Parachuting into Pandemonium

I can’t begin to imagine it. But for a twenty-five year young captain from Arkansas, today was one that forever changed his life.  For after having enlisting in the infantry, J.W.’s talents quickly propelled him to a leadership role.  He arrived thus in England in January 1944, becoming the unit commander and jumpmaster of his parachute company, the 501st Regiment of the famed 101st Airborne known as the “Screaming Eagles.”

It’s clear that he was well prepared thus for the spearhead mission he received some five months later. For the plan was to parachute behind enemy lines near the French town of Saint Côme-du-Mont, and then secure a bridge across the Douve River so that the Germans couldn’t blow it up before the Allies could use it.  But by the time that the pilot pushed the green jump light, the plane had already overshot the landing spot by ten kilometers.  “I saw the river pass by,” he said, “but there was nothing that I could do.”

In turn, J.W. and his men came down in an orchard occupied by enemy soldiers where in the midnight moonlight, two-thirds were shot before they could ever get out of their parachutes. And after playing cat and mouse for hours, J.W. himself was captured and became a prisoner of war.

His first task was to help load the wounded onto a German ambulance, but as he did so, he noticed that he could probably fit under the vehicle and so he quickly slipped down, held onto the frame with his hands and feet, and rode along for several miles before dropping off while the truck went slowly up a hill.  He then wandered around France for three weeks until being captured again, and accused of being a spy, had a noose fitted around his neck until a German commander intervened and he was taken instead to a camp, OFLAG 64 in Poland, becoming Prisoner 80792.

But J.W. was a tough one and managed to escape a second time, only to be recaptured when German soldiers wandered in to sleep in the same barn where he had hidden himself down in the hay.  He was smoked out and returned to camp.  Until finally, he escaped a third time, and wisely decided to head east through Poland and Russia, walking three months until he was finally able to board a British freighter and return to the Allied side.

After the war, he stayed in the Army, and fought as well in the Korean War where he was with the first American platoon to reach the Yalu River.  But like so many of that Greatest Generation, J.W. never thought of himself as a hero at all.  Remembering the thousands who died on that same day that he was captured, in fact, in his words, “the real hero was the plain old gutty doughboy that hit the beaches and climbed the cliffs.”

And that’s very true indeed. But on this seventh-fifth anniversary of the D-Day Invasion that changed the world, you couldn’t convince me that Lieutenant Colonel John Wesley Simmons, whom I was honored to call my father-in-law, wasn’t a hero as well.

Even if he never did make it to the right side of the Douve River.

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Going On to Home Base (And Perfection)

To be sure, no one is ever really out, even if those on the other team somehow manage to catch the ball in flight, throw it back, and physically chase down and tag the hitter. For in Dream League baseball, it’s all about giving those with special needs– physical, mental, or developmental–the chance to simply experience America’s Pastime and feel the crack of the bat for themselves, even if someone else may be holding that bat with them.

“Angels in the outfield,” or the youth or adults who shadow the participants, not only run the bases, sometimes pushing wheelchairs or even picking up and carrying the players, but they stand–or sit in the grass– with them wherever they may be on the field, even when their partner may be seemingly oblivious to the game around them.

Likewise, rather like 1 Corinthians 13 suggests, in Dream League baseball, love keeps no record of wrongs, or strikes, or scores at all for that matter.  Each team bats until every player has had at least one chance to get on base.  And often, the adult who is pitching will come within just a few feet of the batter, gently toss the ball, and then, should the batter only get it a couple of inches from the base, they will use their own foot to subtly kick that hit further away.

Doubles are de rigueur, homeruns happen regularly, and everybody who makes it around the bases, whether they have actually touched them or not, hears the umpire cry “Safe!” when they arrive back home to the cheers of the crowd, sometimes passing the player in front of them to get there first.

Some might say, of course, that this is not baseball at all, that without all of the rules and regulations–and don’t even get me started on infield fly balls– you can’t really play the game.  But they would be absolutely wrong.  For this is actually baseball at its purest, played out by kids of all ages who are there simply for the chance to participate in a team sport and activity that does not leave them wanting.

A cynic could, of course, comment on the less than perfect skills and abilities of those players, saddled by situations that no doubt sideline them elsewhere in our physically conscious society.  But there is a perfection that is on display at every game, nonetheless, found not just in the differently abled bodies of the players who persevere against numerous odds, but in the care and kindness shown by all those present for everyone else. Indeed, one could even say that both players and their on-field angels perfectly embody what John Wesley called “going onto perfection,” as they are clearly being perfected in love in this life.

In a world obsessed with assessing others, consumed by comparison, all with an eye towards creating winners and losers in every endeavor, the Dream League is thus both an oasis and an example of the beloved community that can be found whenever we look to find God’s perfection in others, no matter what the world might say about them.

Out of all the things we do as a church, in fact, sponsoring a Dream League team is perhaps one of the best as those involved preach a far better sermon on Saturday mornings at the ball fields next door than I can ever do on Sundays in our sanctuary.  For the real dream in this league is that of a world in which those around us are valued for who they really are, that is, sacred and dearly loved children of God.

And if you can watch a game without wiping a tear from your eye, I hate to tell you, but you’ve got a greater disability than anyone else who may be there.

(Photo used by permission)

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What the Methodists Really Said

It’s now been two weeks since the General Conference and the twitterverse is still atwitter.  Moving beyond some of the hype and hyperbole, however, here’s what the Methodists actually did and did not say:

Methodists did not say that LGBTQI persons and their allies are not welcome in our churches, for they always have been and will continue to be. Across our global church, we count as treasured sisters and brothers those who are both gay and straight, as well as those from diverse cultures, backgrounds, and ethnicities, proclaiming that we are all equals at the foot of the Cross, in need of God’s redeeming love.

Methodists likewise did not say that LGBTQI persons are not dearly cherished children of God, for we wholeheartedly believe that all persons are made in the image of God and of sacred worth, deserving of respect and the protection of their civil rights.

Methodists did not try to tell anyone who they can love, or suggest that somehow their love may be less than that of others.  For the truth is, there is a shortage of love in this world and folks should be happy whenever and wherever it is found.

And Methodists did not suggest that LGBTQI members and their allies should simply leave the church if they can’t agree with the doctrines and policies of it.  The “gracious exit” provisions were intended not to throw anyone out, but to throw a lifeline to those from either side of the question whose conscience may not allow them to stay within the denomination.

They did not even proclaim that having a same-sex attraction is a barrier to ordination, for there have long been celibate gay pastors who chose to value ordination over self-expression.

What Methodists did say, however, was that after careful consideration of the biblical witness that they cannot affirm that the practice of homosexuality represents God’s ultimate will for His children, all the celebrations of it notwithstanding.

They did say that they will remain in continuity with the teachings of both the church through the ages and the vast majority of the church world-wide today, rejecting the accommodation to culture that has been made in many quarters of the American church over the past few decades.

They did proclaim that Methodism, once the most American of all churches, is now a truly global movement and that the voices from Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and other places are equally valid to those of Americans. They accordingly rejected the colonialist attitudes of some progressives that we in the West know best and that those elsewhere need to simply “grow up,” as one prominent liberal leader has said.

They did affirm that marriage is an institution designed by God and that despite instances to the contrary in parts of the Bible, that the overall tenor of the whole scriptural witness is that it was intended to be a sacred covenant between one man and one woman.  Again, that is not to say that civil unions and domestic partnerships should not be allowed; it is simply to say that in the Methodist understanding, the word marriage itself has a particular meaning that cannot be changed. So Methodist clergy are not allowed by church law to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies even in nations such as our own where they may be otherwise legal.

Likewise, they suggested that sexuality is a gift of God that is to be exercised only in such a heterosexual marriage.  For long ago the Ten Commandments reminded us that adultery–no matter what expression it may take, straight or gay– is not what God has intended for his children to practice.

And the General Conference agreed that ordination is not a civil right, but a holy rite, a bestowal of the church granted to those who are willing to meet all of the educational, personal, and social requirements that the church believes should be found in any woman or man before they stand before others to proclaim God’s Word.

In short, what the Methodists said in St. Louis was that they will continue to try to be the positive force for God in this world that for three centuries they have been, feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, digging water wells in some places, building Habitat homes in others, visiting those in prison, working for social justice, teaching both young and old, and offering God’s grace and redeeming love to all. They said that they will continue to struggle with how to be both faithful to God’s Witness and open to God’s Spirit.  No matter how difficult that task may be.

Just in case you’ve heard someone say that we said something else instead.


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Sleepless in St. Louis

Nobody won this one. For though the One Church Plan was defeated and the Traditional Plan was adopted, the reality is that the Church itself had a terrible day here in St. Louis as the United Methodist General Conference concluded its special session.

It’s not just that we failed to enact the kind of amendments that were needed to make the Traditional Plan, as well as the Gracious Exit provisions, truly workable and meet church constitutional muster. It’s because the reason for that was the sheer duplicity and manipulative maneuverings of those who opposed the plan and were determined to eviscerate it if they couldn’t outright defeat it.

Every dirty political trick one might think of came out of the playbook today, from spurious amendments, non-stop points of order, emotionally charged addresses, pretending to speak for a motion while actually talking against it, gratuitous insults at evangelical leaders (and even some of the bishops whom they thought leaned in that direction), and perfectly timed speeches designed to fill up the three-minute limit and help “run out the clock.” And that doesn’t even count the loud and raucous demonstrations in the gallery and lobby that ended up with a double line of police sealing the arena and taking the delegates out a different way.

Indeed, those opposing the Traditional Plan and Gracious Exit provisions went so far as to accuse the African delegates of allowing their votes to be bought by promises of support from the evangelicals, demanding the ethics committee investigate that charge (in the three remaining hours of the conference) purely on the basis of “rumors” they had heard.

And the result was that though the media may report that United Methodists doubled down on our position on human sexuality, five days and three million dollars later, we’re actually just about the same place we were when we started the meeting. Only now those who were hoping for a change in the progressive direction have been wounded again and before we even adjourned, leaders in the Western Jurisdiction were given the platform to announce that they are going to continue to ignore our rules and defy our Discipline.

I put a lot of the blame on our bishops, for it was their decision to pull the Traditional Plan out of the mix being considered by the Way Forward Commission, only reluctantly agreeing to put it back in at the last moment at the insistence of the African episcopal leaders and a few others. For had the Traditional Plan, as well as the Gracious Exit provisions that the Commission originally envisioned, been given the same treatment and careful vetting by the Commission they would no doubt have emerged with far fewer, if any, constitutional hurdles.

Likewise, the much ballyhooed hype concerning the endorsement of the One Church Plan by 2/3rds of our bishops would perhaps have more meaning if the Council of Bishops was itself more representative. For when five bishops serve a region of less than 340,000 members, and bishops in Africa serve two to three times that many by themselves we obviously may have a bit of imbalance in that group.

In the end what makes me sad, however, is that while I still love the denomination I’ve tried to serve for four decades, I no longer have much confidence in The United Methodist Church and what is supposed to be our sacred connection. It’s a little like the character Doc Holladay says in the classic Western film Tombstone.  Confronted by an obvious lie and obfuscation on his part, Holladay simply shrugs and replies, “It appears that there is no end to my hypocrisy.”

And so it would appear for many within The United Methodist Church tonight as well.  To be certain, there is indeed some inherent hypocrisy in talking about one kind of sexual sin and not others.  But Methodists Behaving Badly by turning “holy conferencing” into a holy mess must surely count as such as well.







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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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