Assault on Mt. Mitchell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wisdom in Waiting During Quarantine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Virus Didn’t Steal Easter

How the Virus Stole Easter

By Kristi Bothur, With a nod to Dr. Seuss

Twas late in ‘19 when the virus began

Bringing chaos and fear to all people, each land.

People were sick, hospitals full,

Doctors overwhelmed, no one in school.

As winter gave way to the promise of spring,

The virus raged on, touching peasant and king.

People hid in their homes from the enemy unseen.

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

April approached and churches were closed.

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

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

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

Holy Week started, as bleak as the rest.

The world was focused on masks and on tests.

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

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

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

The virus pressed on; it just would not relent.

The world woke Sunday and nothing had changed.

The virus still menaced, the people, estranged.

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

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

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

Their mouths will hang open a minute or two,

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

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

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

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

It started down low, then it started to rise.

But the sound wasn’t depressed.

Why, this sound was triumphant!

It couldn’t be so!

But it grew with abundance!

The world stared around, popping its eyes.

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

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

Was celebrating Jesus in spite of it all!

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

Somehow or other, it came just the same!

And the world with its life quite stuck in quarantine

Stood puzzling and puzzling.

“Just how can it be?”

“It came without bonnets, it came without bunnies,

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

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

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

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

And what happened then?

Well….the story’s not done.

What will YOU do?

Will you share with that one

Or two or more people needing hope in this night?

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

The churches are empty – but so is the tomb,

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

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

As the virus still rages all around, everywhere.

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

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

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

May the world find Joy in a time of dejection.

May 2020 be known as the year of survival,

But not only that –

Let it start a revival.

Easter Hope from Old Salem

Holy Week Hope is what I need this year. COVID-19 has ravaged the world and things like Easter services have changed in its wake. This doesn’t change the fact that Jesus is alive and well. Holy Week’s drama doesn’t end on Golgotha, but at the empty tomb. There will be differences this year because we can’t meet together, but I pray that we will hear the echoes of “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” reverberate in our hearts.

I have always wanted to attend the Easter Sunrise service at Old Salem in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Being a pastor makes it nearly impossible to pull that off due to leading my own flock in worship. This year marks the 240th uninterrupted succession of Easter Services at Old Salem. The Moravians since Count Nicholas Von Zinzendorf in Herrnhut, Germany have given this poignant and powerful homage to Christian hope and faith. This year it will be just as rich except it will be live-streamed at http://www.moraviansunrise.org/. It’s not an extravaganza, never has been. It’s deep and worshipful. It is the essence of Christian hope because it’s not based on pyrotechnics or stage management. It is simple, yet extremely profound.

We need to remember the Moravian influence on John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, who was caught in a storm at sea frightened for his life and soul, yet surrounded by these German Pietists who had heart faith that inspired them to sing hymns and pray through the storm. They had more than the head faith of Wesley. The Moravian’s witness had a profound effect on Wesley that led him to believe Methodists would do best if we connected head and heart, and literally “felt” our religion. Wesley even met with Zinzendorf at Herrnhut to experience more of this living hope himself.

Feeling our religion is the essence of hope. So yearly, albeit 2020 will be quite different, the Moravians who have been in Old Salem since the 1700’s have celebrated their faith in a special way. At 1:45 am a brass band of nearly 400 using trumpets and tubas goes around the city and plays Easter music, alerting everyone that sunrise will soon be coming. Then they gather at the Old Salem Church at 6 am when the bishop steps out of the Moravian Church into the darkness and says the traditional Easter Greeting: “The Lord is Risen!” The gathered throng responds, “He is risen indeed!” Then silently they make their way to the ancient cemetery called “God’s Acre” where bodies have been buried or sown in faith as physical bodies so they can be raised up as spiritual bodies.

The cemetery is a witness itself of new life. Every flat recumbent stone is identical and they are covered with flowers: forsythia, jonquils, azalea and dogwood blossoms – whatever plants, bushes, and trees are full of color are carefully laid on each tomb as a sign of resurrection piercing the night’s fading darkness. The tombs are all the same for each person as a reminder that each of us needs God’s grace the same as anyone else. Tombs are not gathered in family plots, but are ranked in specific order of married women, unmarried women, married men, unmarried men, etc. Zinzendorf himself said this is the way it should be as if our bodies were “choirs,” of sorts, with equality and democracy the same rule of heaven as it should be on earth with no one better than another.

Gathered there at the cemetery in silence everyone looks toward the eastern hill beside God’s Acre and the cedars that were brought from Germany when the first Moravians settled Salem. The sun comes up over that hill and the Communion of Saints is revealed: the earthly saints in the Church Militant joined with the deceased saints in the Church Triumphant, all living saints as represented by the people standing and the graves festooned by every imaginable color of flower. It is impressive. “Christ is Risen!” “He is Risen indeed!”

Pray and plan that Holy Week and Easter 2020 will be as glorious as any in Old Salem. May we feel stronger in the faith as we visualize our deceased loved ones alive again and rooting us on in our quest for hope and resurrection today. Amen.

Holy Week, COVID-19, and The Serenity Prayer

This is the longest month of March on record! It’s not because this one has more than the usual 31 days, but these days have dragged on and on, and most of us have languished. The corona virus has unleashed so much havoc that it’s hard to believe that it was just a month ago in February that we had stock market highs, COVID-19 was only a blip on our radar, and life was pretty much normal. March has wiped out thousands of lives, and hundreds of thousands in everyone’s retirement accounts. I can’t wait for March to end.

I’ll probably feel the same way about April, but time has seemed to stand still during these days as we have sheltered in place. Days seem like weeks, and weeks like months. Is this our new normal? If it is, what do we do with it and how do we handle it? As I anticipate next week’s observance of Palm Sunday and Good Friday, it feels like we’re stuck in a perpetual Holy Week, and Easter hasn’t come.

Things can turn on a dime, can’t they? The loud hosannas of Palm Sunday turned into shouts of “Barabbas!” just a few days later. In Jesus’ life and ours, things can go quickly from adulation and good times to denial and the worst of times. This kind of tumult isn’t new. It’s just new to most of us. One minute we’re fine and enjoying life, and the next minute we’re scared to go outside. Some of you know this kind of about-face because you’ve seen tragedy before. One minute your daughter is alive, well, and everything is right with the world, and the next thing you know there’s a cop at the door, a somber doctor in the family consultation room, or an officer and chaplain walking up the front steps. Life is fickle.

People are fickle, too. They can and will turn on us. Woodrow Wilson knew both the height of popularity, and its quick demise. He was elected president before WWI, led us as a country through to victory, and had high hopes that he could create the League of Nations so that what had transpired in the trenches of France would never happen again. He wanted WWI to be “The War to End All Wars.” Unfortunately, his plans went awry. Not only did the US Senate fail to ratify the Versailles Treaty to end WWI, but they also rebuked Wilson’s idea of the League of Nations. He went from being a conquering hero to a broken man. He had a stroke in 1919 in the midst of all the stress, and served his last two years in office while completely bedridden.

Life is tough and filled with bad news. People praise us one minute and spit on us the next. What do we do with it, and how do we handle it? Jesus rolled with the punches, and stayed strong. Holy Week and its up and downs served as a crucible that forged more determination in him. Sure, he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane that he could be spared, but he also made the proclamation, “Not my will, but thy will be done.” That’s commitment. That’s playing the long game, and having a stick-to-it attitude that cares not one whit what people think.

That’s what we need during these difficult days. We should do the very best that we can, and trust the rest to God. It is the essence of the Serenity Prayer: God, Grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.

How To Defeat Social Isolation

How do we deal with the change in our social habits? We humans were made for interaction, and now we can’t. In South Carolina the governor has placed coronavirus restrictions on groups of three or more in public. Social distancing has become social isolation. Some people have “cabin fever” from being isolated so long, and can’t wait to get out and go somewhere, anywhere. Others have become contented cave-dwellers. The last few nights have taken me on a journey that has kept me both safe and sane. It’s been a trip down memory lane. I have gone back to my childhood home and pictured everyone and everything as they were at their best. This may be an effective way for us all to stay engaged and human in these days of distancing.

You’ve done something similar before, I imagine. Over the years I have played the best golf I’ve ever played on familiar courses in my head just before going to bed, only to watch the wheels come off when I played the same course the next day. To get to sleep and to think “happy thoughts” has led me to walk beside, canoe or john-boat the still waters of places I’ve fished. There are a handful of ponds that I know every inch of because I was around when they were first excavated. I’ve replayed special football games, remaking interceptions or fighting for a loose football. When counting sheep isn’t good enough to give you the peace to fall asleep, where do you go? What are you doing in your mind’s eye?

To fight the ill-effects of social isolation, I dare you to go back to your best memories of your childhood. Picture the people, the smells, and the placement of things and see them where they were. Our childhood homes might not be the best place for some of you because of trauma, but for many of us it was the most idyllic place ever. When my Mother died, Daddy sold our home place, dispersed my brothers’ and my inherited pieces of our home, and had a log-cabin built with very few reminders of his grief. He did keep the “courting bench” that sat on the front porch, painted in thick multi-layers of Charleston Green. Its 1 inch wide rounded rustic stringers was where he and Mama got up the nerve to elope on December 23, 1937.

Most of our childhood, however, was dispersed to new homes. I’ve got the silver epergne that was always under the chandelier in the dining room of our childhood home. I also ended up with the dining room furniture which was quite ironic. I don’t ever remember graduating from the bar in the kitchen. I never even made it to the kitchen table, being always at the bar on a stool. We now have the silver covered platter that wasn’t for meat, but the ever present caramel cake that Grandmother made. Some of this is in the attic or already passed down to our children. I guess the point in giving us all this dining room stuff was to make up for being made to sit with the rest of the kids. I did like, however, sitting at the bar on a regular basis. It was there that Daddy had the end seat, then it was Ralphie, and I was last. The table was reserved for Grandmother at the end, brother Carlee, Mother, and Papa on the other end.

What we have here at home or at the church are the have-to items, the things that are too emotionally important to pack up or give away. There’s my Papa’s chaise lounge that he napped on every work day to collect his thoughts. I was named after him, and he taught me how to preach crawled up in bed beside him. He would say, “Timmy, I’ll start a story, and you finish it.” That was better sermon instruction than any homiletics class. God has been doing that to me ever since.

There are pieces of Edgefield Pottery that didn’t come from our very-own pottery museum, but from the family collection like my Great Grandmother Dorn’s lap churn. It’s just a small green-alkaline glazed thing, but the story is that she didn’t have the strength to use a full-size churn. This small 12 inch high one with the original ladle and top did the trick just right. There’s also the Edgefield pottery batter bowl that I saw my Grandmother repeatedly use banging the dough-covered spoon off the rim with her effort to make up her mix. The old 13-paned secretary still has drawers full of items that probably haven’t been moved in 75 to a hundred years, plus its old ornately carved chair in front. At the church are two oriental rugs that I can see in my mind’s eye in the same exact spot that they were on for the first however many years in our possession. They’re at the church because one has an intricate worship space woven into it with candlesticks as pews, a front door on one end, and an altar on the other.

My trip down memory lane includes two final items: my Daddy’s ring that goes from youngest son to youngest son. I remember as a little boy that it was so big it rolled around my finger like a hoola-hoop; and the best for last is the music box, a Polyphon with big records that supposedly came from my great-grandfather Thomas’ country store where it sat on the counter with Large Cent slots on either side as sort of an original juke box that played tunes on 19 ½ inch metal records. I have around 30 of those records. It sounds amazing. Like everything else, I can see where it perpetually stood in the hallway from the main house to what we called the Front Room. I can see Daddy or Mama showing it off, or just winding it up to play a tune for the heck of it.

Anyway, going back in my mind to the home I grew up in has kept me from going stir crazy, but more importantly it has helped me remember the first social connections that I ever knew. You might want to try it with your own childhood home or apartment, Grandmother’s house, old elementary school, or church. Picture the things, and you’ll see the people. Better yet, you know the best thing this exercise has really taught me: If I can know all this and picture it with my feeble memory, then God knows us even better. Just as these memories make special people come alive so that they are closer than my next breath, God is closer still and knows me. I am never isolated, especially not from God. Good memories!

The Sky Isn’t Falling!

“The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” is what Chicken Little yells when nothing but an acorn falls on its head. Chicken Little decides to tell the king and on its journey other animals join the scared little band of creatures. They all have rhyming names like Henny Penny, Cocky Locky, and Turkey Lurkey, but the names aren’t what’s important. This is a folk tale that makes light of paranoia and mass hysteria, and it doesn’t end well. From the panic of a single acorn, Chicken Little and its friends get invited to a fox’s lair for supposed refuge and end up as lunch. The moral of the story is to not get freaked out, and make matters worse.

Well, the COVID-19 pandemic is no acorn. It’s real and it’s eating our lunch! People are dying, businesses are closing, jobs are being lost, and there’s even a run on toilet paper! Just when I think the church’s doors ought to be wide open, we’ve been told to shut them. I get it, but it feels so sad and wrong, but we don’t want to spread germs and make things worse. Church services, daily devotions, blogs, live-stream and every means imaginable are being used to keep hope strong among the faithful.

If there’s ever a time to need Jesus and proclaim hope, this is it! The Scripture is filled with those who faced adversity and survived, even thrived. Hebrews 11 defines faith and lists quite a few people who lived with confidence in perilous times. Then Hebrews 12:1-3 offers a summation and challenge based upon all the ways the faithful hung in there. It gives all of us the encouragement to keep the faith, too.

It says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

There’s a cloud of witnesses around us, too. Even when we feel alone or isolated because of mandatory social distancing, God is with us, and so is the church. Don’t yield to negative thinking. This crisis can be the seedbed for the next great awakening for America and the world. Spend your time in prayer and Bible reading. Ask God to fill your heart with the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. We may have social distancing, but through the union of faithful hearts in the Spirit we will never have emotional and spiritual distancing!

Throw off the sin that so easily entangles like panic, fear, and worry. Sure, my retirement has lost big time, but what good does it do for me to look at that. I would rather sit here and pray through the faces of my family and friends as I look at the pictures around our house or in the church pictorial directory. God knows what each person needs, and I can call, text, or email them, too! I can count my many blessings, as the old hymn goes, and name them one by one! There’s so much that I can do to spend these last days of Lenten season as a spiritual preparation for the best Easter ever.

This is an opportunity to let God recalibrate my life, to get my priorities in order, to give on-line to the ministries and missions of the church, to soak up the Word, and write notes of encouragement to those whom God lays on my heart. I just need to listen, and if I can’t hear His voice now then there’s something terribly wrong with me!

Mostly, I can do exactly what Hebrews 12:1-3 says: I can FIX my eyes on Jesus, what He went through on the Cross for me, and all of us. He is the pioneer and perfecter of my faith, the pathfinder and the road-paver, of what’s important. I’m not going to freak out during this crisis about the future of the United Methodist Church, my pension, or anything else. If I can concentrate on Jesus, it’s all going to be alright! Look what He went through, and how that turned out. Sure, it was horrible on Good Friday, but Easter Sunday’s coming! Take heart! Read: 2 Corinthians 4:16-18; I Peter 5:6-11; Jeremiah 29:11; Psalm 23; Romans 8:28-39; Isaiah 40:27-31; Psalm 46. Pray for revival!

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!

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…