Militant or Meek?

Militant or meek? As Christians, we swing between the two poles of righteous indignation and passive appeasement. In these days of marches and shouting, what is our proper stance? Do we pick up our signs and yell for justice, do we yield to the Caesars of the world, or is there another way? Oh, how I respect those like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christian theologian and pastor, who felt like he must actively participate in an assassination plot on Hitler, and was executed for it. Talk about taking meaningful action. But then, on the other hand, who can forget the powerful witness of thousands of Christians who went to their deaths gladly and peacefully in the ancient arenas, and those who still do today in modern killing fields?

Martin Luther King Jr. in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” writes, “There was a time when the church was very powerful — in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days, the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society… If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning…” Martin Luther King, Jr. embraced non-violence and exhibited the more excellent way of 1 Corinthians 13: the power of love over the love of power.

Similarly, Mother Teresa suffered indignity when she first began her work among the dying on the streets of Calcutta, India.  She was obstructed at every turn by government officials and orthodox Hindus, who were suspicious of her motives and used their authority to harass her and to frustrate her efforts. She and her fellow sisters were insulted and threatened with physical violence. One day a shower of stones and bricks rained down on the women as they tried to bring the dying to their humble shelter. Eventually Mother Teresa dropped to her knees before the mob. “Kill me!’ she cried in Bengali, her arms outstretched in a gesture of crucifixion, “And I’ll be in heaven all the sooner.” The rabble withdrew but soon the harassment increased with even more irrational acts of violence and louder demands were made of officials to expel the foreign nun in the white sari, wearing a cross around her neck.

One morning, Mother Teresa noticed a gathering of people outside the nearby Kali Temple, one of the holy places for Hindus in Calcutta. As she drew closer, she saw a man stretched out on the street with turned-up eyes and a face drained of blood. A triple braid denoted that he was of the Brahmin caste, one of the temple priests. No one dared to touch him, for people recognized he was dying from cholera. Mother Teresa went to him, bent down, took the body of the Brahmin priest in her arms and carried him to her shelter. Day and night she nursed him, and eventually he recovered. Over and over again he would say to the people, “For 30 years I have worshipped a Kali of stone. But I have met in this gentle woman a real Kali, a Kali of flesh and blood.” Never again were stones thrown at Mother Teresa and the other sisters.

What an example! As much as I am natured to be militant, I am reminded that Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek…” Yes, we must work for justice and protect the innocent, the sojourner, but we must not adopt the ways of the world in doing so. I am struck by the militancy of so-called leaders who read Scripture in a Thomas Jefferson-like manner that selects Bible passages to suit their purpose. The same thing was done to justify the Crusades’ butchery or the South’s defense of slavery. I pray that we be very careful to emulate Jesus more than the savagery of Satan.

Many of the same people who are clamoring, “The Scripture always says to open your gates to the stranger and immigrant,” are those who also vehemently dismiss the long-held view that every time homosexuality is mentioned in the Old or New Testaments, it’s always condemned. In the latter case, they mark traditionalists as “cherry-pickers” or proof-texters, but when its use suits their fancy, they are quick to point us to between four and six Bible verses that supposedly instruct every Christian everywhere in exactly where they must stand on immigration policies. The result is that, at least this week, the book of Leviticus is suddenly in the American public’s favor again. This is also just one illustration of how hard the work of Christian ethics is when we try to claim we’re right and others are wrong. There are no easy answers. Though I prefer to be a militant protester who goes nuclear against injustice, I must consider the best practices from Christian history. The Church has been at its best when it has embraced peace and not terrorist tactics.

Sadly, I have seen religious terrorism in church. Every pastor I know has had to deal with “well-intentioned dragons” who undermine and attack clergy. Psalm 35 is written for you! What’s so great about it is that it asks God to deal with the naysayers, not us. There are people in the United Methodist Church that have wreaked havoc in every General Conference to which I’ve been elected. In six GC’s since 1996 I’ve been slapped, spit on, and threatened. I’ve seen meetings where hundreds of delegates from all over the world have gathered, at a cost of $100,000 per minute, shut down by a vocal party of a contrasting few who, for the most part, were not even United Methodists. The worst experience was in 2004 at Pittsburgh when a protest group smashed the Communion Chalice on the floor. These harsh tactics have not helped anyone’s cause.

If we are to make progress in justice and harmony in this world, it must be done by showing the strength of love and meekness. Inflaming others through the world’s tactics reminds me of Jesus’ words to Peter in Gethsemane: “Put your sword away, Peter. Those that live by the sword, shall die by it.” May we embrace peace and meekness, however illogical or painful it is. May we expose the deeds of darkness by rising above it through our good deeds, not with the torches of hateful rhetoric or foul actions. It is so counter cultural to live a life that “rolls over and takes it,” but I would rather be like Jesus than a religious terrorist. In our world of quid pro quo and “eye for an eye,” we must avoid revenge and worldly anger. We’re better than that! We follow the Prince of Peace.

Family Systems and the UMC

Family Systems Theory is fascinating, especially when I think of our United Methodist denominational situation. A couple brings in a 14 year old to see the counselor because the teenager is thought to be the family’s problem. The counselor knows that the teenager is the “identified patient,” and everyone in the whole system has issues. It’s just like a mobile over a baby’s crib when one piece is hanging lower than the others and out of sync. It’s not just a problem with one piece. The whole mobile is unbalanced.

The counselor defocuses attention from the identified patient and looks at the whole family system. In detective-like probing, the counselor determines who is the strongest person in the system and coaches, twins, or otherwise nudges that person to change. When that happens, the inter-locking triangles that have been targeting the teenager as the system’s “dumping ground” begin to fall, tension is defused, and the system resets.

In the UMC, we’re organized as a triangle with General Conference, The Council of Bishops, and the Judicial Council. A triangle might be the most stable structure on the planet á la the Pyramids, but triangulation can cause terrible problems in families and organizations. There’s usually an issue about which two corners of the triangle don’t agree, but they’re afraid of speaking directly to each.  They don’t want to risk total ruin of their relationship so they pull in a third corner and both other corners try to get that corner to pick their side of the argument. The third corner, either due to the way the organization/family/denomination is formed and/or due to well-meaning but harmful co-dependency, seeks to alleviate the stress exhibited by the other two corners and ends up being the relief valve and victim of the other two corners’ tension. They become the dumping ground, and pulled both ways.

In the UMC, we spread the stress around all three corners and swap off dumping grounds pretty fluidly. At first I thought the Judicial Council was absolutely wrong in deferring the decisions about Karen Oliveto, but now I think it is actually healthy. Family System theorists suggest that, in order for us to get out of being the dumping ground in a triangle, we need to do two things: defect in place which means to stay in relationship with the other two corners of the triangle, but not become too enmeshed or helpful; and have a non-anxious presence that self-differentiates without taking on the tension and dysfunction of the unbalanced system.

This sounds like what the Judicial Council is doing. The whole denomination has a choice to add fuel to the fire or let the process work. The Judicial Council has stated that they see the Oliveto case as hugely important. The Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops asked that they expedite their ruling and give less than the usual time for briefs, pro and con, to be filed. Now instead of dealing with it on their October docket, it will be addressed next May. Instead of criticizing, I think this is great leadership.

Rabbi Edwin Friedman who wrote the seminal work on Family Systems theory, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, also wrote a telling book about what we are witnessing both in the Judicial Council’s deferral and the creation of the Council of Bishop’s “A Way Forward Commission.” His book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, actually defends what some, including me, have called “kicking the can down the road.” According to Family Systems Theory, the Judicial Council and the COB have given us appropriate and helpful time to pause, reflect, have non-anxious presence, and defect in place. The question is, “Will we?”

The cycle of ecclesial attacks and reprisals need to end so that we can have a denominational reset. Our local churches and clergy, plus general agencies and bishops need calm so that the best clear thinking will prevail. Let’s let go of the tension and allow the Holy Spirit to lead us. There’s a better chance that we will end up where we need to be if we lay down our swords. This will not sit well with people in two corners of the triangle (Progressive or Conservative), but we all need to chill out, take a breath and quit being distracted away from our primary mission to make disciples.

I’m not saying that we should be false prophets who proclaim peace when there is none, but let’s preach Jesus Christ as Lord while this is all sorted out. I’m sure there will be people, including me, who will still discuss, attend events, strategize, and ponder next steps, but we need to let the tension in the system escape, not by scape-goating, but by valuing one another for the common good. What difference does it make if I’m right if the cycle of tumult continues?

A wise man once said, “There is no way to peace, peace is the way.” The following Jewish folktale reminds me that if peace is to be experienced, someone must stop the cycle of anger and retribution:

“The otter rushed in to see the king crying, ‘My lord, you are a man who loves justice and rules fairly. You have established peace among all your creatures, and yet there is no peace.’ ‘Who has broken the peace?’ asked the king. ‘The Weasel!’ cried the Otter. ‘I dove into the water to hunt food for my children, leaving them in the care of the Weasel. While I was gone my children were killed. An eye for an eye, the Good Book says. I demand vengeance!’

The king sent for the Weasel who soon appeared before him. ‘You have been charged with the death of the Otter’s children. How do you plead?’ demanded the King. ‘Alas, my lord,’ wept the Weasel, ‘I am responsible for the death of the Otter’s children, though it was clearly an accident. As I heard the Woodpecker sound the danger alarm, I rushed to defend our land. In doing so I trampled the Otter’s children by accident.’ The king summoned the Woodpecker. ‘Is it true that you sounded the alarm with your mighty beak?’ inquired the king. ‘It is true, my lord,’ replied the Woodpecker. ‘I began the alarm when I spied the Scorpion sharpening his dagger.’

When the Scorpion appeared before the king, he was asked if he indeed had sharpened his dagger. ‘You understand that sharpening your dagger is an act of war?’ declared the king. ‘I understand,’ said the Scorpion, ‘but I prepared only because I observed the Turtle polishing its armor.’ In his defense the Turtle said, ‘I would not have polished my armor had I not seen the Crab preparing his sword.’ The Crab declared, ‘I saw the Lobster swinging its javelin.’

When the Lobster appeared before the king, he explained, ‘I began to swing my javelin when I saw the Otter swimming toward my children, ready to devour them.’ Turning to the Otter, the king announced, ‘You, not the Weasel, are the guilty party. The blood of your children is upon your own head. Whoever sows death shall reap it.’”

Are we willing to defect in place, have non-anxious presence, self-differentiate, and have enough patience to act as good leaders? I hope so. Our Wesleyan witness and the blessing of God is depending on us to get this right. If we were right yesterday, we will be right tomorrow, but the Gospel’s work today needs us to clear-headed and full of the Holy Spirit. We must all stop our vicious cycle of infighting for the sake of Christ and a lost and hurting world.

Family Systems Picture

Brussels and a Proper Response to Evil

In Brussels sheer evil has once more been visited upon the innocent. We must not yield to the terror of jihadists and forget that democracy most resembles God’s Kingdom of freedom and love. Democracy represents the basic human attribute of choice. Didn’t Jesus, who could have called 10,000 angels to save him, choose to die on a cross to set us free from death’s oppression? Wasn’t it Jesus who chose to say from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” Those Roman soldiers made a choice to follow orders and knew what they were doing. ISIS knew what it was doing and individuals chose to follow. I usually know exactly what I’m doing, too, when I choose to do something wrong.

Easter is God’s answer to our poor choices. It says that evil’s cycle of violence can end if we choose the power of love over the love of power. Jihadists want the West to become as closed minded as they are. The controlled environment that their religious totalitarianism provides is tempting in our freedom-gone-amok world, but at what cost? If God’s will is always done, why would the Lord’s Prayer include the words, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven?” The answer is, “Because it isn’t!” and we’re most often the reason. We abuse freedom, but it is foundational to our unique identity as bearers of God’s image. What we need is Easter’s resurrection power to guide our choices, and use our freedom for the common good.

Freedom of choice, however, is a risky business. I daresay that the West’s unfettered embrace of freedom and extreme individualism is what incites fundamentalism that pushes societies toward coercive control. Many of us, like them, would prefer a society where we put a funnel in people’s heads and the result would look something like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” But we can’t do that without lessening freedom, one of the key ways that we reflect God.

Since God’s exists in the three distinct persons of the Trinity, yet is one indivisible God, then we must honor both diversity and unity, too. Freedom isn’t the only way that we are made in God’s image. Responsibility is another, and aren’t we grateful for responsible parents, adults, youth, children, institutions, governments, and more.

The rub for most us is in determining whether or not certain actions responsibly reflect God’s best intentions for humankind, or not. When nothing is out-of-bounds then anarchy results. When structures of common decency become so porous that nothing is either sacred or profane, the pendulum swings toward the radical fundamentalist voices that provide what seem like easy answers in a complex world.

It’s just not that simple. It would help if we made sure that the Ten Commandments weren’t “Ten Suggestions.” It takes hard work to shape civilization’s values. Jesus proved that during the first Holy Week as he stood both before Pilate and endured the cross. He wants us to make those same stands today for good, but I wonder if we have the “want to” to do it. I’m afraid that we’d rather browbeat or bomb our opponents into submission, and, all the while, I can hear Jesus say to Peter in Gethsemane, “Put away your sword, Peter. They that live by the sword shall die by the sword.”

This isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be swords, but our faith puts boundaries on the use of power. We are not to take personal revenge or resort to vigilantism. The government is supposed to be the entity that protects and fights for common decency (Romans 13:1-5). Unfortunately, government sometimes is the perpetrator of wrong-doing. It is, therefore, incumbent upon us to elect the best leaders that we can. We must ask ourselves which persons can best stand in the gap and stop the xenophobia that separates countries and foments violence.

There’s a difference between “violence” and “war.” They are not synonymous. The U.S. has only had 11 “declared” wars, but over 125 shooting conflicts/wars in our history, not counting the so-called “Indian Wars,” one against the Apaches that lasted a horrific 46 years. It seems to me that the constitutional rule of law should dictate that we be clear about responses that are lawfully sanctioned by the government. That is democracy in action. It is not a unilateral decision by one person.

Terrorism is violence. What the US has done to Native Americans has been violence. Jim Crow laws and racial profiling by police are violence. The list of abuses of power in inappropriate ways is a long one, 125 versus 11 at the least. This isn’t to say that I prefer Augustinian “Just War” theory, but I do support the notion that there are some wars that have to be fought against evil, injustice, and oppression. I come up pretty empty on that score except for World War II and the Civil War. We shouldn’t answer violence with violence, but with a reasoned response that may opt for a serious governmental action called “war,” always as a last resort when all attempts at diplomacy have failed. For democracy and the rule of law to prevail, we must rise above vengeance and enforce justice.

I admit that I’m no “Dove” when it comes down to it, but I am not a “Hawk” either. Complex issues have layers of truth and untruth. I know that I cannot sit back and let injustice and terrorism win the day, but I also cannot simplistically write off every Muslim. Sure, I sincerely believe that salvation is only found in Jesus, but it is also true that violent crusades do more harm than good. I am caught between legitimate use of force and pacifism. The international debate is how to legitimize our actions before a God who loves all people and wants us to treat one another with mutual responsibility and promote freedom. God’s Easter response to our dilemma demands a new approach. We have a lot of work to do to find that answer. We’ve tried about everything else and it hasn’t worked. God help us!

Peace dove

Clergy as Family Reunion Facilitators

Last week I attended a Dr. Ken Callahan Seminar where he effectively reminded us that churches are active mission outposts, pastors are shepherd leaders, and the community is a family. Three months from today on June 25, 2014 I will be the new pastor of a vibrant and exciting church. How will the transition go? Will I be ready? I have high expectations that everything will be absolutely great, but I am reminded of Loren Mead’s description of pastoral transition as “running through thistles.” Ouch!

I want to avoid as many “ouches” as I can! In preparation I have been rereading some familiar material about starting well in a new parish. One of the best and concise books is The First 100 Days: A Pastor’s Guide by T. Scott Daniels. It is a book that challenges me to pay attention to God, my family, and my next parish.

We have all heard mentors and advisors say, “Just love the people!” But every church is different and so is every pastor. Some congregations are in the throes of separation anxiety because they love their current pastor so much. Every mentor I’ve had has expressed how much better it is to follow someone who is loved than a clergyperson who is disliked. Following a beloved pastor may make things a bit rough at first but early on the family lovingly absorbs you into its fabric. That’s their pattern! To follow someone ineffective or disliked makes you the quick hero, but the angst and anger toward that pastor is just as quickly transferred to you as the love was in the first scenario. The challenge is to do well in either case.

The good news is that whether you follow a beloved longtime pastor, a divisive church splitter, or a middle of the road maintenance minder has little consequence because you control you, not the circumstances. The best approach then is to do a lot of observation at first while repeating the mantra under your breath: “Listen, listen; Love, love!”

I need to get to know the church by becoming a keen sociologist and historian, by working hard to understand the church’s current reality and its processes from vision to finances; and by falling deeply in love with the community. “How do they do things here?” can be answered through bulletins or orders of worship – videos of high Sundays and the ones in between would be extremely helpful. However, from a sociological point of view, how is this church a family? What is its unwritten but very real ethos and set of family rules?

How do they talk and do I have the capacity to speak the same language? Learning what “funeralizing” someone meant became extremely important when I moved from seminary in Boston to a three-point charge in the Pee Dee region of South Carolina! I specifically remember being asked to go visit someone and given a country store and a “colyum” as landmarks. I was supposed to go past the store and take a right at the “colyum.” I found the store but I had no idea what a “colyum” was. When I went back to the store and asked where the person’s house was and they said, “Take a right at the ‘colyum.’” My response was, “Could you spell that for me?” They answered: “C-O-L-U-M-N!” Oh….. I got it and made it to my destination. I had to learn the lingo, the church and community’s history, the expectations of the pastor, the lay leadership, the flow of the worship services, the people who needed immediate pastoral care, the vision and plans of the church, and all the mundane but IMPORTANT idiosyncrasies of that unique family.

The greatest challenge was joining the family! One of the metaphors that The First 100 Days uses is that a new pastor is someone who has been invited to become a “facilitator at someone else’s family reunion.” A new minister isn’t a member of the family automatically any more than a new son-in-law or daughter-in-law is. Newbies have “positional authority” by virtue of their legal or titular standing; i.e., “This is my ____ ___ ______.” However, they don’t have real authority until it’s earned or, I daresay, a grandchild comes along! Some clergy try to get by as long as they can by the “reputational authority” they’re given by their predecessor, the inquisitive detectives in the church who check them out ahead of time, the Bishop, or their bio. I am firmly convinced that pastors don’t really get an invitation to join the family until they acquire “relational authority” through significant interactions with people.

Please note that the word “authority” does NOT carry its usual heavy-handed meaning. Since “authority” comes from the word “author,” it really means doing something creative and productive rather than destructive; as Hebrews 12:2 describes Jesus as “the author and perfecter of our faith.” Authority built through relationships with people and communities isn’t engendered through titles and degrees. It comes through an incarnational presence with people at their most important life events: illnesses, births, deaths, marriages, crises – whenever and wherever the clergyperson is invited to be a part of the new family.

According to author Scott Daniels the notion of “The First 100 Days” was originated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt after his inauguration in 1933. In the midst of the Great Depression he and Congress paved the way for the main components of the New Deal to be enacted in his first 100 days in office. It wouldn’t have happened unless he had the political capital to get it done. FDR had almost two years of campaigning under his belt before the clock started on his presidency. During those two years FDR articulated and garnered support for what was accomplished in his first 100 days! New pastors don’t have that luxury or capital!

In quick-step time we must gain capital through relational leadership with careful attention to avoid rushing. It sounds like an oxymoron to hit the ground running while going slow enough to really get to know the lay of the land. Relational authority has to be earned and that takes time, skill, and observation. It also requires the support of a new church family that is willing to be helpful, supportive, and patient. The most important key for all concerned is to trust in Jesus and follow His example. Then the rest will take care of itself!

Keep Calm and Carry On!

I saw a sign in front of a church that looked downright wrong to me. I’m sure they meant something else. It said, “Don’t let worry kill you, let the church help.” As a District Superintendent in the United Methodist Church I have experienced the unfortunate reality that sometimes the church can exacerbate worries more than help them. Church squabbles and differences of opinion distract too many Christians and turn them into worriers.

This is a season to be thankful, not worry! I am enjoying everyone’s “Thirty Days of Thankfulness” posts on Facebook. Each day’s renditions of gratitude for simple and profound gifts are inspiring. What a great thing to do. It reminds me of the refrain in my Mother’s favorite hymn, “Count your many blessings, name them one by one.”

What a great spiritual discipline, especially if you are a worrier. “Turn your worries into prayers!” is an often heard phrase in our house, and I’m the one who needs to hear it.  I come from a long line of worriers. My Dad worried himself and everybody around him so much that I once made him a perpetual calendar that used interchangeable complaints and ailments for daily use. I called it, “Papa Mac’s Ailment Calendar.” At the bottom, I emblazoned the phrase, “For God’s sake and Mother’s, you only get to complain about one thing per day!” After getting upset about it, he actually lightened up and started showing it to his buddies.

Worrying doesn’t help a thing, does it? Someone said it’s like sitting in a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but doesn’t get you anywhere. Jesus talked a lot about not worrying. The most familiar verses are Matthew 6:25-34, but I’m especially partial to Luke’s version of the same passage. Luke 12:22-34 is really neat. Verse 32 nails it: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the Kingdom.” What wonderful words of promise and a cure for worry!

I’ve heard from several well-meaning people that there are exactly 365 “Fear not’s” or “Do not be afraid’s” in the Bible, but what I add up with my concordances is about 70-something, even when trying different translations. Sure, it would have made a great devotional book to have one per day as a reversal of my Dad’s Ailment Calendar, but ONE is all we need anyway. If God says it one time then that pretty much covers it, right? However, there are lots of anti-worry passages, whether they have the exact wording or not. For instance, James 1:17 says: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” Isn’t it good to know that God is the unchanging source of all that is good! That’s a worry-killer!

What about Psalm 46? The whole psalm is great, but I cling to verse 10: “Be still, and know that I am God…” Sometimes I can forget that so quickly, and I end up worrying. I get panicky over little things like where my cars keys are, and big things like Narcie’s health. If only I can wait on God without worrying! Instead I run around and make more trouble for myself and others. Heck, the debit card that I thought was eaten by the ATM machine turned up this morning as I happened to reach behind my car seat. Of course, this was weeks after I had already been to the bank and applied for a new card and put a stop payment order on the old one. I know not freaking out and being still are better choices to make. If I can stop and pray, “Lord, please show me where ________ is, then in that simple little act God usually lets me know which way to turn. It worked last night when searching for my watch!

This reminds me of one of the traditions found in the Navy. You’ve probably seen ship’s officers “piped” on board by a Bosun or Boatswain. These sailors use a high-pitched pipe that is like a bugle on land and can carry a specific tune and message. Each “call” is meant to be heard over the din of sounds found on a typical naval vessel. When a disaster or emergency occurs on a ship the Boatswain uses a specific signal called, “The Still.” The signal basically means, “Stop what you’re doing. Pause. Get your bearings. Prepare to do the right thing.” To some it may seem like a waste of precious time, but it actually saves lives. It clears away the confusion of worry and panic, while helping everyone remember their training. In stillness we find clarity that steers us in the right direction. Wouldn’t this world be a better place if we chilled out more before we react poorly and say or do the wrong things?

This reminds me of those British “Keep Calm and Carry On” T-shirts with a crown on top? Actually you’ve probably seen variations of them all over the place, especially on social media. In my googling I found out that the phrase was first used on posters and other items in 1939 at the start of WWII. It was a way to bolster the spirits of the British when things looked bleakest and there was the temptation to give up or give in to worry. I’m glad for its resurgence, but God’s been sending this message for a lot longer than 1939! Check out 2 Chronicles 20:1-22 for just a little proof. This passage is a testament to the “Keep Calm and Carry On” theme!

Whatever happens today – Pause and be still before God. Don’t let worry kill you. Keep Calm and Carry On!

keep-calm-carry-on

Embracing Blessedness over Worry in a Worrisome World!

Today is my brother’s birthday. Ralph is the eternal optimist. He has been through more than his share of problems, including heart surgery, diabetes, and business challenges, but he has always been one to see the cup more than half full. I guess that this positive outlook came from my mother’s side of the family because our Daddy was a worrier. The events of this last week would have absolutely freaked him out. Daddy worried about worrying!

One year I thought that he was unduly dragging my Mother’s optimism down so I thought that I would make him a Christmas present that would make him lighten up. The little church that I was serving had a mimeograph machine. Those of you who can remember using them recall the smell, the ink, the aggravation, and the inevitable mess. Anyway I typed up a template, glued in a stencil, and made a perpetual calendar of sorts. I entitled it, “Papa Mac’s Ailment Calendar.” For every day of any given month I typed in different things that were on his worry list and his lips. There were things such as illness, money, taxes, arthritis, bursitis, and any other “itis.” I added a sub-title that said, “For God’s sake and Mama’s, please only worry about one thing per day!”

I’m glad that my brother Ralph is pretty much immune from our McClendon OCD-ish list-making worryitis. Jesus had a lot to say about worry and its futility, “How can worrying add a single hour to your life (Matthew 5:25-34)?” A guy went to his doctor and complained of feeling run down. The doctor said, “Sir, you’re not run down. You’re too wound up.” Not Ralph, but it is the story of too many of us, right? This past week exacerbated it!

Contrast a worry-filled life and the blessed life of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…those who mourn…the meek…those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…the merciful…the pure in heart…the peacemakers…those who are persecuted (Matthew 5:3-10).” In the aftermath of last week’s tragedies and the anticipation of unknown troubles ahead, how do we embrace and live into the blessed life that Jesus offers?

It is difficult at best to live in the world while not being of the world. For each beatitude that Jesus offers, there is evidence of a contradictory worldview around us. Being poor in spirit is less valued than being rich in spirit, upbeat, exuding self-confidence, and on top of the world. No one wants to be poor in spirit. Our culture values winners over losers. We would rather be happy than mourn. The meek are devalued in our pushy society where we belittle those who aren’t assertive enough and can’t “suck it up” and succeed. Those who want righteousness as their daily sustenance appear weird in our condoning, non-condemning society where the strongest rebuke is “I’m just saying…” Mercy is seen as weakness. We want justice and we want it now. Being merciful and being the most litigious society on the planet aren’t compatible realities.

Goodness, purity of heart is just plain unrealistic. I’m just being human. In other words, forget about regeneration and new life. We have turned piety into a bad word! At least peacemakers have gotten good press this past week for running toward danger and subduing evil. For the most part, however, we applaud vigilantes and anyone who stands up for themselves. Think about the political nastiness of D.C. Where are the peacemakers in our homes, schools, churches, and government? Lastly, who wants to be persecuted? Give me a break. We all want to go along to get along with others. I remember when I used to walk out of movies if I heard certain words, and now I’ve sadly become inoculated.

No wonder worry has overtaken us! We live and act like we have one foot in God’s peaceful kingdom and the other in a violence-ridden world. Our split personalities have torn our lives asunder. We shouldn’t be surprised at the calamities and atrocities that surround us. As good as humankind is, too often we hide the Creator’s image and embrace the darkness of our masks.

We have got to make better daily choices: Be blessed or yield to worry; Trust in self-made goodness or depend on God’s grace; Be like Jesus or Judas. If we keep on living like the distinctions aren’t clear then the light grows hazy, if not dark. No wonder Jesus ends the Beatitudes with talk of persecution. The clash of values leads to clear division. In the words of Chris Tiegreen, “The Beatitudes serve as an emphatic imperative: Live in the world where God placed you, but never, ever blend in.” Amen.

Keeping Christmas

This year Christmas Day has been most unusual for Cindy and me. We resemble the movie “Home Alone.” Caleb is visiting Amy in Washington State. Josh, Karen, and Kaela have their own place. Narcie, Mike, Enoch, and Evy live in Florida. So for the first time in 37 years of marriage, it’s just us. Yes, it’s been peaceful, even worshipful. We did go over to Josh & Karen’s for a few hours, but now the quiet is falling like a gentle snow. It’s been a simple Christmas, but grand in so many ways. We’ve enjoyed family and sharing with friends.

I want to keep it this way for as long as I can. That’s what we heard yesterday when we went to church on Christmas Eve. It was the usual bit about Christmas’ twelve days, but I think that we all know the difficulty in keeping the wonder of God’s incarnation. Having faith in Jesus is a year round challenge. It’s especially difficult to celebrate Christmas, much less keep it, with a pall over my emotions as I ponder the unopened presents in Newtown, Connecticut, and the divisions that polarize our nation and world. But keep it we must if we are to give hope to everyone who is going through tough times. The news of Jesus’ birth gives us the certainty that God is with us through everything.

Henry Van Dyke, in his piece, “Keeping Christmas,” sums up the point of my thoughts this Christmas Day 2012:

“There is a better thing than the observance of Christmas day, and that is, keeping Christmas.

Are you willing…
• to forget what you have done for other people, and to remember what other people have done for you;
• to ignore what the world owes you, and to think what you owe the world;
• to put your rights in the background, and your duties in the middle distance, and your chances to do a little more than your duty in the foreground;
• to see that men and women are just as real as you are, and try to look behind their faces to their hearts, hungry for joy;
• to own up to the fact that probably the only good reason for your existence is not what you are going to get out of life, but what you are going to give to life;
• to close your book of complaints against the management of the universe, and look around you for a place where you can sow a few seeds of happiness.
Are you willing to do these things even for a day? Then you can keep Christmas.

Are you willing…
• to stoop down and consider the needs and desires of little children;
• to remember the weakness and loneliness of people growing old;
• to stop asking how much your friends love you, and ask yourself whether you love them enough;
• to bear in mind the things that other people have to bear in their hearts;
• to try to understand what those who live in the same home with you really want, without waiting for them to tell you;
• to trim your lamp so that it will give more light and less smoke, and to carry it in front so that your shadow will fall behind you;
• to make a grave for your ugly thoughts, and a garden for your kindly feelings, with the gate open—
Are you willing to do these things, even for a day? Then you can keep Christmas.

Are you willing…
• to believe that love is the strongest thing in the world—
• stronger than hate, stronger than evil, stronger than death—
• and that the blessed life which began in Bethlehem nineteen hundred years ago is the image and brightness of the Eternal Love?
Then you can keep Christmas.
And if you can keep it for a day, why not always?
But you can never keep it alone.”

Amen. Together we can bring solace to hurting hearts. Together the powers that be in Washington will work out an equitable compromise and avert the fiscal cliff. Bloodshed will stop in Syria. Palestinians and Israel will lie down together like the lion and the lamb. Together we can save the least, the lost, and the lowest. Together we can keep Christmas, together with God and each other!

Neo-Calvinism and The God Who Risks!

Two connecting coincidences occurred today. One is that I have just been asked to read a soon-to-be-published book by a friend and offer a back-cover endorsement. Second is that another friend asked me for a book list on theology in general, plus Liberation Theology, Process Theology, Wesleyan Theology, and differences between denominations. So after my morning devotional I have spent time perusing my library and noting which books have been most formative in my faith journey. I’m about to turn to reading my other friend’s manuscript, but first I have to work through my personal theological grounding. It’s something I need to do every day.

Why do we believe what we believe? That’s a hugely important question even for those who say believing in Jesus is all that counts. I spent 10 years on the Board of Ordained Ministry’s Doctrine and Theology Committee and know it’s important for our new clergy to articulate more than a cursory undeliberated faith. Too often clergy and laity alike are guided by the embedded theology of our culture and times. Our culture, unfortunately, has been inundated for several decades by a neo-Calvinism (Rick Warren) mixed with Dispensationalist’s premillennial understanding of eschatology (Tim LaHaye). United Methodists have had to work overtime to lift up the alternatives of Wesleyan Process Theology and amillennialism. For the former and latter perspectives I would recommend John Sanders’, The God Who Risks and N.T. Wright’s, How Became King.

The favorite two questions that I asked repeatedly in the Doctrine and Theology Committee were: “If you are close to heresy, how so and why?” and “Using the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, why isn’t foot washing a sacrament?” Both questions provided an assessment of a candidate’s ability to do theology. Rather than spout rote answers via whoever put the biggest funnel in the person’s head, these questions gave people a chance to work out a theological perspective on the fly. Isn’t that what most of us have to do anyway? We’re caught in a hospital hallway and someone wants to know why bad things happen to good people. Our theodicy is quickly exposed. All the trite and unhelpful words of non-comfort like, “It was meant to be…” “God has a purpose/reason for your tragedy…” are antithetical to a God who risks submission to human whims and vagaries, even unto death.

If you haven’t been through the fire yet, you will. If economic disaster, natural calamity, ill health, tragedy, and crud haven’t come your way then watch out! They’re on the way – duck and run – to God! God doesn’t cause any of this stuff. What God does is meet us in the fiery furnace and stay with us through it all. God’s gracious act in Jesus Christ is proof that God enters our pain and redeems it, not through some escapist trick like the hymn “Farther Along,” or self-deprecating platitudes in the ilk of Job’s so-called friends, “What did you do to deserve this?” God’s response to our questions doesn’t provide an answer as much as a Presence.

Why do bad things happen? Reason One: my choices. Reason two: the choices of others. Reason three: the general decay that’s in the world that causes everything to fall apart. Reason four: evil (John 10:10). The Scriptures are clear that God is the author of every good and perfect gift (James 1:17), therefore when I ponder the big question, “Why?” I am not going to blame God, but claim God. God does not jerk us around like puppets on strings. It does me no good to think that God is somehow the Mastermind pre-engineering everything, both good and bad, in my life. I am comforted and heartened more by the truth that Jesus knows my every weakness and sorrow for He was a man of sorrows (Isaiah 53:3), and tempted every way like us (Hebrews 4:15-16), yet conquered the grave and death through painful obedience. This isn’t cheap grace, but hard-won incarnational hope.

So what difference does this make on a Tuesday morning? I am going to do the very best that I can through the grace of God to avoid evil, personal defeat, and the vicissitudes of reckless people around me. I am going to pray the prayer that we all have prayed so much and try to really mean it, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…” If everything that happens is God’s will, then why in the world should we pray for His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven? So, there you have it, right there in the Lord’s Prayer – what we need to do when life hits us with a sucker punch. Pray – pray hard, and even when the answers don’t come, God does come, and it is prayer that lets us know God’s supreme love, not enmity, towards us in Christ Jesus our Lord. Protect us, Lord, this day and every day, and give us grace to endure as your Son endured. Amen.

Conflict Control

I just reread Jesus’ prayer for us in John 17 and a timely theme has guided my prayer thoughts this morning. Four times in this short passage Jesus prays that we might experience a unity like that of the Trinity. Wow! What a thought! Listen to the verses. In John 17:11 Jesus prays, “Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name – the name you gave me –so that they may be one as we are one.” In John 17:21 Jesus prays, “…that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” In John 17:22, He prays, “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one.” Finally, in verse 23 Jesus prays, “… May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

It’s pretty obvious that Jesus wants us to be united – one! It’s a powerful testimony to how we reflect God in our witness to the world. One of the primary ways that we as United Methodists celebrate being made in God’s image is in our use of the words connectionalism and conference. We try to do things together because we focus on being made in God’s social image. If God is revealed as Trinity and works in community, so should we!

But, why don’t we? Selfishness and “My-way-or-the highway” attitudes too often prevail. What makes you angry? Are you one of those people that get bent out of shape by inanimate objects? I admit that I can much more easily deal with bothersome people than an uncooperative computer. Anger can consume us so quickly that it overruns most of our controls. I even heard of one guy who shot his computer because it kept crashing. Well, he took care of that didn’t he? Needless to say, anger can be dangerous to the point of injury, murder, and harm. My grandmother readily preached the admonition of the Sermon on the Mount that if anyone calls someone a “fool” they are in danger of hell-fire. Unfortunately, this did more to inspire a quest for synonyms than conquering my temper.

So how can we effectively deal with our anger? The anger advice of none other than Rodney Dangerfield makes great sense: “It would be great if people never got angry at someone for doing something they’ve done themselves.” Wouldn’t that be nice? Jesus put it similarly in the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” However, saying and living the Golden Rule is extremely difficult. It’s easier said than done!

Abraham Lincoln had a couple of skunk stories or sayings that keep my anger in perspective. One was “What kills a skunk is his own publicity.” This reminds me to be like Jesus and not toot my own horn, plus give troublesome people enough space that they are found out on their own. The other story occurred when Lincoln was about to replace his Secretary of War. Some senior members of his own party urged him to make a clean sweep of the whole Cabinet while he was at it. He responded by telling them a story about a farm family in southern Illinois that had a problem with a skunk. The farmer’s wife told him to take care of it, so he got his shotgun out one night and waited for the skunk to appear. His wife heard a blast shortly thereafter. The farmer came inside and his wife asked him, “Did you get him?” The farmer said, “Well, first of all, there was a family of six skunks, not one.” Then he added, “I shot the lead skunk, but he raised such an awful stink I decided it was best to let the other five go.” All the people left Lincoln’s office chuckling, but they certainly got the message: Sometimes raising a stink causes more trouble than it’s worth. It reminds me of United Methodism’s first rule: Do no harm.

So why get angry if it doesn’t help? That doesn’t sound like a Spirit-filled reaction to conflict. We need Jesus’ Spirit to help us when we’re dealing with troublesome people. God’s Spirit can do for us what we can’t do ourselves. The Holy Spirit can give us creative nudges and new eyes to see ways that we can live at peace with others. The key to the Spirit’s infilling is a yielded life. Rather than retaliate, fly off the handle, or overreact inappropriately, we can exhale our anger to God and inhale the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s fruit then becomes self-evident: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There’s not much room for ungodly anger in this list!

The late Dr. Wallace Hamilton, novelist and playwright, was a Spirit-filled Christian and it showed in his anger-control. He liked to tell of an American Indian sheep farmer who had a big problem. His neighbor’s dogs were killing his sheep. It got so bad that he had to do something. So he examined his options. First, he could have brought a lawsuit and taken his neighbor to court. Second, he could have built stronger fences so the dogs couldn’t get in. But he had a better idea. He gave some lambs to his neighbor’s children, and the children loved them! When the lambs began to multiply and their little flocks began to develop, the neighbor tied up the dogs and his problems were solved. Jesus said: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons and daughters of God.” May peace be with us all today as we act like Jesus’ peacemakers!

Perpetual Epiphany!

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

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

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

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

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

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