Valuing Diversity

When I was a youth you either pulled for the Baltimore Colts or the Green Bay Packers. We divided up in other ways, too. People were often defined by their affinities or choices. In my hometown you either liked Johnny Unitas or Bart Starr, Fords or Chevys, the Red Sox or Yankees, and South Carolina or Clemson.

There wasn’t much wiggle room. Today we are even more polarized: red state/blue state, pro-gun/no-gun, liberal/conservative, Democrat/Republican, and Fox/CNN. One of the few positives out of this horrific hurricane season is that the things that normally divide us don’t matter as much when we’re facing calamities together.

Being united in common cause is so much needed, hurricane or not. Wouldn’t it be great if bi-partisanship ruled the day rather than acrimonious finger-pointing? When we start pre-judging instead of pre-loving others we make assumptions that are usually false. A lot of our differences disappear when we get the facts and get to know someone personally.

Some of you know that I’m a member of GCORR (General Commission on Religion and Race), an agency of the United Methodist Church that works for reconciliation and grace across racial and tribal lines. It is the can-do group in the UMC that promotes a three-fold mission to promote intercultural competency, institutional equity, and vital conversations. We provide resources and training so that people can value each other and create systems that will be fair to all. We encourage conversations so that the grace of Jesus Christ might not be bound by any individual’s or group’s sense of supremacy over another. We want to help people know all the facts and back-stories of those that they assume are different from them.

If you’ve been unfortunate enough to be driving down the highway with a stuck horn and have a motorcycle gang in front of you then you know that you would love it if they knew that you couldn’t help it. But, they didn’t know all the facts. I’ve been in traffic with my lights stuck on bright. People blew their horns, threw up “Hawaiian Good Luck” gestures, switched their lights to hi-beam, and even swerved into my lane. If they knew the whole story then they would probably be more sympathetic.

Knowing people’s back stories can help us avoid paralyzing polarization and judgment. For instance, when I was a kid, born and raised in the South, there was a certain common opinion about Yankees. I was in college before I knew that what we used to call Northerners was actually two words. There was an automatic word that went with “Yankees.” Then I got married, graduated from college, and Cindy and I moved to Boston for seminary. I remember some of the linguistic and cultural differences. We stopped at a McDonald’s on Boston’s North Shore. I went inside and came back to the car without any food. Cindy asked what was up and I replied, “I didn’t understand them, and they didn’t understand me.”

We had to learn a whole new lingo. A “tonic” was a “coke.” The “rubbish” was the “trash can.” A nearby town was named Peabody which I pronounced as Pee-body and they said Pee-bah-dee. My first request for a milk shake was a surprise. The person waiting on me poured milk into the stainless steel cup and put it under the agitator and handed me shook milk. I learned that what I really wanted was called a “Frappe” up there. There are numerous examples of similar experiences.

Until moving up North one of my favorite stories in a Southern-pride sort of way was about Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman after he burned Atlanta. He was traveling down I-20 (not really) on the way to Savannah when he and his men started taking sniper fire from the top of Stone Mountain. He told 3 of his men to go up there and take care of the lone Confederate sniper. They went, and, after a big commotion, all 3 came flying off the summit. Sherman then sent 12 men and the same thing happened. Then Sherman sent 40 men and told them to take care of this Southern soldier. 39 of the men came flying off, but one, bloodied and near death, came back down. He said to Sherman, “General, it’s a trick! There’s 2 of them!” Yes, in my ignorant cultural allegiance and prejudice, I thought better of those below the Mason-Dixon Line than those above it.

What moved me from thinking of Northerners as DY’s was getting to know people, specifically Keith and Ella Nutter. They were members of Memorial UMC in Beverly, Massachusetts, next door to Salem, where I was a pastoral intern. We visited them often and became friends. After graduation they sent us a new subscription to “Yankee Magazine” every Christmas, and we sent them “Southern Living.” I learned that Yankees and Southerners aren’t that different. We just had to get to know each other!

Remember Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham? The main character is circled and badgered by Sam-I-Am to the point of utter frustration. The main character says, “That Sam-I-Am! That Sam-I-Am! I do not like Sam-I-Am!” Because he doesn’t like Sam-I-Am, he rebuffs Sam-I-Am’s constant offer of green eggs and ham: “I do not like green eggs and ham,” but when he finally tries it, he likes it, and also ends up liking Sam-I-Am. Getting to know someone. Having the whole story and all the facts make a huge difference. Too often we would rather prefer to judge others and separate ourselves from them.

Without knowing the whole story some people thought that Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii was anti-patriotic when he was sworn in. As he took the oath in 1963 he raised his left hand instead of his right one. Everybody thought it was some kind of protest. Boy, were they wrong. Daniel Inouye served in the US Army during World War II. He was wounded fighting in Italy and earned the Distinguished Service Cross, Purple Heart with clusters, and the Bronze Star. The reason he didn’t raise his right hand is because it was blown off during an enemy attack. He went on to honorably serve in the US Senate until his death in 2012.

My joy in serving in Aiken, South Carolina is that everybody here pretty much chose to be here, moved here on purpose for work or retirement, and are from everywhere. The diversity is refreshing and adds a vibrancy to the city. My hope is that we emulate what this city has done so well: Diversity is a good thing. Value each other!

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Pray for UMC General Conference

The United Methodist people of South Carolina are asked to pray tomorrow Thursday, February 18, for our 2016 UMC General Conference. General Conference will be held in Portland, Oregon from May 10-20, and decisions will be made about what we hold in common as a connectional people. There’s a word that’s synonymous with “connectional,” and it’s the word “covenantal.” There are many who seem hell-bent, literally, on fracturing our denomination because they want to be connectional without being covenantal. I don’t think you can have one without the other!

We’re not a perfect church, but John Wesley, our founder, said that we should and could go on to perfection in our intentions. God doesn’t save us through Jesus Christ to leave us the way God found us, but to transform us for the transformation of the world. We all have a long way to go, and the only way to make progress is through grace, to be sure, but none of our good intentions means a whit if we don’t make some hard choices about our covenant and what unity means.

Making hard choices is the Lenten message of Jesus’ decisions leading up to Holy Week, and it’s our message as we take up our Lenten disciplines. Hard choices are the very essence of General Conference. We first need to make a choice to bathe it in prayer. I am going to commit this Thursday’s prayer time to a focus on our ability in Portland, and, in every local church of every ilk and creed, to do more than get along with each other, to not only have good intentions, but to do the right thing and make peace.

Making peace is the rub, isn’t it? I can smile and glad-hand almost everyone even if I can’t abide what they think, do, or say. But to make peace – that’s hard, beyond hard. It makes me wonder. In making peace do I have to tolerate and accept that they are okay in their position? I don’t think so! Jesus didn’t make peace with the sins he confronted. He did try to make peace with the sinners though. He even said to Judas when he was about plant the kiss of betrayal on Him, “Friend, do what you came for (Matthew 26:50).” Jesus hardly ever used the word “friend,” only twice, as a matter of fact. If Jesus can call his betrayer a friend, can we dare do less?

What I think is right might differ from what you think is right, but that shouldn’t keep us from expressing Christian love and charity toward one another. John Wesley famously said, “In essentials, let there be unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” The problem is that most of us have opposing lists of non-negotiable essentials, and charity is routinely trumped by angry vitriol.

Can’t we all agree to pray tomorrow for Jesus and his will to reign as we meet for General Conference, and the same to occur in whatever meeting we’re in, even if it’s one in your family’s den? In our discussions, unanimity is less my goal as is selflessness. You see, my understanding of every church fight, whether on a big stage or in a local church, boils down to selfishness – a power play about pecking order and getting what’s best for me, me, me.

Think Downton Abbey and the battle about the village hospital’s control. Cousins, Isobel Crawley and the Dowager Countess Violet Crawley, are on opposite ends of the argument. One might say that their issue is about principle, but there’s a whole lot of “my way or the highway” selfishness at play. In General Church meetings, conference ones, local churches, workplaces, companies, and families, the same story perpetuates itself.

My prayer for General Conference is that we can agree on the primary essential: Jesus Christ. Certainly, every other issue is important and many would say the sexuality debate is essentially about our Christology, but I hope that we can glorify God even in our differences and love each other in such a way that the words of Jesus’ prayer in John 17:23 come true for our denomination: “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Wow! If we promote unity then the Scripture says that the world will know Jesus and His mission! Please join me in prayer for General Conference tomorrow and all the days leading up to May 10-20, 2016. Let’s try to remember than unity doesn’t necessarily mean unanimity. There’s room in unity for diversity. Our covenant should not ever be broken, but every covenant has clear stipulations about what the parameters are for disagreement. That will be the hard work of General Conference to decide. Most of us who are married already know about this endeavor. Ask any couple who has been married for more than a couple of hours, “Does unity mean unanimity?” Pray! Pray! Pray!

General Conference 2016 Picture

Truthful Tuesday

Well, I just got back from a “Truthful Tuesday Rally” at the South Carolina Statehouse. Most of it, maybe all of it was the truth. Yes, Medicaid expansion would help poor people; better healthcare would help children in poverty do better in school; and I need to vote! No problem, I agree with all of that! Just don’t tell me how to vote. I may have an opinion about which party has a better record in helping the needy, but I know, as one speaker put it, that I “shouldn’t drink the Kool-Aid” of one particular party. Better yet, I won’t drink the Kool-Aid of either because no party has the corner on the truth.

I actually had a history teacher in high school named Daniel Webster! He told a story that I have never forgotten. It was about somebody trying to explain the difference between capitalism and communism. The person explaining said, “In capitalism, man exploits man; in communism it’s the other way around.” Pardon the sexist “man” language, but you get the point. It doesn’t matter which system or which party is in charge – there’s going to be exploitation! So there you have it. I am a political independent and proud of it.

Now, I do think that it matters in terms of truth if you follow Jesus who boldly claimed to be the way, TRUTH, and the life. From there I’m delighted to be a United Methodist. I uphold our polity and means of governance. I especially like the way we conference and are connected. We don’t always agree, and lately it seems we mostly disagree. We have become as polarized as government with ins and outs, my way, your way, or the highway. I couldn’t help but think about all of that today.

Mercy, I have tried to be as orthodox a Christian as can be but some of my friends think I’m too liberal, and others think I’m too conservative. I’ve thought about self-declaring that I am a moderate evangelical liberal, liberal evangelical moderate, or a liberal moderate evangelical, but someone would say “Aha! I knew it!” How about this for Truthful Tuesday – I believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and the Apostles’ Creed as something that is literal. Call me oxymoronic but I believe in the mystery of God while at the same time think it’s appropriate to celebrate Epiphany season. God is mystery but God has revealed Godself.

Oh, and don’t wait for me to declare which way I believe on human sexuality. I will not do you that pleasure so you can label me one way or the other, but you can take this to the bank: I believe our United Methodist Book of Discipline is right on the subject; my problem is that it doesn’t openly share an opinion about all human behaviors. If we’re waiting for the culture to influence the church to change, we have already abdicated.

Don’t dare pigeon-hole anyone, because nobody ever fits everything! If we’re being truthful, we all hold diverse opinions ad infinitum, sometimes within ourselves. Sure, I have some non-negotiables like the Trinity, the inspiration of Scripture, salvation through Christ alone, but hold on: which theory of the atonement do I like best? Gosh, will it be Christus Victor (most likely), or substitutionary, ransom, legal, moral influence? Frankly, it depends on the day, sometimes the hour, but what should matter most is who I’m talking to about Jesus. Which way of talking about what Jesus can and will do in their life is most appropriate. Which do they need to hear? So, to heck with fitting a checklist of some party or side. Life is too complex for that, isn’t it? Good gracious, one speaker today pointed at Strom Thurmond’s statue on the Statehouse grounds and said some pretty bad things about him. Get this; thanks to my Daddy’s grandmother Lucinda Sharpton who was half African-American and half American Indian, I can actually say “Cousin Strom” and “Cousin Al” at the same time. Edgefield County was my DNA’s melting pot and I know some good Republicans, gay people, straights, Democrats, and some bad ones of every ilk, too.

Last example: I absolutely love Sara Bareilles’ song Brave. I’ve been told that she wrote it about a gay friend being brave enough to come out. I’ve appreciated it because of my daughter Narcie’s bravery against cancer. You might like it for another reason. The point: Can’t we appreciate the song for being a song and the words meaning different things to different people? I hope so. This is America, the home of the free and the not-so-brave, so let’s pledge to speak the truth in love on Truthful Tuesday. Do listen to the song.

Church Pecking Order Prevents Jesus’ Birth

Would we recognize Jesus? Years ago I wrote a dramatic monologue about Jesus’ birth in a small South Carolina town. I used actual places in the community as the setting. I used the Starlite Motel and its back garage as the stable; the shepherds were pulp wood workers making their way to the forest; the Magi were NASA scientists who had been tracking the unusual astronomical phenomenon to this town’s exact location. Smack dab in the middle, halfway between the beginning of US 1 in Florida and the end of US 1 in Maine, is Cheraw, SC and I was the night manager at the Starlite. It also helped that the real-life Oasis pub was conveniently located a block or so from the motel and had its share of potential witnesses to the event – all of whom were on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum. The couple that needed a place to stay was more like the pulpwooders and the stragglers from the Oasis than the wise folks from NASA.

I thought the parallels were pretty convincing, and I certainly looked the part, unshaven, unkempt, and a lot less than spiffy. The folks at church who didn’t recognize me looked askance! I was a poor third-shift part-time worker who just happened to be an eyewitness to Jesus’ coming, but I didn’t look so good. I looked out of place!

Those who recognize Jesus will need to see him in every face they see. They will honor everyone whether they look the part or not. Therefore, I am firmly convinced that our readiness and ability to recognize Jesus’ coming is in how well we see him in those around us. Who lives up to our standards, and fits in with our Christmas plans, and makes it on our holiday gift list?

Think about church life and Christians and the notion of who’s in and who’s out in the way we do things and interact with society. Somehow our pets along the way have preached a sermon to me about this very subject. Cindy and I aren’t animal lovers per se. We have had pets through the years for the children’s sake more than ours. Names like Taffy, Shoelace, Snuggles, Brio, and, of course, Pug come to mind. When we lived in the country around Lydia, SC we would take these walks down along the swamp and back up the railroad grade with our vigilant squirrel chasers clearing the path. Those days were magical in many ways. And Narcie still has Pug, a Cheraw Christmas gift who dearly loves her.

Occasionally strange dogs which really weren’t strange would come by our fenced in backyards. They belonged to unknown somebodies. At first there would always be a terrible racket. Our dog(s) would be inside the fence barking up a storm at the outside dog. I figured the best thing to do would be to let the dog into the gate so the owner could come by and pick it up. If it went down by the railroad or up the road or street who knows what might happen.

When the dogs were in the backyard together the barking always stopped. They sniffed each other out, checking one another, and then proceeded to ignore each other altogether. In the words of my late father-in-law, “They were establishing the pecking order.” That’s what dogs and people do. It’s not a best case scenario, but the status quo rules at least until meal time when the growling over first place at the dinner table kicks in.

Churches are notorious for this same kind of behavior. The ones on the outside of the church walls never bark, but the ones inside bark like crazy at those who aren’t insiders like them. When they do happen to come inside they’re ignored until a pecking order has been established with them on the bottom. Wouldn’t it be nice if we would stop acting like dogs and offer one another more than a sniff and a handshake at church? Wouldn’t it be nice if we, like Jesus, turned the pecking order on its head and saw everyone as better than ourselves – especially the poor?

He came to “poor orn’ry creatures like you and like I, says the old Appalachian folk song. There’s no pecking order at the manger! Let’s quit acting like dogs before the church really goes to the dogs!

Human Relations Day!

This past Fall I went to Washington, D.C. as a new member of the United Methodist General Commission on Religion and Race. As part of our introductory meeting to GCORR we toured Washington and spent some time of solace and reflection at the new memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was a powerful moment, even more so as we also stopped and walked at the Lincoln Memorial where Dr. King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech.

I am honored to be a part of GCORR’s mission to reach more diverse people. This Sunday is Human Relations Day, Par. 263.1 in the 2012 Book of Discipline. It is one of our denomination’s 6 special Sundays with a church-wide offering, and the offerings are designated to help improve human relations. It’s no wonder that the day designated as Human Relations Day is scheduled to be on the Sunday before the observance of Dr. King’s birthday. Of course, it can be on any Sunday, but how appropriate it is to honor the work and ministry of such a healer of festered wounds and champion for a world that looks like the Kingdom of Heaven.

Studies of human DNA suggest that we have common origins. Some say we all came from an “Eve” source in Africa that migrated some 10,000 fold into Europe’s hinterlands and intermarried with other hominid life forms. Others say that we have a common ancestor of unknown origin but share Neanderthal attributes. Either way, the similarity in our DNA doesn’t diminish our individual uniqueness.

God loves diversity. Look at the myriad colors of birds, the duck-billed platypus, and the multitude of human personality and biological differences for evidence. An old Russian proverb says it well, “If I try to be like someone else, who will be like me?” We need to treasure our uniqueness, even those aspects of uniqueness that don’t always fit in. I saw this illustrated in a cartoon that showed the foreman of a jury at the door of the jury room giving the lunch order to the bailiff. You know the jury is in for a long time when you hear the order: “Eleven cheeseburgers and one hot dog. Eleven coffees and one hot chocolate. Eleven fruit pies and one bagel.” As much as we share in common, we all have different tastes.

A waitress was taking orders from a couple and their young son. She was one of the class of veteran waitresses who never show outright disrespect to their customers, but who frequently make it quite evident by their level stare that they fear no mortal, not even parents. She jotted on her order pad deliberately and silently as the father and mother gave their selections, down to what was to be substituted for what and which dressing changed to what sauce. When she finally turned to the boy, he began his order with a kind of fearful desperation.

“I want a hot dog…” he started to say. And both parents barked at once. “No hot dog!” Then the mother continued, “Bring him the Lyonnais potatoes and the beef, both vegetables, and a hard roll and…” The waitress wasn’t even listening to the mother. She said directly to the youngster, “What do you want on your hot dog?” He flashed an amazed smile. “Ketchup, lots of ketchup, and – and bring a glass of milk.”

“Coming up,” she said as she turned from the table, leaving behind her the stunned silence of utter parental dismay. The boy watched her go before he turned to his father and mother with astonished elation to say, “You know what? She thinks I’m real! She thinks I’m real!”

God feels the same way about each of us. None of us are overlooked or ignored. Each one of us is special and unique to God. We are real to God! That is an epiphany that you might need to hear today. The prophets and Jesus preached it, so did Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Let’s all do what we can to celebrate Human Relations Day!

If God Had a Refrigerator

I am currently at the Pre-General Conference 2012 News Briefing in Tampa, Florida. To hear the myriad voices of our denomination is an arduous task but an exciting one. We are one of the most diverse faith groups on the planet. This is a strength, not a liability. It has been great to catch up with old friends and make new ones. We’re in this process of holy conferencing together as we prepare for “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” that we call General Conference. There are and will be disagreements but I pray that we will not be disagreeable. After all, we have a lot more in common than we dare admit.

For instance, studies of human DNA suggest that we have common origins. Some say we all came from an “Eve” source in Africa that migrated some 10,000 fold into Europe’s hinterlands and intermarried with other hominid life forms. Others say that we have a common ancestor of unknown origin but share Neanderthal attributes. Either way, the similarity in our DNA doesn’t diminish our individual uniqueness.

God loves diversity. Look at the myriad colors of birds, the duck-billed platypus, and the multitude of human personality and biological differences for evidence. An old Russian proverb says it well, “If I try to be like someone else, who will be like me?” We need to treasure our uniqueness, even those aspects of uniqueness that don’t always fit in. I saw this illustrated in a cartoon that showed the foreman of a jury at the door of the jury room giving the lunch order to the bailiff. You know the jury is in for a long time when you hear the order: “Eleven cheeseburgers and one hot dog. Eleven coffees and one hot chocolate. Eleven fruit pies and one bagel.” As much as we share in common, we all have different tastes.

A waitress was taking orders from a couple and their young son. She was one of the class of veteran waitresses who never show outright disrespect to their customers, but who frequently make it quite evident by their level stare that they fear no mortal, not even parents. She jotted on her order pad deliberately and silently as the father and mother gave their selections, down to what was to be substituted for what and which dressing changed to what sauce. When she finally turned to the boy, he began his order with a kind of fearful desperation.

“I want a hot dog…” he started to say. And both parents barked at once. “No hot dog!” Then the mother continued, “Bring him the lyonnaise potatoes and the beef, both vegetables, and a hard roll and…” The waitress wasn’t even listening to the mother. She said directly to the youngster, “What do you want on your hot dog?” He flashed an amazed smile. “Ketchup, lots of ketchup, and – and bring a glass of milk.”

“Coming up,” she said as she turned from the table, leaving behind her the stunned silence of utter parental dismay. The boy watched her go before he turned to his father and mother with astonished elation to say, “You know what? She thinks I’m real! She thinks I’m real!”

God feels the same way about each of us. None of us are overlooked or ignored. Each one of us is that special and unique to God. What a comfort to know that we are real to God! That is an epiphany that you might need to hear today. If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it. You’re special!