Is “Mainstream” Selling Us Downstream?

I’ve been getting their emails and letters almost every day, so it seems.  For in preparation for the General Conference of The United Methodist Church next week in St. Louis, a group advocating for one of the plans being proposed has been more than “methodical” about getting their message out.

The problem is, however, that “Mainstream UMC” seems to have a more casual relationship with truth than I think is merited.  And in terms of respectful dialogue with those who think differently, they’ve exhibited instead a censorious and unkind spirit at best, and a downright slanderous one at worst.

They’ve suggested, for instance, that the advocates of maintaining our current stance on homosexuality have “recreated the climate of 1844” when the Methodist Church split over slavery.  But the traditionalists are not proposing a split at all, only a continuation of what the greater church has repeatedly and increasingly believed to be a faithful response to some of these difficult questions.

They’ve claimed that the Commission on the Way Forward, which created the three plans that will be before the delegates in St. Louis, did not introduce the idea of a gracious exit, but that’s simply untrue.  It was originally in every one of the three plans that the COWF developed until the bishops took it out when they reviewed those plans.

They’ve said that only a “few rogue bishops” hastily wrote the Traditional Plan.  But they neglected to mention that the reason that plan was assembled rather quickly was that the bishops as a group told the Commission not to work on it and then, as the Commission was winding everything up, they changed their minds and reluctantly agreed to include that option after all.

They’ve likewise almost libelously labeled two of our bishops, Scott Jones and Gary Mueller, as “WCA bishops,” referring to the Wesleyan Covenant Association, simply because they accepted the invitation to attend a meeting of that group of United Methodists.  Indeed, in contrast to many of his progressive colleagues, Bishop Jones has gone out of his way to remain neutral and not endorse any of the three plans publicly.

They’ve warned that there’s simply not time to carefully craft any exit plans before 2020, despite the fact that numerous folks have been working on them for more than a year and versions have been available for delegates to read since the early fall. And some even falsely accused Maxie Dunnam of promoting the exit plan so that traditional churches can get money from the denomination on their way out, when the truth is that he did so to help progressive congregations who may not wish to stay if the current standards are maintained.

They’ve misrepresented the One Church Plan as not requiring anyone to change their positions if they chose not to do so, when in reality it will change our denomination’s definition of marriage for everyone.  And should the plan pass, traditional United Methodists will still be forced to pay into an episcopal fund that underwrites openly partnered gay bishops.  What’s more, even many proponents of the One Church Plan have admitted publicly that it’s simply a transitional step towards an eventual mandate for full inclusion by the whole denomination.

Most of all, Mainstream UMC has, in a dazzling display of redirection, argued that traditionalists are simply trying to force the church into schism when in truth it is progressives who have blatantly disobeyed our Discipline that have already done so.  For I have heard of no conservatives who have broken their ordination vows, disobeyed church law, ignored our covenant, or blatantly defied the discernment of the whole church in favor of their personal opinions or beliefs regarding this issue.

It’s one thing to argue a position and try to persuade others to adopt it.  But in misrepresenting the facts so blatantly, and twisting the position of their opponents so maliciously, so-called “Mainstream” proponents of the One Church Plan have plainly turned from progressives into simply pro-aggressives.

And if that sentiment prevails, I have a feeling that the decline in our worship attendance–already almost one million down from just 18 years ago–will only get worse.

 

 

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Dear Dr. King

I was only 15 when you left us (and you were only 39), but I wanted you to know that you made a real impact in the life of this Southern boy, as you did in the lives of so many others. Your powers of speech were spellbinding to me, but I think what impressed me the most was your willingness to pay the price for whatever you felt God was calling you to do.  A bit like the apostle Paul, in fact, you were beaten, threatened, imprisoned, and despised by many, but not by that Audience of One.

So just in case you’re wondering, we’re still working on that dream you had, the one where your children would be judged one day not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.  Of course, those children now have children and maybe even grandchildren of their own. And in many ways, the country has gotten better at becoming a place where race is not as much of a limiting factor as it once was.  But I’m afraid we’re not there yet, and by some measures, we may actually have slipped back a notch or two simply because of apathy and selfishness.  For as you once said, “nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

Still, I have to believe that as you also suggested, “love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend,” and likewise, “the time is always right to do what is right.”  We’ll keep trying, thus, inspired by your example.  In the meantime, I hope you had a happy 90th birthday in Heaven.  I’m looking forward to meeting you there one day.

 

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What Took Them So Long, Anyway?

For most of us, their figurines are probably already back in the garage or attic, in holiday hibernation with all of the other seasonal decorations for the next eleven months. Likewise, though the liturgical purists among us may fuss about it, in most churches we probably won’t be singing about those three kings and the star of wonder this week, for we’ve pretty much moved on from Christmas, even though the calendar (and that insipid song) tell us that Epiphany doesn’t actually arrive until the twelfth day of Christmas or January 6 each year.

But all of that simply begs the question, I think, of what took those wise men so long to get to Bethlehem in the first place.  For by the time they showed up at the scene, Mary and Joseph had not only moved out of the stable and into the house (Matthew 2.11), but it’s clear that they had been living there for some time or so since the birth of their son Jesus, perhaps as long as a year or more.

The prescribed period in Leviticus 12 for Mary’s ritual purification following childbirth, for instance, was at least forty days, after which the new parents then presented Jesus to be dedicated to the Lord in the Temple in Jerusalem, some six miles from Bethlehem but eighty from Nazareth.  And the fact that they did so by offering only a few birds suggests that they did not yet have the necessary funds which those gifts from the Wise Men would have provided to even purchase the prescribed “lamb of the first year” in the dedication of the Lamb of God Himself.

We can certainly sympathize too with the travel delays that those Persian visitors might have incurred, for holiday trips can be a bear for everyone, and if you throw a crazy man like Herod into the mix, it can get even worse.  Still, they could have started sooner, we may think, and as has often been observed, if there had been some wise women among them, they might not have gotten lost along the way in the first place.

In the end, however, the only real answer for the delay is that God was not just in the instance of the Incarnation, but He was in the timing of the whole matter as well.  For before they returned to Nazareth, like those ancient Israelites whose pattern Jesus came to model and perfect, the Holy Family escaped to Egypt where they could be safe until Herod’s death.

To be sure, neither Joseph nor Mary had probably planned on such an extended time away when they left Nazareth before Jesus was born.  Nor did the wise men figure it would take them as long as it did, or require them to figure out an alternate way to go back unnoticed by Herod in Jerusalem.  But God not only knew precisely the where and why of it all, He also knew the when.

And it strikes me that He still does in our lives as well.  For when detours and delays may unexpectedly occur, it may simply be a sign that God is not just in our years but in the days and even moments we experience, as well, directing the traffic of our lives as He knows best.   If you’re looking for a miracle in your life today, thus, you may want to pay a little closer attention to God’s perfect timing, for that’s often where you will find it.  And in the end, those who are wise indeed seek Him still.

Even if it does take a little longer than they planned.

 

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Unto Us

(For many years it has been my custom to write a poem each Christmas, recognizing that the awesome wonder of the Incarnation is as much an emotion to be absorbed as it is a truth to be embraced.  As published in our weekly worship guide for December 23, here is this year’s version.)

Amidst the cries of clan and creeds,

of visions lost within the weeds,

and warring words and dueling deeds,

     The Prince of Peace was born.

While all the world was trapped in night,

And wrong seemed stronger than the right,

There came a bright and heavenly light,

     That blessed Christmas morn.

To shepherds as they watched their sheep,

Their nightly vigil thus to keep,

A voice proclaimed both loud and deep:

     “Go worship Him adorned.”

The found Him in a manger bare,

For better quarters none could spare,

Still, with His mother’s loving care,

     The swaddling cloths were worn.

Surrounded by both man and beast,

And soon those wise men from the east,

A witness both to great and least,

     Just as it was foresworn.

And though the years have now gone by,

And some still question what and why,

This truth will never fade or die:

     That child to us was born.

 

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Pie Day

It’s been a holiday staple of our family’s life for over twenty years now.  For just prior to Thanksgiving, we will make the trek up to the northside of Houston for what we call simply “Pie Day.”  Others have designated March 14 with that name, I know, in a clever pun on the numerical value of the mathematical symbol known as Pi.  But for us, Pie Day is pretty literal, involving a trip to the Flying Saucer Pie Company on Crosstimbers near Shepherd.

We go early, for the line to that small unassuming bakery, one of Houston’s oldest family owned businesses, starts at 4:30 or 5:00 a.m. on the Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving.  Similarly, they don’t take any orders that week, all sales are first come, first serve, and when they’re out of popular pies—such as Pumpkin Cream—they’re usually done for the day.  If you want one of the more than 35,000 pies that they sell during those days, thus, you need to come prepared for the wait and the weather.

But then that’s all just part of the experience.  For in the line outside that bakery, you will find a cross-section of society indeed–well-heeled patrons from River Oaks, neighbors from the modest homes nearby, police officers and fire fighters, ex patriot pie-lovers from out of town, and folks speaking at least a dozen languages, all lined up side by side.  And as the wait progresses, so too do the conversations and even instant relationships as strangers become friends, eagerly describing why one flavor is their favorite, or sharing just how many pies they have come to fetch for others as well as themselves.  (Our record is 44 at once.)

Of course, in the end, it’s just pie, albeit the most delicious we’ve ever had.  The cream pies, in fact, are what you would hope someone might throw in your face sometime.  But what Pie Day is really about is simply being a part of something greater than yourself—a community where all belong, no one is in a hurry (since it wouldn’t matter anyway), and there are no special privileges or advantages for a few. For just like at the foot of the cross, everyone is equal at Flying Saucer Pies.

Just keep the line moving and be ready when you get inside the building and get to the counter.  For there are folks behind you who have come to do the exact same thing.  Thanksgiving wouldn’t be the same without it.

 

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A Prayer on Election Day

His voice was silenced half a century ago at a far too young age, but his words still resonate for many today.  For Peter Marshall, the Scottish immigrant who rose to become the pastor of one of Washington’s largest churches and the Chaplain of the United States Senate, had a way of speaking that communicated both his convictions and his compassion.  It’s clear that Dr. Marshall was on intimate terms with God, which is perhaps why his Senate prayers became widely requested.

On this day, his “Prayer Before a National Election” is worth reading and remembering:

“Lord Jesus, we ask Thee to guide the people of this nation as they exercise their dearly bought privilege of franchise.  May it neither be ignored unthinkingly nor undertaken lightly.  As citizens all over this land go to the ballot boxes, give to them a high sense of privilege and joyous responsibility.  Help those who are about to be elected to public office to come to understand the real source of their mandate—a mandate given by no party machine, received at no polling booth, but given by God; a mandate to govern wisely and well; a mandate to represent God and truth at the heart of the nation; a mandate to do good in the name of Him under whom this Republic was established.  We ask Thee to lead America in the paths where Thou wouldst have her walk, to do the tasks which Thou has hast laid before her.  So may we together seek happiness for all our citizens in the name of Him who created us all equal in His sight, and therefore brothers.  Amen.”

And sisters, too, we might add.

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Oslo and the One Church Plan

It was 25 years ago last week that they signed the agreement.  And while no one expected the two sides to immediately settle all of their disputes, there was at least a hopeful spirit that the prospects for a peaceful resolution to a seemingly intractable problem might just be at hand.

To give some time to settle into it, however, imbedded in each element of the fabled Oslo Accords between Israel and Palestine was the idea of “constructive ambiguity.” But ironically enough–at least as suggested by one former Israeli Knesset member, Einat Wilf, in The Atlantic–the very feature designed to ensure the success of the plan was the same one that eventually sank it.  For instead of building trust, that intentional ambiguity allowed each side to simply persist in the very behaviors which destroyed trust on the other side.

Israel, for instance, not only kept building settlements in the West Bank, but increased the population of those settlements almost four-fold.  And Palestinian leaders continued to push a “Right of Return” demanding Jews vacate everything east of the pre-1967 borders, while still often refusing to concede the right of Israel to even exist. A quarter century later, thus, the problem has now only worsened as that “constructive ambiguity” has become destructive instead.

And it strikes me that there may just be a lesson for The United Methodist Church in all of this, as well. For in trying to resolve our seemingly intractable sexuality questions, the One Church Plan would appear to employ the same strategy of creating “constructive ambiguity” over what we as a denomination actually teach and believe. It allows regions of the church to determine moral qualifications for ministry, for example, as well as individuals to define the church’s understanding of marriage.  In the end, however, that makes as much sense as G.K. Chesterton’s observation that “You might as well say that a certain philosophy can be believed on Mondays, but cannot be believed on Tuesdays.”  Or in one state or country, but not in another one.

What’s more, the One Church Plan is plainly meant to be a transitional one.  For even those who find our current position morally wrong have acknowledged that though it does not go far enough, the OCP is a necessary “first step” towards the eventual goal of “full inclusion.”  To put it as one bishop has, it doesn’t change everything for everyone everywhere…yet… but it does set our whole denomination on a trajectory that is different than the one we have long followed.  Only as John Richard Neuhas has warned, “where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed,” or prohibited.

The words of that Knesset member Einat Wilf may therefore be worth noting by United Methodists in the days ahead.  For as he has written, “If we have learnt anything over the past twenty-five years, it is that being ambiguous… does no one any favors…the sooner both sides hear and internalize these simple, cold, hard truths, the sooner we will be able to speak of hope again.”

So could it be that therein lies the hope for the people called Methodists—in all of our varied expressions–as well?  To speak the truth…in love…no matter where it leads us?

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