Press Conferences, Presidents, and a Search for Truth

When do we reopen the church? Is it safe to eat in a restaurant? Can people go visit family members that are in care facilities or hospitals? Is COVID-19 mutating? Will warm weather, UV light, or a pool’s chlorine kill it? How much alcohol content in a cleaner kills it? Can I go on vacation at some point, and will it be safe to sleep on a rented beach house bed? When can I safely go back to the gym? Should states reopen? Do we shut down our meat processing plants because they are the American version of a Wuhan wet market? Is it safe to buy “Made in China,” or is it time to bring all our manufacturing back home? What mitigations should we put in place so we can open Sunday Schools? Is it safe to reopen the church, and how many people can attend?

Ask any of these questions, others like them, and there will be more than one answer. There are webinars, seminars, advertisements and pronouncements on all of these questions. I get promotions and pronouncements everyday about which products the church needs to buy in order to open up. I’m thankful for the information, but, unfortunately there’s not a lot of clarity. Scientists are all over the map because there is still so much unknown about COVID-19. Politicians have seemingly politicized the situation, so much so as to make me doubt their veracity. The news media certainly has used this as a tool to bloody the President, and he is poking China in the face over the whole situation. A former President is throwing gas on the blame-game fire while the current administration defends itself.

I am so tired of watching the charade of what is supposed to be a “news briefing” at the White House when the President, whether one likes him or not, is baited and treated with out-of-bounds berating and disrespect by so-called reporters. It is appalling. It will be a long day in you-know-where before any clergy have an open-mic talk back session after a sermon. Somebody just give me the news. Give me the unadulterated truth! I long for Walter Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley, Harry Reasoner, somebody, anybody that is unbiased without an agenda. At least a short time ago it seemed as if everyone’s agendas were hidden. Now the agendas are so blatantly apparent that it feels like there is no truth. No wonder Russia’s state newspaper is named “Pravda,” or “Truth.” Yeah, right?

Pontius Pilate asked Jesus at his trial, “What is truth?” It’s really the same question, the penultimate question, behind the plethora of all our questions. We want the unvarnished truth. We want some certainty in the midst of our anxiety-ridden world. Unfortunately, we have entered the days predicted in 2 Timothy 4:3-4, “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine (TRUTH). Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the TRUTH and turn aside to myths.” Oh, how this so accurately describes our day and age. We want to make wise choices, and we can’t trust the information because we don’t trust the sources.

This isn’t just about our problem with COVID-19 information. It’s the story of our whole post-modern narcissistic world. We wrongly assert that what we think is the sole determinant of truth. We demythologize the Bible into what we want it to say as if we, the readers, are more important than the God who brought forth the Truth in the first place. We have fallen into the same abyss as one popular Christian author, one who wrote a book, Seeing Gray in a Black and White World. He is so wrong. I don’t trust my eyes to see that well, so I would rather let the Biblical text and its Author do the talking. Maybe then we will see black and white in a gray world.

Where do you think all this confusion about truth is coming from? Why do you think we are so at odds over what the truth really is? Jesus (John 14:6) said He is the way, TRUTH, and life, so He’s certainly not the author of confusion, but guess who is: Evil. Jesus, speaking in John 8:43-44, nails our current reality on the head, “Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil … for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”

So I pray, “Please, Lord, open our ears to the truth, and expose the lies and liar for what they are. Wipe away all the confusion, and give us clarity, especially to our scientists, those who govern us, and to all spiritual leaders. We need your truth. Speak, for your servants are listening; in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

“Tuesday Afternoon” by The Moody Blues

I’m fairly convinced that the type of popular music that we like is linked to when we were juniors and seniors in high school. My personal favorites include Peter, Paul, and Mary, The Birds, Three Dog Night, The Rolling Stones, James Taylor, The Who, The Beatles, and, especially, The Moody Blues, who I repeatedly listened to as I read and reread The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Whenever I think of Middle Earth I can’t help but think of the mystical sounds of the Moody Blues. “Tuesday Afternoon” even has the sounds of the longriders’ horses galloping along.

Here I am past the tipping point of middle-age, and life’s bookends are staring me square in the face. This is an in-between time. On the other hand, rethinking childhood and adolescence is an idyllic mixture of triumphs and wounds, from first love to broken bones, winning seasons to a Charlie Brownish dropping of the ball. On the other hand, I anticipate the future and new adventures. One week from tomorrow the South Carolina Gamecocks start a new football season. I long for a future where Narcie is done with chemo and all is well with family and friends! It’s hard at whatever the age to keep one’s mind off the “befores and afters” of life.

But God is eternal and knows no time though time-bound for a short period through Jesus’ incarnation. For God, age is ageless. For God, time is always kairos not chronos. “Kairos” is one ancient Greek word for time. It defines time by the content of the moment. “Chronos” defines time in the manner that I am most accustomed. By its definition time is spatial, chronological, and linear. Chronological time views things as “fifteen minutes UNTIL something,” or “thirty minutes AFTER something.” Conversely, kairos time is more digital than spatial. It is defined by the God-moment, the experience rather than by what comes before or after.

In this regard our watches and clocks which display time in a spatial way, with spaces between seconds, minutes, and hours, are antithetical to a celebration of the “now.” Digital clocks and watches flash the exact hour and minute begging us to think in the present and live in the now without pressing us to think about before and after. I’m almost to the point of only using the time on my smartphone because it is always accurate for the present moment whenever that is. God help us to live in the now!

The past may have been great, and I am looking forward to better days ahead, but to live faithfully in this world is to do it as God does – giving my complete attention to whomever and whatever is before me right now. Martyred missionary Jim Elliott said it best, “Wherever you are, be all there!” So wise and true! Therefore, if our favorite music is defined by the content of certain life stages, may we dare give another listen to the sounds about us today? It might not be just classical, swing band, country, rock and roll, pop, the blues, or ballads or my favorite XM station “The Blend” that we need to listen to today. There just might be enough God-presence in the sounds of a loved one’s sigh, the arthritic creaking of our own joints belying the hopeful maturity of the years, the halting words of a recovering loved one or friend, or the sweet-baby noises unintelligible yet profoundly clear in their message of love upon which we need to focus today.

So, my hope today is to hoist my antennae and soak up where I am, with whom I am, and especially ponder the whispers and shouts of the Living God. Jesus, I want to listen to your music today so focus I will, for time is of the essence! Today I will choose to think digital and live digital in God’s Time. I am listening, Lord!

Transfiguration through Listening

Those of you who know me well are aware that Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina is one of my “thin places” where I can more easily get close to God. It’s a Canadian climate zone with plenty of balsam and Douglas firs. Their smell and the whipping wind and the swirling clouds close the distance between this world and the next. I have a -40 degree sleeping bag and a 4-season tent to get me through the weather’s bluster. The harsh elements overcome any noise that I’ve brought with me up to the mountain. Everybody needs a place to drown out the cacophony of negative voices.

In my mind as we prepare for General Conference 2012 this is a time for intense listening. We call it Holy Conferencing but it’s so hard to do. Although listening to each other is critical, it has dawned on me that it’s much more important to listen to God. With the Call to Action legislation this is even more neccesary. There are voices on various sides garnering attention. I have been one of those voices. I am willing to lay down my preconceived notions, stop talking, and listen to God. I’m also ready and willing to listen to what others are saying. We are Peter, James, and John (Wish there had been some women there!) as a denomination. We’re going to build a new structure/tabernacle for Jesus. Yes, we need this to happen, but we better listen to God first. We cannot solve a spiritual problem with a structural solution or it will flop like so many others have done before. We have to have a transfiguration as a church.

This Sunday is when we commemorate Jesus’ transfiguration. Jesus was on the mountaintop with Peter, James, and John. His clothes turned brilliantly white and his face glowed. Moses and Elijah appeared to him. Peter wanted to build three shelters, one for each of the dignitaries. Then they all heard God’s voice boom from heaven: “This is my beloved son. Listen to him!” This whole event was quite the mystery, therefore, it is appropriate that this Sunday caps the season of Epiphany that is filled with the mysterious and miraculous. It’s all down hill from here. Next week Jesus is plunged into the march toward the darkness of Passion Week.

What’s the message of the Transfiguration? Theologians and preachers have dissected the event in an attempt to make sense of it. Perhaps its greatest message is that sometimes, especially in the midst of the holy, we honor God best by saying nothing at all. By talking too much we detract from the event that we are trying so desperately to explain.

The radio station KGO in San Francisco conducted a call-in poll. The host invited listeners to express their opinion. Thirty-five percent said yes, thirty-three percent said no, and thirty-two percent were undecided. One listener, upset at the large number of undecideds, protested by saying, “It’s this sort of apathy that’s ruining America.” The only problem with all of these responses was that the radio station never posed any question. Therefore, it’s not apathy that’s getting most of us into trouble – it’s shooting our mouths off about things that we know nothing about.

Jesus’ disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration said some things out-of-turn and were rebuffed by the voice of God. There’s a time to just be quiet and surrender to the mysterious. The disciples got a glimpse of reality on the mountaintop – Jesus in his glory. Say what we will about the event the message is to hang in there. What we see and hear sometimes isn’t reality. The transfigured Jesus is! So when we feel overwhelmed, under the gun, faint of heart, the message is “Be aware, look beyond the surface stuff, be quiet and experience Christ!”

Smugly saying that we can explain something as mysterious as the Transfiguration weakens its impact. We end up sounding like snake-oil salespersons with slick grins on our faces acting chummy with God. If we over-confidently state how cozy we are with God then we may just be wrong. Our attempts to explain God’s mysteries end up sounding about as truthful as a fish story.

Two zealous and cocky fishermen met on their vacations and began swapping stories about the different places they had fished, the kind of tackle they had used, the best bait, and finally about some of the fish that they had caught. One of the guys told of a vicious battle he once had with a 300-pound catfish. The other man listened attentively. He frankly admitted he had never caught anything quite that big. He said he didn’t even know catfish could get that big. However, he went on to tell about the time his hook snagged a lantern on the bottom of a lake. When he pulled it up the lantern carried a tag proving it was lost back in 1932. The strangest thing of all was the fact that it was a waterproof lantern and the light was still lit. For a long time the first man said nothing. Then he took one long deep breath and said, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll take 200-pounds off my fish, if you’ll put out the light in your lantern.”

To tell the truth, I can’t explain the Transfiguration, so I’m going to keep quiet. Maybe then I’ll be able to see past the clouds that we call reality and see Jesus for who He really is! His voice is the one calling out to me today, and I’m going to listen! I hope our church does the same as we prepare for General Conference.

General Conference 2012 Rhetoric and Listening

General Conference 2012 has already produced a ton of verbiage. I have already received letters and phone calls eliciting my support for various issues. General Boards and Agencies of the UMC have started sending out their proposed legislation. I have been personally involved in writing legislation for the Connectional Table and the Worldwide UMC Study Committee, not all of which I agree with. However, I would rather listen to the divergent voices and write good legislation and pray that the GC 2012 Legislative Committees and Plenary Sessions can have clear choices rather than hard-to-hug jello with which to grapple. I want radical change in our denomination and especially want our bishops to express leadership in their annual conferences and local churches because that’s where disciple-making truly happens, but there I go in my verbal haranguing.

Words have to be replaced with listening – sooner rather than later in our position jockeying. In the midst of all the helpful and not so helpful propaganda that will be shot across the bows of our desks and computers, we have to listen to each other and lay aside fruitless personal agendas or theological quagmires that are too often unanswerable. Now, to be sure, I believe some issues are not only answerable using the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, but the answers are essential. They are doctrine! Doctrine doesn’t change. Theology, on the other hand, should always be changing. Doctrine expresses God’s perspective on a subject. Theology is a never-ending contextualization of doctrine revealing God’s mind to a contemporary world. In the midst of conflicting values between the authority of Scripture and love for all people, I admit I would rather side with God than with human reason or experience, admitting that Scripture is both informed by and informs our use of Tradition, Reason, and Experience. I think God’s preference is clear: Love everybody AND be obedient! That takes keen listening!

Herein lies part of the problem. I’m spouting off from my own perspective, and someone else speaks from their context and so the saga goes on ad infinitum. Polarization occurs when all that is going on is talk, talk, talk and no one is listening either to God or each other. The Lord knows we are a people who talk too much. Cell phones, smartphones, texting, and high speed internet are almost universal. Listening isn’t. On my summer’s mission trip to Nicaragua I saw a huge uptick in the use of cell phones even in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere!

In the face of our changing communications reality, I like what Norman Brown said, “The meaning is not in the words, but between the words, in the silence.” How can we watch what we say and keep it to a minimum? The Proverbs speak of letting God put a guard over our mouths. That would help, but how do we do it? Certainly, we can ask God to help us listen attentively to others and not rush into thinking about our reply. We can become reflective listeners clarifying to people what we think they just said and see if we were correct in our assessment. We can pray before we talk.

Mo Udall had a prayer that he prayed before he spoke, “Lord, grant me the wisdom to utter gracious and generous remarks today, for tomorrow I may have to eat them.” Another version that I’ve heard said something to the effect, “Lord, help me keep my words soft and sweet because I never know from day to day which ones I’ll have to eat.” The essence of prayer is to invoke God’s help. We really do need God to help us in our speaking and listening!

In a land where free speech is guarded to the detriment of real communication, I like what Teddy Roosevelt did in 1895 to put a muzzle over an extremist’s words. An anti-Semitic German preacher named Ahlwardt came to New York City to advocate a crusade against Jews. The city’s Jewish leaders went to the police commissioner, Teddy Roosevelt, and demanded that Ahlwardt not be allowed to speak. Roosevelt insisted correctly that the German was entitled to his freedom of speech regardless of his views and even deserved police protection. So Roosevelt personally appointed the man’s security guards: 40 policemen, all of them Jewish! How about that for helping someone watch what they say?

The best way for me to watch what I say is to attempt to emulate Jesus. Everybody wants to be like Jesus, right? Jesus always had the right words for the right time. A mail carrier was talking to a small boy about his little sister, “Can she talk yet?” “No,” the little boy replied. “She has her teeth, but her words haven’t come in yet.” A lot of us have teeth in our conversation, but are the right words there? Is Jesus in our speech?

If you think your answer is, “Yes!” to that question, here’s a challenge: See if you can go 24 hours without a slam at someone, and monitor your conversation for 2 days. Jot down whenever you say something negative about someone who isn’t present. Also note when others say something negative and what your reactions are. Do you go along with them or stop them? It’s time to revive one of my mother’s favorite sayings, “If you can’t say something good about someone, don’t say anything at all.” Then we will be on the right track to holy conversation, holy conferencing, and on our way to a civil and productive God-pleasing General Conference 2012.

The Voice of Truth

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Well, yesterday I got hearing aids. I’ve had a hearing problem for much of my life due to encephalitis as a child. For years I have compensated well because one ear did well with high tones and the other with low ones. But, alas, age creeps up and after going to three specialists, here I am with both ears amplified, and the world is very different.

This morning I went for my usual one hour prayer walk and heard things I’ve never heard, like the interstate traffic, Ft. Jackson’s bugle, and the birds. I thought I was in Hitchcock’s movie, “The Birds.” Above the cacophony were crows with their distinctive “caw, caw!” It was overwhelming. I’m learning when to take them out, like when I go walking, even though I heard a car coming well ahead of the danger of being run over. You know they say it’s not the first car that gets you; it’s the second one that you didn’t hear. I’ll risk it.

Trying to position a phone at the right angle and distance next to my ear is weird, to say the least. So I’ll use my better ear and take the hearing aid out of that ear. Now I can hear everything my secretary says, the toilet flushing is like Niagara Falls, and all of a sudden I can hear the refrigerator, the squirrel scurrying over the roof, and water pipes creaking and moaning. It’s a new world and I didn’t know how much I was missing!

My fear is whether or not too much hearing ability will cause me to miss God’s “still, small voice.” As we are about to go into our intensive week of clergy appointment-making, it will be wonderful to catch all the names and nuances without wearing myself out reading lips and faces ad infinitum but, who knows, maybe it’s being a blessing not to hear some things so I can tune into God alone. Having the world I’ve been missing come in loud and clear may actually prove to be distracting.

Don’t get me wrong. I am thrilled to hear again, but my brain has to relearn what the world sounds like. That’s exciting, but I don’t want to forget the voice that hasn’t changed and never will!