Human Connections Make for Human Correctness

According to Mark Twain, “Sacred cows make the best hamburger.” Everyone has their own list of what’s sacred and what is profane. That rugged individualism has been exploited by the pandemic and our most base natures. We are now scared of each other right when we need each other the most. Our divided world has been further fragmented because of COVID-19. We can’t seem to see eye-to-eye on anything.  Politics, religion, and whether or not to defund or defend the police, wear a mask or not, and an assortment of other issues have further removed us from an essential characteristic of being human: community.

Our society is splitting into camps that are pro and con on almost everything. President Trump can’t use the word “love” without people hating him for it, and Joe Biden can’t say the word “compromise” without offending the ultra-progressives. This pandemic has made utterly clear that red and blue don’t make purple. Our divisions have made red states redder, and blue state bluer. When we need each other the most, we are the most divided.

Not only have we given up on common decency that respects differences of opinion, we have also given up on the ways that we human beings have been made in the image of God. The moral image of God that promotes the ability of human beings to discern the difference between right and wrong has been tossed out the window. The bigger casualty of the pandemic has been what we’ve done to the social image of God. The moral image has been so shot to hell so much that there seems to be no way to decide if protesters are or are not more important than law enforcement, whether or not statues are history or racism, or if anyone in the news media speaks the unvarnished truth without bias.

Frankly, we better find a way to reflect God’s social image if we want to have any chance of resurrecting the moral image. Recapturing the moral image of God, where we might actually have the ability to agree to disagree, is totally connected to our appreciation and application of the social image of God. The social image in us finds its source in the personhood of God. If God lives in the community that we call the Trinity, then, surely, we need one another, too. Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three persons that are distinct, yet indivisible. Unlike our country’s purported motto, e pluriblus unum, “Out of many, one,” God actually lives up to the billing. There is oneness in God at the same time that diversity is also honored. When you see Jesus doing something, the Father and Holy Spirit are right there, too. It’s the same with any action of each member of the Godhead. It should be the same with us. We should be distinct, but indivisible, but we’re nowhere near this reality, and the pandemic has only made it worse.

We have gone from a melting pot mentality to a salad bowl one with the cucumbers in one place, the tomatoes lumped together, and the different types of lettuce are each relegated to their respective places. This is our world right now. To make things worse, we cannot even have fellowship with one another except through Zoom, or as we practice other means of social distancing. I’m getting used to teaching a Sunday School class by Zoom, but preaching to people where their faces are half covered up causes emotional connections difficult to make. I know people are ministering to one another through social media and porch drop-offs, but there is a deep longing for human touch that has gone woefully lacking. No doubt, we don’t need to start hugging and high-fiving on Sundays, but we desperately need to find a way to recapture the social image of God in our corporate lives. That, in and of itself, is the problem. Our corporate lives have been obliterated.

How do we promote a corporate life in this climate? I’ve seen videos of people who have constructed family hugging booths where grandparents from out of town can visit their grandchildren and hug on one another through a plastic sheet that has open-ended appendages securely attached for arm insertion. I’ve seen folks kiss on windows against the pressed lips of an isolated loved one. It’s not the same, but it’s better than nothing. The bottom-line, we need to do whatever we can to stay socially connected, in spite of our differences. We will not be able to come to any consensus of what’s right and wrong; i.e., the moral image if we can’t connect with one another socially. Human connections make for human correctness!

Please look for ways this week to connect. Be safe and creative. People are dying on the withered vine of emotional cut-offs and the lack of physical touch. We weren’t made for this kind of life. Thank God that Jesus clarified where all this pain and angst is coming from. John 10:10 gives us Jesus’ assessment of this very succinctly: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

So, we pray, “Lord, please give us a vaccine to kill this virus so we can emotionally and physically reconnect. The fabric of our lives, country, culture, and world depend upon your healing us. Let it be soon; in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

Tombstone-Cleaning in a Pandemic: Fighting Depression

Pastoral ministry has been steady and unrelenting in this COVID-19 environment.  If anything, most clergy that I know have been working harder than ever, and there’s no break. Please be kind to your pastors as we keep leaning into these uncertain times. We weren’t trained in seminary to do all that we do in a virtual world with 24/7 digital access. It is stressful to the point of emotional, physical, and spiritual exhaustion.

My temper has been short. Sleeping has been difficult. Dreams have been vivid, but not soothing. Eating my problems away has served only to compound them. Usually it is only inanimate objects that get my goat. Lately it’s been anything, everything, and everyone who gets on my hypersensitive nerves. Lucy of “Peanuts” comic strip fame doesn’t have to charge a paltry nickel to give me the diagnosis: depression.

Usually when I’m down the sure-fire cure is to get busy on a project. All kinds of projects have been done over these 19 weeks of isolation. Beyond the constancy of ministry, there have been other tasks to do. Planting blueberry bushes was one project. It had been a long time since I used dreaded posthole-diggers but I dug ten huge holes, plus amended the soil with enough wettable sulfur to make it more acidic for the blueberries. Unfortunately, in my COVID-fog, I ordered twenty bushes instead of ten, and ended up planting two per hole, plus they sent me a couple of extras.

There were lots of such projects around the house. Cleaning out and organizing cabinets, installing shelves, gardenia bushes were planted, several foundation shrubs were replaced. Unfortunately, once you start doing home projects they begin to multiply. You can’t paint one room without it making the rest look like they need it. I have dug, piddled, planted and tried to work myself out of the funk that I’m in. The plan worked until the nutsedge invasion.

Nutsedge, otherwise known as plain old nutgrass, is insidious. When you cut your lawn, it’s the nutsedge that comes back first and rises above your manicured lawn like a greenish-yellow monster. Every time you cut the grass, it gets worse because it spreads. Half my yard is infested. I bought “Sedgehammer,” an appropriately named nutsedge killer. It’s expensive stuff, like $200 per ounce expensive, and I had to purchase a surfactant additive to make the deadly stuff stick to the invading army of nutsedge. I sprayed the whole yard multiple times. Still there. Bought a different product, same woeful results. This was a project that I made worse instead of better. The nutsedge pushed me into heinous depression. This was my tipping point: Nutsedge is something I can’t fix, and I’m a fixer! Wham!

We all like projects where we can accomplish something, and see the results. I thought maybe that would help, so I have spent quite a few days social distancing with dead people in a cemetery. I have driven 18 miles from Aiken to Edgefield, SC to clean off my brother’s grave, and my Mom and Dad’s graves. I ended up cleaning off grandparent’s tombstones, great-grandparents’ and more. Fifteen wheelbarrows of gravel have spruced up the family plot. I figured out the right combo of chemicals, tools and elbow grease to get those gray-green lichens out of the carved dogwood blossoms that encircle my parent’s marker. I have a new appreciation for dental hygienists, and the need for everyone to floss. However, let me tell you that one of the most satisfying things that I’ve done during the entire pandemic is to make my family’s multiple tombstones shine like brand new. I also sprayed on enough heavy-duty year-long grass-killer to fry the rest of my scalp off like the scorching summer sun. I wish the nutsedge was as easy!

Have you been in a funk? Are you depressed? We need projects to accomplish, but sometimes they’re futile. We need one another, and we’re made by God to have human contact, but the pandemic has relegated us to lonely cemeteries. If you’re like me, you’ve either run out of projects or the brains to fix them. Depression has set in. We perfectionists, who have more than a touch of obsessive-compulsive disorder, are FREAKED OUT by the chaos in our world. But, here’s the good news. God is God, and I am not! As much as I think that mantra is tattooed on my brain, I forget. God is God, and I am not! God give me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Whew!

The harried mother of a newborn reached for her cellphone and heard a loving voice say, “How are you, Darling? What kind of day are you having?” “Oh, Mom,” said the young mother while breaking into tears, “I’ve had such a bad day. The baby won’t eat. The garbage disposal is backed up and leaking. I need to go shopping, but don’t have the energy, and besides I’ve just sprained my ankle and have to hobble around. The house is a wreck, and I’m supposed to have two friends over for dinner tonight.”

The mother was shocked and full of sympathy. “Oh, darling,” she said, “sit down, relax, and close your eyes. I’ll be over in half an hour. I’ll do your shopping, clean up the house, and cook your dinner for you. I’ll feed the baby, and I’ll call a repairman I know who’ll be at your house to fix the garbage disposal and leak in a jiffy. Now stop crying. I’ll do everything. In fact, I’ll call George at the office and tell him to get over at your house and help, too.”

The young mother asked, “Who’s George?” Her mother replied, “Why, George! Your father… Is this 284-1373?” The young mother replied, “No, it’s 284-1376.” The older woman said in return, “Oh, I’m sorry. I guess I have the wrong number.” There was a short pause. Then the young woman asked, “Does this mean you’re not coming over?”

Are you feeling it? A lot of us are, aren’t we?  So, we pray, “Please, Lord, show up in our time of need. We don’t know what to do, or which way to turn. Save us from this pandemic; in Jesus’ name. Amen!” Thank God that we reopen the church this coming Sunday. I sure do need it!

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.”

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.

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?

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.

US Society: Going to Hell in a Handbasket

This week’s lectionary text from Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 couldn’t be more appropriate given the context of our national pain and shame:

The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom;
listen to the instruction of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
“The multitude of your sacrifices—
what are they to me?” says the Lord.
“I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.

When you come to appear before me,
who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts?
Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening.

Your hands are full of blood!

Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong.
Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.

“Come now, let us settle the matter,”
says the Lord.
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool.

If you are willing and obedient,
you will eat the good things of the land;

but if you resist and rebel,
you will be devoured by the sword.”
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Can we take a hint from God?  Doesn’t this passage offer an indictment upon our so-called faith and rituals? Faith that is real does something and it’s genuine. God asks for willing obedience, not empty words. Isaiah knew what he was talking about. He had been a prophet through the reigns of four separate kings of Judah. He had seen it all, just like we have in our media-saturated world. But God made sure that Isaiah wasn’t too used to what had become commonplace. God woke him up to ask hard questions of his own people.

We also must ask and answer a hard question, “What’s wrong with America that 31 people were gunned down in the span of 14 hours?” Before we show our political bias and reach the easy assumption that both shooters were cut from the same cloth, think about the fact that the perpetrators came from very different ideological perspectives. The one in El Paso was anti-immigration specifically of Hispanics. The one in Dayton was a supporter of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Beats me, and I don’t dare think there’s an easy answer to the problems, the hot-button issues that our country is facing. White privilege is real and is a culprit, but in a man-on-the-street poll this morning, I did a survey asking individuals what they thought were our most pressing problems that could lead us to this horrible place in which we find ourselves. Here are the results in no particular order: assault guns, drugs and opioids, racism and tribalism, quality education, the demise of the traditional family, homelessness, suicide, protecting the unborn and vulnerable adults, slick as boiled okra politicians (there are some good ones), godly values and morality, mental illness, domestic abuse, child abuse, social media (including television), liberals, conservatives, and xenophobia. It runs the whole gamut, doesn’t it? And, there’s more, I’m sure because nobody said Iran, the economy, North Korea, healthcare, or even the recently ratcheted up trade war with China.

Now, here’s what ticks me: What are we going to do about these issues? Gleaves Whitney, college professor, said, “I want you to know that we are only one generation from barbarism. Think about it. If teachers and parents and the clergy fail to transmit the culture, then in just one generation that civilization can lose significant knowledge of its heroes, models, ideals, and principles, and then an enervating nihilism can set in.” Enervating nihilism is a debilitating destructiveness. Something that enervates is the opposite of something that invigorates and energizes, and nihilism is the rejection of all religious and moral principles in the belief that life is meaningless. This is where we are right now. We have become so desensitized to the ubiquitous problems that we’ve simply given up. We seldom have the energy even to say, “We’re going to hell in a handbasket!” Hell is already here especially in the minds of the shooters.

I read of a young Frenchman who stood on a dock in Calais, France, and watched two Englishmen get off a tourist boat. As soon as they were on the dock, he immediately shoved them off the side and into the water. As the Englishmen scrambled back up and did their best to shake off the water that had soaked them, one of them asked the Frenchman, “Is this any way to treat a foreigner? Why did you do this?” The Frenchman replied, “That was for burning Joan of Arc at the stake.” Then the Englishman said, “But that was 600 years ago.” The Frenchman retorted, “Oui, but I just learned about it this morning.” This is our immediate conundrum, too. In the face of all of our problems, we focus on the ones that are most immediate, that we have some personal stake in, or finally drive us to do something!

What defines the “tyranny of the urgent” for you? I’m sick of ignorantly and recklessly blaming one person or another, even the deep-pocketed gun lobby. What are WE going to do about our problems whether its gun violence, immigration, or opioids? Instead of enervated passivity, our children deserve better. It is time to quit sitting on our hands or wringing them with inaction. Enough is enough! Do we have the moral fortitude to be like Jesus and tie together a whip of cords and run the evil out of our society?

As our seminary intern, Douglas Herlong, said to me yesterday, “Words are words. Promises are promises. Excuses are excuses. Performance is reality!” Aren’t we sick and tired of words, promises, and excuses? I sure am. There are injustices and wrongs all around us. What are we going to do? What are you going to do? Our hands are bloody, according to Isaiah, and it’s time to wash them!

A Fool and His Money

August 2 would be my Dad’s 103rd birthday and one of his favorite sayings is appropriate for this coming Sunday’s Gospel text: “A fool and his money will soon be parted.” Indeed, you can’t take it with you! I just finished David Baldacci’s book Fallen about Memory Man, FBI agent Amos Decker, who gets involved in a crime thriller while on vacation. Without giving the plot away, there’s a John Baron, IV whose ancestor John Baron I, founded a town, made a fortune, but left the family penniless. The spoiler alert is that the family is sitting on tons of gold so to speak, and people are willing to kill for it. The hint is that John Baron the First wanted to take it all with him, but we all know that there are no U-Haul’s behind hearses.

This week’s Gospel text is about the rich guy who wanted his inheritance and asked Jesus to intervene with his brother and tell him to liquidate their assets so each could get their respective part. In response Jesus tells a parable about the “Rich Fool.” The rich fool wants to take it with him, build bigger barns, and make all he can to keep so he can enjoy a life of ease. Wishful but faulty thinking!

A story comes to mind about a rich guy who also wants to take it all with him. His will is read before the burial, which is a bit unusual. He bequeaths $10 million in cash to his banker; $10 million in cash to his doctor; and $10 million to his minister. He demanded that they place the cash in his casket at his funeral. They each walked up solemnly and dropped envelopes into the casket just before it was lowered into the ground. On the way back to the funeral home to get their respective cars, the minister gets antsy and confesses to the banker and doctor that he had skimmed $1 million off the $10 million he was supposed to cough up. He rationalized was that the church really needed the money so he only put $9 million in his envelope. His confession prompted the doctor to fess up, too. He explained that the local hospital needed a new MRI machine that cost $5 million so he only dropped $5 million in his envelope into the casket. Then the minister and the doctor looked suspiciously at the smiling banker. The banker said, “Don’t look at me like that. I did exactly what the man said! I wrote him a check for $10 million and put it in the envelope.”

Smart guy! The truth of the matter is that none of us can take it with us, but we can certainly send it on ahead by helping worthy causes here and now. It was Martin Luther who said that God divided the hands into fingers so that money could more easily slip through. A lot of us have finally realized that money can’t buy happiness so now we use credit cards! Not too wise since the average family’s ambition is to make as much money as they’re spending. Money, money, money – no wonder Jesus talked about it more than any other subject. It’s wonderful, but deadly if we get too greedy.

Sixteen out of Jesus’ thirty-eight parables are about how to handle money and possessions. In the Gospels, one out of 10 verses (288 in all) deal directly with money. The Bible as a whole gives us 500 verses on prayer, less than 500 verses on faith, but more than 2,000 verses on money and possessions. Money reveals a lot about the condition of our spiritual lives. More than that, what we say and do with the subject of money speaks volumes about every area of our life. For instance, an ad appeared in the classified section of the newspaper that read: “I would like to announce that the ad I put in this newspaper last Saturday was in error. I will be responsible for any debts incurred by my wife, and I will start paying them off as soon as I get out of the hospital.”

Today at 2 p.m. the Fed will announce whether or not it will cut interest rates. Everyone with a 401k or similar instrument is hoping for good news. The stock market has been on a tear, but “More is better,” right? I must admit that I subscribe to the advice: “If you make money at poker, that’s gambling. If you make it playing bridge, it’s a social activity. If you make it outguessing the stock market, it’s a miracle.” Well, if you need a miracle to retire well and cover your living expenses plus your burial, or to even just get by right now then the best investment will be in eternal things where no moth or rust destroy and no thief can steal. Eternal things might be your children, your church, a charity of your choice, whatever will last way beyond you that does good! Trust me, the ERS (Eternal Revenue Service) will treat you much better than the IRS! Trust Jesus and it’s all a good investment.