Welcome to the Party!

I haven’t written many blogs lately because the world is full of people sharing their opinion. I still have lots of thoughts about things but I want to help ease the tension rather than cause more. So these days preacher humor is a primary delight for me. If I’m not careful I will wander into the abyss of trying to find a Scripture text to fit the great joke that I just heard. Honey works better than vinegar in a sermon any day. To his horror a pastor just about to preach realized that he had left his sermon notes in his study. As his apology, he said, “This morning I shall have to depend upon the Lord for what I might say, but next Sunday I will come better prepared.” Yeah, right?

Who needs notes for a kind word, a saving word? If you know the joke, if it struck a chord then it’s easy to retell. So it should be with the Gospel. Jesus brings Good News. Every worship service should be more like a wedding reception than a funeral. Last Sunday I asked everyone to turn around and say, “Welcome to the party!” It was fun and uplifting. Some people better than others can brighten up my day, but we all can spread the cheer in our otherwise stressed world.

NFL millionaires taking a knee, North Korean nukes and ICBM’s, Trump, Congress, Hurricanes, Earthquakes, Wildfires, Walls, Racism, and more, what’s the hot topic on your mind or Facebook feed? What’s the crisis about at your house, or in your community? Some people make sure they’re plugged into the concerns of the world. They meet with their morning coffee group or hang out at the barber shop. I have friends like that, and cherish my time with Cindy in the early evening when we watch the news. We tongue-in-cheek call it the “War News,” because that’s what my parents called it, and they called it that because it was usually true. It still is. How many years have we had in the last one hundred that didn’t have a war somewhere on the globe? Zero. All the more reason for us to hear some good news, especially THE Good News!

I don’t do a morning coffee group or a regular golf foursome, but I do go to the Y every morning during the week. I flip between news channels at 5:30 a.m. and they can’t seem to agree that the sky is blue on a cloudless day! All of the issues are important to someone, but, like it’s said, “Politics is all local.” In other words, what matters is what matters to you, your locale, community, where you live, work, and walk, so I look at the local news or the Weather Channel. You can’t get more local than that.

So who do discuss things with – the things that really matter? Is it your golf friends, your book club buddies, your Sunday School Class, or whomever? I heard of a preacher recently who asks people to send him texts during his sermons so he can respond and literally connect with the congregation. That is a little much for my taste, and I can’t type that fast. Autocorrect isn’t usually my friend either. In our polarized society I much rather prefer to focus on Jesus, and connect with people using humor. I want people to leave St. John’s with the sense that God was pleased with their worship, that it was a joyful celebration of faith over fear.

This is annual meeting season in United Methodist churches. We elect officers, make plans, and vote on other important matters. We get to celebrate connectionalism, the United Methodist hallmark that says “Together We Can Do More!” That’s the point of having a cadre of friends to share with, and sharing a vibrant worship service. We get to connect with God and one another.

Six months after the owner of a little store at a crossroads was appointed postmaster the folks in Washington started getting complaints. Not one piece of mail had left the village. The postmaster was investigated. He explained his reasoning, “It’s simple. The bag ain’t full yet!” What a poor excuse. What if we acted like that? What if we waited until our lives we’re full of blessings before we shared any of them? If we waited until we could afford children to have them then there certainly wouldn’t be many.

Our bag doesn’t have to be full for us to share our blessings with others. If your bag isn’t full, that doesn’t matter. Use what you have. Share what has been generously given to you. Enrich the lives of others with what you have right now. Smile and spread all the joy that you can. Remember that joy isn’t the absence of suffering, it is the presence of God. In our frazzled and stressed world we get to be God’s smile. Let it show! Tell a good one for me. I need some new material!

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Congo Conviction

Have you ever felt overwhelmed by life? My trips over this past month have done that to me: spiritually, emotionally, and physically. I’ve just gotten back from a preaching mission in the North Katanga Annual Conference of the UMC in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is the largest conference in United Methodism. South Carolina gets 16 delegates at General Conference. North Katanga gets 56! Bishop Mande Muyombo asked if I would preach at his first Annual Conference, and I was honored to say “Yes!”

My first mistake was to go entirely by myself. There was a reason Jesus sent out the disciples 2 by 2! My high school French and my minor in it at USC came in handy, but near enough! Dikonzo, my translator, was spectacular. When we landed on the dirt strip in Kamina after buzzing the goats off, I was greeted by the choir. Bishop Mande asked if I was ready to preach. I said, “Sure!” I didn’t think he meant right away. I had been flying for over 20 hours and was beat. But we immediately marched to the tabernacle where I “held forth,” as people used to call preaching. I preached and preached and preached the whole time I was there. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is powerful no matter where you go!

I was overcome by the depth of spiritual dedication that I witnessed. These are people so poor in comparison to the U.S., but so rich in the things of God. They had walked miles and miles to come. They spoke French as their national language inherited by their Belgian colonial oppressors, but there were many tribal languages present. It was as if John’s vision of the church in Revelation 7:9-10 was a present reality: “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne and to the Lamb.’”

As I participated in the ordination of these dedicated preachers who live off $30 a month US, I was awe-struck by their depth of commitment.  The life span in the DRC isn’t great anyway, but for preachers it is years lower. They literally give themselves to the work of ministry. When these laborers in God’s vineyard answered the call, they meant it. You could literally feel the weight of their call. When they answered Wesley’s historic questions like everyone else in every other Annual Conference as one goes into ministry, I couldn’t help but think about early pioneer preachers who died young and penniless. I know there are clergy from other parts of the world who carry a load of student debt, but this was different.

They wore their worn clergy shirts with missing plastic tabs replaced by pieces of cardboard or just soiled tissue. It is the dry season so everything was dirty. It rains from September to May, but right now it is hot and dry. Nothing is growing. These poor preachers could teach every U.S. ordinand a thing or two about taking your vows seriously. There is no mocking of our Connectional Covenant, and the church in North Katanga is booming. Bishop Mande and his dedicated clergy and laity trust Jesus in the harshest environment.

Electricity only came on for a short period of time in the mornings and evenings. Mosquito nets were a welcome necessity to avoid malaria. Thank God for the UMC “Imagine No Malaria” project. Bishop Mande and his dear wife, Blandine, lost their oldest child to malaria. North Katanga’s conference headquarters is 16 hours from the nearest hospital. U.M.C.O.R. (United Methodist Committee on Relief) has a tiny clinic in Kamina with a 1950’s X-ray machine, but they need so much more. About $500,000 US will build a hospital, and donated used equipment is desperately need. I passed open sewers that flowed into creeks where women and children were washing clothes.

I saw churches crumbling on the outside, but alive on the inside. They were literally crumbling because the rainy season had wreaked havoc on the sun-baked clay exteriors. Most everyone has a pit near their thatched-roof shack. This dry time of the year is when everyone uses a broad hoe to pick out a 10 inch square chunk of clay to replace the deteriorating walls. It’s an endless cycle, but the Lord sustains the people. I went to one UMC and heard intercessors praying in every corner of the sanctuary which was bare bones, no chairs, and a makeshift altar. Their prayers filled the air with power that was greater than their circumstances, but this doesn’t mean that I don’t feel a special burden to do everything that I can to change their circumstances. I am convicted!

Pastors giving their lives for $30 a month is unacceptable. What if we could sponsor a pastor and make it $100 a month? We could set up a direct transfer from the US to North Katanga with complete trust that everything would be handled on the up and up. These are great people. They trust the Lord. I’m thinking that we need to be the hands and feet of Jesus and put legs to our prayers and help them. I will know more on logistics and post them as soon as I can. Meanwhile, I implore you to be in prayer for the people of the Congo. God has blessed us so that we can be a blessing. We are so blessed in the U.S. We must share in the sufferings of our brothers and sisters, and learn from their utter dependence on God. Amen.

The United Methodist Sandwich

Someone asked me the other day where I’ve been, as in blogging. General Conference left me and our denomination in a kind of fog. There were high moments of grace when the Arapahoe and Cheyenne forgave us for the Sand Creek Massacre that was led by a Methodist Lay Preacher. The depth of heartfelt grace in the convention center was palpable. I felt a lot less grace when a thousand points of order, derisive accusations, and stalling tactics derailed any hope of recapturing Methodism as a movement.

Sure, we made some good, even great, decisions. A new hymnal was approved and that’s such a wonderful thing. We are much better at singing our faith than articulating it. In other good news, we gained 1.2 million new members, raised $75 million dollars to help eradicate preventable diseases like malaria, and we celebrated milestones like the 60th anniversary of full Clergywomen’s rights, the 30th year of Disciple Bible Study, and the 25th year of Africa University.

There was so much more for which to be grateful, but where are we really as United Methodists? The aftermath of General Conference has left me speechless for the most part with intermittent bouts of verbalized frustration. I’m somewhat at the point of thinking of us as a sandwich. There are two slices of bread on either side of the middle, and though the bread is extremely important, what’s in the middle is what’s most important. It makes it a sandwich. Perhaps if we focus on the middle we can find reasons to celebrate and move forward. I honestly think the middle is where most of us are.

The middle is a scary place and it’s usually not a very satisfactory place to be. The June 6, 2013 edition of The Atlantic has a helpful article by Larry Alex Taunton. It’s about college students who were formerly Christians, but now count themselves as atheists. The author observed these commonalities: they had attended church; the mission and message of their churches was vague; they felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions, they expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously; ages 14-17 were decisive; the decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one; and, finally, social media factored heavily into their conversion to atheism.

Since the theme of GC2016 was “Therefore Go,” implying a focus on making disciples of Jesus, then we need to listen to these young adult atheists. All of Taunton’s observations strike me as especially pertinent to United Methodism. Several even more so: “the mission and message of their churches was vague,” and “their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions.” Did we come out of GC2016 with vagueness? Will the creation of a special Commission add to our lack of clarity, or will it actually help answer life’s difficult question about the practice of homosexuality?

Interesting, isn’t it? On one hand there’s a sense that we became vaguer even though the Discipline’s language on homosexuality did not change, and, on the other hand, the Commission is going to try to tackle one of the most difficult questions of our time. All the while, I want young adults and every one of every age to come to know Christ. On that, we must not be vague. In a paraphrase of systems-thinker, Ed Friedman, “Clarity equals maturity,” but, self-differentiation is difficult in a one-size-fits-all denomination that values equanimity and consistency. So our struggle is about what can we be clear about, and what can we leave ambiguous.

We can agree that Jesus is Lord, even while we hold to very different meanings of the atonement. Connectionalism is a core value, but worship styles may vary. We certainly agree that together we can do more than if we’re apart. Our seemingly insurmountable impasse is said to be about homosexuality, but I think it’s also about covenant. We are in the thick of a battle between competing covenants, and some of us claim that our understanding of covenant is more sacred than another’s. But are there different levels of covenant? Perhaps, and that’s the source of much of our conflict.

To illustrate, our W-2’s, voter registration cards, military oaths, federal loan agreements, and driver’s licenses represent civil covenants with the government, and all of these implore people to act responsibly. Our ordination documents and the Book of Discipline are at a different covenantal level, very much like marriage. When we were ordained we knew what was expected and required. Marriage vows are very clear, too, “in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish.” Certainly, there have been people who just went through the motions of a wedding without due consideration of the gravity of these statements, but that’s no excuse for violating, ignoring, or devaluing the holy covenants we’ve made.

That word “holy” may make all the difference. Some covenants are actually holy, while others only rise to the level of a “deal” or a “transaction;” i.e., like the ones that I enumerated about citizenship, though Memorial Day makes me feel the weight of holiness as I ponder how much is owed by so many to so few.  Nevertheless, systems theory and doing a transactional analysis of GC2016 may actually help the UMC. The Council of Bishops’ Commission gets to rethink what is or isn’t a vow. Hopefully, they will study the theological impact of “covenant” on both homosexuality and our ecclesiology, our very identity as a church.

Someone came by my office this morning and made me ponder our denominational situation with two statements. The first was, “Help me to choose the harder right than the easier wrong.” Secondly she stated wisely, “Help me to bring gentleness to the hard places.” We’re so afraid of the hard places, but being between a rock and a hard place is the meat of the sandwich that we call United Methodism. I pray that I can choose rightly and bring gentleness to the hard places.

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Pre-General Conference Hope

John 11:25-26

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

For at least the last decade in the UMC, we’ve been beating to death the idea that, according to the numbers, the church in the U.S. is taking a beating and declining toward death. Two of my children who are young United Methodist clergy are quick to point out that this message has dominated their entire ministry, from seminary to the present, and it still swells larger without offering enough fruitful direction or hope. We continue to receive data that confirms the impending “death tsunami.” We also continue to be inundated by articles, workshops and seminars in response, with a repetition of familiar themes: How we got into this mess; How we can still avert catastrophe; How we must change everything (or change nothing); and the ever-popular, How death always precedes resurrection.

Like my children and perhaps so many of you, I am weary of the rhetoric. Not because the trends aren’t real. Not because I haven’t sometimes shared in these anxieties, and responses. Not because we shouldn’t think critically and strategically. Rather, because conversation must ultimately give way to necessary action, and I think now is the time to simply get back to being and doing as Christ calls us.

And the deepest truth of all — the best possible news for us — is that authentic disciples always outlast death, and they lead others in the same.

We have a straightforward call, summed up well by the UMC as: “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” This mission is not conditional. We didn’t choose to carry it forward because it carries a wholesale guarantee of success, or an assurance of longevity, or institutional security. At least I hope not. Regardless of the circumstances, and even if the UMC one day ceases to exist, the Lord still calls us today to simply make disciples for him. And the deepest truth of all — the best possible news for us — is that authentic disciples always outlast death, and they lead others in the same.

With this in mind, like the first Christians, the first Methodists, and certainly like those United Methodists at the forefront of missional growth around the world, let’s have both a discerning faithfulness today and also a holy disregard for worry over tomorrow. Let’s refocus on the present task, which is for each of us to continue to be in the making as the Lord’s disciples, and to participate in the making of more, new disciples. It will require a healthy level of humility: to be “in the making” is to admit that we’re unfinished. It also means holding ourselves to an expectation of real-world fruitfulness, since being “in the making” implies that Christ is intentionally forming us into some new future something as a people. It doesn’t sound easy but we can do it. We are uniquely equipped as United Methodists for it because, like John Wesley, we proclaim that any and every person can actually change, in behavior and attitude, heart and action, through God’s prevenient, saving, and sanctifying grace.

In other words, we must not define ourselves as an institution that is “in the declining,” “in the grieving,” or “in the dying.” Instead, we are “in the making,” a people and movement that can be grounded in the ongoing creative action of God. My passion for the church, and my vision for General Conference 2016, is for a return to this kind of disciple-making. Not merely to try to slow the impending death tsunami or to gain back statistical ground. Not merely out of a sense of self-perpetuation. But out of a desire to live the very hope of Christ.

As we hear on the way to Lazarus’ tomb in John 11:25-26 — and as we proclaim in every United Methodist “Service of Death and Resurrection” — the plain truth is that Jesus is the Lord of Life. Even more, he promises to share his Life with his followers, so that a true disciple of Christ never dies. If that’s so, then Jesus goes on to pose the one question that could possibly remain: “Do we believe it?”

I believe it. I think most of us do! I believe this promise should drastically alter everything, especially this upcoming General Conference. It should empower the ministry of our church to shape disciples. And it should invite us, above all, to pursue a life in the making with Christ Jesus and with one another. The theme of GC2016 is “Therefore go” from Matthew 28:19. Will we be in the making, or will we lament our divisions and prepare for schism at this General Conference. It depends on what or Whom you believe!

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Hospitality and Hope

The Coen brothers are sibling film-makers that have done some marvelous work. The movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is one of my absolute favorites with its spin on the Depression-era South and the imaginative use of Homer’s “Odyssey” as its inspiration. The dialogue is classic and includes some of the funniest truths you’ll ever hear. Without spoiling it, the main trio of characters are Everett McGill (George Clooney), Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro), and Delmar O’Donnel (Tim Blake Nelson), and they are on the run from the law. Their adventures, after their prison break, are a hoot, and there’s fodder for multiple sermons.

There’s an especially good segment that fits with this coming Sunday’s lectionary text from Acts 16:9-15. The text focuses on Paul’s visit to Philippi in Macedonia and preaching in Europe for the first time. Paul goes down by the river and meets Lydia and other women. Lydia and her whole household get baptized as Christians, and then she invites Paul and his entourage to stay at her house. The connection with the Coen movie is the river and baptism.

In the movie, vocalist Alison Krauss, sings “Down to the River to Pray,” in the background as the white-robed throng wade into the water. The three convicts look on. Delmar’s expression changes and he charges into the water to get baptized. When he comes out of the water he yells to Everett and Pete, “Well that’s it, boys. I’ve been redeemed. My sins have been washed away. Neither God nor man’s got nothin’ on me now. C’mon in boys, the water is fine.” Pete takes him up on the invitation. Everett, the semi-brainy one of the trio, has nothing to do with it and replies, “Even if that did put you square with the Lord, the State of Mississippi’s a little more hard-nosed.”

As hard-nosed as some are to forgive, the cleansing waters of baptism are just fine for everybody. That’s what Delmar, Pete and Lydia found out. God’s got enough grace to forgive what anybody might harbor against us. This isn’t to say that if we do the crime, we shouldn’t do the time. There is God’s justice to reckon with, but Jesus has taken God’s own wrath upon Himself and invites us all, “C’mon in boys and girls, the water is fine.” You might already be an almost Christian “God-worshipper” as Lydia is described in Acts 16, or a reprobate like Delmar who robbed a Piggly Wiggly in Yazoo. God is ready and willing to “warsh us clean,” using Delmar’s accent.

This passage has a lot to say about God’s welcome for us and our hospitality towards others in response. After she gets into the water, Lydia invites Paul and his group to stay at her house. Lydia becomes the first European convert to Christianity, and that makes this scene at Philippi a momentous one for most of us. Christianity makes its first foray outside of the Middle East, and, I daresay, since that’s not where most of us are from, this has huge consequences for all Christians. Lydia’s conversion and baptism literally sets the stage for the conversion of the world.

European converts carried the faith from Philippi up the Egnatian Way and the rest is history. Now, we all know that a lot of that history fostered a Christianity propagated by coercion and sword. Nevertheless, Lydia is a primary ancestor for many of us even if the methods were sometimes awful. Lydia’s being down by the river to pray changed her and the world. She experienced the same Jesus that inspired native peoples to forgive atrocities, slaves to forgive cruel masters, and poor people to forgive oppressive policies of institutional inequity. We need that same Jesus all over this world today.

So, the song, “Down to the River to Pray,” is just as important to sing now as ever. As a matter of conjecture, the song, has been attributed to multiple sources in its history. What is known for sure is that all of the groups that it is attributed to were people looking for hope and strength. They sung it as a way to keep the faith in times of darkness. Some have said it is a Negro Spiritual written and sung by African-Americans. Others say that it originated with Native-Americans, and some say it was an old folk song that gave hope to poverty stricken people in Appalachia. One of the first known written forms of the song was in The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion in 1835. Another was in a book titled Slave Songs of the United States published in 1867. Both of those specific dates remind me of Andrew Jackson’s forced removal of American Indians from the East, and the horrors of slavery.

Either way, it’s a song whose origin is born in poverty and pain. Some have declared that its lyrics which speak of going down into the water to pray, wearing a starry crown, and a desire for God to show the way are code language for oppressed people looking for a watery way to cover their tracks and scent, and an encouragement to use the stars as guides to find the way to freedom.

In a sense it’s what the words still mean today. God’s hospitality sets us free and forgives our sins, not by overlooking them, but by washing them away. Jesus is a Redeemer who is the Way, Truth, and Life. God’s hospitality is a model for us. It was for Lydia.

 

Clergy & Church Sneak-Peeks

United Methodist clergy sneak-peeks at their prospective new appointments have been probably been with us since our founding. We’ve just switched from horses and word of mouth, to websites and surreptitious scouting trips. My three children knew the drill. As soon as we heard, we hit the trail. We found the church, checked out the parsonage from a drive-by with everyone semi-ducking their heads. Looked at area schools, even fast-food restaurants and whether the Sonic had a playground. Churches also are tempted to go check out their new pastor ahead of time – a no-no.

As a District Superintendent for 8 years, when I handed out profiles, I told the same thing to SPRC Chairs as I did clergy: “It’s a small state and everybody knows somebody from everywhere. Call those people and find out all you can. Do not go visit their church! We’re not Baptists who judge a preacher on one sermon. Remember no church is as good as you hear it is, and no church is as bad. Start making the transition, and remember you never get a second chance in making a first impression.”

I especially told SPRC Chairs, “If you want to know what your new pastor looks like, just set up a video camera in the church and parsonage’s front yard on the day of and day after appointments are announced. Sometime during that day a car is going to slow down at both locations. Its occupants will be slinked down in the seat peering over the edge of the car window eyeballing everything that they can. Make sure the grass is cut at the church, cemetery, and parsonage and all the trash picked up. Spruce everything up because this is your first-shot at easing the anxiety of a whole family and starting off right.”

Even in this age of internet sleuthing, we still depend upon our own eye-witness judgment. Especially with young children, it is extremely important to give them a peek at their new digs. Waiting to go check things out at an Introductory Visit is too late and formal. So, churches, if you haven’t already, do your own personal drive-by of your facilities. Eye-ball what any passer-by might see. If it isn’t appealing, do something about it. This isn’t just good advice for churches that anticipate a change in clergy. It’s a good idea all the time if you want to be inviting to your neighbors.

I know that when I wanted to avoid rush hour traffic for some charge conferences, I would leave early, get to the church way ahead of time, and do a walk-around. I learned a lot about each church in the district by just looking. How a church took care of its cemetery told me quite a bit how they valued their past, and how they took care of the living.

I remember going to one church whose name and location suggested on paper that it was a peaceful place. In my walk-about around the cemetery I noticed there were multiple spellings of the same last name. That clue explained a lot about the tensions in the subsequent meeting. The bottom line of what I’m trying to get at during this strange season of already and not yet in appointment-making is that we need to clean up our own house first, and get the plank out of our own eye before we start nick-picking the speck in our prospective pastor or church.

Boy, I have seen churches and pastors really get critical over the official profiles. These are handed out to SPRC Chairs and clergy when appointments are released. Those profiles, by the way, are going to be pored over and over and over. Every word will be parsed. Every date will be perused. The length of each appointment will be judged for good or ill. Expectations about ministry will be formed from what’s been written down, so write well! Tell the truth, but don’t throw anyone under the bus. Remember what I said earlier, “No pastor or church is as good as everyone says they are, nor as bad.”

The church that your “friend” had a hard time in may be prime for new leadership, so don’t pre-judge. It might be your best appointment. Churches, please remember that the clergyperson who only stayed two years at their last appointment may be moving for the best possible reasons. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Less than stellar fruitfulness at one place doesn’t mean they won’t be remembered as your most beloved pastor 20 years from now. Timing and chemistry can make a huge difference.

God bless everyone who is taking those sneak-peek rides, and churches that are putting out feelers about their new pastor. All of us, whether we’re expecting a move or not, need to get our act together. We need to clean up our front porch, get rid of dead, faded, or unseasonal flowers in the cemetery, and put our best foot forward on our profiles, and websites. In other words, if we want to make new friends with all the people who are checking us out, we need to look at ourselves through their eyes.

Once again, be gentle with each other, especially children or youth who are being uprooted, plus spouses who will be looking for new work. This whole process is like being on a flying trapeze. You can’t reach out and grab the bar coming at you unless you let go of the one you’re holding. That goes for churches saying “Goodbye” to their current pastor, and clergy saying “So long!” to their current appointment. If you don’t let go of the trapeze bar, you end up stuck hanging in the middle with nowhere to go – a bad place to be. So get ready to let go, and grab hold of that next appointment or pastor. God has great things in store. No doubt, you’ll get what you expect!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen!

 Prayer pic

Who Gets Written Off?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus with Sheep

Saving the Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

School Children Hands

 

Dogs and Cats as Christians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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