Guilty Until Proven Innocent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matlock Picture

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.

Were You There? Metaphoric Imagery and Jesus’ Passion

I have often used metaphoric imagery in marriage counseling, especially premarital counseling. I ask the couple to close their eyes and picture themselves as a person, animal, place, or thing. They are asked to see themselves in as much detail as possible. What colors do they see? What are they doing? When they finish picturing themselves, I ask them to picture their spouse, or spouse-to-be. What are they – a person, animal, place, or thing? What are they doing in as much detail as possible? Then, lastly, I ask them to put the two pictures together, the image of themselves and the image of their partner, and picture what kind of interaction is taking place, again with as much detail as possible.

It amazes me what people say. Frankly, the couple usually remembers this exercise much more clearly than any other thing I use in counseling. This is what they end up talking about week after week. It truly is a metaphoric image of who they are separately and who they are together. It sparks great conversation. The use of metaphoric imagery has been on my mind a lot this week as I have pondered Jesus’ last days before the resurrection. Where would have been in the crowd? What person do I most resemble in the cast of characters? Would I be a sobbing Mary, a grieving John, a jeering priest, a penitent or impenitent thief, a soldier doing my gruesome duty? Would I dare to say that I feel like Jesus?

So, using metaphoric imagery and a sanctified imagination, make yourself think about the question: Were you there when they crucified my Lord? That’s the name of an important Lenten hymn for this Holy Week. I want us to imagine what it must have been like to be present on Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, when Jesus was crucified. Too often I jump from Palm Sunday’s loud Hosanna’s to Easter’s Alleluia’s without really plumbing the depths of Jesus’ suffering, and it shortchanges the whole point of it all: Jesus died for the sins of the whole world. He died for yours and mine. It begs the question: What does that mean?

So, all the more, I want to visualize and feel what Jesus went through for us, for me. If I could make you, I would ask that you close your eyes during this whole exercise, but you can wait until I prompt you at the end. Use your five senses of smell, hearing, touch, taste, and sight to make the events of Jesus’ last hours real. What smells would you smell if you were there that fateful day? Some scholars have said that Golgotha was the city’s trash dump as it was located outside Jerusalem’s city gates. Do you smell the refuse and debris, the garbage, and the stench? Some have said that there are times that you can smell death in the air. Some have experienced this casually during a drive in a car. Others of us have smelled it with the passing of family members, or in other life-threatening perilous situations. Do you smell death on this executioner’s hill? Of course, you do. Others say that you can also smell fear. Can you smell Jesus’ fear, the criminals’ fear beside him, Mary’s? I smell it even now. Pure unadulterated fear. What do you smell? Ponder it. Smell it. Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

What do you hear? What sounds come to mind? Do you hear the hammers clanging on the nails driven into multiple hands and feet? Do you hear the screams of those who were tortured? Can you hear the awful sound of the soldiers breaking the legs of the two men hanging beside Jesus? Do you hear Jesus’ 7 last sentences: “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani” (My God, My God why hast thou forsaken me?) and hear the weight of feeling utterly abandoned; Jesus saying from the cross to his disciple John, “Behold your mother,” taking care of his dear mother Mary, along with his saying to Mary, “Behold your son,” giving her a new son-like relationship in the person of this beloved disciple?

Do you hear Jesus saying “I thirst,” and sense the dryness of his voice; do you hear his words of assurance to the penitent thief beside him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” even in the midst of the two thieves’ harsh banter; can you listen to Jesus say, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” to the crowd looking on. Can you imagine his strength to be able to ask forgiveness for his executioners? Can you hear the love and grace in his voice? Do you hear his last words, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit,” and “It is finished.” Do you hear the release and resignation that these sentences convey?

Do you hear the soldiers mocking him, the priests jeering, and the crowd daring him to call down heaven’s host to set him free? Do you hear the clink and rattle of dice as the soldiers gambled for his garments? Do you hear the thunder and storm, and the centurion’s declaration as he saw the heaven’s weep, “Truly, this man was the Son of God?” What do you hear? Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

What do you feel? What textures come to mind? The wood of the cross is coarse so be careful of splinters. The ropes that were used to raise the cross and set it in place were also rough. Ropes also bound his limbs to the cross as the nails were driven in. Do you feel the cold metal of the nails as they pierced his skin? Do you feel the texture of the cloth of Jesus’ outer garments as the soldiers divided them? Do you feel the textures of the myriad people, flesh and clothes of all kinds, from Simon of Cyrene to me and you, pressing in from all sides? Do you feel the ridges of the blood stains as they settled upon his flayed skin from tip to toe, a thorn-crowned forehead all the way down to his pierced feet? What textures do you feel? Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

What do you taste? Do you taste Jesus’ parched lips and their cracked dryness? Do you taste the perspiration? And if someone can smell death, they can also taste desperation. Do you feel how thick the desperation is in the air, and in the people’s hearts? Can you taste the blood? We all have been socked in the mouth at some point, or have bitten our lip, drawing blood. Can you taste the iron-like warmth and its bitterness as the blood flowed that day? What do you taste? Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

What do you see? Close your eyes now for sure. What colors do you see? Red, brown, white, blue, or the deepest darkest gray? Look over the crowd. Who stands out? Surely you see the three crosses and the men upon them. You see the sign over Jesus’ head and the INRI, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Can you see the priests, the women, Mary, and John? What do you see? Who do you see? Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

With eyes still closed, where are you on Golgotha?

I Shot a Red Bird

I killed a Red Bird. There, I’ve confessed it. As a little boy, about this time of year, a Christmas present of a B-B-Gun was used to kill a beautiful Cardinal. I love Cardinals. Their scarlet red feathers bring color into the frosty hues of winter. I saw one on the ground pecking at pecans lying under one of our abundantly fruitful trees. I leveled the barrel over a fence rail, put the bird in my sights, and pulled the trigger. The Cardinal fluttered and tried to fly. He was dead within 10 feet, and I immediately felt guilty. It’s one of the very first times I ever knew that I was a sinner. One of my first thoughts was typical of Adam and Eve in the Garden, blame someone else. I never got age appropriate gifts anyway. My parents shouldn’t have given me a B-B-gun, but I knew better even as a little boy.

So I looked over my shoulder. I knew that I had done a bad thing. Grandmother was always lurking around. She loved Red Birds. She even kept finches and parakeets in the house. If anyone could make you feel guilty, it was her. You wouldn’t dare call someone a “fool” for any reason without her quoting Scripture about those who did so going to hell. She was the conscience for everybody in the family. She still makes me feel guilty sometimes, and rightly so for the most part.

But the day I shot the Red Bird, I was guilty of my own accord. I knew to my core that I did something wrong. Does anyone feel that they have done wrong anymore? Where has our sense of propriety gone? I used to blush quite regularly and hardly do it anymore. Is it because I have a heightened sense of grace, or a cavalier callousness about sin? It makes me wonder. Grace really makes little sense without a need for mercy. I think sometimes that I have ether claimed or promoted grace so much that I have forgotten that if it weren’t for God’s wrath, there would be no need of grace, no need for Jesus.

The Bible conveys many images of the atonement, ways of describing what Jesus did to make us at-one with God again when we’ve done wrong. I don’t think that one is more correct than another. They are just different ways to explain or depict what Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection accomplish. I’m convinced that there are so many because they speak to us individually and correspond to our particular needs. Questions are begged: Which one do we find most helpful? Which one would help us explain the Gospel to someone else who needs it?

The Financial or Ransom Image (Titus 2:14) suggests that we humans are captives that are held in bondage and have lost our freedom, but Someone steps up and pays the price, the ransom, to redeem the incarcerated. This image corresponds to the language of redemption. Jesus, of course, is the redeemer, but the question remains, “To whom is the ransom paid to redeem us?” Is it the devil that God has to do business with to buy us back, or is it God to whom Jesus pays the ransom? Seems strange. Nevertheless, it’s just an image of the atonement.

I think most of us get the picture of being kidnapped/captured and need deliverance, but no worries if we don’t. This is just one of many atonement images that are heart-matters more than literal constructs. No matter what, this image is one, like them all, which works for me because sometimes I feel trapped and know that I can’t free myself. I need Jesus!

Another image in the Bible is the Military Image of the Atonement or, as it is sometimes called, Christus Victor. Jesus fights evil and wins the victory. He triumphantly defeats evil and retakes the world from Satan (cf. Colossians 2:15). Christus Victor is a great image for those who feel powerless against the armies of sin as they have been fighting temptations like addiction, and oppression of any kind.

The Sacrificial Image is another good one. Blood is shed, one life is offered for many, a sinless life for sinful ones. Death can’t win because Jesus never sinned. Because the “Wages of sin is death…” (Romans 6:23), Jesus rises from the dead, not just for himself, but for all who have faith in him. This is a great image (cf. Hebrews, chapters 8-10) for anyone who feels the need for things to be set right, and eye for an eye, a life for a life, and a belief that there must be adequate payback for our sins to be forgiven.

I do, however, know some people who are a little squeamish about the Sacrificial Image and its so-called “blood theology.” They avoid hymns about the blood of Jesus. It seems too Old Testament-like with its sacrificial system that is gory and strange. It does make me wonder what these folks do with communion. After all, there’s a cup of Jesus’ blood front and center because he gave his life as a sacrifice. I would imagine, however, that soldiers and vets could really resonate with this image – anyone in a helping profession, like teachers, nurses, doctors, police and firefighters, or people who sacrifice to take care of family members.

Next, the Legal Image’s scene is a courtroom. God is the Judge. Satan is the prosecutor accusing us. Jesus is the Defense Attorney. We’re declared guilty and sentenced to death. In God’s grace, Jesus, who is the only person to ever obey every law, steps up and takes our punishment on himself. It is the language of “reconciliation” (Colossians 1:19-20). Jesus “takes the rap” for us. This is very effective for anyone who feels their guilt and wants to know that they are forgiven and reconciled to God and one another.

It brings to mind the love/hate relationship that I have with the late Gene Wilder’s character in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. He plays the eccentric weird factory owner who’s more than a little bit scary. Good little Charlie is one of 5 fortunate children who gets a golden ticket to tour Willy Wonka’s factory and get a lifetime supply of chocolate. Without going into gory detail, all of the kids except Charlie give into temptations along the way and meet creative but horrible ends. They are selfish and Charlie sticks to the rules. He is tested and inherits the factory. He makes good choices and is rewarded. Sound familiar?

It’s a pretty good analogy of the flawed way we present the Christian life. On our tour of this world we are promised Gobstoppers of rewards if we follow our Leader (Jesus) well. Along the way, we and our fellow travelers will be tempted to be selfish and will reap the consequences. If we remain faithful, there will be a reward. This is all well and good if we want to promote right-living, but there isn’t much grace in Willy Wonka’s pages-long contract that he makes all the kids sign before they begin the tour. Thankfully, in the Gospel, rightfully proclaimed, God isn’t bizarre and strange like Willy Wonka. God doesn’t get gleeful when we get our just desserts, pun intended.

God, to be sure, has commandments and stipulations, but God knows full well that we can’t fulfill the contract. We aren’t little Charlie’s who can pass the test. We all fail, but God takes the test for us through Jesus and fulfills his own contract. That’s an image that works for me! What works for you? What works for your neighbors, or your enemies? How can we share the Gospel in a way so that people understand it, and accept it?

red-bird

Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie: The Brutality of Christmas

Who doesn’t want to skip the “Death of the Holy Innocents” and just focus on the Magi? No one in his or her right mind wants to spoil the joy of Christmas by preaching Herod’s murder of the children two years old and under. This coming Sunday’s Gospel reading stops well shy of Herod’s murderous ways and the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt as refugees. This unrealistic portrayal of the Incarnation is exactly what fuels the holiday emphasis on nostalgic sentimentality. Herod’s actions starkly remind us why this world needs a Savior. Herod lives in us every time we turn a blind eye to the poor, the refugee, and the sinner.

Like all who love feel-good Christmas, I bemoan the death of innocence in our children, but they must not be shielded from the desperate children of Aleppo or the ones down the street. The down side of Christmas for most Westerners is that the real truth gets massaged and postponed until credit card bills come due. Poor and rich alike enjoy their pretties though they differ in cost. We all want a happy ending, but Matthew’s birth narrative doesn’t have one until after truth speaks to power through the dreams offered to the Magi and Joseph. The Magi are warned to not go back to Herod, and Joseph is told to escape to Egypt. Herod is foiled by God through the obedience of those who would heed God’s dreams.

What dreams might God have for each of us in 2017? Will we heed them? Will we obey and take on Herod, or stay in ignorant bliss? But as much as we try to lie to ourselves, there will be valleys of the shadow falling across our lives in 2017. The beginning of a new year gives a hint of hope, but offers little change for the refugees, the frail, the unemployed, or the overwhelmed unless the rest of us do something about the evil lurking in the world’s Herod-like fat cats. Instead of pulling babies from the sullen stream one after another, isn’t it time to go upstream and stop whomever is throwing them in? We sing Don MClean’s “Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie” with gusto while we’re unsure of its sad meaning. We shouldn’t let its catchy tune and cryptic words dull our sensitivities. It dares us to ask where hope is in a cruel world.

The Holy One who offers hope shows up during Epiphany season through signs and wonders that remind us of God’s presence. It’s up to us to act on these epiphanies, to use them as inspiration. The Magi did it by following a star and a dream, and financing the Holy Family’s escape through their gifts. Joseph had his dreams, too, and acted on them. God speaks through many means and wise men and women still follow. This Gospel is all the more real because its light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. Without recognizing and dealing with Herod and his kin, Christianity is what Marx called, “the opiate of the masses.” There’s enough opioid addiction in our world already. The church mustn’t be complicit in its lie.

A Christmas pageant without Herod is a feel-good farce. On Christmas Eve we saw candles brighten our sanctuary, but sanctuary must be a place of protection for everyone: the least, last, lowest, and lost. We must heed Jesus’ words to so let our light shine through good deeds so that God might be glorified (Matthew 5:16). This isn’t earning our way into heaven through social action separated from its supernatural root in God’s saving grace. Compassion for kindness’ sake is nice, but is just as much a syrupy humanism as Christmas without Herod. To think that the world’s ills can be eradicated by human action without divine intervention is to miss the real reason for Jesus’ coming and coming again. But, don’t stop! Our good deeds do bring some of heaven’s glow to every refugee family that we know. They are all around us, but we can do so much more if we do everything we do in Jesus’ mighty name and power.

There was a refugee walking down the sidewalk by the church earlier, head slumped over, with barely enough strength to put one foot in front of the other. He knows all about the Herod’s of this world. He hasn’t had enough light in his life to dispel the darkness. A gift of a left-over poinsettia wasn’t enough. He needed a meal. His Christmas was marred by family dysfunction, substance abuse, and a vain attempt to dull the pain. The real truth of the Gospel is that God will outlast all the Herod’s. Herod’s come and go, but God’s love endures forever.

Western liberalism, as I’ve seen its philosophy practiced, and observed its political machinations, is in its death throes. It can only offer short-term wins that are transitory. Mostly the elite hold onto it, and piously and pompously discuss how all we need to do is to become better people and nicer. What hubris! The humanistic demand to accept everything and everybody has a problem, though. His name is Herod. I’m not afraid to call on God to defeat him. As a matter of fact, it’s the only way! Epiphany reminds us that we cannot save ourselves, therefore we need God’s self-revelation in and through Jesus Christ. Anything or anyone less is laughable to Herod. Only Jesus causes him to quake in fear. I will enter 2017 committed to holding onto Jesus, King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Come Lord Jesus, come!

Listen to the 13th century English Coventry Carol and hear the plaintive cry of Bethlehem’s mothers in the midst of loss. Their tragic plight must be noted or Herod wins. It’s not pretty. It’s not meant to be, but it’s real. Authentic faith calls upon God to deliver us from evil. First we have to admit that it exists.

 

Christmas Weddings and Wakes

Christmas memories are forever, good ones and not-so-good. My mother’s parents’ wedding anniversary was December 25. Since they lived with us, we were the hub where everyone gathered on Christmas Day. We laughed, exhibited our favorite gifts to one another, shot fireworks, and ate turkey, dressing, ambrosia and caramel cake. It was hilarious and holy all in one. I can hear Papa’s laugh and Grandmother’s orders. I can see Mother’s every-year-a-different-theme of decorations adorning the seventeen-stepped hall bannister. I can also see heavy-set Uncle Lee waddling up those same stairs to see the children play, the only adult brave or caring enough to dare invade our space.

He was also the one who gave us the strangest, yet most precious gifts. Uncle Lee would wrap a signed $2 bill around a pig’s ear, foot, or some other part then bundle it up in meat wrapping paper and grace each child with semi-macabre joy. I still have those treasures including a silver dollar with his “L.J.” initials in red fingernail polish across the coin’s face. The memories were mostly happy and they should have been. We found our cedar trees and cut them down. We were like explorers looking for treasure every year as we went Christmas tree hunting. Christmas was magical.

Christmas elicited the most marvelous experiences and memories. For instance, my call to ministry was shaped by Christmas Communion by candlelight at Trinity Episcopal. I can sense the awe and the love of God incarnate in Jesus right this minute. The Lord’s Supper never tasted so real. God marked me at Christmas. To this day, Christmas Eve services without communion just aren’t enough.

Christmas brought out the best in most people. I sold fireworks for my Uncle Homer every day of the holidays, a continuation of his son Jackie’s business. I nearly froze to death in that tiny little stand. I was warmed with very little heat thanks to all the gunpowder at hand. It was a happy joy to help a myriad collection of people celebrate the holidays. That was a gift in itself.

Christmas always meant love was in the air, too. It was not only my grandparent’s wedding anniversary, but my Mother and Father got married on December 23. In doing some family research this seems to be an automatic thing. Multiple generations have December weddings. Cindy and I got married on December 20, 41 years ago this year. We honestly didn’t think about any familial connection. I thought we were just too enamored with one another to wait until June.

But Christmas was a sad time, too. Uncle Lee died suddenly on December 23, 1974. Grandmother died sixteen days before our wedding on December 4, 1975. Uncle J.C. died on December 8, 2000. Weddings and wakes have been our family’s December experience for generations. Christmas has been the best of times and the worst of times. That sounds a lot like the first Christmas with Caesar Augustus and the Pax Romana, the enforced peace of Rome cobbled with a taxation to fund it. Good times and bad ones. That’s life, isn’t it?

And Jesus entered it, just like He always does. Jesus comes when we’re having a blast and making good memories, and He’s with us when times are tough and hard. Some of the chairs will be empty around the Christmas table again this year. Some of them will be filled by new mini-me’s of the latest iterations of our collective progeny. That probably won’t lessen the pain, but it certainly helps.

That’s our story, your story, humanity’s story. Maybe my family has been shaped by Christmas more than most as we ride the roller coaster of weddings and wakes, but, if anything, it has made us real. We’re such a Faulknerian Southern family. We have more saints and sinners than a story-teller like me can use, but authenticity is never a problem for us. Even better this Advent and Christmas is the Good News that Jesus is more real than us. He is the authentic, fully Human, fully Divine Savior. Whoever we are, whatever we’re going through, as my late brother Carlee always repeated, “Best of all, God is with us.” Emmanuel has come! He came to deliver us from everything that needs to be left behind. He came to make all things, including memories, new. Hallelujah!

Family Systems and the UMC

Family Systems Theory is fascinating, especially when I think of our United Methodist denominational situation. A couple brings in a 14 year old to see the counselor because the teenager is thought to be the family’s problem. The counselor knows that the teenager is the “identified patient,” and everyone in the whole system has issues. It’s just like a mobile over a baby’s crib when one piece is hanging lower than the others and out of sync. It’s not just a problem with one piece. The whole mobile is unbalanced.

The counselor defocuses attention from the identified patient and looks at the whole family system. In detective-like probing, the counselor determines who is the strongest person in the system and coaches, twins, or otherwise nudges that person to change. When that happens, the inter-locking triangles that have been targeting the teenager as the system’s “dumping ground” begin to fall, tension is defused, and the system resets.

In the UMC, we’re organized as a triangle with General Conference, The Council of Bishops, and the Judicial Council. A triangle might be the most stable structure on the planet á la the Pyramids, but triangulation can cause terrible problems in families and organizations. There’s usually an issue about which two corners of the triangle don’t agree, but they’re afraid of speaking directly to each.  They don’t want to risk total ruin of their relationship so they pull in a third corner and both other corners try to get that corner to pick their side of the argument. The third corner, either due to the way the organization/family/denomination is formed and/or due to well-meaning but harmful co-dependency, seeks to alleviate the stress exhibited by the other two corners and ends up being the relief valve and victim of the other two corners’ tension. They become the dumping ground, and pulled both ways.

In the UMC, we spread the stress around all three corners and swap off dumping grounds pretty fluidly. At first I thought the Judicial Council was absolutely wrong in deferring the decisions about Karen Oliveto, but now I think it is actually healthy. Family System theorists suggest that, in order for us to get out of being the dumping ground in a triangle, we need to do two things: defect in place which means to stay in relationship with the other two corners of the triangle, but not become too enmeshed or helpful; and have a non-anxious presence that self-differentiates without taking on the tension and dysfunction of the unbalanced system.

This sounds like what the Judicial Council is doing. The whole denomination has a choice to add fuel to the fire or let the process work. The Judicial Council has stated that they see the Oliveto case as hugely important. The Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops asked that they expedite their ruling and give less than the usual time for briefs, pro and con, to be filed. Now instead of dealing with it on their October docket, it will be addressed next May. Instead of criticizing, I think this is great leadership.

Rabbi Edwin Friedman who wrote the seminal work on Family Systems theory, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, also wrote a telling book about what we are witnessing both in the Judicial Council’s deferral and the creation of the Council of Bishop’s “A Way Forward Commission.” His book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, actually defends what some, including me, have called “kicking the can down the road.” According to Family Systems Theory, the Judicial Council and the COB have given us appropriate and helpful time to pause, reflect, have non-anxious presence, and defect in place. The question is, “Will we?”

The cycle of ecclesial attacks and reprisals need to end so that we can have a denominational reset. Our local churches and clergy, plus general agencies and bishops need calm so that the best clear thinking will prevail. Let’s let go of the tension and allow the Holy Spirit to lead us. There’s a better chance that we will end up where we need to be if we lay down our swords. This will not sit well with people in two corners of the triangle (Progressive or Conservative), but we all need to chill out, take a breath and quit being distracted away from our primary mission to make disciples.

I’m not saying that we should be false prophets who proclaim peace when there is none, but let’s preach Jesus Christ as Lord while this is all sorted out. I’m sure there will be people, including me, who will still discuss, attend events, strategize, and ponder next steps, but we need to let the tension in the system escape, not by scape-goating, but by valuing one another for the common good. What difference does it make if I’m right if the cycle of tumult continues?

A wise man once said, “There is no way to peace, peace is the way.” The following Jewish folktale reminds me that if peace is to be experienced, someone must stop the cycle of anger and retribution:

“The otter rushed in to see the king crying, ‘My lord, you are a man who loves justice and rules fairly. You have established peace among all your creatures, and yet there is no peace.’ ‘Who has broken the peace?’ asked the king. ‘The Weasel!’ cried the Otter. ‘I dove into the water to hunt food for my children, leaving them in the care of the Weasel. While I was gone my children were killed. An eye for an eye, the Good Book says. I demand vengeance!’

The king sent for the Weasel who soon appeared before him. ‘You have been charged with the death of the Otter’s children. How do you plead?’ demanded the King. ‘Alas, my lord,’ wept the Weasel, ‘I am responsible for the death of the Otter’s children, though it was clearly an accident. As I heard the Woodpecker sound the danger alarm, I rushed to defend our land. In doing so I trampled the Otter’s children by accident.’ The king summoned the Woodpecker. ‘Is it true that you sounded the alarm with your mighty beak?’ inquired the king. ‘It is true, my lord,’ replied the Woodpecker. ‘I began the alarm when I spied the Scorpion sharpening his dagger.’

When the Scorpion appeared before the king, he was asked if he indeed had sharpened his dagger. ‘You understand that sharpening your dagger is an act of war?’ declared the king. ‘I understand,’ said the Scorpion, ‘but I prepared only because I observed the Turtle polishing its armor.’ In his defense the Turtle said, ‘I would not have polished my armor had I not seen the Crab preparing his sword.’ The Crab declared, ‘I saw the Lobster swinging its javelin.’

When the Lobster appeared before the king, he explained, ‘I began to swing my javelin when I saw the Otter swimming toward my children, ready to devour them.’ Turning to the Otter, the king announced, ‘You, not the Weasel, are the guilty party. The blood of your children is upon your own head. Whoever sows death shall reap it.’”

Are we willing to defect in place, have non-anxious presence, self-differentiate, and have enough patience to act as good leaders? I hope so. Our Wesleyan witness and the blessing of God is depending on us to get this right. If we were right yesterday, we will be right tomorrow, but the Gospel’s work today needs us to clear-headed and full of the Holy Spirit. We must all stop our vicious cycle of infighting for the sake of Christ and a lost and hurting world.

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College Baseball and the Strike Zones of Life

Most who know me are aware that I am a big fan of college baseball. I actually think that it’s one of the purest sports left today. Only a handful of each team’s players are on scholarship. The rest play because they love the game. I’ve been to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska 6 times. I stay in a tent for $11 a night at Lake Manawa State Park across the Missouri River in Iowa, about 5 miles from TD Ameritrade Stadium. It’s a blast and a definite bucket-list item for anyone who loves baseball.It’s big time on my mind today because tonight the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers will play the University of Arizona Wildcats for the National Championship. I’m pulling for the Chants! The whole thing has gotten me to thinking, especially as we approach Independence Day. There are the usual notions about teamwork, and the ways that each person is important, an e pluribus unum sense of “out of many, one.”

I cannot help but think about a baseball field’s foul lines. Some things are fair and in play, and some things are foul, out of play. Tolerance is the key word on my mind as I anticipate how much leeway tonight’s umpire will give to the strike zone. Every ump seems to call it differently. By rule, a strike is supposed to go over the plate somewhere between the batter’s knees and the midpoint of the torso. Sometimes they get it right, and sometimes they don’t. I’m almost ready to let a machine do it, except for making baseball’s history of stats meaningless.

Home plate in baseball, all the way from Little League to the Majors, is 17 inches across – every time. It doesn’t change based on the pitcher’s ability or anything else. It stays the same. Shouldn’t some things, some rules of behavior, morals, or whatever you call them stay the same, too? Do we have too much independence? Baseball has a degree of order and rules, but our country is so conflicted over who’s right and who’s wrong.

Can we agree on anything? Sure, we all know that terrorism is wrong, and all children are precious gifts. Lots of things are right and lots are wrong, but in our good old USA we have confused tolerance and love. We have blessed and embraced our inalienable rights to the point that they are harmful to civilization. We don’t know what’s fair or foul or any clue as to the strike zone. The biggest victims are our children. They have to survive our self-destructive bent toward too much freedom that really isn’t free!!!

British theologian N.T. Wright has something worth hearing as I wonder about baseball, Brexit, Western pluralism, and all the precious children who have got to grow up and try to make sense of what’s right and wrong in our confused world:

“I was going to quote a Beatles song, but then I remembered that you have to pay a lot of money even to quote a single line. But the song is well-enough known, declaring that the only thing one might need is love. It’s ironic, of course, that you have to pay through the nose to quote a song whose whole message is that love matters and money doesn’t.

That irony haunts the mood, and the philosophy, of a large swathe of Western culture over the last forty or fifty years. ‘Make love, not war’, ran the slogan from those who were protesting against the war in Vietnam. Nobody was going to say that love was a bad thing. Surely life would be simpler and better if we all agreed to love each other and not fight any more. But the protests, insisting that love is better than war, contained a dark note of hatred against Western governments and ways of life, a hatred which easily spilled over into a different type of violence. What happened to all that love?

The trouble is, of course, that ‘love’ covers far too many things in our language today. Yes, as Peter says, ‘love covers a multitude of sins’ (I Peter 4:8, quoting Proverbs 10:12). But it is clear throughout the whole New Testament, not least in the teaching of Jesus himself, that ‘love’ was never meant to mean one of the main things which, sadly, it has come to mean today.

Today, ‘love’ is regularly supposed to mean ‘tolerance’. You should never insist on anything, but always ‘love’ the other person who does things differently. You should never say that anything is actually wrong: that’s ‘unloving’ to the person who is not only doing it but claiming that it’s the right thing to do. You should never say, either, that this way of doing things is ‘right’, still less that it is the only ‘right’ way to live: how ‘intolerant’, how ‘arrogant’, how ‘unloving’. That is where a large part of our culture now stands. So strongly is this view held that if a Christian attempts to challenge it they are accused of being, well, unChristian.

But, as with protest movements, this passion for ‘tolerance’ only extends so far. Such a position is in fact extremely ‘intolerant’ of people who take a more definite stance – which includes the mainstream of adherents of many traditional faiths. This shows up the cult of ‘tolerance’ for what it is: the moralistic invention of the modern secular world, borrowing Christian language to refer to something very different. Underneath the nice language this view is just as ‘arrogant’, just as ‘intolerant’, as those it opposes. If anything more so, because it effortlessly claims the high moral ground without taking seriously the claims of other world-views…

Is it ‘intolerant to warn people that they should not drive down that road, because the bridge has been weakened by floods and might collapse? Is it ‘unChristian’ to insist that if we are to worship the God we know in Jesus we can’t simultaneously be worshipping one of the very different gods who are on offer elsewhere? Of course not. Is it a failure of Christian charity if we warn people that certain styles of behavior lead to ruin rather than to life?

Of course not – though, naturally, we need to be sure we are standing on the firm ground of the gospel, not on a point that just happens to embody our particular prejudices. All of that has to be worked out. No doubt this challenge is too hard for some. And, yes, it is difficult to know where to draw the line today. It’s quite unlikely that we will be faced with people teaching what John’s opponents were teaching. There may well be other issues which, when we understand what’s at stake, function as flash-points…”

What are the flashpoints where we need to take a stand? Is it too late? What is the “firm ground of the Gospel” and is it too broad or narrow? Is the Scripture inspired to give us the Word of God more than words of God? What is Christian? Our strike zone is all over the place with conflicting answers. Lord Jesus, help us, help me, to find our way back to you. Amen.

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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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