Easter Hope from Old Salem

Holy Week Hope is what I need this year. COVID-19 has ravaged the world and things like Easter services have changed in its wake. This doesn’t change the fact that Jesus is alive and well. Holy Week’s drama doesn’t end on Golgotha, but at the empty tomb. There will be differences this year because we can’t meet together, but I pray that we will hear the echoes of “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” reverberate in our hearts.

I have always wanted to attend the Easter Sunrise service at Old Salem in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Being a pastor makes it nearly impossible to pull that off due to leading my own flock in worship. This year marks the 240th uninterrupted succession of Easter Services at Old Salem. The Moravians since Count Nicholas Von Zinzendorf in Herrnhut, Germany have given this poignant and powerful homage to Christian hope and faith. This year it will be just as rich except it will be live-streamed at http://www.moraviansunrise.org/. It’s not an extravaganza, never has been. It’s deep and worshipful. It is the essence of Christian hope because it’s not based on pyrotechnics or stage management. It is simple, yet extremely profound.

We need to remember the Moravian influence on John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, who was caught in a storm at sea frightened for his life and soul, yet surrounded by these German Pietists who had heart faith that inspired them to sing hymns and pray through the storm. They had more than the head faith of Wesley. The Moravian’s witness had a profound effect on Wesley that led him to believe Methodists would do best if we connected head and heart, and literally “felt” our religion. Wesley even met with Zinzendorf at Herrnhut to experience more of this living hope himself.

Feeling our religion is the essence of hope. So yearly, albeit 2020 will be quite different, the Moravians who have been in Old Salem since the 1700’s have celebrated their faith in a special way. At 1:45 am a brass band of nearly 400 using trumpets and tubas goes around the city and plays Easter music, alerting everyone that sunrise will soon be coming. Then they gather at the Old Salem Church at 6 am when the bishop steps out of the Moravian Church into the darkness and says the traditional Easter Greeting: “The Lord is Risen!” The gathered throng responds, “He is risen indeed!” Then silently they make their way to the ancient cemetery called “God’s Acre” where bodies have been buried or sown in faith as physical bodies so they can be raised up as spiritual bodies.

The cemetery is a witness itself of new life. Every flat recumbent stone is identical and they are covered with flowers: forsythia, jonquils, azalea and dogwood blossoms – whatever plants, bushes, and trees are full of color are carefully laid on each tomb as a sign of resurrection piercing the night’s fading darkness. The tombs are all the same for each person as a reminder that each of us needs God’s grace the same as anyone else. Tombs are not gathered in family plots, but are ranked in specific order of married women, unmarried women, married men, unmarried men, etc. Zinzendorf himself said this is the way it should be as if our bodies were “choirs,” of sorts, with equality and democracy the same rule of heaven as it should be on earth with no one better than another.

Gathered there at the cemetery in silence everyone looks toward the eastern hill beside God’s Acre and the cedars that were brought from Germany when the first Moravians settled Salem. The sun comes up over that hill and the Communion of Saints is revealed: the earthly saints in the Church Militant joined with the deceased saints in the Church Triumphant, all living saints as represented by the people standing and the graves festooned by every imaginable color of flower. It is impressive. “Christ is Risen!” “He is Risen indeed!”

Pray and plan that Holy Week and Easter 2020 will be as glorious as any in Old Salem. May we feel stronger in the faith as we visualize our deceased loved ones alive again and rooting us on in our quest for hope and resurrection today. Amen.

The Glue of United Methodism

Some Bishops, Annual Conferences, Boards of Ordained Ministry, and clergy have broken their vows to uphold the Discipline of the United Methodist Church (UMC). Many lay persons have done the same thing by not upholding the teachings of the UMC as was promised at either their confirmation or church joining. Leadership preaches unity and cite Jesus, but doesn’t practice unity. They are disobedient to the primary way that we as United Methodists practice unity – Connectionalism!

John Wesley’s genius in theology centers around his understanding of how we humans reflect the imago dei (Image of God). There are three primary ways: The Social Image, the Moral Image, and the Legal Image. Think how the Social Image affects Wesleyan theology. If the Trinity is God in community, we should also live in a similar, interdependent reciprocal mutually accountable relationship. That’s why we confer so much; i.e., the word “conference” occurs every whipstitch in how we do church. Conference is a way we live into the social image of God, whether it is through band meetings, class meetings, charge conferences, church conferences, district conferences, annual conferences, central conferences, jurisdictional conferences or General Conference. Furthermore, I would contend that Connectionalism is the primary engine that makes the Social Image such a wonderful reality.

The Wesleyan Way of mutual accountability leads to the other two ways that humanity reflects God’s image. The Moral Image is exhibited in Wesleyanism via an emphasis on sanctifying grace. Since God is Moral, so should we be. John Wesley took seriously that if God is perfect, that possibility is ours, too (Matthew 5:48). Personal piety and social holiness are always done best in the context of corporate discernment – the same conferring already mentioned.

Lastly, the way that we reflect God’s Legal Image of stewardship over creation is different from a personal or nationalistic greedy dominion-like selfish ownership or destruction of God’s good earth. Wesley’s little home remedy book, The Primitive Physick, is an example of his desire that we reflect the Legal Image as mutual caretakers of people’s bodies and souls for the common good. Corporate mutuality preempts any individualistic strip-mining attitude that turns the Legal Image into a license to feather our own personal nests. Connectionalism, once again, is a very important ingredient of our theology. It makes us sensitive to what is best for everyone, and why we have hospitals and schools everywhere, and a UMC Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

Here’s where I’m going with this: if Connectionalism is so important to who we are as United Methodists, why are we tossing it aside? Frankly, I don’t see Traditionalists doing that. It’s Progressives that are ignoring or breaking the unity of Connectionalism to which we have mutually pledged our allegiance. The Wesleyan Covenant Association and other renewal groups’ best preference is that we keep and strengthen the unity that we already have in the Book of Discipline.

So, ponder this, as we reflect on the document received from the Liberian Annual Conference this week. In response to the “Protocol,” they have gone on record by saying that we should stick together, and keep our current vows, name, logo and historic sexual ethics. In essence they have expressed the hope that we remain a global orthodox denomination, and live into what Connectionalism provides as a way forward. Rather than embrace splits, regionalism, and separation, why don’t we stick with what we have, and let those who can’t abide by it go their own way for their own conscience’s sake?

Our problem, therefore, isn’t just about authority of Scripture versus interpretation, culture wars and sociology, or ordination vow-keeping. There are all kinds of ways to frame and reframe a potential denominational split. What I hear when some promote a communion of separate branches of United Methodism under one umbrella is a denial of our Connectional ecclesiology. It would give a lot of latitude, yet keep us together, but at what cost?

The cost will be the loss of Connectionalism which is the essence of UM ecclesiology, the study, appreciation, and promotion of how we do church, and how that identifies and promotes the “Method” in Methodism. Being a “connectional” church, and how that shapes or reframes this whole sexuality discussion should honor our ecclesiology. If we can hang on to that, we will celebrate the imago dei in truly Wesleyan ways.

Connectionalism is who we are. Some may prefer a congregational or diocesan polity, but the word “Connection” appears 181 times in the 2016 Book of Discipline (BOD); “Connectional” appears 175 times; and “Connectionalism” 6 times. Clearly Connectionalism is more than foundational to our ecclesiology. It is part and parcel of how we fulfill Wesley’s system of mutual accountability that promotes sanctifying grace.

Note how Judicial Council Decision (JCD) 411 emphasizes our connectional nature by stating:

The Constitution clearly provides that the principle of Connectionalism should be always primary in any organizational structure of The United Methodist Church.

Or similarly, ¶132, 2016 BOD states:

The Journey of a Connectional People—Connectionalism in the United Methodist tradition is multi-leveled, global in scope, and local in thrust. Our Connectionalism is not merely a linking of one charge conference to another. It is rather a vital web of interactive relationships.

But, what body of the UMC determines what Connectionalism is in practice? It is only the General Conference, and not any lesser body that defines how connected we are. The 2016 BOD, ¶16 of the Constitution states emphatically that the General Conference (GC):

shall have full legislative power over all matters distinctively connectional (emphasis added), and in the exercise of this power shall have authority as follows: … 8. To initiate and to direct all connectional (emphasis added) enterprises of the Church and to provide boards for their promotion and administration.

 JCD 364 forbids the GC from delegating its Connectional legislative functions:

The General Conference may not delegate legislative functions and responsibilities which are assigned to it by the Constitution.

Therefore, the GC cannot yield to the Annual Conference its constitutional responsibility as stated in ¶16.2:

To define and fix the powers and duties of elders, deacons, supply preachers, local preachers, exhorters, deaconesses, and home missioners.

So, the Annual Conference Board of Ordained Ministry and Clergy Session may not negate, violate or ignore Church law, as stated in JCD 7:

It is inconceivable that the General Conference should have full legislative powers so that it can enact uniform legislation for the whole Church, and that at the same time each Annual Conference could also have the right to enact diverse and conflicting regulations, on the same subject. The reservation of the right to the ministerial members of an Annual Conference to “vote on all matters relating to the character and Conference relations of its ministerial members,” is not a distinctively legislative function but is rather an administrative function. It can only mean that the Annual Conference has the right as well as the duty to pass upon and determine the facts and apply the laws in all such cases in accordance with the uniform regulations and provisions which the General Conference may enact in reference to the same. In other words, the right reserved to the ministers of an Annual Conference to pass upon the character and Conference relations of its ministers does not mean that it has the legislative right to set up standards to measure the character and Conference relations of the Ministers except insofar as such standards do not contravene or are not covered by provisions enacted for the whole Church by the General Conference.

Judicial Council Decision (JCD) 1321 is a masterful summary of the limits of local options by Annual Conferences in ministerial credentialing. It cites JCD 7, 313, 536, 544, and 823. For instance, JCD 544 states:

The Constitution, Par. 15 [now ¶ 16], gives the General Conference the power to fix the basic requirements for ministry, while it becomes the responsibility of the Annual Conference, as set forth in Par. 36 [now ¶ 33], to measure, evaluate, and vote upon candidates, as regards the minimum standards enacted by the General Conference. Ordination in The United Methodist Church is not local, nor provincial, but worldwide. While each Annual Conference is a door through which one may enter the ministry of the entire church, the Annual Conference cannot reduce nor avoid stipulations established by the General Conference which must be met by the church’s ministry everywhere. An Annual Conference might set specific qualifications for its ministerial members, but does not have the authority to legislate in contradiction to a General Conference mandate or requirement. Judicial Council Decisions 313, 318, 325, and 513 speak to the authority of the General Conference, under Par. 15 [now ¶ 16] of the Constitution, to establish standards, conditions, and qualifications for admission to the ministry. In Decision 536, we held that “An Annual Conference may not subtract from the disciplinary requirements for conference membership, but it may under certain circumstances adopt additional requirements not in conflict with disciplinary provisions or their spirit or intent.” This was again underscored in Decision 542 at the May 1984 General Conference. “Under Paragraph 37 [now ¶ 33] of the Constitution, however, it is the Annual Conference, as the basic body of the church that decides whether those standards have been met.”

Though the Annual Conference is called “fundamental” (¶11) and the “basic body in the Church” (¶ 33), it is also true that Annual Conferences and Boards of Ordained Ministry do not have the freedom to do anything that would deny our connectional definitions of clergy, as that determination is solely reserved by the General Conference. JCD 1341 is definitive in its location of the authority for setting ministerial standards:

The General Conference acted within its constitutional authority when it established universal standards for the ministry in ¶¶ 304.3, 310.2(d), 341.6, 2702.1 (a), (b), and (d)

 JCD 1341 further declares:

It is settled Church law that the General Conference has full legislative authority to set uniform standards for the ministry, which Annual Conferences shall not abrogate or modify. Therefore, it acted within its constitutional powers when it legislated ¶¶ 304.3, 310.2(d), 341.6, and 2702.1 (a), (b), and (d). The Annual Conference may enact additional requirements that are not in conflict with the letter or intent of these disciplinary provisions. JCD 313, aff’d, JCD 318, 536, 823, 1321.

The reach of the General Conference and Connectionalism extends from top to bottom of the church. ¶246.1 BOD reinforces it at the local level:

General Provisions—1. Within the pastoral charge the basic unit in the connectional system of The United Methodist Church is the charge conference. 

In extrapolating Connectionalism to local church practice, JCD 694 speaks clearly to the discretion of any clergy member to perform ministerial duties such as weddings:

It is the responsibility of pastors in charge to perform their duties in compliance with the Discipline and be obedient to the Order and Discipline of the Church. (Par. 431.9 now 304.1(j))

As it pertains to same-sex weddings, JCD 1185 clarifies the sacred difference between civil and Church law, and this decision also rejects local options on connectional matters:

The Church has a long tradition of maintaining its standards apart from those recognized or permitted by any civil authority. The Church’s definition of marriage as contained in the Discipline is clear and unequivocal and is limited to the union of one man and one woman. Consequently, the Church’s definition of marriage must take precedence over definitions that may be in operation in various states, localities and nations or that may be accepted or recognized by other civil authorities. To do otherwise would allow the Church’s polity to be determined by accident of location rather than by uniform application.

In summary, how does Connectionalism shape who we are with respect to human sexuality? To regionalize or break covenant with what the General Conference has decided will be the death-knell to a critical component of our identity, both as individuals and as a denomination. Clergy have made promises to uphold the Discipline of the UMC, and willingly lay aside their own prerogatives. Annual Conferences are called to be agents of the connection, but cannot dictate what only the General Conference can and must decide. Local churches, comprised of laity and pastors, cannot abrogate their allegiance to the connection or the General Conference. None of us are free agents that are laws unto ourselves. We are either a connection, or we’re not. What do you think our ecclesiology should look like? John Wesley thought Connectionalism was the best answer. What say you?

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


The Oscar Goes to Les Miserables

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birthday-Eve, Wesley, and Existentialism

Existentialism has been defined as, “the philosophical and cultural movement which holds that the starting point of philosophical thinking must be the experiences of the individual.” I’m no Existentialist, as defined, but as a good Wesleyan I do believe that our philosophical and theological experiences must be evidenced in personal experience. There must be an eighteen-inch connection between our hearts and our heads. We are not “head-trip” Christians devoid of real world real-time experience with God. We are the people of empirically sensed “strangely warmed” hearts.

Tomorrow, October 23, is my 57th birthday, and that fact has me pondering my existence and calling. Life has never been a bed of roses for me, and it isn’t now. The events of this summer with losing in the episcopal election were daunting, yet I am fine. My back isn’t what it used to be as I have started the Christmas sprint in pottery making for all of the Columbia District Clergy, everyone in the UM Center, the Cabinet, and, of course, myriad family members. Conducting Charge Conferences back-to-back-to-back has been wonderful but exhausting, especially as I’m pondering potential pastoral moves as I discern the sense of those gathered for these important meetings. As Cabinet Secretary I have been busy creating and updating every piece of information to be used by all the District Superintendents in the appointment process and S/PPRC training. Heck, I’m tired from just dealing with the secular election process. There have been times where I have thought about doing harm to my telephone if I receive one more robo-call.

I am sure that many of you are going through much worse and your faith has been tested in far more serious ways, but on this birthday-eve I’m reflecting on my particular and peculiar life. My Mother was 40 and my Daddy was 41 when I was born. Mother wasn’t even sure she was pregnant, and didn’t go to the doctor until a month before my arrival. As a teenager who stressed out my older parents, I unfortunately overheard them upon occasion discussing my very existence. Several times I heard Daddy say to my Mother, “You didn’t want him,” and my mother replied, “If I didn’t want him, I wouldn’t have had him.” On one hand hearing this affirmed that I was a deliberate choice, but on the other hand the very discussion of my being born did not add to my sense of worth. Gosh, to keep my two much older brothers from doing me physical harm, my parents allowed them the privilege of naming me. Carlee wisely gave me the name “William,” after my Mother’s father. Ralph, on the other hand, gave me the name “Timothy,” after the name of the bear in the Dick and Jane books. I guess it could have been worse with something like “Puff” or “Spot.”

Now hear me out, I knew that was loved and appreciated, but I also often felt like a literal afterthought. One of the first serious books that ever helped me name this inner struggle between worth and worthlessness was Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. As a fifth-grader it came at a pivotal time in my life. Compounding existing issues concerning my self-worth was the fact that in the third grade I had encephalitis, an extremely dangerous illness. Statisticians say that 50% of its sufferers die and 80% have permanent brain damage. Whether the latter is true or not about me is up to you, but it did put me behind in school. Unfortunately I was also one of the youngest in my class with a birthday less than a week from the next grade’s cut-off. My current hearing loss is also a direct result of this awful illness.

As a youth, to compound things, either due to encephalitis or not, I also had a difficult time saying a “th” sound and earned the ignominious nickname of “Fim” in place of “Tim” because of it. I do know that much of my memory before the age of eight is simply blocked out due to the high fever that I had. If it weren’t for my dear Aunt Florence tutoring me in the fifth grade I would never have caught up in school. She also re-taught me how to tell time and tie my shoes, abilities evidently erased by my illness. There were plenty of deficiencies I ingeniously compensated for until her tutoring. However, before you begin to think that I wasn’t all that bright to begin with, some of you might need to be reminded of my Magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa credentials. Sometimes we overdo in life to prove to others why we should have been born or continue to exist.

But, it was The Red Badge of Courage that first helped me turn the corner inside my own head about my unique personhood. The book’s hero, Henry Fleming, was an anti-hero of sorts, a boy too young to have to face war and maiming. Henry Fleming was real. I could identify with him. He went through the stages of being scared, a deserting coward, cocksure in false bravado, gutsy under fire, and, in the end, he became a wise veteran who knew that the golden sunlight of peace was a better goal than a red badge of combat. He had earned his stripes, in a very real sense. As for me, I still run the gamut of all these stages. At least Henry Fleming remains a model of someone who survived tenuous times of doubt and fear and made it, despite all of his emotional and physical scars.

The biggest redemptive moment in my life occurred when I fully gave my life to Christ as a sophomore in high school. At that precipitous hinge-point of adolescence, between defining moments of either being cool or vilified, I heard and felt the Gospel. I recognized for the first time that God had always been with me, and had set me apart for joyful obedience. Beyond my feeble attempts to articulate it, I experienced a real relationship with Jesus that has sustained me ever since.

So here I am on my birthday-eve, thankful for the faithfulness of God through thick and thin, lean and abundant years, and all the vicissitudes of life. I can wake up in praise more than fear because God is God and that hope inspires another day of service from this inadequate, but more-than-conquering servant. Like Henry Fleming in The Red Badge of Courage, I will head back onto the field of warring emotions and hope that it is valor more than duty that calls me, and the Gospel of Christ’s grace more than a desperate endeavor to justify my own existence that inspires me. I will, through Christ, wear the red badge of courage.

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!

Lent: A Longer Look

We have heard it said that confession is good for the soul. Maybe so, but what if your declaration of guilt causes things to go from bad to worse? Picture yourself on a beach where there are hundreds of people and you happen to notice that some of the people are quite attractive. Would it be productive to go confess to someone that you’ve been ogling them? I dare say it would probably get you into more trouble. Lenten season is a time for confession that leads to new life, not worse life. Lenten sacrifice is to keep us out of trouble and not cause more. Of course, there are those times when we MUST confess our sins however painful that may be. To tell or not to tell takes a lot of discernment.

That’s one of the reasons why we call the 40 days before Easter (not counting Sundays) Lent. The word Lent comes from lencten, an Old English word from which we derive the word lengthen. Lent’s purpose is to cause us to take a long look at ourselves, our motivations and our actions. Lenten season comes when the days begin to lengthen. So should our spiritual introspection. How serious do we take sin? To confess or not? I daresay that I remember a joke about telling it all and someone replying, “I don’t believe I would have told that!” How much should we own up to people? What do we just tell God? I’m afraid there’s no one right answer. It depends, doesn’t it?  But this is what Lent is for: It makes me seriously ponder the meaning and effects of sin.

One of the Holy Spirit’s tasks is to convict us of sin. Scripture also says that the only “unpardonable sin” is the sin against the Holy Spirit, whatever that means. The “unpardonable sin,” being largely undefined, actually keeps me more honest. Someone once told me if I ever worried about whether I had commited it then I most assuredly hadn’t. Those who have commited it are so cold to the Holy Spirit they don’t even notice. If your conscience still bothers you then there’s hope! A wise American Indian elder put it this way: “The Holy Spirit is like a pointy diamond-shaped object in a Christian’s heart. Whenever he or she does something wrong, the diamond turns and it hurts. If we keep doing things wrong over and over again the diamond wears down our insides and after awhile it doesn’t hurt anymore. That’s when we have committed the ‘unpardonable sin.'” An interesting thought whether true or not. No matter what, I know that we better take sin seriously. Spiritual half-measures will not produce good fruit.

Lent needs to be an all-in endeavor for it to make a real difference. Maybe you’ve heard of the conversation between a father and his 10-year-old son. It illustrates the problem of Lenten half-measures. The father was attempting to explain to his young son the necessity of giving something up for Lent. In fact, the father told the boy exactly what he should give up: candy. The boy questioned his Dad’s strictness and wondered what good it would do. To which the father replied, “It will improve your character. You’ll be a better person on Easter Sunday if you give up candy during Lent. After all, your mother and I have given up liquor for Lent.” The boy then said, “That’s funny Dad. I saw you and Mom having a drink before dinner last night.” The father replied, “That was wine, son. What we gave up was hard liquor.” The boy countered, “Oh, that’s good, then all I need to give up for Lent is hard candy.”

Half measured spirituality isn’t adequate any time of year and especially so during Lent. This season’s discipline is a clarion call to get past being half-Christian or “Almost Christian,” in John Wesley’s vernacular. There are things we need to give up, and some things we need to take up, especially the cross. A worthy observance of Lent means a a real change of life, the ending of one kind of life and the start of a Holy Spirit empowerd new one. What I mean can be summed up in the story of the man who thanked the preacher profusely after a worship service, “Reverend, Reverend, what you said today in your sermon was exactly what I needed to hear. Thank you very, very much. It was so helpful. It revolutionized my life. Thank you, thank you!” The pastor was quite pleased that his words had helped so much, but he didn’t think the sermon was that great. He asked the man, “What exactly was it that helped so much?”

Without any hesitation the man answered, “Well, you began your sermon by saying that you wanted to talk to us about two things this morning, and then in the middle you said, ‘That completes the first part of what I wanted to tell you and now it’s time I moved on to the second part of my sermon.’ It was at that exact moment that I realized I had come to the end of the first part of my life, and it was high time that I got on to the second part. Thank you, Reverend,” he said as he left the church, “Thank you, very much.”

Hopefully this Lent will be a time for us to say, “Thanks be to God! Thanks for helping me let go of the past and start fresh.  Thanks for helping me stop unproductive destructive behaviors and thanks for helping me start a new life of forgiveness and possibility! Thanks for your Holy Spirit’s work in my life.” I pray this Lent will be the real deal for all of us this year!

John Wesley, United Methodists, and Me on Love


Valentine’s Day may be almost a week past but love’s importance is forever. I have been reading a lot in preparation for my weekly lectures at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary. I’m in my 4th week of teaching “UMC History.” It has been a great refresher and good experience. This week I have been especially taken with all the dalliances that John Wesley had with women. This was a guy who said as a young man he probably wouldn’t marry because he wouldn’t be able to find someone like his mother. Ah, “Mother” issues. Well, we all know the story of Sophy Hopkey in Georgia and how that got Wesley in trouble with a grand jury and on a boat back to England.
Interesting, too, how all of the people in his society/class meeting in Georgia were female teenagers at least 10-15 years his junior – sounds like a “safe sanctuary” problem to me. Then shortly after Charles gets married in the early 1740’s, Wesley is nursed back to health after an illness by Grace Murray, a serving girl 15 years his younger. Brother Charles is so upset at the differences in stations in life that he hijacks the woman and marries off to one of Wesley’s preachers. By all accounts she would have been a great partner in both family and faith! Wesley was very close to lots of women in the Wesleyan Revival. Some of his contemporaries even suggested that this was because women had the spiritual disposition to grasp his “practical divinity” and “holiness of heart and life” better than men. This assessment must have been pretty true. Wesley wrote pseudo-love letters about God to lots of women, many, no doubt, who became enamored with God and/or Wesley.
But then, 15 months after the famous Grace Murray incident, Wesley fell on some ice on London Bridge and was nursed back to health in the home of a wealthy widow, Mary “Molly” Vazeille. In two week’s time, in 1751 at age 48, John Wesley is married and Charles is too late to stop it. Like Grace Murray, Charles thinks this marriage will derail the revival. It almost does. There seemed to be maybe 6 good years of marriage then the toll of Wesley’s travels and the issue of female soul-mates and the letters to prove it became the undoing of their marriage. They separate off-and-on for the rest of their marriage. They exchanged heated words, letters, and plenty of triangulation with other people about “She said-he said” evidence surrounding John’s relationships with women leaders in the revival. Molly Wesley, some would say, actually helped the revival and kept Wesley on the preaching circuit so he wouldn’t have to go home. When he was away she compulsively tore into his desk looking for evidence in his letters or journals of his moral failings. Nevertheless, he finally told her he would come home if she would, “Suspect me no more; asperse me no more; provoke me no more. Do not any longer contend for mastery, for power, money, or praise…” After 30 years of fitful marriage she dies October 8, 1781. Wesley was away from London, returning the day of her burial, but was not informed of it until 2 days later. Wow, and how sad.
Some of Mary Wesley’s actions remind me of a speaker at a woman’s club who was lecturing on marriage and asked the audience how many of them wanted to “mother” their husbands. One member in the back row raised her hand. “You mean you really want to mother your husband?” the speaker asked. “Mother?” the woman said. “I thought you said ‘smother.’”
In a true marriage smothering doesn’t take place, by either person. There is a free mutuality of purpose and a partnership of respect. Unfortunately John Wesley never experienced married bliss. I’m not saying it was Molly’s fault. Wesley had plenty of issues and would have been a therapist’s nightmare concerning intimacy and love. On loving God and others he was great! Unfortunately, like many of us in the church today, we can love everybody and not be intimate with anybody. We can more easily bless people from a distance by a donation or a check than by our close involvement, especially if they’re different from us. We’re good on paper like Wesley, and, like him, we’re good with friends and strangers. It’s the people we live with that know the truth about us. They have seen the pretense disintegrate and fall to the floor. A man asked his children one day why people thought he was a Christian. Their hasty response was, “Maybe because they don’t know you!” I pray that people will know us and our true personal love. I hope that we United Methodists will love people, really love people – not by giving a donation but by giving ourselves.

John Wesley Dropped His Assumptions, Can’t We?


Assumptions are dangerous. Just when I have thought I knew what to expect out of something or someone, surprise, assuming has made an idiot out of me. When there’s the quiet guy in class who you assume is just biding his time, then, wham, he writes the most insightful paper imaginable; egg on my face. Oh, it’s not the first time that assuming has gotten me into trouble. Gosh, assuming is so darn Calvinistic, predetermining a predictable outcome. If I’m a true Wesleyan, and I certainly try to be, then I should have a flexibility, and openness to what God might do – no pigeonholing allowed.

Predictability doesn’t suit God and shouldn’t suit us if we’re believers in change and redemption. Hey, the USC Gamecocks did win the National Championship in baseball! So, there goes the old chicken-curse assumption. Who knows, the football team may win 9 games this year. In 116 years of football they have only won 8 or more 3 times in the school’s entire history. So if I follow the assumption route then there’s no way it will happen, but what if I follow the route of faith?

Isn’t faith about having an open mind? With faith it doesn’t matter if the doctor is Hindu or Muslim. If the medicine is good, it had to come from the God who provides every good and perfect gift. Can I have an open mind about someone even if they are huge, anorexic, uncomely, smart-*****, slow, manic, slothful, wrinkle-shirted, starched, black, white, mixed, whatever? I sure hope I can keep an open mind. If I can then maybe, just maybe, I can see past the assumptions to the possibilities.

Don’t you like the United Methodist “ReThink Church” T-shirts. They’re cool, and we really do need to rethink church if we’re going to be relevant to today’s society. The United Methodist Call to Action group just posted at http://www.umc.org/calltoaction their research findings that we have a crisis of relevancy. That’s not how we got started. When John Wesley began the Methodist Movement it was because the Anglican Church had retreated behind parish boundaries and made unfair assumptions about the real needs of real people, especially the marginalized. Wesley dropped his assumptions about preaching out in the fields, assumptions about the poor, assumptions about lay preaching, assumptions about ordination and apostolic succession, and the list could go on and on. By dropping his assumptions the Spirit moved.

Go to

http://www.umc.org/site/c.lwL4KnN1LtH/b.6125881/k.83A1/Comments_on_the_Operational_Assessment_of_The_Connectional_Church.htm and make a comment on the findings of the Call to Action Committee. Of course, you’ve got to read it first. Anyway, let’s quit assuming that somebody else will speak for our perspective and do it ourselves. There’s a world of hurt all around us. I think that if we quit making assumptions and open ourselves to truly rethink church then the USC Gamecocks just might make it to the SEC title game and the UMC will start making disciples for Jesus Christ. John Wesley dropped his assumptions, can’t we?

Form Follows Function – Worldwide Study Committee

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