Human Connections Make for Human Correctness

According to Mark Twain, “Sacred cows make the best hamburger.” Everyone has their own list of what’s sacred and what is profane. That rugged individualism has been exploited by the pandemic and our most base natures. We are now scared of each other right when we need each other the most. Our divided world has been further fragmented because of COVID-19. We can’t seem to see eye-to-eye on anything.  Politics, religion, and whether or not to defund or defend the police, wear a mask or not, and an assortment of other issues have further removed us from an essential characteristic of being human: community.

Our society is splitting into camps that are pro and con on almost everything. President Trump can’t use the word “love” without people hating him for it, and Joe Biden can’t say the word “compromise” without offending the ultra-progressives. This pandemic has made utterly clear that red and blue don’t make purple. Our divisions have made red states redder, and blue state bluer. When we need each other the most, we are the most divided.

Not only have we given up on common decency that respects differences of opinion, we have also given up on the ways that we human beings have been made in the image of God. The moral image of God that promotes the ability of human beings to discern the difference between right and wrong has been tossed out the window. The bigger casualty of the pandemic has been what we’ve done to the social image of God. The moral image has been so shot to hell so much that there seems to be no way to decide if protesters are or are not more important than law enforcement, whether or not statues are history or racism, or if anyone in the news media speaks the unvarnished truth without bias.

Frankly, we better find a way to reflect God’s social image if we want to have any chance of resurrecting the moral image. Recapturing the moral image of God, where we might actually have the ability to agree to disagree, is totally connected to our appreciation and application of the social image of God. The social image in us finds its source in the personhood of God. If God lives in the community that we call the Trinity, then, surely, we need one another, too. Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three persons that are distinct, yet indivisible. Unlike our country’s purported motto, e pluriblus unum, “Out of many, one,” God actually lives up to the billing. There is oneness in God at the same time that diversity is also honored. When you see Jesus doing something, the Father and Holy Spirit are right there, too. It’s the same with any action of each member of the Godhead. It should be the same with us. We should be distinct, but indivisible, but we’re nowhere near this reality, and the pandemic has only made it worse.

We have gone from a melting pot mentality to a salad bowl one with the cucumbers in one place, the tomatoes lumped together, and the different types of lettuce are each relegated to their respective places. This is our world right now. To make things worse, we cannot even have fellowship with one another except through Zoom, or as we practice other means of social distancing. I’m getting used to teaching a Sunday School class by Zoom, but preaching to people where their faces are half covered up causes emotional connections difficult to make. I know people are ministering to one another through social media and porch drop-offs, but there is a deep longing for human touch that has gone woefully lacking. No doubt, we don’t need to start hugging and high-fiving on Sundays, but we desperately need to find a way to recapture the social image of God in our corporate lives. That, in and of itself, is the problem. Our corporate lives have been obliterated.

How do we promote a corporate life in this climate? I’ve seen videos of people who have constructed family hugging booths where grandparents from out of town can visit their grandchildren and hug on one another through a plastic sheet that has open-ended appendages securely attached for arm insertion. I’ve seen folks kiss on windows against the pressed lips of an isolated loved one. It’s not the same, but it’s better than nothing. The bottom-line, we need to do whatever we can to stay socially connected, in spite of our differences. We will not be able to come to any consensus of what’s right and wrong; i.e., the moral image if we can’t connect with one another socially. Human connections make for human correctness!

Please look for ways this week to connect. Be safe and creative. People are dying on the withered vine of emotional cut-offs and the lack of physical touch. We weren’t made for this kind of life. Thank God that Jesus clarified where all this pain and angst is coming from. John 10:10 gives us Jesus’ assessment of this very succinctly: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

So, we pray, “Lord, please give us a vaccine to kill this virus so we can emotionally and physically reconnect. The fabric of our lives, country, culture, and world depend upon your healing us. Let it be soon; in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

Curing Optic Rectosis

Back in 1996 I was elected to my first of 5 General Conferences of the United Methodist Church. Since then I’ve been on some very effective teams and some that weren’t. I was on the former General Council on Ministries for 4 years, The Connectional Table for 8 years, The Worldwide UMC Study Committee for 4 years, and now on the General Commission on Religion and Race for a four-year term. I’ve been on plenty of other teams in the global UMC including mission teams, pastoral teams, and am now in my eighth year of a Cabinet team. I also like to think of the Columbia District as a team. That’s been our motto: “Together We Can Do More!” and it has happened. I clearly remember the use of “team” back in 1996 as our Episcopal nominee, Ted Walter, gave his speech before the gathered delegates of the Southeastern Jurisdiction as we met in Denver, CO at General Conference.

He used a story to emphasize that he wanted to be a part of an Annual Conference’s team. The story went something like this: “A mule named ‘Jim’ was being driven by his owner. When everyone got on the wagon, the driver yelled ‘Giddyup, Jim. Giddyup, Sue. Giddyup, Sam. Giddyup, John. Giddyup, Joe.’ As the wagon started to move, one of the passengers said: ‘When Jim is the only one there, why did you call all those other names?’ The owner replied: ‘If Jim knew he was the only one pulling this wagon, he’d never budge an inch.’ It takes teamwork.”

Sometimes when I get optic rectosis, which is a nice way of saying I’ve been looking at life from a position a lot lower than a pat on the back, it helps to know the truth of 2 passages of Scripture that have a lot in common: I Corinthians 10:13 and I Peter 5:9-11. They have a lot in common, especially that God delivers and that we’re never alone when we think we’re the only one in the world going through this mess.

Listen to the commonalities between the passages. First, I Corinthians 10:13: “No temptation has seized you except what is common to humankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up against it.” I Peter 5:9-11 says, “Resist him (the devil), standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers and sisters throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings. And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered for a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.”

What I hear is that I’m not the only one who has ever been through this crud. There are plenty of other sojourners who walk a similar path, and in both passages we have a God who is faithful and strong and on our side! Now that’s a team!

“Team” is a simple word to describe the Trinitarian theology that I appreciate so much, although I’m a little taken aback at the words I’ve heard lately at the conclusion of prayers: “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Didn’t Jesus say to pray in his name? What’s with this? Maybe I’m late to the game, but it’s no big deal, really. After all when you see one person of the Trinity, you see all three at work in that marvelous dance, distinct but indivisible, when Holy Perichoresis takes place.

“Perichoresis” is a word composed of two roots: peri which means around, and choresis from whence we get our word, to dance. In other words, God is always dancing around as a team, as the Trinity – always on the move, on the go, and at the ready – together! Better news for us is that when we feel alone facing life’s problems we should remember that we bear the Imago dei, the Image of God. Therefore, if God exists and works in the community that we call the Trinity how much more so should we lean upon one another when times are tough? We are vital members of a divine-human team that always wins!

Why do you think that “ER” was so popular on TV from 1994-2009, or “Bones” now? One reason is that emergencies or crisis management, require not solo players but team play, and we are enthralled and galvanized by the way in which a motivated team can take on a challenge. It’s not white knights, lone wolves or highflying eagles that solve crises. It’s team play. Can I dare say it’s the Trinity and the church!

So chunk your optic rectosis and hold your head up! You’ve got a lot of big-time H/help all around you! “Together We Can Do More!”

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!

Community & Perichoresis

Well, being in Atlanta is interesting. I asked a guy where the REGAL 24 movie theatre was located and he said he didn’t have a clue. It was only 2 exits up, probably less than 2 miles. In the city one tends to know their immediate surroundings and that’s it. Sounds like a lot of our churches, whether they’re struggling or not. Many of the churches that I know are inbred and have a DNA imprint that doesn’t allow for outreach or acceptance of new people or ideas, and then they wonder why they’re not growing.

Community is how we define it. As I have been pondering theology in teaching these two classes at Emory, I am struck, by both our ecclesiology and polity, that community is a big deal to United Methodist theology and ethos. From my understanding of Wesley, we as human beings primarily reflect the image of God in a social sense. Wesley leaned toward an Eastern Orthodox understanding of the Trinity as perichoresis. What a great word in describing the Trinity. Peri means “around” and choresis is where we get our english word for “dancing.” The Trinity is three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in a perpetual dance meeting us at our every point of need. If we are made in the image of this community-oriented awesome Three-One God, then we must hold hands in our living out personal piety and SOCIAL holiness.
We need to know, not just our little corner of Atlanta or rural South Carolina. We are interconnected with the whole world if we are to be truly human made in God’s image. I pray that my relationships express this wonderful give-and-take of being intentionally in relationship with society, with two-leggeds and all of God’s creation. We are in this thing together – Connectionalism is who we are whether we’re giving directions to the REGAL 24 or to Jesus.