Archive for July, 2018

Genesis 3:4 — the serpent tells Eve that God has lied about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden and that she will not die if she eats of it.

She ate.  Adam ate.  And “we are dust, and to dust we will return”, and eventually do.

Sin #1 : deceit, lying, falsification, untruthfulness, prevarication . . . whatever you want to call not telling the truth

Do Christians care about this sin, or are we too busy trying to sort ourselves out about the much more arcane concerns about homosexual sex?

Is this a concern for us today, or is deceit accepted and truth an antiquated, obsolescence? 

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With mid-term elections on the horizon just two years after an election meddled with by Russian hackers and influence operatives (for lack of a better name), I’ve been thinking a lot about how we protect the central process of democratic governance: voting.  If I may be so bold as to advise the American electorate, I have a few suggestions.

(1)  Get over any denial that the fairness of our elections and their outcomes are challenged by gerrymandering, the overwhelming volume of the voice of superpacs, and social media influence and campaign hacking by Russians.

(2)  Advocate for and support legislation that fixes gerrymandering.  Representatives should not pick their voters.  Voters should pick their representatives.

(3)  Vote!  Let me repeat myself—VOTE!

(4)  With regard to political ads on TV, radio, etc.:  Bear in mind that an ad supported by a named candidate (thus speaking with their voice) will skew information to make themselves look better and their opponents look worse.  Political ads are not news nor objective information.

(5)  With regard to ads by superpacs, which do not identify a candidate they support but trash talk another candidate . . . just ignore them.  These ads are blatantly biased propaganda which tend to play fast and loose with the what they purport to inform us with.  Campaign law allows superpacs to hide their membership, thus if we see an ad from an organization named “Patriots for Prosperity” (as a made up example), there will be no way to find out who belongs to it and is funding it.  Think about it—even if you agree with a superpac ad’s sentiments, do you want to allow yourself to be influenced by a group of anonymous political operatives?

(5)  Ignore social media, specifically the stuff we run across that pitches us into a snit so that we pass it on to all of our friends.  That’s where Russian influence operatives work to sway public opinion by stoking our fears and prejudices.  Social media is a lousy place to look for news.

(6)  Try as best you can to educate yourself about what will be on your ballot this fall.

To sum up:
– Don’t be a sucker
– VOTE!

By the way—an interesting article on what the Russians might do to “participate” in our democratic process can be found here.

Be Advised:  The following is not happy-to-glad and warm-and-fuzzy.  It is an unfortunate expression of my annoyance with my denomination.  If no one reads this, I’ll understand.

I’m torqued-off at my denomination, The United Methodist Church (UMC).  Yes, it’s about the UMC’s almost obsessive focus and arguments on issues around homosexuality.  And, yes, it’s about where the UMC is headed and the position it will put pastors like me in when we get there.

My primary annoyance is with the UMs’ focus on issues around homosexuality, as if we have nothing more important to get sorted.  For example, UMs have no consistent and consensual Christology.  Down into the heart of what it means to be a Christian, we have wildly differing views of Jesus Christ.  There are those of us who hold a traditional, orthodox belief in Christ, which includes acceptance of a virginal conception, the performance of supernatural works, and whole-person resurrection.  Across the spectrum, others of us take a liberal, “Quest for the Historical Jesus” view that posits Jesus as a metaphorical element at the center of a religious-political narrative of a sect of 1st century Jews in and around the Roman province of Palestine.  We don’t talk about this rather important difference of opinion of core belief, yet we are now ready to divide the UMC over an issue the Bible gives almost no ink to and Jesus himself said nothing about directly.  This tells me that we are a denomination that is defining itself on its opinion about a minor issue a long way outside the center of our faith.

My other annoyance is with the options for how the UMC moves forward that will be considered at a special General Conference schedule for February 2019.  One option creates three large conferences bordered not by geography but by belief in and around homosexuality.  If the decision regarding conference membership is pushed down to the local church level, then that will force pastors and congregations to expend a great deal of time, effort, and internal conflict deciding with which conference to affiliate.   At the local church, we have more important things to do.

There are two other, more likely options up for consideration, and they are just as problematic, if not more.  The first is called the Traditionalist Plan, which calls for a strict adherence to UM church law as it stands today and narrows it even further, specifically to declare that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian doctrine and thus clerical leadership, that same-sex marriage is prohibited, and that marriage can only be between two persons of different genders.  An off-ramp is proposed to allow churches who differ with this to exit the UMC with their church property.  In effect, the Traditionalist Plan would split the existing UMC into the UMC and whatever-it-calls-itself-MC.  My problem with this is that it would force me and my congregation to decide which Methodist denomination we would belong to based on our view of homosexuality.  To the outside world we would be a church known not by our proclamation of the Gospel and discipleship to Jesus Christ, but a church within either the homosexual-accepting or homosexual-hating denomination.  How can I and my congregation make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world if we are perceived primarily in these terms by the very people we need to reach for Jesus?!?

The other plan, the one favored by the study group that is reporting to the special General Conference, known as the One Church Plan, would also make my job way more difficult than it already is.  That plan pushes the decisions about issues around homosexuality down to pastors in each church.  I would have to choose, and be responsible, for whether I marry a homosexual couple, for example.  Congregations are rarely of one mind about anything, let alone homosexuality.  If, for example, I chose to marry the gay couple, I would surely anger some of my congregation and, likely, damage my pastoral relationship with them.  Should I refuse to officiate the same wedding, I would similarly anger and alienate others in my congregation.  Today, I can refer back to church law, which thus protects my ability to have a functional relationship with my congregation because they cannot hold me personally responsible.  Having to make decisions about issues around homosexuality without church law as a guide (or shield) would make me personally responsible and the focus of the conflict that might be precipitated from those decisions.  And again, to the world outside our walls, we run the risk of being defined by how we are perceived to embrace or exclude homosexuals.

As always, I put my trust in God to help us get things sorted.  I just hope God has been invited into the conversation.  My fear is that we are either ignoring or speaking over God as we discuss where to take the UMC.

President Donald Trump is a unique individual, with striking behavioral characteristics for one in the world’s most important leadership position.  One of those characteristics is his eggshell-thin self-image.  When criticized or insulted he reacts with vitriolic insults reminiscent of a children’s playground spat.  I was getting used to the idea that this was a behavior unique to Mr. Trump.  But, today, The Guardian has reported that Tesla founder and CEO, the visionary Elon Musk has fired off his own petulant insult aimed at one of the divers who, last week, rescued a group of youth stranded in a flooded cave in Thailand, calling the diver “pedo guy.”

Musk had been brushed back by the diver when he showed up at the rescue site with a small submarine.  The rescue team needed neither the untested and unfamiliar piece of equipment nor Musk and his retinue making an already tense and busy situation worse.  The diver had brusquely waved Musk off and later speculated that the offer of the miniature submarine was a PR stunt.  Musk reacted with an insult, calling the diver a pedophile.

Two powerful, famous, successful, well-positioned, and influential men who can afford and should be standing head-and-shoulders above the rest of us in the honorableness of their behavior lashing out like bruised bullies on a kid’s playground.  Really?!?

Maybe these men believe that their wealth, power, and position gives them the privilege to be childishly petulant.  Maybe they, like the Lemech of Genesis, feel they need to respond to attack with overwhelming verbal violence in order to assert their power and preserve their position.  Maybe their self-image is so fragile that the self-doubt evoked by an insult becomes painful and consuming.

The only way to avoid insult is to either isolate oneself from the rest of the world or not be born in the first place.  Since all of us alive today have failed the latter tactic and are not engaging in the former, we need to have the capacity to constructively deal with criticisms and insults.  We could, of course, devolve into tit-for-tat verbal violence, but that only makes things worse and shows us up to be immature jerks.  Most of us would rather not be seen that way.  Especially for Christians, there is a more excellent way.

“God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.”    – Genesis 1.27 (CEB)

To remember that they are created in God’s image should be enough for anyone to bolster their own self-image.  How can anyone else’s insult overshadow the knowledge that God values us so much as to reflect himself in each of us?  We are, as the psalmist reminds us, “awe-inspiringly and wonderfully made.”  Call me what you will–I’m just fine as I am!

If that’s not enough, we might also consider how Jesus Christ lifted up those in his world whom others disdained, disrespected, or ignored: tax collectors, a multiply-divorced woman shacked up with her boyfriend, the blind, lame, and physically deformed.  By offering the blessing of his attention, friendship, teaching, and/or healing, Jesus respected, honored, and dignified each, and by doing so with those society had written off, he communicates to all of us we are all of sacred and inestimable worth.  No criticism or insult can change that reality.

Of course criticisms and insults sting and anger us.  But we have a choice as to how we respond, both within ourselves and toward those who have provoked us.  As children of God, made in his image and who are lifted up by Christ the King, we can rise above reactive insult and choose to do something more constructive.  If the Donald Trumps and Elon Musks of our world could do this, how might their leadership be better for us all?

I wonder what Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, would say if he was alive today.  Not only did he claim that “the world is my parish,” but he also argued the validity and necessity of interpreting the world through the Bible, claiming that he preached with the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other.  Though the bulk of his sermons focused on a myriad of theological topics, he had much to say about wealth, economics, and the plight of the poor.  As a preacher in the Wesleyan tradition, it does indeed feel natural to, like Wesley did, interpret the world through the Bible (and the teachings of the Church).  But in 2018’s world of extreme partisanship and drastic change, in which social and political norms are in radical flux, and those changes are perceived most often through tribal loyalty rather than dispassionate analysis, interpreting the world through the Bible and church teaching has become difficult and dangerous.

The trouble has nothing to do with the source material.  In fact, our Bible’s venerable prophets would be as busy as ever today.  Just today, in fact, the president of the U.S.A. gave an interview to the U.K.’s Sun newspaper excoriating the British Prime Minister, only to claim later in the day, while standing next to the Primer Minister, that he had not uttered any criticism at all.  Such an action by the leader of the U.S.A. begs a reflection on the sin of deceit, the very first one demonstrated in the Bible.  But should I do so, with a call to my congregation to seek a more excellent way of truthful public discourse by our leaders and representatives, I will alienate and surely anger those I pastor who support our president.  The sin will become less relevant than my apparent partisanship.

For the record, I don’t care who is in office or which party they belong to.  If their behavior fails to honor their leadership position or their decisions cause harm, then I will be critical of their behavior or policies.

But the question remains: How do I, as a preacher in the Wesleyan tradition, speak to issues that surround and affect us today and yet continue to be pastor to those whose loyalties and perspectives would be offended by my preaching?  To let anything get in the way of preaching Christ and the Gospel is wrong.  Yet Christ is not divorced from the world.  If we as Christ-followers are to be relevant to the world, then we must engage with it and, if needed, call out that which ought not to be or could be better.  After all, as  United Methodists, we are in the business of “making disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world.”

I don’t have an answer, so I guess I will continue to do as I do now by preaching along the razor’s edge.