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

The Un-tied Methodist Church

As most of you know, I wasn’t elected Bishop last week, and to let everyone know – I’m fine. I might not carry a shepherd’s crook like a Bishop does, but will always seek to carry a shepherd’s heart. I am so happy to remain as pastor of St. John’s, Aiken. What a wonderful church! Our future is bright as a congregation, and I am happy to still be on the journey with you.

The future is not so bright for our denomination. I love the United Methodist Church, too much to “go quietly into the night.” I’m talking about events in the Western Jurisdiction with its election of a person who self-proclaims that she is living in a relationship that’s not in agreement with our beliefs. I find this both schismatic and sad. Any hope of a special called session of General Conference to hear the findings of a Council of Bishops’ Study Commission about the complexities of balancing the practice of homosexuality with Scripture have been circumvented, if not completely derailed. While I was in Portland for this year’s General Conference, a person who is married to her partner, said to me, “We don’t have the votes to overturn the Book of Discipline, but we’re going to burn the house down as we leave.” Wow!

Though it is just as chargeable an offense to withhold apportionments as it is to be a self-avowed practicing homosexual, we’re at a tipping point when the actions of the Western Jurisdiction and the promoters of this way of thinking don’t care anymore. There are people whose ways of interpreting the Bible can justify anything, both left and right. I would rather be on the side of 95% of Christendom on this issue than not. We are a house divided. Some contend that they are doing God’s will, that they are keeping a higher covenant than ones made at their ordination. In my understanding, a covenant is a covenant, none higher or lower than another. We are at a place I hoped that I would never see, but I knew a day of reckoning would come.

We are paying for our past sins. When the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, The Methodist Episcopal Church (North), and the Methodist Protestant Church reunited in 1939 we built in a regionalism born of racism. We created the Central Jurisdiction to segregate African-Americans, and we created 5 other jurisdictions with semi-autonomous powers in matters like the election of bishops. The election of bishops had heretofore been under the purview of the General Conference. In 1939 we created a regionalistic protection against adverse influence by other jurisdictions. This was the last gasp of the “Lost Cause” of the South. We didn’t want those “_______ Yankees” telling us who to get along with or elect.

Now it’s appropriately coming back to haunt us. There are constitutional protections that allow each jurisdiction to elect whom it will, and Boards of Ordained Ministry, that are solely nominated by their respective bishops, as to whom they declare fit for ministry, subject to approval from the Clergy Session. The Western Jurisdiction has proven how far this built-in permissiveness can be manipulated. The “United” in Methodism has now become “untied.” It’s all in where one places the “i.”

I want us to remain a “we,” and constitutionally we are if we believe that the power of the General Conference supersedes all other lesser bodies, and has sole authority over all matters that are distinctively connectional (Par. 16). Therefore, I urge the Council of Bishops to act quickly and ask for a special session of General Conference to try and prevent schism. More than that, we must affirm Biblical obedience before it’s too late to escape the eternal consequences of our disobedience.

The Judicial Council must not wait until its fall docket to adjudicate the request for a declaratory decision by the South Central Jurisdiction on the election of self-avowed and practicing lesbian, Karen Oliveto, as a bishop in the Western Jurisdiction. We either have a covenant, a Book of Discipline, or we don’t. There are those who sincerely feel that this action by the Western Jurisdiction and similar actions by others are God’s will and celebrate. They lump together Martin Luther’s disobedience to the Roman Catholic Church, John Wesley’s to the Anglican Church, and our own reversals of thoughts about women clergy and civil rights for people of color, but forget the non-violent methods of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. By breaking covenant they have done harm to the whole United Methodist Connection. Violence and “burning the house down” is the way of the world, not Christ. Isn’t this really about a higher matter than winners and losers? Isn’t it really about our understanding of Scripture. Everyone gets to have an opinion, but not God, and I’m tired of it. I’ve read all the positions, heard it all, and I’m sick of the polarization and duplicitous actions that have moved us from being a “purple” denomination, and made us a polarized “red” and “blue” one.

I am not worried about St. John’s UMC. I am worried about The United Methodist Church as a whole. A true story keeps banging in my brain. When South Carolina still flew the Confederate flag over our Statehouse, there were many of us who were ashamed. My wife and I were two of those people. Somehow everyone didn’t get the message about our personal feelings on the subject, got confused, or whatever, and an individual gave us a framed print of the Statehouse dome with the US flag, the SC flag, and the Confederate flag still flying. Cindy took it back to the gift shop and said she wanted to return it. The lady there said they didn’t give refunds. Cindy replied, “I’m not asking for a refund. I just want to get rid of it.” The lady responded, “But you’re a Southerner. This is your heritage.” Cindy prophetically replied, “This is NOT my heritage. This is my history. History is something we’re supposed to learn from. Heritage is something you want to pass on to your children.”

For too long the history of 1939 and its regionalistic racism and barriers have held us in bondage to the past, and we haven’t learned from it. Our Wesleyan heritage of grace and holiness hasn’t been passed on well enough. Some would say that this is the fault of our seminaries and publishing house. I grew up in the wake of the “God is Dead” existentialist neo-orthodox anything goes era. Those days are back again, under a new guise, and it’s killing us.

We must now choose both orthodoxy and orthopraxy, not separating right belief from right action. We must value all humans, but not yield to the temptation to say that everything is good. God said everything was good before Adam and Eve’s Fall, not afterward. God has been trying to undo the consequences of sin ever since, supremely through Jesus.

Therefore, our divisive structures must be destroyed. We must be united in our covenant, or let those who want to disobey leave in peace. Having a single US conference doesn’t help at all. It trounces Wesley’s tenet that the world is our parish. In our global UMC, it would also tell the world that we believe western liberalism and its values are the 21st century’s version of colonialism. We must have a common Book of Discipline and form a “more perfect union” by letting go of a sinful history and forging a new way based on a common heritage. We must bow before Jesus and pledge allegiance to Him, humble ourselves, and repent. Let us learn from history and pass our Godly heritage on to our children, before it’s too late!

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Two Simple and Central Questions for the UMC

There’s an old story of a rabbi in a Russian city at the turn of the twentieth century. One night he was wandering around aimlessly questioning his faith in God and his calling to ministry. In the midst of his despair and lack of direction on that bitterly cold night he wandered into a Russian military compound. It was off-limits to any civilian. The bark of a Russian soldier broke his brooding thoughts, “Who are you? And what are you doing here?” The rabbi replied, “Excuse me?” The soldier asked again, “Who are you and what are you doing here?” After a brief pause and the dawning of enlightenment that came from the soldier’s questions, the rabbi responded in a most gracious tone, “How much do you get paid every day?” The soldier shot back, “What does that have to do with you?” The rabbi then said, “I will pay you the same wages if you will ask me those same questions every day: ‘What are you doing?’ and ‘Why are you here?’” When faced with an identity crisis these two questions will help anyone get back on track!

We all need to answer these two questions, but this weekend they are especially important for the United Methodist Church. This coming Saturday Bishop Melvin Talbert is supposed to conduct a marriage ceremony in Alabama for a homosexual couple against the advice of Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett of the North Alabama Annual Conference and the Executive Committee of the whole denomination’s Council of Bishops. While I affirm the sacred worth of all people and the fact that we all stand in the need of Christ’s grace, another issue at hand is one of ecclesiology, and hence identity, for our denomination.  Are we headed to schism? Will we live and be in covenant with one another? What are we doing? Why are we here? Bishop Talbert is answering from one perspective while the General Conference and the Council of Bishops has answered from another. What say you?

Here are my thoughts: God holds us together, but so does the Book of Discipline of the UMC. Walk with me through a few pertinent paragraphs of our Discipline as we ponder Bishop Talbert’s actions or the actions of others who might be tempted to do likewise. Paragraph 340.2(a)(3)(a) says that pastors  can perform marriage ceremonies “in accordance with the laws of the state and the rules of the United Methodist Church.” Neither the state of Alabama nor the rules of the UMC allow homosexual unions. Furthermore, Par. 339 defines “Pastors” as elders, etc. which would have to include bishops of the church since they are elders consecrated for a particular task. Paragraph 403 states: “Bishops and superintendents are elders in full connection.”

Some say that Bishop Talbert’s actions will not violate church law, and that the situation is a moot point, because the couple was already legally married in Washington earlier this year and his intention is merely to perform a “ceremony.”  But things get complicated as one follows the Book of Discipline on the matter.

First, what about permission to do such a service in an area under another clergyperson’s charge? Paragraphs 341.4 and 341.6 are instructive in terms of our polity and procedures. Paragraph 341.4 states that no pastor (remember that Bishops are pastors) can hold a religious service within the bounds of a pastoral charge other than the one to which appointed without consent of the pastor of the charge. In this case the pastor of the charge is Bishop Wallace-Padgett and though Bishop Talbert appropriately contacted her about his plans, she told him that he did not have her permission.

Second, does it matter if what Bishop Talbert is doing is just a “Blessing Service?” Par. 341.6 clearly says that “Ceremonies that celebrate (italics mine) homosexual unions” are off-limits. Maybe the Judicial Council will rule that the General Conference will have to define what a “ceremony” is or what “celebrate” means, but for the time being it’s pretty clear: any service that even “celebrates” such a union is non-compliant. Plus the UM Constitution in Paragraph 16.6 gives the sole right to “provide and revise” the hymnal and ritual of the Church to the General Conference. Therefore, if anyone, including Bishop Talbert, tries to perform a “Blessing Ceremony” for a homosexual union then they are essentially creating a liturgy/ritual that the General Conference has not approved. Any such action by a bishop would be in direct violation of Par. 403.1 that states that bishops are “authorized to guard the faith, order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline of the Church.” This, of course, would be an ipso facto violation of Par. 2702.1(d) which is “disobedience to the order and discipline of the United Methodist Church.” The same would be true for anyone, bishop or not, who would try to rewrite General Conference-approved liturgy.

This gives rise to the nature of any official denominational complaint or charge against Bishop Talbert. Is he violating Par. 341.6 and 2702.1(b), that prohibit a United Methodist clergyperson from conducting “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions,” or is he violating Par. 2702.1(f), which is defined as “relationships and/or behavior that undermines the ministry of another pastor”? In this case, the undermined would be the Bishop of North Alabama and at least the Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops if not the whole Council. These are key questions that speak to larger issues of covenant and our connectional polity.

The United Methodist Church is a covenantal body bound together by allegiance to Jesus Christ and our vows as lay members and clergy to be loyal to the United Methodist Church and uphold it by our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. This loyalty to the UMC is most clearly postulated in our Book of Discipline. As a denomination we are at a critical ecclesiological juncture. Will we be a covenantal body with an episcopal polity or shift to a “free church anything goes” polity? Will we be able to stay in covenant with one another? These are the ultimate questions that the Bishop Talbert situation beg – “Who are we?” and “What are we doing?”

Even the way that complaints against bishops are handled is troubling in answering these questions. Bishop Talbert is a member of the Western Jurisdiction’s College of Bishops yet seeks to violate the discipline and order of the church in the Southeastern Jurisdiction. Even if a complaint is made by persons in the Southeastern Jurisdiction, South Central Jurisdiction, North Central Jurisdiction, the Northeastern Jurisdiction, or any Central Conference, the case will be remanded to the Western Jurisdiction’s College of Bishops per Par. 2704.1(a). This process is evidence of the disunity within the church and may even be a planned exercise to further fracture our denomination or expose regionalism. My plea is for us to stay the course and remain faithful to our covenant as United Methodists. Yes, we should love everyone and hold all persons of both sacred worth and in need of grace, but in doing so we must not trample underfoot our identity as a connectional church.

General Conference 2016 is lining up to be historic for our denominational future. There must be thoughtful discernment as we prepare. How can we preach the unity of the church universal if we ourselves don’t live it? Who are we and what are we doing here? How we answer those two questions will either lead us to “Gospel Disobedience” as coined by Bishop Talbert or Obedience to the Order and Discipline of the Church. Which is it? As an elder in the UMC, I know what I have already promised. It is not a question of one over the other. For me, it is both/and by the grace of God that is for all and in all.

GC 2012 Observations

General Conference 2012 has come and gone and I am recovering. I wonder about our church’s recovery. This was my 5th rodeo and it felt like the most ornery bronking buck ever ridden. Dr. Scott Peck wrote an analysis of community building that stated that there are 4 stages: pseudocommunity, chaos, emptiness, and community. We started with pseudocommunity, “Hail fellow, well met,” and saw moments of truce along the way like during the Service of Repentance toward Indigenous Peoples. Dr. Peck says some groups stay in this safe place so that they avoid airing their differences.

However, United Methodists aren’t afraid to move out of truce mode and tear at the fabric of harmony. The Rules Committee report should have been a dire warning of what to expect. It usually is a breeze and takes a few minutes. It took a couple of hours this time. It set the tone of intractable deliberation. We hit the chaos stage and pretty much stayed there until Friday night when GCFA’s final budget reports were being made. I could feel the calm of emptiness fall over the most contentious General Conference that I have witnessed. Maybe then, and only then, did we approach true community and because of money of all things. How sad!

Where did the chaos that derailed us come from? Some want to blame back room shenanigans of people hammering out restructuring deals without everybody being at the table. We all need to remember to get together for the larger cause of holy conferencing and we all need to be at the table. The General Conference was hijacked by multiple agendas in an apparent effort to stall, filibuster, and question to death anything that came before it. It appeared that a deal was struck  between multiple constituencies well before any protesters came on the floor that if things could get bogged down enough then we wouldn’t have to talk about sex and expose our utter division. How Victorian! What an avoidance of speaking a prophetic word to society.

Victorian-era denial of human sexuality has precluded us from being theologically relevant to our society. Worse, we can’t even talk to each other about it. No matter what side you’re on, was our silence acceptable? We chose to let our present 2008 language stand rather than speak theologically to a confused generation that has turned the Wesleyan Quadrilateral into an equilateral. Experience has unseated Scripture as the foundational starting point of our theological method.  This isn’t a good strategy in speaking to the world. They will see us as do-nothing, irrelevant by-standers in a culture war for the soul of the cosmos.

The ruling by the Judicial Council has now put up an almost impenetrable wall around the agency silos. In the JC’s opinion only the superintending body of the Council of Bishops can offer guidance to the agencies. Doesn’t everyone know that the agency boards all have bishops on them now and their presidents are bishops? Episcopal presence and the possibility for supervision hasn’t been lacking. Paragraph 427.3 has been in operation although ill achieved. I’m not trying to lump all bishops or agencies into an ineffective amalgamation, but the Judicial Council ruling makes it almost impossible for us to ever do a new thing.

The only means left to gain alignment among the agencies could be very damaging in the long run. Money! If the JC says that only the bishops can have oversight of the agencies then all that the General Conference can do is cut off the money. This sole option will either create more competitiveness or cooperation among the agencies and I plead for the latter. By the way, I’m grateful for the work that a few of our agencies did to help craft a way forward. I plead for the bishops to continue in exercising their spiritual and temporal authority. God help us if this ruling means that the status quo remains! I am devastated that, except for a few changes, all we need to do is keep our 2008 Book of Discipline and put a 2012 sticker over the date. That is not acceptable, but it appears to be reality.

We may have just witnessed a historic tipping point of our denomination into the morass of failed enterprises. I pray not and pledge myself to work for us to regain our theological identity and traction as a movement. We will never, however, get to true community unless we let chaos do its painful work and then we embrace an emptiness where we give up our self-interests. What I experienced at GC2012 was the worst example of filibustering do-nothingism for the sake of selfish recalcitrance: “If you don’t play my way, I’m taking my ball and going home.” This wasn’t the first time the middlers of United Methodism were shut down.

It’s happened before. Is there much difference between hardliners- whether liberal, conservative, young, old, male, female, US, or Central Conferences? I guess that we all have non-negotiables about which we won’t budge. However, irreducible positions seldom move forward – most are stuck in the past and claim that it’s the future, and the real problem is that’s it’s supposed to be a shared future and taking hard-line sides doesn’t help. Some dare to say, and I heard this over and over again at GC2012, “It’s my church. I’m taking back my church!”  It’s God’s church not ours.  If anybody thinks that it is theirs, remember, it’s not.  Jesus said, “Upon this rock I will build MY church.”

I pray that we can get beyond the past two weeks.  We must never let General Conference be hijacked again.  The basic rule of parliamentary procedure must be operative:  “The minority must be heard, but the majority shall prevail.”  I believe the majority is in the middle and wants what’s best for the church.

Truth or Consequences in the Church

I was driving into work this morning with a lot on my mind. A lot of my thinking was about this Friday’s deadline. Advisory Response Forms are due. They indicate what pastors and churches might be experiencing a move this year. This is that time of year when clergy and S/PPRC’s advise the Bishop and DS’ if they want a change in pastors or parishes. Everybody’s anxiety is way up and not in good ways. Some folks are freaking out because they don’t want their clergyperson to leave. Others are thinking they can’t leave soon enough and that goes for both laity and clergy. I have even mused over how interesting it would be if we moved all the church members and kept the clergy where they are! Would that be the best Call to Action ever? If Wesley believed itinerancy was “God’s apostolic plan of evangelization,” then wholesale itinerancy with the laity just might help us as a denomination! Ha, but interesting at least. Anyway, appointment-making season in the UMC is a time of high stress. One of my primary tasks is not to get reactive, and, as you can tell, I’m feeling it today.

 I did try to exhibit a non-anxious presence last Sunday. I worshipped in one of the Columbia District UMC’s, met with a Staff-Parish Committee having some issues with a clergyperson, and then led training for all clergy and their Staff-Parish Committees late into the afternoon. As usual there were people who came with semi-hidden agendas. This time of year makes it quite apparent that the good will of Christmas is long gone and United Methodists are feeling the nervous stirring of pastoral change. It would all go so much better if preacher and people would just be honest with each other along the way. Too often I’ve seen both sides skate over shortcomings until they hit a critical mass of general dissatisfaction from which there is no turning back. It is absolutely uncanny that December 1 was the deadline for pastoral evaluations and most all of them were absolutely glowing. Could things have changed that much in two months?

There are no perfect pastors and no perfect churches. If that were so we wouldn’t need Jesus, would we? A District Superintendent’s responsibilities are complicated and complex, a mixture of pastoral care and supervisory oversight. A huge challenge for all of us is how to create Christian community by speaking the truth in love. I find it quite ironic that we care enough to tell a perfect stranger who has miffed us exactly what we think and don’t do the same as Christians. There’s something wrong with that!

Sure, we don’t want to hurt people’s feelings, but we have to care enough to confront. My Dad had a great saying. He would say, “Son, Sometimes you have to hit the nail on the head, but be careful not to split the wood!” That’s our challenge isn’t it? We need to tell it like it is, but in a way that is helpful, not hurtful. I am challenged today to get this right for the Kingdom’s sake. I am praying fervently that the right clergy will be sent to the right churches. If I don’t have people tell me honestly what their needs are, whether they’re church members or pastors, then it isn’t going to happen. Consultation has to be honest and helpful!

Steve Jobs, Daddy, and Abraham Lincoln on Reconcilation

Have you ever felt like telling someone to go to the bad place? My Dad was a master at telling someone to go to you-know-where and they would still walk away smiling. It was amazing to watch. He always said if you were around someone who was having a fit of anger, “give ’em a horse to ride home on.” What I saw him do and what I think he meant is that conflict happens and it can literally blow up in your face. The secret to surviving is being peacemaker enough in what you say so that after you say it, it doesn’t hit them until their on the way home. You want them at a safe enough distance when they figure out what hit them. I’m not trying to say Daddy was sneaky or passive-aggressive in his goat-getting. He wanted to say the right thing so that people’s anger would dissipate. He didn’t compromise but he said things in a way that people could hear it. He was a peacemaker.

Man, have I had some humdinger charge conferences and need to remember Daddy’s advice. Actually it didn’t originate with him. The Proverbs say that “a gentle answer turns away wrath.” Paul told Timothy similar words  in 2 Timothy 2:24-25, “And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.” Sounds like a New Testament version of Daddy’s method. Use humor, reframe the question, don’t let it get personal, pray and, yet, stand your ground speaking the truth in love. Gosh, we’re terrible at that part, aren’t we. We would rather kiss up or a little lower down than dare to confront the bully who’s been ramming their version of the truth down everybody else’s throats at church.  How can we avoid it?

Steve Jobs’ death reminds me of the uncanny knack he had in making peace with his naysayers. Sure he was exacerbatingly obsessed with details, but he was a survivor of trench warfare in the business world. He knew how to let off steam, keep his integrity, and be a peacemaker. I won’t bore you with details you haven’t already heard on CNN, but, suffice it to say, he had the art of giving people a horse to ride home on down pat. He started Apple with Woz his partner then got ousted by the Board of Directors, started Pixar of “Toy Story” fame then was brought back to Apple on his own terms after making a bundle selling Pixar. Instead of a long list of angry Steve Jobs haters, there’s a long list of people he worked for, was fired by, and with whom he then reconciled. Genius! He turned computerese from lines of unintelligible code to a extension of a person’s hand via the iPhone thereby blurring the lines between phones and computers, but he did so much more. What was one of his best gifts to humanity ? It was both his secret to gadget building and peacemaking: perspective.

Perspective is a key ingredient to any recipe for peacemaking. Why is this person so  miffed in this church meeting? What is the underlying cause? If the response is way over the top for the context then, trust me, the issue isn’t about you. There’s something else going on in this person’s life so grin and bear it, use some humor, clarify the facts and speak the truth but don’t sink to the emotional level of the offensive party. Stay objective and, like Steve Jobs, you can not only go back to work for them but actually enjoy it. Wow! Take a listen to his speech for Stanford’s commencement address 6 years ago, right after he found out he had cancer: “No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It cleans out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic but it is quite true.” MSNBC said of this quote: “That was typical Jobs: Dramatic and no-nonsense all in the same breath.” Perspective! When you think the junk you’re going through is enough to make you want to fire everybody or lambast the whole church leadership – Whoa, keep the big picture in mind, state your piece, let the chips fall where they may, and give ’em a horse to ride home on. Use some perspective!

And, by the way, Steve Jobs was wrong in his Stanford address, at least sort of wrong. He said “Death is the destination we all share. No one has escaped it.” Well, yeah, except for Jesus. He did die. He couldn’t escape the process on Golgotha, but he did get out of the tomb!!! Now that perspective actually makes the small potatoes of church conflict or any conflict for that matter seem more bearable. Abraham Lincoln, in the throes of the Civil War, decided to get rid of one of his prominent Cabinet members. Republican Senators met with him and demanded that if he was going to get rid of one then they should all go. Lincoln said, “Let me tell you a story about a farmer from Illinois. His farm had a family of skunks that bothered everybody. The farmer’s wife told him to do something about it so the farmer went out one moonlit night, shotgun in hand, and the family of seven skunks came around the barn. He blasted away. He went back inside and his wife asked him what happened. He told her this: I saw the seven skunks and shot at ’em and killed one. He raised such a terrible stink I decided to let the other 6 go.” The senators left Abraham Lincoln laughing, rode their horses home and figured it out. Thanks, Daddy and Thanks, Steve Jobs for giving me a little perspective on life and keeping the peace. Give ’em a horse to ride home on.

Moon Over Mitchell

Following a moon across the sky on Mt. Mitchell will make you move your head, crane your neck, and wonder at its path. This is going to be a “tough” moving year for pastors, or so people say. We usually have about one third of our clergy moving. This year it’s more like 10%. Moving or not, I feel for all the people who have had to move because of their jobs, age, or downsizing. Moving can be such a stressor. Counting my family of origin through all the parsonages we’ve lived in, I have called 13 different places “home.”

Some of this attitude is very selfish, I admit. I’m not as young as I used to be. The idea of heaving boxes is about as attractive as wanting to catch the flu. I wonder if Abram and Sarai felt some of this age-reluctance when, in their seventies, they were asked by God to leave their home in Ur and travel to an unknown destination?
Maybe their ages weren’t computed the way that ours are. After all, they both lived well into their 100’s. Perhaps they enjoyed good health because of the Middle Eastern diet. For instance, Mussa Zoabi of Israel claims to be the oldest person alive. He says he’s 160 years old. His name won’t go down in the record books because he is older than most record-keeping systems and his age can’t be verified. The interesting thing, however, is that Mussa Zoabi can tell you exactly why he’s lived so long. He says it’s his diet. Every day he drinks either a cup of melted butter or olive oil.
 
Diets are the rage, aren’t they? It seems that everyone has some special diet that will do this or that for you. Maybe Abram and Sarai had a special diet. Remember, when they got to the Promised Land, Abram had to pass his seventy-something wife off as his sister because she was so good looking that he was afraid someone would kill him to get her. Wow! Abram and Sarai must have had good genes and a super diet.
 
Sixty percent of women in North America say that they’re on a diet. Imagine that! We all want to be modern day Sarai’s and Abraham’s. A woman at Weight Watchers once told this story. She said that a new client had begun her diet. She came in to be weighed after the first stressful week. She stepped on the scales and had only lost a couple of pounds! The dieter wasn’t too happy, and complained. This is what she said: “My friend comes here to Weight Watchers, and she told me she lost ten pounds. She said I’d lose ten pounds in the first week, too!”

Well, the leader at Weight Watchers was a little disturbed. She knew that you don’t lose weight over night. So she asked the dieter, a little indignantly: “Who told you that? Is she a doctor?” The woman shook her head. The leader asked, “Is she a nurse?” “No,” said the woman. “Well,” continued the leader, “Is she a nutritionist, or another Weight Watcher’s leader?” Negative again! “Well, who is she?” asked the leader. “I think,” said the newcomer, “I think she’s a liar!”

Most of us know the truth and the lies about dieting. But what’s the truth about Abram and Sarai? How did they get the courage and gumption at their age to leave Ur of the Chaldees and strike out for Canaan? What made them so different from us and can we have a little bit of what they had? I think the answer was Faith! This year we need a lot of it to deal with the economy, itinerancy, and all of the everything-else’s that work on our spirits and bodies. Hang in there and follow the path.

Foundation

>I heard an ad on the radio this past Sunday as I was traveling from one charge conference to another. It was for a company called “Ramjack” that stabilizes foundations for houses. The promotional byte that caught my ear was the line, “Many homes in the Columbia area have unstable foundations.” That is true in physical and spiritual ways. With the instability in the economy, a rise in crime, the need for a homeless shelter, and the fact that it’s a lot easier to get around the city on Sunday than any other day of the week is proof enough that we need a better foundation for all our lives.

I remember hearing the story, without recalling the source, that there were two guys who were living on an island. One decided to take the beachfront property to build his house. The other thought it would be safer to build his on the rocky cliff overlooking the beach. His thought was that sooner or later a storm was going to come. He wanted to be ready. Years went by and no storm. The guy whose house was on the rocky foundation high above the sand and surf peered through his binoculars on a daily basis at the guy down on the beach. At first he thought that the guy was going to wash away and appropriately so.
 
After time passed he looked through the binoculars with jealousy as he saw the guy enjoying the beach. He even shook his hand at God thinking, “Here I am doing what’s wise and there hasn’t been a storm in sight. I lugged all these trees and building materials up here for no good reason.” Well, to make a long story short, the guy on the rocky cliff finally had enough and wanted the “good” life on the beach. He abandoned his house and moved to the beach and had a great time. Then the storm came and wiped his and the other fellow’s houses away. The home on the cliff didn’t suffer any damage. Too bad nobody was at home.
 
In the storms of life I am too quick to take the easy way out only to pay for it in the end. Sounds like our economy and so many other aspects of our culture. Marriage takes hard work, and so does being a parent, a pastor, or a dedicated lay person. As a District Superintendent it would be easy to stay in bed on Sunday mornings. After all, I’ve been in churches and with pastors and laity all week, BUT what about my foundation. Sands shift and foundations crumble without the proper underpinning. I need a ramjack every now and then; more specifically moment by moment. If I don’t start the day with Jesus, I end the day washed up.