Jesus Is Alive!

Easter has held a deeper meaning for most of us this year. Seeing the huge number of unclaimed pine coffins buried in a New York mass grave has been a stark reminder of what’s been happening in too many places because of COVID-19. Our realities, in short order, have been shaken by social distancing and self-quarantining; the nearly empty streets and shelves; the worries about our family members, who either work in healthcare, or are sequestered by health issues; plus countless concerns about small businesses, school years and graduations, jobs and financial stresses, plus everything else that has changed in our world. These uncertainties have made Easter’s hope more important than ever.

I sense a wake-up call, not caused by God, but one that can be used by God to make us better people, redeemed people, and a more spiritual people. Our uncertain world is met by a sure and certain God. Alarm clocks have gone off. People in India can see the Himalayas in the distance for the first time in decades because pollution has decreased. We can hope that China will NEVER EVER allow another “wet market” stay open and cause another pandemic. My prayer is that our lives will forever be altered in good ways. It would be even better if our lives were “altared,” notice the spelling, and placed on God’s altar –dedicated to God Almighty, who is the Living God, and the One who is, was, and is to come in Jesus Christ.

Because Jesus is alive we can face tomorrow with hope. It has often made me think about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. He has a new and improved body. He can eat with his disciples and pass through walls, too. He’s better than new, but let me tell you what really gets me this year in particular. It’s an exhilarating and sobering thought. If God raised Jesus from the dead, why didn’t God fix him up? Why were the scars left in his side, feet, and hands for Thomas and the other disciples to touch and see?

They were left for us to see, too. Why? Could it be that God is trying to say, “You cannot see or understand Jesus Christ or Easter’s Good News unless you see the wounds?” Somehow what my heart is feeling this Easter is that the resurrected Christ is forever the wounded Christ. He is living, but never fixed up. He is not bound by death, but he is scarred for eternity. Is that what has happened to us and the world this year? We’re scarred, too, maybe forever. The Good News of Jesus, however, is that we can be scarred and resurrected at the same time. We will get through this! That’s the message of Easter Season 2020. We are not defined by COVID-19, rather we are defined by our relationship to the One who knows our sorrows, carries our scars, and is yet alive. He is alive, but he is wounded so that we can look at his scars and claim hope.

In his drama, “The Trial of Jesus,” John Masefield has the centurion Longinus report back to Pontius Pilate after Jesus’ crucifixion. Longinus had been the officer in charge of the execution. After he gave Pilate his “official” report, Pilate’s wife Procula summons him to tell her how Jesus had died. After he told her what happened, she asks, “Do you think he is dead?” Longinus answers, “No, Lady, I don’t.” “Then where is he?” asks Procula. Longinus replies, “Let loose in the world, my Lady, let loose in the world where no one can stop his truth.” Amen.

Jesus’ resurrected body with scars is the sign of the Gospel’s truth. It validates everything we believe. If we will put our trust in the Lord who is let loose, we, too, will be let loose and freed, not just from COVID-19, and not just for Easter, but forever. That is our certain hope! I feel it more this year than ever, and I hope you do, too. Jesus is alive, and NO ONE and NOTHING can stop his truth!

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.

Holy Week, COVID-19, and The Serenity Prayer

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

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

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

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

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

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

How To Defeat Social Isolation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sky Isn’t Falling!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 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.

Impeachment: A Fair Fight?

Care what you will and say what you want about President Donald Trump, Nancy Pelosi’s decision to move forward with Articles of Impeachment will only solidify the base of the anti-Trumpers and the pro-Trumpers. In the meanwhile, Washington’s “Great Distraction” will paralyze the nation. I’m tired of feeling like I need to choose a side in the moral morass of our modern culture whether it’s about Trump, or anything else.

I want to pull a Rip Van Winkle and wake up when all the distractions are done. Of course, this isn’t an option for either a good citizen or Christian who wants there to be justice and change for the better. I cannot be like the ostrich that buries its head in the sand and says, “Because I can’t see it, it’s not happening.” Now we know it’s happening, but what are we going to do about it? Are we going to go quietly into the night, stay on the sidelines, or are we going to do something productive?

Someone recently said that the greatest threat to democracy isn’t vitriol, it is civility. In this impeachment climate, I long for rational civility, but civility and tolerance has made us more divided. If we believe that some things are right and some things are definitely wrong, no matter what the context or who it involves, then civility is the enemy of truth and justice. For “nice” moral people to be quiet and acquiesce to the rancorous squeaky wheels on the extremes is a dereliction of duty. Following St. Paul’s dictum, “In your anger, do not sin,” does not mean that people who believe in Absolute Truth should roll over and play dead when attacked as bigots.

I’m all for everyone’s civil rights including free speech and the right to assemble, but the first rule of common law and parliamentary procedure is that, “The minority must be heard, but the majority must prevail.” The problem is that the loudest voices on the ends of spectrums have silenced the majority of those of us in the middle, and they have stalemated any hope of clarity or unanimity in important matters.

To say we need more vitriol doesn’t mean that we need to hear from the extremists, but from the folks in the center. What do they or we have to say? In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. famously lamented the “white moderate” who “prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” He also acknowledged the importance of tension to achieving justice. “I have earnestly opposed violent tension,” King wrote, “but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.” Americans should not fear that form of tension. They should fear its absence.

So, we need to embrace tension because it helps reveal our core values. Tension provides clarity about what’s really important to us. Tension can lead to open honest dialogue rather than strong-arming or shallow hail-fellow-well-met pleasantries. In authentic democracy there is due process that makes room for both differences of opinion and fairness. Civility without enough vitriol makes people hide their real feelings, and sides just get more and more entrenched.

Maybe you’ve heard the story of the guy who fell overboard into the water. Another guy tried to rescue him, only to grab arms, legs, whatever and finding each time that a prosthetic appendage came loose. The man in the water kept yelling, “Save me!” In frustration, the would-be rescuer said, “I would, if you would only stick together!” I wonder if that’s an analogy for the United States and what God is trying to say to us and our two-party system. Can we stick together for our country’s sake while we embrace a little vitriol? Is it possible to have a fair fight? We will see soon enough, won’t we?

King Jesus: A Bigger Blockbuster Than Impeachment

Within a span of less than two weeks we have a US-centric, but mostly world-wide, triple-header on the church calendar. This coming Sunday is the last day in the Christian year, and is always designated as “Christ the King Sunday.” Appropriately, we remember that Jesus Christ is King of kings and Lord of lords. He is the One to whom we bow and owe our unwavering allegiance. Next Thursday we will celebrate Thanksgiving and show our gratitude to God for all of His blessings and providence. Almost every country does something like this though it may be at a different time of year. Sunday week, December 1, will be the beginning of Advent when we commemorate Jesus’ first coming and solemnly prepare for His Parousia; i.e., the Second Coming.

How easy it is to think all about Thanksgiving and miss the bookend Holy Days of Christ the King and Advent season. It is apparent in US society that we would do well to pay attention to all three. How would I act differently if Jesus were truly King in my life? Is Thanksgiving merely a time of stuffing both a turkey and my face? Is our Advent focus mostly about Christmas? Do we follow the Scout motto of “Be Prepared” because Santa is coming or Jesus is returning?

The whole notion of holidays is so misunderstood. As recently as a few weeks ago I overheard people talking about Halloween aka All Hallows Eve as a “holiday.” All Saints Day on November 1, the real holiday/holy day, was totally overlooked. Halloween is no holy day. It’s quite the opposite! We have many secular special days, but they’re not holidays per se. As much as I would like to make the mundane sacred, it appears to me that we have more often made the sacred profane. This begs the question of how holy we actually make our Thanksgiving festivities and church events. What does a proper Advent look like in our “Frost Fest” world when we take Christ out of Christmas and give the season and its trees and other accoutrements nonsensical politically correct names?

Let’s take up the challenge and make the coming season holy by putting God first and not ourselves. If Jesus is my King how does that affect my perspective on the President and the Congress. Elected officials come and go, but according to Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” If Jesus is King then how does that change my views on injustice, the unborn, drug addiction, homelessness, and mental health? The list could go on and on.

How can I have a proper Thanksgiving if I don’t have a God to thank? It would be pretty ludicrous to thank myself, or just the special people who have made significant contributions to my life. Thanksgiving that honors humans over God is either narcissism or a mis-directed adulation otherwise known as idol worship. If Thanksgiving doesn’t cause thankfulness toward God Almighty then it isn’t a holiday at all. It’s just the day to stock up on our energy before we face the shopping frenzy of Black Friday. Football and food are no match for the spiritual nourishment of giving God His due.

An Advent season that jumps too quickly into Christmas Carols props up our overemphasis on Baby Jesus instead of King Jesus. We use purple altar cloths and stoles in church during Advent because it is about our need for penitence in the face of a regally clad King. I’m all for Christmas, but a “good” Christmas doesn’t neglect the guest of honor at His own party. We desperately need to grasp that Advent is less about a birthday party than a victory banquet. The real purpose of Advent is to get us ready for the Marriage Feast of the Lamb when He comes to set things right and redeem his Beloved, the Church.

To embrace the holiness of this season is to enrich it, to lift up God who, in turn, lifts us beyond all of our “Great Distractions,” whether in DC or wherever and re-centers our attention on what is most important. The bigger question for me during this season is not whether the President should be impeached. It is whether I and my shallow worship practices should be. Making the upcoming days all about us and our machinations or shenanigans misses the true glory and grandeur of God.

There is a wonderful anonymous parable that really makes me want to watch out who/Who is on the throne of my life. Think about this story and look with me into a mirror:

Horville Sash had a very important but humble job in the offices of the largest corporation in the world. He worked as a mail clerk in the lowest reaches of the building doing what he could do to help other people with their jobs. Often, he wondered what went on the floor just above his. He could hear their footsteps every day and he would think of the exciting jobs they must have while he worked in the basement. Then came a day when Horville found a bug scurrying across the floor. As the mailroom clerk, Horville had only bugs to command. He raised his foot to flatten the bug when the bug spoke: “Please don’t kill me,” said the bug. “If you let me live, I’ll give you three wishes.” Horville figured that even if he didn’t get the wishes, a talking bug could make him a lot of money. So he let the bug live, and the bug asked him what he wanted for his first wish. “To be promoted to the next floor,” said Horville. The next day Horville’s boss came in and told him he would move up to the next floor that very day. Horville walked into the next floor offices like a conquering general, but soon he heard footsteps on the floor above him. He said to the bug, my second wish is to be promoted floor by floor until I reach the very top; until I am in charge of the company. “Done,” said the bug, and floor by floor he moved his way through the ranks: 10th floor, 20th floor, 50th floor, 90th floor, and finally to the very top floor. He was as high as he could go: Chairman of the Board; CEO of the company; corner office on the top floor of the building. But then one day Horville heard footsteps above him. He saw a sign that said: STAIRS so He went up to the rooftop and there he found one of his clerks standing with his eyes closed. “What are you doing?” Horville asked. “Praying,” came the answer. “To whom?” Pointing a finger toward the sky the boy answered, “To God.” Panic gripped Horville. There was a floor above him! He couldn’t see it. He couldn’t hear the shuffling of feet. All he saw was clouds. So he asked, “Do you mean there is an authority higher than me?” Horville summoned the bug. It was time for his third and final wish. “Make me God,” he said. “Make me the highest. Put me in the kind of position that only God would hold if he were here on earth.” The very next day Horville Sash awakened to find himself back in the basement, sorting the mail, and doing what he could to help others be the best that they could possibly be.

The upcoming season is our chance to humble ourselves before the One True God and worship him above all others, especially ourselves. Happy Holidays! Amen.