Category Archives: Following Jesus

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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