A Few More Considerations of The Crisis of The United Methodist Church

A recent blog post here titled “The Crisis of The United Methodist Church” brought some interesting responses. Most of the responses were positive in nature which leads me to believe the writers got my point. Other responses seemed to get my point and dismissed it. My point was simple. If the denomination divides, fellowship will be broken. The unity of which Jesus spoke in John 17 and St. Paul exhorts in Ephesians 4 will not only be broken but sinfully broken. Those people who argued that “doctrine” was more important than continued unity misunderstand what the “doctrine” of the Church is.

The doctrine of The United Methodist Church is not one’s own interpretation of Holy Scripture. Nor is our doctrine the product of a group of Bishops, or Pastors, or Lay Members interpretation of Holy Scripture. Doctrine is not the product of any body within The United Methodist Church. Doctrine is not the product of the General Conference of The United Methodist Church. And therefore doctrine is not the Book of Discipline. However, the Book of Discipline discusses the doctrine of our denomination.

The “Basic Christian Affirmations” of Paragraph 102 gives the following statements as subheadings.

  1. We hold in common with all Christians a faith in the mystery of salvation in and through Jesus Christ.
  2. We share the Christian belief that God’s redemptive love is realized in human life by the activity of the Holy Spirit, both in personal experience and in the community of believers.
  3. We understand ourselves to be part of Christ’s universal church when by adoration, proclamation, and service we become conformed to Christ.
  4.  With other Christians we recognize the reign of God is both a present and future reality.
  5.  We share with many Christian communions a recognition of the authority of Scripture in matters of faith, the confession that our justification as sinners is by grace through faith, and the sober realization that the church is in need of continual reformation and renewal.

These basic affirmations are the product of the doctrinal heritage of the Church Universal. We are not a creedal church per se. We are one that recognizes a basic understanding of what Christian doctrine is. Our UM Hymnal approves the usage of both versions of the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed in our worship.

The paragraph on Our Doctrinal Heritage tells us John Wesley’s theological work was in the area of practical theology. “He considered doctrinal matters primarily in terms of their significance for Christian discipleship…The distinctive shape of the Wesleyan theological heritage can be seen in a constellation of doctrinal emphases that display the creating, redeeming, and sanctifying activity of God.” The task John Wesley undertook was one of renewal and not a reinvention of church doctrine. The paragraph continues to describe those particular Wesleyan emphases regarding grace.

Here is where our confusion begins. Under the subheading of “Doctrine and Discipline in the Christian Life,” we read, “No motif in the Wesleyan tradition has been more constant than the link between Christian doctrine and Christian living. Methodists have always been strictly enjoined to maintain the unity of faith and good works, through the means of grace…the coherence of faith with ministries of love forms the discipline of Wesleyan spirituality and Christian discipleship.” The spiritual principles of the General Rules (I have written about these in earlier posts) are derived from this understanding.

The Articles of Religion of the Methodist Church and The Confession of Faith of the Evangelical and United Brethren contained in paragraph 104 are considered doctrinal standards of The United Methodist Church. Article XXII of the Articles maintains the importance of openly rebuking a person that, “Whosoever, through his private judgment, willingly and purposely doth openly break the rites and ceremonies of the church to which he belongs, which are not repugnant to the Word of God, and are ordained and approved by common authority…”

The United Methodist Church, according to our common heritage with other Christian bodies and our doctrinal standards, recognizes only two sacraments – Baptism and Holy Communion – which are open to all people. There is no doctrine of marriage or sacrament of marriage in our doctrinal standards. There is no doctrine of ordination or sacrament of ordination contained in these doctrinal standards. It can be simply stated that we have no interpretation of Scripture regarding marriage or ordination.

What we have in The United Methodist Church are practices of marriage ceremonies and ordination standards and ceremonies. It is true that these practices are upheld by simple majority votes of the General Conferences. And here we see that the denomination is threatened with a split over these practices rather than doctrines. We can disagree over practices. The special called General Conference of 2019 violates the Wesleyan spirit of our doctrine and Christian living. The General Conference was called to discuss and vote on issues of practice and codified certain violations of practices as church law. It is a bad precedent. Because fellowship are often broken by “official acts” of churches. The papal bull that excommunicated Martin Luther broke the Western Church. Henry VIII feared to die without a male heir and leave England open to another series of civil wars. The Church of England was declared independent of Rome for that purpose. Later, under Elizabeth I that breach was solidified.

Some people advocate division of The United Methodist Church and cite potential growth as a result. It is doubtful that a new protestant division will result in church growth in the United States considering the present trends in religious identification within the U.S. A few others believe that their faithfulness is being tested in such a way that they cannot listen to other people’s point of view. Either way these people are advocating further sectarian division (the actual meaning of heresy) to avoid the hard work of reconciliation. The Wesleyan understanding of original sin means none of us are absolutely correct in our views. This is an important doctrinal point. If we cannot acknowledge the evil in ourselves and the good in others, than we have become something Jesus knew and experienced all too well.

A friend contacted me after I wrote the original post. He thanked me for what I said in it. He takes an opposite side from mine. I replied to him that for all of our differences God made us brothers and sisters. He replied, “Amen.” I fear, most of all, that we have lost the vision God has for the church. Another person told me that those who only see the “big picture” often miss those of us who live in the “little picture.” I agree with that statement too.

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Bob Crachit’s Goose.

Have you ever asked, “What happened to Bob Cratchit’s goose?” What do I mean? Let’s review. When the Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to view the Christmas dinner at the Cratchits home, the family has a “rather small goose” for the meal. Then when Scrooge awakens on Christmas Day he sends the family a “prize turkey” for their dinner. My point is that the Christmas dinner at the Cratchits that Scrooge saw never did not happen. But he saw it didn’t he? In fact, none of the Christmas activities viewed by Scrooge over the twelve day season could have taken place because he awakes on Christmas Day.

A Christmas Carol is a tale of ghosts showing shadows. Many readers get the impression that the stories of Past and Present are merely filler until Scrooge sees the warning that the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come scares the hell out of him to get salvations. Scrooge changes and everything else changes. Dickens does not craft his story that way. The story is a carol with stanzas just like any other.

This is the point. Christmas carols are meant to tell some version of the Christmas stories. They may be calls to remember. They may be admonitions to be joyous. They may be giving someone a sense of the wonder of the stories. Dickens makes a story about the Christmas story.

Bob Cratchit is a cypher in Scrooge’s world. He is the clerk who works in his office who later becomes the object of his employer’s charity. But that is a terrible way to view Bob Cratchit. It is how Scrooge begins to see him. The shadows that the ghosts show Scrooge opens his eyes to finally see Bob Cratchit. Bob is a father, a loving husband, a religious man, and a generous man. He is everything Scrooge isn’t but could have been. Bob also sees Scrooge. He refers to his boss as “the founder of our feast.” Scrooge had never considered before what Bob Cratchit sees in him. His view was that the world seeks to use him and take what he has. He thinks Bob the clerk uses him for his wealth. Bob “picks his pocket.” There is something happening deep inside of Scrooge when he sees Tim and learns he would die a death that could be prevented with proper medical care. Tim too sees what happens in the world around him. He cannot play as the other children do. But he enjoys watching them playing. He is also religious and thoughtful. Again Scrooge sees someone who he could have been.

The stories of the nativity of Jesus is a story about seeing. It is said the popular Nativity Scene was invented by St. Francis to remind the people that Jesus was born in poverty. Matthew tells about Herod who cannot see the glory of the Messiah’s birth. He tells about foreign Magi who do. Luke tells about how announcements and recognition of the Messiah is done by women (Mary and Elizabeth) and the shepherds. The Messiah, the glory of God and the peace of God, is recognized by people who do not matter.

Scrooge matters in this world. And now Scrooge sees what he should have seen all along.. The first place Scrooge visits is church. And then he appears at his nephews home to rejoin his family. The next act is to tell Bob in ways the clerk could not have expected that Scrooge sees him and will improve Bob’s situation in life and help Tim to live. Christmas, Dickens tells us, is about opening our eyes and seeing the peoples of the world. The ghosts and their shadows taught Scrooge about reality in a more concrete way than citing figures in ledgers or statistics concerning poverty that blind us to reality. His eyes are open. Scrooge could close them again. But he realizes his life is wasted if he does that.

People who will not see are the most blind. We invent fantasies and call them real. As Chesterton says, it is the ethics of elfland (attributes we learn from characters in stories that begin “one upon a time”) that are the most real and make us beings that are true. Don’t criticize stories that are not “biblical” this season. There is something greater going on in them than are found in merely keeping traditions.

Persuasive Words

“They replied, ‘Surely you are not also from Galilee are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.” John 7:52 (NRSV)

Prior to the famous reading of “the woman taken in adultery,” there is an exchange in John’s gospel between Nicodemus and his Pharisaic brothers. Nicodemus is secretly a disciple of Jesus. He makes an argument that no person should be condemned as a violator of the Torah without being given a hearing. His friends on the court are outraged by such common sense that they utter the above quoted text. All that needs to be done here is for the reader to imagine the pitch and volume of the voice of the person saying it. When said forcefully, many people get the impression that it is said with conviction. Many things said with conviction are not true. This statement is one of them.

There is an old story about a church custodian who finds the minister’s Sunday sermon notes on the podium in the sanctuary the following Monday morning. She notices that the minister has jotted a note in the margin of the otherwise carefully written sermon. The note reads, “Weak point! Yell like mad!” It is a humorous anecdote only because there is a ring of truth in it.

The Pharisee who uttered the nonsense to Nicodemus overlooks some simple facts from the scriptures. Prophets did come from the area of Galilee. Jonah was from Gath-hepher (2 Kings 14:25). St. Peter’s hometown of Capernaum derives its name from the phrase “city of Nahum.” And it is likely that the Pharisee detractor knows this without needing to be reminded. Ironically, both of those prophets talk about the influence of bad thinking and acting leading to the downfall of the city of Nineveh, the capitol of Assyria. John knows this, of course, because later in his book he makes it clear that this fear of destruction motivates the murder of Jesus (11:49).

I was reminded of this story during the constant yelling staged by the “leaders” that sit on the House Judiciary Committee. The story is definitely not a parallel narrative to our own present situation. The tactic is still the same, confuse the situation by yelling like mad hoping to move someone to an “Amen” of agreement. St. Paul claims he did not use “elegant wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:17) to manipulate his listeners. Rhetorical tactics do not make statements true. The Christians of Antiquity were rather suspicious of such manipulations. It did not keep St. Paul and others from using them. One need only read the work of St. Augustine against Pelagius to see how the former teacher of rhetoric employed the ad hominem (attack the man) ploy.

The Pharisees talking to Nicodemus intend to shame him by asking if he too is a Galilean. They are not accusing him of anything short of impurity. Why? Because impurity is the greatest sin in the mind of both a Pharisee and a Sadducee. John is very aware of this mindset. He quotes John the Forerunner (or the Baptist) who claims Jesus is “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29). The paschal lamb was to be very pure “without spot or blemish” for the meal marking the liberation from slavery in Egypt. Purity was of the utmost importance because that which was “unclean” could not be made “holy.” Pharisees wanted holiness in the person. Sadducees wanted holiness in the Temple practices. Both groups demanded “purity” as a means to their goals.

The desire to be without fault can be a consuming wish. It destroys all relationships eventually. Human beings cannot love purely, have faith purely, or keep hope purely. It is easier and deadlier to insist on purity in other ways. The manifestation of this kind of sickness is seen in how evil we will act to maintain the right to demand purity of other people.

We see this sickness in the text. The Pharisees and the chief priests will ensure the continuation of the program of making the nation pure by murdering Jesus and even Lazarus (12:10). Logic indicates more people would have to die in order to maintain this power. False accusations are offered for the greater good. False assertions are given in the name of the best for the nation. And one or two of the Ten Commandments must be sacrificed to save the list itself.

The question that remains is, “Do we want to continue being sick?” Will we decide to take a less easy path so that the dross can be burned out of us? I do not believe we want to ever take our medicine. But, as Kierkegaard observed, only a half dosage allows disease to kill even if it is only hampered a bit. History demonstrates the Temple and the Holy City were lost only forty years after the events described by John.

Loving Your Calling

This time of the year I remember Andy Anderson. He always sent my family a ham for Christmas. It was an unnecessary gesture. For two people who often had opposing ideas, we got along very well. He gave me the gift simply because I was his Pastor. I still have a Christmas wreath his wife made for my family. I received many gifts from that family.

One of the best gifts was when my father suffered a heart attack. Andy drove to the hospital to sit with my extended family (God love him just for that). Later I was told he had said, “Pastor sits with us when we have something going on, who sits with him when his family has trouble?” He got in his car and went to the hospital.

Andy was one of those Christians who was ready to help. His actions were guided by his study of the Bible and by what he had been taught. I knew of other actions he took for other people. He did not tell me about them either. He was generous with his time. He was generous with his possessions. He even took a shift each day caring for his ex-wife when she was dying. He once told me when the church youth group was having a pool party at his home. “No one needs all of this. It’s why I share it.” It was a good lesson to remember.

Andy told me he really loved my Bible studies. I enjoy teaching Bible studies. They are fun to develop. I try to make the discussion lively. When Andy died an untimely death, his widow said, “Andy always loved arguing with you.”

Sometimes the students can do more than their teachers. I am always glad to hear someone has put my advice into practice or took a lesson I gave to heart. Granted, I don’t have that satisfaction with everyone. Neither am I everyones idea of a teacher. I love to do it because sometime the point will come that I taught someone something that will make a difference in their lives.

I got the taste for this type of teaching early on in my life. Camp Buck Toms Boy Scout Camp in Rockwood Tennessee allowed me my first effort in teaching. I taught the Emergency Preparedness merit badge. The lesson plan was merely the list of requirements to earn the award. The only taxing part was getting everyone to pay attention while they fulfilled the requirements. We got to do some pretty cool stuff for emergency situations. The best lesson we all learned was that emergencies are never the same. One has to learn to think on one’s feet and to act quickly. I learned years later that one of the scouts that took my course kept a friend of his (and mine) from bleeding to death following an automobile accident. Usually when an emergency presents itself I keep my head well enough to take care of what needs doing then. I get emotional after the crisis has passed.

I knew though from that experience I wanted to teach. I was ordained an Elder which charged me to ministries of Word (Preaching and teaching) and Sacrament (baptism and holy communion). I did not become a school teacher. I have done some guest lecturing. And, obviously, I do some writing. I spend time learning so I have something to teach to someone else. It is really a good calling to have. A calling stays with a person throughout their lives even if it becomes an avocation.

When a person can’t fulfill that calling he or she tends to fall apart as a person. I have witnessed this in former colleagues and in people who simply cannot do the jobs they love anymore. It is said that until the day of his own death Stan Laurel wrote skits to be performed by him and his friend Oliver Hardy fifteen years after Oliver died. It was what he loved. He knew it would hasten his own demise not to write the skits and jokes even if they would not be performed. I personally would like to see those performed by some comedic pair. I bet they are wonderful.

How do I know for a fact teaching is my calling? That’s an easy one to answer.

Years ago in Oak Ridge I taught a course for “lay speakers/servants” for local United Methodist Churches. I joked that up to that point my appointments in the church had to be near a lake because I like fishing. After one session, a fellow came to me and said, “Our church is right on the lake. Maybe you will be sent to us.”

“Oh yeah. Which lake?”

“Watts Bar.” He replied.

“Oh, I have already live on that one.”

“When?” He asked.

“When I was a teenager I taught during the summers at Camp Buck Toms.” I said.

His face lit up. “I knew you were familiar!” He said excitedly. “You taught me Emergency Preparedness.”

We Are Not Racist!

Several years ago I wrote a post titled A Deep Sin where I describe the plague of overt racism that continues to infect white evangelicals. Today I wish to confront the sin of internal and unexamined racist beliefs. This is not a critique of ideological racism. I would hope that I do not need to do that.

There are numerous examples I can supply. Some I should not use because of issues of confidentiality as a member of the clergy. Other examples are not as clear as one that built up during my time working in a factory where I listened to my immediate supervisor.

Pam (not her real name) was upset, to say the least. Her daughter worked on another line in the plant and was having trouble. Mama Bear was out for blood. When asked what was going on, she replied, “There’s this black girl that is causing a problem for  Tammy. She is pulling bundles.” (emphasis was hers) When a coworker pulls bundles in a clothing factory, that person is taking pieces of clothes that are often smaller and easier to handle. If a factory pay-scale is based on numbers of bundles processed, then it means faster work and more money. If the pay is based on hours worked, then it is a matter of more quickly fulfilling a daily quota. A person who practices that is a jerk. There is no way he or she could be anything else.

The problem continued for a few weeks. Each time my supervisor complained about it, she said, “This black girl…” The question a person could ask is simply this, “Why do you emphasize her race?” Literally everyone knows a person who pulls bundles is a jerk. If a union steward or boss is notified, the problem should be quickly resolved. The shop steward takes as dim a view of the problem as anyone else. The task of representing the person is merely one where the violation is explained.

Given the considerations just mentioned, why emphasize the race of the miscreant? Why mention her skin color at all? Is her being black somehow making the situation worse? Is it because a black person has even less cause to be a jerk than anyone else? What about the very personable white male in our own department that does the exact same thing? Does his personality let him get away with it? (This went on at the time) Of course not. Even my supervisor would have to admit when confronted that the skin color of the other woman (not girl) had nothing to do with it. She grew up making the distinction as though it was a necessary description of the person. And that distinction really matters to many white people in our country.

I could not help but notice the response when during another discussion I made the point that no black people were in our department with our higher paying jobs. The same person defensively said, “We are not racist!” It is true that one had to pass a test to get into out department. On paper, that was the only requirement. The company was obliged to give the test to anyone who bid on the job. The only reason given for a person passing the test and losing the seniority advantage was that worker was on a final disciplinary notice. It was how I got moved into the department. The woman who would have gotten it based on passing the test and seniority was under such an action. I have no idea who that person was. I was called by Human Resources to tell me I had the job. The other information came later. There was an appearance of bias because the people in our department were all white. There was actual bias that was evident in the way these people talked about people of other races or ethnicities (including the latinx people who worked in our sister plants in Texas).

The distinction that mattered mentioned earlier was as built in our personalities as our given names. It was there. And it could be changed if we knew it was not a necessary part of who we were. This is the issue. A person need only examine his or her own thinking to see where the bias is involved. It is not easy. It requires honesty.

Truth is hard to find when we do not want to find it. People usually avoid this kind of self-examination for this reason. We often lie to ourselves that it is more important to protect ourselves than to express any sentiment that would leave one open to criticism. In attempting to hold onto this type of identity, we lose all prospect for integrity.

Advent is meant to be a time of preparation. Evangelicals, charismatics, and mainline Christians do not use it that way. A cultural bias is involved that believes the only sin of the season is “missing the true meaning of Christmas,” what ever that is. The irony is that we attempt to make a holiday “meaningful” with elaborate decorations and family gatherings. We attempt to make the meaning by insulating. Times of preparation on the church calendar are meant to get our hearts and minds in order to celebrate light overcoming darkness and resurrection overcoming death. Christians are tasked with dealing with the darkness in our own persons. And that includes the darkness that allows us to be biased, to tolerate structures in our communities that promote prejudices, and to set up barriers against the promotion of light.

We defend ourselves when we sit in darkness. We prefer it all too often. “We are not racist!” We shout. “People are just too sensitive.” We whine. “We are the ones who are truly picked on.” We say. They are all lies. The worst lie is, “We don’t owe anybody anything.” We owe ourselves the truth. We owe other people grace and mercy. And we owe discernment with love to the world. The light is uncomfortable. Yet, it heals.

The Gift of Imagination

It has often been said that Tom Godwin’s story The Cold Equations is the best science fiction story ever written. It is a story about how wishful thinking simply does not work. No matter what we would like to have happen cold hard facts will always win out in the end. The space ship only has enough fuel to safely land carrying up to a certain amount of mass. The stowaway on board must be ejected into space if the craft is to land safely. There is no getting around it. Force is not a mystic energy of the universe. It is mass times acceleration. The stowaway must be sacrificed.

The story is fiction with good science driving the plot. America’s space program lost a great deal of romanticism when Neil Armstrong was asked what he would if he could take with him to the Moon. His reply was, “More fuel.” There is a fatalism in the scientific enterprise that makes us gloomy.  Yet, as some other critic pointed out, while Godwin’s plot may be driven by good science, it is bad engineering. Yes, there are limits to what can be done. But name one designer that does not plan for possible problems to arise. If the spaceship had better design, then it could potentially accommodate the extra weight. Wishful thinking is one thing. Better planning is a difference.

I know it is odd to write a religious/philosophical reflection on the topic of engineering. Ask yourself this question, “what is the point of human living without planning?” Human beings possess imagination that allows us to look just a little bit into the future. If I throw the rock at the bird and miss, it will likely fly away to escape the danger. Therefore, my aim needs to get better. I must practice my throwing. That very thought occurred to somebody in prehistory. I guarantee it. The Olduvain hand axe is a prime example of how to aim better and make it count. A human made that weapon. A human used it. And modern humans figured out how it was used. There is one other most important point to be made here. It did not work on the first try. How do I know? Because human thought and knowledge is nothing more than trial and error until one succeeds ( or dies trying).

All human religions, philosophies, and belief systems are arrived at the same way. We have arrived at them by trial and error. An ancient King may have decided to take some action. The successor of that monarch either continued it or changed it. The action (or tradition) either succeeds or not. But, human beings also make contingency plans. Imagination has helped us survive, build, conquer, conserve, preserve, and steward. All too often, we think we have the final and better plan. And that thought is destroying humanity.

Human life is facing an extinction level event of our own making. We have, since the industrial revolution, overused earth’s resources. We appear to only be dealing with this problem by trial and error. Imagination is the only tool we have. And as the most advantageous tool, imagination is very limited.  We cannot see all the contingencies. We are looking at a process that is very difficult to comprehend. Humans crave security and stability. We want our lives to be regular and predictable. We want assurances that we aren’t making errors that cannot be corrected. We really want cold equations to tell us what must be. Unfortunately (and thankfully) that is not life.

Our religious traditions are often thought of as programs of stability. One only needs to look at where the saints and sages were to know that is wrong. Monasteries do not often make Saints. Sages must learn how to live in this world as it is. First, though, they must really see the world as it is and not what they assume it to be.

The world is a gift. Life in this world is a gift. Technology is a gift. Other people are gifts. Our institutions are gifts. All human being have to do is figure out how to use those gifts. When humanity learned to make use of the energy released by wood, charcoal, fossil fuels, and nuclear energy we failed miserably in viewing these avenues to energy as gifts. Instead we think of them as a curse when we see the negative effects of using these avenues. The Saints and the Sages would tell us that we misused the gifts and for some reason blame it on the gifts.  All that has happened is that we refused to allow imagination to continue being used. A great irony to ponder is how we use technology developed using fossil fuels to produce devices that allow humans to use renewable sources of energy.

Consider this then, Robert Thomas Malthus envisioned an extinction level event derived from the misery of overpopulation. He published his work on the eve of the Industrial Revolution. His prediction did not come true because the world as he knew it changed.  He was not wrong. His imagination was limited. And he was only looking in one direction.

How did our prehistoric human decide the bird would fly away if he missed it? Because that person (and the tribe) knew that was how birds react. They saw it happen too many times before to doubt it and even told one another about it. Imagination is governed by wisdom. Wisdom is from the past.

Our religious and philosophical traditions are built on recorded history. The era of Western modernism sought to explain, examine, and dismiss outmoded traditions. The methods of thinking developed were based on the traditions. Then the methods were questioned and dismissed because they rested on old foundations. Fortunately, people from other cultures saw the value of wisdom. Western culture is rediscovering that sense of traditional wisdom. This is not the first time one culture rescued another one. Averroes, a Muslim scholar, helped Medieval Europe rediscover the roots of its civilization. The gift of the Six Nations was to impress on English colonists in the Americas the importance of communities. The colonists arrived from cities. I am sure there are other examples.

The Christian Church, with all of it’s faults, contributed to Western Culture the idea that life, the world, food, water, shelter, indeed everything worth having, as a gift. It is an idea that comes from the Hebrew Bible.

We have come to believe that each of us must overcome all obstacles in order to reach the promised reward of life. I am sorry that I once thought that way. I now realize that we have gifts we could not have imagined. And that we can imagine how best to use the gifts. I believe we can change the culture of death to a culture of life by remembering that we cannot force anything by dictating how it must be. We can learn again to appreciate the gifts for what they are.

The Crisis of The United Methodist Church

Annual Conference this past summer was very different for me than it had been in previous years. I attended a few sessions. I was and am still on medical leave. I was automatically excused from attending any part of it. I attended when I could. I prayed, sang, listened, and took part as I could. I was also a witness to what could very well be a final united Annual Conference. Depending on what the General Conference does next May, our next Annual Conference could involve talk of how we will separate as a church.

I have read enough material and spoken to enough people to know the consensus is that the denomination should either dissolve or separate. What I find interesting is that few people who agree that the denomination should separate also agree that their home congregation should not dissolve or separate. It is enlightening to know that many people realize there will be pain and recriminations if congregations separate. They simply do not see pain and recrimination if the denomination does. The reason is obvious at least to me that regardless of how one views the issues on which division is based no one wants to lose their friends, the people with whom they experience a connection.

Connectionalism is the feature of United Methodist polity that has made the denomination what it is. I once worked within a denomination that was based on the “call system” of ministerial leadership. The ministers in that denomination were not really friends. They were actually rivals. If a minister announced he was leaving a certain church, many resumes and sermon tapes and videos would begin arriving the next day. The itinerant system of The UMC cut down that sense of rivalry and allowed friendships among clergy to blossom. Itineracy has problems as well. The phenomenon of the “Kitchen Cabinet” among clergy was all about envy and covetousness. Who was getting what and whether or not they should was the issue. And there is no denying that motivated the people who took part in it. Another problem of itineracy has been that congregations did not believe they were getting what they wanted in a pastor. I never heard a Pastor-Parish Committee express what they needed in a pastor. For all of its faults connectionalism works fairly well. The failure has been among those who were selfish and craved power. Human beings make up the church after all.

My experience in the last Annual Conference was very heartening though. I got to spend time with clergy members and the lay delegates that I knew. The most important discussion I had was with one colleague in particular. I was walking back to Stuart Auditorium when this person stood up. He appeared excited to see me. He stuck out his hand and said, “Brother, you keep doing what you have been doing.”

I was surprised. I knew what he was talking about. I just didn’t know he knew my situation (even though I have been open about it on social media and other places). And there we stood on the sidewalk, my reconciling ministries rainbow ribbon on my name badge while he had his WCA pin on his, and he was encouraging me to keep getting better as I recovered from my addiction. I won’t name the person here. I will never be able to forget him or his gesture.  Our differences over church polity and denominational direction did not matter. Issues surrounding “justice” and “biblical authority” and “inclusion” became words when we two beings that used words used them to support one another. He was retiring. I was encouraging him to continue serving in a new capacity. He was encouraging me to stay alive.

I said that was the most outstanding example. Other times there were examples of kind words exchanged, meeting a friend who was battling cancer, talking to a colleague and apologizing for something I did, shaking hands and hugging people I had not seen in a long while. Recently, a colleague said to me, “I have been keeping up with you and pray for you every day. I have agonized with you and celebrated with you.” My congregation, my home church, is the Annual Conference. And, like any congregation, we have times we don’t get along. Most of the time we do. And I will be sorry to lose it or any part of it.

I understand the issues that are dividing us are important. Still, I believe our biggest issue to overcome is our own self-importance. If the denomination divides, we will all require repentance for this point. I will go where my conscience requires. I will also grieve the loss of the connection.

 

THANKSGIVING AS IT WAS

One congregation I served hosted a Thanksgiving meal every year for clients at our local food bank. This dinner was almost always done on the Saturday before Thanksgiving day. That one night the church would serve anywhere between two hundred to three hundred people in our area. It was a massive, exhausting, frustrating, and yet rewarding work. I recall one young lady who came in that night on her dinner break at a local Wendy’s. She told her coworkers that she wasn’t hanging around there for break. “I am going to eat a great meal.” She said.

I cannot say the dinner was better than any other that could have been put on. It was (and I hope still is) an amazing experience to witness. Eighty-something year old people guided young adults in serving while the middle-aged adults cooked, wiped down tables, and washed utensils the whole time. I marveled how I could not get my oldest son to pick his socks up off the floor while an eighty-three year old lady could have him carry heavy serving trays of food. And I was proud of him for doing it too. I wonder what he would have done if he knew I was watching?

Being the Pastor, I was usually in three places at once. I might be greeting people as they arrived. I was easily recognized by food bank clients because I helped there every week. Or I may have been helping to clean or carry out garbage. Or I could be sitting at a table just being company to someone who otherwise had no one else there. Once-in-a-while I would be helping those lay persons who were managing the whole program cope with some problem.

After one meal ended, the person coordinating serving said to me, “I was afraid we would run out of food. But there are two turkeys back there we haven’t even carved yet.” I replied, “I once heard a similar story about loaves and fish.” Her response was, “Had to be.”

One year we added a thanksgiving dinner to the one we already did. I for one do not like the idea of churches feeling like they need to do something every holiday. I never thought much of “trunk r treat.” A congregation is more than a service organization trying to get its “brand” out there. A church is most of all a community of those people who want to be disciples of Jesus as Christ. Many times that means acting as a community for one another. I do not mean merely doing activities as a group. I mean acting in ways that support each other. That is where the added Thanksgiving meal came in to our work.

While I served that congregation we lived more than a few hours away from our extended family. We did not live far enough away to make a major trip home to stay a few days. If we went “home” for Thanksgiving, it would mean spending most of the holiday on the road. We usually stayed home. Something really wasn’t right about that either. We talked to some other families and individuals at church to see what could be done to remove the burdens of traveling or isolation. We learned there were quite a few of us. And we learned that some of the older church members would be alone on Thanksgiving day itself. We decided we would have Thanksgiving day at the church fellowship hall for people at the church who wanted to come and to bring friends if they wished.

We had a time of devotion before the meal. I told the story of how Thanksgiving observances began from The United Methodist Book of Worship. It was not the story of the pilgrims and native Americans we often tell. Then we ate, talked together served each other, and cleaned up together. It really was a fun time for everyone. I thought it had been a good idea and a good plan executed. And then I found out it was something more.

One older couple that attended our church usually spent their summers traveling the northeastern rural areas of the United States and the plains of Canada. They had an itenerary of churches they visited every year to host Vacation Bible Schools. The work they did was not a “retirement project.” No. This was a mission for them. And they worked very hard at it. They were able to be present for the Thanksgiving dinner.

I saw him sitting there appearing to contemplate what was going on. I walked over and asked, “What do you think?” It was then I saw his eyes were red.

“This is the way Thanksgiving always was for my family when I was little.” He said. “We ate at church.” He went on. “I never really knew my Dad. He was a very violent and vicious man. He had children everywhere. He didn’t take care of us. I don’t believe he was legally married to my mom. We weren’t the only family he abandoned. My mom did the best she could and the church always helped us. We always had Thanksgiving at church.” He said.

I nodded. “I am glad you got to be with us this time.” I said.

There were a lot of people in the church who believed he and I would never get along. I was seminary educated and well-read. He was not seminary trained. He was pretty much a fundamentalist in how he thought. He could be a little awkward. Some said he was arrogant.

He turned out to be one of my best supporters at the church. He took notes during my sermons. He attended every Bible study that I taught when he could. He showed me the materials he used on what I thought of as his “missionary journeys.” He asked if I had any advice or ideas that could help him. If he had friends visiting, he made a point to introduce me. “This is our Pastor Don.”

I have tears in my eyes now just thinking about the friendship we shared. That Thanksgiving meal became the one of the best I have attended because it meant so much to him.

The hosts of a podcast I listen to asks their guests questions. The last one is “Assuming Heaven is real what do you want to hear God say?”

My answer is “Charlie has been waiting on you with the others.”

PATIENCE

It happened again today. What was it? A lesson for me to ponder came to me today. A lesson that points out a true weakness I possess.

I was leaving the grocery store parking lot when an elderly lady pushed her cart alongside the driver’s side of my pickup. I saw her mouth move. I rolled down my window.

“I said, ‘you got in your car too fast.’ I was pushing my buggy up here as fast as I could to get you to help me pick this up.” She pointed to a bag of kitty litter in her shopping cart.

“Oh,” I said as I turned off the ignition and got out of the truck. Generations of southern Appalachian heritage, Boy Scout training, and practical ministry all made my response automatic. I quickly got the medium sized bag into the backseat of her car.

Only when I got back into my car did I realize she said something else. “Usually I just stand here and wait for someone to come along.”

The thought of this woman waiting in a parking lot for “someone” to come help her meant she possesses one virtue that I am not known for – patience. She had to practice patience in order to wait with peace of mind until a person would show up to help her. I don’t know if I will ever be able to do that even when the time comes that I have to do it.

My father taught me the following prayer. “Lord, grant me patience and hurry it up!” One motto I live by is “let’s get started and get it done.” My mother used to say, “I am not a doctor so I don’t have to have patience” (yes, it is a terrible pun). I can safely claim I come by this lack of patience in my life honestly.

Now, if we join that lack of patience with my tendency to procrastination, we have a very disturbing situation indeed. I tend to experience guilt for not doing some tasks in a timely fashion. And I further procrastinate by beating myself up emotionally for procrastinating. As insane as this sounds keep in mind I used to use alcohol to help with depression. Try not to think too long about that.

Getting back to this lady who stopped me earlier today, I can guess that her patience is a part of a plan she makes. She has to consider what time of day someone is most likely to be in the parking lot who can and will help her. I know having a plan and putting it into play is important to having peace of mind. The real question is what if the plan does not work when it meets with reality. How is it possible to keep peace of mind with it?

I recalled the time in my teen-aged years when I often stopped at a convenience store in Alcoa named The Pantry. I was there one day when, after I got in line for the register, an older man came to me and asked, “Can you make me a hot dog?”

I quickly saw his drawn up and paralyzed arm would keep him from getting one of the hotdogs from the rollers and placing it in the bun let alone get any toppings for it. “Oh,” I said, “Sure.” I got out of line and followed his directions for his hotdog. When I was done, he said, “Make yourself one too.” I begged off saying it was getting late. And there would be supper at home. Then, I thanked him for the offer. As I said previously, generations of southern Appalachian culture and Boy Scout training were involved here. I had no idea how much money the man had to live on. I wouldn’t take any from him.

I think of him too as someone who went to that store planning to get the clerk to help him get what he needed. But the clerk was busy that day. So his practice of patience gave him the ability to ask someone else and to make allowance for extra expense. It is pretty amazing to be able to look at these situations that happened about thirty years apart and to reflect on what they mean.

I was glad to be of help. I knew I had done a daily “good turn.” I just wasn’t the hero I think I was. I was and am the student in these situations. I can’t say I got the real lesson yet. It has been said that the longest distance is between the head and the heart. I know this is true for me. And I am told I am a compassionate person. I try to be. I realize though intellectually that practicing patience is important if I am to grow in compassion. No if I can get this lesson impressed on my heart.

“Compassion is patient; compassion is kind; compassion is not envious, or boastful, or rude. It does not insist on it’s own way; it does not irritable or resentful.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5)

Hungry

One issue I have worked on most in the church is not salvation, theology, interpretation, or any of those. I have worked most in the issue of hunger. The Beatitudes, according to St. Matthew, say that those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” shall be “filled.” (Matthew 5:6). St. Luke says that those who “are hungry now for you will be filled.” (Luke 6:21). A quick comparison of these words gives the reader an impression that the two are basically the same statement. St. Luke goes further than St. Matthew in explaining the meaning, “woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry.” (6:25a) St. Luke offers a blessing with reward and a woe with a curse. St. Matthew does not offer that.

I recall one time when I was working at a food bank when one of the volunteers asked, “Why are we always so busy at the beginning of the month? Don’t people get their EBT cards now?”

I did not have to think about my answer for very long. “Well,” I began, “our clients appear to have decided to come here early in the month to see what we will be giving them. Then, when they know they have received certain items of food for free, they can go to the store and buy the other things they need with the cards.”

He thought it was a good answer. I had not thought about the question until he raised it. There was some quick deduction on my part to arrive at an answer. After all, if I was the food bank client what would I do? My answer showed a certain amount of savvy and planning on the part of our clients. I wondered at how quickly I came to this answer.

The only way I could see that I realized what so many of the food bank clients were doing was because I had been at the food bank week after week for a couple of years before the other worker volunteered. And being present among the people who were what the USDA called “food insecure” allowed me to get to know these people. They weren’t stupid or incapable. They were in need. They were hungry. And, during these weeks while loading boxes of food into beaten up cars, trucks, and vans, I got to know the clients. I was one of the few volunteers who actually had contact with the people we were serving.

Poor people are not the best people in the world. Poor people do not need romanticizing. And, most definitely, poor people don’t need other people rationalizing about who they are and what they really need.

Hungry people need respect from other people. I recall systematic theologian Kendall Soulen asking me about this type of ministry. He wanted to know how we ministered to the poor children and their families while letting them keep their dignity as human beings – as Children of God. It was a fantastic question. It was under the heading of “no one asked me this before.” There were a number of ways of allowing the poor to keep their dignity. All of which require that I as a helper respect their dignity most of all. This point is where the two beatitudes from Ss. Luke and Matthew touch. A judgement is pronounced on those people who could have helped feed the hungry but would not do it. The judgement is also placed on those people who would lord it over the hungry and point out that they were receiving help.

It is a very sobering thought when we realize the “woe” pronounced in St. Luke applies to all of those people who are not poor and hungry. Righteousness (or, if you will, Justice) is found in the recognizing the sacred worth of all persons.

Anyone who may think that St. Matthew was somehow softening an original commandment of Jesus should consider these words. “‘Lord, when was it we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to the least of these, you did not do it to me.'” (Matthew 25:45)

Hunger is a threat in every nation, city, or community in our world. We feed hungry people because they are hungry children of God.