Guilty Until Proven Innocent

I work out at the Y early in the mornings. The elliptical machine is my friend. Treadmills kill my knees and hips. An episode of “Matlock” lasts an hour, so that’s how long I do the elliptical. I plug in my ear buds and watch and perspire. Ben Matlock, played by the now-deceased actor, Andy Griffith, believes in the American justice system’s premise that a person is “innocent until proven guilty,” but he always asks if the person did the crime before he takes a case. He never takes the case of someone that he suspects is guilty, but Jesus does it all the time!

Jesus knows we’re all guilty and loves us anyway. The historic Christian faith is very similar to Napoleonic law. It labels accused criminals as “guilty until proven innocent.” As harsh as that sounds to Americanized ears, it’s so true from a Christian perspective. We’re all guilty, and the only way to be proven innocent is through God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

My Dad taught me my first theology lesson about guilt and innocence, and it was about original sin. As a teenager when I thought I was doing some “new” sin that was historic in the annals of our family, my Dad said to me: “You surely don’t think that you’re the first one in this family to try that. Your brothers tried it. Your uncles did. I did. So did your grandfathers. There ain’t nothing original about Original Sin.” He was so right in many ways!

Sure, Jesus’ work of redemption erases just enough of Original Sin so that we can respond to God’s prevenient grace, but it’s still God’s action and not some inherent goodness in humankind. We may be made in God’s image, but the only place Wesley and Calvin agreed is that all humanity is totally depraved. We are lost. We cannot save ourselves! If we gloss over or pretend away the effects of that total depravity then we have reduced grace to a self-help farce. The only cure for the ills of this world, stretching from Charlottesville to my den, is Jesus Christ. Without Jesus, I am hell bent and hell bound. Those are strong words, but anything less is humanistic claptrap.

For example, I dearly love my grandchildren. I love stories about how innocent all children are. One, in particular, comes to mind as I mull all this “innocent until proven guilty” or “guilty until proven innocent” stuff over. In the story a guy asks a 7 year old girl, “What is life all about?” She replies, “The purpose of life is to be kind and loving, to be here for other people, to make the world a better place than before you came.” The impressed guy then asks, “Did you learn all this from your parents?” The little girl replies, “No.” They guy asks, “In school?” “No.” “At church, then?” “Uh, no.” “Well, where then did you learn such things?” asks the guy. The little girl thinks and finally says, “I just knew them before I came here.”

Ah, yes, before we came here. I know that the longer any of us live the more we’re affected by the corrupt world. However, in all honesty, the world doesn’t do the corrupting. Adam and Eve and all their children, including little children and big ones, do the corrupting. I don’t know how Original Sin is transmitted. I’ve studied the arguments and listened to angles that suggest some sort of biological answer, or a theoretical legal argument that since Adam was our representative, we, too, are corrupted. Frankly, it matters little to me how we got to where we are, but I know that every human from both a Biblical perspective and personal experience is in need of a Savior. We cannot save ourselves. From our earliest cries we are self-centered and the Image of God in us is marred beyond any self-made solution to our ills.

Therefore, I deplore any kind of supremacist attitude. Pre-judging is an anathema to me, but one thing is certain: we have all been weighed on God’s balance scales and found wanting. God in Jesus has pre-loved us though. “Even while we were yet sinners,” says Romans 5:8, “Christ died for us.” The foot of the cross is level because none of us is better than anyone else, as much as I think some people will go to hell a lot more quickly than others. But, I’m not God. God knows that we all have messed up, came into the world that way, and in Wesley’s words have both “inherited sin” and “actual sin.” The Good News, however, is that God loves us enough to offer us redemption. Unlike Original Sin, redemption is not inherent in each person, but it’s possible. It takes a choice. Do we choose to look down our noses at others? Sure. Do we choose to race-bait and kill? Yes. So, how can we be redeemed? Choose Jesus! He has already chosen us!

Jesus provides grace, but one has to accept it. There’s a story that makes sense to me in this process of redemption: There was a young monk who sat outside a monastery every day with his hands folded in prayer. He looked pious as he chanted his prayers day after day thinking that he was somehow acquiring grace. One day the head priest of the monastery sat down next to the young monk and started rubbing a piece of brick against a stone. Day after day he rubbed one against the other. This went on week after week until the young monk finally blurted out, “Father, what are you doing?” The older priest said, “I’m trying to make a mirror.” “But that’s impossible!” said the young monk. “You can’t make a mirror from brick.” “True,” replied the mature priest. “And it is just as impossible for you to acquire grace by doing nothing except sitting here chanting all day.”

We can’t earn grace, but we can accept it. I wish I could get that through my thick head. There is no room for racism, prejudice, or any sense of supremacy. Only Christ is supreme. My prayer is that we will all invite Him to sit on the throne of our hearts.

Matlock Picture

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A Trace of Grace

Someone has said it well, “A trace of grace works better than a pile of guilt.” My conclusion is that this is surely one of those things easier said than done. I know better thanks to a mother who was patient and eager to forgive. My father was like most dads I guess. His love was very conditional: if you made good grades, had the right friends, performed your tasks, and behaved like you should then you were okay with him.

When I thought as a teenager that I was doing some new misadventure or sin that my two older brothers had never done Daddy would pull me aside and remind me that it had all been tried before. He spoke good theology to me: “Son, There isn’t anything original about original sin.” What I got from that was the affirmation that though I thought I was unique in my contrived plans, I really wasn’t. Either he or my brothers or somebody else had already done it, so he offered that I should save myself and everybody else the trouble and follow the straight and narrow path. When I tried it anyway, as we are all bound to do at some time or another, he came down pretty hard.

 Mother had expectations just as high, but her love was unconditional. She authentically and simply loved. One of my biggest tests of her love was one of my many adventures. I was between fourteen and fifteen and didn’t have a driver’s license. Mother and Daddy were gracious enough to go ahead and let me start practice driving and fix up her old car. I relished taking driving trips with Mother down back roads. I took great pride in “souping” up her old car. I did all that I knew to do or afford to make that 4-door 1967 Chevy into a hotrod. But I still didn’t have a driver’s license.

Nevertheless, one weekend “Red” Rainsford was spending the night over at our house. On a lark, when Mother was at work and Daddy was busy, too, “Red” and I sneaked out, got into my car and I started driving. Here’s when I should say that no one else should try this when they’re underage! We first drove the eighteen miles from Edgefield to Saluda. Then we kept going as our bravado increased and drove the next twenty-something miles to Newberry. It was at Newberry that we made a fateful turn.

We got on the interstate, a fairly new experience in those days, and, therefore, one we thought was worth trying. We headed north on I-26, passing exit signs for places we had never heard of until we got just inside of Spartanburg. My conscience was bothering me about what we were doing. I was concerned that my parents might be worried sick. So we stopped. I tried to call home, but nobody answered. In a last ditch effort to assuage my guilt I called my Aunt Florence. I asked her to call my Mother and tell her that “Red” and I were fine and would be back in a couple of days. I hung up too quick to get any sage advice.

We kept traveling up the interstate and it was getting dark. By this time we were somewhere between a plan to find out where the interstate ended or go to Chimney Rock State Park above Lake Lure, North Carolina. My middle brother and some friends took me there several years before so it was vaguely familiar as an okay destination. Then the highway made the decision for us about finding the end of I-26. You may not remember the days when the interstate ended just below Saluda Grade between Tryon and Rutherfordton, but it did.

 We took a right and I drove through Rutherfordton, no license and all, and then headed north on NC 64 if I remember correctly. We ended up in Chimney Rock some where around 2 a.m.We saw a roadside campground and we pulled in. In my false bravado I told “Red” that he could sleep in the back seat of the car. The console prohibited that for me so I stepped outside and tried to sleep on the ground. It was warm even for the mountains, but I still couldn’t sleep. You know what kept me awake: my conscience! I kept thinking about my poor Mother in particular, worrying. She didn’t deserve that, so after maybe an hour I got back in the car and we headed home, arriving somewhere around9 a.m.Mother just hugged me. She hadn’t told Daddy. He thought we were at the Rainsford’s. In her grace I learned a lot about unconditional love. When she finally told Daddy what I had done years later, he still got upset that I would dare do such a thing. I was even more grateful for Mother’s grace. Indeed the Scripture is correct: “Love covers a multitude of sins.”

The word for me today is that though I will certainly make mistakes whether as a District Superintendent, a husband, father, friend, and in the roles of life – God is ever more gracious and will hear my plaintive cries for mercy. I should forgive as God in Christ has forgiven me. Nobody is perfect so I’ll do my best to live Jesus’ love and let that guide my thoughts, actions, and reactions. I’m glad for a wise Daddy and even more grateful for a loving forgiving Mother. Thank you, Jesus! I hope that I’ll be more like Christ today.

Original Sin – I’ve Seen It!

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Ain’t nothing original about original sin! I don’t know if you’ve ever heard that one-liner, but I’ll bet you’ve witnessed it. Just when I think there’s nothing new under the sun, wham! With unsuspecting naivete I’m hit with something new, unexpected, unanticipated – a new tear in the fabric of civility, even among Christians. Good grief, we don’t handle it well either. After my momentary shock at this new appearance of original sin, I usually stumble through searching for some easy balm to try a quick patch on the opening wound.
And that usually NEVER works! Rabbi Edwin Freidman’s book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, says it all! Quick fixes don’t usually work because it has taken a lot longer than we think for the junk to float to the surface anyway. So maybe this is why we need Roberts’ Rules of Order and an unbiased, objective leader presiding in tense situations. Roberts’ Rules actually help defuse anxiety, except for those who don’t know anything more than yelling, “Point of Order!” Okay, I’m a parliamentarian, been elected one for nearly 2 decades now, so I’m prejudiced. I do like Roberts’ Rules, and I don’t care for everyone bashing them. Truth be told, I think they do help contentious bodies of people have a little breathing room so they can think through an issue rather than get into a shouting match. But, indeed, because so few people know the process, they sometimes just add to a sense that the know-it-all’s are controlling things so we the ignorant masses are purposefully left in the dark.
Ah, this is where leadership can help by reframing a person’s comments in an assembly into a suitable motion; i.e., the person’s suggestion that the previous motion to do something potentially divisive should be put off and decided by more people can be reframed by the presiding officer as “I seem to hear you saying that this should be postponed to a later date with a larger gathering. Therefore, it seems to me that you’re making a motion to postpone to a definite time when more people can be present at a duly called meeting. Is this your motion?” If it isn’t their motion, then you’re in deep trouble, but hopefully you’ve restated their intent well enough to give a little breathing room for the issue to defuse itself or give ideas to clearer heads to think in new ways.
What’s this got to do with everyday life when we’re not in a situation where you use Roberts’ Rules? For me, it’s about leadership and emotional process. Original sin’s perpetual lack of originality makes people react, blow up, and blast others. Blame-shifting has been going on since the Garden of Eden. In everyday life I have to remember that the issues at hand are not as much about facts as they are about personalities.
Therefore, information over-kill isn’t as important as understanding the emotional process we use in dealing with the so-called facts. In Roberts’ Rules fashion we need to track what emotional forces are at work, restate them, stand our ground in a responsive rather than reactive way, and try to air everything out in a neutral environment.
This is hard as heck to do when people are showing their fangs, and you are tempted to show yours,too. That doesn’t help anyone. Find a calm place within from which to speak. Don’t wimp out and say nothing. That just gives ammo to the lions and bears. Do what St. Paul said, “Speak the truth in love.” Leadership risks saying what people want to say but don’t feel like they can, and restates it in such a way that everybody walks away a winner. They don’t walk away “winner-take-all,” because that’s not reality. In our non-original sin-filled world, the best we can do is win-win-lose-lose; i.e. everybody gets something and loses something. Hey, I’ve been married 35 years and that’s as good as it gets from my experience. Going nuclear and winning is still losing.
Chill out, lead with calm authority, and give peace a chance.

Back in the Saddle & Fireworks – The Life of a DS

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The fireworks have started. Maybe not as spectacular as over Lake Manawa last week, but they’re real. I’m feeling back in the saddle as a District Superintendent today – juggling phone calls and drop-by visits from pastors and laity; getting ready to teach “United Methodism 101” at Laity Convocation this weekend; and preparing agendas as Cabinet Secretary for the Appointive Cabinet and Extended Cabinet. There have been back and forth emails and contacts with the conference lawyer. Oh, what fun. Mostly, yeah, being a DS is cool. You get to connect the local church with the general church and put a face and voice to people’s concerns. Things range from church building decisions, to “We can’t afford to pay our preacher!” and “Guess how many new members we had join last week!” Then there’s the in-between stuff.

You know, the in-between stuff; ambiguous, not sure if it’s good or bad, just stuff and somebody’s got to do it. Par. 423.13 has become all too familiar as I begin my 5th year as a DS. It basically says I have the responsibility to decide all questions about churches in the Columbia District, subject to an appeal to the Bishop. Whew! I’m thinking right now about Rev. James Alewine, the best DS I ever had. There were other great ones, too, but he was there when I was serving in my most difficult church. He was my therapist, confidante, friend, and encourager. He has been my role model ever since, but I ain’t even close, but I’m trying.

We all have to deal with well or ill-intentioned dragons and some are church members and some are clergy. We shouldn’t be surprised. There’s nothing original about Original Sin. So we trust the Lord and His grace as we deal with all kinds of people trying to live the Golden Rule and the adage from Kairos Prison Ministry: “Listen, Listen; Love, Love.” With my new hearing aids I have no excuse to really hearing others. The proof will be in the relationships. If you listen to people, even the dragons, then Jesus is on your side.