Opening My Heart to Jesus

The mystery of the Incarnation is overwhelming. That God-in-the-flesh would come and dwell among us is amazing. Prophets had been sent to no avail. Laws had been given that did more to confirm our guilt than make us better people. God took the greatest risk of all and was born to fulfill both the Law and the Prophets. The Eternal God embedded in time and born! How could it be? It is as incomprehensible as any miracle. A virgin with child? He had to be different from us, yet essentially the same – one of us but completely divine, too. We should all be grateful that Joseph believed in the Virgin Birth! That’s a sticking point for many modern naysayers, but how else could Jesus be the Second Adam, born without Original Sin, and with the ability to say “yes” or “no” to temptation, and, having been found without sin, he died and rose again because “the wages of sin is death,” and since Jesus always chose God’s way, death could not hold Him, and He burst forth from the tomb! He lives forever!

Think of parallels between the first century and today. Leaders back then and now misinterpret God’s ways more than understand them. Herod wanted the Magi to keep following the star and report back to him so he could kill this newborn threat, but a baby born in a stable isn’t a sign of a weak and powerless king. It is a sign of real majesty, and at least Herod grasped that and shuddered. What he missed was that true royalty embraces the power of love over the love of power. A God who would be born in the humblest of circumstances is a sign of a ruler who is secure and knows who He is. It’s a sign of the tremendous love that God has for the lowly likes of you and me.

The message couldn’t have been written more poetically and so genuinely believable: Poor Mary with her obedient heart yielding herself to God; Joseph, a doubter and who wouldn’t be, yet he gave his dreams credence and believed; Magi who in faith followed a starry sign to God knows where, but came they did to see a king and present Him with their homage; Poor shepherds, the lowest of the low, left their flocks, their everything, to see the Savior born; and Angels who followed God’s bidding to sing a song that echoes to this very day. What a message! It continues to stir humankind, and rightly so.

God is always the best Author. I have my favorite writers in my preferred genres of history and mystery, but God out-writes them all. I also have my favorite Christian authors. Clive Staples Lewis is at the top with classics like The Chronicles of Narnia, Mere Christianity, and A Grief Observed. C.S. Lewis is hard to beat with his imagination, authenticity and clarity of thought. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his works on community and ethics have informed me since I first became a Christ-follower: Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship are two treasures. His absolute heroism in the face of Nazism and his ethical decision to take part in the July 20, 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler has resonated with my warrior-spirit within. He was hung as a martyr on April 9, 1945 as the result of Hitler’s last orders. In C.S. Lewis and Bonhoeffer you can smell the smoke of faithful discipleship.

I wonder at this Christmas season if that smoky smell is as apparent on me. The rush and the thick of things that clamor for our time mask the musky smell. The materialism run rampant tramples goodwill. Can I smell the manger straw and hear the cattle lowing? I long to mean it when I sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and its words: “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in, be born is us today.” Can I make room in my heart for the Christ who is both Child and King? Can our world? O, Lord, be born in me today. In us. Amen.

Nativity Scene

Music and Lent – Beating the Blues

I’ve got Lenten music on my mind this morning. Should it be somber, sober, and dark? Sundays in Lent aren’t technically Lent because the season’s 40 days don’t count Sundays since they are “Little Easters.” However, hearing the choir and congregation sing upbeat Easter-type music would feel more than a little weird. It would feel like we’re getting ahead of ourselves, wouldn’t it? On the other hand, doesn’t our faith hinge on Easter? Without Easter, Christianity falls apart. So as much as I would like for these Sundays in Lent to focus on penitence and preparation for Jesus’ suffering, I think it is a theological imperative for us to have a big dose of Easter every chance we get.

I feel it especially this week. There was a funeral for a 62 year old last Sunday, an 85 year old on Monday, and a 73 year old this Saturday. I have another family whose 59 year old daughter just died, too. I don’t need to hear gothic dirges. I desperately need to hear some Easter joy. There is no doubt that music has carried the faithful through every season of worship and life for eons. I’ve been comparing the Passion Narratives in the Gospels for a church-wide Bible Study, and I noticed that, just before Jesus’ arrest and after the Last Supper, the Lord and his disciples sang a hymn before they headed to the Mt. of Olives and his subsequent arrest in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:30).

“Hymn” or “Hymns” are interesting biblical words, and not used much – four times for the former and four times for the latter in the entire Bible. Of course there are other words like “song” or “songs” that rack up about 40 instances each, but this begs the question, “When is a song a song or a hymn?” We almost might wonder, “What’s the difference?” I think I have some semblance of an answer, but it’s a tad confusing. Is a hymn so designated because God specifically is the audience, and a song is directed at many recipients, including human ones? According to the dictionary, a hymn, coming from the Greek “humnos,” is an ode or song to a to a G(g)od or a hero. With more specificity the modern usage of the word denotes that it is a religious song of praise to a G(g)od.

Doing biblical word studies add more of clarity, and let’s know that the differences aren’t enough to fret over. Colossians 3:26 uses three almost synonymous terms, “admonish one with all wisdom, as you sing psalms “psalmos,” hymns “humos,” and spiritual songs “odais.” Maybe people back then knew the distinction but modern scholars are less certain of any differences at all. What I get out of this is that it is in our spiritual and, perhaps, human DNA to break out into song, especially when we feel moved by either tragedy or triumph. That must have been the reason that Jesus and the disciples sang a hymn as they were leaving the Last Supper. It was an encouragement for them to praise God.

Typically at Festival days like the Passover, the setting for the Last Supper, devout Jews sang the “Hallel.” The word literally means “praise’ and its words are found primarily is Psalms 113-118. These are the psalms that every Jew used during the Passover. There are other “Hallel” psalms in the Old Testament, especially 136, but Psalms 113-118 are the ones that Jesus would have used during the Passover. Therefore, it might be good for us to reread them and ponder them, even sing them, during Lent.

We need to recapture the word “Hallelujah” anyway. We almost use it as a colloquial “Whew!” when we’re relieved or things go our way. It’s actually a word that means “Let us,” which is the “u” in Hallelujah; “praise,” which is “Hallel;” and “jah,” which is short for Yahweh, the Name of Israel’s God. “Hallelujah,” therefore, is a sacred important word that is praising the Lord. It always is an act that not only lifts up the Name of the Lord, but it encourages us.

So, if and when, you’re in a week surrounded by literal funeral dirges or the emotional dregs of ordinary or overwhelming stress, SING!!! Singing about the Lord’s might and power gives us strength, hope, and the fortitude to thrive.

My favorite passage besides the one in Matthew 26 about Jesus and the disciples singing a hymn on the way to the Lord’s betrayal is found in Acts 16:25ff. Paul and Silas were in prison in Philippi. They had been stripped of their clothes, beaten, feet locked in wooden stocks, and severely flogged, but they sang! It says, “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.” I would have been listening, too. Here were two guys who had been horribly mistreated and it was midnight for crying out loud, but instead of crying out loud and complaining, they chose to sing praise to God. The result shouldn’t be surprising. The very next verse says, “Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake … that the prison doors flew open, and everybody’s chains came loose.”

Praising the Lord, especially when our circumstances are dire, reminds us that we have a God that is strong and on our side. When we praise, we let the Lord do battle with our grief, bondage, and despair. He sets us free and our chains fall off! So during this Lenten season let’s take a cue from Jesus and remember to offer praise on Sundays even if we bemoan our need for penitence the rest of the week. We are and will ever be an Easter People. Dirges don’t open prison doors. Sing out praise to God on Sundays and every day, and see what the Lord can do!

“Burlap, Boys, and Christmas”

Maybe you’ve read of the hoopla surrounding Christmas worship services on December 28. The reasoning is that we will all be too tired of Christmas festivities by then. The thinking behind this is that the difference between Christmas on Thursday and Sunday’s services is so short as to not make much of a difference anyway. Try using that rationale with Good Friday and Easter! I think that we need Christmas and Easter’s messages every day!

Despite my opinion there’s one local congregation that is cancelling next Sunday’s “live” services just to give the congregation, choir, and staff a break. Their service will be available online. However, I need more than a digital Jesus to fight post-Christmas challenges. Other groups of Christians are dropping the December 28 service because it’s “anti-family.” How appalling! There’s no better time to celebrate family than this season when God chooses to become a part of the human race. The Incarnation of Christ demands that we celebrate this mysterium tremendum: God wants to be a part of all of our families! So I’m preaching every service on the 28th because I need to hear God’s Word as much then as ever. I need to participate in the profundity of God-in-the-flesh and unwrap this mystery anew.

Ralph F. Wilson, in “Burlap, Boys, and Christmas,” gets at the heart of the Incarnation’s tremendous mystery while musing over Christmas pageants: “Angels are clean. Angels are beautiful. They seem almost otherworldly especially since girl angels always seem to know their parts better than do boy shepherds. The angelic satin stuff goes pretty well in most Christmas pageants. The problems come with the burlap part. Do you know what real-life shepherds were like? Townspeople looked down on them. “Herdsmen!” they’d huff derisively. Shepherds would work with sheep all day, sleep outside with the animals at night and then come into town dirty, sweaty and smelly. Like boys. Tradesmen in the marketplace would be polite enough. Shopkeepers would wait on them, but everybody was happy when they moved along. Burlap fits the part. It really does. Angels get clouds and the Hallelujah Chorus for props. Shepherds get a stable. Maybe cattle lowing has a bit of romance. But conjure up the smells and the filth. No stainless steel dairy palace this, but a crude barn, with good reason for straw on the floor. Not exactly the setting you’d choose for a birth if you had the luxury of planning ahead. Angels seem appropriate to the birth of God’s son. But straw and sweat and burlap do not. Why, I ask, would the Son of God Most High enter life amidst the rubble of human existence, at the lowest rung of society, in obscurity and at the stable-edge of rejection even before he is born? And as hard as I think about it, I come back to one truth. God wanted to make it explicitly clear that He came to save each of us. He comes to the slimy, dark corners of our existence, the desperateness, the loneliness, the rejection, the pain. He comes to unswept barns and cold nights of despair. He comes because he understands them. He knows them intimately and came for the very purpose of delivering us from those raw stables to real Life.”

Wow! It is a miracle that God desires to enter this world at all, but how like our God and how grateful we are! Therefore, the reason we worship God together on the Sunday after Christmas is to celebrate this marvelous gift through Christ. The old Appalachian folk hymn aptly describes the worshipful attitude that this mystery should illicit, “I wonder as I wander out under the sky, How Jesus the Savior did come for to die, For poor on’ry creatures like you and like I.” The glorious meaning of Christmas is God’s unconditional grace spread across creation. It is perennially profound just as Frederick Buechner put it, “Year after year, the ancient tale of what happened is told raw, preposterous, holy and year after year the world in some measure stoops to listen.” Let’s listen all the more carefully this year! Christmas is absurdly Divine! Merry Christmas and see you Sunday!

Christmas Eve

The Oscar Goes to Les Miserables

Cindy and I went to see Les Miserables last week and have high hopes for it this weekend at the Oscars. What a powerful message of grace and forgiveness. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is a model of redemption, an ex-con guilty of a crime of survival in a corrupt society. No one should be imprisoned for stealing bread to feed a starving sister. The character Javert (Russell Crowe) is the epitome of unyielding law that cannot reconcile the juxtaposition of punishment and pardon. My hope this Lent is to be more like Jean Valjean than Javert. Valjean used his freedom to set other prisoners free. So should we.

Collective humanity is the Les Miserables, “the Poor Ones,” who need new lives. A nameless novel from years ago was repeated in a recent devotional by Marvin Williams. Someone sent it to me because I’m a potter. There is a scene in which four village men confess their sins to one another. One of the men named Michelis exclaims, “How can God let us live on the earth? Why doesn’t He kill us to purify creation?” “Because, Michelis,” one of the men answered, “God is a potter; He works in mud.”

God weighs law and grace in the balance like Victor Hugo’s plot in Les Mis. God then shifts the weight of sin from us and carries it upon God’s own back through Christ. The first messenger of grace in Les Mis is the kindly priest, Bishop Myriel (Colm Wilkinson) who claimed Valjean for God. Grace is unburdened by constraint so that we are given freedom through Jesus. We cannot save ourselves no matter how altruistic our Valjeanic efforts might be. It is grace upon grace, initiated by a loving God and fulfilled through our willingness to forgive others as we have been forgiven and see in them the face of God as Valjean does in Fantine (Anne Hathaway). Valjean lived a life reconciled by God and offered grace to others. More than his hounding by Javert, he was hounded by the unfettered love of God. The quotes of the memorable lines of the movie are heralds of God’s love. Google them and don’t miss their message of grace. One line sums it up: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

John Wesley, United Methodism’s founder, lived in the milieu of a similar society that was conflicted by the tension between law and grace, poverty and excess. Poor Houses and jails abounded. Women sold their bodies to buy bread for their dying children. Child labor and abuse was rampant. Addiction to gin was a devilish tonic to the society’s disparate treatment of the poor while the rich went largely unscathed. Wesley’s visits to the jails of Oxford broke his heart of privilege, and the lack of grace in his theology was replaced by personal salvation and social holiness through God’s mercy.

Someone quoted Wesley as saying of the clergy of his day: “The Church recruited people who had been starched and ironed before they were washed.”  That was not the case with Bishop Myriel in Victor Hugo’s novel of a century later. He was no Elder Brother type looking down his nose at prodigal Valjean. The Bishop freely gave the silver and the candlesticks to boot to would-be thief Valjean. In Wesley’s day the priests were more like Javert of Hugo’s novel, keepers of the law and the status quo. Thank God, Wesley experienced grace, and became a Bishop Myriel or a Valjean who offered grace to every class of people. Wesley started a movement for those who tried to divide society into the haves and have-nots, conservatives and liberals, Javerts and Valjeans.  Wesley’s class meetings were an amalgam of British society’s extremes.

Read some quotes from Wesley that reveals his heart for Jesus and all people:

“Do you not know that God entrusted you with that money (all above what buys necessities for your families) to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to help the stranger, the widow, the fatherless; and, indeed, as far as it will go, to relieve the wants of all mankind? How can you, how dare you, defraud the Lord, by applying it to any other purpose?”

“’Holy solitaries’ is a phrase no more consistent with the Gospel than holy adulterers. The Gospel of Christ knows no religion but social; no holiness, but social holiness.”

 “When I have money, I get rid of it quickly, lest it find a way into my heart.”

“When a man becomes a Christian, he becomes industrious, trustworthy and prosperous. Now, if that man when he gets all he can and saves all he can, does not give all he can, I have more hope for Judas Iscariot than for that man!”

“Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”

“Give me one hundred preachers who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God, and I care not whether they be clergy or lay, they alone will shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of Heaven upon Earth.”

“Light yourself on fire with enthusiasm for God and people will come from miles around to watch you burn.”

My prayer is that the UMC will be a messenger for the God who works in the mud and muck of human life and brings gracious redemption.  Elder brother and younger brother were both prodigals in Luke 15:11-31. Jean Valjean, and Javert both needed grace! My Oscar vote goes to Les Mis!

Holy Week and Defining Moments

Some things just aren’t forgotten. Certain events, situations, or circumstances have such an impact on us that they are cosmic in scope. They become defining moments for us as individuals and as societies. These events are HUGE! These events become defining moments precisely because they hit each of us in personal visceral way. They may have affected everybody, but we know exactly where we were when they happened. Some of these events would have to include: Black Tuesday when the stock market crashed and started the Great Depression; the attack on Pearl Harbor that awakened the US to WWII; the bombing of Nagasaki that ended WWII but started nuclear anxiety; the assassination of JFK; the Shuttle explosions; Columbine; and, of course, 9/11.

Personal reaction is certainly a factor in measuring the scope of a disaster, but what makes the difference between a national crisis and something that isn’t is in the way the crisis transcends ethnicity and personal agendas. Crimes against humanity affect everyone. It should bother us all that the Holocaust happened and that racism still hounds people of color. Shouldn’t MLK’s death be included in the list of defining moments? Sensitivity to an event’s ripple effect makes one painfully aware that some things have not been taken as seriously as others.

For instance, Columbus Day celebrations for Italians mean something quite different to Native Americans. Defining moments for Native peoples might include the Trail of Tears, Chief Joseph’s capture, The Battle of the Little Big Horn, and the massacres at Wounded Knee on December 29, 1890 and February 28, 1973. The most infamous atrocity against Native Americans for United Methodists is the Sand Creek Massacre led by former Methodist minister, Col. John Chivington, on November 29, 1864.

So how do defining moments for Native Americans and others take on a larger cosmic dimension? There are some things that seem to affect only a few people but nonetheless are a crime against all of us. Is this awareness what separates a mere tragedy from a national or world tragedy? What makes for a defining moment is wrapped up in the extent of the event’s shock waves. In other words, if enough people feel the pain, we all feel it to a certain degree. Everybody, regardless of race, religion, or nationality, feels gut-punched when something like this happens. The broad emotional scope of certain events typically cuts across societal boundaries.

You may have seen the videotape done by the two brothers from France as the World Trade Center attack was unfolding. As the camera was moving down the street toward the tower complex did you notice the kaleidoscope of humanity? Different languages, different races, and different nationalities were united in fear and confusion. The war on terrorism reminds me of the movie, “Independence Day,” a patriotic sci-fi flick about all humanity, led, of course, by the USA, to seek common survival against extraterrestrial foes. It is chock full of the personal and cosmic dimensions of both pain and heroism.

True defining moments are both personal and cosmic. They dictate a personal and a common response. If individuals shirked their duty there would be no national or international resolve. Defining moments begin with individuals before they become group-think. If there were no brave individuals like Clarke Bynum fighting off a would-be hijacker, New York firefighters, or Flight 93 heroes willing to say, “Let’s roll!” then the world wouldn’t be as galvanized as it is against terrorism. Individuals cement common resolve that hopefully will expand last year’s Arab Spring to Syria, etc.

Palm Sunday was a solemn defining moment for fickle crowds that erupted into terrible cosmic consequences and the second most cosmic-impacting event happened on Good Friday, a day that was good for everyone but Jesus. The foremost defining moment, of course, is Easter! The disciples had to individually believe that Jesus was alive before Christianity had a chance to become a cosmos changing movement. Each of their individual defining moments snowballed into a salvific plan for the universe. My hope for Holy Week is that we will be so changed personally by Christ that the cosmos will yet feel its powerful impact. May this week be the defining moment for one and all!

It Is What It Is?

I was listening to a sports radion station on the way to the office this morning and some unease about the phrase, “It is what it is,” finally jelled. I went to an on-line dictionary for the phrase and here’s what it said: “A phrase that seems to simply state the obvious but actually implies helplessness.” “It is what it is” is the new “Whatever” in our society, so no wonder our culture is in a funk .

Some of the funk is due to, I daresay, an embedded Calvinism that is fatalistic at heart: “It was meant to be,” “What goes around comes around,” “There’s a reason for everything,” and the scary one, “It’s God’s will.” Now, I admit I think God does have a will, but I know that there’s a big difference between God’s permissive will and direct will. I know that God knows everything that happens but I cannot believe that God causes everything that happens. That’s a huge difference. An “It is what it is” philosophy or theology is a set-up for expecting the worst. It doesn’t leave any room for redemption or corrective action. It doesn’t even leave much room for prayer because everything is “It is what it is.”

Why pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” or “Lead us not into temptation,” unless we think God can actually change the course of human history. I would rather say “It could be better” or “Things aren’t what they ought to be” rather than “It is what it is.” Praying and adding action to our prayers puts us on the offensive when life’s junk comes our way. As United Methodists we are a theologically optimistic bunch. We believe God loves the whole creation enough through prevenient grace to allow us to cooperate with God in making a new creation through Christ. We’re not passive fence-sitters with our heads in our hands futilely accepting our plight. Process theology leads us to an understanding of God’s providence that does what it says: God provides!

I Corinthians 10:13 comes to mind: “No temptation has seized you except what is common to humankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” There are plenty of other passages that also affirm to me that what God does best is not heap junk on our lives but helps us get through it. I Peter 5:6-11 is one when it says “…Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you…and the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered for a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.” Another strong reminder of the real source of suffering and blessing is from James 1:16-17, “Don’t be deceived, my dear friends. Every GOOD and PERFECT gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”

So when I think about Narcie’s tumor, my diabetes, and the tragedies I have seen or the economic disaster that has wrecked many a family – I am not going to say “It is what it is,” fold up my tent and give up. I’m going to pray to a God who gives good and perfect gifts, that delivers us from death and the grave through Jesus. God provides a way out of every grave situation. Instead of holding my face in my hands like “What will be, will be” and “It is what it is” implies, I’m going to open my eyes and see what God’s escape plan is. I’m going to participate in life’s solutions and not resign myself to a depressing done-deal fatalistic outcome. God is ever moving through us and history to work his good purpose. I can either get with it or give in. I refuse to give in. I’m going to do my best today not to say, “It is what it is.” There’s very little or no faith in that statement. Here goes, “It could be better!” That speaks to me and says “God and you can change this situation for the better!” Go for it! “Things aren’t what they ought to be!”

Human Self-headeness or Christ as the Head

I have been at two back-to-back General UMC meetings: The Connectional Table and the Worldwide UMC Study Committee. The Connectional Table coordinates the mission and ministry of the denomination and decides budgets. The WWNC is studying how we can be a worldwide church allowing autonomy in certain ways in diverse areas of the UMC while defining boundaries of non-negotiables that hold true for the entire denomination. Tomorrow and Tuesday we will hear from divergent and opposing groups on the issues. The defining issue that seems to be driving a desire for the US branch of the UMC to form its own regional conference or conferences is the practice of homosexuality. I think we should spend more time listening to the voices of those outside the US. By listening to US groups we perpetuate the reality voiced by overseas UM’s that we are a US-centric church that is structured to enable a codependency model and neo-colonialism. I think it is a matter of spiritual warfare for the heart and soul of the UMC, and I don’t think this hot-button issue should be the primary force for dismantling our time-tested ecclesiology. Our polity is one that does and should embrace diversity, but not at the expense of connectionalism. It is a work in progress. I embrace process theology that is dynamic and not static, but though theology should have local variation, doctrine should be off-limits. The first and second Restrictive Rules in the UMC Constitution protect our Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith. Our difficult task is to discern what is doctrine and what is theology. So… pray for us to have wisdom and truth-telling in love as we work on this task.

Of more importance than any of this is whether or not we witness to people of Jesus’ power to save and transform. Our only hope as a church is to share Jesus. All the tinkering and special-interest maneuvering is irrelevant if we don’t share Jesus with hurting people. What the world needs is Jesus. You can’t legislate the Gospel, you have to share it. May it be so! We can promote regional self-headeness (autonomy), but not if it replaces Christ as Head of the Church with Humans.

Form Follows Function – Worldwide Study Committee

Tomorrow I preach at 9:45 and 11:15, then head to Simpsonwood outside of Atlanta for the first meeting of the Worldwide UMC Study Committee. Many of you know how big an issue this is for me personally. I have written about our connectional polity for years with articles in “The Circuit Rider,” “Quarterly Review,” and the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women. I have worked for our eccelsiastical unity helping create The Connectional Table, and have worked with many others in presenting reasons why the proposed consitutional amendments to create a diocesan parochialism in the UMC is a terrible idea.
I agree that there must be cultural adaptations that honor diveristy, but if that occurs at the expense of connectionalism, count me out. The big question before the Study Committee is not, according to the agenda I received, the history of what got us to this point, or which side, liberal or conservative, wins the battle over human sexuality that is shaking all main-line denominations. The big question for me is what structure will help us make disciples for Jesus Christ. Form follows function!
As for sexuality issues and the global church, every 30 years there is some hot-button issue of one ilk or another. Maybe this one will never go away, but the issue of women’s ordination and inclusion of people of color have at least been alleviated in offical church law if not in actual practice. As a matter of fact, all one has to do to put the brakes on the worldwide proposal as presented is to note United Methodist history’s reaction to women’s ordination. One of the reasons that the Korean Methodist Church went autonomous and left the UMC was over their rejection of women’s ordination.
So, we will always have issues that divide us. How about us focusing on ways to stay united? I think that focus should be on Christ and offering Christ to a confused world. Therefore, we must have clarity about our mission. Is our mission to offend no one or please SOMEONE (Jesus)? Certainly the Gospel is for all people and the reconciliation of everyone to God, but let’s not confuse how we do it with why we do it. If United Methodists lose connectionalism we have lost our distinctive vehicle for offering hope to the world. Our “why” of being reconcilers without boundaries of right and wrong, humanism without the need for atonement, will supercede our allegiance to Christ and will result in us offering false hope or no hope to anyone. Our real “why” behind how we structure ourselves better be bringing people to a real experience of Christ reagrdless of who they are. The best way to do that is not to give in to the relativism of national churches, but through a common connection to John Wesley’s “Scripture Way of Salvation” lived out!

Longing for Mitch

One of the most interesting courses that I took in seminary while in Boston was entitled, “Wilderness Experience for Christian Maturity.” We spent an entire semester learning compass orienteering, team building, and rock climbing skills. This was done to prepare us for two weeks of hiking in the Adirondacks of upstate New York. We hiked through snowdrifts as best we could and trudged through mud after that. We carried all of our food, rappelled down Mt. Jo, and did three-day solos isolated from each other.
We learned a lot about Christian community, but we also discovered much about ourselves. I know first-hand about the fear of trusting a climbing harness when going over the edge of a cliff. I also found out the number of days that I could go without food, and I got closer to God as I read the Scriptures and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together­.
An amazing discovery occurred when we returned to the trailhead. It was my first chance to see myself in a mirror. I almost didn’t recognize myself. With a full beard and noticeable weight loss especially in my voluminous face, I had to take a second look. Who was this lumberjack-looking creature? How had my wilderness experience changed me? Had I grown in Christian maturity?
The entire course was about discovering God by understanding oneself. Identity was at the core of everything we did. It took an opportunity like this course to make me take the time to ponder my identity as a person and as a Christian. When you know who you are, you don’t have to impress anyone. When Jesus was taken before the high priest, who asked, “What do you have to say for yourself?” Jesus was silent. Wrong question. When the high priest then asked Him if He was the Son of God, Jesus said, “I am.” Right question. Before Pilate, who asked, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus replied, “Yes, it is as you say.” Right question. In the Luke account, Herod asked Jesus question after question, but there was no reply. Wrong questions.
When you have discovered your identity, you need to say little else. This all begs the question for me to answer: Who am I in Christ? What is my identity? With all that has taken place this summer it is important for me to find the real “me” in Christ. You know where I do most of that kind of pondering, Mt. Mitchell. As naturalist John Muir put it, “The mountains are calling, and I must go.” Well, I won’t make it any time soon due to the district set-up meeting, and catching up of every kind around the office, but I can go in my spirit and through quiet time.
This all reminds me of the story I heard of a woman who got on an elevator in a tall office building. There was just one other person in the elevator, a handsome man. She pushed the button for her floor and then casually looked over at the man and suddenly had one of those moments of recognition shock. Could it be? The man looked exactly like Robert Redford, the movie star. Her gaze was almost involuntarily riveted on him. Finally, she blurted out, “Are you the real Robert Redford?” He smiled and said, “Only when I’m alone.”
Who are we when we’re alone?