Sunday, July 31, 2016

Faith, in this political season: Set your mind on things above

   My sermon yesterday was on Colossians 3, where Paul says “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” At first blush it sounds like we should focus on “spiritual” things, not “earthly” things – like politics. But in the Bible, “spiritual things” are the things pleasing to God, whatever is motivated by and in sync with God’s Spirit. We could say God “above” has a holy agenda for us down here; as we pray constantly, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

   In Colossians 3, “earthly things” seem to be primarily about how we think and live; Paul explains: “Put away the earthly – covetousness, evil desire, passion, anger, malice, slander, foul talk… and do not lie to one another.” You might read this and think “Tell Hillary!” or “Tell Trump!” But I say to you, “Tell James, tell yourself.” Politics breeds anger, evil desire, foul talk and falsehood – among politicians, but also in your own soul. You feel it already.

   What is the Christian to do? Just turn it off and pay no attention? For me, the best and holiest plan for this and every political season is threefold. First, you just have to pay attention to what’s unfolding, for the stakes could not be higher. God has a rooting interest, because we could wind up with a world at war, or devastating poverty, or an ever more vapid, self-indulgent, rancorous culture, and thus less holiness, less goodness, and the church risks plummeting into more irrelevance.  Be very sure: God cares.

   Secondly, be very attentive to the state of your soul. When are you veering into a shrill, dark mood – even if you’re sure you’re right?  What pushes your buttons, and why? Can you take time to breathe, to read Scripture, to be at peace, to strive for a holy wisdom? We’ll say more about this.

   Thirdly, can you sort through all the agendas being pushed on us and figure out which way is God’s way? It’s complicated, because it most assuredly isn’t the case that God loves the whole Republican agenda and loathes the other guys – or vice versa. There are causes and purposes that very clearly are of God. Mind you, we may not get on the same page regarding how to pursue holy ends. But there still are holy ends. We will try to examine some of them…

   …because the grave peril Paul speaks of in Colossians 3 is “idolatry.” Idolatry isn’t physically bowing down to a statue. Idolatry is when we worship, adore, pursue, crave and even vote for something that is not of God. This is hard – because for every one of us, God is asking us during this season to realize what is in us that is not of God, and then to repent, to give it up, to get in sync with God’s way. In fact, the political season is God’s best opportunity to help us realize Oh my gosh, I’ve been attached to this way or thinking, or to this agenda, or to this other passion, and it’s not what’s in God’s heart. I want to love what God loves.

   So stay with me! By election day, we might just be a bit holier, a bit more at peace, and God’s church might even hear a new calling to be God’s hands in a broken world.

Friday, July 29, 2016

'Tis the Season...

  'Tis that season again - and no, it's not the season to be jolly. Everyone is frowning, exasperated, a little ticked off or disturbed. Two weeks of nightly conventions are ending, and it would be hard to say we are better people, or holier, because the conventions have happened. Both parties try to outdo one another in negativity, and all the invective only feeds our inner darkness and sharpens our anger. Fear, dread, and a sense of dislocation sprawl in and between us like kudzu.

   How does a Christian stay calm, find some spiritual equilibrium, and make sense of it all? God isn't delighted by politics in the United States - but then what does God see in me? It's a bit of a test, a stiff challenge, to be a follower of Jesus right now. You can withdraw - but Jesus clearly asks us to engage our world. You can get drawn into this side or that side's spitting contest. You can get surly in front of the TV and dash off a Facebook retort. You can say "religion and politics don't mix" - but if we can't talk about God and God's interest in these things that clearly matter so much, then maybe God isn't relevant to anything at all. Perhaps, if we are humble and open, God can show us "a more excellent way" (as Paul introduced his famous "love" chapter, 1 Corinthians 13).

   "For God so loved the world..." (John 3:16) - and yes, that would be this world, the one in which we find ourselves mired, annoyed, confused, and yet strangely hopeful. I don't know many people who've just given up. We cling to some glimmer of optimism deep inside that maybe, just maybe, things will get better, that something good will somehow come out of it all. Maybe for the nation, maybe locally - and maybe just in me.

   Between now and election day, I would like to talk about religion, politics, and the state of the soul. How do Christians sort things out and interact with a raging culture in a holy, constructive way? Does God care about the results of the election? Are there genuinely Christian issues and positions? How would we know? Can you read these emails and trust me without getting angry at me? J

   Let's pray together, for our world but also for our souls - and hope that these times together, sharing these emails, might bring some healing, hope, and even holy engagement with this world God created, and is more eager to save than we are to have it saved.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Four Compelling Reasons Conservative and Progressive United Methodists Have to Stay Together

     Voices are clamoring for a split in the United Methodist Church, with an increasing urgency given many recent events, most notably an episcopal election in the West.  I was myself a candidate for bishop and was not elected – and I am writing this blog to expand upon something I dreamed of working on if elected, and hopefully to persuade some folks to join me in a crusade to stay together, and not split. I can think of four compelling reasons why we cannot split, and I have just enough naivete left in me to believe conservatives and progressives might agree on all four. We can agree, I believe, and move forward on the basis of the great commission, the importance of holiness in sexual relationships, the centrality of Jesus, and the inspiration of Scripture.  I suspect #2 is hardest for progressives, given practice and a host of other reasons, and #4 is hardest for conservatives, given the way debates have unfolded for many years.  But I'm betting we can get there on all 4.
    (1) At my jurisdictional conference, in my brief speech explaining to delegates my sense of call to the episcopacy, I suggested that “we can’t split now.”  My reason?  Our country is dividing and splitting all over the place.  Black are divided against whites.  Police are divided against some of our citizens.  Republicans are divided against Democrats.  Republicans are divided against themselves.  If the Church splits now, we are saying to an already cynical world, We are just like you.  We have no alternative to offer you.  There are other Great Commission questions.  Where I live, it is extremely difficult to get any unchurched people to try out a church that isn’t welcoming to LGBTQ people, or at least having a robust conversation about the issue.  I’ve heard some say that where they live the Church won’t grow if the church welcomes LGBTQ people.  But I am absolutely sure that a church that can’t stay together will not be able to make disciples in either kind of community.  Our most crucial witness in a divided world is quite simply not to divide, to show the world (as Paul introduced 1 Corinthians 13) “a better way.”

     (2) Somehow lost in all our debates within the church is any serious talk about holiness in sexuality.  But in the Bible, there is such a thing as holiness; your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.  It is not the case that as long as it’s male and female having sex, it’s great.  And it is not the case that if it’s male and male, or female and female, it’s great.  It is not the case that as long as male and female are married, sex is just great, or if male and male could marry, all would be well.  Sexual relations in marriage and in any straight or gay relationship can be abusive, manipulative, and self-absorbed; such relations can idolize pleasure and have no hint of consecration to God.  Once upon a time, people came to the church, in effect asking for permission to live together and have intimate relations that might even be for God and pleasing to God.  Holy marriage is a sacred mystery, mirroring the wonder of Christ’s church to the world.  God clearly seeks a profound commitment, not just to your partner but to God and the church.  Until we can recover robust ways to talk about and engage in a holy sexuality, which is more than and different from which gender gets to have sex with which gender, we should perhaps be quiet, and relearn how to be Christian on matters of sex.

     (3) The main thing in Christianity, the undeniable, extreme center of our faith, is Jesus Christ.  It is not sexuality.  Sex is the main thing in our culture.  In our trivial, hedonistic society, sex is absolutely central to everything, life, self-image, advertising, TV, novels.  Christians are those who declare sex is not the center, it is not the main thing.  Jesus is the main thing.  I’ve been preaching on Colossians, where Paul falls all over himself extolling the wonder of Jesus, who puts every other thing in the shade, the wonderful shade of his glory and mercy.  I’ll repeat what I’ve said often: if the United Methodist Church declared Jesus was just a man, a wise teacher, or anything short of him being God in the flesh, with his death and resurrection achieving the redemption of all of creation, then I would walk out the door and urge you to come with me.  If you split over something that isn’t in the center, perhaps we have lost sight of the center.

     (4) Scripture is up for grabs right now.  There are some
progressives who say The Bible isn’t relevant.  But if the Bible isn’t relevant now, or on this or that issue, it is never relevant.  At the same time, it is false to say that only one side in the Methodist argument is devoted to the Bible or holds it up as the only and highest authority.  The United Methodist Church has been and will always be a church that opens the Bible and expects nothing but God’s Word to us.  I know conservatives and progressives with astonishingly high views of Scripture; and yet their interpretation on this issue differs.  Every faithful reader studies the Bible and makes the best sense of it that they can.  There is no un-interpreted Scripture; it interprets itself! And every preacher in history has read it and tried to solve what it is saying to contemporary people.  And there have always been disagreements.  But let’s put aside the idea that some cling to the Scriptures while others dispense with them.  The Bible is the inspired Word of God.  We've not engaged in high level reading, together, of the Bible, and we've not listened attentively to why the others interpret the way they do - or at least in my circles this hasn't happened.  One thing I’m sure the Bible doesn’t say, either literally, or by any theological interpretation, is “Thou shalt split up the Body of Christ.”  The Bible says plenty, and clearly, about unity in Christ.

     Over time, I have blogged about many ideas about what God is calling us to do.  I don’t believe we’ve ever really listened to one another or tried to get inside the skin of those who disagree.  We haven’t thought through the invisible, unnoticed cultural assumptions that we all carry deep inside that drive our theology more than the Holy Spirit does.  But for today, I wonder if we can’t find a way to look at the Great Commission, the very tough topic of holiness in sexuality, Jesus himself, and the Scriptures, and ask if we don’t have considerable common ground upon which to stand when asking where God is calling us.

Friday, July 8, 2016

It's Time for the End to our Prayers

     The human mind can’t process all this news.  We feel dazed.  A knot in the stomach.  A kind of dark cloud has settled over the country.  Orlando.  Alton Sterling.  Dallas.  Philando Castile.  Who’s next? and Where?

     I wish I had a nickel for every time somebody has said about these horrors, “Our thoughts and prayers go out…”  I’m a pastor; obviously I’m an advocate of praying.  But I’ve tried to get inside God’s head and heart, and I wonder what God makes of our “thoughts and prayers.”  God is grieving, to be sure.  But I wonder if God wonders what we are looking for.
     Back in Bible times, the people were praying during national calamities.  God’s response?  “These people draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13).  The people gathered for special worship services and sang hymns – prompting God to say “I hate your festivals and take no delight in your assemblies. Take away from me the noise of your songs” (Amos 5:20).  And why?  If God didn’t want songs and prayers what did God want?  The very next verse in Amos explains it all: “But let justice roll down like waters, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
     I can’t know how God feels about our “thoughts and prayers.”  But I am positive God would be far more pleased if we would open our eyes, lift up our heads, get up off our knees, and go and do something.  How pointless is it to continue to shudder over the news, and then ask God for comfort, when we aren’t doing anything to alter the conditions under which these killings continue to happen?
     Why do these things happen?  It’s no one thing.  It’s a lot of things.  But we get derailed, because somebody somewhere always has some vested interest in one of the things, so each one gets shot down (literally) and nothing changes.  It is the whole toxic mess of woes that bedevils us.  No one I know is optimistic things will change.  But somewhere inside each of us, and in our collective national psyche, aren’t we “prisoners of hope” (Zechariah 9:12)?  And what is hope anyhow?  Not a naïve assumption things will just perk up tomorrow, or the more naïve assumption that our prayers will cause God to do a little razzle-dazzle magic and fix things for us.  St. Augustine said that “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see to it that they don’t remain the way they are.”

    We prisoners of hope have to end our prayers, or find what the end of our prayers ought to be, which is deciding with great courage to do something.  Something is profoundly wrong with regard to race in America.  We can toss blame back and forth.  But when will we engage in the long labor of listening, building trust, and insisting on equal treatment before the law?  Something is terribly wrong about guns.  Oh, the rights people leap forward and warn us society would crumble without even more guns!  But what we’re doing now most clearly isn’t working.

     Something is flat out crazy about the entertainment industry and our addiction to it.  We are appalled by violence in the streets – but we clearly have a taste for it, since we flock in to movies and stare dumbly at TV shows where the shooting is constant. 

     Something is insanely wicked about government.  Gridlock is too nice a term for what we’re saddled with.  Laws and policies need changing, but one side is hell-bent on destroying any good idea the other side might happen to have.  Something is embarrassingly woeful about our political process.  We vote for the loudest, most shrill people who feed our fears and prejudices.  Isn’t it conceivable that we might say Amen after our prayers and seek out leaders who are wise and good, who appeal to the best in us?

     Something is out of kilter economically.  Equal opportunity is a vain notion.  White privilege is real, although whites can’t see it.  Society is arranged for the benefit of white people.  If you’re white and want to rise up and stomp on me for saying this, fine – but our denial of white privilege isn’t getting anybody anywhere.  What if, for a change, we actually listened to people who aren’t white and gave them at least a little benefit of the doubt?  And something is way out of sync with our education system.  Educational equity is a pipe dream right now.  We have settled for unequal education, and then we are surprised by the long-term results.

     Something is killing us from the inside – and that is fear.  Terrorists around the world try to induce fear.  But we are clustering around fear ourselves quite well without their help.  News media and pundits and politicians and just everybody fan the flames of fear.  And there is a lot to be afraid of.  But is it possible to stand up to our fears, to expose them and find ways to build a world that knows higher pursuits than security?  Can we figure out that more and more force never resolves fear but only raises the stakes?

     I could go on and on.  Something is really wrong in America.  Everything I have named is real.  Each one is something that mortifies God.  Pray if you wish – but God wants us to find the end to our praying and do something.  With each one, something really can be done, and in a decade or two we really could have a safer society that would be more pleasing to the God we pray to for help.  We can turn off any TV show where a gun is fired.  We can resource our schools more equitably.  We can elect different people.  We could pass some gun law, any gun law, if only to make a statement.  We could connect with people who are different instead of judging them.  We could enthusiastically support our police and rebuild trust with them – but only if we also are willing to hold the small minority of them who exceed their authority accountable. 

     We can be different.  We can be the people God uses to be the answer to our own prayers.  That is, if we come to the end of our prayers, and do courageous things.  The other night I heard Carrie Newcomer sing the most timely song I’ve ever heard:  If not now, tell me when?”

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

A Way Forward: Defend Each Other's Character

     Near the end of my friend Ryan Danker’s very fine book, Wesley and the Anglicans: Political Division in Early Evangelicalism, something caught my eye.  In 1764, John Wesley wrote a letter to “forty or fifty clergymen” as his last, determined effort to bring unity to the evangelicals in England.  We don’t often attend to this:  among those who would be on fire for Jesus, and who sought desperately needed reform within the Church, there was great division, and intense rancor.
     His letter challenged evangelicals of every stripe to “speak respectfully, honourably, kind of each other; defend each other’s character; speak all the good we can of each other; recommend each other where we have influence, and to help each other on in his work and enlarge his influence by all the honest means he can.”
     Divided as we United Methodist are today, 252 years after Wesley penned this letter, and wondering if we can stay together, I wonder if a wise starting point might be what Wesley commended way back then.  Is it possible, not merely that we might “speak respectfully,” which feels like little more than politeness, or some basic obligation of Christian charity, but actually “defend each other’s character.”  I believe this is entirely possible, quite do-able, and utterly essential if we harbor any pretensions of being the Body of Christ, of viewing no one from a merely human point of view (2 Corinthians 5:16). 
     John Adams and Thomas Jefferson managed to do this!  July 4 just passed - and my favorite July 4 moment came in 1826 when Adams and Jefferson, with impeccable timing, died on the same day, the 50th anniversary of their Declaration of Independence.  Fierce political rivals, they became great friends late in life.  It all started when Adams wrote to Jefferson, "You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other."  If Adams and Jefferson could reconcile personally, even with political differences, we in the Church ought to get started at least explaining ourselves to each other, and humbly defending one another's character.

    Imagine: we differ on whatever the issue might be, although most frequently, and most inflammably, is on the issue of homosexuality – but we might ask a few questions about the character of the one with whom we disagree.  I am thinking quite specifically at the moment about a case before our bishop in Western North Carolina.  One of our pastors performed a same gender wedding ceremony on April 23 of this year. She is a longtime friend whom I know very well.  Shortly after that wedding, charges were filed by more than a dozen people, including two clergy in our own annual conference whom I know very well, both longtime friends - and they filed charges for very different reasons.

     What I can assure everyone of is this:  all three of my friends, and colleagues, who find themselves as combatants in a case requiring episcopal or court resolution, are of impeccable integrity.  All three love God.  All are passionate about the Scriptures.  They have profound ministries.  They are striving to serve God.  They have significant track records of reaching the lost for Jesus.  All three are incapable of duplicity.  They are deeply trusted, by me and by many others.  All three carry on their ministries with great courage and faithfulness.  They love our United Methodist Church.  They are so very much beloved – by me.
     Where we get derailed is when we disparage the character of someone we don’t know, or who diverges from the way we think, however passionately and truthfully about an issue.  He does not need to say Oh, it doesn’t matter what she did or what she thinks; and she does not need to say Oh he’s just so wrong, and what he’s doing is crazy.  But if truth is a real thing, if truth has to do with looking reality in the eye and naming it honestly, then he and she should be able to say of the other, I can defend his character; I can defend her character.  She is a marvelous servant of God; he is a zealous campaigner for God’s kingdom.  We are all, in our hearts, doing our very best for God.  I so very strongly disagree with the way that person's courageous ministry of character played out one day; but the character plainly is there.

     Neither is wicked, or stupid, or vile.  We demonize the ‘other,’ but our demonization of the other says more about our own uneasy selves than about the other person.  Wesley was quite clever, but really just theologically on point, when he suggested that those who are striving for the good of the kingdom who disagree “defend each other’s character.”  We can do this.  We actually have no choice but to do this, unless we are like those trumped up witnesses who ambled in and accused Jesus of perfidy. 
     And if we can acknowledge that there indeed is character, and holiness, and immense love for God and compassion in ministry in the other guy, then we stand a chance of listening, and understanding, and even loving, and making a rather astonishing witness to the world, where the “character” of the foe is never praised but only smashed.
     If we could do this, and I can’t think of a single good reason why we can’t, we might have building block number one in place for how to move forward as God’s people.  What if we tried to move forward without putting this block in place?  Whatever we devise would be a sham, rooted in what is not true or real.  In the United Methodist Church, we have nothing at all except noble, broken, lovely, flawed, passionate, confused and committed people who gave their lives to Jesus and would do flat out anything for him.

     Who knows?  We might even move on to the rest of Wesley’s counsel – to “speak all the good we can of each other; recommend each other where we have influence, and to help each other on in his work and enlarge his influence by all the honest means he can.”  That indeed would be a surprise to a cynical world – and the movement of the Holy Spirit we say we seek so eagerly.