The “Done” Church Plan

I already wrote a blog calling the One Church Plan the “None” Church Plan. It’s worse than that. It’s a surrender to all things that we as United Methodists are not. So, a better title is the “Done” Church Plan, because if it passes at the GC Special Session, we’re done. The Propaganda War for the One Church Plan is well underway. As a delegate to the Special Session of the UM General Conference next February, I and others are being inundated by material touting one plan over another. The most pressure is from the proponents of the One Church Plan. As head of our delegation, in our local church, and in the district, I have spoken at listening sessions and done my best to pay careful attention. I will not panic over some of the misleading information, but I will trust that Jesus and the mission of the church will prevail.

Here are some of my problems with the One Church Plan (OCP), and specifically yesterday’s brochure from the group calling itself “Mainstream UMC.” I want to quote from the actual words of the document to cite my issues: “Many of the leaders of the organizations supporting the Traditional Plan are willing to throw away 250 years of Methodism over the issue of homosexuality.” The problem with this is that for 250 years, and including right now, the UMC has supported marriage as between one man and one woman. John Wesley’s commentary on Scripture supports the traditional understanding of God’s best plan for humanity through the complementarity of male and female union. This isn’t just the teaching of Methodism for 250 years, and the action of every General Conference since 1972. This has been the position of Judeo-Christian teaching for 4,000 years! Who in the world do we think we are that we can overturn the consistent teaching of the Bible?

Sure there have been those who used the Bible to put down women and promote slavery, but the same Scripture promoted women in leadership from Miriam, Deborah, Esther, Huldah, Ruth, Mary, Elizabeth, Anna, the Women at the Empty Tomb, Philip’s 4 prophetess daughters, Phoebe, Euodia, Synthche, and many more. Scripture has also been used to promote slavery and racism, but Scripture also says, “In Christ there is no Jew, nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free (Galatians 3:28).” Here’s the bottom line, the whole of Scripture teaches a morality UNLIKE the pagan world. Here we are in 2018-2019 doing the opposite. We want to reshape ageless Biblical ethics into the time-limited circumstances of our fallen world, not the other way around.

And for those who say Jesus never talked about the practice of homosexuality, you’re mistaken! Jesus used the foundational passage about human relationships from Genesis 2:24 that “a man shall leave his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” From the beginning of creation we have been made in God’s image, “So God created humankind in his own image… male and female he created them (Genesis1:27).” Jesus used this exact passage in Matthew 19:5 and Mark 10:6-8, and there are other exact quotes in the NT.

So here’s the point for those of us who choose the Traditional Plan over the One Church Plan. The OCP redefines the Biblical definition of marriage for the whole UMC. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the Philippines, Africa, or Europe. The Bible will be overturned. Now I believe in civil rights for everyone, but I will not compromise a high view of Jesus the Logos, the Word of Scripture for the sake of being politically correct. What’s worked for 250 years in Methodism and Biblical sexual ethics for thousands of years has not changed.

Then the brochure from “Mainstream UMC” goes way out on a limb. It says as it quotes one author’s perspective, “The reason that I cannot support the Traditional Plan is because it is in opposition to the unity of the church.” The unity of the church has taught exactly what the Traditional Plan promotes! If anything, it is the One Church Plan that is seeking to overturn the clear teaching of Scripture and destroy the unity of the church. I’ll say it again, EVERY General Conference of the UMC has kept faith with the sexual ethics of the vast majority of the church.

It is the One Church Plan that wants to let every local church have a church conference and vote on whether it will allow same-sex marriages on its property. That’s not unity. You’ll have one church in this part of town pitted against another one. All of the tension and disruption that’s been at the General Conference level will be brought to our local churches. The whole One Church Plan isn’t about oneness! It’s about letting everybody do what they want to do! They can call it “contextualization,” or whatever, but it is wrong from Scripture and our historic self-understanding as a denomination.

We have been a connectional people working together to spread the Gospel and do missions around the world. The One Church Plan causes us to fragment into a congregational system where sexual ethics will become THE litmus test for pastoral appointments. Let me ask it this way, “If local churches are going to decide whether they want to follow the historic traditional teaching of the church universal, then who is going to lose?” Will it be the pastor, the local church, or both? The answer up front and personal will be everybody. Can you imagine the divisiveness and rancor? Then another question arises. Whom do you think most churches will want as their pastors if you slip into the One Church Plan’s congregationalism? Wake up, people! This is not how we do church. We are a sent system of clergy deployment. This flips that and it won’t look good for our prophetic voice to the world. Church unity will have been sacrificed on the altar of progressive hubris and false fruitfulness.

The Traditional Plan is faithful to the Bible, church history, and United Methodism. The One Church Plan asks each local church and pastor to violate their most sacred loyalty to God. The One Church Plan will bring the fight to each and every pew and person. The Traditional Plan will uphold the values that our faith heritage has supported for thousands of years. The One Church Plan will turn us into a denomination that will have thousands of localized interpretations, and have no real Book of Discipline. In a Congregationalist system every church becomes its own arbiter of truth and hiring agency, and our UM heterogeneity and diversity of clergy will be squeezed into the box of a market-driven call system of clergy deployment. We will not be United Methodists. The adherents of the One Church Plan are selling out, but I will not. I am confident that we will uphold Scripture, the historic teaching of the church on marriage, and will not lose our connectional ecclesiology.

The Traditional Plan has won this battle not just since 1972, but for 4,000 years. The falsely named One Church Plan will result in chaos and defeat. We must stand tall and expose its problems. The Traditional Plan is who we are as the UMC, and as the church universal. The One Church Plan is a disaster in the making. This is a fight that we have won over and over again, and if we want to transform the world for Jesus, we’d better win again.

Broken Church

The “None-Church Plan” of the UMC

I was invited this past weekend to a meeting that alleged that it was a gathering of theologically diverse opinions on the practice of homosexuality in relation to The United Methodist Church. We made declarations that the press would not be invited and that our discussions would be kept private. I even turned down an interview by the United Methodist News Service though someone had evidently already ratted me out as holding a certain opinion. It should have been little surprise that yesterday I saw a news article that had a multitude of folks from the same meeting sharing their opinions, all of which were different than mine.

I find it very disingenuous when it feels like progressives have invited a few token traditionalists to their meeting. I was not going to fall into the trap of being provoked to speak up in opposition. That would have only led to more demonization of the traditional perspective and victimization of those on the left whom I genuinely count as persons of sacred worth and many as friends. Those who really know me are certain of my integrity and love for the UMC. The final straw came out yesterday evening when I was informed that some people who went from the meeting in Nashville to the Uniting Methodists meeting in Dallas reported that the Nashville meeting was unanimous in its support of the One Church Plan. Since then I have been informed that report was erroneous. Actually it was basically stated that there was consensus of support except for 5 people. I have heard all sorts of reports, either true or apocryphal, of overwhelming support for the One Church Plan, but let me tell you from first-hand experience, it is not the case everywhere, and it was not in Nashville.

Unanimity couldn’t be further from the truth. Bear in mind that the Nashville meeting was decidedly a progressive group. Someone volunteered that the leaders attempted to have more traditional voices present, but they refused to come. I don’t know that for sure, but what I am certain of is that when we as a group were asked to vote by secret ballot only 10 persons said they were 100% all-in for the One Church Plan (OCP); 26 voted that they would support it, “but it’s not perfect;” 15 voted “Yes, with reservations;” 3 said “Yes, only if changes are made;” and 2, including me, voted “I’m not in favor.” A progressive bishop presented his pitch for the OCP and said that there were problems with it, the Connectional Conference Plan, and the Traditionalist Plan, but when pressed by questions about what he liked about each, he could not name anything he liked about any plan except the OCP. He couldn’t name anything wrong with it either.

What does this narrative say about so-called unanimity and the hard-press sell by members of the Council of Bishops? First, there was no unanimity. There were people on the left and the right who oppose the OCP because it is either seen as a further slap in the face to progressives who want more extensive full inclusion of gays and their allies, or it was a slap in traditionalist’s faces because it is ruinous to our ecclesiology and Biblical hermeneutic. Only 10 people out of 55 were “all-in.”

So we have bishops who are disregarding the promises made in the Council to stay out of the fray of support or non-support. It seems that the only bishops holding to their promises are the conservative ones. The bishop who spoke to us also gave some telling numbers of the vote on the plans at the Council of Bishops (COB). He stated that 58% of the COB wanted to support just one plan, not three. When that was decided he said 60% voted for the One Church Plan. I thank God for the 40% especially since I thought via news media or word of mouth that the number of progressives was much higher. Then he reported that after the OCP was made the main plan, 90% of the COB wanted the OCP plus the other two plans presented. The obvious conclusion is that there is not unanimity in the COB.

I do worry, however, whether or not whomever decides the presiding bishops for the Special Session of General Conference can find someone genuinely unbiased enough to adequately preside. I hate to think such a thought, but given the propaganda machine out of the COB for the One Church Plan, it makes me wonder. The bishop that presented to us in Nashville even suggested strategies to get the One Church Plan passed. I am grateful that the Judicial Council basically forced the COB to refer the whole matter back to the Commission on a Way Forward instead of it coming straight from the COB. There is no way, by Judicial Council precedent, that the COB could refer anything straight to the General Conference without violating the “separation of powers” that exists in our ecclesiology.

The subject of ecclesiology and the One Church Plan weigh heavily on my opposition to it. We are a connectional polity. That’s our means of governance. Local churches don’t call their preachers because we are a “sent ministry.” So stay awake when progressives want to say that yielding on the issue of homosexual practice won’t hurt us because it didn’t hurt the Presbyterians, Lutherans, UCC, Disciples of Christ, Episcopalians, and Cooperative Baptists, etc. Well, we do things differently than all of those. Every one of them in some fashion or another call their own pastor. That’s not who we are. If the One Church Plan passes then we will run down the road toward congregationalism where every church decides who they want for their clergy. Who will lose? My daughter, who is a UM Elder, for one. Churches that still want the proverbial white male in their 30’s with 3 children with an impossible 30 years of experience are often unwilling to have a female pastor or person of color even if they are much more qualified. Congregationalism will destroy our unique “sent ministry.” By the way, the Episcopalians, ELCA Lutherans, PCUSA Presbyterians, and all the rest who have loosened their stance on homosexuality have lost an average 30% of their membership in just a few years. So much for Making Disciples of Jesus Christ. If this issue affects these “call” and “modified call” systems this way, the ramifications for us will be worse. It will be a sea-change for our connectional system.

So the One Church Plan sends us down an awful precipice where everyone decides their own prerogative on same sex behaviors and marriage and would necessitate local church votes, annual conference votes, and individual clergy decisions on whether they can perform same-sex unions, allow their churches to do the same, and if bishops can’t in good conscience ordain, commission, or license someone who is self-avowed and practicing then another bishop who is willing to do it must be brought in. This all smacks of confusion and not connectionalism. For all you Judicial Council readers like me, look at Judicial Decision 544 which says this as it pertains to same sex unions and behaviors in relation to our ecclesiology, clergy standards and appointments:

“Although the paragraph under consideration relates to homosexuality, the question presently before the Judicial Council is not restricted to that particular issue. The matter before this body is one of the connectional system within The United Methodist Church and the relationship of the ministry to both the General and Annual Conferences. The Constitution, Par. 15, gives the General Conference the power to fix the basic requirements for ministry, while it becomes the responsibility of the Annual Conference, as set forth in Par. 36, to measure, evaluate, and vote upon candidates, as regards the minimum standards enacted by the General Conference. Ordination in The United Methodist Church is not local, nor provincial, but worldwide. While each Annual Conference is a door through which one may enter the ministry of the entire church, the Annual Conference cannot reduce nor avoid stipulations established by the General Conference which must be met by the church’s ministry everywhere. An Annual Conference might set specific qualifications for its ministerial members, but does not have the authority to legislate in contradiction to a General Conference mandate or requirement.”

Every African and whomever else has been falsely promised that this One Church Plan won’t affect them needs to know that it does! “Ordination, etc. is worldwide,” and our minimum standards are global. The One Church Plan has a huge constitutional hurdle when it promotes annual conferences as the arbiter of minimum clergy standards. The General Conference cannot delegate its power to a lesser body. We are not a diocesan polity where each area does its own thing. Pargraph 543.7 2016 Book of Discipline says that the BOD can be adapted, but only “as the special conditions and the mission of the church in the area require, especially concerning the organization and administration…” So, the OCP’s so-called promise of local adaptation simply doesn’t ring true. Do you want to be part of a denomination where Christian faithfulness, money, resources, and reputation are linked to that which God, the overwhelming majority of Christendom and the General Conference have declared incompatible with Christian teaching?

Our connectional polity brands how we’re different from other denominations, and why we need more uniformity in our minimum credentialing standards. How in the world will bishops and cabinets decide which clergy fit with which church if the standards are all over the place? The One Church Plan is the most deceitful title of any plan I know. Instead of unity of the church, it fragments it even more. Rather than promoting unity, it reduces The United Methodist Church to a shell of what we’re meant to be in making disciples as a connectional enterprise.

Certainly, there are many things incompatible with Christian teaching, and I often feel the dishonesty and pain of singling out just one thing. I am sorry for my sisters and brothers who have experienced harm over this issue. However, I have been harmed, too. The whole denomination has been harmed by the religious terrorists that have co-opted sessions of General Conference, the Connectional Table, and lots of other church venues with their protests. We have been sidetracked, distracted, and harmed as a denomination. One leader this past weekend offered a telling statement, “Everyone’s truth is the truth.” No, it isn’t. Jesus said, “I am the way, the TRUTH, and the life.” The bishop presenting the OCP this weekend said the Traditional Plan is “un-Biblical” even though it represents orthodox Christian teaching from the church’s inception.

God did have something to say about marriage, as evidenced in the complementarity of Genesis 1 and Romans 1. God wants us male and female in relationship because that partnership best defines the Biblical plan for human interaction. Jesus said in Matthew 19:5-6 and Mark 10:7-9, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.  So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” The same words are repeated in Genesis 2:24! The issue, therefore, of homosexual practice is a bell-weather issue about the authority of Scripture, the nature of humankind, the doctrine of sin, and much more. If everyone’s truth is the truth then why did Jesus need to die on a cross? On women’s leadership in the church and on questions of race there is clear evidence in Scripture that supports women’s ordination and the fact that God calls people of every nation and race, plus there are passages to the contrary. But, in the case of homosexual practice, the Bible consistently denies its validity in every instance. As Wesleyans we believe in Sanctifying Grace; i.e., that God doesn’t save us through Jesus Christ to leave us the way God found us, but to transform us for the transformation of the world.

So, I’m not giving up on the UMC, but we need to be ready for 2019’s Special Session of General Conference. Traditional delegates from the US, Africa, Europe, and the Philippines must not compromise and pass the so-called One Church Plan. Enough is enough! The “progressive” tactic isn’t new. This will be my 7th General Conference. I’ve seen this all before. For instance, the 32 constitutional amendments of 2008 were an attempt to separate us into theologically diverse regions and those amendments overwhelmingly failed. The Connectional Table’s Local Option Plan didn’t even make it out of committee in 2016. By a mere 23 vote margin the Commission on a Way Forward was created and it has been dominated by bishops under a cloud of secrecy.

The One Church Plan preferred by progressives and 60% of the COB is not a way forward. It will do more harm than good. With thanks to the faithful members of the Commission and the 40% of the bishops who value our ecclesiology and the Gospel over expediency and yielding to culture, I have to still say without any equivocation: “Vote the One Church Plan down!” It is really the “None Church Plan.”

GC0066

The Olympian Life

Epiphany season goes out with a bang every year! Its concluding Sunday is always Transfiguration Day when Jesus is transformed in front of Peter, James, and John. Epiphany is about God’s self-revelation of divine power in the world. It began on January 6 with God’s revelation to the Magi through the star, and ends this Sunday with the awe-inspiring event of Jesus on the mountaintop with his closest disciples, and the best representatives of the Law and the Prophets, Moses and Elijah respectively. Then next week on Ash Wednesday we begin an intentionally self-reflective journey to Holy Week that calls us to genuine repentance. Lent begins with ashes and ends in Christ’s death, literally ashes to ashes.

Some of us remember sports commentator Jim McKay’s voice-over of the iconic tune of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” as he described “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” The scene that I remember most is the one with a ski jumper crashing. Both spiritual and Winter Olympics are upon us in this up and down time between Epiphany and Lent. Like Olympic athletes who train for years, we disciples of Christ suffer exhaustion on a daily basis for the chance at overwhelming exhilaration. This is our description of the journey of faith that travels from mountaintops to valleys and up and down again. This is Jesus’ life. This is our life as Christians.

It is really the life of humans in general. Jesus shows us how to make this common occurrence into uncommon grace, to fill our up and down existence with ultimate and grand meaning. A king and savior who knows only the heights of victory isn’t one of us, but Jesus knows our every sorrow and amplifies every joy. Jesus shows us the path to redeem every experience of life, however high the mountaintop or low the valley.

Life’s ever-changing nature is a bothersome phenomenon for me. My desire for predictability and stability is a common human desire. Nobody likes volatility. Look at the stock market fluctuations of this week. Nobody likes too much risk. I’ll try something new every now and then, but I’m okay with ordering the same meal at the same restaurant time and time again. I know there won’t be unwanted surprises, but where’s the risk in that, and the sense of adventure that makes life worth living?

Jesus models the Olympian life of risk and reward throughout his ministry. This is the liturgical basis for the end of Epiphany and the beginning of Lent. To be fully human is to go from top to bottom, bottom to top, and repeat ad infinitum. It strikes me that fluctuation and volatility are examples of our being fully human, and they also reflect how we’re made in the Image of God.

Doesn’t God embrace the world’s ups and downs? God has embraced us! Our history proves that we are no better than kids with daisies saying, “I love him/her!” or “I love him/her not!” In our yearly ode to love on Valentine’s Day, appropriately on Ash Wednesday this year, God gives us the best Valentine in spite of our fickle devotion.

God gives us Jesus who in the Incarnation has chosen to ride this rollercoaster with us. He has modeled the ultimate in risk and reward by showing us that love is the utterly amazing opportunity for self-giving and yielding intimacy. Faith is our confidence that God can and will transfigure you and me. It’s the hope of young, old, and in-between love that is both treasured and perpetuated. It’s the kind of love that sustains us from the height of Epiphany to the depths of Lent, from Palm Sunday’s “Hosanna’s” to the despair of Good Friday’s “Crucify Him!” for better for worse, in sickness and in health…

The Demise of My Mini Cooper

The recent demise of my Mini Cooper Roadster was a traumatic and sad day. Two-seaters aren’t that big, but mine got considerably smaller when a truck plowed into me going somewhere around 50 mph. I was stopped in traffic as the second car ahead of me was trying to turn. I glanced up and there it was, no brakes, nothing that I could do, then just a big crunching BAM! I felt my neck abnormally extend between the seats, then come back and whack the steering wheel. I learned the hard way that when you get hit from the rear your airbags don’t deploy. The sensors are in the front and side. A cop, who was 50+ yards away working another accident said, “I not only heard the collision, I felt it.” The ground shook and the back of my car ended up about 2 feet from my head and back. I am blessed to be alive. God’s providence is a reality!

Eulogizing a car seems nonsensical, inappropriate, and somewhat sinful after seeing what I’ve seen this past year in the Congo and Philippines, but I really appreciated my car. I’ve been in Mini’s for years. Their seats fit me, 11 inches from floorboard to seat edge. I can ride in Cindy’s Accord and 30 minutes into the drive I’m ready to bend my leg around my neck. Not with my Mini. In it I could literally drive for days.

Our last big road trip in the car was 4,000+ miles to the Men’s Basketball Final Four in Phoenix, Arizona. I learned on Tuesday afternoon March 28, 2017 that my request for tickets was granted, but we had to be there by Thursday to pick them up at Will Call in the team hotel. The game was on Saturday, April 1. We packed in a rush determined to travel light, fast, and cheap. We were going to camp in a tent the whole way. I drove for 22 straight hours, except for pit stops, and we reached Las Cruces, New Mexico on Wednesday evening. I thought we would never get out of Texas, but Cindy and I had a great time with me driving while she navigated. We were cozy, to be sure, in the little cockpit of my car. We had such a good time talking that we never, not once, turned on the radio.

God’s providence showed up big time over the course of the trip. Cindy and I had a scary encounter going through Dallas in a heavy rainstorm. It was between night and dawn on Wednesday morning about 14 hours into the trip. The sky was on fire with lightning. A truck literally danced back and forth on its rear wheels several feet in front of us. We got caught behind a huge accident in the torrential downpour, and were in the farthest lane away from the exit that would help us get around it. Cindy, using her Southern charm, lowered the window and started asking other drivers, one after another for 5 lanes, if we could move over. We did and made it safely around the mess.

From Fort Worth to California there’s not a lot of anything green or tall except mountains. The trees are more like shrubs, and there’s not a lot of them. It’s wide open spaces out there and the barren beauty of the desert is magnificent. I can now understand why people get claustrophobic when they move back east. Our trees block the view of the expansive sky. On the other hand, the wide open spaces of the West can become hypnotic. Dangerously hypnotic. We were stopped in traffic in the middle of nowhere between Midland and El Paso, and I heard screeching and looked into my rear-view mirror. There was smoke that smelled of burning rubber and the pungent sudden down-shifting of a clutch. A loaded 18-wheeler literally slid past us on the shoulder of the road as if it was on fire. If it had hit us we wouldn’t have been much bigger than a grease spot in the road.

One of the few annoying things about the trip was a beep-beep-beep sound that I had been dealing with for over a year. I had taken the car back and forth to the dealership numerous times. It was the sensor that indicated that my convertible roof wasn’t securely fastened, when it actually was! They never could fix it, but then providentially on Saturday’s game day we found out what the problem was. We had put on our Gamecock gear and got out of the tent to make our way to Glendale, but the car wouldn’t start. A guy next to us in the campground who happened to be bicycling to South Carolina of all places had a portable battery charger in his brother’s escort truck. We went straight to a little car parts place in Apache Junction, but they didn’t have the specialty battery that we needed. I kept the car running and googled Mini Cooper dealers near Phoenix. Tempe had one although it was about 60 miles out of the way. I was freaking out because I didn’t want to miss the game. By God’s grace the Tempe Mini dealership was open, including the all-important service department. A rarity on a Saturday! We got there, and they had the battery. Guess what? Almost as good as getting the new battery was that the beep-beeping stopped!!

We went to the game and watched our team come close to beating Gonzaga who had “Big’s” who should have been on a football team. In defeat, we walked out of the arena, quickly sold our ticket to the final, and went back to our tent in Apache Junction. We left Sunday morning heading toward the Grand Canyon. “Why not?” we said. “We’re this close.” Hours, hours and hours later we arrived and, thanks to selling the ticket, we had enough money to pay for a nice room. Sunday evening we were chilling out waiting for our room to be ready and sat in the balcony overlooking the lobby of the El Tovar Hotel. There were just a few chairs and a TV. Providentially this gave us a chance to watch the Lady Gamecocks vying for the Women’s Basketball National Championship. A young lady walked up and asked if she could watch. I said, “If you will pull for the Gamecocks.” She said that she would and was from South Carolina. I asked, “Where?” She replied, “Edgefield.” I told her that was my hometown and asked her name. She said, “Kylie Keesley.” My immediate response was, “Are you Billy Keesley’s daughter?” She said, “Yes.” I told her how he and I were next door neighbors growing up, etcetera, and etcetera. Then Billy walked up. We hardly watched the game because we spent most of the time catching up with each other. We hadn’t seen each other in years. It was great. Plus we won the game, too.

God’s providence shielded us through more stops and tent camping in Tucumcari, New Mexico, and avoiding being killed outside of Memphis where the road construction was horrible on I-40. It was a great trip. I miss my deceased car, but Cindy and I have great memories of God watching over us. You want to know what her biggest worry was – a flat tire. My car didn’t have a spare tire, only run-flats that just last for a max of 50 miles. If you’ve ever been out west you know that it takes a lot farther than fifty miles to find gas, much less a tire for a Mini Cooper. Jesus watched out for us, always does. God’s providence knows no bounds or distance, and I’m grateful.

Mini Cooper in Phoenix

Opening My Heart to Jesus

The mystery of the Incarnation is overwhelming. That God-in-the-flesh would come and dwell among us is amazing. Prophets had been sent to no avail. Laws had been given that did more to confirm our guilt than make us better people. God took the greatest risk of all and was born to fulfill both the Law and the Prophets. The Eternal God embedded in time and born! How could it be? It is as incomprehensible as any miracle. A virgin with child? He had to be different from us, yet essentially the same – one of us but completely divine, too. We should all be grateful that Joseph believed in the Virgin Birth! That’s a sticking point for many modern naysayers, but how else could Jesus be the Second Adam, born without Original Sin, and with the ability to say “yes” or “no” to temptation, and, having been found without sin, he died and rose again because “the wages of sin is death,” and since Jesus always chose God’s way, death could not hold Him, and He burst forth from the tomb! He lives forever!

Think of parallels between the first century and today. Leaders back then and now misinterpret God’s ways more than understand them. Herod wanted the Magi to keep following the star and report back to him so he could kill this newborn threat, but a baby born in a stable isn’t a sign of a weak and powerless king. It is a sign of real majesty, and at least Herod grasped that and shuddered. What he missed was that true royalty embraces the power of love over the love of power. A God who would be born in the humblest of circumstances is a sign of a ruler who is secure and knows who He is. It’s a sign of the tremendous love that God has for the lowly likes of you and me.

The message couldn’t have been written more poetically and so genuinely believable: Poor Mary with her obedient heart yielding herself to God; Joseph, a doubter and who wouldn’t be, yet he gave his dreams credence and believed; Magi who in faith followed a starry sign to God knows where, but came they did to see a king and present Him with their homage; Poor shepherds, the lowest of the low, left their flocks, their everything, to see the Savior born; and Angels who followed God’s bidding to sing a song that echoes to this very day. What a message! It continues to stir humankind, and rightly so.

God is always the best Author. I have my favorite writers in my preferred genres of history and mystery, but God out-writes them all. I also have my favorite Christian authors. Clive Staples Lewis is at the top with classics like The Chronicles of Narnia, Mere Christianity, and A Grief Observed. C.S. Lewis is hard to beat with his imagination, authenticity and clarity of thought. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his works on community and ethics have informed me since I first became a Christ-follower: Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship are two treasures. His absolute heroism in the face of Nazism and his ethical decision to take part in the July 20, 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler has resonated with my warrior-spirit within. He was hung as a martyr on April 9, 1945 as the result of Hitler’s last orders. In C.S. Lewis and Bonhoeffer you can smell the smoke of faithful discipleship.

I wonder at this Christmas season if that smoky smell is as apparent on me. The rush and the thick of things that clamor for our time mask the musky smell. The materialism run rampant tramples goodwill. Can I smell the manger straw and hear the cattle lowing? I long to mean it when I sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and its words: “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in, be born is us today.” Can I make room in my heart for the Christ who is both Child and King? Can our world? O, Lord, be born in me today. In us. Amen.

Nativity Scene

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

Valuing Diversity

When I was a youth you either pulled for the Baltimore Colts or the Green Bay Packers. We divided up in other ways, too. People were often defined by their affinities or choices. In my hometown you either liked Johnny Unitas or Bart Starr, Fords or Chevys, the Red Sox or Yankees, and South Carolina or Clemson.

There wasn’t much wiggle room. Today we are even more polarized: red state/blue state, pro-gun/no-gun, liberal/conservative, Democrat/Republican, and Fox/CNN. One of the few positives out of this horrific hurricane season is that the things that normally divide us don’t matter as much when we’re facing calamities together.

Being united in common cause is so much needed, hurricane or not. Wouldn’t it be great if bi-partisanship ruled the day rather than acrimonious finger-pointing? When we start pre-judging instead of pre-loving others we make assumptions that are usually false. A lot of our differences disappear when we get the facts and get to know someone personally.

Some of you know that I’m a member of GCORR (General Commission on Religion and Race), an agency of the United Methodist Church that works for reconciliation and grace across racial and tribal lines. It is the can-do group in the UMC that promotes a three-fold mission to promote intercultural competency, institutional equity, and vital conversations. We provide resources and training so that people can value each other and create systems that will be fair to all. We encourage conversations so that the grace of Jesus Christ might not be bound by any individual’s or group’s sense of supremacy over another. We want to help people know all the facts and back-stories of those that they assume are different from them.

If you’ve been unfortunate enough to be driving down the highway with a stuck horn and have a motorcycle gang in front of you then you know that you would love it if they knew that you couldn’t help it. But, they didn’t know all the facts. I’ve been in traffic with my lights stuck on bright. People blew their horns, threw up “Hawaiian Good Luck” gestures, switched their lights to hi-beam, and even swerved into my lane. If they knew the whole story then they would probably be more sympathetic.

Knowing people’s back stories can help us avoid paralyzing polarization and judgment. For instance, when I was a kid, born and raised in the South, there was a certain common opinion about Yankees. I was in college before I knew that what we used to call Northerners was actually two words. There was an automatic word that went with “Yankees.” Then I got married, graduated from college, and Cindy and I moved to Boston for seminary. I remember some of the linguistic and cultural differences. We stopped at a McDonald’s on Boston’s North Shore. I went inside and came back to the car without any food. Cindy asked what was up and I replied, “I didn’t understand them, and they didn’t understand me.”

We had to learn a whole new lingo. A “tonic” was a “coke.” The “rubbish” was the “trash can.” A nearby town was named Peabody which I pronounced as Pee-body and they said Pee-bah-dee. My first request for a milk shake was a surprise. The person waiting on me poured milk into the stainless steel cup and put it under the agitator and handed me shook milk. I learned that what I really wanted was called a “Frappe” up there. There are numerous examples of similar experiences.

Until moving up North one of my favorite stories in a Southern-pride sort of way was about Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman after he burned Atlanta. He was traveling down I-20 (not really) on the way to Savannah when he and his men started taking sniper fire from the top of Stone Mountain. He told 3 of his men to go up there and take care of the lone Confederate sniper. They went, and, after a big commotion, all 3 came flying off the summit. Sherman then sent 12 men and the same thing happened. Then Sherman sent 40 men and told them to take care of this Southern soldier. 39 of the men came flying off, but one, bloodied and near death, came back down. He said to Sherman, “General, it’s a trick! There’s 2 of them!” Yes, in my ignorant cultural allegiance and prejudice, I thought better of those below the Mason-Dixon Line than those above it.

What moved me from thinking of Northerners as DY’s was getting to know people, specifically Keith and Ella Nutter. They were members of Memorial UMC in Beverly, Massachusetts, next door to Salem, where I was a pastoral intern. We visited them often and became friends. After graduation they sent us a new subscription to “Yankee Magazine” every Christmas, and we sent them “Southern Living.” I learned that Yankees and Southerners aren’t that different. We just had to get to know each other!

Remember Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham? The main character is circled and badgered by Sam-I-Am to the point of utter frustration. The main character says, “That Sam-I-Am! That Sam-I-Am! I do not like Sam-I-Am!” Because he doesn’t like Sam-I-Am, he rebuffs Sam-I-Am’s constant offer of green eggs and ham: “I do not like green eggs and ham,” but when he finally tries it, he likes it, and also ends up liking Sam-I-Am. Getting to know someone. Having the whole story and all the facts make a huge difference. Too often we would rather prefer to judge others and separate ourselves from them.

Without knowing the whole story some people thought that Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii was anti-patriotic when he was sworn in. As he took the oath in 1963 he raised his left hand instead of his right one. Everybody thought it was some kind of protest. Boy, were they wrong. Daniel Inouye served in the US Army during World War II. He was wounded fighting in Italy and earned the Distinguished Service Cross, Purple Heart with clusters, and the Bronze Star. The reason he didn’t raise his right hand is because it was blown off during an enemy attack. He went on to honorably serve in the US Senate until his death in 2012.

My joy in serving in Aiken, South Carolina is that everybody here pretty much chose to be here, moved here on purpose for work or retirement, and are from everywhere. The diversity is refreshing and adds a vibrancy to the city. My hope is that we emulate what this city has done so well: Diversity is a good thing. Value each other!

hurricane-harvey-harris-county

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

Eclipse Protection

If I have my facts straight, only the U.S. will experience a total eclipse of the sun on August 21. People are planning Eclipse Parties, buying special glasses, and doing all sorts of eclipse-related things. Some schools are beginning the school year a day or week later in order to avoid harm to students’ eyes. I even saw a piece on the news about whether one should protect the eyes of their pets. Our church is going to give out 200 pairs of approved Eclipse Glasses along with our nice Bookbag Tags on Backpack Sunday. Fortunately or unfortunately, I will be on my last overseas mission trip of the year, and will be in the Philippines.

I’ll miss the whole thing, except for the fact that I figuratively or literally experience eclipses on a daily basis. I think most of us do! The word “eclipse” is from Greek, ek or “out,” and leipein or “to leave.” There are things that I “leave out” every day. Sometimes it’s God. Very often, it’s people. I face issues, difficulties, opportunities, adventures and oftentimes put the object of my worry or affection in between God and me. I am also blind to the needs of others due to my priorities. Just like the moon is between us and the sun, there are things between us, God, and others. This fits another definition of “eclipse” – “to obscure, to block out; to deprive someone or something of significance, power, or prominence.”

Haven’t we deprived God and others of their true significance, power, or prominence? Since this eclipse is a solely American event I can’t help but ponder the way that we as a nation have set up idols to block our view of God and people. When we say the Pledge of Allegiance at our Monday Rotary meetings, I have found myself cringe occasionally at the part that says, “With liberty and justice for all.” Does everyone truly have liberty and justice?  As a nation we have allowed Jesus to be eclipsed. The moral fabric of our nation has been eclipsed by our penchant for all things self-centered.  Our individualistic tendencies have overtaken community, bi-partisanship, and teamwork.

I saw these words on the locker-room door at Spartanburg Methodist College about a week ago: “If you’re not prepared to put the team first, turn around.” From Congress, sports teams, churches, and marriages, we must stop letting our egos overshadow and eclipse God and others. Oh, how we have deprived the capital “S” Someone of significance, power, or prominence. We have done the same with others. Last year at St. John’s UMW’s Apple Fest fundraiser, we had some items that we wanted to give to a local charity. They drove their truck under the overpass between buildings and got stuck. No one knew exactly what to do. I can’t remember who figured it out, but there is a lesson for me, maybe all of us, when we get so full of ourselves that we get stuck and can’t see God or anyone else. The solution was to let the air out of the tires! I need to let the air out of my ego.

As a nation and community, as individuals, we can learn from this solar eclipse. There are people in darkness because we want things our way or the highway. We must quit our posing and finagling to get our way. The story of three Holstein cows comes to mind. They were tired of their black and white lives, looking the same day in, and day out. They found some purple paint, and had a blast rolling around in it. They were covered in purple paint. Their owner was impressed and thought about charging people admission to his barn. One day, however, when the cows were out in the pasture, it rained. All the purple paint was washed away. No more pretense, no more all show and no dough.

The Sun will come out after the eclipse and we’ll see clearly again, too. I Thessalonians 5:4 is instructive about August 21 and every day: “But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness.” Ephesians 5:8-11 also says it well: “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.” My Dad’s favorite passage is hard to beat, too: “So let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16).

Eclipse Photo

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.