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 Glue of United Methodism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or similarly, ¶132, 2016 BOD states:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 JCD 1341 further declares:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

United Methodist Protocol Possibilities and Perils

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Play Ball! Ethics in a Postmodern World

The World Series in Baseball begins October 22. I love baseball, especially college play. The NCAA limits the number of scholarship players to 11.7 so there’s about 23 out of a total of 35 who are playing because they simply love the game. It’s one of the purest sports left on the athletic landscape. The College World Series in Omaha is a treat that should be on everyone’s bucket list. I’ve been 6 times. Once driving straight-through by myself, once with Cindy, and four times with our youngest son, Caleb. It’s great!

As I think about our postmodern culture wars there are two statements that come to me from my experience with baseball, from my own playing and managing days, as well as from enjoying the game from the seats: “Remember what’s fair and what’s foul;” and “Always think about what you’re going to do if the ball comes to you.”

The chalked lines and foul poles near the stands around the baseball field determine what’s a fair and foul ball. What’s good and kosher, and what isn’t. In our pluralistic culture we are confused about what’s fair and foul. Instead of relying on what is timeless as an arbiter of truth, we make up our own rules. The resulting anarchy of self-defined values has left our culture on a chalk-less field. At best, we are confused, and at worst we are dead wrong.

Christianity has become so enculturated that we often stand for nothing. The means of deciding boundaries of God-endorsed behaviors has been tossed out of the game. For quite some time, what is known as the “Quadrilateral” has been the guide for Christian ethics. Think of the Quadrilateral as a three-legged stool with Scripture as the seat of the stool. It is primary. It is God-breathed and inspired. Using the stool analogy, the Bible is seen through the lenses of the three legs: Tradition, Reason, and Experience. It is also wise to remember that Tradition, Reason, and Experience are also seen through the lens of Scripture. That is a large part of what our world is missing!

In our confused and misguided world, we tend to put individual Experience first and disregard corporate experience that distills the actions that we hold in common as best. Next, we have redefined Tradition to mean just the last 30 years instead of 4, 000 years of Judeo-Christian values. Then we have remade Reason into what science, mostly meaning what psychology and social sciences, tell us. The Mind of Christ and/or empirical studies have given us hard evidence of unwelcome truths about identity determinants. No wonder then that Scripture is last on our list of sources of truth because hardly anyone trusts it, much less, treats it as the primary guide for ethical thought and actions. Few people actually study it, much less put it into practice.

Then comes the last statement that is paramount to a good baseball team: “Know what you’re going to do if the baseball comes to you.” Every day we are faced with moral questions – What’s right and what’s wrong, in other words, the foul and fair line questions. What are we going to do if the questions, the ball, comes to us? Are we going to use Scripture as primary backed up by centuries of a thorough examination of God’s truth through tradition? Are we going to promote selective reason and biased studies over the plain sense of what’s good? Are we going to make our individual experience the most important arbiter of what’s right and wrong?

What are you going to do if the ball comes to you? How are you going to answer the hard questions of life? As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. I would rather stick with the tried and true than the untried and unsure. Play Ball!

Handling Our Diferences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A better person than me.

Lateral Thinking and the UMC

There are decisions to be made in the United Methodist Church about our future, either together or separate, as Traditionalists or Progressives. There are those who are already touting plans, and I am hesitant to throw another plan into the mix. Number one, I don’t have one yet, and secondly, enough of you presume my name is synonymous to an opposite view than yours that you wouldn’t give it a passing thought. No matter, and needless to say, I’m concerned about our future. I’m not concerned about St. John’s UMC because it is thriving by making disciples and not getting stuck in ecclesiological word problems. We will keep doing what we do best by growing the church and its ministries no matter what.

Most of us are consumed by worry. It may be acute anxiety because of an immediate crisis, or it may be caused by chronic anxiety due to a lingering worry that rears its head only occasionally. Either way, worry too easily consumes us. We take vacations to try to get away from it all, but find ourselves needing a vacation from our vacation. We tell ourselves if we had enough money all our worries would disappear. Watch the news just one evening and you’ll find that being rich and famous aren’t solutions to worry.

Mary and Martha were two sisters in the Bible and both have wonderful attributes. Mary-types are into emotions and empathy. They love worship, Bible Study, and learning all that they can from Jesus. Martha-types are more practical and make lists of the things that they need to make sure Jesus and his disciples are well fed. You might recall Joanna Weaver’s book, Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World. It suggests that Jesus prefers Mary-types over Martha’s. That is what the Bible says, but I don’t think that Scripture denigrates Martha’s as much as some might think. The world needs both kinds of people, plus those who are a mixture of the two, and it’s the same for both sexes.

There are men and women who are gifted in the practical, necessary, and mundane things like Martha, and there are those who can write the best poetry, prayer journals, thank-you-notes, and whose emotional I.Q.’s are extraordinary as they sense things. Most of us get it. Any of us, if pressed, can be both dreamers and workers, Mary and Martha’s. Who’s to say that dreaming isn’t work. That’s how we got to the moon 50 years ago. On the other hand, thank God for the people who did the grunt work to make the dreams happen. General Conference 2020 in the UMC is going to take the best of both dreaming and doing.

Sometimes I find myself pondering a problem with a practical head-on solution. Other times I’ll wait and discern until I can come at it in a new creative way. Edward de Bono who champions what he calls “Lateral Thinking,” says that it’s better for both Mary and Martha to beware of attacking a problem head-on. He suggests that we come at our dilemmas from the side. He discovered this principle when he found himself locked outside the double-walled enclosure of his university. As he climbed the outer wall in the dark he discovered that he climbed the wall at a corner and ended back on the outside. Then after he found a way to get over the wall at a place that put him where he wanted to be, he started climbing the next wall. Three-fourths of the way up he noticed a shorter gate nearby, a lesser height if he happened to fall, and a much easier climb. Assuming the gate was locked, he climbed to the top of the short gate only to feel his forward momentum cause the gate to open. Since it wasn’t locked, he hopped off and pushed it open.

He said he learned two things which are at the essence of lateral thinking: “No matter how good you are at climbing walls, you should always pick the right one;” and “Some walls don’t have to be climbed if you can enter through a gate that you never imagined.” Lateral thinking is a mixture of Martha’s practicality and Mary’s imagination.

For instance, de Bono was asked by a corporation to help with a problem. They had too many people at the end of the workday for their elevators to handle in their large building. They tried attacking the problem head-on and thought they could stagger quitting time or use a system to split up the numbers in manageable numbers. They even thought about adding new elevators outside the existing building. Before they spent all that money, they invited de Bono to come in and take a look, to hopefully add a new perspective via lateral thinking. He did just that! He looked at the elevators from a lateral vantage point, literally from the side, and a new idea hit him. It struck him that all the company had to do was to cover the walls around the elevators with mirrors, and it worked! People stood together waiting on the elevators, but spent their time waiting either looking at their own reflection or those of their coworkers. They didn’t even notice the delay!

Lateral thinking lets the Martha’s and the Mary’s do what they do best, and it cuts down the anxiety and worry. I know that the deadline for General Conference 2020 petitions is September 18, but can’t we think about this in a new way? Step to the side and get a better angle.

Love Without Truth is a Lie

The Good Samaritan account in Luke 10 isn’t as simple as it appears. Is it always okay to help others? As much as I would love for all human interactions to be as cordial as Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, most of us would have to admit that there are some people that more than get our goat. In the preface to Jesus’ parable about being a true neighbor, Jesus asked the expert in the law to name the two greatest commandments in the Law and he answered from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

However, does the fulfillment of the two great commandments to love God and love neighbor sometimes outweigh both common sense and responsibility? Jesus exhibited radical hospitality and we’re grateful. Without his grace we would all be left out and unforgiven, but should we just love without regard to expectations that those we love ought to act better than they do? A strict interpretation of radical hospitality might be downright stupid or dangerous.

The same Jesus also said that we should not “throw our pearls before swine” (Matthew 7:6). Sometimes I want to just walk away and disengage from some piggish people. Other times I rationalize my lack of compassion. Most of us have been taken advantage of by ne’er-do-wells, users, posers, vagrants, and the like. Do we go ahead and help them and contribute to their bad habits, or do we say “no,” and allow them to fend for themselves. No wonder many of us walk to the other side of the road and keep our eyes straight ahead. Christian ethics is complicated!

Love and acceptance have become synonymous and I wonder if that’s the best thing. Accepting harmful behavior doesn’t really help anyone. Some of us who are caught between compassion and holiness end up as little more than tolerant. Tolerating someone doesn’t sound or feel like love, does it? Preachers and ministers of the Gospel are experts at toleration. We have to tolerate people over and over again, and often slip into a passive-aggressive reaction to recalcitrant parishioners. We dread to call that irregular person back. Our hesitation to go see them is quite apparent. They don’t easily get a shoulder to cry on by anyone. Instead they get a cold or reluctant lukewarm shoulder. Is this right? Hardly.

What are we to do? We all have leeches that suck the life out of us. As much as we want to kill them with kindness, offer them money just to muster them away, or give them some of our time, is this really what we’re supposed to do? Is love always a roll-over and give into the demands of someone else kind of situation, or does tough love enter into the interaction? Tough love is something that God does all the time, and we do, too, if we are being responsible.

God disciplines us with repercussions and consequences of our failures. Parents love their children enough to say “No!” if they want to do something dangerous or might hurt themselves or someone else. The Good Samaritan risked time and expense to be sure, and so did the innkeeper who only had the Samaritan’s word that he was going to come back and reimburse any costs he might incur in tending to the poor victim. This may be a significant clue: love is real when it risks.

This parable of loving God and loving neighbor has morphed into a syrupy “Love, Love, Love” that isn’t really accurate or risky. It’s little more than an automatic behavior that appeases an immediate need. A love that is always accepting without any expectation of transformed behavior or thinking is the worst thing we can do. To quote a seminary classmate, “Sometimes the most compassionate act you can perform is to tell people the truth they need to hear.” Mushy roll-over-and-play-dead acquiescence can be the most terrible way to respond to someone in need. Just as truth without love is a lie, so is love without truth!

Upstaging the Ump

The difference between democracy and anarchy isn’t much nowadays. In a democracy the will of the people is decided by the ballot box. Anarchy, on the other hand, exists when it’s everyone for themselves resulting in mass confusion. Our society’s polarization exhibits democracy and anarchy simultaneously run amok. The line between them are so blurred that we don’t know how to act. We’re uncertain about what to tolerate anymore.

Did we see democracy or anarchy in the 2016 US presidential election? Donald Trump got around 26% of the vote, and Hillary Clinton got roughly 26% of the vote. As a matter of fact, she received more votes than Trump, but in our homage to state’s rights, each US state is delegated a certain number of electoral votes based on the latest census records. Though Clinton had more popular votes, she had less electoral votes. Donald Trump won, but both candidates combined got just 52% of the popular vote. Neither one came close individually to a 50+1 majority because 48% of those eligible to vote didn’t! Both candidates lost 74% of eligible voters.

Who would want to serve with 74% either against you or too ambivalent to vote? Someone this week said that the highest electoral turnout in the US is for county sheriff’s elections. It makes you wonder why that number is higher than the presidential one. Is it because of the old adage that “all politics is local?” We care who our sheriff is because of our individual personal safety or that of our loved ones. Is it about our property values and local quality of life? Is it because we have a personal investment in the outcome because we actually know the candidates?

It’s an interesting enigma, but we choose between democracy and anarchy every day. Is it my way or the highway of anarchy, or is it whatever is best for the common good of democracy? I certainly hope that I’m a kind of person who values the common good over personal desires. The foundation of civilization is an agreed upon set of values and a uniform adherence to those precepts. Unfortunately, we have rules interpreted in a way that’s all over the map. Left-coasters see things one way, and New England’s Down-Easters see it another way. The Midwest has another opinion. Southern Bible-belters espouse yet another set of virtues, and the South West another. Texas is big enough to have it all.

Here’s the problem as I think of American democracy on the edge of anarchy. We have lost touch with what our values are, both personal and national. We care about who our sheriff is because we’re so darn self-centered. We have snubbed our nose at both common sense and God. It used to be that everyone had the same curfew. Everybody in town knew what time it was, and every date got home on time. Not anymore. The Ten Commandments are 10 suggestions, not laws, and the Golden Rule has been changed to “Do it unto others before they do it unto you.” It is quite literally a sad state of affairs.

Here’s an example of what happens if we can all do our own thing and upstage the umpire. In Cuba they love baseball and they know the rules. However, not that long ago, Cuba’s former dictator, Fidel Castro came up to bat in an exhibition game against Venezuela. The game was held in the Cuban capitol of Havana. The Cuban dictator grabbed an aluminum bat and walked up to homeplate. Not to be outdone, the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, went to the pitcher’s mound. The first pitch from Chavez to Castro didn’t even reach the plate. Castro kept his bat on his shoulder. The next pitch went over the plate, and Castro swung and missed. In short order the two heads of state were locked in a 3-2 full count. The next pitch went across the plate straight down the middle and the umpire called Castro out.

“No,” Castro said. “That was a ball.” He walked to first base. No one argued. Chavez said nothing. The opposing team said nothing, and neither did Chavez or the umpire. Later Castro joked, “Today just wasn’t Chavez’s day.”

It’s hard to get the batter out when he or she has the power to overrule the umpire’s calls. That’s the way most of us have been behaving about a lot of things. Someday there’s going to be a payday when God’s Word will be final. No more upstaging the big Ump! What are our values? What’s right, and is anything wrong anymore? Jesus said in Matthew 7:13-14, “Broad is the way that leads to destruction and many enter it, but narrow is the way that leads to life, and only a few find it.” Is the ball fair or foul?

 

US Liberty or Libertines: Church and Society

Pondering the news from the Harris Poll yesterday that Millennials are less tolerant of others on progressive social issues has me a bit dumbfounded. It gives me hope that America might be on the brink of a newfound morality, but doesn’t Jesus call us to love, not just tolerate? Walking a thin line between grace and judgment is the path we Christians tread: hating sin, loving the sinner; standing for something, so we don’t fall for anything. We’re living in the tension between Fourth of July freedom and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. That clause says that all laws must apply to everyone. It’s about properly defining the common good for our society, and balancing that with our individual or constituency group’s preferences.

Alexis de Tocqueville, in visiting the US in the 1830’s, said, “America is great because America is good.” Polarization on issues has inflamed Congress and Churches alike. Jesus implored in Matthew 5:13, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” How salty are we? Is the Church composed of paragons of virtue, or panderers of moral relativity?

It’s so easy to believe that God wants us to be forgiven, but being “saved” doesn’t just mean having our tickets punched for heaven. That notion makes heaven about us more than an eternal worship of God. In our own self-centered American way, we have made the after-life another what’s-in-it-for-me consumer product – a sad commentary on our priorities. No, we’re saved not just for heaven, but for now. “Saved” means “changed.” Its that big word that maybe our Millennials are grasping better than the rest of us: Sanctification. Sanctification is believing that, through the power of the HOLY Spirit, Jesus died to save us FROM our sins; i.e., keep us from them, deliver us, and set us free. That’s the kind of freedom we need to celebrate on July 4th!

The Equal Protection Clause has been mistakenly co-opted by people and courts to mean that everybody can do whatever they want, no matter what. Orthodox Christendom says, “Not at all!” The Equal Protection Clause is really a way to determine how WE can live together in commonly agreed upon ways that support the protection of what’s right and the punishment of what’s wrong. None of us should be able to do whatever we want to without regard for common decency.

But, to those who say that the church should stay out of the public sphere, I say it’s impossible. If we truly want the world to be a better place and honor God’s laws, we must obey Jesus’ words and be the salt of the earth. If not, we’re doomed and the world is doomed with us.

Here’s a wake-up call story: A guy wanting to buy some salt went into a little Mom and Pop grocery store and asked, “Do you sell salt?” “Ha!” said the owner. “Do we sell salt? Just look!”

The owner proceeded to show the customer an entire wall of shelves stocked with nothing but salt: Morton salt, iodized salt, kosher salt, sea salt, rock salt, garlic salt – every kind of salt imaginable. The customer couldn’t say anything but “Wow!”

The owner said, “This ain’t nothing. I’ve got more!” So, the store owner showed the customer a backroom that was filled with more and more salt everywhere. There were boxes, bags, and bins of salt. The owner in a daring way said, “Well, what do you think? Do we sell salt?” The customer exclaimed, “Oh, yeah! You’ve got salt to sell! This is unbelievable!”

The owner then said, “There’s more!” and led the customer down some steps to the basement. The basement was huge, at least triple the size of the backroom, and it was filled from floor to ceiling with, you guessed it, more salt of every kind, even 20 lb. salt-licks for cattle. “Incredible,” said the customer. “You really do sell salt!” Then the owner said, “Yep, except for one small thing. We almost never ever sell any, but that salt salesman – hoo-boy, does he sell salt!”

Paraphrasing Jesus, “Salt that stays on the shelf doesn’t do any good at all.” Come on, Church, let’s get to work and help the US and the world to know the transforming grace of Jesus Christ!

Church Transitions

“Moving Day” in the United Methodist Church can be an awkward transitional time. In our first move from seminary in Boston to a three-point charge in South Carolina there were generous folks who brought over a meal and proceeded to watch us eat it!  One dear woman asked what they were all thinking as I followed a more seasoned minister, “Are you old enough to be a preacher?” My response was both sure and ambiguous and offered very little assurance, “I hope so!”

Hope is what sustains us when one minister leaves and another comes. We all try to put our best feet forward. Afterall, there is only one chance to make a first impression. Together, laity and clergy hope to win people to Christ and disciple them. That’s the great expectation! Our new preacher or our new congregation will be a grand opportunity to fulfill The Great Commission to make disciples for Jesus Christ! One preacher was heard adjusting his expectations, “During the first five years of ministry I had a sign on my desk that said, ‘Win the world for Christ.’ The next five years the sign read. ‘Win five for Christ.’ After ten years, I changed the sign to read, ‘Don’t lose too many.’”

Sad to say and worse to admit, this is the low expectation of too many ministers and churches, but when clergy move it’s an opportunity to recalibrate and have fresh ideas. Each church has its own personality and history. If you expect others to adapt to the congregation then you better do it!

Most importantly, we need to trust the Holy Spirit to make a new appointment work. E. Stanley Jones was probably the greatest evangelist and missionary of the Methodist movement. He spent most of his life in India and wrote prolifically. In many ways, he was a man before his time. In his book on Pentecost and the book of Acts, The Christ of Every Road, he describes the church as living between Easter and Pentecost:

“The church stands hesitant between Easter and Pentecost. Hesitant, hence impotent. Something big has dawned in the church’s thinking—Easter. Christ has lived, taught, died and risen and has commissioned the church with the amazing Good News. But something big has yet to dawn in the very structure, make-up and temperament of the church—Pentecost. If the church would move up from that in between-state to Pentecost, nothing could stop it—nothing!!”

Then he describes the church of his day. Remember, this was written eighty-five years ago:

“Now the church is stopping itself by its own ponderous machinery. Whenever we have been troubled about our spiritual impotence, we have added a new wheel—a new committee or commission, a new plan or program—and in the end we have found that we have little or no power to run the old or the new. We become busy—devastatingly busy—turning old and new wheels by hand. The Holy Spirit of Pentecost is not a lived fact with us. Hence we worship machinery instead of winning and discipling souls.”

We worship machinery instead of winning men and women for Jesus. Amen!

So, trying to keep you from becoming too busy and quenching the Spirit, I would offer a simple list of ideas that I shared at a Bishop’s School of Ministry:

Quick Start Guide for Pastoral Transitions

  1. Don’t change much in the first 6 months!
  2. Be a good historian! Learn the church’s history, especially emotional history of past tensions.
  3. Get a copy of the pictorial directory and pray through it daily!
  4. Ask the Lay Leader and Church Council Chair, LMAC for advice!
  5. Visit people!
  6. Be like a Persian cat with keen observation! Get copies of church leaders and financials.
  7. Ask more questions than you give answers!
  8. Don’t change the order of worship!
  9. Preach good/great and familiar sermons!
  10. Write a synopsis for first 15 sermons and give to worship leaders!
  11. Don’t blame Bishop, DS, or predecessor for the move!
  12. Accept strategic invitations to people’s soiree’s even if it’s on your day off!
  13. Listen, listen; Love, love
  14. Use “That’s interesting.” Without moving anything!
  15. Stay out of Triangles via non-anxious presence and defecting in place!
  16. Go to every District meeting and depend on other clergy near you!
  17. Praise in public and criticize in private!
  18. Go to every team/committee meeting and most other small groups!
  19. If asked, say “Yes!” to children’s sermon, youth, confirmation, chapel, Rotary, etc!
  20. Call people within 24 hours of their visiting church or returning!
  21. Hold cottage meetings or speak a lot so people get to know you!
  22. Beware cottage meetings if tensions are high!
  23. Dress for success, up or down!
  24. Familiarity breeds contempt! Be careful not to “let your hair down” too quickly.
  25. Don’t talk about your previous church/ministry!
  26. If you go out of town for vacation or continuing education, inform SPRC Chair & Lay Leader!
  27. Beat people to the hospital! Go early, pray, and get out of the way!
  28. Get Business cards immediately and make sure your cell # is a local call for everyone!
  29. Get involved in the community; find out where your people eat, hang out, and sit at ball games!
  30. Let church committees, especially SPRC, self-select their own successors!
  31. Don’t be afraid to use the Book of Worship or Book of Discipline!
  32. Beware those who put down your predecessor and honor those grieving her/his leaving!
  33. Get a list of shut-in’s and recent deaths, serious illnesses, and life changes!
  34. Call the Office of Congregational Development for your new demographics!
  35. In connectionalism, how well your successor does says a lot about you!
  36. Meet with the Altar Guild ASAP and ask about baptism/communion procedures & preferences!
  37. Play dumb because you are, and never come off as angry!
  38. Leadership by walking around and keep confidences!
  39. Read church wedding policy and put dates on your calendar!
  40. Ask people/staff what the church is known for in the community and what each staff member is known for in the church!