US Liberty or Libertines: Church and Society

Pondering the news from the Harris Poll yesterday that Millennials are less tolerant of others on progressive social issues has me a bit dumbfounded. It gives me hope that America might be on the brink of a newfound morality, but doesn’t Jesus call us to love, not just tolerate? Walking a thin line between grace and judgment is the path we Christians tread: hating sin, loving the sinner; standing for something, so we don’t fall for anything. We’re living in the tension between Fourth of July freedom and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. That clause says that all laws must apply to everyone. It’s about properly defining the common good for our society, and balancing that with our individual or constituency group’s preferences.

Alexis de Tocqueville, in visiting the US in the 1830’s, said, “America is great because America is good.” Polarization on issues has inflamed Congress and Churches alike. Jesus implored in Matthew 5:13, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” How salty are we? Is the Church composed of paragons of virtue, or panderers of moral relativity?

It’s so easy to believe that God wants us to be forgiven, but being “saved” doesn’t just mean having our tickets punched for heaven. That notion makes heaven about us more than an eternal worship of God. In our own self-centered American way, we have made the after-life another what’s-in-it-for-me consumer product – a sad commentary on our priorities. No, we’re saved not just for heaven, but for now. “Saved” means “changed.” Its that big word that maybe our Millennials are grasping better than the rest of us: Sanctification. Sanctification is believing that, through the power of the HOLY Spirit, Jesus died to save us FROM our sins; i.e., keep us from them, deliver us, and set us free. That’s the kind of freedom we need to celebrate on July 4th!

The Equal Protection Clause has been mistakenly co-opted by people and courts to mean that everybody can do whatever they want, no matter what. Orthodox Christendom says, “Not at all!” The Equal Protection Clause is really a way to determine how WE can live together in commonly agreed upon ways that support the protection of what’s right and the punishment of what’s wrong. None of us should be able to do whatever we want to without regard for common decency.

But, to those who say that the church should stay out of the public sphere, I say it’s impossible. If we truly want the world to be a better place and honor God’s laws, we must obey Jesus’ words and be the salt of the earth. If not, we’re doomed and the world is doomed with us.

Here’s a wake-up call story: A guy wanting to buy some salt went into a little Mom and Pop grocery store and asked, “Do you sell salt?” “Ha!” said the owner. “Do we sell salt? Just look!”

The owner proceeded to show the customer an entire wall of shelves stocked with nothing but salt: Morton salt, iodized salt, kosher salt, sea salt, rock salt, garlic salt – every kind of salt imaginable. The customer couldn’t say anything but “Wow!”

The owner said, “This ain’t nothing. I’ve got more!” So, the store owner showed the customer a backroom that was filled with more and more salt everywhere. There were boxes, bags, and bins of salt. The owner in a daring way said, “Well, what do you think? Do we sell salt?” The customer exclaimed, “Oh, yeah! You’ve got salt to sell! This is unbelievable!”

The owner then said, “There’s more!” and led the customer down some steps to the basement. The basement was huge, at least triple the size of the backroom, and it was filled from floor to ceiling with, you guessed it, more salt of every kind, even 20 lb. salt-licks for cattle. “Incredible,” said the customer. “You really do sell salt!” Then the owner said, “Yep, except for one small thing. We almost never ever sell any, but that salt salesman – hoo-boy, does he sell salt!”

Paraphrasing Jesus, “Salt that stays on the shelf doesn’t do any good at all.” Come on, Church, let’s get to work and help the US and the world to know the transforming grace of Jesus Christ!

The United Methodist Church IS…

I am so tired of the spin from Mainstream UMC supporting the One Church Plan (OCP). The latest missive came this morning and promises that the OCP is a “strong, calm oasis” in the midst of what its leaders call the “stark contrast of the chaos and crisis ginned up” by supporters of the other plans. They even dare to say that the OCP is “not radical.” Malarkey! The tactics and words of the OCP are just plain wrong.

We are not the “United Baptist Church!” The OCP fundamentally changes how United Methodists embrace our identity as a connectional people. We would be left with a “conscience-driven” local option congregationalist denomination where local churches and clergy get to decide what’s right in their own minds about sexual ethics, and everything else. When that occurs we have destroyed who we are as United Methodists. We will have a UMC in one part of town that believes one thing, and one nearby with a different opinion. A house divided against itself cannot stand.

I was in Williamsburg, Virginia last week for the Southeastern Jurisdiction’s Committee on Episcopacy. Williamsburg is a beautiful city, home of Colonial Williamsburg where the capitol of Virginia was located during the American Revolution, not far from Yorktown where the US won its independence from Britain. I started thinking about United Methodism and US history. The US started its self-government with the ratification of the Articles of Confederation in 1781 which preserved the independence and sovereignty of each state. This worked okay until the need of a strong central government proved that just being loosely linked wasn’t in the best interest of everybody. So, in 1789 we passed our Constitution that created a unified whole, a union, which only partly solved the problem of state’s rights over the common good.

Basically, Americans discovered that a confederacy didn’t help enough people, nor did it collectively protect the country as a whole. Of course, any student of American history knows that it took the Civil War in 1861-1865 to return us to a strong central government, and change our self-understanding as a country. Until the Union’s victory over the Confederate States of America the US was used in plural form in sentences, “The United States are…,” and after the Union defeated the Confederacy sentences about the US read, “The United States is…”

Here’s the point that I get from this: The United Methodist Church is better as a union, not a confederacy. The OCP makes us a confederacy, not a union. The Modified Traditional Plan (MTP) keeps us unified, doesn’t overturn thousands of years of Judeo-Christian teaching on marriage, and uses our connectional ecclesiology to spread the Gospel. Every other plan splits us. As attracted as I am by my fall-back plan, the Connectional Conference Plan (CCP), I also know from American history that although the Union won the Civil War, there were Jim Crow abuses and it wasn’t until 1954 that “Brown v. Board of Education” made it the law of the land that “separate but equal” schools for black and white children was completely wrong and false. There was no equality. There was segregation, and it is a sin that still haunts us. The OCP and the CCP and all the rest of the plans except the Modified Traditional Plan attempt to make all United Methodist churches separate but equal. Get a clue, it’s impossible.

So, we need a union that does the least amount of harm. If the Modified Traditional Plan doesn’t pass there will be a mass exodus of people, church closures, and litigation of the worst kind. What kind of witness will that be for the world? The mis-named One Church Plan isn’t going to keep us together for the Gospel’s sake. It’s going to fragment us into oblivion. For instance, the OCP doesn’t have an exit plan for those who don’t want to be held hostage. That fact should raise everyone’s eyebrows. Why wouldn’t the OCP have an exit plan? Could it be financial fear or something more sinister? OCP supporters have to know that without Traditionalists they can’t pay the bills, but it doesn’t seem to matter to them. One so-called progressive told me at the 2016 GC, “We know we don’t have the votes to win, but we’re going to burn the house down when we leave.” Sounds like the OCP folks are the real noisy gongs that are radical. This will be my 7th General Conference and I’ve never been spit on or slapped by a Traditionalist, or seen a Traditionalist break a Communion Chalice and Paten. I sympathize with the pain that many feel with the MTP and our current Disciplinary language, but the best way forward to me is to keep what we have with greater accountability.

MY sincere hope is that the Modified Traditional Plan is overwhelmingly supported so that a clear message is sent. Let’s be in ministry with all people and hold them in sacred worth, but in 2020 we need to move on. I know one GC cannot bind another, but my hope is that we can call a moratorium of some sort. We are not a United Baptist Church. We are not a confederacy. We are not promoters of separate, but equal. The United Methodist Church IS a Bible-Believing, Soul-Saving, Jesus-Praising movement of the Holy Spirit to redeem the world!

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!

Take a Smile Pic

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.

Easy Buttons and The Waiting Place: Trusting God and the Need for Revival

Hearing “That was easy!” from an “Easy Button” from Staples would come in handy with a lot of our current situations. The stock market has taken a tumble, politics has rattled everyone, North Korea’s nuclear missile ambitions are frightening, the Artic is clogged with plastic waste, and the list goes on. Then there’s the usual personal stuff: illnesses, financial limitations, emotional struggles, work-related stress, and add graduation to the list. Whether it’s graduation from kindergarten, high school, college, or grad school, we wonder what’s next. What if my friends move or switch schools, what if I can’t find a job? How will I pay off these student loans? What’s the next step in my relationships? None of these questions are easy.

Then there’s the cultural dilemma of a rudderless society. We need a revival that is Spirit-led that begins with repentance. Our flippant devil-may-care “YOLO” – You Only Live Once attitude smacks us in the face every day when YODO is more accurate, You Only Die Once. Kids, youth, and adults of all ages make goals out of things that are so self-centered and oftentimes unspeakable. Our standards of morality have fallen to new lows. We need Jesus more than ever.

My favorite gift to graduating high school seniors for years has been Oh, the places You’ll Go! By Dr. Seuss. I’ll give them out again this year, but my optimism has been tempered by “fake” or real news. The bias in the news media makes me long for the days of Huntley and Brinkley or Walter Cronkite. I remember clearly the awful daily reports of the number of Vietnam dead. That was terrible, but today’s cacophony of talking heads makes it impossible to compartmentalize our lives to block out the noise. Sports used to be a great escape, but doping scandals and head injury debates make me feel like we’re watching fights to the death by gladiators in ancient Rome.

We can get fooled by placebos that only mask our main malady. I can push my “That was Easy!” button and it doesn’t change a thing. Heck, in my rush to get on and off elevators, I can push the “close door” button countless times to no avail. What most people don’t know is that those buttons don’t even work. They are set with specific intervals so that no one gets caught in the doors. The placebo effect makes us think we’re going somewhere, but it’s really the same-old, same-old. I can go out and buy an Ultra High Definition 4K Television and fool myself into thinking how sharp and crisp the picture is when all the while it doesn’t matter. My cable provider can’t handle 4K, so there you go. It’s a sham.

So, Dr. Seuss, the places we’ll go don’t look that great right now. What are we to do? If you know anything about Seuss’ book then you know that he identified what he called the “most useless place.” It is “The Waiting Place.” For maybe the first time I think the author is wrong. In these tumultuous times, a waiting place might just be the best place to be. Instead of purchasing or chasing placebos for what ails us, why don’t we wait? There’s a Bible verse in Isaiah 40:28-31 that says that “those who WAIT upon the Lord will renew their strength…” Amen to that!

Our society is into pushing the instant gratification button, and it doesn’t work with elevators or much of anything else! We think we can control all of life’s variables, and we overlook the best source of real peace and joy: Jesus. It doesn’t get much plainer than Matthew 11:28 where Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Our frantic frenetic world needs to wait on the Lord, pause, quit rushing here and there, and cast our cares on the Lord.

I Peter 5:6-11 says the same thing another way, and speaks volumes of good advice to me: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings. And the God of all grace, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.”

Another Bible passage that helps me wait and listen for God comes from I Kings 19. The prophet Elijah was about to give up and was in hiding and waiting in a cave while his enemies pursued him. In the midst of his waiting, God spoke to him: “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then the Lord spoke, but not through the powerful wind, nor the subsequent earthquake, nor the fire that came next. After the fire came the Lord’s “gentle whisper,” sometimes translated as “a still small voice.” Let us be like Elijah and, though our foes be many, let’s listen for God’s whispers each day. He will speak, not in huge ways usually, but in gentle whispers.

We need to cock our ears toward God and be attentive. Our world and especially American culture needs to get right with God. We need to repent of our own foolish efforts to fix our problems. We need to shut our ears to the shouts of doomsayers, and we need to listen to God. We need to wait on the Lord, listen to his direction and follow his will. Just maybe, if we wait long enough, we’ll hear God’s still small voice and there will be grand places that we will go! Listen!

So hear this blessing from Jesus in Matthew 6:25ff: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, drink or wear…Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?…Seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Let us turn to the Lord and mean it more than we ever have before. It’s time!

Oh The Places

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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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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Jesus’ Baptism and an Epiphany

The first Sunday after Epiphany on January 6 always commemorates the “Baptism of the Lord.” Jesus’ personal epiphany came as he heard the voice from heaven say, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Wouldn’t it be an epiphany for each of us to hear that we are a part of the family, loved and appreciated? Too many children are seldom told how loved they are.

I grew up in a family that had a spectacular Christmas dinner. It helped that it was also my mother’s parent’s wedding anniversary. Everyone gathered, ate, and had a marvelous time. Uncle Lee, who was a meat-cutter, always gave the nieces and nephews some coin or $2 bill with his name inscribed, usually in red fingernail polish. He always wrapped the item in meat wrapping paper and usually with a pig’s tail to add ballast. There was caramel cake which was my favorite, and others enjoyed the ambrosia. I must admit that I dislike coconut to this day because of my responsibility in hammering open and grating the prime ingredient.

You might wonder what in the world this has to do with Jesus’ baptism and the way we treat children. God didn’t do what my grandparents did as they made sure we sat at the “child’s table.” Sure, we were loved, but it was also important to know the pecking order. The first-class folks sat at the BIG table that had the untouchable finery on it. We were relegated to paper and plastic.

In God’s pecking order, something interesting happens at Jesus’ baptism. Jesus didn’t need to be baptized. He never sinned. There was no need of John’s message of repentance for him, but he did what he always did – the right thing. Some would say that he did it to give us an example to do the same. Others would say that Jesus was modeling humility. I think that is more where my mind goes. Either way, with obedience and humility there’s hardly a chance to go wrong. Jesus was baptized and God spoke. Maybe that’s the clincher for us, too. If we do the right thing, God will speak!

You and I will receive our own epiphany if we’re obedient and humble, doing the things we don’t have to do and doing the things we ought to do, whether we need to or not. God loves each of us so much. He delights in us when we we’re like Jesus at his baptism. His baptism and ours are the same except we do need to repent and have our sins washed away. I guess the closest we come to the wonder of Jesus’ baptism is when we baptize infants. They aren’t old enough to have committed actual sins, though they, like all of us, have original sin, but God does a marvelous thing. Since they are as close to sinless as a human can be to his only begotten son, he puts his baptismal seal of approval and love on them. Even when they will never remember it, from before their first conscious thought that there is even a God, God says to them, their parents, family, and the whole gathered church, “I love you and you delight me!” Pretty darn special, an epiphany!

I remember using Baptism of the Lord Sunday as a special day in the church. This was a long time before any baptismal reaffirmation liturgy was written. What I did was use it as a time to renew our baptismal covenant. At the beginning of each new year we used Wesley’s Covenant Prayer and I literally called the church roll, one name at a time. I encouraged families to sit together and, yes, they answered out loud whether or not they were present. It was kind of like Christmas with my grandparents except there was only one table – the Lord’s Table. We ratified our covenant, renewed our vows through that sacred meal, and moved into a new year with a clean slate.

Interestingly, every year I called some name and would find out that the person had died. The word had not gotten to the church office, but somebody would always know. It became an opportunity to clean up our membership rolls, or, in my mind, we made some transfers from the church militant to the church triumphant. We always had a big church dinner afterwards, and I was amazed at how people always got to talking about how their family history intersected with the church’s. It was a great time of fellowship, reconciliation, and pushed us to be better people than we would have been without it.

I hope this Sunday will be a blessed time for you and your church family. I pray that you will have your own epiphany and hear God say to you, “You’re a part of my family; I love and delight in you!”

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Soul Drought and The Lord of the Dance

I’m preaching on Psalm 1 this coming Sunday and not feeling at all like a tree planted by God’s living water. There’s some soul drought going on. Do you have days when you can perceptively feel the heaviness in the air, even the cosmos? These are the times that the poem “Footprints” is helpful. It reminds me that when I have felt the most tired and alone and I’m upset that there’s only one set of footprints on the beach, that’s exactly when the Lord carried me.

We go through life thinking that we and God are walking hand in hand and see two pairs of footprints. Suddenly we notice there’s only one set and we wonder where God went. We have all been there. Whipped, tired, and worn. If another shoe falls, we don’t have the strength to pick it up. We need Jesus to carry us. Unfortunately, I often teeter into a melancholy and find myself unable to get moving again. I want Jesus to keep carrying me.

That’s not the life most of us want. We want God’s help when we’re powerless, but we prefer joy. Someone said it this way, “Joy is not the absence of suffering. It is the presence of God.” I think it’s more than that. It’s more than Jesus carrying us through tough times. It’s more than hanging in there. We want to do more than survive. We want to thrive!

This is when I most appreciate the variation on the “Footprints” poem. It fulfills Psalm 30:11, “You (Lord) have turned my mourning into dancing; you have removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.” I don’t know if you’re ready to hop out of the Lord’s strong sheltering grip and get on with Life with Jesus by your side, but read this and see if it describes where you are or want to be:

“Imagine you and the Lord Jesus are walking down the road together. For much of the way, the Lord’s footprints go along steadily, consistently, rarely varying the pace. But your footprints are a disorganized stream of zigzags, starts, stops, turnarounds, circles, departures and returns. For much of the way, it seems to go like this, but gradually your footprints come more in line with the Lord’s, soon paralleling His consistently.

You and Jesus are walking as true friends! This seems perfect, but then an interesting thing happens: Your footprints that once etched the sand next to Jesus’ are now walking precisely in His steps. Inside His larger footprints are your smaller ones, safely you and Jesus are becoming one. This goes on for many miles, but gradually you notice another change. The footprints inside the large footprints seem to grow larger. Eventually they disappear altogether.

There is only one set of footprints; they have become one. This goes on for a long time, but suddenly the second set of footprints is back. This time it seems even worse! Zigzags all over the place. Stops. Starts. Deep gashes in the sand. A disordered canvas on the sand, as both sets of footprints go every which direction. You are amazed and shocked. Your dream ends.

Now you pray: ‘Lord, I understand the first scene with zigzags and fits. I was a new Christian; I was just learning. But you walked on through the storm and helped me learn to walk with you.’

‘That is correct,’ says the Lord.

You continue, ‘… and when the smaller footprints were inside of Yours, I was actually learning to walk in Your steps; followed you very closely.’

‘Very good. You have understood everything so far,’ says Jesus.

‘… when the smaller footprints grew and filled in Yours, I suppose that I was becoming like you in every way.’

‘Precisely.’

‘So, Lord, was there a regression or something? The footprints separated, and this time it was worse than at first.’

There is a pause as the Lord answers with a smile in his voice. ‘You didn’t know? That was when we danced.’”

Maybe today is a day that you need Jesus to carry you and that’s fine, might even be necessary. Maybe today’s a day when you want to walk hand in hand beside Jesus with two sets of footprints. Frankly, what I’m feeling is to get up and go, and stop wallowing in this soul’s dark night. I need a dance partner today – Jesus. I want joy; to thrive, not just survive! What about you?