GC 2016 and Peacemaking

Maybe you’ve heard the story of the guy who fell overboard into the water. Another guy tried to rescue him, only to grab different 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 Methodist Church and what God is trying to say to us. It is one of the big questions as we go into General Conference 2016. Will we split? Will we opt for a solution that gives local options on hot-button issues, or will we stick together?

Our connectional identity as a denomination promotes unity over schism. In my mind, that’s the identity of the whole church: one Lord, one faith, one baptism (Ephesians 4:5). Bishop and friend, Tom Bickerton, recently wrote a book that he has shared with General Conference delegates and the whole church, What Are We Fighting For? Its subtitle says a lot: “Coming Together Around What Matters Most.” He uses stories and anecdotes in a winsome way that promotes a win-win outcome for the UMC.

Tom and I might arrive at different positions. I honestly don’t know. One thing I do know is that his question is a good one: what are we fighting for? To some his question is about much more than a peripheral issue. It connects to bedrock non-negotiable tenets of the faith. To others, human sexuality debates are about the nature of God and God’s love for all humankind, and that’s also non-negotiable. These positions beg the question: Can we stick together?

Many people have already given up hope for a peaceful resolution for our church. They’re coming to Portland “loaded for bear.” Many want to collaborate and find ways to move forward as a church. Others are holding fast to their positions because they feel certain that some issues are already decided in God’s mind and theirs, and don’t even want to be civil toward those who differ. Many want to disrupt and hold the conference hostage. I think most of us want the Holy Spirit to envelope the convention center and light the fire of revival that will move us past this extremely personal and heart-wrenching issue.

I am reminded of the late Dr. Scott Peck whose book The Road Less Traveled begins with the line, “Life is difficult.” He was right about that, especially concerning our denominational struggles. His best book, however, is titled, A Different Drum: Community Making and Peace. He says that the first stage in achieving real community is “pseudo-community” where everyone gathers together and glad-hands each other in superficial ways at Christmas, family reunions, or General Conference. There is an air of “How’ve you been?” or “Wow, it’s so good to see you.” He says that this huggy stage can last a short time or forever. I think that the UMC is way past a shallow pseudo-community unless we don’t know which side another person is on. If we don’t know, we sort of “fake it” and smile and steer clear of any conflict. Pseudo-community is the story of much of Christendom’s intra-familial and interpersonal squabbles.

The second stage can last a short or long time, too. Peck appropriately calls it “chaos.” Some groups, denominations, and families stay in chaos. How long has the UMC been in the chaos stage? It’s been a long time, at least since 1972. How much longer can we stand it? There are folks, however, who feel this is one of those subjects that is worth the chaos, no matter how long it takes. To follow Scott Peck’s advice, we must let chaos run its complete painful course or we’ll never appreciate or arrive at the next place on the journey to true community.

The third stage is called “emptiness.” It can also last forever or not. It is a place where persons still have their differing opinions, but they are able to survive the tension because they care more about the other person(s) than they care about the presenting problem or themselves. Many are at that point in the UMC. It is a place of valuing, not demeaning, a place where “sacred worth” is a reality. It is rare to see such “emptiness” around human sexuality debates. Our words sometimes slide over the “sacred worth” language of The Discipline and we accent the “incompatible” part of the sentence. Both sides need to tread carefully and allow a holy emptiness to settle upon us. But we need to move on. Staying in emptiness seems laudable, but it can also be a depression-filled place of inertia.

Of course, the last stage is “community.” Scott Peck doesn’t describe it as a homogenous place where everyone thinks alike. Instead it is a place and space where there are distinctions or diversity of opinion, but there is also a unity. Unity is hard to define because it is seldom seen. We talk about it. We promote it. I’m oft to say, “I believe in the unity of the church,” but what does that really mean or entail. What is that going to look like or make me do? My personal biggest fear is that some who assume they have arrived at “community” have actually slipped back into “pseudo-community.” If there’s no honest dialogue and valuing then it’s a sham which by definition is pseudo.

So, what do you think? We can choose to move up and down, and back again on these stages of community. We can stay in places along the way too long or not long enough. Is there hope to reach emptiness, or are we stuck in chaos? I daresay most of us would prefer to go back to the superficial stage of pseudo-community than accept what’s happening now. But, maybe we can count all this contention and process as a holy gift. We have a real chance to have a significant movement of the Holy Spirit in Portland if we actually try to move through these stages.

You can’t legislate “community.” It has to be experienced. I long for the day when we reach it, and pray we’ll stay there for a real long time!



The Personal Touch in a Cyber World

Facebook and Twitter are sources of amusement and information for me. I’m not that into posting things on either, but I like seeing other people’s posts. I did get really animated while taking prednisone for bronchitis two football seasons ago. I found myself posting tweets throughout the game. I literally couldn’t stop. I was typing like a banshee and faster than the TV announcers. It was hilarious! Someone later remarked that they hoped I was going to keep posting during future games because it was such a hoot. No way!

You know the drill. Posting on social media is such an interesting way to chronicle our daily lives. Some people tell us everything from their latest meal including a photo, to how well their vacation is going. It doesn’t bother me. It lets me know what’s going on in my friends’ lives. Of course, I don’t want or need to know everything. I am extremely grateful for the posts that ask for prayer. The ones that border on narcissism don’t do much for me. Occasionally I will unfriend someone if they become so self-absorbed or xenophobic about their particular brand of whatever. Racism, political hubris and anything like elitism is more than I can bear, except, of course, when it comes to my favorite college football team. That’s fine.

Some people spend an inordinate amount of time posting or messaging their minute by minute status. It makes one wonder how much work they’re getting done. I do like Twitter’s 140 character limit, but some folks string their tweets together like an unending stream of consciousness. Facebook is where I mainly troll. I call it “trolling” because that’s what I do. I did it as a District Superintendent to see what was going on with the clergy and churches, and especially to find out if anyone was posting something that they shouldn’t. On more than one occasion there were posts that were inappropriate and told me more than anyone’s results on their battery of psychological tests. Not a good thing. Won’t you agree that our use of social media says a lot about who we are? I guess my blogging does the same thing about me.

Truth be told, I prefer Pinterest because I learn new information, styles, DIY projects, and great ideas on any preferred subject. I hardly ever pin anything. Pinterest is more informational than social. Facebook allows me to wish my friends’ a “Happy Birthday,” etcetera. I sometimes shed tears when a deceased friend’s birthday pops up. I’m torn between going ahead and sending salutations or not. All in all, social media is a great thing, if we look up more than we look down at our pocket computers or at our desktop central commands. Social media is a great thing if it promotes community, and if we know proper boundaries. What we put out there is permanent! You can go back and edit a post but it’s going to have “edited” up in the right hand corner. By then it’s too late. We must use caution!

Don’t misunderstand me. I like this new-fangled world we live in, but I don’t want my cyber-life to take more time than my real life. I can text with the best of them and enjoy using internet slang. I’m fond of the abbreviations of “smh” – “Shaking my head,” “lol” – “Laughing out loud,” or my personal favorite, “IMHO” – “In my honest opinion.” Of course, here’s where it all gets tough for me. Can I truly express my honest opinion with all of its give and take; i.e., “Well I like this, but here’s another approach.” I can talk faster than I can type plus verbal communication has nuances and tones that communicate much more than some cute emoji. I can’t tell if someone is being ironic, sarcastic, or for real when our social interaction is reduced to initials and symbols.

I recently had a situation where someone texted me and I wasn’t at all sure whether they meant one thing or another, so I didn’t respond. Later we saw each other and he asked me why I didn’t text back. I told him I wasn’t sure what he meant. He then explained that what he said was sarcastic. I pulled up the text, showed it to him and asked, “How was I supposed to figure that out?” Well, we finally understood each other. Have you ever gotten a text and without face-to-face interaction you had no clue what the real or hidden meaning was?

I guess the point of this blog is to say a couple of things: be careful with what you post because it says a lot about who you are; beware any communication that’s a one-way street because that doesn’t promote real community; and make sure you look up more than you look down at a screen because people are real and we need to be heart readers more than twitter followers.

There’s a story that gets at what I’m trying to say. There was an anthropologist who regularly went to a small village in western Africa and spent time poking around and learning the culture. During one visit she discovered a collection of new TV sets stacked 4 deep in a hut at the edge of the village. The village had acquired electricity just a few years earlier, and, no doubt, some manufacturer or benefactor had presented the village with the wonderful TV’s. The anthropologist was confused by the fact that they weren’t being used, so she went to talk to the village chief. She asked him why they didn’t use the televisions. He replied, “We have our storyteller.” The anthropologist pressed further, “Maybe so, but television has the capacity of thousands of stories.” “That’s true,” said the chief, “but our storyteller knows us.”

In all our social media platforms, never let us forget that the best way to enrich society and community is through personal contact. Superficial cyber relationships are important, but are nothing compared to intimate personal knowledge and face-to-face interaction. A pastor who’s up on all the latest in social media is great, but most people want one that “knows” them. Do both well and it will be an improvement.

Social Media


South Carolina Strong

My prayer today is that all the hoopla and hotheads will settle down so that we can do the real work of forging what our Constitution dares us to do: “Form a more perfect union.” My great-grandfather, Daniel Byrd McClendon, was a Confederate soldier who never owned a slave but suffered greatly in the Civil War. In a sense, it is fitting that it was July 9, 1864, 151 years ago today, that he was shot in the back of the head during the Battle of Monocacy outside of Frederick, Maryland. He was captured, treated for months in two different Union hospitals, and then imprisoned for the remainder of the war. He survived, just barely. The question for me in the aftermath of this day’s historic events is whether we will survive and move forward as a people. I think the answer is the same as it was for my great-grandfather 150 years ago: “Yes.”

I am so glad that on the anniversary of his valor, the people of South Carolina have exhibited grace when under fire once again. No matter your heritage or politics, this was the right thing to do. I can’t think of a better tribute to my great-grandfather and to each person of every race who has borne the brunt of hardship so that future generations will remember that freedom is never without a price. With tears in my eyes, this is a holy day of remembrance for slave and free, Americans all. There is no room for whooping and hollering with glee. This is too special for that, too sacred. This is not just Charleston Strong. This is South Carolina Strong. We will move forward.

Therefore, I have mixed emotions today with the painfully magnificent realization that 9 martyrs did not die in vain, while, at the same time, a flag that has taunted so many can still get its due in a museum. A flag is a symbol, and this banner has meant many things to many people, good and bad. We need to remember that, if we’re going to get along, we must do so in the way that Lincoln suggested near the end of the Civil War. In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln said that the Union could be reborn, “With malice towards none…” We must heed his advice, therefore, bind up our common wounds and live life in genuine grace-filled community.

In 1913, on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, a throng of nearly 54,000 Union and Confederate veterans descended once again on the tiny hamlet in southern Pennsylvania. This time, the men of Pickett’s charge didn’t find themselves greeted by deadly blasts of cannon and grapeshot that decimated their ranks. Instead, as the Southern veterans let out their rebel yell, the Union soldiers left their positions behind the stone walls and met their former enemies on the slope below. They embraced with outstretched arms and old foes shed tears of relief and reunion. They had survived and so had their country.

The next day, July 4, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson described the healing of the nation’s wounds, and I’m sure the sight from the previous day moved him: “We have found one another again as brothers and comrades in arms, enemies no longer, generous friends rather, our battles long past, the quarrel forgotten—except that we shall not forget the splendid valor.

On this hallowed day in South Carolina history, may we not flaunt our winning or losing with either hubris or bitterness. Let’s do our ancestors and our recent dead proud by hugging each other, reaching across barriers of race and culture, and saying today that we will dedicate ourselves anew to a future that embraces an indigo blue and every other hue. Splendid valor will not be forgotten. This indeed is South Carolina Strong.


The UMC and The Ice Cream Maker: Innovation & Excellence

We’re working on a new website at St. John’s UMC, Aiken and getting feedback from a variety of people. What has stirred my thinking this morning is that most of these people are church members. This strikes me as a little odd because it confirms that our target audience is ourselves although we have been trying to ask “What if I were a new person to town…?” But, even the best intentions of trying to innovate our “branding” is a little iffy if we don’t ask the opinions of people without a “brand” – the “nones” who have no religious affiliation, the people who are struggling day-to-day to get by and have no clue that Jesus loves, forgives, heals, and reconciles.

I just finished reading a business genre book titled The Ice Cream Maker by Subir Chowdhury, a famous corporate consultant known for his expertise in helping companies achieve excellence. He suggests in his allegorical story of an ice cream manufacturer that quality is America’s missing ingredient for success.  He has great ideas to help us all reach higher degrees of national, corporate, and personal excellence. Summed up, they are: Listening, Enriching, and Optimizing. The book jacket says, “Chowdhury illustrates what businesses must do to instill quality into our culture and into products and services we design, build, and market.”

So as we design a website, a new ministry building, and sanctuary renovations, too – plus the fall kick-off of small groups, Bible Studies, outreach ministries and the like, we must ask as much or more about QUALITY as we do about INNOVATION. If we’re answering questions that the culture isn’t asking we’re wasting time, effort, and breath. If we believe in the mantra, “If we build it, they will come,” it probably isn’t going to happen! Innovative ministries are a must but we have to be excellent, too!

As United Methodists I have often thought that our most excellent theological hallmark is sanctification: that God doesn’t save us through Jesus to leave us the way that God found us, but to transform us for the transformation of the world. This doctrine of holiness and excellence has inspired the Methodist Movement to seek changes individually and in society so that everything might reflect the Kingdom of God. Like the author of The Ice Cream Maker, we are a denomination that promotes quality, yet I’m afraid that our primary excellence has diminished into taking care of those who already know Jesus and not the ones who don’t. I probably wouldn’t be a Christian if my parents and home church had not discipled me, but if I hadn’t listened and responded to a Billy Graham Crusade on TV when I was an early teenager I know that I would have have ended up as a casualty of misplaced priorities, a nominal Christian at best or not at all.

What are we going to do to be more excellent? I think we need to start by asking the right questions. Who are the customers we need to listen to? What are our strengths that need enriching? How can we optimize and build on our successes? These are tough questions. Many of our churches act as if their customers are the folks already caught in the fish bowl. As a matter of fact, it’s what I do! I want to spend more time reaching those outside our congregation’s walls, but if I had to put percentages on my ministry I would have to admit that I am about 85% focused on sheep tending and 15% on outreach. I believe John Wesley’s percentages would have been the opposite. Sure, he spent a lot of time building small groups and infrastructure, but those groups were comprised of people new to the faith. You clean fish after they’re caught, not before. Most of our programs are directed at people who have already been caught instead of catching fish!

We’re not alone in this either. Look around at America in general, not just religious institutions. Innovation has been part of our country’s DNA but do we insure the slogan “Made in America” means best quality? Think about GM and all of its recent recalls. As a big fan of the show “Shark Tank,” I enjoy seeing how entrepreneurial the average American is. We think up ideas and create new products left and right, but as quickly as we have a new idea some person or company overseas either pilfers the idea through computer hacking or simply makes a copy and produces a better quality product so that the only way the US can stay ahead is by creating something new and the whole scenario gets repeated. Our only advantage is innovation. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we not only were tops in new ideas but also in excellence?

Do you remember when cars made in Korea were almost a joke, and now Hyundai and Kia are both top of the line? Some are old enough to remember that a “Made in Japan” label on something meant it was inferior, yet most of us demand Japanese products today because of their exceptional quality. I wonder which countries that are lagging today will be tomorrow’s premier manufacturers. Doesn’t this sound familiar as we think about the mainline church and the UMC?

Mainline Protestantism cornered the market for 150 years in the US and has been losing “market share” to non-denominational churches and others for quite a while. They have copied Wesley’s small groups and discipling methods (Methodism), and can articulate our theology better than we can ourselves, but they do it all better than we do. They combine innovation and excellence, and I am convicted by it because this was our forte. That is who Methodists are by theology and definition, or at least who we used to be! I personally repent for my lopsided focus, and pledge to start asking and answering questions that are pertinent to everyone. We must offer Christ to the world in the most creative and excellent ways, or die a dead sect.

The Ice Cream Maker


A Big Day for Narcie

Today is a big day with Narcie. This is her first MRI after the May 10 Brain Tumor surgery and we need you to help pray that everything is A-Okay. She’s a fighter, a wife, mother of two preschoolers, and campus minister and Director of the Wesley Foundation at the University of Florida. She is a wonderful daughter, big sister, and lover of Jesus!

Here’s what she posted last night about today’s events:

“I have my first MRI post-surgery tomorrow at 9 am. The doctor is going to read it at our appointment at 1 pm. I’m not expecting that the tumor will grow back overnight. Not by any means. And I’m sure the doctor’s visit will be anticlimactic – but only in a GREAT, AWESOME, GOD way.

This song “Hurricane” by Natalie Grant has really struck me lately.”

I would appreciate your prayers for her scans at 9 am this morning and the doctor’s appointment at 1pm today, October 14! Pray for Mike, Narcie, Enoch, and Evy and everyone who is working for Narcie’s healing. Thank you for your support. We couldn’t make it without you.

I was at one Charge Conference yesterday afternoon where folks were asking about Narcie and the pastor suggested that we all hold hands and pray. That meant a lot. It does every day. I know that we all face hurricanes. The hope we cling to is that God will find us in the hurricanes of life, and be with us! Whatever you’re facing this week, trust that! Have a listen to Natalie Grant’s “Hurricane:”

Just talked to Narcie and MRI is clear! There was some fluid and she has 4 more months of chemo. Next MRI in 3 months. Please pray that she handles the chemo and it does its job! God is good and we’re grateful to the Lord and y’all! Here is link to Narcie’s post appointment thoughts as she and family try to take it all in: http://narciejeter.wordpress.com/2013/10/14/survival-mode/

Trinity Sunday as United Methodist Hope

General Conference 2012 was a wake-up call for United Methodists to recapture our ecclesiology based on the Trinity. Much of our muddling was because we left out the theological underpinning that we so desperately needed to be civil in holy conferencing and to do good, not harm in our actions. I think that two of John Wesley’s best contributions to theology come from his understanding of how we as human beings are reflective of the Image of God, the imago Dei. Those two emphases, simply put, are an intentional concentration on sanctification and conferencing. While other faith groups emphasize that humankind carries the Image of God in a legal way that underscores dominion and ownership of the earth, Wesley believed primarily that we are made in the Moral Image and the Social Image of God. If God does the right thing, we being made in God’s image should do the right thing. Jesus said in Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Hence, our Wesleyan understanding that God doesn’t save us in Jesus Christ to leave us the way God found us, but to transform us for the transformation of the world.

Then Wesley really hit the jackpot in emphasizing our reflecting the Social Image of God. One of the best ways to think of the Trinity as social community is through the Greek word perichoresis. Think of two words to get at its meaning, peri is where we get the beginning of our word perimeter. It means “around.” Choresis is where we get the first part of the word “choreography,” which, of course, is about “dancing.” So the Greek or Eastern word with which Wesley felt most comfortable when thinking of the Trinity, literally means “Dancing Around.” When we see God as Parent, Child, and Spirit; Father; Son, and Holy Ghost, we see God dancing around in community, with intimacy and unity of purpose – a great model for Christian Community that provides a Wesleyan basis for holy conferencing. If God needs to dwell in community how much more so do we? So, as United Methodists, we have charge conferences, annual conferences, district conferences, annual conferences, central conferences, jurisdictional conferences, and general conference. The work of community is also found in Wesley’s class meetings and small accountability groups. The image of God is literally in our DNA and especially as it is reflected in our ecclesiology, our practice of being and doing church in the world.

The first Sunday (June 3, 2012) after Pentecost is always Trinity Sunday in celebration of God’s Three-In-One nature and action on creation’s behalf. If you’ve ever tried to explain the Trinity to a child or an adult, you know how difficult this doctrine is to comprehend. Though believing in a Three-In-One God seems more polytheistic than monotheistic, I don’t care. The more the merrier. I need all the help that I can get. I need God’s loving care as a parent, as Jesus the Savior, and through the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. The Trinity makes sure that we as individuals plus the Godhead are always a majority against any enemy. To be clear, however, we are monotheists. We just believe God has chosen to reveal God’s self through three distinct but indivisible persons.

To be sure, the Trinity is an unfathomable mystery. Every analogy from water (liquid, solid, and gas) to St. Patrick’s shamrock falls short of explaining the unexplainable mysterium tremendum of the Trinity. However, we miss the greatness of our God unless we accept how God has presented God’s self as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Harry Emerson Fosdick illustrated the revelation of the Trinity by pointing to various portrayals of Theodore Roosevelt. His Autobiography portrays Roosevelt as a statesman, politician, president and public figure. His Winning of the West portrays Roosevelt as a sportsman, hunter, explorer and soldier. His Letters to His Children shows him as a winsome, lovable, gentle father, husband and family man. Each one of these portraits was true to whoRoosevelt was. We know enough from each one of them to know something. But even when we put them all together, we still don’t know everything there is to know about who he was.

Likewise, Frederick Buechner, in his book, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC says, “If the idea of God as both Three and One seems far-fetched and obfuscating, look in the mirror someday. There is (a) the interior life known only to yourself and those you choose to communicate it to (the Father). There is (b) the visible face which in some measure reflects that inner life (the Son). And there is (c) the invisible power you have in order to communicate that interior life in such a way that others do not merely know about it, but know it in the sense of its becoming part of who they are (the Holy Spirit). Yet what you are looking at in the mirror is clearly and invisibly the one and only you.”

The Trinity is an affirmation of teamwork – One in Three and Three in One. Madeleine L’Engle says, “The Trinity proclaims a unity that in this fragmented world we desperately need. We are mortals who are male and female, and we need to know each other, love each other. The world gets daily more perilous. Our cities spawn crime. Terrorists are around every corner. Random acts of violence increase. Less understandable and less advertised is the sad fact that Christians are suspicious of other Christians. Don’t we have all the central things – God, making; Christ, awaking; the Holy Spirit, blessing – in common?”

The Trinity, therefore, models the unity that we should share. As United Methodists I hope that we will embrace our Wesleyan and Judeo-Christian heritage as bearers of the Image of God. If we can reflect God in doing good, not harm, and remember that we need each other in Christian community then we have a hopeful future. However pained many are in the aftermath of General Conference 2012 there is a way forward. Trinity Sunday is a superb reminder if we will ponder it!

Community and World Communion

World Communion Sunday

I was reading a candidate’s ordination papers the other day and started pondering how we’re made in the image of God. There are those that say the imago dei is best reflected in a legal or  political way. That’s a sectarian triumphalist model that gives tacit, if not explicit, approval for humankind to exert dominion over creation. Drill, Baby, Drill – strip mine, do whatever you want to Mother Earth because it’s ours and God gave it to us.

I don’t think this is how we’re best reflective of God’s image. In my reading of Genesis 1:26 it is about a God who calls Godself “US” that makes humankind in God’s image. “Us,” of course, implies plural. Now I know we don’t worship a multiplicity of gods. The Ten Commandments make it very clear that God is one. However, we also experience God’s self-revelation as Trinity. What a conundrum? Three persons yet one God? But how marvelous! When we see one member of the Trinity at work, we see all three. They are distinct but indivisble.

Therefore, as I think about us being made in God’s image I see us clearly reflecting God’s social image. It’s simple. If God needs to dwell in the community that we call the Trinity how much more do we need to live and work together. We best reflect God’s image in community!

Tomorrow we have our Clergy Orders meeting. I’m looking forward to it. Our speaker is going to talk about our denomination’s future. That will be good, but best of all we will be together as a covenant community: sharing stories, catching up, laughing, worshipping, and communing. The best Orders meeting that we have ever had in my 34 years wasn’t even an Orders meeting. This past Annual Conference we were having elections for General and Jurisdictional Conferences. The laity finished before us so only the clergy were left to continue balloting. It was late at night and everybody was walking around between ballots with some watching a baseball game piped in on the 2 big screens that we use at conference. Others were tossing frisbees. All of us were having a good time. The buzz was so positive, so real! It was one of the most significant times I have ever had at Annual Conference!

Our whole society needs times like this when we just get together and move past the casual banter of chit-chat and actually fellowship with each other. Last week I went to our first home Gamecock football game at Williams-Brice Stadium. It was good to see longtime seatmates and catch up. We all got into the atmosphere. There were some new people around us. Maybe by season’s end we’ll share one another’s stories and get past the surface, “How are you?” Better yet, maybe what we need to do is take the band off the field at halftime and we’ll all go down there and meet each other, create a community that stretches from our private tailgating all the way to the hashmarks.

World Communion Sunday is coming up soon on October 2. What a great day to lay aside the drudgery of formality and actually commune with each other authentically. Our celebration of the Eucharist will perhaps become a hearty “Thanks be to God!” because just like the Trinity we all need each other. Community is what gets us through the tough times, the tumors, and the transitions. Community is a megaphone for our triumphs, too. I’m looking forward to community wherever I can find it and make it.

Pre-Annual Conference Reflections

Annual Conference means different things to all of its members. Lay Members and clergy members of United Methodist Annual Conferences are indeed members, not delegates, of this uniquely Wesleyan entity. It’s hard to describe. Annual Conference is part homecoming, revival, political convention, and wrestling match. Wesley’s emphasis on humans being made in God’s social and moral image is the theological foundation for annual conference. If God reveals God’s self as Three-In-One, as a community that we call Trinity, then how much more do we need the interdependence or connection from the holy conferencing that is our opportunity at Annual Conference? Our distinctive theological core of transformation takes place because we’re not Lone Rangers. We’re part of something bigger, and it’s a place of accountability. When we get together we glad hand each other, but it is a distinctive place where we best reflect who God wants us to be. In accountability, mutual respect and community we look most like God.

I know every family has its squabbles and Annual Conference does bring out that side of who we are. However, I pray that we will both speak the truth in love, and be loving enough to truly listen to one another. I pray that we will leave conference more united than divided and that’s not going to happen unless we love one another. This will be especially difficult this year. It’s an election year for delegates to our quadrennial meetings of General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference.

It’s quite the affirmation to be elected to either of these bodies. General and Jurisdictional Conference elections aren’t a popularity contest. More than affirmation, they’re work. At General Conference we work on a new Book of Discipline and declare what we believe on sundry issues and what should be our best practices as a denomination. At Jurisdictional Conference we elect leaders: Bishops who will prayerfully do their best work in an Annual Conference and leaders who will serve on general boards and agencies. It is critical that we elect good bishops. You can have the best beliefs and declare how we think church should be, but bishops through their relationships have a lot to do with how those beliefs and visions are implemented. Bishops without leadership ability can derail all the best practices and ideas in the world.

Scott Peck has written some great insightful books like The Road Less Traveled and People of the Lie. My personal favorite is one that didn’t make his hit parade of bestsellers, The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace. His dedication page is powerful in its content: “To the people of all nations in the hope that within a century there will no longer be a Veterans Day Parade but that there will be lots of living people left to march to a different drum because all the world loves a parade.”

In his book Peck describes the stages of real community making. I daresay they are clearly illustrative of my experience of Annual Conference, and even General and Jurisdicational Conferences. Although these stages can progress in a linear fashion, there are stages that can be skipped over, revisited, or in which a group can be stuck ad infinitum. With that disclaimer, the first stage he describes is “pseudocommunity.” This stage is the “Hail Fellow, Well Met” fakey hugging reunion where everyone just smiles and refuses to take off their honeymoon grins. I know plenty of “church people” who would rather pretend their church never has problems than dare to take off their masks.

Alas, honeymoons don’t last forever. Conflict-avoidance doesn’t do anyone much good in the long run. When individual differences are allowed to surface the second stage of “Chaos” is bound to follow. We all know too many churches and groups, even couples who thrive on chaos and can’t move past it. Thank God, literally, that there are few groups and churches that want to be in chaos forever. After chaos has run its course of rugged individualism, then comes “Emptiness.” Emptiness is “soft” individualism. One isn’t absorbed by the group in a hostile takeover. Differences are celebrated rather than castigated. Emptiness is that emotional place that Jesus modeled so well. It’s a place where soft quietness descends. By this I don’t mean a passive quietism that values submission more than authenticity. It’s a good submission that holds to one’s core values, but honors the other/the common good as more important.

“Emptiness” is a poor descriptive word, at least in our contemporary context. It sounds too negative, like a giving in more than a giving up. True community isn’t noted for its repressed desires that the word “emptiness” conjures. True community makes me think of the word, “peace.” It’s a place where we can all be at peace, hold onto our own individuations yet work together for our common existence and a shared positive future.

This is my hope for Annual Conference, General Conference, Jurisdictional Conference, and the whole United Methodist Church. I pray we are able to move from fakey pseudocommunity, past chaos’ scary but necessary differentiation; embrace diversity through the self-emptying of perverse rugged individualism, and then experience the peace – real peace of being able to live Wesley’s adage: “In essentials, let there be unity; in non-essentials, let there be liberty; in all things, let there be charity.”

Conflict Training

This is a photo of me as a “Fighting Gamecock” USC fan, not of my leadership style! This week has been spent in a Lombard Mennonite Peace Center “Conflict Mediation” Seminar. Well, that’s a mouthfull, but the training has been good. Conflict can even be good, “Iron sharpens iron,” says the Psalmist, but it’s tough work to look for the good in a stressful situation.

As a District Superintendent I spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with people who want me to “straighten out their preacher.” Sometimes they might be right, but I know enough about Edwin Freidman and Murray Bowen (I hope) to not buy into their triangulation. I hope to be non-reactive and stay objective as I mediate. For me, that means cutting down on my facial expressions, no nods up or down, and mostly grunts and innocuous words that state that I have been listening adequately to both sides.
This is exhausting. But community is worth the effort. Scott Peck’s book on peacemaking A Different Drummer has long been a favorite. He sums up life, church, work, and home, etc. as falling somewhere on a continuum between the following stages of community: pseudocommunity, chaos, emptiness, and real community. Some want to avoid conflict and stay in a fake community. To get to real community you have to dare to confront, speaking the truth in love through emptiness.
I hope to do better at listening to people, being objective, empowering people to come to the table and work through their differences. To do it, I’ve got to nail my feet to the floor, and maybe superglue my mouth shut. The main thing is to love, love, love; and listen, listen, listen. Every day is an adventure.

Satellites, I-Phones, Clay, and Us

I just got a call from a reporter for the United Methodist News Service wanting to interview me about the apparent defeat of the 23 Worldwide UMC Constitutional Amendments voted on by annual conferences. As I write this, it appears that they are going down to defeat by a 65-35% margin. As I said to the reporter, “This is a victory for connectionalism.”

Connectionalism isn’t just a UM hallmark. It is the way God made us. We have been created in God’s image to be interconnected. American Indians have long embraced this worldview. Reciprocity in all things means that four-leggeds, two-leggeds, winged creatures, fish, and all of creation co-exists. To live is to be in perpetual connection. Sure, there are cultural differences and God must embrace diversity or there wouldn’t be so many different types of creatures, colors, or clays. I say “clays” because I’m a potter – duh!
I have used clays like Standard 153, 114, locally dug and pugged earthenware, Loafer’s Glory, Little Loafer’s, B-Mix, a little bit of everything. I change every now and then, but I prefer the feel, bite, and color of Little Loafer’s the best. Anyway, we’re all clay – made from the dust. Adam literally means dirt. In our connectionalism we all belong at the table and our interdependence extends to our connection to every molecule of the planet, even the cosmos.
The 40th anniversary of humans on the moon reminds me of how Spaceship Earth is but a little slice of the heavens. Watching the stars last night in SC’s lowcountry and seeing a satellite zip by was God’s megaphone to me of interconnectedness. Watching fellow cabinet members during our retreat this week stay connected with the outside world through I-phones and Blackberries verified our connectedness, and the need for the satellite.
The rub, however, whether you’re parenting a teenager or an aging mother, is how much to stay connected without losing individuality. How can we make room for God’s gift of diversity while embracing the fact that every thing, every creature is made of the same cosmic dust? That is my challenge, our challenge – holding in tension the facts of distance and closeness without spinning apart or melting into an amalgam of enmeshment. Such is life, C’est la vie, n’est pas?