Repentance and Racism

Straight-up, let me say that there is nothing that I can say to adequately address George Floyd’s death or lessen its pain and injustice, or that of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, or the countless others.  Every time I’ve tried to say something in the past few days on social media, it has been misunderstood, misconstrued or politicized. I own that as my fault, but I have my own stories about racial justice from my childhood. Those who know me, know the facts about Frank Arthur, Gerald Moseley, Randy Fields, and how many times Cindy and our children marched in Columbia to urge that the Confederate flag come down, and how as the Columbia District Superintendent I led our district clergy in communion at the African American Memorial, and then marched over in silent protest to where the flag stood.

Some of you know the story of how we were given a framed print depicting the last night that the Confederate flag flew over SC’s Statehouse. Cindy took it back to the gift shop where it came from, as noted by a label on the back. She handed it to the cashier who said, “I can’t give you a refund.” Whereupon Cindy said, “I don’t want one. It’s either give it to you, or toss it.” The woman said, “But, you’re a Southerner. This is your heritage.” Cindy’s reply is worth noting, “No, this is my history, not my heritage. History is something you learn from. Heritage is what you pass on to your children.” That same sentiment led me to use every parliamentary maneuver I could think of to bring a resolution to the floor of the 2000 United Methodist General Conference in Cleveland, Ohio so that United Methodists could go on the record as wanting the Confederate flag down. The resolution passed!

I could get very defensive about anyone who questions where I stand or whether I’m sensitive enough on racial matters. I served on the UMC General Commission on Religion and Race, but no matter. This isn’t about me, or who has better cred than someone else. It’s about systemic and personal racism. Racism has to stop so that no one gets stopped 9 times a year “driving a car while Black” like SC United States Senator Tim Scott. We don’t need any more Emanuel 9 massacres, or Walter Scott killings in South Carolina.

But, what can we do? That’s up to you, but do something! I know this is a watershed moment. We have tried to legislate solutions to our problems, and thank God for those efforts, but they didn’t go far enough. You cannot legislate a solution to a spiritual problem. Only God can truly change the human heart. Our problem is sin. Racism and slavery have been called America’s “Original Sin.” We can legislate all we want, and we should, but we mostly need God’s redemption to free us from this original and actual sin.

Racism and tribalism are a part of the original sin of the world. Ever since Adam and Eve we’ve been corrupted by an “us and them” pre-judging called racism. We can sing “Red, and yellow, black, and white, all are precious in His sight,” until we’re blue in the face, but unless there’s a heart change, it doesn’t matter. The human condition in its fallenness has embraced a bigoted biased one-upmanship that has pitted group against group since the beginning of time.

It is a universal crisis that many of us have witnessed if you’ve done any travel. I’ve been on mission trips and a couple of simple travel jaunts to lots of places: To the Philippines, Hong Kong, Canada, Bulgaria, Ivory Coast, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia, Ethiopia, Mozambique, South Africa, Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, Austria, Nicaragua, Mexico, and the impoverished west-end of Grand Bahama. The human condition of prejudice is EVERYWHERE.

In the Philippines the Lumad people are looked down on, and so are the Payatas. In Bulgaria the Roma (Gypsy) orphans are treated poorly. In Ireland it’s Catholics versus Protestants. In Scotland it’s Highlanders against the Lowlanders. In the Congo the main tribes of Mongo, Luba, Kongo, and Mangbetu-Azonde have difficulties with the Batwa, otherwise known by the derogatory term, “Pygmies.” Racism and tribalism are universal! It’s not just an American problem.

It’s an everywhere problem, and we need solutions that work in our personal context and worldwide. That solution isn’t just recognizing the Image of God in everybody. It is also recognizing that we are all guilty of the original and actual sin of racism. We need Jesus, the only cure. Sure, we can legislate, but we need a spiritual solution first and foremost. God had it right in becoming flesh in Jesus, a Jew from the Middle East – not African, not European, Not Asian – from right in the geographic middle of all humankind. Jesus ably represents all of us, died in our place to redeem us, and gave us the words to combat racism and bigotry in Matthew 7:12, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

So, pray with me if you want, “Forgive me, Lord Jesus, of all the ways that I have been an insensitive bigot, prejudging instead of pre-loving. I repent of my sin. Set me and our country free from the sin of denigrating whomever we count as the ‘other.’ Help us to embrace you as the only hope for forgiveness and justice, then help us to act like it. Change my heart and my life; in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

God’s Right Hand Man, Ours, too!

Ascension Day doesn’t really make the hit parade of Christian holidays, but it should! It proves Jesus’ triumph and exaltation to “the right hand of God the Father Almighty,” as the Apostles’ Creed declares. Easter is the highest point of our faith and has, of course, always been tied to Passover. The reason the date of Easter shifts is because Jesus’ death and resurrection coincided with the Passover. So, ever since the inaugural Easter, it has always come on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. Easter, therefore, can range between March 22 and April 25 each year.

Ascension Day is always 40 days after Easter because Luke says in Acts 1:3, “After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.” Forty days after Easter is always a Thursday. This Thursday is Ascension Day!

We need to recapture its importance because it gives so much hope and encouragement, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Ascension Day confirms that Jesus has been elevated to God’s right hand. That act symbolizes his identity as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He’s literally God’s Right-Hand-Man! We usually shake hands with someone using the right hand because the right arm is most people’s side of strength and where a weapon might be held. Shaking right hands reveals that a person comes without a weapon, in peace.

A right-hand-man is, therefore, exalted, strong, dependable, the first to be called upon, and a representative of the one at whose right hand they sit or stand. When you see one, you see the other; and we know Jesus said when you’ve seen him, you see the Father (John 14:9). There are many passages about Jesus sitting at the Father’s right hand: Luke 22:69, Colossians 3:1, Psalm 110:1, Hebrews 12:2, Hebrews 8:1, Matthew 26:4, I Peter 3:22, Mark 16:19, Acts 2:33, Hebrews 10:12, Revelation 3:21, Hebrews 1:3, Ephesians 1:20, Mark 14:62, Acts 5:31, and there are more! Please read them this week and be encouraged!

Ascension Day’s importance as evidenced in Scripture gives great hope. Jesus is too tough to tame. He’s king of the universe, an embodiment of the Father’s glory, power, and strength. There is nothing too big or bad that can defeat him. He has already defeated everything that comes against us, and it keeps getting better and better because He ascended. Jesus told the disciples that it was better for them if he ascended so the Holy Spirit would come (John 16:7-16).

In other words, Jesus said that his ascension triggered the outpouring of the Holy Spirit 10 days later at Pentecost. Jesus could only be in one place at one time, but the Holy Spirit, which is His Spirit, can be everywhere. This is what Peter meant in his first sermon after Pentecost when he spoke about Jesus and what was happening, “Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear (Acts 2:33).” Amen!

Jesus’s exaltation through the Ascension gives us the Holy Spirit and confidence so that we might have forgiveness of sins and be empowered by the Holy Spirit!  Over and over in the Bible it tells us what Jesus is doing while He is at the Father’s right hand. He’s praying for us, you and me! What could be more encouraging? Romans 8:34b says, “Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” Hebrews 7:25 says, “Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.” He is interceding for us, intercedere, as our literal “go between,” as the word itself means. Jesus becomes our “Right-Hand-Man,” along with God the Father’s, in speaking up for us, defending us, doing everything possible to help us. What an encouragement!

The most powerful example of Jesus interceding for us is with what happened to the first deacon, Stephen, in Acts 7:54-60. Stephen is being stoned to death as the first Christian martyr when, as he was being executed, says “Look, I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:56).” This is amazing confirmation of the importance of Ascension Day and what Jesus continues to do for us who believe.

The interesting thing is that it portrays Jesus, the One that the Scriptures mostly say is “seated at the right hand of God the Father,” as standing at God’s right hand in this passage. Some say this is Jesus giving Stephen a standing ovation! It leads me to believe that there are times, tough times, in our lives that Jesus stands up and shows up in mighty ways on our behalf. Amen! Amen! This is my prayer: “Please God, remind us this Ascension Day, this Thursday, that you have been exalted and are ever ready to pour out your Holy Spirit to comfort, empower, and teach us. You are interceding for us, STANDING UP for us when times are difficult. We are so grateful! In your powerful name, we pray; Amen!”

Press Conferences, Presidents, and a Search for Truth

When do we reopen the church? Is it safe to eat in a restaurant? Can people go visit family members that are in care facilities or hospitals? Is COVID-19 mutating? Will warm weather, UV light, or a pool’s chlorine kill it? How much alcohol content in a cleaner kills it? Can I go on vacation at some point, and will it be safe to sleep on a rented beach house bed? When can I safely go back to the gym? Should states reopen? Do we shut down our meat processing plants because they are the American version of a Wuhan wet market? Is it safe to buy “Made in China,” or is it time to bring all our manufacturing back home? What mitigations should we put in place so we can open Sunday Schools? Is it safe to reopen the church, and how many people can attend?

Ask any of these questions, others like them, and there will be more than one answer. There are webinars, seminars, advertisements and pronouncements on all of these questions. I get promotions and pronouncements everyday about which products the church needs to buy in order to open up. I’m thankful for the information, but, unfortunately there’s not a lot of clarity. Scientists are all over the map because there is still so much unknown about COVID-19. Politicians have seemingly politicized the situation, so much so as to make me doubt their veracity. The news media certainly has used this as a tool to bloody the President, and he is poking China in the face over the whole situation. A former President is throwing gas on the blame-game fire while the current administration defends itself.

I am so tired of watching the charade of what is supposed to be a “news briefing” at the White House when the President, whether one likes him or not, is baited and treated with out-of-bounds berating and disrespect by so-called reporters. It is appalling. It will be a long day in you-know-where before any clergy have an open-mic talk back session after a sermon. Somebody just give me the news. Give me the unadulterated truth! I long for Walter Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley, Harry Reasoner, somebody, anybody that is unbiased without an agenda. At least a short time ago it seemed as if everyone’s agendas were hidden. Now the agendas are so blatantly apparent that it feels like there is no truth. No wonder Russia’s state newspaper is named “Pravda,” or “Truth.” Yeah, right?

Pontius Pilate asked Jesus at his trial, “What is truth?” It’s really the same question, the penultimate question, behind the plethora of all our questions. We want the unvarnished truth. We want some certainty in the midst of our anxiety-ridden world. Unfortunately, we have entered the days predicted in 2 Timothy 4:3-4, “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine (TRUTH). Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the TRUTH and turn aside to myths.” Oh, how this so accurately describes our day and age. We want to make wise choices, and we can’t trust the information because we don’t trust the sources.

This isn’t just about our problem with COVID-19 information. It’s the story of our whole post-modern narcissistic world. We wrongly assert that what we think is the sole determinant of truth. We demythologize the Bible into what we want it to say as if we, the readers, are more important than the God who brought forth the Truth in the first place. We have fallen into the same abyss as one popular Christian author, one who wrote a book, Seeing Gray in a Black and White World. He is so wrong. I don’t trust my eyes to see that well, so I would rather let the Biblical text and its Author do the talking. Maybe then we will see black and white in a gray world.

Where do you think all this confusion about truth is coming from? Why do you think we are so at odds over what the truth really is? Jesus (John 14:6) said He is the way, TRUTH, and life, so He’s certainly not the author of confusion, but guess who is: Evil. Jesus, speaking in John 8:43-44, nails our current reality on the head, “Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil … for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”

So I pray, “Please, Lord, open our ears to the truth, and expose the lies and liar for what they are. Wipe away all the confusion, and give us clarity, especially to our scientists, those who govern us, and to all spiritual leaders. We need your truth. Speak, for your servants are listening; in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

King Jesus versus the Pandemic

The pessimist may be right in the long run, but the optimist has a better time during the trip! Who will do better in the COVID-19 pandemic: the person who sees the glass half-full, or half-empty? Think about our faith and Christian optimism. Isn’t the empty tomb the basis of our faith? The disciples weren’t behind just closed doors. They were locked! Being locked up is the story of our cooped up lives lately. The disciples were scared, and so are we. Where’s our optimism?

It’s in Jesus! Easter forever reminds us that Jesus was, is and will be triumphant. Certainly Jesus had moments of pessimism when dealing with the religious leaders, and even his disciples, but he never wavered in his trust of God. Even when he began his recitation of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he knew the rest of the psalm, and how it ends in victorious optimism. Please take the time to read the whole thing, and see the dramatic swing from a woeful attitude to the crescendo of faith. It ends with an exclamatory, “He has done it!”

Put that phrase into the context of Jesus on the Cross when he said, “It is finished,” and it makes what sounds like a sad surrender become a spike-the-football moment. “He has done it!” Wow! No matter what our trials, He has done it! He has done it before, and he can do it again! God’s got this! Do we believe it?

One can hear the echoes of optimism through the lives of the faithful over the centuries. Just focus on St. Paul and his life, and that’s inspiring enough. In prison in Acts 16:23-34, Paul and Silas were beaten with rods, severely flogged, stripped naked, thrown into prison, their feet locked into stocks, but at midnight, instead of crying, they started praising God while singing hymns. This is the same Paul who said in Romans 8:37-39 that we are more than conquerors through Jesus. So much so that, “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor ANYTHING in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Amen. Take that COVID-19!

It’s a rough world, to be sure, but Jesus is Lord of Lords and King of Kings. Oh, how we have an opportunity during these quarantine days to sing hymns at midnight, to be people of joy, to be overcomers that are more than conquerors! What good does it do your spirit to be a whiner? Nothing. We all know it’s tough, some more than others. There are things that can keep us awake with worry every night, but remember the words of Isaiah 26:3, “He will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are stayed on Him.”

What are our minds focused on? Three people were visiting the Grand Canyon: an artist, a pastor, and a cowboy. As they stood on the edge of the huge gash in the landscape, each one responded with surprise. The artist said, “Ah, what a beautiful scene to paint!” The minister cried out, “What a wonderful example of the handiwork of God!” The cowboy said, “What a terrible place to lose a cow!”

Can’t we look on the bright side and choose joy instead of woe and worry? Joy isn’t the absence of suffering, it is the presence of God. As someone said, “An optimist may see a light where there is none, but why must the pessimist always run to blow it out?” As people of faith, we know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it is not an oncoming train. It is the light of the glory of God seen in the face of Christ. The devil isn’t going to have the last word, and neither is this pandemic. God has got this! He has done it! God has got this! Jesus is King! He has done it! Jesus Christ is King!

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.

Holy Week Isolation

A theme for Holy Week 2020 for me is isolation. We’re all doing our best to keep others safe by isolating from one another. It protects us, too, and we sincerely pray that it stops or at least slows down the COVID-19 spread. That first Holy Week created an overwhelming sense of isolation for Jesus. It shows up throughout the week. It is showing up across the world right now, too.

Isolation is something that weighs heavily on all of us today. Some of you have already known it because of treatments or immune-deficiency conditions. COVID-19 has made it real for everyone. Residents of care facilities cannot see their families, funerals are graveside only, hospitals have necessarily strict visitation limitations for every patient, and churches have gone virtual at a time when we really need a hug. God made us in God’s own image, and a huge part of that is being social. If God exists in the community that we call the Trinity, how much more do we want and need to be with each another.

“Non-essential” small business owners are especially feeling isolated. God bless each category of person or business in this period of isolation. God bless all our healthcare workers, first responders, SRS employees, grocery store and pharmacy workers, and all the others that have to come home every day in fear of contaminating their loved ones. Then there’s another kind of isolation felt by the teachers that are  at home, but are still producing lesson plans for their students. Another isolation is the “cabin fever” that separates children from their friends, neighbors, and classmates. Plus, there are the students that will not have a prom or a graduation ceremony this year. God bless every person who is feeling isolated and alone.

This is exactly why Holy Week 2020 will be especially poignant and helpful. If we wrap our minds around the fact that God in Christ knows our difficulties and pain, it lets us know we’re never truly alone. Jesus literally knows what each one of us is going through and desires to redeem it (Romans 8:28-39). That is the promise of Holy Week every year. We have a God that has skin; mysteriously truly divine and utterly human – One who is able to empathize with our every weakness (Hebrews 4:14-16).

It wasn’t long after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday that he experienced a distancing between himself, the authorities and even his friends. Judas, the group’s treasurer, betrayed him with a kiss. Peter who was usually brash and brave cowered in fear in the courtyard of the High Priest’s home, and denied ever knowing Jesus three times. When the temple soldiers came to arrest Jesus, all of his disciples fled. Jesus was totally isolated.

One can really “feel” his isolation when it came to his late-night prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane. He ventured into the darkness with only three of his disciples with him. He asked Peter, James, and John to offer their nearby prayer support while he went further into the darkness and prayed alone. The Scripture says that he agonized so much in his praying that it was like he perspired “great drops of blood” (Luke 22:44). He went back to his three closest disciples over and over again and each time found them sleeping.

His horrible isolation on the Cross is so evident. In one of his last statements, Jesus said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This was isolation within himself, being both fully God and fully human. Some of us have felt that kind of turning on oneself when we cannot see past our own hands. Good Friday was only good for us, not at all for Jesus. One can feel his emotional, spiritual and physical heaviness as his body sagged on the Cross.

Holy Week 2020 is a unique time for us to see what Jesus went through with a fresh albeit difficult perspective. It may be the closest we have been to it ourselves in our lifetimes. May our sense of isolation help us grasp the depth of sympathy God has for each of us, and also take hold of hope because it may be Friday, but Sunday is coming. We are not quite yet to Easter yet in our fight against COVID-19, but it will not be long. Until then, we travel our own via dolorosa (Way of Suffering), but, like Christ, we will win. There is a resurrection!

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.

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.