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.

Election Eve

With political campaigns in hot pursuit of a victory tomorrow, we have already heard a plethora of promises that seem to stretch the limits of veracity. Some pollsters say that the deciding factor in this year’s presidential campaign is trust. Unfortunately, since negative ads and truth-o-meters are NEVER unbiased, this year’s campaign has been relegated to a shallow-minded popularity contest mixed with a smattering of empirical data. Daily tracking polls are so skewed in my mind that they aren’t believable at all.

They are about as reliable as the college football polls. Who do you believe? Gosh, in my neighborhood there are signs for “Beth” or “Joan” galore. I have been robo-called way past annoyance. On Election Eve, I unenviably feel like Pontius Pilate asking Jesus, “What is truth?” Personality is what’s left to go on when you can’t perceive the truth of what someone says. With some of the local contests I don’t even know their personalities so I ask my neighbors and hope that they know something tangible! What a terribly vulnerable position to be in. Spin-doctors tell us what they think we want to hear, and we’re gullible enough to buy it. Perception, unfortunately, often outweighs substance.

Poor voter turnout underscores our distrust of the political process. Knowing how to trust and whom to trust are issues that haunt our lives from the political realm to the person in the mirror. Questions of integrity affect our relationships at work, school, and home. In the midst of this climate of distrust, however, a bigger question looms: “What is lonelier than distrust?”  Christian community and the imago dei in all of us demands that we live and work in an interdependent society. If we are made in God’s image and God lives in the Community that we call Trinity, then we better get our act together and work for the common good. With Hurricane Sandy relief and the shadow of a year-end fiscal cliff, we must lay aside partisan differences and put others before self!

So whom do you believe? Have you made up your mind? I know some people who can spot gold-diggers from a mile away. They are also pretty cynical and judgmental. I should know because I’m one of them. To go through life trusting everyone goes against the grain of my natural skepticism. I have been burned too many times to let my guard down. At the same time, however, I wish that I could return to the innocence of childhood. Better yet, I want to be at that place where Blaise Pascal says, “We arrive at the truth not by reason alone, but also by the heart.”

Getting my head and heart together is a difficult task, but this synchronization is the essence of why we have religion, and one of the hopes that I have for politics. The mental ability to discern the truth and the heartfelt innocence to believe that truth is possible is perhaps one of the most beneficial products of faith. Doubt, scientific inquiry, and study combine with faith to evaluate the substance of truth. Shucks, this is the essence of a good political process, too! The 18-inch connection between head and heart will determine who I vote for tomorrow.

An example of not putting one’s head and heart together to find the truth is found in a story about Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was trying to make a point. His hearer was unconvinced and stubborn. So Lincoln tried another tactic. He said to his opponent, “Well, let’s see now. How many legs does a cow have?” The disgusted reply came back, “Four, of course.” Lincoln agreed, “That’s right. Now, suppose you call the cow’s tail a leg; how many legs would the cow have?” The opponent replied confidently, “Why, five, of course.” Lincoln came back, “Now that’s where you’re wrong. Calling a cow’s tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg!”

Your heart saying something is truth without your rational mind verifying it is the basis of most cults. So, where do we turn for a balanced approach in our search for truth? How do I get to this kind of synchronization before tomorrow? The answer isn’t in political pundits or switching back and forth between CNN and Fox. Our source of truth as Christians isn’t even the candidates themselves, however sincere they might me. The answer is Jesus Christ! He claimed of himself, “I am the Truth,” which is saying a lot more than, “I’m telling the truth!” or “He/She is lying!” Only in Christ can we find the whole truth, and avoid the seductive power of half-truths. God bless us all tomorrow, and may God’s truth prevail! Like the test for prophets, one strike and you’re out, we really won’t know the truth of God’s preferred future until long after Election Day. Until then we need to work with whomever is elected to make the best of everything for everybody. That’s, afterall, what God does with us!

Connected Appointment Making

As a District Superintendent I’m about to head to our Appointment-making Week. I just came back in after spending 3 hours walking with one of the Columbia District clergy. Every Spring and Summer I spend three hours with each clergyperson doing whatever they want to do so we get to know each other at the heart level. Last night I had a long church local conference with a fine church that had some issues that needed to be addressed. Without knowledge of that church the impasse would have remained, but everything worked out well. I know them and they know me and that helped tremendously. I don’t think District Superintendents can adequately represent clergy or churches without personal knowledge. Connectionalism only works if we’re really connected.

This was important in my first parish and every parish. In my first appointment I pastored three churches for five years. I moved from seminary in Boston, Massachusetts to the outskirts of Cheraw, South Carolina. Although I grew up in South Carolina, I had never been in the Pee Dee region. As a matter of fact, I was under the mistaken impression that there were only three regions in our fair state: the Lowcountry, the Midlands, and the Upstate. I learned rather quickly that the Pee Dee is a separate region unto itself, with characteristics of the other three.

I had never heard of “funeralizing” someone. “Chicken Bog” sounded like something you could get stuck in rather than something wonderful to eat. I learned the hard way what a “colyum” was. I asked directions to a church member’s house and was told to turn at the house with “colyums.” Only after stopping at a country store and asking did I discover that a “colyum” was a “column.” Every place has a unique story, even vocabulary.

Each of the three churches was unique, as they should have been. Pleasant Grove was closest to town, situated on a four-lane highway. The folks there pronounced “Cheraw” as “Sha-rah” like “que sera sera.” The people at Mt. Olivet near Teal’s Mill pronounced it as “Chur-rah.” The members of the smallest church, Bethesda, pronounced it as “Chee-raw.” Each church was unique in attitudes, worship styles, and socio-economic preferences.

These differences were especially evident in how each “did” church. Pleasant Grove was closer to town and the music and worship reflected this. Mt. Olivet’s choir was more oriented toward quartets. Bethesda had no choir and the congregation primarily chanted their music except when Cindy played the piano for them.

Bethesda loved revivals and baptisms at the creek. Each Sunday for five years my sermons went through a cultural time-warp as I criss-crossed Thompson’s Creek in my used Plymouth Arrow. I preached every Sunday at 9:45 a.m. at Mt. Olivet, 11:15 a.m. at Pleasant Grove, and at 12:30 p.m. at Bethesda. Bethesda loved what I would call “Hard-Preaching.” They wanted the unadulterated truth straight from the Bible, no humor – all with the bluster of a whirlwind with accompanying fire and brimstone with a dash of thunder and lightning.

They didn’t like the Gospel “sugar-coated,” so to speak. Now, understand, this didn’t mean that they lived up to the Word any more than the other churches. These were hard-living people. They had tough lives and were poverty-stricken, but they also exacerbated their own situations by adding their personal fuel (usually moonshine) to their already tenuous existences. I think they needed Hard-Preaching because they knew themselves. They didn’t hide behind fancy liturgies and worship services. They came to church for medicine, and they expected it to taste like castor oil.

I remember one of my first funerals at Bethesda. I thought that I should comfort the family by bringing out all the good things that I could glean from the deceased’s life. He was a rascal by many people’s estimation. I learned very quickly that I needed to tell the truth at subsequent funerals. It was after this funeral that I first heard the pointed joke about the woman who told her son to go check who was in the casket because the preacher had described a man that was a lot better than the one she was married to. The lesson learned was this: if you don’t own up to sin you can’t appreciate grace.

Lent is our time to lay down pretenses and be honest – no sugar-coating. That’s the lesson from Bethesda: grace excels when you need it most! By the way, each of the three churches was the scene of each of our children’s baptisms. Narcie was baptized at Pleasant Grove, Josh at Mt. Olivet, and Caleb at Bethesda. Each of those churches will remain special in many ways. They trained me as a young pastor and taught me how to live incarnationally with diverse and unique individuals. They especially taught me about grace in the midst of judgment. They were and remain vital to our family.

As we make appointments this week I am profoundly reminded that the Cabinet has to know the churches and clergy whom we will consider. This Annual Conference is our family. The Lenten discipline of speaking the truth in love, helpful insight mixed with bared souls is necessary. If we want to do our part to increase the number of vital congregations we have to express an intimate knowledge of every person and church on the table. Effective and grace-filled appointment-making depends on it!

Lent, Call to Action, and the Truth

I just got back from a Connectional Table meeting and felt like I was subjected to subtle and not-so-subtle encouragement to support the IOT/CT legislation carte blanche. Well I have hardly ever been accused of checking my brain at the door. I did get up and profess that I would rather be a part of the coalition of the willing than a resister but feel the responsibility to ask pertinent questions about the IOT/CT plan that must be answered. I still have those questions about putting so much power and assets in the hands of a 15-member Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry and a 45-member group that meets once a year. The questions are huge. I feel compelled to keep asking questions and pray for truth. I know that everybody in this debate has their own perspective, but I hope we will all ponder the common issues of UM indentity, theology, and inclusivity. All of us have to avoid spin which to me is negative and often just half-truths. I read the Wisconsin Annual Conference’s statement on the Call to Action and really resonate with it. Here’s the link to some good truth-telling and questions:

http://www.umc.org/atf/cf/%7Bdb6a45e4-c446-4248-82c8-e131b6424741%7D/WISCONSIN%20DELEGATION%20STATEMENT.PDF?tr=y&auid=10420414

Speaking of truth, the great novelist Flannery O’Connor, known for surprise endings and plot twists that can turn a reader upside down, wrote these matter-of-fact words, “You shall know and do the truth . . . and the truth will make you odd.”  It may cause us to feel odd in today’s world when we live truthfully. I know that I don’t have a corner on the truth market. I also know how odd I can be, but I’m trying to be ethical. Ethics as defined by the dictionary is “the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation.” I’m glad the definition started with the word, “discipline.”  Doing the right thing, believing the truth and living truthfully, takes extraordinary discipline.

For example, 20,000 middle-and high-schoolers were surveyed by the Josephson Institute of Ethics–a non-profit organization in Marina del Rey, California, devoted to character education.  Ninety-two percent of the teenagers admitted having lied to their parents in the previous year, and 73 percent characterized themselves as “serial liars,” meaning they told lies weekly.  Despite these admissions, 91 percent of all respondents said they were “satisfied with my own ethics and character.” That’s a scary thing–when we knowingly misrepresent the truth and we are “satisfied with my own ethics and character.” Living truthfully may make you odd in today’s world.

Lenten season dares us to “fess up” to our shortcomings and that takes truth telling. Most of us would rather talk about what’s wrong with everybody else but ourselves. We have the Cleopatra Syndrome, so called because she was the Queen of DENIAL. Jesus came to expose the denying lies of those who felt smug in their self-righteousness and to bring relief to those who felt imprisoned by their unrighteousness. He told it like it was about both groups. He wanted both groups to come clean, tell the truth and experience the freedom that can only come from having no secrets from God.

With the woman at the well Jesus dodged her non-answers and went straight to the jugular about her many marriages and live-in lover. It was her honesty that finally opened her eyes to both Jesus and her own salvation. But she had to tell the truth to get there! Honesty is the best policy, especially honesty with God! He already knows what we’re thinking anyway, so why don’t we turn those ugly worrisome thoughts into prayers?

Only God is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, but out of love God gives us tremendous freedom and latitude. We can choose or not choose to turn to God in repentance and ask for help in our daily predicaments. If we don’t turn to God aren’t we neglecting the best opportunity for real help when the going gets rough? Next time you find yourself in a situation and are already planning your exit strategy with not-so-truthful ease, turn to God instead. Jesus is more than ready and able to help you. All Jesus asks is for us to be honest. Without honesty, we’re stuck in a downward spiral toward disaster. I pray that as we prepare for GC 2012 we will speak the truth in love!

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!