Jesus and Confrontation

Jesus got angry when he saw what was happening in the Temple. The Court of the Gentiles was overrun by crooks making a buck off pilgrims at Passover. To make an acceptable sacrifice, it took a cow, lamb, or doves, and all without blemish. Jews from around the world would come. It was their duty. That kind of trip meant that an unblemished sacrifice was hard to come by, so they bought them when they got to Jerusalem.

But, it would prove difficult to pay for the sacrifice with an inflated price in such a seller’s market. The people couldn’t use the money from wherever they came from in the Roman Empire because the coins had Caesar’s image on it. Graven images weren’t a good thing for an orthodox Jew, especially in the Temple. So money-changers set up shop so that people could exchange their “heathen” coins for acceptable money. Guess who got a cut of the exchange rate? It was religious extortion by the Temple fat cats.

No wonder Jesus got mad! Not only were Gentiles kicked out of the only place they could worship, but fellow Jews were also treated with contempt. So, Jesus sets the animals free and then turns over the tables in the currency exchange booths. You’ve seen those booths if you’ve gone overseas. Some are legit and use the going central bank rate. The ones down the side roads or out in the boonies have a rate based on their own “trouble.” The rate depends on how much time and effort it will take for them to get enough from the exchange to make a living.

What kind of stuff makes you angry? Is there such a thing as righteous indignation? I sure hope so. We all get mad. Surely it must be for a good purpose sometimes. It’s an emotion, not a decision. Nobody puts anger on their daily “to do” list: “#4. At noon get angry for 15 minutes, then have a wonderful afternoon.” It doesn’t work that way, does it?

In Transactional Analysis-speak, it’s hard to tell the difference between what a Not-Okay Child sounds like and a Critical Parent. Both sound whiny. Both sound like the teacher’s “Yah-yah-yah-yah…” from Charlie Brown. Which is easier to forgive? Which is easier to get angry with? Not-Okay Children, of course, are easier to forgive, and Critical Parents are not. How can you tell which is which in a tense exchange? To my ears, a Not-Okay Child blurts things out. It’s not pre-meditated. It just happens, and there’s no way to put the toothpaste back into the tube. Critical Parents, on the other hand, either mean to slight someone else through premeditated harshness or through passive-aggressive put-downs.

Passive-Aggressive behaviors are especially egregious. The words come across in a passive way, but are terribly mean-spirited and meant to hurt you longer and are done under the guise of passive “niceness:” “Do you like the way that color looks on you?” “Are you sure that’s the way you like your hair?” Their attacks are meant to sting in such a way that you can’t fight back without looking like a jerk, and you can’t get it off of your mind for the rest of the day or maybe your life.

So, I’m glad that Jesus was direct in his zealous foray into the temple. He didn’t play mind games, parse words, or try to sneak something past his listeners. He was straightforward. Why don’t we do that? Oh, well, we want to be “Christian,” as if that means at all costs, “Judge not, lest you be judged.” Malarkey. Jesus had a problem with harsh judging, but he didn’t mean for us to let verbal terrorists get away with their character assaults and bullying.

Jesus in the Temple shows us how to have courage in the face of injustice. We can stand up to the people who think that they’re so right that they can get away with just about anything. These are usually the “well-intended dragons” in our communities. They seem nice enough until enough people figure them out! These are those privileged folks (at least they think so) who want their way or it’s the highway for the rest of us. They manipulate others to push their agendas, and are big-time control freaks. They are Critical Parents who think they’re doing God and the world some sort of favor. Jesus modeled objective Adult to Adult displeasure, not Critical Parent nor Not-Okay Child. I pray that we can do likewise. The world needs tough love sometimes. God help us to take appropriate stands!


How to Handle the Trumps in your Life!

Christians haven’t been very consistent in handling disagreements for a long time. We swing between Crusader vengeance and Quaker pacifism. Tensions within families, distrust between races, disagreements between political parties, international distrust over the Iran nuclear deal or North Korea’s saber rattling, arguments between scientists over climate change, Women and men who are either repulsed or enthralled by Donald Trump, workplace jockeying, and road rage are all examples of conflict. What do we do?

Interpersonal conflict is nothing new. We need to be careful with those folks and their comments that are right on the precipice of indecorum or worse. I remember preaching a sermon on conflict that promoted three ways to deal with it: Laugh it off, Let it go, and Love it away – nice alliteration but inadequate advice! Today I think that sermon and its methods are way off the mark. I have encountered too many self-centered narcissistic people who take advantage of the Christian aversion to confrontation.

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s posture of appeasement toward Hitler and Nazi Germany was totally ineffective. If it hadn’t been for the resolve of Britain and the Allies, we might all be speaking German right now. Sometimes you have to be a bulldog, a.k.a. Winston Churchill. We should all value making peace, but doing it through appeasement enables more misbehavior and forestalls inevitable conflict. Instead of salvaging a relationship, appeasement increases the explosive magnitude of our angry silence until a later date.

So what’s wrong with laughing off conflict? I’ve seen people who are masters at using an ironic story to get someone’s goat and the people walk away smiling. About halfway to their destination, and at a “safe” distance they figure out what the humor really meant. This may be a good method, but it may not be direct enough to get the point across, and you’ve passed the hurt on to innocent bystanders.

I’ve been in a lot of repartee where people will laugh along with our subtle but ineffective chiding. They know our attempt at humor is a way to confront them, but since they know what we’re up to they just laugh right back at us under their breaths. They know they have gotten away with their misbehavior, and they know that we would rather go-along-to-get-along than carefully and specifically confront. Laughing things off may lighten the mood and defuse some of the tension, but it rarely deals effectively with the issues. It merely suppresses them and represses us. We end up with an ulcer and the offending party gets away scot-free.

Laughing things away is a stopgap method at best, but sooner or later truth-telling in love must replace this ineffective method of accountability. At some point, there must be evidentiary validity in our confrontation. Matthew 18:15ff is instructive: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

Wow, private one-on-one discourse comes first. It’s my belief that most of us would rather tell everyone else, triangulate others, and marshal our allies rather than directly confront privately. Evidentiary proof comes next with caring accountability by two or more witnesses and, at last resort, the church. It’s like calling for back-up or making sure that you have a witness so that your words aren’t twisted later, and so that the witnesses can hold you accountable, too! So rather than laughing things away, we should take them seriously and work the process to attempt to restore harmony, or walk away. The point of the whole process is to “win them over.” Think about the way Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors and you really get the purpose of confrontation. It’s about restorative grace, but that’s not cheap grace.

Next, is letting things go, and it’s not the same as walking away. Walking away is getting fresh air, perspective, and time to think. Letting things go is selective forgetfulness and, like laughing things away, actually creates more problems down the road. Letting things go doesn’t care enough to confront and gives carte blanche to people. They are really glad when we decide to let things go because they get to keep doing them.

They almost dare us to say anything negative. They pull the “Thou shalt not judge!” card. This is a form of bullying; i.e., “If you are as Christian as much as you say you are, you would understand me and just let it go!” But, if we let it go when a dear friend uses inappropriate language, epithets about people, or blanket statements that are beyond off-color, then we’re not doing them or anybody else any favors by letting it go. It’s time to step up and speak the truth, “You know I love you, but I need you to think about what you’re saying. It bothers me. It’s not right.”

Lastly, loving away someone’s faults seems like the route to go, at least on the surface, but cheap grace and a quick, “I love you,” puts a painkiller on a wound without really healing it. Grace isn’t cheap, and neither is love. Love cost Jesus his life. Loving our enemies without forthright confrontation cheapens the pain of being wounded, and, worse, makes us appear to be “martyrs.” Martyrdom and pouting look a lot alike if forgiving someone makes us out to be better than they are. The transaction becomes more vertical than horizontal.

If we really love someone then we are compelled to do everything that we can do to help them become a better person. Instead of writing them off, telling them off, or brushing them off, we should care enough to confront. Maybe that’s why Jesus had so many confrontations with the offensive Pharisees. If He truly cared less, we would have heard less. Jesus did some hard loving and so should we.

It appears to me that we need to do better than pretend away conflict by laughing it off, letting it go, or half-heartedly loving it away. If our efforts to make peace don’t include a cross and hard work then we have missed the point of Jesus’ ministry. I am struck that Jesus only called a couple of people “friend” in the Gospels. More fascinating is that Judas was one of them (Matthew 26:50), and it came as he gave Jesus the kiss of betrayal in Gethsemane.

So, what am I going to do with the troublemakers in my life? The honest answer is that I don’t know. I’m conflicted myself. I pray for the right words at the right time and to act like Jesus. By God’s grace, I pray for the strength to do the hard work of reconciliation. I’m also reminded of John Wesley’s adage: “In essentials, let there be unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Can today be a new day for making peace?

Anger Pic

Teaching Honesty and Back to School

This week our Children’s Director, Stephanie Lord, and I were thinking about when to have our “Backpack Blessing Sunday,” and it knocked me for a loop to realize that we are that close to school starting back. Although I have been enjoying the countdown to college football, I really feel for the school teachers whose summer break is about to end. With all they deal with, it’s been too short!

Colleges and universities will crank up and have their convocations soon, too. Students and faculty will gather to officially start their academic year. For 12 years I attended the summer convocation at Emory University where I taught two courses: “Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit” and “United Methodist Discipline and Polity.” Teaching those courses was always a welcome rejuvenation of theological discourse and critical thinking about God.

Attending convocation always gave me a chance to think about an important word: Honesty. Needless to say, plagiarism is a rampant form of lying in academia. The internet and Wikipedia make it too easy to copy/steal someone else’s work. Honesty, therefore, is a good word for us to ponder before school starts, especially with the added political jockeying going on between Donald Trump and John McCain; i.e., “Who’s telling the truth?”

There’s a connection between honesty and academic convocations and it’s all in the hoods. The convocations that I have attended have exhibited a rainbow of different academic hoods. The various colors represented a person’s field of expertise via the outer velvet’s color, and the person’s alma mater was visually represented in the hood’s interior. My doctoral hood, for instance, has red velvet on the outside signifying theology and blue and gold inner trim denoting Emory’s school colors.

This practice goes back centuries. Hundreds of years ago people didn’t wear hats. They wore hoods, and they wore many different colored hoods. The color of a person’s hood signified their occupation. If you were a minister, you wore one color of hood. If you were a medical doctor, you wore another color of hood. You could tell, therefore, a person’s occupation by the color of hood they wore.

The problem with that, of course, was that some people tried to pass themselves off as somebody they weren’t. So, they wore a false hood. This is where we get the word “falsehood.” Today we think of a falsehood as something that isn’t true. It is any kind of dishonesty. A person’s honesty is of utmost importance. Lying erodes everything. Teachers promote intellectual honesty by requiring students to do their own work, or, when using information not new with them, to offer appropriate citation. If a pastor or anyone in any profession doesn’t do his or her own work, falsehood will undermine the whole of that person’s efforts. Without honesty, there isn’t much of a foundation for anything in a person’s life.

People can say wedding vows, but without honesty they don’t mean much, do they? Children can say that they love their parents, but love without honesty has little or no respect. People can say that they have done their best to put in quality time and effort at work, but the proof of their shoddy work ethic is quickly apparent if the end-product has problems. Falsehoods are found out! From the beginning of Christianity, the church stood for honesty even if it meant martyrdom. Early Christians could not say they believed in Jesus as Lord and kneel to Caesar as god, too. Honesty often means either-or rather than both-and! That’s a hard pill for our anything-goes society.

Honesty, therefore, requires a choice, a putting off of falsehood, a false hood. We get to choose every day which hood we’ll wear. Will we be honest, have integrity, or live a lie? A heart patient visited his cardiologist for his two-week follow-up appointment. He informed the doctor that he was having trouble with one of his medications. “Which one?” asked the doctor? “The patch,” the man replied, “The nurse told me to put on a new one every six hours, and I’ve run out of places to put it!” The doctor was flabbergasted. He had the patient quickly undress. The man had over fifty patches on his body! The patient didn’t understand that each time he put on a new patch, he was supposed to remove the old one.

Our new life in Christ requires taking off the old, and putting on the new. That takes honesty! Whether you’re headed back to school as a teacher, student, or administrator, or simply going about your daily life keeping score on the golf course or paying your bills, please take off your falsehoods and allow Christ to dress you in new clothing, in the truth! A life of honesty may be difficult, but it’s even more difficult to live a lie!

Academic Hood


Perspective and Opportunity in United Methodist Appointment-Making

“Boy, do I have an opportunity for you!” are words that most United Methodist clergy have heard or will hear during their ministry. Within the next 6 weeks this phrase will be used a lot! The difficulty is that one person’s definition of “opportunity” may not match someone else’s. It is a statement usually said by district superintendents who are on the front-line of making appointments. They are at the point of the triangle between churches and clergy, matchmakers who have on-site knowledge of their churches and ministers. This knowledge is shared with the bishop’s whole cabinet, and through shared discernment, matches are made.

In the UMC system defining an “opportunity” is always a matter of perspective. It takes conferencing about the perspective of the local church and its perception of desired leadership needs; the perspective of the clergy and where they are in their ministry or the importance of family considerations; and the perspective of the bishop and cabinet who are scanning the needs of the whole annual conference and doing their very best to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

Connectionalism and working together is part and parcel of United Methodism. Therefore, appointments are made by the whole cabinet, though the Bishop alone is given constitutional authority (Par. 54, 2012 Book of Discipline) to do so after “consultation with the district superintendents.” Consultation includes local churches and clergy, too, and that appears in the form of church and clergy profiles. Therefore, everyone takes a hand, not least God, in our system of clergy deployment. Staff-Parish Relations Committees complete Church Profiles that describe the church, and clergy fill out Pastor Profiles that offer insights into their situations. By the way, both need to understand the importance of a well-presented profile. Those profiles will be pored over with microscopic attention when appointments are made. Please at least use spell-check!

A key paragraph from my perspective about appointment-making is found in Par. 428.4 which says, “All appointments shall receive consideration by the bishop, the district superintendent(s), and the cabinet as a whole until a tentative decision is made.” This fleshes out for me that our appointment-making system is a collegial effort, though the final decision indeed belongs to the bishop. As a former district superintendent who maxed out my tenure after 8 years, and one who is absolutely relishing being appointed to a thriving congregation, I think that a key word as we ramp up for the annual anxiety-laden period of possible clergy transitions is “perspective.”

The bishop and cabinet have a perspective about clergy and churches and the needs of the whole conference, and sometimes they have to make decisions about which only they know all the facts. Churches have their own unique perspective and rightly so if they can only count on one hand the number of effective ministers they have had in any given person’s lifetime. Clergy certainly have a unique perspective shaped by their family needs, and their sense of their gifts and graces and how they might be best utilized. So, what we have as we approach “appointment season” in the UMC is an “intriguing dance of perspectives,” a cooperative connectional effort to discern who goes where and who gets whom.

I pray for all those who are feeling the tensions rise in anticipation. Being on a trapeze with one hand letting go of one bar (pastor, church, friend, etc.) and willing to trust God enough to reach out for that the next bar (church, pastor, friend, etc.) is daunting, yet potentially thrilling. Throughout the whole process, as it is bathed in prayer, we absolutely must believe that God is in this enterprise, that Jesus will be glorified, however saddened or distraught we might be. In other words, we need more than a human perspective. We must affirm that a heavenly perspective is of highest importance. In our system we yield ourselves to a scary and vulnerable process not unlike the risk Jesus took in his incarnation.

So the word is “Perspective,” both divine and human. This is the essence of our belief in the system we call “itineracy,” the moving of clergy. John Wesley called itineracy the “apostolic plan of evangelization.” He thought that our “sent,” not “called” system was and is one of God’s best ways of mobilizing and energizing God’s salvific plan for humanity. I agree and have yielded myself to our peculiar process. Trust me, I haven’t always seen the wisdom of the bishop and cabinet, nor have all of my appointments been rosy. I do know this, however, that God has provided for me, my family, the local church, and the community. When we yield to a divine perspective all other perspectives come into focus!

Some people claim that their personal perspective is supreme and that their needs and/or agenda supplants and trumps everyone else’s. That’s not our system. I’ve seen people finagle their way upwards using manipulation and maneuvering, but, sooner or later, their solitary and self-promoting perspective will come to a halting stop. They have elevated what they want over saying “Yes!” and yielding. God help the UMC if that kind of personal aggrandizement ever wins the day.

Let me share a story that illustrates the illusion that getting our way and making what we think are unseen jabs is the way to go in appointment-making, whether by churches, clergy, district superintendents, and even bishops. Good appointment-making values everyone’s perspective, especially God’s. The story goes like this:

“During World War II, a general and his aide, a lieutenant, were traveling from one base to another. They were forced to travel with civilians aboard a passenger train. They found their compartments where two other folks were already seated – an attractive young lady and her grandmother. For most of the trip, they conversed freely. The train entered a long and rather dark tunnel. Once inside the tunnel, the passengers in this particular car heard two distinct sounds – the first was the smack of a kiss; the second was the loud sound of a slap.

Now, although these four people were in the same compartment aboard the passenger train, they came to four differing perspectives. The young lady thought how glad she was that the young lieutenant got up the courage to kiss her, but she was somewhat disappointed at her grandmother for slapping him for doing it; the general thought to himself how proud he was of his young lieutenant for being enterprising enough to find this opportunity to kiss the attractive young lady but was flabbergasted that she slapped him instead of the lieutenant; the grandmother was flabbergasted to think that the young lieutenant would have the gall to kiss her granddaughter, but was proud of her granddaughter for slapping him for doing it; and the young lieutenant was trying to hold back the laughter, for he found the perfect opportunity to kiss an attractive young girl and slap his superior officer all at the same time!”

Perhaps our so-called “opportunities” are not at all what they seem, or they are fleeting chances for us to “work” the system and “slap” the “Man” by bucking authority. We better be careful not to be so creative in our massaging the system that God’s video cam doesn’t catch us and we end up as our own worst enemy. I would rather trust the communal perspective of our appointment-making system than end up getting what I finagled for and be absolutely miserable. So, let’s trust everyone’s perspective, especially God’s! Everyone’s input insures a better opportunity for fruitful ministry.

Me, Narcie, and Josh at Josh's Ordination

Narcie, Josh, and I at Josh’s Ordination

The red Stoles represent the Yoke of Christ saying that We YIELD to where we are SENT!