Category Archives: Following Jesus

The Heart of an Alien

Last Thursday, April 5, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents raided a meat processing facility about ninety miles away in Grainger County, Tennessee. The result of the raid was that several dozen people were detained for further legal proceedings related to their immigration status.

The first of those “further proceedings” occurred yesterday, as people identified in Thursday’s raid reported to an immigration intake office in Knoxville, Tennessee. Religious leaders from a variety of denominations–including some of my own respected friends and colleagues of the Holston Conference of the United Methodist Church–were present to demonstrate their solidarity with the people and families who fear they are on the verge of deportation.

As you read that last sentence, you may have felt encouraged or outraged, depending on your perspective. It may have given you hope or caused you heartburn.

We live in an era in which our society and church are increasingly polarized, and our deeply held passions and convictions about faith and politics become so commingled that it can be difficult to discern whether our beliefs shape our political views or vice versa. Moreover, we often call this a “Christian nation,” further entangling our views of faith and policy.

So, whether you celebrate or seethe, may I please ask you to stop right now to question why you feel as you do about immigration? What convictions do you hold that make you glad, sad, or mad that ICE raided the packing plant or that the church came out yesterday to show solidarity with immigrants and their families?

As I seek to know and understand my own reactions, the United States citizen in me recognizes the need for immigration policy and border security, and I realize that the ICE agents–both at the processing plant last week and at the intake center yesterday–were doing exactly what we the people have asked and expected them to do on our behalf. I’m grateful for them and for the protection they provide us.

As a follower of Jesus Christ, I am also a citizen of the eternal Kingdom of God, and if I am to obey that Kingdom’s greatest commandment, to love the Lord my God with all my heart, soul, strength and mind, I must allow the Lordship of Jesus Christ reign over the sovereignty of the United States of America.

As a member of Christ’s body the church, I believe that God calls me–and all Christians–to lift our voices on behalf of, to stand in solidarity alongside, and to offer help and support to the immigrants in our midst.

Why? Because God has always shown favor to the stranger, the alien, the immigrant.

Those words are the various translations of the Hebrew word ger in the King James Version, New International Version, New Revised Standard Version, and Common English Bible.

From the very beginning of scripture in the book of Genesis, Abram(-aham) is a ger, a stranger/alien/immigrant, and his descendants keep up the family tradition throughout God’s holy word.

The twelfth chapter of Genesis reports that Abram(-aham) leaves his homeland of Haran, and from then on he is at various times an alien in the lands of the Egyptians, Canaanites, and Philistines. In Genesis 20, he and Sarah are aliens in the land of Gerar, whose name literally means something like “the place of strangers/aliens/immigrants.”

In Genesis 15:13, God tells Abram, “your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs . . . for four hundred years.” The next four books of the Bible tell us not only about God’s rescue of the oppressed strangers/aliens/immigrants from Egypt, but also about their wandering about for another forty years until they finally occupy the land that will be their home.

Their Exodus is led by Moses, a man who had two sons, one of whom was named, “Gershom (for he said, ‘I have been an alien in a foreign land’)” (Exodus 18:3).

As the Israelites travel through the wilderness, God prepares them to be hospitable to the strangers, aliens, and immigrants who will live among them in their promised land. In Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, God requires that they offer to both citizens and aliens equal protection under the law.

In Leviticus 19:33, God specifically requires, “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien.” Beyond merely refraining from oppression, God requires the people to provide for the strangers’, aliens’, and immigrants’ needs in Deuteronomy, both as they leave extra produce in their fields for gleaning (24:19-22) and as they provide directly for the “aliens, the orphans, and the widows” from the people’s tithes (14:29).

Because God commanded that the Israelites leave room for the aliens to glean from their crops, Ruth, a ger from Moab, was able to gather enough gleaned barley to feed herself and her mother-in-law Naomi. While gleaning, she meets and eventually marries Boaz, and they become the great-grandparents of David, the great king of Israel.

This is momentous enough that when Matthew the gospel writer records forty-two generations of Jesus’ genealogy, he mentions only five women, and names only four. Ruth, the stranger/alien/immigrant is one of the four (Matthew 1:5).

Just as Matthew’s gospel begins with a ger playing a key role in Jesus’ genealogy, the story ends with Jesus himself telling his followers that our treatment of strangers is a key expression of our faith.

In Matthew 25’s judgment of the nations, he says to the righteous, “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.” Likewise, he says to the accursed, “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me.”

Through all of scripture, the message is consistent: it matters to God how we treat the ger–the stranger, the alien, the immigrant–in our midst.

As if in summary, God says to Moses and Israel in Exodus 23:9, “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

The Common English Bible translates that same verse, “Don’t oppress an immigrant. You know what it’s like to be an immigrant, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt.”

We citizens of the United States of America could just as easily hear that particular translation entirely apart from any context of faith. We know what it’s like to be immigrants because we were immigrants, or at least our ancestors were. We can find a way to be hospitable toward immigrants, because we have benefited from previous generations’ hospitality.

I can hear the immediate objection: “Let them come into this nation legally!” I agree that it would seem that simple, but my own family’s experience convinces me otherwise.

There are two immigrants in my household, my sons Brett and Micah, whom Suzanne and I adopted (absolutely legally and at considerable expense) from Guatemala as infants. In a court deposition, their birth mother said she was at peace with the decision to make Brett available for adoption because she could not provide for him financially.

She testified that she made a “few centavos per day making tamales.” At today’s exchange rate, a Guatemalan Quetzal, the standard unit of currency, is worth thirteen cents. One centavo is worth 1/100 of a Guatemalan Quetzal, or 1/100 of thirteen cents. In other words, it would take seven centavos to equal one US cent.

I’ll leave you to imagine what she meant by “a few centavos.” Imagine further what she could or could not purchase with those few centavos.

We learned later that she saw a picture of our wood frame home with vinyl siding and said, “Palacio!” To her, our home was a palace, and the child she carried was going to live in a land and family of unimaginable wealth.

There’s the problem with, “Let them come into this nation legally.” Earning a few centavos a day, neither Maria nor hundreds of thousands of her Central American neighbors will ever afford to pay attorneys, to acquire documentation, or to access commercial transportation.

Their financial desperation is often compounded by the circumstantial desperation of living in communities and nations in which the rule of law has not yet superseded the rules of corruption, violence, ethnic conflict, or trafficking, and in which the words “human rights” are merely words, hollow and empty of meaning.

So, in desperation, they come by any means available in search of a job that pays more than a few centavos a day, in pursuit of a modest home that is a palacio compared to what they have left behind, with dreams of an education for their children, in hopes of living in a land without widespread corruption and oppression, a land in which they are not persecuted . . . in short, they are probably very much like our immigrant ancestors.

However, we have become so accustomed to being part of the “we” that it is easy for us to forget that we were once “they.” That’s really what this conversation is all about. In fact, the English word “alien” derives from the Latin word alius, which literally means “the other.”

It is easy to identify what is other than ourselves, and the more foreign something or someone is, the easier it is for us to respond in fear. As foreign as our income and palacio seemed to Maria, she would probably seem even more foreign here in our community.

With her small frame, her dark complexion, wearing her distinctive Guatemalan K’iche’ Maya huipil, and speaking some Spanish, but mostly in her K’iche’ dialect, she would be different from most of “us.” She would be a ger.

Unable to understand her language and unaccustomed to her appearance and habits, we might fear her intentions or dismiss the possibility that we would ever find enough common ground to consider each other neighbors . . .

. . . neighbors, as in “Love your neighbor,” the second great commandment of this Kingdom of which I am a citizen. In this Kingdom, we do the hard work of finding the neighbor in the stranger. In this Kingdom, we walk by faith and not by fear.

Fellow citizens of the Kingdom of God, how would our sovereign God have us respond to the ger, to the stranger, alien, or immigrant in our midst?

How would Jesus Christ have us welcome him by welcoming the stranger in 2018?

We already know the answer to these questions, don’t we?

God calls us to respond from our hearts, because as the Israelites learned so long ago, we know “the heart of an alien.”

_________________________

For further reflection, the United Methodist Church offers these resources related to global migration.

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Cleaning Up the Cross

Just over a year ago, I mentioned to some leaders in our church family that I would really love to have a larger wooden cross to use in our Holy Week worship services. Like many churches, we had one that had been made from the carcass of some prior year’s Christmas tree, but I wanted something sturdier, more substantial, more lifelike.

I realized the irony as soon as the word departed my lips. How lifelike should an instrument of death be?

Nevertheless, our worship committee chairperson Donna Fowlkes assigned herself a mission, and a few days later, her husband Tom brought a sturdy, straight, weathered trunk of a cedar tree that was fifteen feet tall.

One afternoon last spring, I cut it into lengths of nine and six feet, carefully measured and cut notches, and finally joined the two sections together with the most rustic looking coconut twine I could find.

We had a large, intimidating old rugged cross that served beautifully as the focal point for our Holy Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday services. Then, on Easter Sunday morning, we stapled chicken wire around that old rugged cross, and our congregation covered almost every inch of 9 by 6 ruggedness with fresh flowers and greenery. It was transformed into a thing of beauty.

Then, when the flowers had wilted after a few days on display in front of our church building, the cross returned to its storage place in the attic . . .

. . . until yesterday, when I brought the cross out of the attic for the annual Maundy Thursday service. Since I’m a fairly large (and stubborn) man, I didn’t ask anyone to help. I wrestled the cross through the attic to the top of the stairs easily enough, but as I started down the four flights of stairs, I began to notice how unbalanced and unwieldy a 9 by 6 cedar cross can be.

At one point, I stumbled a bit under its weight.

Whoa. That was a profound moment.

As I continued my journey down the stairs and into the chapel, I became increasingly aware of all the stems and protrusions that remained on the trunk where limbs had once grown. Again, I noted the irony as I concentrated not to rip my clothes on this truly rugged cross.

Finally, as I moved the cross into position in the chapel, my hands felt the remaining wood staples and–worse yet–staple fragments that had secured last year’s chicken wire. Out of frustration and disgust, I said aloud to myself, “Someone’s going to get hurt on this thing!”

Again, whoa.

I sat there on the chapel floor with heavy pliers in one hand and a hammer in the other to remove or drive flush all the staples and pieces I could find in that rugged trunk. As I literally cleaned up the cross, I prayed that I wouldn’t clean it up figuratively in my ministry.

That’s a real temptation, though, isn’t it?

We seek the empty tomb, but prefer to bypass the agonizing cross.

We cherish the cross as a symbol of victory, overlooking that it was for Jesus an instrument of suffering and death. It becomes a brass or golden symbol, shiny and smooth–in other words, the kind of cross that doesn’t hurt anyone.

Hundreds of people will gather in our church the day after tomorrow to celebrate Jesus’ triumph over the grave. A few dozen gathered today at noon to remember his suffering. I’m not being critical. I’m just restating that the church suffers from cross avoidance. Maybe it just hurts too much.

As I carried that cross down the steps yesterday, a stray staple dug into my left hand, just below my index finger. It drew blood and left a mark.

I’m glad and grateful for that reminder that someone could get hurt on that rugged cross.

My heart overflows this Good Friday with gratitude for my Lord Jesus Christ, who not only hurt, but suffered, agonized, and ultimately died on a larger, heavier, more burdensome and sinister cross.

May I never clean up that cross.

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Giving Up Mass Shootings for Lent

This post approximates my sermon from this past Sunday, February 18, at State Street United Methodist Church.

16When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18“A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more” (Matthew 2:16-20).

As we celebrated Ash Wednesday just a few days ago, we remembered that the ashes imposed upon our foreheads were expressions of grief and mourning for our human mortality and sinfulness.

Mortality and sinfulness.

On that very same day, miles away (and worlds apart) from the Ash Wednesday services in our chapel, mortality and sinfulness were conspicuous at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where a young man armed with fury and an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle killed seventeen students and faculty members.

Because of my faith, I believe that each was made in the image of God, that all of them were lovingly and uniquely knit together by God in their mothers’ wombs, and that not one of them fell to the ground apart from God. I believe each was–and is–precious in the sight of the Lord.

So, for me, and I suspect for churches and Christians all across our land, Ash Wednesday’s ashes have become a sign of grief and mourning for the mortality of seventeen precious lives and for the sinfulness of the shooter and all like him who have such callous disregard for God’s good gift of life.

Nearly one thousand seven hundred years ago, the season of Lent likely began as an intensive period of fasting, prayer, and repentance for candidates preparing for baptism on Easter morning. From these roots, our practice of “giving up” something for Lent is more than merely an act of self-discipline; it is an act of repentance, of walking away from something that stands between us and God.

Most often, the ashes upon our foreheads are very self-centered. We mourn our own mortality, and we tend to repent from our own individual sinfulness. Less often do we lift up our shared mortality or our collective sin, but I believe this year’s Ash Wednesday massacre in Parkland invites us to just such an awareness.

So, Christians, let’s walk away. Let’s give up mass shootings for Lent.

It may sound ludicrous or hopelessly idealistic, but walking away from evil is what we Christians do. It’s why our ancestors in the faith got a forty-day head start in their walk away from sin and evil before beginning a journey with Christ through baptism.

We United Methodists continue to acknowledge the primacy of turning away from evil in the covenant we share for baptism, confirmation, or profession of faith. Before asking a person to profess faith in Jesus Christ, we begin by asking about the person’s willingness to “give up” or to walk away from sin and evil.

The first covenant question to the candidate is, “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?”

The second question is similar: “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

To give up mass shootings for Lent, let’s begin with our vows: Renounce. Reject. Resist. Repent.

Renounce! Renounce the wickedness and evil of mass shootings.

Have the courage to say both often and out loud that there is no place in our society–and certainly no place within the reign of Jesus Christ–for this deplorable evil.

For far too long and at the expense of far too many precious God-knit lives has the church remained silent, or at least relatively quiet. Our failure to renounce the evil epidemic of mass shootings is a failure to keep our covenant vows.

Worse yet, failing to decry the evil is in fact accommodating to the evil, accepting the evil, and–God forbid–becoming complicit to the evil.

There is power in saying the words. When we can name the opponent, we can form a game plan or battle plan. When we can name the cancer, we can begin to treat it. When we can name (and renounce) the evil, we can begin to defeat it.

Christians, speak up! Say that mass shootings are nothing but wickedness, and they are outside the will of God.

Renounce, and then reject this systemic evil.

Reject the notion that the heartless mass-scale reaping of human life is somehow an unavoidable consequence of living in a fallen, sinful world.

Reject that this is a secular problem, somehow removed from our lives of faith.

Reject the idea that the problem is too big, and we are helpless to do anything about it. Ours is the society that first landed a human on the moon. Ours is the society that eradicated polio. Ours can be the society to eradicate this evil too.

Reject the temptation to assign blame. Pointing a finger at parents, teachers, FBI, NRA, legislators, or law enforcement officers does not help. Arguing over who’s primarily at fault distracts us from finding common ground and mutual solutions.

Importantly for the sake of any meaningful progress, reject the temptation to politicize mass shootings and any potential solutions to this horrible evil. Otherwise, we will fall too easily and readily into our partisan trenches and continue to make the mass shooting madness an argument to be won against our foes, rather than a mutual evil to be confronted with our neighbors.

When we begin to talk about the availability of firearms and accessories, the temptation is to frame that conversation purely along partisan lines. We become either the protectors or the enemies of the Second Amendment. Reject the temptation to categorize and oppose someone politically just because firearms are the topic! There is room for conversation when we cease our arguments and see each other as neighbors, rather than partisan opponents.

When we begin to talk about the availability of mental healthcare, there is a similar temptation to devolve into arguments about profits, payers, universality, Obamacare, and other hyper-politicized terms and concepts. Again, this is not an argument to be won; instead, it is an evil to be eradicated. Reject the notion that mental healthcare conversations must necessarily become political debates.

The church and its individual members have been too idle, perhaps because we believe that the evil is too great and complex to be vanquished. Let me remind us that the proper name Satan means “the adversary” or “the obstacle.” As we seek to eradicate evil, the evil one will use anything–including petty arguments–to get in our way. Reject them!

Renounce, Reject, and Resist.

Resistance is active. It is not passive or submissive. Resisting means actively opposing the evil in our midst. It requires doing something.

You may be growing anxious because you suspect that I’m about to tell you to do something with which you disagree politically. I assure you I am not.

If the solution were easy, we would have identified and agreed upon it already. This is a complex evil without a simple solution. So, I will not dare tell you how to resist. I simply implore you to do something to combat this evil.

If you are convinced that the problem is the availability of particular firearms and accessories, do something about it! Contact your legislators today and share your convictions.

If you believe the availability, accessibility, or quality of mental healthcare is at the heart of this evil, do something about it! Lift your voice and advocate for greater funding, for more availability, for less stigmatization.

If you believe the FBI needs more resources to follow up on tips, or if you believe schools need more security measures or greater law enforcement presence, do something about it! Offer to pay more taxes, advocate for greater resources, and in the name of Jesus Christ, do something to resist the evil!

If you believe the fundamental problem is that hearts need to be changed, be a changer of hearts. Perhaps your church (like my church) is within a few meters of a nearby school. What if you proclaim that school your mission field? What if you resist the evil by doing everything in your power to ensure that every student in that school feels loved, embraced, and included in community?

There are thirty-five days remaining in the season of Lent. If every person who reads this blog reaches out to share the love of Christ with just one person per day for the remainder of Lent, thousands of people might be touched by that simple effort.

We shrink from the evil and do nothing because we assume there is nothing we can do. Harry Emerson Fosdick’s 1930 hymn, “God of Grace and God of Glory,” offers up this prayer to God: “Save us from weak resignation to the evils we deplore.”

Enable us Lord to resist the evils that you call us to renounce and reject!

When you feel that you are too weak, and that your resistance is ineffective, recall the question from the United Methodist covenant, “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?”

God empowers our resistance on behalf of Jesus Christ. That’s an important qualifier. Don’t let your resistance be merely about your opinions, convictions, or political affiliations. Let your resistance be in the name of and within the will of Jesus Christ.

How will you know if you’re doing the Lord’s will?

Repent. Turn to him with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength through the remainder of this season of Lent.

Though I am saddened and hurt by all the critical rejection of “thoughts and prayers” over the past few days, I realize and embrace that we cannot simply pray for consolation for the families of the slaughtered innocents. We must also pray for God’s deliverance from this ongoing evil.

So, to know how to reject and resist, I suggest we spend this season in fasting and prayer to seek God’s wisdom. Fasting is not merely an act of self-denial; it is also an act of vulnerability and humility before God, reminding us of our ultimate dependence upon him. Let us prayerfully depend upon God to inspire and shape our rejection and resistance, so that they are Christlike and holy. Let us admit that we are ultimately dependent upon God’s wisdom and power to end this wickedness.

I hear God’s Spirit calling me to repent from the ways I have contributed to this systemic wickedness, not only in the larger world and community, but even in my own family.

I have not walked away from the gratuitous and profitable violence in the entertainment industry that numbs us to the effects and consequence of intentional harm to others.

I have not walked away from the kill tallies and headshots of video games that celebrate violence with point bonuses and allow our children to notch countless kills from the comfort of their own game consoles.

I have not led my congregation in heartfelt renunciation, rejection, resistance, and repentance each time another 17, or 58, or 33 innocent lives are lost in a mass shooting.

In fact, I repent that I am more familiar with the numbers than the names of the people senselessly slaughtered in our society. I have allowed them to become statistics, rather than beloved individuals created in the image of God.

I repent because I believe their deaths matter to God.

In the passage from Matthew’s gospel at the beginning of this post, Matthew tells the story of Herod’s “slaughter of the innocents,” in which Herod, filled with fury, causes a mass killing in and around Bethlehem.

There are no known extrabiblical historical sources to verify the account, and the death total has been subject to speculation for generations. Given Bethlehem’s estimated population of only a few hundred people during Jesus’ lifetime, the number of children killed by Herod’s soldiers was probably a dozen or less. Still, Matthew associates this story with inconsolable weeping.

Whether a few children in Bethlehem, seventeen in Parkland, fifty-eight in Las Vegas, thirty-three at Virginia Tech, or any number anywhere, I believe God’s is the first heart to break when the innocent are slaughtered.

God knows enough mothers, fathers, and communities have wept inconsolably.

Through this season of Lent with the ashes fresh on our heads, we join with them in weeping over mortality and sinfulness.

Mortality and sinfulness.

So church, let’s give up mass shootings for Lent.

And let’s keep giving them up until Rachel weeps no more.

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United Methodists, Please Don’t Lose Our Witness!

Dear Fellow Followers of Jesus in the United Methodist Church,

One year from today, the 2016 General Conference of the United Methodist Church will have concluded. One year from today, people I dearly love will breathe a sigh of relief that it’s all over for another quadrennium. One year from today, people I dearly love will be heartbroken, perhaps to the point of leaving our church. One year from today, people I dearly love will be elated and filled with joy and hope.

I can’t foresee how the debates will proceed about human sexuality and other topics that are highly charged–emotionally, spiritually, missionally, and otherwise. Nor do I know how our church’s Book of Discipline will change, if at all. But I feel certain of this–one year from today, some United Methodists will feel that they’ve won, and others will feel that they’ve lost.

One year from today, people who outwardly consider themselves brothers and sisters in Christ will leave Portland, Oregon, feeling that they have either triumphed over or been defeated by their opponents. I find that heartbreaking, and I can’t help but feel that God finds it heartbreaking too.

I have seen the divide very clearly in my own circle of friends and sphere of influence in just the past few days. When United Methodist Communications released the story on Monday about our Connectional Table’s proposal to remove the Book of Discipline’s prohibitive language about sexuality, my Facebook friends were seemingly equally divided and equally convicted in their responses. Some were exuberant. Others were disgusted. Some derided the Connectional Table for sounding another peal of our church’s death knell. Others praised the Connectional Table for offering our church a new potential route toward vitality and life.

I have no problem with my friends’ differing perspectives. We will always have differences of opinion and conviction. God made us, and God made each of us differently and uniquely. What causes my heart to ache is when we Christians vilify and demonize the people who don’t share our perspective, when we view a person as an opponent to be out-argued, out-maneuvered, and ultimately out-voted.

We let ourselves off the hook because we convince ourselves (seemingly regardless of our perspective and conviction), that we are taking a stand, making a case, winning an argument, and maybe even fighting a fight in the name of God. When we understand ourselves to be the ones who are standing up for God, it’s fairly easy for us to believe that anyone who disagrees with us ultimately disagrees with God. Since we see ourselves standing on the side of God, and therefore on the side of good, the one who opposes us must be standing on the side of evil, or at least on the side of something less than holy.

At worst, sometimes very subtly or almost even imperceptibly, our vision becomes impaired. We lose our ability to see fellow children of God, fearfully and wonderfully knit together in his image in our mothers’ wombs. We lose sight of fellow lambs of the Good Shepherd’s flock. We can no longer see fellow members of the Body of Christ or fellow neighbors to be loved as we love ourselves. We become blind to the reality that we are all fellow sinners of God’s redemption.

Instead, we see adversaries, opponents, even outright enemies to the redemptive work of Jesus Christ in the world.

Adversary. Opponent. Enemy. Any one of these is an acceptable translation of the Greek word/name satan. God forbid that we see or treat each other as adversaries!

There, my friends, is the danger. Regardless of our place on the theological spectrum, it’s awfully easy to fall into a polar worldview, in which we see ourselves as the defenders of the cause of Christ, and we see others as, well, other.

How does that happen? Again, I believe it’s a matter of vision. We become so focused on principle that we fail to see people. In our zeal to glorify God by embracing, espousing, and arguing a cause, we overlook the one commandment that Jesus says is comparable to loving God–the commandment to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

Notice the emphasis in that last sentence. Christians, that’s what’s different about us. As Jesus said, everyone loves the people who love them back. What sets apart followers of Jesus is our love for those who disagree with or even persecute us. Jesus commands us to love. It’s a requirement.

Jesus ups the ante even further. Not only does he expect us not to see the other as an adversary, not only does he command us to love the person with whom we disagree, but in his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, he warns us about our very attitudes toward each other:

21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”

That tells me loudly and clearly that we should be very humble in our praying, discerning, conferencing, debating, and voting. To see the person who may stand on the other side of the issue as a fool is to imperil our own souls.

Humility is the key, isn’t it? It’s humility that allows us to embrace and be embraced by God’s saving grace. It’s humility that enables us to see others as our neighbors, equally lovable as ourselves. It’s humility that enables us to realize that we need the other members of the body, and furthermore, that we just might grow from hearing their perspectives. It’s humility that enables us to love them (as we love ourselves) enough to really listen to them.

What if we really believed that the people with whom we disagree really meant what they said when they stood in front of a congregation–just as we did–and renounced evil, rejected wickedness, and confessed their faith in Christ? What if we believed that they were striving to love God and to follow Jesus just as fervently as we are? What if we were humble enough to ask ourselves, “What if I’m wrong?”

It’s a question that begs to be asked. Consider the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the scribes, the chief priests, the elders, the council, and the teachers of the law, and so many others in the gospel stories. In retrospect, we see them as the bad guys in the gospels, the antagonists to Jesus. Yet all of them were striving to lead Israel to a deeper devotion to God. They all had (or at least began with) very good intentions. They all were striving to make their land a little holier. They all thought they were teaching and doing God’s will.

At times, they disagreed with, argued with, and even scorned each other, because each claimed God’s endorsement. Their common ground was that they rejected and felt threatened by Jesus, ultimately to the point that they could no longer tolerate his presence in their midst or even on this earth.

Theirs is a humbling example. Their insistence that they were right led them to hate, rather than to love. In their zeal to protect and defend their corner of the kingdom of God or their part of the revelation of God’s will, they couldn’t or wouldn’t recognize the very presence of God in their midst. God save us from that kind of zeal!

Am I suggesting that we abandon our principles? Absolutely not! Any person of strong faith ought to be a person of strong convictions. Anyone with a strong faith ought to have a strong witness to share, even (and perhaps especially) with fellow followers of Christ. We help to shape each other’s convictions as we walk together in the footsteps of Jesus, going on to perfection together.

I’m simply asking that we lead with love. I’m praying that we will see the image of God, the neighbor, and the brother or sister in each other. I’m praying that we refrain from calling names, casting aspersions, lobbing rhetorical barbs, and assigning blame toward each other. We all lose when we see the adversary, the enemy, the opponent in each other.

Let’s remember Paul’s counsel to the Ephesians, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” In other words, the real adversary, opponent, or enemy is the very one, Satan, whose name is defined by those words. When we see each other as opponents, the victory is his.

Maybe the most important consideration and realization of all is this: we get in the way of our very mission and meaning when we treat each other as opponents. Years ago, one of my mentors in the faith planted a very helpful concept in my heart and mind. He said that we Christians can inadvertently “lose our witness” when the impression that we give to others is that we’re joyless and confrontational. We proclaim love with our lips but don’t reveal it in our relationships within the church. Too often, our dialogue becomes disagreement. Our conversation becomes conflict.

We United Methodists can all agree that our mission is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” We can do neither very well when so much of our passion is consumed in an effort to remodel what we perceive to be the other side of a divided house. We lose our witness when the cacophony of our internal bickering drowns out our external efforts to tell the story of Jesus and his love. People won’t believe our message of grace if they don’t encounter that grace in us.

May I suggest this? Instead of writing off a person with whom you are at odds, write a note. Invite him or her to share a meal or cup of coffee. Instead of shaking the dust from your sandals, shake the hand of a person who doesn’t share your perspective. Sit down to a conversation about your common love of Jesus Christ and his church. Find that love that binds us all together. Let’s follow the example of Jesus and learn to love each other before we try to change each other.

One year from today, the 2016 General Conference will be history. That means we have twelve months, fifty-two weeks, three hundred sixty-five days to get it right and to show the world how brothers and sisters in Christ live in communion and community with each other even when we disagree.

Fellow followers of Jesus Christ in the United Methodist Church, the world is watching. I believe a great cloud of witnesses is watching. Above all, our Lord Jesus Christ is watching. They not only await the outcomes of the General Conference, but they watch with hopeful expectation for the love and grace we will extend to each other as we work, talk, and vote toward those outcomes.

Many people whom I love dearly have very definite ideas about where the church ought to be. I pray that we’re all equally concerned about how we get there.

One year from today, we’ll see.

We’ll see.

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(S)election: Pope Benedict XVI and Every Denomination’s Dilemma

A few weeks ago, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Archbishop of Washington, appeared on CNN’s Starting Point to comment on Pope Benedict XVI’s retirement and the process of determining his successor. In the conversation about the possible motivations for the Holy Father’s retirement, Cardinal Wuerl introduced a very helpful distinction that I believe I’ve always embraced but struggled to articulate.

Cardinal Wuerl identified a subtle distinction between election and selection, acknowledging that each concept has a place in the identification of a new pope. Clearly, there is a papal election in which the cardinals gather together in the conclave to vote for the next pontiff, and apparently, this process has long been recognized as an overtly political process. In 1824, John Adams lamented to his friend Alexander Johnson, “What a rattling & crackling and clattering there is about the future presidency. It seems like a Conclave of Cardinals intriguing for the Election of the Pope.”

The reason for Adams’ lament was that he thought the presidential election should rise above such political wrangling. As Joseph J. Ellis writes in First Family: Abigail & John Adams, “The more explicit style of political campaigning offended John’s personal sensibilities, which had been formed in an earlier era when any overt expression of political ambition was regarded as inadmissible” (252-3). How surprising is it that one of our founders saw papal elections as more explicitly political than presidential elections?

Even as they participate in an election process, however, the cardinals believe that God has already selected the next pope, and their responsibility in the conclave is to determine together that man’s identity. Put simply, the cardinals’ election is a process of discerning God’s selection.

Cardinal Wuerl speculated–and please realize that I’m summarizing rather than quoting–that Pope Benedict XVI may have focused on the fact that he was an elected leader of the church as he decided to retire. Perhaps he felt that he had served his term and that it was time for the incumbent to step aside and made way for the next elected Bishop of Rome to lead the church.

The historical norm among popes, by contrast, has been to focus upon their selection by God, to understand that they were chosen and set apart for their unique role at the head of the church and to believe–at least during their lifetimes–that they alone could fulfill the responsibilities for which they were chosen.

Who knows whether Cardinal Wuerl is right in his speculation about what may have motivated Pope Benedict XVI to do the unprecedented. Who knows whether Benedict XVI gave any thought to the intricacies of election vs. selection. Regardless, I believe Cardinal Wuerl is onto something crucial in regard to church leadership in the world today.

Roman Catholics are not the only ones to have walked the fine line between election and selection. The Wesleyan/Methodist tradition of which I am part has historically held the two concepts in a similar tension. In jurisdictional conferences around the nation and world–not so coincidentally, every four years and in the very same years as presidential elections–United Methodists elect bishops to lead the church. All candidates for the office of bishop are nominated by annual conferences, again underscoring the concept of election in our process of naming episcopal leaders. Yet many of the delegates voting in those conferences believe that God has already selected the people for the job, and the voters’ responsibility is to discern whom God has chosen.

After all the ballots are cast, we walk the election/selection tightrope again as we consecrate the men and women we have just elected to the office of bishop, an office they will hold until resignation or death. Even in retirement, these men and women are still bishops, as our Book of Discipline clearly states: “A retired bishop is a bishop of the Church in every respect” (par. 409, The 2008 Discipline). This practice suggests that we believe they are, in fact, selected and set apart by God for the rest of their lives.

We Methodists have always intertwined the ideas of election and selection. Our first two Methodist bishops, Thomas Coke and Francis Asbury are proof. Coke was content that he was named (read selected) and “set apart” by John Wesley to be a “general superintendent” of American Methodists in September 1784. Weeks later, when the Christmas Conference met in Baltimore, Maryland, to establish officially the Methodist Episcopal Church, Francis Asbury insisted that the conference members confirm his role as general superintendent by electing him.

In later years, every bishop would follow Asbury’s precedent of being elected, perhaps because the constitution of the Methodist Episcopal Church was formulated in the very same era as the Constitution of the United States of America. The polity of the church and the nation share many features in common.

Regardless of any disagreement over election or selection, according to noted Methodist historian Frederick Norwood, there was little confusion over whether a general superintendent equaled a bishop. He quotes Thomas Ware, “the plan of general superintendence, which had been adopted, was a species of episcopacy” (The Story of American Methodism, 100). A major ecclesiastical question is whether Wesley, a parish priest in the church of England, had authority to consecrate a bishop or a general superintendent. As Norwood concludes, “Methodists in America have not worried overmuch about it, but they have never quite reconciled themselves to a clear interpretation. Here beginneth the definition–or lack thereof–of the office of bishop in the Methodist Episcopal tradition” (Story, 97-8).

Apparently, we still seek that clear interpretation. I’ve already mentioned how we elect/select our bishops in the Wesleyan Methodist tradition. A relatively recent and unprecedented conversation and controversy pertained to how we deselect them.

In July 2012, the episcopacy committee of the United Methodist Church’s South Central Jurisdiction voted to retire involuntarily Bishop Earl Bledsoe, based on his ineffectiveness as a bishop. Days later, the jurisdictional conference whose delegates had elected Bishop Bledsoe just four years earlier, voted to uphold the episcopacy committee’s decision.

On the committee’s behalf, chairperson Don House said, “While having some skills as a spiritual leader, his administrative skills, relational skills, and style remain in question” (United Methodist News Servicehttp://www.umc.org, June 9, 2012). In a later report, House went on to say, “Our only concern about Bishop Bledsoe was his administrative skills, but as a spiritual leader, as a dedicated Christian, never any question” (UMNS, http://www.umc.org, July 17, 2012).

These statements suggest that the jurisdiction and its episcopacy committee view the office of bishop primarily as an elected role, in which administrative and managerial skills are paramount. It doesn’t take much imagination to consider the committee’s and the conference’s action as a recall of an elected official. The suggestion that his skills as a spiritual leader are less vital to the office of bishop than his administrative and relational skills seems to presume that he was elected by people do manage and administer effectively, rather than selected by God to change hearts.

In its deliberations and decision on November 10, 2012, the Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church overturned Bishop Bledsoe’s  involuntary retirement and required the jurisdiction to reinstate him. According to a November 12 release by the United Methodist News Service, “The Council cited ‘numerous errors in violation of the principles of fair process’ and ‘an inability to articulate’ what the ‘best interests’ of the church or of the bishop or of both would be.”

At stake is whether the bishop is an elected administrative official or a selected spiritual leader. Is the bishop ultimately chosen by people or chosen by God? Is a bishop or a pope best understood as a consecrated leader for life or an elected official for a specific term?

Some protestant denominations have arrived at clearer answers to these questions by developing  systems of leadership featuring  elections and term limits. For example, the Methodist Church of Great Britain, which also claims John Wesley as its founder, has no office of bishop. Instead, an elected president presides for a one year term. The Uniting Church in Australia functions similarly but elects its presidents to three year terms. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) elects moderators for its presbyteries and assembly, usually for a one-year term.

Clearly, there is great variety among denominations in their practices of electing and/or selecting leaders. To what do we attribute this? On the one hand, we lack a clear biblical prescription for how leaders are to be identified. In the Hebrew scriptures, God does the selecting and makes his selections known through various media, from burning bushes to prophets. In the New Testament, the disciples cast lots to name a replacement for Judas–trusting that God will identify his choice by that process–in Acts 1, but the early church “selects” or “chooses” seven deacons in Acts 6. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul offers counsel about the qualifications of a bishop, but he doesn’t say how they are to be chosen. In the absence of specific biblical instructions, various denominations and traditions of the Christian church have determined their own processes of election/selection.

Among protestant churches, especially in the United States, the democratic processes of electing church leaders may be an example of church imitating society or a reaction against a perceived “monarchical” hierarchy in the Roman Catholic tradition.

So, who’s right? Should church leaders be understood as elected, selected, or both? Should they be elected to serve in office for specific terms, or should they consecrated for life? The answer may very simply be: God only knows.

This much is clear. Christians of good faith and clear conscience have come to different conclusions, or at least to different points in their journeys toward conclusions. Maybe we all “see in a mirror, dimly.”

With his retirement and the accompanying process of identifying his successor, Pope Benedict XVI may have opened the door to new conversations and discernment processes toward clarity. Or he may have just muddied the water.

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Want to Keep Christ in Christmas?

Want to keep Christ in Christmas? Don’t let Friday get Black.

With apologies to retailers and economists, I need to confess that I have never been a Black Friday fan. You have to admit the irony of following up our official national day of gratitude with our unofficial national day of commercialism and coveting, right? Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised, given the fact that we celebrate Thanksgiving by eating massive amounts of food. If we express our gratitude with gluttony, why shouldn’t we spend the next day indulging in retail therapy?

Still, I’ve been frustrated by the ways that Black Friday has encroached upon Thanksgiving Thursday over the years. It was bad enough when the thickest non-Sunday newspaper of the year was the Thanksgiving Day edition filled with several pounds of door busters, stocking-stuffers, and midnight specials. Now, Black Friday begins on Thursday! I find it sad that we can no longer devote a whole day to Thanksgiving, nor apparently, can we confine Black Friday to one twenty-four hour period.

And we all know how it will go. Someone will be trampled to death or serious injury as people race into a discount store somewhere in America. People’s mothers and grandmothers will become thugs and fight each other over sale items. Millions of indebted people will smile over their receipts, celebrating what they have “saved” and paying much less attention to what they spent.

According to a recent Gallup poll, the average consumer plans to spend about $770 on Christmas gifts this year, up a few dollars from last year. At the same time, a Barna Research study indicates that 34% of Christians have reduced their giving to their church this year, and 11% have stopped giving at all. In their book Passing the Plate, authors Christian Smith, Michael Emerson, and Patricia Snell report that more than one-fourth of all American Protestants give nothing to their church over the course of a year.

Somewhere we got the message wrong. We think that we best honor Jesus by spending lots of money buying gifts for the people we love. We think that we best celebrate his birth by creating more consumer debt and by gathering more treasures that moth and rust can corrupt. We forget that Jesus had another kind of generosity in mind . . .

Here’s the sad irony. In the midst of the spending frenzy that is Christmas, good Christian people like you and me will get terribly upset when a store employee says “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.” God forbid that someone should use the abbreviation Xmas, whether or not they intend the X to be the letter chi, the first letter of the Greek word for Christ.

We will quickly raise protests like, “keep Christ in Christmas,” or “put Christ back in Christmas!”

It begins with us and our attitudes. Will this be Christmas as usual, with Black Friday and bills? Or will you and I do our part to keep Christ in Christmas?

This year at First United Methodist Church, we will observe the season of Advent by using Mike Slaughter’s Christmas Is Not Your Birthday as a study and worship resource. Check out the book. Join us in worship.

I hope you enjoyed a meaningful, memorable Thanksgiving Day today. I hope you have a great Friday, black or otherwise. Keep Christ in it, ok?

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On Holy Ground

I walked briskly down the sidewalk and through the door, barely aware of how many times I had crossed that threshold in years past. The meeting had already begun, and I was a few minutes late because of a hospital visit about an hour away.

As I settled into my seat and into the flow of the meeting, I realized just how familiar the place was to me. I was in Abingdon United Methodist Church, my home church, and as I looked around, I felt that I had just begun a conversation with a dear old friend.

The meeting was in the upstairs room with the miniature exterior door leading out onto the fire escape–both very enticing to my friends and me when we were young! I was just around the corner from the rooms that had been my Sunday school classrooms during my high school years.

Immediately below us was the room that had been the nursery when I was four years old. In that very room, I fell (as the pastor’s granddaughter chased me) and hit my head on the old steam radiator. Later that morning, I made my first visit to Johnston Memorial Hospital’s emergency room, where I got a few stitches. I instinctively rubbed the now thirty-six year old scar on my forehead as I shared that story with my fellow committee members.

I thought about my Sunday school teachers, pastors, and fellow choir members across the years. I thought of my grandmother, a Sunday school teacher herself, and I smiled to myself as I realized that the building had been alive with the laughter and footsteps of children just a couple of hours earlier. Those children are students in the Margaret Blair Preschool, a living memorial to my Memaw.

I didn’t have to walk into the sanctuary. It’s features are permanently etched in my memory from hundreds of Sunday mornings of observing them from the same vantage point in the fourth pew on the right side. It was the site of my grandmother’s funeral, my sister’s wedding, and my nephews’ baptisms. It was the site of my own confirmation, when I professed my faith in Jesus Christ before God and the dear people of that congregation.

When the meeting ended, I lingered at the entrance to the library, just at the bottom of the steps. I remembered where I sat at the table during that Bible study in 1989 when I think I realized for the first time exactly what the grace of Jesus Christ meant to me and for me. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I really got to know Jesus in that room. Within a few months, in another library, the Kelly Library on the campus of Emory & Henry College, I would encounter Jesus once again and agree to live out this vocation of pastoral ministry.

I hesitated to walk away today. It would have been nice to sit for a while in the library and to take in the view of the sanctuary again from the fourth pew on the right, naturally.

I’ve had the privilege of visiting Israel. I’ve been to Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jerusalem, the Sinai peninsula. I’ve stood and walked in the footsteps of Abraham, Moses, and even Jesus. I had a wonderful, life-enriching experience in the Holy Land.

Today, as I stood in the library doorway at Abingdon United Methodist Church, I had as rich an experience of God’s presence as I had in any of those ancient sites. It wouldn’t have surprised me to have seen a burning bush nearby, because God reminded me today that I was on holy ground.

It was, after all, where I met Jesus Christ.

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