ face was shining so brightly when he came down from Sinai that people couldn’t dare look at him. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John with him up his mountain, and Moses takes Joshua. For both Moses and Jesus, a cloud covers the mountain, and God speaks from both clouds. The similarities are beyond coincidence.

Another similarity between Moses and Jesus occurs when they do miracles. Pharaoh’s magicians declared in Exodus 7:16-18 that Moses did his signs, “by the finger of God.” Luke 11:20 says that Jesus also did his, like driving out demons, “by the finger of God.” Over and over again, you can hear the words and phrases of the Exodus repeated and magnified in Jesus’ ministry and in all the writings of the New Testament. Words like “redemption,” “redeem,” “deliver,” “deliverance,” “slavery,” and “freedom,” are rooted in the Exodus experience. Maybe the correlation isn’t an accident.

Perhaps the storyline of the entire Bible and all of human history is about God’s rescue mission to give us all a way out, an EXODUS from whatever is attacking us. It’s not a new thought either. People have long clung to Exodus hope when caught in a bind or worse.  We need a Deliverer, and an Exodus. This has been repeated throughout history. For instance, it was Esther who, “for such a time as this,” helped inaugurate the Israelite’s return from exile back to the Promised Land, a mini-Exodus, out of Babylonian and Persian bondage. Just take a look at Nehemiah 9 to see the correlation. Look at Psalms 77 and 78 to encourage you when you feel in bondage. Both the Old and New Testaments use the Exodus as a sign that no matter what God’s people are going through, God isn’t going to let us down.

The Exodus inspired African-American slave spirituals like “Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land. Tell old pharaoh, let my people go!” To be set free, of course, is not just an African-American desire. We all need Jesus to get us out of the mess we’re in. Liberation is the desire for anyone who is overwhelmed by bondage as an oppressed people, those overcome by addictions, depression, health constraints, COVID-19, job losses, financial crisis, and death itself as it lurks at everyone’s door.

Would it make things better if we saw Jesus as the New Moses, a Better Moses, and the Only Everlasting One who can set us free? I think so, especially for such a time as this. We all need a mini or a maxi-Exodus. I pray so! Let it happen, God, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Quit Calling People Ugly Names

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” These famous words from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet are spoken by Juliet, a Capulet, to Romeo from her family’s archrival house of Montague. These words and the whole play, for that matter, tell us that our name matters little compared to our character. If we love another does one’s last name matter so much? No matter what name or epithet, what matters most is not my name, but who I am and how I act. Romeo responds to her desire that names don’t matter by declaring, “I take thee at thy word; Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptized; Henceforth I never will be Romeo.”

If you were, in Romeo’s words, “new baptized,” what name would you want to be called? Names carry such important meanings. Remember the saying from your youth, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” but they do, don’t they? Name-calling has hurt most of us at some point in our lives. Worse than saying somebody has cooties is the ugly name that sticks to us like a parasitic tick that sucks the life out of us. Even worse is when we damage others so much that calling someone “Fatso” evolves into a self-fulfilling prophecy of morbid obesity. Words are either God-given blessings or devilish curses that we heap on people made in God’s image.

Oh, how I wish we called each other endearing names that would bring out the best in us. Names stick like super glue. When I was a child I had a difficulty saying my fh, ph, and th-sounds so I went from “Tim” to “Fim,” until I put on some muscle. Truly trivial, but I have never gotten over it. I think about it every time I have to pronounce a word that starts with one of those sounds. I have to concentrate extra hard to get it right. Decency and civility should keep us from labeling others with any kind of name-calling, trivial or not. It matters to people, and people should matter to us.

I remember dealing with a family that had a wonderful son that was named after his father’s older brother. At the time of the son’s birth, the older brother was highly esteemed, but along the way fell into some bad behaviors. When that happened the younger brother transferred his disappointment over his older brother to his son. He started seeing flaws where there weren’t any, and became extra critical. The dad was afraid that since his son’s heroic namesake had fallen, he would too. A lesson in picking names wisely.

What if you were a guy like the one Johnny Cash sang about in his song, “A Boy Named Sue?” That couldn’t have been easy. Who in their right mind would name their daughter “Jezebel” or son “Judas?” Names are powerful. Samuel means “Our God Hears,” and Karen comes from the Greek, “Charis” which means “gift.” Our wonderful daughter-in-law’s name is Karen, and she is certainly a gift to our family. Her grandfather, Rev. Myron Von Seggern, and I officiated Josh and Karen’s wedding. He was such a sweet man and exuded genuine kindness, plus an added bit of good-natured mischief. He had special loving nicknames for his grandchildren and even his first born great-grandchild, Kaela, that he called “Chiclet.” The names ranged from Sugar Babe, Sweetheart, Pal, Honeycomb, Honey Bee, and more. Each name was a sign of love. It makes one wonder what one’s own name or nickname means? Where did it come from and why? Most importantly, is it good? If not, make a new name for yourself, and “be new baptized” like Romeo.

Children born 5 or more years apart from their siblings are said by psychologists and sociologists to practically be from different families because of the discrepancies in experiences. My brothers, both of whom were much older than I, were like that. My oldest brother, now deceased, was born August 15, 1940, my middle brother April 22, 1947, and I was born in late 1955. We were the “oldest only child,” the middle “only child,” and the youngest “only child.” Out of a desire to give my brothers some sense of investment in my survival, my parents gave them “naming rights” over me. My oldest brother gave me my grandfather’s name, “William,” and my middle brother picked out the name “Timothy.” I’m grateful for both, especially “Timothy,” because it means “honoring God” in New Testament Greek. When I asked him how he came up with that as an 8 ½ year old, he revealed that he actually got it from the Dick and Jane books, not the Bible. The name of the toy teddy bear in the books was “Tim.” Mama and Daddy edited it to the more Biblical “Timothy,” from whence it comes. I should be grateful. I could have been “Spot” McClendon.

All of this is to say, names are important in spite of Juliet Capulet’s wish otherwise. In the end it certainly made a difference sadly in what happened to Romeo and Juliet. When you’re passing out names, make them mean something or someone special. Everybody is, after all. What’s in a name? A lot! O Lord, help me to keep my words soft and sweet, for I never know from day by day which ones I’ll have to eat. Amen.

It’s a Mell of a Hess We’re in!

“It’s a mell of a hess we’re in!” said the preacher trying not to cuss. This “woke” society and world can be one of the unintended consequences to come out of the tragedies of injustice that we have witnessed, but when should the protesting stop? How long does it take? This is too simplistic, but it strikes me that the Golden Rule is a good first-stage answer: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Then comes the second-stage answer: “Treat others BETTER than you want to be treated.”

Scott Peck, psychiatrist and author, said that there are four stages to community: 1. Pseudo-community is the stage where everyone is being nice, congenial, and having a honeymoon of sorts. 2. Chaos is when the honeymoon is over, and we find out about those annoying large or little quirks someone has, and we dare voice it. We protest! 3. Emptiness is the stage when we actually lay aside our “rightness,” and try to see everything from another’s perspective. 4. Real Community is when we have worked through the sham of Pseudo-community, borne the brunt of Chaos, and embraced Emptiness like a cried-out child in a mother’s arms.

My problem, and maybe yours, is that sometimes I get stuck in Pseudo-community, “Let’s play nice, y’all!” We fake concern and care until BOOM, we could care less, plus it, whatever “it” is, makes us mad as a hornet. But, if we stick with the process and don’t get stuck in any stage along the way, we just might make it to real community where we can live and let live with respect and value for one another. It doesn’t have to be my way or the highway. It can be our way and what’s best for everybody.

What stage are we in as a society right now? What stage should we be? Is it time to move on in the news cycle? I think not. Sure, I do not want to stay in chaos, but unless we let it work itself out, it will sooner or later rear its head again in an explosive way. So how do we deal with conflict and chaos? How do we make it to emptiness? I hesitate to even say that at all, because you can’t uncork 400 years of pent-up frustration in a few weeks’ time. It’s too early yet.

That being said, there are some of you, me included, that feel like we just can’t say anything without losing a friend. We’re damned if we do, and we’re damned if we don’t, so we start repressing our feelings and guess what’s going to happen down the road? Another explosion. Can’t the church and Christian community be a place where we can tell our truth, our story, in love, and nobody judges us immediately. I did something last week that I’ve never done since being on Facebook. I took down a post. My words may not have been polished, politically correct, or even helpful, but, whether you believe it or not, I meant well, but I was silenced or, rather, I chose silence over the drama of vitriol.

I don’t like being shushed. Can’t we see that’s the problem for everybody right now, and here’s what I think we’re missing. Our main enemy isn’t a politician (I wish it were that simple!), not a bunch of agitators, rednecks, or certainly not whole races of people, and not even Russia, and China. Our main adversary is not COVID-19, although I think it has amplified this perfect storm of angst that has caused our country to reel. Our primary adversary is evil! Remember Jesus’ words in John 10:10, “The thief comes only to steal, kill, and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Lay the blame on the devilishness that’s in all of us.

Jesus shows his rescue plan to free us all. It’s emptiness! He gives us its essence in John 10:11: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Laying down our lives is maybe the only way we can get past the chaos of our world. Jesus gave us that as an example when he laid down his life for us. Community can’t happen until we do the same.

So, let’s let the chaos bring a healing catharsis to the pain that is present. Let’s be careful to speak truth in a way that hits the nail on the head, but doesn’t split the wood in the process. After all, every person you see is somebody for whom Jesus died. The question is whether or not we would do the same and lay down our lives for them.

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.”

United Methodist Protocol Possibilities and Perils

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Impeachment: A Fair Fight?

Care what you will and say what you want about President Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi’s decision to move forward with Articles of Impeachment will only solidify the base of the anti-Trumpers and the pro-Trumpers. In the meanwhile, Washington’s “Great Distraction” will paralyze the nation. I’m tired of feeling like I need to choose a side in the moral morass of our modern culture whether it’s about Trump, or anything else.

I want to pull a Rip Van Winkle and wake up when all the distractions are done. Of course, this isn’t an option for either a good citizen or Christian who wants there to be justice and change for the better. I cannot be like the ostrich that buries its head in the sand and says, “Because I can’t see it, it’s not happening.” Now we know it’s happening, but what are we going to do about it? Are we going to go quietly into the night, stay on the sidelines, or are we going to do something productive?

Someone recently said that the greatest threat to democracy isn’t vitriol, it is civility. In this impeachment climate, I long for rational civility, but civility and tolerance has made us more divided. If we believe that some things are right and some things are definitely wrong, no matter what the context or who it involves, then civility is the enemy of truth and justice. For “nice” moral people to be quiet and acquiesce to the rancorous squeaky wheels on the extremes is a dereliction of duty. Following St. Paul’s dictum, “In your anger, do not sin,” does not mean that people who believe in Absolute Truth should roll over and play dead when attacked as bigots.

I’m all for everyone’s civil rights including free speech and the right to assemble, but the first rule of common law and parliamentary procedure is that, “The minority must be heard, but the majority must prevail.” The problem is that the loudest voices on the ends of spectrums have silenced the majority of those of us in the middle, and they have stalemated any hope of clarity or unanimity in important matters.

To say we need more vitriol doesn’t mean that we need to hear from the extremists, but from the folks in the center. What do they or we have to say? In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. famously lamented the “white moderate” who “prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” He also acknowledged the importance of tension to achieving justice. “I have earnestly opposed violent tension,” King wrote, “but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.” Americans should not fear that form of tension. They should fear its absence.

So, we need to embrace tension because it helps reveal our core values. Tension provides clarity about what’s really important to us. Tension can lead to open honest dialogue rather than strong-arming or shallow hail-fellow-well-met pleasantries. In authentic democracy there is due process that makes room for both differences of opinion and fairness. Civility without enough vitriol makes people hide their real feelings, and sides just get more and more entrenched.

Maybe you’ve heard the story of the guy who fell overboard into the water. Another guy tried to rescue him, only to grab arms, legs, whatever and finding each time that a prosthetic appendage came loose. The man in the water kept yelling, “Save me!” In frustration, the would-be rescuer said, “I would, if you would only stick together!” I wonder if that’s an analogy for the United States and what God is trying to say to us and our two-party system. Can we stick together for our country’s sake while we embrace a little vitriol? Is it possible to have a fair fight? We will see soon enough, won’t we?

Handling Our Diferences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A better person than me.

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.

Advent and General Conference: Saying our Piece or Holding our Peace?

Jeremiah’s words (6:13-14) ring true today as I ponder the holiday interactions of families, and the upcoming Special United Methodist General Conference. It’s a family, too. Over and over I hear people promote the unity of the church as if unity without peace is a good thing. Hear Jeremiah’s words and ponder if they sound accurate about the spin doctors in our church and our families: “From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit. They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” I hear family members tell their relatives to be quiet and avoid conflict, but is that a good thing?

A church bulletin blooper says it well: “The peace-making seminar scheduled for this afternoon has been cancelled due to a conflict.” The second Sunday of Advent usually focuses on peace, but peace is so elusive whether it’s inner peace or peace with others. We need more than a wound dressing. The question that always hits me is when do I make a stand or when do I give in. If we value peace over conflict there are many that would take advantage of that pacifism. Too often people of peace who follow the Prince of Peace remain silent, cling to a non-judgmental attitude, and let extremists take over the conversation. When do we say our piece, or hold our peace?

“Holding your peace” is seldom heard except at weddings: “If anyone can show just cause why these two persons cannot be joined together in holy matrimony, let him or her speak now or forever HOLD THEIR PEACE.”  Oh, Lord do we need people to hold their peace and chill, but sometimes it would be better to speak up. Saying or speaking our piece shouldn’t be left just to the squeaky wheels looking for grease in our acquiescence. Historian Edward Gibbon was right in saying that all it takes for evil to prevail is for good people to remain silent.

This is the conundrum that we face: when do we expose evil and take on a fight, and when do we let things slide? “Hold your peace” means primarily to hold our tongues. How easy was that for you at Thanksgiving, and how will it go at Christmas? How is it going as you discuss politics or hot-button issues at any time of year? A bit of history might be helpful as we ponder when to be quiet and when to speak up.

We just commemorated the centennial of the end of World War I on November 11. “The War to End All Wars” concluded with an armistice on the 11th day at the 11th hour of the 11th month. The problem was that it was an armistice instead of a surrender. Because the “Great War” was concluded without a surrender it ended up costing Germany everything from their Kaiser and form of government to 100,000 tons of gold in reparations that they didn’t finally pay off until 2010. Even worse, World War I led directly 20 years later to World War II. You can see the impetus to the resulting carnage of the subsequent war with the simple way that Adolf Hitler wore his mustache. He had shaved off the ends while fighting in the trenches of WW I so that he could put on a gas mask without his mustache keeping it from properly sealing. That shortened mustache was a reminder to Hitler of the embarrassing defeat of Germany and he wanted revenge for it. Neville Chamberlain and Great Britain and the US and the rest of the allies didn’t stand up to him and stop World War II because they wanted to avoid another bloodbath like WW I. That’s what happens when you try to appease evil and don’t do anything to stop it.

Think about the United Methodist Commission on a Way Forward and its creation at the 2016 General Conference. By a mere 23 votes the General Conference said it wanted a commission to help the denomination deal with the issue of homosexuality. This vote was not because the delegates weren’t of one mind on the issue. The evidence was clear that every vote in the legislative committees had gone against the progressive left-wingers of the denomination. Then gullible traditionalists in order to be peacemakers were suckered into thinking that we should kick the can down the road and study the issue some more. Moderate pacifists who didn’t know what to think went along with the notion of peace-making and the Way Forward Commission was birthed. If we had gone ahead and voted on all the homosexuality petitions, and I wish that we had, our current language would have been overwhelmingly affirmed. We wouldn’t have all the propaganda from the liberal left pushing the One Church Plan and the obfuscation of half-truths and untruths flooding the UM news outlets or our email boxes.

The UMC has voted down changing its position that all persons are persons of sacred worth, and the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching since 1972 and the margins for keeping our current language have grown every time. The One Church Plan is an attempt that we’ve seen before in other local option permutations and it has been defeated soundly over and over again. But, here we go again, “once more into the breach,” to deal with the same thing. Here’s the point, a lot of us are tired of armistices. There is no unity or so-called peace when dealing with this or a lot of hot button issues. There never will be. Delegates’ minds have been made up, though a few Quislings will waffle. So, I’m going to keep speaking my piece on this subject. The time to be silent is past. If you want to know how I find out where people stand on the issue, I tell them how I personally feel and then ask then how they feel. If they hesitate in the least I already know where they stand.

Please understand that I genuinely love everyone, and find all of sacred worth. I also recognize, however, that all of us have sinned and need Jesus’ redemption. The One Church Plan leaves us with no boundaries nor foul lines, except our own consciences in sexuality matters, and promotes a fake peace and a sham unity over the express will of God and every General Conference that’s met heretofore.

I want peace, but a real one. I will continue to love my progressive brothers and sisters even if the fact of the matter is that at my 6 General Conferences it was the progressives that did all the protesting, spitting, breaking chalices and patens, and disrupting the proceedings. I have never ever seen a conservative protest hold General Conference or any general church meeting hostage.

All of us have family members and others who are disrupters. Do we let them keep doing it and not say anything? The Silent Majority needs to speak up before our culture goes down the tubes. God bless us all as we discern when to speak our piece or hold our peace.

Armistisce Photo