Our Baptism and the Lord’s!

This coming Sunday is Baptism of the Lord Sunday. This has always been the focus of the first Sunday after Epiphany Day, January 6.  This whole season continues week after week with miraculous revelations of God’s mighty power. At Jesus’ baptism God’s voice spoke and the Holy Spirit like a dove landed on Jesus and claimed him as God’s – a beloved Son with whom the Father was well pleased. Baptism does that for each of us, too. In baptism we are affirmed and claimed by God, set apart for holy endeavors and divine companionship.

The problem is that often I don’t feel that special. I’ve been rebuffed, picked last, and criticized. Anyone who has played a pick-up game of basketball, sandlot baseball, or backyard football knows how the experience can be downright exhilarating or humiliating. It depends on your team, and when you were chosen. No one likes being chosen last. Sometimes your estimated worth in the eyes of your peers isn’t what you had hoped. If you’re not first, you’re the first of those chosen last. If you’re not top dog and first in line the view changes appreciably, and not for the better.

Check out God’s way of picking people. Does He go for the fleet-footed? The Scriptures describe a God who picks his team without regard for what seems to make for usual success. Abram and Sarai were awfully old to be making a cross-country trip and bearing babies. Jacob was a deceiver. Joseph was an egotistical dreamer. Moses had a speech problem. David was too young when he was first picked by God, and when he grew up he went down hill with his penchant for window-shopping; i.e., Bathsheba. Solomon’s untidy way of making alliances certainly raised a mighty harem, but also destroyed his family.

The list of neurotics could go on and on. God chooses the unlikeliest cast for his tasks. In the New Testament one doesn’t have to look far before bumping into the likes of impetuous Simon Peter, money-grubbing Judas, and Paul with whatever his “thorn in the flesh” was. Of course, everyone is neurotic in some way. We all have quirky little habits that help us avoid realities that we don’t like. Nevertheless, God says that each of us is of sacred worth, and chooses us for His team. The only person ever chosen by God who was perfect was Jesus, but the greatest epiphany for me during this holy season is that he picks the rest of us, too.

God picks us before we ever choose Him. Every human being has enough vestige of God’s image, a spark of resonance with God’s perpetual love affair with humankind that allows us to respond to His grace. We differ from those who might declare that Jesus’ atonement is limited in its scope – the elect and the damned. We are universalists with regard to God’s grace. We believe God chooses everyone. There isn’t anyone from whom God wishes to withhold His grace. However, we don’t believe in a universalism to which most people commonly refer.

We believe we must respond to God’s universal election for it to work. If we don’t choose to receive God’s grace then this isn’t the love affair that it’s meant to be. People of the West really can’t fathom arranged marriages anyway. We think marriage is best when two people choose each other. So it is with God! He wants us to choose Him as much as He has chosen us. God initiates the relationship, and it’s up to us to consummate it.

Perhaps you have a gift for someone that’s leftover from Christmas. Maybe you thought that you would see them at a family gathering or the like. No matter the reason, the connection wasn’t made and you’ve taken down your tree, the holiday goodies have been consumed, and all you have left to remind you of the season is that present all wrapped up but not yet delivered. What do you do?

Someone has to make the effort to deliver the gift, and the gift-giver is the one who has to do it. However, the recipient still has to actually receive the gift. A gift isn’t really given until it’s received. It’s the same with God’s gift of grace to us. The gift is wrapped in the incarnation of Jesus, and the gift has been delivered to the doorstep of our hearts. We must open the door and receive it, “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God…” (John 1:12), and “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in…” (Revelation 3:20). The gift of grace is yours through Christ! Hear God’s voice say to you, “You are my beloved, whom I have chosen,” and respond!

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Keeping Christmas and a Blessed 2015!

Christmas Day is past and New Year’s Day is almost upon us. Our secular and sacred senses of time collide at this time of year. After all, Christmas isn’t over until January 6th’s Day of Epiphany, the day that commemorates the Magi’s visit to the Christ Child. The secular calendar compels us to put all the hoopla of Christmas behind us and move on to a new year! A lot of people are ready for the scene in New York City to shift from the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center to the ball-drop at Times Square. Putting aside our liturgical sensibilities, most think it’s way past time to make resolutions, start shedding those excess holiday pounds, and get on with paying the bills.

But, wait a minute; hold on, Christmas isn’t over yet. Epiphany season reminds us that the mystery of Christ’s coming brings sustained revelations of God’s majesty. We are dared to savor the experience, not rush past it. God has more to reveal to those who still seek the truth. There are Twelve Days of Christmas and we’re only at number 5! To be honest in our faith, we believe Christmas can and has to be kept all year. The power of God-in-the-Flesh through Christ is a daily necessity in our rebellious world.

Henry Van Dyke sums up my point much better than I in his piece, “Keeping Christmas.” He gives us fodder for New Year’s resolutions and for a great 2015. Here are his words:

“There is a better thing than the observance of Christmas day, and that is, keeping Christmas.
Are you willing…
• to forget what you have done for other people, and to remember what other people have done for you;
• to ignore what the world owes you, and to think what you owe the world;
• to put your rights in the background, and your duties in the middle distance, and your chances to do a little more than your duty in the foreground;
• to see that men and women are just as real as you are, and try to look behind their faces to their hearts, hungry for joy;
• to own up to the fact that probably the only good reason for your existence is not what you are going to get out of life, but what you are going to give to life;
• to close your book of complaints against the management of the universe, and look around you for a place where you can sow a few seeds of happiness.
Are you willing to do these things even for a day? Then you can keep Christmas.
Are you willing…
• to stoop down and consider the needs and desires of little children;
• to remember the weakness and loneliness of people growing old;
• to stop asking how much your friends love you, and ask yourself whether you love them enough;
• to bear in mind the things that other people have to bear in their hearts;
• to try to understand what those who live in the same home with you really want, without waiting for them to tell you;
• to trim your lamp so that it will give more light and less smoke, and to carry it in front so that your shadow will fall behind you;
• to make a grave for your ugly thoughts, and a garden for your kindly feelings, with the gate open—
Are you willing to do these things, even for a day? Then you can keep Christmas.
Are you willing…
• to believe that love is the strongest thing in the world—
• stronger than hate, stronger than evil, stronger than death—
• and that the blessed life which began in Bethlehem nineteen hundred years ago is the image and brightness of the Eternal Love?
Then you can keep Christmas.
And if you can keep it for a day, why not always?
But you can never keep it alone.”

Let us keep Christmas and may doing so inspire us throughout 2015. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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Baptism of the Lord Sunday!

Yesterday our middle child and daughter-in-law texted us a sonogram announcing that they are going to have another daughter. Coming from a guy like me who had two brothers, this is absolutely great! I remember quite well my father’s repeated declaration, “I’d trade all 3 of you boys for one daughter!” Now Josh and Karen will be doubly blessed and Kaela will make a great big sister! This fits with this coming Sunday in my mind. As we commemorate Jesus’ baptism, we all can ponder our births and baptisms.

A little boy asked his mother where he came from, and also where she had come from as a baby. His mother gave him a tall tale about a beautiful white-feathered bird. The boy ran into the next room and asked his grandmother the same question and received a slight variation on the bird story. He then scampered outside to his playmate with the comment, “You know, there hasn’t been a normal birth in our family for at least three generations.”

No birth or baptism is normal. They’re better than that! What do we say about births? I can hear the voices in hospital rooms right now, “It’s a miracle!” or “Ah, the Miracle of Life,” and it’s so true. Epiphany season and each of its Sundays explores a specific aspect of how God has revealed God’s self in Jesus. This whole season is focused on miracles and Jesus’ baptism is a great kick-start.

This analogy might help. I’ve been in more than a few bishops’ offices. There are similarities and differences in each. Some bishops reveal their individuality in artistic tastes via the artwork on the walls. About some, one becomes quickly aware of their family or sports allegiances through photos or mementos.

One of the more unique items that intrigues me and gives cause for deeper thought are the “episcopal pedigrees” that I’ve seen. In several Bishops’ offices I’ve noticed these framed documents that give a historical lineage of which bishop consecrated which subsequent bishop all the way down the line to the bishop in whose office the document now hangs. More than as an apologetic to those who are concerned about whether United Methodist bishops have proof of “apostolic succession,” I think the documents reveal the wonderfully complex web of connected relationships from one generation of United Methodists to another.

United Methodist clergy and laity are linked in a mutually supportive way through one of the constitutive principles of our denomination. We call that principle “conference.” In our church we “conference” about everything. On the local level we have what is called a “charge conference” comprised of all the members of the administrative board meeting with the express permission/supervision of the district superintendent. Up the line we have “district conferences” that usually cover churches over several counties; “annual conferences” that usually comprise all or major portions of a state; “jurisdictional conferences” that are multi-state regions; and a “general conference” that is global. Conferring with each other about God’s will is a hallmark of Methodism. We are a connection of interactive relationships that positions us for more effective ministry.

On this coming Sunday we need to think about another kind of spiritual pedigree. Since the earliest days of the church, the first Sunday of Epiphany season has focused on Jesus’ baptism by John and God’s miraculous affirmation from heaven, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus at his baptism as he began his ministry. Therefore, at Christ’s baptism, and, I dare say, at our own, we see the interactive relationship of God’s personhood empowering our ministry.

Therefore, this Sunday should be our commemoration of our baptismal pedigree, our call to ministry. Wouldn’t it be spiritually enriching to think about who baptized us, and who baptized them, as far back as we can go? Wow! We are part of a community of faith that has a rich heritage of God’s mighty acts of salvation. This can be a personal epiphany for you, reminding you of God’s faithfulness to you and yours for generations. Answer the question, “How did I get here?” and be thankful!

Epiphany Blessing!

The Twelve Days of Christmas are almost over and this coming Sunday, January 6, is Epiphany Day, the commemoration of God’s revelation of the Christ Child to the Magi – a fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise that through his progeny God would bless all nations. This whole new season of Epiphany, from January 6 until Ash Wednesday’s beginning of Lent, is a series of revelations and reminders of God’s presence among all people.

Is there a better time to celebrate this marvelous epiphany? In the midst of dark and bleak midwinter most of us can use a dose of hope. Emotional cliffs still abound and Christmas bills are coming due. Therefore, Epiphany is a much needed season that focuses on God’s signs to us, divine revelations to get our attention, tangible and mysterious signs that God is with us.

However, prepackaged signs aren’t very convincing to me. In my opinion, by definition, you can’t pre-plan an epiphany. Don’t we all like the serendipity of spontaneous “Aha” moments when God suddenly pops up on our radars? It’s like what William Barclay meant when he said that there are two great days in a person’s life ­- the day we are born and the day we discover why. The latter is the kind of epiphany I want! In the rush, I sense the hush. You know what I mean. I hope.

When do your epiphanies occur? Is it during your devotions? Is it seeing some breath-taking view for the first time? Is it holding your grandchild? That’s what it was for me today. I spent a couple of hours enthralled with my 20-month-old granddaughter, Kaela, while her Mom and Dad had to go to an important meeting about their new house. I carried her around the United Methodist Center to see everyone, and then we had a picnic on my office floor. It was grand! My best epiphany of God’s presence today was when she toddled over, kissed me on the cheek and gently laid her head on my shoulder. What had been a dark crisis-laden day melted away into a sublime awareness that there’s a God that loves me. Kaela literally brightened my day!

I think that’s what most of us need spiritually and emotionally during this season of Epiphany. In our darkest worries and saddest moments, God shines a wondrous light. This is the story of how God’s voice is heard in most of our epiphanies.  This is corroborated by Gene Wilkes who pastors the Legacy Drive Baptist Church in Plano, Texas. One of his Adult Bible Study leaders, Ed Gentry, wrote this in the class’ newsletter:

“When I was a kid, we used to go to my grandparents’ dairy farm for a week each summer and each Christmas. Each morning my grandmother would wake up at 4 a.m. and head out to the pasture to round up the cows and take them to the barn to be milked. I will never forget the day I came of age. It was announced that the following morning I would be allowed to get up and go with my grandmother as she performed her duties.

By the time grandma was ready to go the next morning, so was I… decked out complete with cowboy boots, plastic chaps, genuine leather holster, metal cap gun (spit polished and with a fresh roll of caps all loaded up), bandanna, cowboy hat, and if memory serves, she found me digging around, looking for a piece of rope to be used to wrangle the particularly reluctant ‘doggies.’

You can imagine my surprise when, as we started to walk to the barn, she began to softly call out the cows’ names into the darkness. By the time we got to the barn, the first few cows were lining up to come in and get milked. I don’t remember if the surprise knocked me off my feet or if I slipped on a cow patty, but I was really bothered. This was NOT how you were supposed to round up cattle!! It bothered me for a long time.

As we studied Psalm 23 last month, this memory came rushing back (yeah, it still bothers me a little). But for some reason, my vision is of God gently calling our names out in the dark as we walk through our lives. I think cattle prods would be much more effective, but Jesus says, ‘My sheep know my voice and I know them, and they follow me: and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of my hand’ (John 10:27-28).”

This so aptly describes my need this Epiphany season. As I tread along the unseen paths of 2013, I want to hear God’s voice. God is gently and longingly speaking our names in the darkness so that we can experience the grace that is sufficient for every time of need in Jesus Christ. Epiphany is a special time for us to perk up and listen!

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!

Perpetual Epiphany!

A few years back I was in Portland, Oregon for a church meeting. The rose gardens were lovely, and the Willamette River was spectacular. The fish was the best that I have ever eaten, and my first taste of marionberries was simply addictive. The UM Bishop of the Portland Episcopal Area was my tour guide.  He had become a good friend through our shared work for the United Methodist Church. The two of us rode around in his jeep scanning the wonders of the Pacific Northwest. There was Mt. Hood seemingly within a hands reach and the history-making volcano, Mt. St. Helens, seemed too close for comfort though miles and miles away. The scenery was breathtaking!

However, I could tell that the bishop was holding something back as I gloried in the climate and scenery for the week that I was there, basking in cool clean air filled with daily sunshine. Finally he let the cat out of the bag. He told me that within a few weeks Portlanders would be socked in for at least 5 months of fog and drizzle. The rains mixed with the fertile ash of nearby volcanoes were great for the roses and hazelnuts, which made for 7 months of pure sun-drenched delight. Unfortunately, to enjoy the benefits for 7 months, one had to endure the almost interminable 5 months of dreary drizzle.

He said people became easily depressed. As big as Mt.Hood is toPortland’s skyline, during the dreary months you simply can’t see it. People stay indoors and quit socializing. The independent self-sufficiency of these Westerners makes it all too easy for folks to become even more isolated. Seasonal Affective Disorder (S.A.D.) is a reality that packs a horrible punch in the Pacific Northwest. He also said church attendance really takes a nosedive during the gloomy months.

But this is just when we really need the church, isn’t it? This is why we have an Epiphany Season after all. Easter is one of those events that Christians can actually date in history with Jesus’ death and resurrection being tied to the Jewish Passover. But, Christmas and Epiphany are quite another matter. We really have no idea what time of year it was that Jesus was born. There is no real evidence in the Scriptures. It took several hundred years for Christmas to catch on and everyone’s best guess for the selection of December 25 through January 6 to comprise the Twelve Days of Christmas has more to do with winter and less to do with facts.

It’s the same principle that should be at work in Portland. Instead of less people in church during the rainy season, there should be more. Christmas and Epiphany come as they do because they follow on the heels of December 22, the Winter Solstice. As winter begins, at least for the Northern Hemisphere, we experience the shortest day of the year and the longest night. The very next day the length of daylight nearly imperceptibly increases a little less than a minute a day and on it goes until June 21, the beginning of summer when the tide turns and daylight starts decreasing. The Twelve Days of Christmas from December 25-January 6 were just enough time for ancient humanity to verify their hope that bleak midwinter was indeed someday going to end.

No wonder, then, these dates were chosen for the celebration of Jesus’ birth and his miracles, an Epiphany of light coming into a dark world. This celebration comes precisely when we need it most! The Portland Area Bishop said it best when he reminded me about nearby Mt. Hood’s seeming disappearance during the rainy season. Through cloud and fog, rain and drizzle, at all times, he and all Portland remain in the shadow of the beauty and majesty of the mountain, even when nobody can see it. Similarly, Epiphany Season in the church pushes back the fog, drizzle and snow banks of winter and lets us catch a needed glimpse of Sonshine until that day finally comes when Jesus will be revealed in all His glory! Perpetual Epiphany! Hang in there! Bleak midwinter does not last!

Epiphany is Year-Round!

Christmas is over and now we’re into Epiphany season. It’s the season that focuses on God’s signs to us, divine revelations to get our attention, reminders that God is with us. However, prepackaged signs aren’t very convincing to me. I like the serendipity of spontaneous “Aha” moments when God suddenly pops up on my radar. Professor William Barclay says there are two great days in a person’s life ­- the day we are born and the day we discover why. The latter is the kind of epiphany I’m writing about! Have you ever been to a meal at someone’s home where the host’s concern that everything be “perfect” ruined the whole evening? There comes a time in every good party when you just have to let the dishes stack up, the coffee get cold and the butter melt, so that everyone may simply sit down and talk around the table. That’s when the “Aha” moments most often occur for me.

Psychologist Edward Stein, in an edition of “Pastoral Psychology,” said, “I am convinced that God speaks not out of burning bushes but in our burning hearts, from within, through the very processes that God implanted in us; our reason and our conscience, our inner values and guilt system.” How does God get your attention? With me it’s sometimes with a two-by-four but most of the time He uses the still small voice vibrating somewhere in my subconscious, or the sounds from a soulful song, the colors of nature’s palette, the words of a friend.

This is the story of how God’s voice is heard in most of our epiphanies.  This is corroborated by Gene Wilkes who pastors the Legacy Drive Baptist Church in Plano, Texas. One of his Adult Bible Study leaders, Ed Gentry, wrote this in the class’ newsletter:

“When I was a kid, we used to go to my grandparents’ dairy farm for a week each summer and each Christmas. Each morning my grandmother would wake up at 4 a.m. and head out to the pasture to round up the cows and take them to the barn to be milked. I will never forget the day I came of age. It was announced that the following morning I would be allowed to get up and go with my grandmother as she performed her duties.

By the time grandma was ready to go the next morning, so was I… decked out complete with cowboy boots, plastic chaps, genuine leather holster, metal cap gun (spit polished and with a fresh roll of caps all loaded up), bandanna, cowboy hat, and if memory serves, she found me digging around, looking for a piece of rope to be used to wrangle the particularly reluctant ‘doggies.’

You can imagine my surprise when, as we started to walk to the barn, she began to softly call out the cows’ names into the darkness. By the time we got to the barn, the first few cows were lining up to come in and get milked. I don’t remember if the surprise knocked me off my feet or if I slipped on a cow patty, but I was really bothered. This was NOT how you were supposed to round up cattle!! It bothered me for a long time.

As we studied Psalm 23 last month, this memory came rushing back (yeah, it still bothers me a little). But for some reason, my vision is of God gently calling our names out in the dark as we walk through our lives. I think cattle prods would be much more effective, but Jesus says, ‘My sheep know my voice and I know them, and they follow me: and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of my hand’ (John 10:27-28).”

God is still speaking today, and doesn’t usually use a cattle prod. God uses grace, though certainly not the cheap variety without consequences. God is gently and desperately inviting you and me to see his revelation, his grace in Jesus. Listen! Open your eyes! Happy Epiphany and may it be year-round!

The United Methodist Church – God’s Music Box

Epiphany season is the sacred season of miracles, the extension of grace beyond the confines of Judaism, and the celebration of God’s presence among all peoples. When we say that someone has had an epiphany we know that it means that they have had an “Aha!” moment. When was your latest epiphany? For a lot of us epiphanies have been few or non-existent in the year 2011 and we can’t wait to turn the page on a rough year.

Generalized fear and malaise has created what friend Dr. Tom Frank calls a “rhetoric of crisis” in our denomination. Sadly, this kind of panic is crossing all cultures, faiths, and political persuasions. Just this afternoon, no doubt to capitalize on the Mayan 2012 “End-of-the-World” predictions, the movie “Deep Impact” came on TV. At least there was some good theology with a spaceship named “Messiah” and people chosen to stay for 2 years underground in the “Ark.”

Unfortunately, fear mongering and empty promises are daily fare for folks in the church and culture. Just have a listen to political candidates. Who wins in the Iowa Caucus will probably be the one who panics people the most and at the same time offers the best panacea. Cough syrup for someone dying of lung cancer doesn’t get it done. The medicine has to match the malady, and that’s the problem with crying “Wolf!” without credibility and/or a proper solution.

With General Conference looming there are lots of people doing the “Iowa Thing,” as I’ll call it, in the church – bemoaning the future of the United Methodist Church while offering answers we already know are only half-measures. Removing “continued availability of appointment” AKA “Guaranteed Appointment” from the Book of Discipline may seem like an answer for underperforming clergy and the churches that have suffered through them, but what about how that changes our theology of prophetic proclamation. There surely need to be easier and quicker exit strategies for people whose gifts and graces are wanting or waning. However, I’m reminded of Edwin Friedman’s seminal work, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.

The title says it all, doesn’t it? Quick fixes demand later fixes to correct unintended consequences.  I am not one to want to do the usual thing and set up another study committee to report to the next General Conference, but can’t we at least put theology before the financial cart concerning some issues? In the IOT/CT restructuring legislation, for instance, the qualifications of the 15-member Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry that will control the work of all the agencies of the UMC and nearly $2 Billion in assets says nothing at all about years of service to the church or theological background – only a litany of business skill sets.

Others whom I greatly respect have predicted a “death tsunami” that will exacerbate our rapid decline in church membership. Out of fear and/or faithfulness there are well-meaning people in the UMC who have called for such radical changes in the ways that we do ministry via itinerancy, connectional ministries, and ordination that our theological identity could be  muddied beyond recognition. This might be a good thing though.

We’re used to things being muddy in our Via Media (“Middle Way”) conjunctive faith history a la Dr. James Fowler and his Stages of Faith. So why not put ordination first and full conference membership last as the legislation asks? It will help our relationships with other Christian bodies, so it’s said. Ah! But there’s the rub: We’ve already failed at that since we can’t produce any proof of apostolic succession in UM ordinations anyway!

We were meant to be a movement not a domesticated legitimized institution, but I’ll keep listening, learning, and hoping that I’ll soon have an epiphany at the Pre-General Conference News Briefing in Tampa. I need more information. My mind isn’t made up on so many things. Do I panic or reach out to new possibilities with hope? I’m being pulled to and fro by the dissonant tunes of those who cannot separate doctrine from theology, the essential from the non-essential.

I can’t help but think of Friedrich Nietzsche, great doubter of the 19th century. He once wrote a letter to a friend disparaging dull and dead Christians: “If these Christians want me to believe in their god, they’ll have to sing better songs, they’ll have to look more like people who have been saved, and they’ll have to wear on their faces the joy of the beatitudes. I could only believe in a god who dances.”

What Nietzsche and maybe even more United Methodists have failed to realize is that God likes to dance. Better than that, Epiphany season is a reminder to those of us who are dull of mind and feet that God wishes to dance with us, especially as the discordant sounds of church squabbles rise! This is mostly metaphorical, to be sure, but the sheer truth is that God wants to dance a jig with us as partners, confused though we are. The key is that God has to lead so the cacophony turns into a symphony!

I sure can’t lead when it comes to music. I’ve never been very talented musically. Music enthralls me. It helps me worship. It inspires adoration. The problem is that I can hardly carry a tune. When I was preaching on TV for the 9 years prior to becoming a District Superintendent the folks in the video booth learned to turn off my microphone if there was any way my singing could be heard. I love to sing, loudly and with feeling, and it sounds fine to me, but others say it’s more like a joyful noise. Maybe more like a joyful train wreck, with wheels screeching.

The closest that I’ve been to good music is listening to good choirs, contemporary Christian musicians and bands, “Celtic Woman” on PBS, and the occasional live concert. As I was growing up we had an old Polyphon, a German music box that played large 19 inch diameter metal discs. You might say that it was the precursor to the record player or the juke box since it had a slot for a large cent on both sides of the wooden case. We would put on our favorite disc (mine was entitled, “The March of the Cameron Men”), and let the big sound of the music box fill the house.  It was marvelous.

As we approach a New Year, Epiphany season, and General Conference, I think God wants us to fill our lives just like the sound of that music box filled our house. God wants each of us to carry the sound of God’s love song to the world. That marvel would surpass any off-beat notes and screeches that you or I can make and whatever comes of what happens at General Conference. That sound will be music to the ears of a world that thinks we’re irrelevant. Don’t we believe that the church is of God and will endure to the end of the age? It might end up with a different name than the one we’re used to or have myriad theologies yet timeless doctrines. No matter what, this Epiphany season I want God’s music to flow from me, into me, and beyond me to the entire world so that “Aha!” moments might abound to the glory of God – dissonance turned to harmony.

I don’t want to let embarrassment or confusion stop me from dancing. I, therefore, need to get over my fearful “rhetoric of crisis” driven music-aversion and timidity, and just let it rip! There’s a heartbreaking scene in the film “Shall We Dance?” where a dance instructor working with a beginning student berates him in front of the class: “Stop. Control yourself. Stop slobbering like that. Your hands are dripping wet. You’re making me sick. There’s no way you’re becoming my partner.” The man is humiliated but courage rises enough so that he looks up to speak: “Do I really make you sick? Am I really that disgusting? Do I really look that bad?”

How would you feel if your dance instructor/partner looked at you with disgust? It might make you want to give it all up, but here’s the good news of Jesus’ Epiphany for us in 2012: God delights in dancing and singing with us, regardless of either our great skills or pronounced inabilities. The joy in the exercise isn’t in the precision of our steps or voices. It’s not in the exhilaration of being swept away by the moves or the music. The joy of the dance is in the delight of our partner’s eyes and our Partner is God. Epiphany season is a chance for you to sense the smiling eyes of God on your life. “Join in the tune. Dance with me,” says our God! Is this a positive way to envision what seems herky-jerky in our attempt to dance with God and each other in “Holy Conferencing” at General Conference? I pray so!

Polyphon Music Box

Transfiguration Pinnacle and People

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Epiphany season in the church has been a time through the centuries to sense the power of God’s self-revelation to the world. It is the season of encouragement that immediately follows Christmas and precedes Ash Wednesday and Lent. Epiphany is a reminder that though Christ is about to enter his “dark night of the soul” in the controversies that led to his crucifixion, he knows full well just who he is. He is God-Incarnate, God-in-the-Flesh.
This knowledge changes everything. It doesn’t lessen the pain and humiliation that Christ is about to undergo, but it does help him endure it. Epiphany season ends with the greatest affirmation of Christ’s personhood, Transfiguration Sunday, which we commemorate this Sunday. On the sacred mountain, Jesus is reminded that only he is God’s beloved son. Though the valley of suffering is deep beyond compare, God will transfigure the ordinary into extraordinary, the crown of thorns into a crown of Gold.
Transfiguration Sunday’s climatic end to Epiphany season doesn’t diminish the pain Jesus resolved to endure, but it did fortify his soul for the journey. Isn’t this why we come to Sunday School and Worship? Isn’t the Lord’s Day our Day of Transfiguration? We seek to find out who we are on Sunday and pray that it helps us through the dark nights of the work-a-day week.
Such a transfiguration took place in the life of a man named Ben Hooper. Fred Craddock ran across an elderly gentleman by this name at a restaurant just off I-40 in east Tennessee. The older gentleman found out that Fred Craddock was a seminary professor, a teacher of preachers, in Atlanta. The gentleman, without hesitation, said that he had a story to tell about a preacher. Fred had heard many such stories over the years but he listened attentively. The old gentleman told how he was born in the hills nearby, and that his mother was not married. He described how children made fun of him and called him names. He recalled how everyone would stare at his face trying to figure out who his daddy really was.
The old man said he felt embarrassed and unworthy everywhere he went, especially church. At church, as a young boy, he would slip into the back pew after the singing began and slip out before the last hymn finished. One night, however, the new Methodist preacher talked long and hard about God’s grace and love for everyone no matter who they were. He was mesmerized. Before he could slip out, a group of people had already queued up in the aisle. Before he could move, he felt a hand on his shoulder. It was the preacher! He spoke while staring at the boy’s face, “Well, son, let me see who you are. Oh, yes! I see a striking resemblance. You’re a child of God … Go out and claim your inheritance!”
The older man told Dr. Fred Craddock that night transfigured his life. He felt God’s grace like never before. It changed him forever. Fred Craddock asked the man what his name was again, knowing this would make a great story to tell preachers. The old man replied, “Ben Hooper.” “Ben Hooper, Ben, Ben Hooper!” Craddock thought to himself. And suddenly it came to him that his father had once told him about the time when, for two terms, the people of Tennessee had elected a man named Ben Hooper, who had been born to an unwed mother, as governor of their state. What a difference transfiguration makes!
Think about the millions of people around us who need a transfiguration. They wonder if the institutional church is relevant, and so do I. However, the Gospel is relevant, if we’ll connect to people and let people know through word and deed that Jesus has made a difference in our lives. People are starving for salvation and need transfiguration. I pray that we will guide them in real, relational, and relevant ways to an encounter with the Living God!

Short on Epiphanies

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In two days on January 6 we will celebrate Epiphany Day. The timing is perfect. I have the “crud” again; the whirling dervishes of church stuff are more than taxing; and I can’t get my daughter Narcie and her brain tumor off my mind. The doctor said things haven’t changed since the last MRI but he seemed more ominous this time. His line is on a continual loop in my mind, “It’s not a matter of if the tumor will come back, but when.” That is so scary.
I confess a personal need for God to “show up.” I am well aware that throughout Epiphany season our worship focuses on God’s power and miracles. We need epiphanies in this dark world. By definition, an epiphany is a sudden burst of clarity, a sign from God that He is real. What a difference this can make in our deep winter despair.
But, oh, how we often miss the divine that is right in front of us! At a recent Columbia District Clergy Meeting one of our colleagues shared a humorous story about missing the obvious. It was a story about Sherlock Holmes, master detective, and Dr. Watson, his faithful companion. It seems they were camping when suddenly in the middle of the night Holmes awakened Dr. Watson and said, “Watson, look up and tell me what you deduce from what you see.”
Dr. Watson replied to Sherlock that he saw stars, thereby deducing that there were millions of stars overhead. Watson further deduced that with all these stars there might be some stars, like our sun, that have planets around them. Watson further said that he could deduce that perhaps some of these planets may resemble earth. Therefore, he told Sherlock Holmes that his final deduction was that there must be life on other planets besides the earth. He declared, “There you have it, Mr. Holmes!” Sherlock Holmes stared at Watson dumbfounded at how he could miss the obvious: “No, Dr. Watson, you don’t have it at all! The only clear deduction is that someone has stolen our tent!”
Epiphany begins with a heavenly sign, a star that clearly led the Magi to the Christ Child. After that sign we find many other convincing epiphanies declaring Jesus as Christ. At His baptism, a dove descends on Jesus and a voice declares Him as “God’s beloved child.” With miracle after miracle, we witness countless epiphanies in the blind regaining their sight, the paralyzed able to walk, the dead raised, the sea calmed, the 5000 fed, and the triumphant trio on the Mt. of Transfiguration.
We wonder how the people alive in Jesus’ day could have missed who He really was. We might even say to ourselves that if we had been there we surely wouldn’t have missed it. Yet, I wonder. Like Dr. Watson, we miss the obvious presence of God while we stare off into space. The stranger at our doorstep just might be an angel unawares. The person who is poor in spirit next door just might be God’s final test of our faith before we are called home. What if we miss these epiphanies? Heaven knows what might happen.
I am going to live by faith and hang in there, focusing on the presence and power of God. I will not succumb to the nay saying hopelessness that is anti-Gospel. I’m looking forward to a 2011 that has me perched on the edge of my seat anticipating God’s epiphanies!