Press Conferences, Presidents, and a Search for Truth

When do we reopen the church? Is it safe to eat in a restaurant? Can people go visit family members that are in care facilities or hospitals? Is COVID-19 mutating? Will warm weather, UV light, or a pool’s chlorine kill it? How much alcohol content in a cleaner kills it? Can I go on vacation at some point, and will it be safe to sleep on a rented beach house bed? When can I safely go back to the gym? Should states reopen? Do we shut down our meat processing plants because they are the American version of a Wuhan wet market? Is it safe to buy “Made in China,” or is it time to bring all our manufacturing back home? What mitigations should we put in place so we can open Sunday Schools? Is it safe to reopen the church, and how many people can attend?

Ask any of these questions, others like them, and there will be more than one answer. There are webinars, seminars, advertisements and pronouncements on all of these questions. I get promotions and pronouncements everyday about which products the church needs to buy in order to open up. I’m thankful for the information, but, unfortunately there’s not a lot of clarity. Scientists are all over the map because there is still so much unknown about COVID-19. Politicians have seemingly politicized the situation, so much so as to make me doubt their veracity. The news media certainly has used this as a tool to bloody the President, and he is poking China in the face over the whole situation. A former President is throwing gas on the blame-game fire while the current administration defends itself.

I am so tired of watching the charade of what is supposed to be a “news briefing” at the White House when the President, whether one likes him or not, is baited and treated with out-of-bounds berating and disrespect by so-called reporters. It is appalling. It will be a long day in you-know-where before any clergy have an open-mic talk back session after a sermon. Somebody just give me the news. Give me the unadulterated truth! I long for Walter Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley, Harry Reasoner, somebody, anybody that is unbiased without an agenda. At least a short time ago it seemed as if everyone’s agendas were hidden. Now the agendas are so blatantly apparent that it feels like there is no truth. No wonder Russia’s state newspaper is named “Pravda,” or “Truth.” Yeah, right?

Pontius Pilate asked Jesus at his trial, “What is truth?” It’s really the same question, the penultimate question, behind the plethora of all our questions. We want the unvarnished truth. We want some certainty in the midst of our anxiety-ridden world. Unfortunately, we have entered the days predicted in 2 Timothy 4:3-4, “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine (TRUTH). Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the TRUTH and turn aside to myths.” Oh, how this so accurately describes our day and age. We want to make wise choices, and we can’t trust the information because we don’t trust the sources.

This isn’t just about our problem with COVID-19 information. It’s the story of our whole post-modern narcissistic world. We wrongly assert that what we think is the sole determinant of truth. We demythologize the Bible into what we want it to say as if we, the readers, are more important than the God who brought forth the Truth in the first place. We have fallen into the same abyss as one popular Christian author, one who wrote a book, Seeing Gray in a Black and White World. He is so wrong. I don’t trust my eyes to see that well, so I would rather let the Biblical text and its Author do the talking. Maybe then we will see black and white in a gray world.

Where do you think all this confusion about truth is coming from? Why do you think we are so at odds over what the truth really is? Jesus (John 14:6) said He is the way, TRUTH, and life, so He’s certainly not the author of confusion, but guess who is: Evil. Jesus, speaking in John 8:43-44, nails our current reality on the head, “Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil … for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”

So I pray, “Please, Lord, open our ears to the truth, and expose the lies and liar for what they are. Wipe away all the confusion, and give us clarity, especially to our scientists, those who govern us, and to all spiritual leaders. We need your truth. Speak, for your servants are listening; in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

I Miss Church!

Where is the church in these quarantine days? It’s everywhere, and that’s a good thing. We certainly miss being together though. Let me start with where the church staff is. We miss everybody and being together. Zoom meetings are nice, but still not the same. We’re steady at work, maybe more than ever, just in a different way. Everybody needs a pat on the back every now and then, and this crew has earned it, so thanks for all the notes of encouragement. Every two weeks I have been writing reports for our Staff-Parish Committee so that I can affirm what each staff member is doing during quarantine. Each person has gone above and beyond! We don’t know when we will be back together, but we’re certainly doing ministry in the meantime.

You are doing ministry, too! It may not feel like it sometimes, but you are. This church is all about the mission of Christ. You’re doing ministry wherever you are, and your cards, calls, Facebook posts, emails, texts, and continued giving are a witness to it. The church is deployed, not unemployed. During COVID-19 we may not be physically in the church building, but let me tell you that the church, staff and congregation alike, is busy. Satan may think he’s won by closing churches down, but we’re not closed. We’ve just left the building! We’re meeting by Zoom, phone calls, texts, mail, Facebook Live, and last, but not least, by prayer. We’re having church in people’s houses and rooms, and all sorts of places. We’re proving the fact that the church is not a steeple, it’s the people.

This doesn’t mean that 104 Newberry Street isn’t important, or that we don’t miss it. While we’re doing church offsite we also want our facilities to be in their best shape when we get back. We’ve discovered that this is a great time to catch up on some repairs. It is also a great time for us to disinfect the whole building. We want to make sure that St. John’s is the safest place in Aiken when we’re able to come back together.

 There’s already been one complete top-to-bottom disinfecting done to our huge facility. We will do it again before we return. Yesterday our Trustees voted to purchase 3 motorized disinfecting atomizers and 100 gallons of a liquid virucide that can be sprayed on every surface, and kill coronavirus and every other germ in five minutes. These machines can do 5,000 square feet in 15 minutes, and our buildings are about 25,000 square feet.

The reason why we’re doing this is quite apparent. The church building itself is a physical, emotional, and spiritual sanctuary for all of us. For instance, we call the most used worship space a sanctuary – a sacred safe place! There are towns that have bird and squirrel sanctuaries. Well, the church is our people sanctuary. Maybe you’ve noticed the ceiling in the sanctuary, and how it is shaped like the interior hull of a ship. It’s meant to look like that. For centuries, churches ceilings have been reminders that the sanctuary is like Noah’s ark that saves us from life’s floods by floating us to safety.

Every part of the church, from the Faith Center’s Cross and Fronds sculpture to the outdoor signs, carries spiritual meaning and encouragement. As a side note, I’ve seen some hilarious, helpful, and pointed church signs during the pandemic: “Give us clean hands, O Lord, and a Purell heart,” “Services cancelled. God is now making House Calls,” “Jesus rode an Ass into Jerusalem. Keep yours at home!” and “6 Feet Apart is better than 6 Feet Under.” Well, sorry if these may have been a bit over the top, but, while most of our bodies are at home, we want our signs, ceilings, and symbols to communicate that Jesus is Lord, and that He will defeat COVID-19.

Church members and staff are deployed beyond the walls, with most of us working from home. As we think about getting back to worshiping together, we all need to get prepared: What can we do to disinfect our lives, and clean up our individual temples of the Holy Spirit? The church has left the building, and that is always a good thing, but what kind of shape will the church building be in when we come back? How about us? I think we’re finding out that the church is the people and the steeple. It’s both/and nor either/or. Thanks for who you are, St. John’s [insert your church’s name]!

 

Assault on Mt. Mitchell

Some of you have heard of the “Assault on Mt. Mitchell,” and a few of you may have done it. I’ve seen it, and witnessed the literal gut-wrenching agony of many of the participants, but I haven’t done it. The Assault is a 102.7 mile bicycle race that starts in front of the Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium in Spartanburg, SC and goes 11,000 feet up to the top of Mt. Mitchell near Burnsville, NC. The winners are usually able to accomplish this feat in around 5 hours. It is grueling to say the least.

Does this sound familiar as we make our assault on COVID-19? Have you ever had small kids on a trip ask every whipstitch, “Are we there yet?” That’s what is on everyone’s minds right now. “This too shall pass” is a popular phrase, especially when we are ready to move on. Even as I think of the eloquent, but simple language of the 23rd Psalm, there are lots of us that focus on the part that says, “Even though I walk THROUGH the valley of the shadow of death,” as if to say we’re only going to be in it for a short time until we come out on the other side. What if it’s not going to be a short time? What if we’re not there yet? What if we haven’t climbed that last hill on the way to the top of Mt. Mitchell or in our assault on COVID-19?

It seems like we’ve been in COVID-19 quarantine forever, but that’s exactly where we still are. We’re not through it, are we? Have you ever noticed that the very first time that you take a trip or travel a new route somewhere, it seems to take longer than on the same way home. Why? Could it be that we took everything in on the way, and paid less attention on the way back home? I don’t know the exact reason, but this is my experience. No matter the reason, a first time trip somewhere always seems longer than the trip back.

Well, this pandemic is a first time trip, and we aren’t back to normalcy yet. I’m not even sure if we’ve turned around yet. I am going to assume that we’re still on the trip. We’re still in the assault stage. We’re not ready to coast downhill. We need to stay the course right now, and not jump too quickly to the downhill side. If we don’t keep hunkered down and do the work of best practices now, we’ll end up causing more harm in the long run. I refuse to waste what this uphill battle has already cost us. I want the trip back home to normalcy to go by quickly.

So, let’s absorb all the info we can while we’re still on the way so that we can protect others and ourselves on the trip home. I don’t want anyone to die on the way to or from. I’ll have to admit I’m torn on the reopening issue. Sure, some businesses need to start. Economic disaster is tantamount to death for lots of people. We need to reopen everything at some point, but we’re not there yet, are we? We’re not through this yet.

The governor of Georgia thinks we are on the other side of this enough so that we can get our nails done and have massages. Are you kidding me? I want gyms and churches and everything that’s been closed to reopen, too, but is it safe yet? Thankfully we have a Bishop who will determine when our church will begin to have face-to-face worship. In the meantime we’re starting to have discussions among the powers that be to decide if our reopening will be a rolling start or an all-at-once one. I’m thinking a determined gradual reopening is best for safety’s sake.

One of our three rules that we Methodists live by is “Do no harm.” We will not violate that! We’re going to use these days of continued assault on COVID-19 to make sure we beat it completely! Thinking out loud or at least in print, we will most certainly avoid handshakes, hugs, and high-fives. We will have 6 ft. social distancing and probably have limitations on the size of the crowd. We may have to take reservations for attending church, block off pews and seat people on either ends and make sure that they’re staggered so no one is behind anyone else. There probably won’t be any Sunday School to start with. We’ll have to keep doing a lot of that by zoom.

We might have to have certain services for specific groups of people delineated by age, illness or whatever criteria works to mitigate risk. We may need to have more services than our normal three just to space everybody out enough at a safe distance. We will need people at preset entrances in full hazmat gear to take forehead temps of people. Children’s Ministry and Youth are already meeting by zoom. The choir is doing that, too, but letting there be face-to-face choir practice or sitting in the choir loft together is going to have to be a work in progress. Needless to say, it is going to be interesting. Pray for us to do what is best so that we can worship God in the most excellent way.

So, we’re doing what we can in this in-between time to get ready. We will do whatever it takes to get to the top of Mt. Mitchell. We’re just not there yet, so let’s use this gap-time wisely to pray and think it all through. In our impatience to crank back up, let’s put the brakes on enough to do everything we can to be smart. God gave us brains, so let’s use them. Let me encourage you, we will get wherever “there” is, but right now we are going to stay in this valley, and do what it takes until we can all come out on the other side as safely as we can. We want this assault to lead to complete victory, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

The Wisdom in Waiting During Quarantine

A man had just had his annual physical and was waiting for the doctor’s initial report. After a few minutes the doctor came in and said these fateful words: “There’s no reason why you can’t live a completely normal life as long as you don’t try to enjoy it.” Man, that is exactly how I feel today in quarantine. God bless those individuals who have already been experiencing social distancing because of treatment regimens or due to physical and other limitations. I have not had enough sympathy, and I’m sorry. This quarantine thing is harder work than I thought.

The first few weeks were filled with catch-up items from lists of things that have been lingering around for quite some time. Now they’re caught up, and as a “Do-it-right-now” kind of person, I’m about to go bonkers or slip into a Dr. Seuss-like Oh, The Places You Will Go “Waiting Place.” To be sure, there’s still work and ministry taking place, more than ever, but done so differently that it’s almost like running in place. I’m talking with parishioners every day; just got off two back-to-back Zoom meetings; have done research, written sermons, planned programs, talked budgets, and prayed and prayed ad infinitum, but it’s weird, isn’t it? Time seems out of joint.

Many of us have spent time in the hospital and know that there are some common experiences that everybody shares. One that comes to mind in these days of quarantine is losing track of time. If you’re in the hospital even for a short stay, pretty soon your days and nights are all mixed up. You wonder what day it is. Normal routines are out the window.

That’s what’s on my mind today. Is it Monday or Tuesday, whatever, and forget about what date it is. Is this what retirement will be like? That sounds pretty good at first glance, but here I am whatever the number of weeks we’re into this isolation, and sometimes I don’t know what to do with myself. One thing I know is that I need to wear a mask, not to help me avoid the virus, but to keep me from eating more than I should. I do read and pray, and have already Netflixed through every episode of some shows I had never heard of before.

In reading the Bible, the pastoral epistles of I and II Timothy, and Titus were great, but I felt quite un-pastoral without a tangible, huggable, handshaking flock to enjoy. Then came I & II Thessalonians, the Gospel of Mark, but things took a sharp turn down a dark alley this morning when I felt led to read Ecclesiastes. I should have never done that! Talk about depressing? It’s called “wisdom literature,” and it very much is, but Ecclesiastes calls into question much of what I/we valued before COVID-19, and it seems the most often repeated word in it is “meaningless.” It’s a downer, except that it’s true. Just like these quarantined days, it makes me question my values, purpose, and destiny.

Before you promise NOT to read it, let me implore you to do it. It strips away pretense and gets to the heart of what’s important in our lives. I won’t tell you how it ends except to say that it ends well. It is the most accurate assessment that I have encountered about my life in a long time. It may speak to you in a different way, but that is the wonder and power of the Bible. Even if we reread a passage, The Holy Spirit can bring forth new wisdom at just the right time.

The Byrds’ song “Turn, Turn, Turn,” that is straight from Ecclesiastes 3, says that there are seasons, juxtaposed and seemingly opposite, but to be embraced because when these vastly different things are combined we encounter real life – not some sham, not seen through rose-colored glasses, but REAL life. Maybe that’s what I’m feeling today – the depth and richness, not of busyness, but of the interplay of my inner thoughts, even God’s Spirit dwelling within, closer than my closest breath.

Nathaniel Hawthorne has been called “a dark romantic.” This is what he said about these kind of days when we ponder the meaning of life: “Happiness is a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” May this week take you to a new place of self-reflection and discovery, even happiness? God bless and protect you and us all. Amen.

The Virus Didn’t Steal Easter

How the Virus Stole Easter

By Kristi Bothur, With a nod to Dr. Seuss

Twas late in ‘19 when the virus began

Bringing chaos and fear to all people, each land.

People were sick, hospitals full,

Doctors overwhelmed, no one in school.

As winter gave way to the promise of spring,

The virus raged on, touching peasant and king.

People hid in their homes from the enemy unseen.

They YouTubed and Zoomed, social-distanced, and cleaned.

April approached and churches were closed.

“There won’t be an Easter,” the world supposed.

“There won’t be church services, and egg hunts are out.

No reason for new dresses when we can’t go about.”

Holy Week started, as bleak as the rest.

The world was focused on masks and on tests.

“Easter can’t happen this year,” it proclaimed.

“Online and at home, it just won’t be the same.”

Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the days came and went.

The virus pressed on; it just would not relent.

The world woke Sunday and nothing had changed.

The virus still menaced, the people, estranged.

“Pooh pooh to the saints,” the world was grumbling.

“They’re finding out now that no Easter is coming.

“They’re just waking up! We know just what they’ll do!

Their mouths will hang open a minute or two,

And then all the saints will all cry boo-hoo.

“That noise,” said the world, “will be something to hear.”

So it paused and the world put a hand to its ear.

And it did hear a sound coming through all the skies.

It started down low, then it started to rise.

But the sound wasn’t depressed.

Why, this sound was triumphant!

It couldn’t be so!

But it grew with abundance!

The world stared around, popping its eyes.

Then it shook! What it saw was a shocking surprise!

Every saint in every nation, the tall and the small,

Was celebrating Jesus in spite of it all!

It hadn’t stopped Easter from coming! It came!

Somehow or other, it came just the same!

And the world with its life quite stuck in quarantine

Stood puzzling and puzzling.

“Just how can it be?”

“It came without bonnets, it came without bunnies,

It came without egg hunts, cantatas, or money.”

Then the world thought of something it hadn’t before.

“Maybe Easter,” it thought, “doesn’t come from a store.

Maybe Easter, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

And what happened then?

Well….the story’s not done.

What will YOU do?

Will you share with that one

Or two or more people needing hope in this night?

Will you share the source of your life in this fight?

The churches are empty – but so is the tomb,

And Jesus is victor over death, doom, and gloom.

So this year at Easter, let this be our prayer,

As the virus still rages all around, everywhere.

May the world see hope when it looks at God’s people.

May the world see the church is not a building or steeple.

May the world find Faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection,

May the world find Joy in a time of dejection.

May 2020 be known as the year of survival,

But not only that –

Let it start a revival.

The Glue of United Methodism

Some Bishops, Annual Conferences, Boards of Ordained Ministry, and clergy have broken their vows to uphold the Discipline of the United Methodist Church (UMC). Many lay persons have done the same thing by not upholding the teachings of the UMC as was promised at either their confirmation or church joining. Leadership preaches unity and cite Jesus, but doesn’t practice unity. They are disobedient to the primary way that we as United Methodists practice unity – Connectionalism!

John Wesley’s genius in theology centers around his understanding of how we humans reflect the imago dei (Image of God). There are three primary ways: The Social Image, the Moral Image, and the Legal Image. Think how the Social Image affects Wesleyan theology. If the Trinity is God in community, we should also live in a similar, interdependent reciprocal mutually accountable relationship. That’s why we confer so much; i.e., the word “conference” occurs every whipstitch in how we do church. Conference is a way we live into the social image of God, whether it is through band meetings, class meetings, charge conferences, church conferences, district conferences, annual conferences, central conferences, jurisdictional conferences or General Conference. Furthermore, I would contend that Connectionalism is the primary engine that makes the Social Image such a wonderful reality.

The Wesleyan Way of mutual accountability leads to the other two ways that humanity reflects God’s image. The Moral Image is exhibited in Wesleyanism via an emphasis on sanctifying grace. Since God is Moral, so should we be. John Wesley took seriously that if God is perfect, that possibility is ours, too (Matthew 5:48). Personal piety and social holiness are always done best in the context of corporate discernment – the same conferring already mentioned.

Lastly, the way that we reflect God’s Legal Image of stewardship over creation is different from a personal or nationalistic greedy dominion-like selfish ownership or destruction of God’s good earth. Wesley’s little home remedy book, The Primitive Physick, is an example of his desire that we reflect the Legal Image as mutual caretakers of people’s bodies and souls for the common good. Corporate mutuality preempts any individualistic strip-mining attitude that turns the Legal Image into a license to feather our own personal nests. Connectionalism, once again, is a very important ingredient of our theology. It makes us sensitive to what is best for everyone, and why we have hospitals and schools everywhere, and a UMC Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

Here’s where I’m going with this: if Connectionalism is so important to who we are as United Methodists, why are we tossing it aside? Frankly, I don’t see Traditionalists doing that. It’s Progressives that are ignoring or breaking the unity of Connectionalism to which we have mutually pledged our allegiance. The Wesleyan Covenant Association and other renewal groups’ best preference is that we keep and strengthen the unity that we already have in the Book of Discipline.

So, ponder this, as we reflect on the document received from the Liberian Annual Conference this week. In response to the “Protocol,” they have gone on record by saying that we should stick together, and keep our current vows, name, logo and historic sexual ethics. In essence they have expressed the hope that we remain a global orthodox denomination, and live into what Connectionalism provides as a way forward. Rather than embrace splits, regionalism, and separation, why don’t we stick with what we have, and let those who can’t abide by it go their own way for their own conscience’s sake?

Our problem, therefore, isn’t just about authority of Scripture versus interpretation, culture wars and sociology, or ordination vow-keeping. There are all kinds of ways to frame and reframe a potential denominational split. What I hear when some promote a communion of separate branches of United Methodism under one umbrella is a denial of our Connectional ecclesiology. It would give a lot of latitude, yet keep us together, but at what cost?

The cost will be the loss of Connectionalism which is the essence of UM ecclesiology, the study, appreciation, and promotion of how we do church, and how that identifies and promotes the “Method” in Methodism. Being a “connectional” church, and how that shapes or reframes this whole sexuality discussion should honor our ecclesiology. If we can hang on to that, we will celebrate the imago dei in truly Wesleyan ways.

Connectionalism is who we are. Some may prefer a congregational or diocesan polity, but the word “Connection” appears 181 times in the 2016 Book of Discipline (BOD); “Connectional” appears 175 times; and “Connectionalism” 6 times. Clearly Connectionalism is more than foundational to our ecclesiology. It is part and parcel of how we fulfill Wesley’s system of mutual accountability that promotes sanctifying grace.

Note how Judicial Council Decision (JCD) 411 emphasizes our connectional nature by stating:

The Constitution clearly provides that the principle of Connectionalism should be always primary in any organizational structure of The United Methodist Church.

Or similarly, ¶132, 2016 BOD states:

The Journey of a Connectional People—Connectionalism in the United Methodist tradition is multi-leveled, global in scope, and local in thrust. Our Connectionalism is not merely a linking of one charge conference to another. It is rather a vital web of interactive relationships.

But, what body of the UMC determines what Connectionalism is in practice? It is only the General Conference, and not any lesser body that defines how connected we are. The 2016 BOD, ¶16 of the Constitution states emphatically that the General Conference (GC):

shall have full legislative power over all matters distinctively connectional (emphasis added), and in the exercise of this power shall have authority as follows: … 8. To initiate and to direct all connectional (emphasis added) enterprises of the Church and to provide boards for their promotion and administration.

 JCD 364 forbids the GC from delegating its Connectional legislative functions:

The General Conference may not delegate legislative functions and responsibilities which are assigned to it by the Constitution.

Therefore, the GC cannot yield to the Annual Conference its constitutional responsibility as stated in ¶16.2:

To define and fix the powers and duties of elders, deacons, supply preachers, local preachers, exhorters, deaconesses, and home missioners.

So, the Annual Conference Board of Ordained Ministry and Clergy Session may not negate, violate or ignore Church law, as stated in JCD 7:

It is inconceivable that the General Conference should have full legislative powers so that it can enact uniform legislation for the whole Church, and that at the same time each Annual Conference could also have the right to enact diverse and conflicting regulations, on the same subject. The reservation of the right to the ministerial members of an Annual Conference to “vote on all matters relating to the character and Conference relations of its ministerial members,” is not a distinctively legislative function but is rather an administrative function. It can only mean that the Annual Conference has the right as well as the duty to pass upon and determine the facts and apply the laws in all such cases in accordance with the uniform regulations and provisions which the General Conference may enact in reference to the same. In other words, the right reserved to the ministers of an Annual Conference to pass upon the character and Conference relations of its ministers does not mean that it has the legislative right to set up standards to measure the character and Conference relations of the Ministers except insofar as such standards do not contravene or are not covered by provisions enacted for the whole Church by the General Conference.

Judicial Council Decision (JCD) 1321 is a masterful summary of the limits of local options by Annual Conferences in ministerial credentialing. It cites JCD 7, 313, 536, 544, and 823. For instance, JCD 544 states:

The Constitution, Par. 15 [now ¶ 16], gives the General Conference the power to fix the basic requirements for ministry, while it becomes the responsibility of the Annual Conference, as set forth in Par. 36 [now ¶ 33], to measure, evaluate, and vote upon candidates, as regards the minimum standards enacted by the General Conference. Ordination in The United Methodist Church is not local, nor provincial, but worldwide. While each Annual Conference is a door through which one may enter the ministry of the entire church, the Annual Conference cannot reduce nor avoid stipulations established by the General Conference which must be met by the church’s ministry everywhere. An Annual Conference might set specific qualifications for its ministerial members, but does not have the authority to legislate in contradiction to a General Conference mandate or requirement. Judicial Council Decisions 313, 318, 325, and 513 speak to the authority of the General Conference, under Par. 15 [now ¶ 16] of the Constitution, to establish standards, conditions, and qualifications for admission to the ministry. In Decision 536, we held that “An Annual Conference may not subtract from the disciplinary requirements for conference membership, but it may under certain circumstances adopt additional requirements not in conflict with disciplinary provisions or their spirit or intent.” This was again underscored in Decision 542 at the May 1984 General Conference. “Under Paragraph 37 [now ¶ 33] of the Constitution, however, it is the Annual Conference, as the basic body of the church that decides whether those standards have been met.”

Though the Annual Conference is called “fundamental” (¶11) and the “basic body in the Church” (¶ 33), it is also true that Annual Conferences and Boards of Ordained Ministry do not have the freedom to do anything that would deny our connectional definitions of clergy, as that determination is solely reserved by the General Conference. JCD 1341 is definitive in its location of the authority for setting ministerial standards:

The General Conference acted within its constitutional authority when it established universal standards for the ministry in ¶¶ 304.3, 310.2(d), 341.6, 2702.1 (a), (b), and (d)

 JCD 1341 further declares:

It is settled Church law that the General Conference has full legislative authority to set uniform standards for the ministry, which Annual Conferences shall not abrogate or modify. Therefore, it acted within its constitutional powers when it legislated ¶¶ 304.3, 310.2(d), 341.6, and 2702.1 (a), (b), and (d). The Annual Conference may enact additional requirements that are not in conflict with the letter or intent of these disciplinary provisions. JCD 313, aff’d, JCD 318, 536, 823, 1321.

The reach of the General Conference and Connectionalism extends from top to bottom of the church. ¶246.1 BOD reinforces it at the local level:

General Provisions—1. Within the pastoral charge the basic unit in the connectional system of The United Methodist Church is the charge conference. 

In extrapolating Connectionalism to local church practice, JCD 694 speaks clearly to the discretion of any clergy member to perform ministerial duties such as weddings:

It is the responsibility of pastors in charge to perform their duties in compliance with the Discipline and be obedient to the Order and Discipline of the Church. (Par. 431.9 now 304.1(j))

As it pertains to same-sex weddings, JCD 1185 clarifies the sacred difference between civil and Church law, and this decision also rejects local options on connectional matters:

The Church has a long tradition of maintaining its standards apart from those recognized or permitted by any civil authority. The Church’s definition of marriage as contained in the Discipline is clear and unequivocal and is limited to the union of one man and one woman. Consequently, the Church’s definition of marriage must take precedence over definitions that may be in operation in various states, localities and nations or that may be accepted or recognized by other civil authorities. To do otherwise would allow the Church’s polity to be determined by accident of location rather than by uniform application.

In summary, how does Connectionalism shape who we are with respect to human sexuality? To regionalize or break covenant with what the General Conference has decided will be the death-knell to a critical component of our identity, both as individuals and as a denomination. Clergy have made promises to uphold the Discipline of the UMC, and willingly lay aside their own prerogatives. Annual Conferences are called to be agents of the connection, but cannot dictate what only the General Conference can and must decide. Local churches, comprised of laity and pastors, cannot abrogate their allegiance to the connection or the General Conference. None of us are free agents that are laws unto ourselves. We are either a connection, or we’re not. What do you think our ecclesiology should look like? John Wesley thought Connectionalism was the best answer. What say you?

United Methodist Protocol Possibilities and Perils

Will the United Methodist Church separate into two or more denominations? Only the General Conference can say for sure. There’s a lot of traction behind the “Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation.” The news and social media plus the blogosphere have been reporting things as if the Protocol Proposal is a done deal. As a veteran of 7 General Conferences there is more unity around this solution to our 48-year impasse than I’ve ever seen. Some would say our stalemate has been over sexuality. I would rather frame it as a huge difference in understanding the authority of Scripture. This is the bottom-line: Will your understanding of the Bible allow for actively gay clergy and same-sex marriage, or not? The new Protocol aims for a parting of the ways on these two issues. That doesn’t mean, however, that I’m sold on it, or that it won’t be amended into an unrecognizable mush at General Conference.

At first glance it looks pretty good. It pleases many Progressives and Traditionalists, and the majority of Bishops as well. I am not thrilled that there were many more bishops and progressives than traditionalists in the negotiating room. Afterall, the vote, not just at last February’s Special Session, but all twelve General Conferences since 1972 have upheld the same stance of the church that says we welcome everyone and find all persons of “sacred worth,” but the “practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” This isn’t just the teaching of 48 years. It is the teaching of 2000 years of the church, and more than that if you count 2000 additional years of our Jewish heritage. I also think the Traditional view would be upheld at this May’s General Conference, too.

This is the reason many people wonder why the Traditionalists seem to be shown the door. Why do we have to give up the name “United Methodist?” I think it’s a valid point, but there’s another reality at work. That reality is the name of the denomination has not only changed a lot over the years anyway, but it actually has enough baggage to be a detriment to faithful Bible-believing Discipline-keeping United Methodists. For instance, my own mother was a member of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, then The Methodist Church, and finally The United Methodist Church. It begs the question, “What’s in a name?” My personal preference is that Traditionalists get to keep “Methodist” somewhere in our name. It is who we are in our practice of faith.

But, I also know that branding is important to my friends and colleagues outside the US where governments are friendlier to churches tied to the States. I’ve personally seen that first-hand in the Philippines, Mozambique, South Africa, Bulgaria, North Katanga in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, and Zambia. What I have also seen is the faithfulness of people to Scripture over denomination. If the UMC, now or later as the more liberal post-separation UMC, supports a laxness in sexuality standards then the rank and file of church members especially in Africa would overwhelmingly support traditional marriage and ordination standards. Even the Anglican-communion style notion of a US Regional Conference will not satisfy those whose values will not permit them to be in close association with those whose actions are in violation of Biblical standards. One only has to look at how the Methodists of Cote D’Ivoire joined the UMC because they could not stomach the liberalization of the Anglican Communion.

To those who live outside of the Bible-Belt in the US, and a few places in the US South, the name “United Methodist” has become synonymous with liberal humanistic pluralism more than with the saving and sanctifying work of Jesus Christ and a belief in the authority of Scripture. I sincerely wish those who will not live under our Book of Discipline would simply go their own way, but the sin of racism in the church has come back to haunt us. Everyone knows about our schism in 1844 that created the MEC and MEC, South. That racism got further institutionalized in 1939 with the rejoining of North and South and the Jim Crow-creation of the Central Jurisdiction that segregated African-Americans. Southern whites were adamant that the only way we would rejoin the North would occur only if a religious apartheid was enforced. The joining of the subsequent Methodist Church with the Evangelical United Brethren in 1968 thankfully did away with the Central Jurisdiction, but kept a seriously flawed part of the 1939 compromise.

Until 1939 bishops were elected at General Conference. Southern whites wanted their “own” bishops so jurisdictions were created for the first time, and bishop-elections were moved to those more local settings to ensure that every place got someone who would support the local biases and culture. Now we see how that has come home to roost with at least one whole jurisdictional College of Bishops defying the Discipline and the Judicial Council. At best guess there are only 7 bishops out of 46 in the US who would be considered Traditional. Moving bishop elections closer to home has widened the gap between General Conference and local adherence to what the General Conference has decided. So, we can have a Traditional Book of Discipline, but who is going to enforce it? We need to repent of what we did in 1939!

As much as I would love to see Traditionalists remain and Progressives leave, we’re stuck with an overwhelming majority of bishops who will not enforce things, and seemingly cannot be held accountable. With recent elections of progressives on the clergy side in most annual conferences in the US, there might not ever be another Traditional bishop elected. Add to that the liberal slant of most, if not all, denominational boards, agencies, and their staffs then no wonder many of us are ready to hit the exits. If Traditionalists leave, good luck to those who are left in trying to pay the freight. Restricted funds will remain off-limits, and apportionment dollars will dry up as congregations and conferences vote to leave.

Of course, my preference is that votes happen at the annual conference level to leave, and spare local churches the stress. I also hope that Local Pastors know how powerful their voice is in this matter. I’ve heard some talk that Local Pastors won’t be allowed to vote on this at annual conference. That is impossible. Paragraph 602.1(d) is clear that Local Pastors can vote on EVERYTHING at annual conference except delegates to Jurisdictional and General Conference, constitutional amendments, and conference relations of clergy. Local Pastors need to show up at annual conferences and vote! Local Pastors might be the best hope to save us from those clergy who have abandoned historic Christian teaching.

There is much to ponder and pray about. I hope that we can make it through all this without losing sight of our mission to make disciples for Jesus Christ. God bless the delegates as they discern our future. If the Protocol is the best solution we have, then I’ll take it.

The US Mint Offers A Great Opportunity

The US Mint is trying to increase the public’s interest in numismatics otherwise known as coin collecting. It’s interesting how they’re doing it. Of the nearly 2 billion America the Beautiful quarters put in circulation this year the mint has dispersed among those only 2 million with a “W” mintmark for the West Point mint. Since there are 5 ATB quarters in 2019: Lowell, Massachusetts, American Memorial Park in Saipan, War in the Pacific Memorial on Guam, San Antonio Missions for Texas, and Frank Church’s River of No Return in Idaho, that means there are only 400,000 each of these “W” mint mark 2019 quarters out there. There’s a 1 in 185 chance that you might find one, and, because of the rarity, they’re selling for as much as $70 to $200 per quarter based on condition – a hefty return on investment for 25 cents! For $10 a roll you get 40 quarters to look at, and an opportunity to have a little bit of an early Christmas. What the US Mint is doing is wise as they try to get us to look at our money more closely.

The same thing is true for most churches at this time of year. The fall harvest season is usually the time for stewardship programs. As we approach Thanksgiving and Christmas we don’t want to forget the guest of honor at His own birthday party! To whom do we ultimately owe our thanks – God! So, take a hint from the mint and look at your money more closely. It can make a huge difference in fulfilling God’s ministries for the Kingdom.

Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi are the three post-Exilic prophets of the Old Testament, and they each preach a lot about us putting God first. With specificity, Haggai (1:2-11) tells the people to get busy rebuilding the Temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonians. For 20 years they had been looking at a pile of rubble and saw it as too mammoth a task to undertake. They focused on themselves and their “paneled houses,” while God’s house remained a ruin. Haggai told them to get their priorities in order. Malachi does the same thing. He tells the returning exiles that they have been robbing God, and when they ask how, he tells them it’s in tithes and offerings. In the midst of rebuke, he offers hopeful words. In Malachi 3:10, God speaks through Malachi and says, “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.” Wow!

What’s interesting is the wording in how all three of these post-Exilic prophets encourage the people to put God first. More than any other writers in the Bible they use a specific designation for God: “Lord Almighty”! They want to inspire the people to give God his due because this is no wimpy God, but one to be revered. In Haggai’s 38 verses “Lord Almighty” is used 14 times; in Zechariah the same name is used 53 times, and in Malachi it is 24 times! These prophets were speaking to a people without a king for the first time in 650 years, or rather to a people who had always had a king, but forgot WHO that king is – the Lord Almighty! Our giving reveals whether or not we remember who our King is!

We are a greedy bunch and use any excuse to not give to the church. Boiled down, our excuse is usually greed and selfishness. We need to remember what Jim Cramer said on the TV show “Mad Money:” “Bulls make money! Bears make money! Pigs get slaughtered!” Money can be made whether the stock market is on a high or a low, but if you or I get greedy, we’re going to lose and lose big! We all want to do well on our investments, and investing in the ministries of the church are the best investments that we can make.

Recently I went through the refinancing process to lower both my interest rate and length of amortization. It was a good deal! It dawned on me that refinancing is exactly what we as Christians do with every stewardship campaign, indeed every Sunday and every day as we fulfill our promise to uphold the church with our prayers, presence, gifts, witness, and service. We are literally giving the church our capital to spend on its ministries. Those ministries are worth our investment. Our giving answers an important question, “Do you know how to tell the difference between a flower that’s alive and one that’s dead?” The answer is, “The one that’s alive is growing.” Our resources grow the Kingdom. Our giving refinances God’s goals. Churches that are growing are filled with people who know that we make a living by what we get out of life, but we make a life by what we give. If the US Mint wants us to look more closely at our money, we certainly need to follow God’s advice to do it, too.

Handling Our Diferences

Someone has said that our greatest strength is diversity, but it is also our greatest weakness. Jesus prays for his followers (John 17:21) to be one, but the Gospel passage (Luke 12:49-53) for this coming Sunday seems to suggest Jesus promotes division. The two passages seem contradictory, and the latter passage doesn’t particularly sound like Jesus. It doesn’t sound like something anyone who loves unity, especially church unity, would say: “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled. But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

Surely, Jesus spoke the words from Luke against the backdrop of the end of the world and the final judgment. He is stating a fact that what we believe about Him is going to put us in different camps. This is a hard word. We struggle with doing everything we can to hang on to unity in our relationships, families, and the world of politics. We very much live in a time of division where unity is hard to find. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Movement, said these famous words: “In essentials, let there be unity; in non-essentials, let there be freedom; in all things, let there be charity.” The dilemma is discerning the difference between what is essential and what is non-essential.

Some contrast helps! This is a new take on things for me. I would prefer everyone to get along with each other, and keep the fireworks of life at a minimum. Frankly, I’m learning that the Proverbs are right in 27:17 when it says, “Iron sharpens iron.” To distill the truth in complex situations we actually need to go through the wrestling of diverse opinions. This is why debate teams only get better in the challenging crucible of taking different sides on issues and articulating them.

Could this be what we hope for in the church in what we call “holy conferencing”? We confer, converse, look for compromise, or resolution. We try to discern the will of God through debate and discourse. Sometimes we simply have to say, “In Christian love I think that it’s best we move on. Further interaction is going to hurt both of us, and we should not do one another harm by ripping open this same wound over and over again.”

That is a hard place at which to arrive. It seems un-Christian almost, but it may actually promote healing. It’s not a cold shoulder or snub. It is caring enough to confront the other with the truth, and live and let live, apart or together. It cuts down on the perpetuation of acrimony. There are people that I will never ever agree with, but by struggling through the conflict we can actually better affirm our mutual care of one another. It’s the stages of peacemaking that Dr. Scott Peck presents in his seminal work The Different Drum: Community-Making and Peace.

He proposes that the first stage in a relationship is “Pseudo-Community.” It’s the stage where everything and everyone is chummy, hail-fellow-well-met like a honeymoon or a high school reunion – all hugs and no shrugs, but it isn’t real. That’s why it’s called “pseudo.” However, if you allow for honest dialogue and truth-telling, which is necessary for any genuine relationship, then you arrive at “Chaos” where differences are exposed. Most people don’t like chaos, but it’s a mandatory stage in order to get to where we want to go in our dealings with people. So, church people should welcome chaos that at least gets beyond the fakeness of the prior stage. A disclaimer: There are some people who love drama and get stuck not just in the chaos stage, but in any of them or go up and down the continuum at every whipstitch. But, if you plow ahead then you move out of Pseudo-community and Chaos, and get to Emptiness – a live and let live humility as opposed to my-way-or-the-highway, an honest care for one another, but empty of venom and vitriol. This can be a wonderful stage, but if stuck in “emptiness” it leads to a passive sublimation of genuine feelings and people simply shut-down. Emptiness can be apathetic instead of empathetic. Empathy, in spite of differences, leads to the last stage which is Community. Community is marked by transparent love and a prioritization of group health more than individual satisfaction. Community fosters deep communal relationships through individual self-definition.

Where is your family, church, civic club, and national ethos on this scale? Let me give you an example of a healthy sense of community through a story shared by Dr. Len Sweet, a United Methodist clergyperson and professor. He tells the story of when university chaplain Tom Wiles picked him up from the airport in Phoenix, Arizona. They didn’t know each other. Tom was Dr. Sweet’s ride to a conference he was leading. Tom was driving his brand-new Ford pickup. Len Sweet was still mourning the trade-in of his Dodge truck. Though the two guys didn’t really know each other, they immediately bonded as they shared truck stories and laughing at the bumper-sticker truism, “Nothing is more beautiful than a man and his truck.”

Here’s what happened next in Sweet’s own words: “As I climbed into Tom’s truck for the ride back to the airport a day later, I noticed two huge scrapes on the passenger door. ‘What happened?’ I asked. Tom replied sadly, ‘My neighbor’s basketball post fell on the truck.’ ‘You’re kidding! How awful,’ I said. ‘This truck is so new I can still smell it.’ Then Tom said, ‘What’s even worse is my neighbor doesn’t feel responsible for the damage.’ I immediately rose to Tom’s defense and asked him if he had contacted his insurance company, or thought about other ways he could make his neighbor pay up.

Then Tom replied in an unforgettable way: ‘This has been a real spiritual journey for me. After a lot of soul-searching and discussions with my wife about hiring an attorney it came down to a simple thought. I can either be in the right, or I can be in a relationship with my neighbor. Since my neighbor will probably be with me longer than this truck, I decided that I’d rather be in a relationship than be right. Besides trucks are meant to be banged up, so I got mine initiated into the real world a bit earlier than I expected.’”

A better person than me.

US Society: Going to Hell in a Handbasket

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

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

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

Your hands are full of blood!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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