Mardi Gras, Lent and The Hypocrisy Meter of the UMC

Today is Fat Tuesday when we have our last indulgent splurges before Lent begins tomorrow. Mardi Gras and masks go a long way back – a self-protective way to dive into devilment without being found out. We have to take our masks off during Lent or we have robbed the Gospel of its power to set us free. This is our season of confession and repentance, and for me and the UMC, all of us perhaps, it’s a journey. So, off with the masks and let’s get real!

We take a Lenten “journey.” We don’t say an Advent journey though Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem, nor an Epiphany one even with the Magi traveling from afar. Easter and Pentecost seasons aren’t called “journeys,” either. But, Lent is definitely one, down from the heights of the Mount of Transfiguration to the pit of Gethsemane, Golgotha, and a stone-cold tomb. It was a journey that Jesus made, and dares us to make. It is a hard journey that begins with Ash Wednesday’s words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

This is the journey that every human being will make from birth to death. The solace in this bleak journey is that God has taken it, too, in Jesus. We are not alone in our sorrows. Even Jesus’ baptism shows Christ’s solidarity with us. Though he was in no need of repentance, Jesus submitted to John’s baptism. His ministry began with obedience at the Jordan River and ended with obedience on the cross. How unlike my fickle allegiance. Thus, I need this Lenten journey every year, a journey of penitence and repentance. It’s hard to get the devil off your back if you won’t admit he’s there.

Hypocrisy is the age-old complaint about church goers. We say one thing and do another. At the end of a concert a patron noticed that two ushers standing near his seat were applauding harder than anybody else in the theatre. It was impressive to the man that these ushers who, no doubt, had seen many great performances would be so appreciative. His hope in humanity was dashed when he overheard what one usher said to the other, “Keep clapping. If we can get them to do another encore, we get overtime!”

Selfish gain is the essence of hypocrisy. There are lots of issues: personal, political, and ecclesiastical that are loaded with hypocritical bias and deception. I am one who follows the news both secular and sacred. Both are easily nuanced and have hidden agendas to me. I’ve tried network after network to find the untarnished secular news, and it seems an impossible task. On the church front I read United Methodist news outlets to glean the latest about our denomination’s upcoming special session of General Conference. Everyone wants to do God’s will, but use themselves to define what that means. It is so difficult, if not impossible, to separate bias from truth as we try to discern God’s will.

Everyone says that they want contextualization in deciding what’s right and wrong, but too much local contextualization interpreting God’s will leads to spiritual anarchy. In my mind, we’re either United Methodists or un-tied Methodists. You can’t have it both ways. We’re either connectional or we’re not. Jesus said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand!” Here’s my problem! I am tired of all the political, financial, and so-called spiritual arm-twisting to get people to vote to either loosen our stance on certain practices or make it more stringent.

I have seen people across the theological spectrum parse words, redefine words, and make up new words to try and push people into one camp or another. My word of warning is that we take off our blinders and don’t let the wool be pulled over our eyes, whomever is talking! I’ve heard progressives say that they’re moderate and they’re not; and I’ve heard traditionalists say that they are moderate and they’re not. I’ve heard moderates say a little bit of everything. Give me a break. Let’s at least be honest or there is no hope for a way forward either for the UMC or as individuals. On this Lenten journey we must be clear that we are serving the Lord and not our own personal agenda. Off with the masks!

hypocrisy

Me, You, Colin Kaepernick and Commitment

Someone remarked that their church’s attendance was up and down, “up in the mountains or down at the beach.”  Labor Day is that last break before summer’s end, one last respite for teachers, students, and parents, and everyone else who wants a get-a-way. Labor Day is a celebration of how we all shoulder the load in our respective ways to keep the wheels of life in motion. It’s a day to take a break and relax as a reward. God has given us specific gifts that are needed, holiday or not. We should all contribute to the common good, if we will. It takes commitment.

Too often I am a person of divided allegiances. I’m no Colin Kaepernick who will only stand for the National Anthem when he feels that the country has done its part for him or others that have suffered injustice. Certainly, our flag has stood on the side of oppression many times, and I must admit that when I stand at Rotary and pledge allegiance to the flag, I have often hesitated on the line that says, “with liberty and justice for all.” I know full well that justice can sometimes be bought with expensive lawyers that the poor can’t afford. Nevertheless, it’s our flag, and I’ll keep standing for our national anthem and pledge allegiance.

A clergy friend wrote his Master’s thesis on how long it took the South to start celebrating July 4th after the Civil War. His research concluded that it took years and years of healing to make it a truly national holiday again. For instance, when the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi surrendered to the Union on July 4, 1863, it took 81 years before it celebrated the Fourth of July again. Truth be told, every national symbol has been treated with contempt at one time or another. The flag has been both burned, and used as an instrument of injustice, but I don’t think that I have the moral rectitude to denigrate it and be ungrateful. For all our faults, there has been much more good that the U.S. has done, and the world is better for it.

That flag represents us all, for good or ill. Think about Native Americans and how poorly they have been treated by the government, yet they are staunchly supportive of the U.S. The Department of Defense has said that if the rest of the population had enlisted in WWII at the same rate as Native Americans there would have been no need of a draft. It is common knowledge that Native Americans, per capita, have served in the U.S. military more than any other ethnic group. That’s been a fact throughout U.S. history, and it’s true even now. Consider that the Native American population of the U.S. is .8% of the entire amount, but the number of American Indians in the military is 1.7%!

Citizenship requires commitment and some people, like Native Peoples, know that better than most. To change the things that are unjust takes being involved. This is especially true in an election year when many people are tempted not to vote for either major party’s candidate. Commitment is a supreme virtue especially when we live in times like ours. It’s not a time to sit down, but to stand up and do the right thing. If you want to change the system, you don’t do it from the sideline, you get involved.

I think, therefore, that Colin Kaepernick can accomplish more by standing and singing the National Anthem than by sitting down. He can push for change from a position of commitment rather than apparent disloyalty. As it has been said, “America: Love it or Leave it.” At his salary he can do a lot to defeat injustice. He has a 6 year $114,000,000 salary with a $12,328,766 signing bonus, $61,000,000 guaranteed no matter what happens, meaning that he has an average annual salary of $19,000,000. Pretty sweet deal.

Commitment needs to be consistent to mean anything. The Sports Section of a local newspaper carried the recent news of former South Carolina QB Connor Shaw’s broken leg while playing a preseason game for the Chicago bears. He is the epitome of consistent commitment. A friend pointed out something askew in the article that came from a fellow player and Carolina alum. Pardon the language, but pick up on the inconsistency. The player said, “It’s a tough break, man. He was having a hell of a camp. He was doing a hell of a job out there … I told him ‘Damn, I hate it for you. Just keep the faith. Just trust in the process with God.’”

Hmmm… expletives mixed with God? I guess we all have consistency problems, not just Colin Kaepernick, but me, too, all of us, maybe! On another football note, a friend sent me this recently, “Just have to share. A friend of mine has two tickets for the 2017 Super Bowl. Box seats plus airfares and hotel accommodation, but he didn’t realize when he bought them that this was going to be on the same day as his wedding – so he can’t go. If you’re interested and want to go instead of him, it’s at St. Peter’s Church in New York City at 5 pm. Her name’s Brenda. She will be the one in the white dress.” Commitment? We all have work to do, don’t we?

Kaepernick Photo

Pre-General Conference Hope

John 11:25-26

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

For at least the last decade in the UMC, we’ve been beating to death the idea that, according to the numbers, the church in the U.S. is taking a beating and declining toward death. Two of my children who are young United Methodist clergy are quick to point out that this message has dominated their entire ministry, from seminary to the present, and it still swells larger without offering enough fruitful direction or hope. We continue to receive data that confirms the impending “death tsunami.” We also continue to be inundated by articles, workshops and seminars in response, with a repetition of familiar themes: How we got into this mess; How we can still avert catastrophe; How we must change everything (or change nothing); and the ever-popular, How death always precedes resurrection.

Like my children and perhaps so many of you, I am weary of the rhetoric. Not because the trends aren’t real. Not because I haven’t sometimes shared in these anxieties, and responses. Not because we shouldn’t think critically and strategically. Rather, because conversation must ultimately give way to necessary action, and I think now is the time to simply get back to being and doing as Christ calls us.

And the deepest truth of all — the best possible news for us — is that authentic disciples always outlast death, and they lead others in the same.

We have a straightforward call, summed up well by the UMC as: “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” This mission is not conditional. We didn’t choose to carry it forward because it carries a wholesale guarantee of success, or an assurance of longevity, or institutional security. At least I hope not. Regardless of the circumstances, and even if the UMC one day ceases to exist, the Lord still calls us today to simply make disciples for him. And the deepest truth of all — the best possible news for us — is that authentic disciples always outlast death, and they lead others in the same.

With this in mind, like the first Christians, the first Methodists, and certainly like those United Methodists at the forefront of missional growth around the world, let’s have both a discerning faithfulness today and also a holy disregard for worry over tomorrow. Let’s refocus on the present task, which is for each of us to continue to be in the making as the Lord’s disciples, and to participate in the making of more, new disciples. It will require a healthy level of humility: to be “in the making” is to admit that we’re unfinished. It also means holding ourselves to an expectation of real-world fruitfulness, since being “in the making” implies that Christ is intentionally forming us into some new future something as a people. It doesn’t sound easy but we can do it. We are uniquely equipped as United Methodists for it because, like John Wesley, we proclaim that any and every person can actually change, in behavior and attitude, heart and action, through God’s prevenient, saving, and sanctifying grace.

In other words, we must not define ourselves as an institution that is “in the declining,” “in the grieving,” or “in the dying.” Instead, we are “in the making,” a people and movement that can be grounded in the ongoing creative action of God. My passion for the church, and my vision for General Conference 2016, is for a return to this kind of disciple-making. Not merely to try to slow the impending death tsunami or to gain back statistical ground. Not merely out of a sense of self-perpetuation. But out of a desire to live the very hope of Christ.

As we hear on the way to Lazarus’ tomb in John 11:25-26 — and as we proclaim in every United Methodist “Service of Death and Resurrection” — the plain truth is that Jesus is the Lord of Life. Even more, he promises to share his Life with his followers, so that a true disciple of Christ never dies. If that’s so, then Jesus goes on to pose the one question that could possibly remain: “Do we believe it?”

I believe it. I think most of us do! I believe this promise should drastically alter everything, especially this upcoming General Conference. It should empower the ministry of our church to shape disciples. And it should invite us, above all, to pursue a life in the making with Christ Jesus and with one another. The theme of GC2016 is “Therefore go” from Matthew 28:19. Will we be in the making, or will we lament our divisions and prepare for schism at this General Conference. It depends on what or Whom you believe!

GC Logo

 

Dogs and Cats as Christians

How would politics change if there was no more mud-slinging? We’re over a year away from the election and it is ridiculous. How about a requirement that we follow Jesus’ “Golden Rule.” It is never out of date or style, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It’s a rule that is pertinent to the immigration crisis in Europe and the U.S. It hits home with issues of racism, prejudice, and the general animosity we feel toward everyone that irks us. It works behind slow drivers, in front of slow clerks, and beside inattentive wait staff. We want to be treated fairly and nice, so we need to treat everyone else the same way. How would our day, life, ministry, marriage, and demeanor change if we simply follow Jesus’ advice and treat people the way we want to be treated?

Consequences and ripple effects come to mind. Bad deeds reap repercussions and good ones pay kindness forward. Welcoming the stranger, immigrant, and the family outcast is an act of grace that we ourselves desperately need. No one has a corner on the market of either goodness or evil. In Romans 3:23 we get the Lord’s perspective on the universal human predicament, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” In John 3:16 we see God’s worldwide remedy, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” God’s judgment on our sin is always bracketed by Jesus’ grace.

Of course, it’s not cheap grace. Jesus’s death came at an ultimate cost. Reconciliation costs everyone! Following the Golden Rule is extremely difficult! To forgive an offending party is hard. Just ask the families of the Charleston Nine. I listened last night to two of the survivors and was struck once again by the magnitude of their grace. They made it clear that the only way they have been able to forgive is because they themselves have been forgiven. We can welcome the unwelcome and love sinners because there’s not that much difference between us. We all need Jesus, don’t we? The reciprocity of the Golden Rule is common to all, so why don’t we practice it?

I know my usual reason is my own hubris. Many of us make the assumption that we’re better than others and look down our noses at them. Since we think we’re better, then we don’t think it’s fair or right for us to have a Golden Rule quid pro quo equanimity in our relationship with the lesser-thans. How elitist and not at all like Jesus. Plus it’s just not true. We are ALL guilty and deserve God’s wrath, “Except for the grace of God, go I…”

I’ve been reading a book, Cat and Dog Theology, that is subtitled “Rethinking Our Relationship with Our Master.” It makes an interesting analogy that discloses my self-centered smugness. It offers a suggestion that Christians can either be like cats or dogs. Cats are finicky and pretty much think that the world revolves around them. Dogs are eager servants and loyal to a fault.

These are generalizations and there are certainly exceptions. Some dogs are mean and lazy, and some cats will purr you into a good mood with their affection. Nevertheless, the analogy is effective in convicting me of being too self-centered to follow the Golden Rule. Rather than please the Master, I often think I’m the master. I want to be a loving dog-like Christian that welcomes the stranger, and not like a cat in a room full of rocking chairs that is too scared to budge because I might get hurt.

It takes risk and courage to follow the Master. My experience is that dogs do leashes better than cats! Cat or dog Christian, which are you? Consider the story of two thieves to help you decide. They barged into an old man’s room and demanded all of his valuables and money. They told him that there was no way for him to stop them. He replied, “I don’t want to stop you. Here, take what money I have and anything that you can use.”

They took everything they could see and one of then pilfered a new shirt he saw in the old man’s closet. Just as they were leaving with all their booty, the old man said, “I didn’t realize that you were interested in clothing. Here, take the coat that I bought this afternoon. I’m certain it will fit you.” One of the thieves demanded, “What’s your game, old man? Why are you offering me the coat?”

The old man replied, “I try my best to live by the commands of Christ. He told his followers not to resist those who are evil and that if someone takes your shirt to offer him your coat as well (Matthew 5:39-40). The two men listened with amazement to the man’s simple words. Then they carried everything they were stealing back into the house.

As they left, the first man whispered, “Pray for us, old man.” The second one just shook his head and said, “I didn’t know there were any Christians left in the world.” Live the Golden Rule and watch how the world will change. Cats can be casual observers of life and its hardships. The world needs us to go get help. Woof! Woof!

The Dones and Nones can be Undone

“Baby, It’s cold outside!” is true for the weather, but sometimes it’s an indoor reality, too. There are too many people who are so poor that they cannot heat their homes adequately. I wish that we did as much about that as we worried about the temperature in the sanctuary. Cold churches are worse than a blizzard, and I’m not talking about the thermostat. I’ve been reading a lot lately about the welcoming ministry of the church and its correlation to church growth.

In my mind the number one reason for “Nones,” the people with no religious affiliation who stay away from church, and “Dones,” those who are done with church and don’t plan on coming back, is an unfriendly exclusive church that shortchanges and diminishes JESUS. People are tired of the notion of worship as “plop, pray, and pay” where everything is done “decently and in order.” Methodists used to be known as “Enthusiasts” and “pew-Jumpers” because we got so excited in worship!

Just last night at a marvelous Ash Wednesday service a so-called saint claimed “their” pew and shooed some folks away. This goes against the mantra of the denominational plea of the United Methodist Church that we want to reach, “new people, younger people, and more diverse people.” We are a 92% white denomination that doesn’t demographically reflect our societal milieu. What are we doing to invite people to experience the transforming power of Jesus Christ? I guess we need to let Jesus transform us first!

When I was a District Superintendent I had several churches that probably needed to close. I never closed any, but I not only thought about it, I also suggested to several churches that it might be in their best interest and more so for the community around them if they did. These were churches that had a pathological inbredness about them. I walked the cemetery of one of them and noted that there were four different spellings of the same last name, and they wondered why they weren’t growing. They couldn’t even get along with each other, much less dream God-sized dreams for their community. It crossed my mind that it might have been better for them to post a message on their sign that said, “Closed Until Further Notice – Renovations and Repairs Underway,” so they could get the spiritual malaise of their members corrected. How in the world could you want someone to actually attend an unhealthy church?

Of course, I am reminded that there are no perfect churches, pastors, or people. We wouldn’t need Jesus if that were the case. So we need to make clear to people that if you visit, join, or otherwise associate with our congregation, please don’t expect perfection, inclusion, or genuine love for everybody, because we’re still under construction. We’re not closing our doors, but we do need to promote truth in advertising!

I am pretty sure that the “Nones” and “Dones” have either experienced or heard about that straw-breaking insensitive church member, inadequate preacher, church fight, or whiny plea for money and they either want none of it, or they’re done with it. My sincere hope is that we can still turn the tide before US churches resemble the empty museums they call many “churches” in Europe.

I think the tide will turn if we ratchet up our friendliness factor. We need to be honest, “Yes, we’re human and have problems, but, thanks to Jesus, there’s hope. We may not be perfect, but we’re trying to do better every day, and we need your help. There’s strength in numbers and us plus God can thaw out the coldest deepfreeze.” This sounds fine, but it sounds desperate, doesn’t it, and desperation isn’t attractive either in inviting people to church or to get married.

Maybe a better approach is to focus on the benefits and the advantages of church attendance. After all, doctors say that there is a direct correlation between church attendance and good health. It’s called psycho-immunology, but inviting people to church in such a mercantile fashion strikes me as a little bit overselling and maybe promising more than we can deliver. It sounds like giving away coupon books for discounts at church connected businesses, or, worse, a ticket to heaven when the only heaven we represent is either stale, in turmoil, or dead. If people judged a lot of Christian worship as a foretaste of heaven then I’m afraid that we would be hard-pressed to get any takers.

So, I’m back to the friendliness factor that suggests that how we treat people is key in getting people to darken our doors and come back. The main thing that I would add isn’t a thing as much as it is an experience: the mystery and power of Jesus Christ. Unashamed, let loose, unreserved, genuine, authentic, undeniable, real – that’s the worship that I’m talking about. Our services should be, “Here’s Jesus, the One-and-Only, matchless, loving, forgiving, and empowering God who loves you!” It may be too simple for our sophisticated minds and sense of decorum, but let’s let Jesus be Jesus and watch what happens. It’s like what John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, said: “I set myself on fire (for God), and people come to watch me burn.”

No self-immolation is intended, but I just think if people saw how great Jesus is to us, then we’ll be people of passion and conviction that exhibit all of Christ’s attributes. Our friendliness factor, therefore, is directly proportional to our faith factor. Who is Jesus to you, to me, to us? If He’s who He says that He is then everything will be as alright in our churches as it can be on this side of eternity.

Listen to Rev. S.M. Lockridge and his description of Jesus. If this doesn’t inspire you, I don’t know what will. If this Jesus is presented to our world in encouraging inviting ways then there won’t be anymore “Nones” and “Dones.” They will be undone by Jesus!