The United Methodist Church IS…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Judicial Decision 1366 Reflections

The One Church Plan takes the method out of United Methodism. That method has been connectionalism and it has been grossly redefined by the OCP and the Judicial Council: “As a primary principle in any organizational structure of The United Methodist Church, connectionalism denotes a vital web of interactive relationships—multi-leveled, global in scope, and local in thrust—that permits contextualization and differentiation on account of geographical, social, and cultural variations and makes room for diversity of beliefs and theological perspectives but does not require uniformity of moral-ethical standards regarding ordination, marriage, and human sexuality.

These profound words make dozens of previous Judicial Decisions null and void, except for the fact that Judicial Decision 1366 did affirm that the General Conference can set minimum standards. This is exactly what we need to do to restore our connectional identity. Without any minimum standards it’s anything goes, literally. The One Church Plan is a blank check for a “diversity of beliefs and theological perspectives,” except that by the grace of God United Methodist connectionalism can be preserved by GC action. By a simple majority the Special Session can shut the OCP down and reclaim our heritage.

What the OCP does to the annual conference and the local church is harmful. Up until now the anxiety and conflict has been left to the elected delegates at General Conference. But, if the OCP passes, every annual conference clergy session will decide what that conference’s sexual ethics are, and the tension will be seen and felt. Annual conference clergy sessions, that only have a few laypersons on them, will decide all of this for the whole AC and the acrimony between laity and clergy will be exacerbated. Think about the ramifications if your bishop refuses to ordain a self-avowed practicing homosexual and another bishop is called in to do it. That’s visible disunity.

The harm to local churches is extraordinary even though the OCP literature says it will “most likely” not change local church practice. Pastors may do same sex ceremonies, but local churches will have to hold church conferences and vote by simple majority to allow them. Every vote will be personally painful for those who have family members affected by this. Clergy in full connection will still have a guaranteed appointment even if their perspective on the practice of homosexuality differs from their local church, but how long do you think that pastorate will last? It’s a switch from connectionalism to congregationalism and who loses in that scenario? The freedom to contextualize will hurt more than help.

Churches will have to declare their stance, and so will clergy. The OCP brings the fight straight to where it will hurt the most: the annual conference and local church. How in the world will that help anybody want to be United Methodist, much less a Christian?

So what options are left? The Judicial Council didn’t say anything at all about the Connectional Conference Plan because it needs a slew of constitutional amendments to pass, and if that happens, so be it. There’s no need of a review by the JC. But, frankly, I don’t think it has a chance. It revives the language of the racially segregated Central Jurisdiction, except with 3 different theologically based jurisdictions. It’s just too complex, and, like the OCP if it passes, how could we ever call ourselves UNITED Methodists?

What about the Traditional Plan? After all, the JC said a good bit of it is unconstitutional, but my reading and re-reading of JC Decision 1366 is that the TP was not gutted. As a matter of fact, most of the things that were nixed were about the Bishops policing themselves, or about AC Boards of Ordained Ministry and DCOM’s being fair in their examination of candidates for ministry in light of all the parameters of the Discipline, not just about human sexuality. The JC also said the Traditional Plan is in order when it proposes that an annual conference can withdraw from the denomination; when it expands the definition of a self-avowed practicing homosexual; and its prohibition of bishops consecrating anyone as bishop who is one.

Concerning the bishops, the JC said that the TP’s process violated an individual’s right to trial. As a lover of our polity and Discipline I pray that someone comes up with a constitutional way to put teeth in our accountability so that we don’t have bishops and other entities or individuals all over the map doing their own thing. It is hopeful to note that the Traditional Plan’s petition on minimum sentencing wasn’t shelved by the JC. There are some language tweaks that need to be done so that minimum penalties aren’t just about sexual behavior, but we all should be good with complete adherence in all matters in the Discipline.

So which plan does the most damage to our denomination and witness to the world? I know our current language hurts, but I think the OCP will actually do more harm to the people it’s intended to help. In a connectional system we need clear boundaries and norms, not wholesale carte blanche.

GC 2019 pic

The Olympian Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh The Places

Pray for UMC General Conference

The United Methodist people of South Carolina are asked to pray tomorrow Thursday, February 18, for our 2016 UMC General Conference. General Conference will be held in Portland, Oregon from May 10-20, and decisions will be made about what we hold in common as a connectional people. There’s a word that’s synonymous with “connectional,” and it’s the word “covenantal.” There are many who seem hell-bent, literally, on fracturing our denomination because they want to be connectional without being covenantal. I don’t think you can have one without the other!

We’re not a perfect church, but John Wesley, our founder, said that we should and could go on to perfection in our intentions. God doesn’t save us through Jesus Christ to leave us the way God found us, but to transform us for the transformation of the world. We all have a long way to go, and the only way to make progress is through grace, to be sure, but none of our good intentions means a whit if we don’t make some hard choices about our covenant and what unity means.

Making hard choices is the Lenten message of Jesus’ decisions leading up to Holy Week, and it’s our message as we take up our Lenten disciplines. Hard choices are the very essence of General Conference. We first need to make a choice to bathe it in prayer. I am going to commit this Thursday’s prayer time to a focus on our ability in Portland, and, in every local church of every ilk and creed, to do more than get along with each other, to not only have good intentions, but to do the right thing and make peace.

Making peace is the rub, isn’t it? I can smile and glad-hand almost everyone even if I can’t abide what they think, do, or say. But to make peace – that’s hard, beyond hard. It makes me wonder. In making peace do I have to tolerate and accept that they are okay in their position? I don’t think so! Jesus didn’t make peace with the sins he confronted. He did try to make peace with the sinners though. He even said to Judas when he was about plant the kiss of betrayal on Him, “Friend, do what you came for (Matthew 26:50).” Jesus hardly ever used the word “friend,” only twice, as a matter of fact. If Jesus can call his betrayer a friend, can we dare do less?

What I think is right might differ from what you think is right, but that shouldn’t keep us from expressing Christian love and charity toward one another. John Wesley famously said, “In essentials, let there be unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” The problem is that most of us have opposing lists of non-negotiable essentials, and charity is routinely trumped by angry vitriol.

Can’t we all agree to pray tomorrow for Jesus and his will to reign as we meet for General Conference, and the same to occur in whatever meeting we’re in, even if it’s one in your family’s den? In our discussions, unanimity is less my goal as is selflessness. You see, my understanding of every church fight, whether on a big stage or in a local church, boils down to selfishness – a power play about pecking order and getting what’s best for me, me, me.

Think Downton Abbey and the battle about the village hospital’s control. Cousins, Isobel Crawley and the Dowager Countess Violet Crawley, are on opposite ends of the argument. One might say that their issue is about principle, but there’s a whole lot of “my way or the highway” selfishness at play. In General Church meetings, conference ones, local churches, workplaces, companies, and families, the same story perpetuates itself.

My prayer for General Conference is that we can agree on the primary essential: Jesus Christ. Certainly, every other issue is important and many would say the sexuality debate is essentially about our Christology, but I hope that we can glorify God even in our differences and love each other in such a way that the words of Jesus’ prayer in John 17:23 come true for our denomination: “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Wow! If we promote unity then the Scripture says that the world will know Jesus and His mission! Please join me in prayer for General Conference tomorrow and all the days leading up to May 10-20, 2016. Let’s try to remember than unity doesn’t necessarily mean unanimity. There’s room in unity for diversity. Our covenant should not ever be broken, but every covenant has clear stipulations about what the parameters are for disagreement. That will be the hard work of General Conference to decide. Most of us who are married already know about this endeavor. Ask any couple who has been married for more than a couple of hours, “Does unity mean unanimity?” Pray! Pray! Pray!

General Conference 2016 Picture

United Methodists and Missions

What do you want to happen in 2016? Get started now or it will never happen! I would contend that our whole year takes shape by what we do or don’t do in January. We set the stage for the whole rest of the year. If we want better relationships then start now. If we want a better world, start now. If our biggest desire is for a grand remodel on our homes, or the best family vacation ever, start saving now. We turn the calendar to inspire us to have fresh starts. One of the best ways to beat the after Christmas blues, is to start getting ready for the next one.

I have found that one of January’s biggest temptations is to think about our needs before anything or anyone else. The winter months put us into survival mode and it leads to selfishness. For instance, many people just got over the hump of paying last year’s pledge to the church so they’re not that compelled to think about doing it now. The reality is, however, that if we want a great 2016 we have to think about giving our lives and resources away now. Jesus in Luke 9:24 said, “Whoever wants to save his or her life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.” So start the year off right by asking how you will give yourself and your resources away for Jesus. Don’t wait until the fourth quarter. Do it now!

Of course, the question arises, “To whom should I give my resources?” A wealthy man asked his pastor what he should do with his intended bequest of $50 million. This faithful church member knew that his pastor would be able to help him decide where to leave the money. The pastor reminded the man that the man had served on the hospital’s board of directors for years so it might be the perfect place to give the money. The man only half-way nodded in agreement, leading the pastor to suggest another place. “What about the local university?” the pastor asked, knowing that this philanthropist dearly loved higher education. The man replied, “No, I don’t think I’ll leave the money to the hospital or the university. They’re great institutions, though. I’m going to leave it all to my church.” The pastor asked incredulously, “Why?” The man’s response was amazing: “If I give all my money to the hospital or the university, they won’t build a church. But if I give it all to the church, they will build a hospital and a university.”

He was exactly right. History proves it! There are over 70 United Methodist hospitals in the United States and hundreds more overseas. There are 102 United Methodist colleges and universities in the U.S. and hundreds more around the globe. Claflin University, Columbia College, Wofford College, and Spartanburg Methodist College were all founded and continue to be supported by United Methodists in South Carolina. Duke and Emory are two other United Methodist institutions that are in nearby states and fit in both categories as hospitals and universities. Give to the church and missions will follow. Over and over again, Christians have given themselves to Christ and to the world. We have been blessed with Jesus’ example and admonition, “Do unto others as we would have them do unto us.”

This coming weekend at St. John’s we will host a “Missions Impact Celebration.” We will hear missionaries from nearby and faraway. They will share compelling stories of what God has been doing, and it will be up to us to be partners with them. Our church gives hundreds of thousands of dollars to missions. We’re doing what Jesus dared in Matthew 28: 19, “Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” What we often leave out in our quoting of this Great Commission is the next verse, Matthew 28:20, “and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

In my mind there’s a direct correlation between these two verses: discipling includes obedience. Whoever said that the church is a “voluntary society” missed this correlation. In Luke 9:23, Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he or she must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” In other words, discipleship is a daily matter between you and God. This coming Sunday, you get to prove it as you make your pledge to our above-and-beyond mission partners.

Another passage of Christ’s comes to mind in Luke 6:38, “Give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” A farmer had a cow who gave one pail of milk each day. The man invited guests for a party. In order to save his milk for the special occasion, he refrained from milking the cow for 10 days. He expected that on the last day the cow would give 10 pails of milk. When he went to milk the animal he found that she had dried up and gave less milk than ever before. Simply put, “Hoarding doesn’t help!”

Tim in Nica

 

Jesus’ Baptism and an Epiphany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JesusBaptism

 

 

 

A New Year’s Epiphany

This coming Sunday is when we celebrate two convergent events: New Year’s and Epiphany. For many of us our January 1 resolutions will already be obsolete when January 3 and Sunday rolls around, but I am grateful that there are some of you who will make important promises and keep them. You will reap benefits throughout the coming year. What spiritual disciplines will you give attention to in the coming year? What health choices do you need to make? How can you make 2016 a banner year in your life? The song from the Broadway hit “Rent” comes to mind: “Seasons of Love” with its lyrics about 525,600 minutes comprising a year in a person’s life.

January gets its name from the Roman god Janus that is always depicted with two faces in opposite directions. Janus was the mythological overseer of beginnings and transitions and offers an appropriate perspective as we begin a new year. Like Janus, we spend a lot of time at this annual juncture with one eye on the past and another on the future. It usually takes me a couple of months to get my years straight. I want to learn from the past, but I want to focus on the future. The only way to do that is to make the most of the present!

Rather than believe in a false god Janus, I believe in the one true God incarnate as Jesus. Epiphany Sunday on January 3, 2016 is a perfect time to believe in our God who forgives our past, makes the present His home, and promises to make a path through the days ahead. I can trust an unknown future to a known God! The Magi followed a sign that brought them face to face with Christ. What signs will he use to bring us closer this year?

The means of grace like devotional Bible reading, dedicated prayer time, purposeful ministry with the poor, consistent authentic worship all come to mind as attainable and healthy spiritual goals. I also think a mindset and demeanor make-over is necessary. Remember the old children’s church song, “If You’re Happy and You Know it,” and how it says our faces will surely show it. It takes a lot fewer muscles to smile than to frown.

People sometimes vex me, and it’s a weakness that I want God to help me with in 2016. My biggest problem, however, is with inanimate objects and hypotheticals. I can get so upset when a “thing” breaks or doesn’t work right. Hypotheticals are those “What if?” questions that make my brain race in a thousand directions. I want to trust God with them and not fret so much. They are mostly unanswerable anyway, or have so many answers that I either freeze up or dash headlong where only fools rush in.

Mostly, I want to make 2016 a bunch of epiphanies. There’s that word again, and it means “a revelation of God.” Like the Magi I want to look up, around, inside, and in every direction to see how and where God shows up. I don’t want to be like that poor guy out West last week who walked off a cliff because he was too engrossed in his smartphone. The most meaningful epiphanies in my life this year will be finding God in the faces of those around me.

My musing at this nexus of New Year’s and Epiphany is all about making the main thing the main thing in 2016. And they’re not things, they are “Who’s.” They’re either God or people. If I don’t get to know God better and value other people more, then this will be a stunted endeavor way short on epiphanies. Fred Craddock, the greatest preacher I’ve ever known, sums up my thoughts pretty well:

“The young woman, twenty-eight years old, at St. Mark’s church in Atlanta, said to me, ‘This is the first time I was ever in a church.’ ‘Really?’ I replied. ‘Yeah,’ said she. ‘Well, how was it?’ She said, ‘Kind of scary.’ ‘Kind of scary?’ I asked. She said, ‘Yeah.’ ‘Why?’ I asked. And she said, ‘It just seems so important.’ She said, ‘You know I never go to anything important. This just seemed so important.’”

And it is – everything that you and I do this year needs to carry the weight of importance, or we don’t need to do it. Simple as that, and an epiphany awaits.

Epiphany

 

Thank God for Educators and Schools!

Summer schedules are changing for a lot of people this coming week. It’s already begun for educators who are already back at school having team meetings, professional development days and school or district wide pep rallies of sorts. On top of that I am sure that many educators are sorting through the previous year’s supplies and spending more than a little extra money to get new materials so that their classrooms will be in tiptop shape.

Children, youth, young adults, and others are also feeling the change from summertime schedules. Cindy is in her 28th year of education, and comes from a family of educators. She has been easing back into getting up early and switching gears. This week she’s up at 5 a.m. and next week it will be 4 a.m. It takes a herculean effort for teachers, parents and students to make the adjustment. I especially think of those first-time college students whose parental alarm clocks will be replaced by digital ones, and I pray for those parents who are first-time empty-nesters as they send their children off to college. They’re probably the only parents who aren’t rejoicing that school is about to begin.

At church we have the Blessing of Backpacks this Sunday and will give out very nice identification tags that include a space for the owner’s name and also has the name and logo of the church. It’s an even better idea to let others know your identity as a Christian. Of course, that means that there are certain standards and expectations, but, best of all, I hope these tags remind students and teachers alike that there is a God who is always present and hears every prayer before a test.

In my mind, a new school year provides a literal clean slate, a fresh start: new teachers, new friends, new opportunities, and new challenges. Frankly, I am now convinced there is no such a thing as a clean slate. Every one of us brings knowledge and experiences forward from either our families of origin or previous classroom experiences. Our educational system is built upon those previous encounters, interactions, and building blocks of learning. We might have new surroundings, classmates or students, but we are standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. Our whole society rests on the bedrock of our civilization’s foundations when we promote education.

British historian Arnold Toynbee said that over the last 5,500 years there have been at least 30 different civilizations across the world, and 25 of them have collapsed. He said that the fallen civilizations weren’t destroyed by invading armies but by self-implosion. He put it this way, “Civilizations are not murdered. They commit suicide.” Toynbee summed up the stressors that cause such self-immolation in this way: “The number one cause of the fall of civilization is a loss of purpose. When a civilization’s leaders and their institutions lose their sense of purpose, they lose the energy to grapple with all the challenges to the commonweal. If leaders and institutions have no guiding North Star, no sense of cultural mission, they are reduced to currying favor with power or to satisfying the impulses of the masses. If the choice is to exist merely at the pleasure of power on the one hand, or of people’s whims on the other, then leaders and institutions begin to embrace a fatal nihilism.”

If our educational system doesn’t promote purpose then our whole culture is fated for destruction. Of course, it takes compliant students and supportive parents and communities to get it done. Teachers aren’t doling out facts as much as they are instructing students about life and how to be good people who make wise decisions.

Toynbee’s words are so true and frighteningly accurate: “We are only one generation from barbarism.” If teachers, parents, clergy, and the rest of society’s leaders fail to adequately communicate and transmit decent values then our culture is doomed and nihilism’s depressing grip creates an insurmountable death throe: living without purpose. If we want better lives, then our daily choices matter. We can try to turn the ship of state around through legislation and mandated educational benchmarks, but none of this takes the place of good old fashioned responsibility. Parents can’t pawn their children off to educators and expect them to undo parental mistakes or make up for a lack of adequate preparation.

Each of us must begin with our own personal responsibility and investment in community. New school years and weekly worship are two of the most effective ways to get our lives in order. When we go to church and start a new school year we are building on society’s best role models, heroes, pioneers, and paragons of moral virtue. Our society is only as good as our institutions.

We live in an anti-institutional age and that may very well be our culture’s downfall, but the start of every school year gives me hope for the future. So, I want to say thank you to all educators for their personal sacrifices that preserve our culture, and I pledge to pray for you because the stakes are so high. If this country or any culture desires to survive we must value those who carry the most responsibility. Too many in helping professions are underpaid, and you certainly are. None of us would know a thing if it weren’t for a teacher! God bless you! Thank you!

 Book Bag Tag

South Carolina Strong

My prayer today is that all the hoopla and hotheads will settle down so that we can do the real work of forging what our Constitution dares us to do: “Form a more perfect union.” My great-grandfather, Daniel Byrd McClendon, was a Confederate soldier who never owned a slave but suffered greatly in the Civil War. In a sense, it is fitting that it was July 9, 1864, 151 years ago today, that he was shot in the back of the head during the Battle of Monocacy outside of Frederick, Maryland. He was captured, treated for months in two different Union hospitals, and then imprisoned for the remainder of the war. He survived, just barely. The question for me in the aftermath of this day’s historic events is whether we will survive and move forward as a people. I think the answer is the same as it was for my great-grandfather 150 years ago: “Yes.”

I am so glad that on the anniversary of his valor, the people of South Carolina have exhibited grace when under fire once again. No matter your heritage or politics, this was the right thing to do. I can’t think of a better tribute to my great-grandfather and to each person of every race who has borne the brunt of hardship so that future generations will remember that freedom is never without a price. With tears in my eyes, this is a holy day of remembrance for slave and free, Americans all. There is no room for whooping and hollering with glee. This is too special for that, too sacred. This is not just Charleston Strong. This is South Carolina Strong. We will move forward.

Therefore, I have mixed emotions today with the painfully magnificent realization that 9 martyrs did not die in vain, while, at the same time, a flag that has taunted so many can still get its due in a museum. A flag is a symbol, and this banner has meant many things to many people, good and bad. We need to remember that, if we’re going to get along, we must do so in the way that Lincoln suggested near the end of the Civil War. In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln said that the Union could be reborn, “With malice towards none…” We must heed his advice, therefore, bind up our common wounds and live life in genuine grace-filled community.

In 1913, on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, a throng of nearly 54,000 Union and Confederate veterans descended once again on the tiny hamlet in southern Pennsylvania. This time, the men of Pickett’s charge didn’t find themselves greeted by deadly blasts of cannon and grapeshot that decimated their ranks. Instead, as the Southern veterans let out their rebel yell, the Union soldiers left their positions behind the stone walls and met their former enemies on the slope below. They embraced with outstretched arms and old foes shed tears of relief and reunion. They had survived and so had their country.

The next day, July 4, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson described the healing of the nation’s wounds, and I’m sure the sight from the previous day moved him: “We have found one another again as brothers and comrades in arms, enemies no longer, generous friends rather, our battles long past, the quarrel forgotten—except that we shall not forget the splendid valor.

On this hallowed day in South Carolina history, may we not flaunt our winning or losing with either hubris or bitterness. Let’s do our ancestors and our recent dead proud by hugging each other, reaching across barriers of race and culture, and saying today that we will dedicate ourselves anew to a future that embraces an indigo blue and every other hue. Splendid valor will not be forgotten. This indeed is South Carolina Strong.

Gettysburg1913