Sunday, November 27, 2016

A Divided United Methodist Church: How We'll Fail at the Main Thing

     I’ve blogged quite a few times about our fragile United Methodist Church, making the case for, but really just pleading for unity.  I’ve reflected on how our Book of Discipline functions, on why Robert’s Rules of Order create dysfunction in the Body of Christ, on how we relate to fellow members in that Body who think differently.

     I have tried to point out that sexuality, while enormously important, and at the core of what it means to be holy, is not at the center of our theology.  Our cardinal beliefs, which pertain to salvation, are about God, not us – and our sexuality is always a bit broken, fallen, bedeviled by subterranean forces we hardly understand.  I would exit the denomination if it declared Jesus was just a man, or we are saved by works.  But not over a single practice among hundreds.

     Most importantly, I’ve explained how splitting up would be the worst conceivable witness to the unchurched, and to our cynical world.  If we can’t do any better than the division and rancor in our country right now, we prove we have nothing to offer.

     Now, during this hazy time when the Bishops’ Commission has been named, and when all we can do is pray for them, and for ourselves – and as many of us feel gloomier than ever, fearing or even expecting a split, I keep drifting in my mind to utterly practical questions.  Like, if there is the dreaded split right down the middle: What will I be doing for a living and where?  Where will my pastor friends wind up?  What signage will need changing?  What won’t get paid for any longer?  And in a way, the most pressing question of all:  What will become of the church where I am serving?

     Suppose we get the divorce.  One denomination becomes two, a conservative, brooking no deviation from straight or celibate sexuality, and a progressive, allowing and even affirming same gender marriage and LGBTQ ordinations.  What then?  The General Conference sends a memo to me and our board chair, giving us ninety days or six months to select which way we go?

     Our case is pretty interesting, indicative of why there will be more carnage than we anticipate, utterly harrowing and heartbreaking to me and the people I love.  Just the property: our trustees hold, in trust for the conference, massive neo-gothic structures sitting on prime real estate in Charlotte.  Both of the new judicatories would covet the property, and the apportionment income.  Our contributions are a significant percentage of our conference’s income now.  But that amount will shrink drastically for whoever winds up with our facility.
 
     Because internally we would be forced to make a choice we do not wish or need to make.  We have engaged in the arduous labor our denomination as a whole has never engaged in: a prayerful, thoughtful, respectful conversation on the theology and practice of sexuality.  With broad and strongly felt disagreement on the matter, we have chosen to stay together, to love, and by our very unity to be a witness to the world. 

     And yet we would be compelled to make a choice.  How would that happen?  Is it simply an item on the agenda of the next Administrative Board meeting, and majority wins?  Do we take a congregational vote, with each member getting to cast a ballot?  Would there be campaigning within? Or even from outside groups lobbying to win Myers Park?

     I’ve tried to guesstimate what the tally here would be.  We have 5,200 members.  We treat the children like members, and also the super active adults, especially young adults, who’ve never actually joined.  But let’s leave them out for now.  Of the 5,200 official members, I’d guess 1,600 wouldn’t pay attention or open their mail.  Of the 3,600 left, I’d imagine 1,400 would rally to the progressive side, and about 1,000 would go conservative.  Or maybe it would be roughly a tie.  Or maybe 1,400 to 1,000 the other way.  What would happen to the "losers"?  Of course, the remaining 1,200 would be too disgusted to vote at all.  Our young adults would, quite simply, be done with us.

     Many – several dozen, I'd estimate – would exit and become Southern Baptist, or Episcopalians.  I’d suspect that many more, though, in the hundreds, would just give up on church altogether, if the one they loved and trusted couldn’t do any better than this sorry state of affairs.  And I would not blame one of them.  We’d suddenly have more Sunday School classes, since they’d have to split too.  Families would be divided over which way to go.  A 5,200 member church gutted, with maybe 1,500 left.

     We would quickly have to lay off two thirds of our staff, and hack our mission spending down to a small fraction of what it’s been.  Within months, a clinic in Haiti would shut down, families moving out of homelessness would head back to the streets.  We’d be the laughingstock of Charlotte.  The new conference of the new denomination wouldn’t even be all that glad to have us, as we’d have so little money left to send in.

     Then where would the clergy we’d have to let go wind up?  Not only would the financial decimation reduce the number of pastoral jobs out there.  We would also have a rash of mismatched clergy and congregations.  If congregations get to choose which denomination to go with, I’d imagine the clergy would get to pick too.  At least in my part of the world, and I suspect all across the United States, on average the clergy are far more progressive than their congregations.  In Western North Carolina, for instance, out of 1,000 clergy I’d estimate at least 500 would choose the new progressive institution; but no more than a few dozen churches would do the same.  Where would the clergy work?  And who would pastor the conservative churches?

     I’m not a pessimist by nature.  But I do sense there is considerable naivete about how neatly a split might proceed.  I know those who think that basically the Southeast and the Midwest would overwhelmingly go conservative, and the West and Northeast would go liberal, or there might be a semblance of an urban/rural split, like the one we see now in presidential elections.

     But it’s way more complicated state by state, and even church by church.  The unforeseen ripple effects of a forced division, even in a single parish like mine, would be catastrophic.  A split in United Methodism, beyond the heartache, the lost relationships, and the embarrassment of theological surrender, would create a black hole of practical disaster.  We would be the butt of church humor for the next generation.  And whatever shared mission work we cherish would evaporate. 
 
     Purists will say you should do the right thing, no matter what the consequences are.  But within our denomination, aren’t we picking one right thing, which isn’t really the main thing, and then by picking that one right thing to be right about, we render ourselves incapable of doing all the other right things that really are the main thing?



Friday, November 25, 2016

Come with me to Israel, May 16-26

I hope you will come with me and my colleague, Rev. Parker Haynes, to Israel on May 16.  The cost hasn't been finalized, but I'm projecting something like $3950 (or hopefully less), including flights, hotels, ground costs, and most meals.  Contact me (james@mpumc.org) to let me know you're interested, or if you have questions.

I love taking people to the Holy Land.  It's always inspiring, educational, transformative, and great fun.  Each trip I lead is unique - because of the particular people who come, and also because we see something new every trip, and archaeological sites evolve over time.  Three years ago, after we got home from a pilgrimage to Israel, I wrote a blog that might interest you - reflecting on the experience, what we learn, how we grow, why it's so profound.

Our guide while we're in Israel will be my dear friend Hillel Kessler.  He's absolutely the best, brilliant, witty, a great teacher, an engaging travel companion.  He's the only guide I use, and everyone who travels with Hillel falls in love with him.  He and his wife, by the way, have become grandparents to four granddaughters - in a single year!

We fly into Tel Aviv, one of the most beautiful and surely the most secure airport in the world.  We make our way then to the north, where we spend the first three days exploring Nazareth, Capernaum, and other places where Jesus taught, healed, called the disciples, and even fished. 
There is nothing quite like waking up your first morning in Israel, looking out the window - and there is the Sea of Galilee.  We'll take a boat out on the lake, and you'll get a sense of how quickly the weather shifts from peaceful calm, to wind and storm, then back to peacefulness.
We will take a day and drive north.  The countryside is beautiful near Hazor, where we investigate ruins from the days of Joshua and the Israelites coming into the Promised Land.
Further north, we will see the Bronze Age city of Dan, with its impressive walls - and most fantastically, the city gate through which Abraham himself walked. 
Amazing.
Nearby we visit Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus conversed with the disciples, asking "Who do you say that I am?" 
  Just a short hike downhill from there we come to a marvelous waterfall, right at the source of the Jordan River - and likely the place where Psalm 42 was composed.  This is one of my favorite days. 
 Mostly likely we'll end the day at BinTal, a high overlook where we can see the Road to Damascus, and into Syria and Lebanon. 

But now our attention turns toward Jerusalem, just as Jesus' did midway through the Gospel stories.  On our way to the holy city, we visit Beth Shean, where King Saul died, and where the 1971 Jesus Christ Superstar movie was filmed. 
We stop by the edge of the Jordan River, where Jesus was baptized by John - and we seize the occasion to have a service of baptismal remembrance.  It is so very moving to wade into that river.
We'll zig down to the south for a day to see the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth - and where you float without even trying.

Finally we make our way to Jerusalem, where King David built his palace, where Solomon built the temple, where Jesus taught and healed, and was crucified. 
We will pray at the Western ("Wailing") Wall, a holy moment indeed.  We'll sit on the steps Jesus walked on to enter the temple to teach.  In Jerusalem we will visit the Israel Museum, which contains fabulous archaeological finds from Bible times. 
We hopefully will visit the Dome or the Rock, the beautiful 8th century shrine built over the place where the temple stood for centuries.  Of special interest for us will be our visit to the archaeological site where excavations are being conducted by our own UNC-Charlotte.

The climax of our time in Jerusalem will be walking the Via Dolorosa, the traditional pilgrim's walk commemorating Jesus' trial and crucifixion.  The Church of the Holy Sepulchre houses both the place where Jesus was crucified, and the tomb where he was buried, and rose from the dead.

I hope you will come with me!

Here are a few more photos of interesting things we'll see.
1500 year old olive trees grown from the shoots of olive trees that stood in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus prayed there.

The aqueduct at Caesarea Maritima by the Mediterranean Sea.

Palm trees by the Dead Sea.

The traditional spot where Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

Stones from the temple from the time of Jesus.

A fishing boat archaeologists discovered and miraculously preserved - from the time of Jesus.

A statue by the Sea of Galilee commemorating Jesus sending Peter to "feed my sheep."










Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Morning After - 'Tis the Season #30

(This is a blog I wrote several weeks ago, having no idea how it would turn out)

   The election is over. For the Oval Office, one winner, one loser. But neither is a loser. Both are people who offered themselves for public service, and have lived under a microscope, under intense scrutiny, with a schedule that would exhaust the most energetic of us.

   Winning voters are tempted to strut, to gloat; losing voters are tempted to sigh, to rage, to shudder with disgust. This is fine, and serves as an index into the fact that we care, we are invested as citizens, we hold deep beliefs. But the election is over, and we have a new President, and a coterie of other public servants. Do we remain stuck in our giddy delight? Or in our exasperated disappointment? Not as the people of God, not for those who believe we might in some way be "one nation under God."

   George Bush left a handwritten note in the Oval Office for Bill Clinton in January, 1993, saying "I wish you great happiness here... Don't let the critics discourage you or push you off course. You will be our President. Your success now is our country's success. I am rooting hard for you."

   What if God left a letter for us today? God would remind us it is time to be one nation, one people, to throw all our support and hopes behind the democratically elected officials who will lead. The alternative is forever to oppose, to subvert, to grouse... but is the Spirit in us when we do?

   You'll recall that my grandparents, back in
January 1961, took down the photo of President Dwight Eisenhower in their den and replaced it with one of the new President, John Kennedy. They prayed for their President. Imagine if all the people in America who claim to believe in God actually prayed for their leaders? Or spent one-tenth as much time in seeking the heart of God as they do in griping?

   If you believe that the election of Candidate X will be catastrophic, if you think Candidate Y's policies are faulty, then you would be wise to begin to pray, today, that you turn out to be wrong. The morning after an election - and every morning for the believer, prayer is in order.

   And citizenship. We harbor this foolish belief that just one person can change everything. Leadership really matters. But leadership requires active following, not passive spectatorship or hostile criticism. If there has been energy and passion around this year's election, it will have been wasted unless we translate that into consistent citizenship, involvement, each person doing his or her part to work at the problems and hopes before us, every organization - and especially the Church getting engaged with what's going on with compassion, justice, an optimistic spirit, and a dogged zeal.

   So let us conclude by recalling the immortal words of Lincoln, trying to lead a divided nation, and make them our hope, our prayer, our marching orders: "The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes... With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds."

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Not Voting? 'Tis the Season #27

   More than in any election in my lifetime, I’ve heard so many people say “I just can’t vote for Trump or Clinton.”  Mind you, in 2012, 42% of Americans didn’t vote for Obama or Romney! and this figure is always worse in local elections.  Do Christians have an obligation to vote? 

   What we have right now is not that people are too busy or too uncaring to vote.  They are voters; they care deeply – but cannot in good faith pull the lever for someone they loathe.  The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argued for this kind of ethic: when we are given two bad options, we must choose neither.

   This I understand and feel.  But something about it feels odd, even troubling to me – and for three reasons. (1) None of us has ever, ever voted for an un-flawed human being.  Christians should know well that all of us are broken, fallen, sinful, confused people, with hidden turmoil and a string of botched decisions in our past.  Is there some threshold of “good enough”? and if so, where would you draw it? and if you did, is that line where you happen to be, or are you above or below it?  If I pass judgment on candidates (and in a way, we all must), is there simultaneously a huge log in my own eye?

   (2) Maybe of more interest is this: if I just can’t cast my vote for either person, am I treating my vote as something sacred, or utterly holy?  It is lovely and fitting to think of your vote as a huge deal, not to be squandered lightly.  But is it so sacred, does it have a pristine history of purity, that it can’t be soiled?  Or is my vote my best stab at doing my small part in helping the world to be less woeful than it would be if I withdrew?

   (3) Almost every day, I find myself faced with some choice between bad options, and you do too – so we should be used to it.  Some are little trifles, some are heart-wrenching, but the decisions we make in our working and personal lives, if we step back and ponder them from the perspective Jesus might have, in a fallen and constantly compromised world and culture, are really in that “lesser of two evils” zone.  And you find each day that not to choose really is to choose, because something ugly steps into the vacuum where you were supposed to be.  Not choosing is itself a choice that does impact the outcome.

   But I am not at all sure about these things.  They are just questions that surface in my gut when I think about just not voting at all.  Even if you can’t go for Hillary or Donald, there are other important elections at the state and local levels…

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Guns, Politics & Jesus - 'Tis the Season #26


   When the NRA convention was in Charlotte in 2000, I had an op-ed in The Charlotte Observer that asked “Would Jesus join the NRA?”  I did not answer the question – but as you can imagine, I got hammered with intense criticism; threats were made on my family and on me.  For Christians, I still contend, it’s a pretty important question.  How do we think theologically about guns?  What are God’s feelings about guns?

   Guns loom large in politics in America, with an intensity of feeling rivaling that of questions of who should be able to marry.  There’s something beyond rationality for most in this discussion – that isn’t really a discussion at all.  We shout past one another, or mutter as we turn away from one another.  As we’ve seen earlier in our series, most of the talk is about “rights,” which isn’t a biblical category at all, and only adds to the shrillness in the political arena.

   I cannot begin to prescribe what would be the right legislation or party or candidate on this thorny issue.  But there are a couple of questions I do know the answer to.  One is “What would Jesus do if he were watching TV, and people started shooting at other people?”  Jesus would shudder, and then turn off the TV.  To me, it is entirely clear that a reason we have so many shootings, and so much violence, is because we absorb so much of it over a lifetime.  Seeing shooting doesn’t make me shoot someone, but when shooting is normalized over the general population, we need not be surprised when someone on the edge loses it and starts firing, and no one knows how to settle a conflict except by force.

   The second is this: Would Jesus shoot someone?  I would say No.  If I’m right, this doesn’t settle what public policy should be on guns, as security in a fallen world seems to require the certain even if regrettable deployment of weapons.  But the Christian is rightly moved and humbled by Jesus’ determination to love his enemies, to turn the other cheek, which wasn’t just talk for him but reality.  When he was being arrested, he didn’t fight back; and when his disciples drew weapons to defend him, he said “Put away your swords.” 

   Mind you, Jesus was and is our savior, which involved his suffering; we can’t be saviors.  But can there be a holy, humble way of talking about gun rights?  It was here in Charlotte that Charlton Heston reinvigorated that stern slogan, “I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.”  What got pried from Jesus’ cold, dead hands were nails, driven through the hands that healed and touched the people everybody else was afraid of. Could we at least learn to talk peaceably, and listen charitably on this subject – and to do so in a Christlike manner?

   One of the loveliest men I’ve ever known gave me a gun and took me hunting when I was a young pastor.  He was humble, careful and respectful of guns and people, and wanted no part of adamant, shrill campaigns for guns.  He favored rational changes in gun legislation, and never fretted for one moment any politician would take his hunting rifles away from him.

   I wonder what Jesus might say about compromise on gun issues.  Interestingly, I have a friend who says No compromise ever on guns – but then he is a pro-life advocate who is upset that America is the lone nation with abortion on demand, and we can’t seem to garner support for compromise legislation to limit certain kinds of abortions.  We complain about gridlock in Washington, but then we have our own as people.  Could it be God would be pleased by a bit of give and take on gun laws, and on abortion laws, and on the rest of what politicians and people try to resolve, so we might save a few more lives, and find ways to work together for a safer world for people in cities, and those yet unborn?

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

War in Politics & Religion - 'Tis the Season #25

     When Jesus, God among us, was born, the angels sang “Peace on earth.”  Jesus grew up, and made peace with people who were at odds with one another.  Jesus said “Love your enemies,” and “Turn the other cheek.”  The prophet proclaimed that when the Messiah comes, “they shall beat their swords into plowshares; they shall learn war no more” (Isaiah 2:4).  On the last night of his life, he said “My peace I leave with you.”  Later that night, when his disciples pulled out weapons to defend him, he said “Put away your swords; he who lives by the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).  Indeed, Jesus is the Prince of Peace.

     Right after the first Iraq war broke out, I saw a panel discussion on the McNeil-Lehrer Newshour.  When asked about God and the war, a famous pastor, and then a famous rabbi said “God is with us; God will be on our side; we trust God will bring us victory,” etc.  The third panelist, Rev. James Forbes, instead of commenting simply read from his Bible – those words Jesus uttered about loving your enemies, and putting away your sword.  The famous pastor literally shouted at him and said “That’s not relevant now; we’re at war!”  To which Forbes responded, “If it’s not relevant now, it’s never relevant.”

     Jesus’ life and death cry for peace is always relevant.  The basic Christian default position will always be against war.  Christian theologians are divided: some say our default position need not require every Christian to be opposed to every war, while others are adamantly and always against waging war.  The follower of Christ is likely to suspect that we get into too many wars for insufficient cause, and for self-indulgent reasons – and we shudder over the way war is glorified excessively.  Sometimes we forget that there are ways to resolve conflicts other than by force.  Some wars have been anointed as “holy war,” but the likelihood is always that it’s an all-too-human war with God pasted on the outside.

     Christians need to ponder how we follow Christ, whose dying passion was peace, in a fallen world where wars happen.  Governments fight wars, not the churches – so how do we as citizens lean toward peace, or toward the kinds of policies and initiatives that might make the world more peaceful? 

     No simple answers present themselves.  But we who follow Jesus never take our eyes off the goal of peace.  We never cheer war, but we grieve with our Lord.  We are the people who resist the glorification of fighting, explosions, and gunning down people in the media.  We are the first to count the cost in human suffering, and unintended consequences.  We are always among those who are intrigued by and by default supportive of creative ways to rethink how we might find peaceful fixes to conflicts. 

     Being for peace does not mean being against soldiers.  We honor soldiers and pray for them; we can be absolutely sure they of all people want peace.  They are the ones who bear the burden when they return home only to discover grossly inadequate programs to help them with post-traumatic stress complications.

     We humbly recognize that while we yearn for peace and refuse to rest until peace dawns, it is not always clear which candidate or which party is more likely to embrace this Christlike ideal, or even how to negotiate international life in an increasingly violent world.  But we are always, always, the peace people.

Immigration in Politics & Religion - 'Tis the Season #24


     Nothing illustrates the inner conflicts Christians might experience, and the brutal truth that we live in a fallen world better, than the question of immigration. On the one hand, we are law and order people; we believe laws are to be obeyed – so all illegal immigrants, on Christian principles, should be sent home immediately, right? “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1).

     But then we are hospitality people too; throughout the Bible we find warm sentiments toward the stranger, the foreigner, the sojourner, the needy – so immigrants, illegal or not, on Christian principles, should be welcomed and cared for, right? “The alien who lives near you shall be to you as the native born; you shall love him as yourself” (Leviticus 19:34) – or think of the way Jesus described the way those who will be saved treat aliens: “I was a stranger, and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35).  After all, Mary and Joseph, with the child Jesus in tow, were refugees themselves.

     What would the “default” Christian posture on immigration be?  I suspect it is to steer clear of hostile or suspicious attitudes, and if possible to err on the side of hospitality.  But why?  Modern America has something in common with ancient Israel that seems pertinent.  Repeatedly, God told the Israelites, “The stranger shall be to you as the native; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers once” (Leviticus 19:34). “Love the sojourner, for you once were sojourners” (Deuteronomy 10:19); “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you were strangers once” (Exodus 22:21).  Israel entered the Promised Land as immigrants from another place – so God urges them to be kind and welcoming to immigrants.

     America too is a nation of immigrants.  Way back we all came from somewhere.  The records from Ellis Island are free online; I’ve found quite a few Howells there.  While there has always been nagging prejudice against the Irish or Italians or Middle Eastern people and now Hispanics or Arabs, we never evade the eloquence of the poem Emma Lazarus composed for the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, which so many immigrants passed as they arrived on our shores:  Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free… Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”  These thoughts are not only kin to the Bible; back in those days, American thought on many issues was still shaped by the Bible!

     This default mood doesn’t settle policy.  Security certainly matters.  Israel must have had the occasional immigrant who proved to be a criminal.  But the baseline way we look at them, feel about them, and treat them is to be Christlike.  Churches all over the country are engaging in significant ministries of welcome and aid – something that pleases the heart of God.  Conservative evangelicals and mainline progressives are increasingly united in their determination to welcome refugees and press for immigration reform.

     Here’s something that fascinates me:  Bishop Daniel Flores of Texas compares the deportation of immigrants to abortion – believing that in both cases the innocent and vulnerable are exposed to death: “Why is it that one party is blind to the dignity of the unborn child, and one party is blind to the dignity of the immigrant?  Why does one party exalt choice above life, and the other exalt economic power above the good of family life?”

     A consistent Christian ethic that is pro-life will surprise and overturn classic political party alignments.  Could it be that pro-life, pro-immigration, anti-death penalty and anti-guns might fit together more neatly than we could have imagined?