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Thank God for Christmas

I’ve been thinking about the Christmas spirit, what that feels like when we have it, how we long for it and search for the elusive formula that will bring it into our lives. We are like alchemists of old, who hoped to find a mythical substance, sometimes called “the philosopher’s stone” to transform base metals, like lead, into gold. We work with the ordinary things of our lives like music, material goods we can purchase for others, decorations for our homes, special dishes that we cook or cookies and cakes that we bake, along with a host of other shared and particular traditions in the hope that we will experience the gentle spirit of Christmas descend upon our hearts and minds.

I have a little Christmas tree in my office. It is adorned in the bubble lights that my family suggested might better serve that space than our Christmas tree at home. It has ornaments that I enjoy but which were received with less enthusiasm by the women in my life. I look at that tree and I think about the bubble lights on my Aunt Ibbie’s tree when I was a child. I thought those lights were the most fabulous thing I had ever seen in someone’s home. They transport me back to her living room. I can smell her home, the food cooking in her kitchen and the odd yet familiar combination of hardwood floors, worn rugs, heavily cushioned chairs and sofas that would envelop a small child when you plopped into them. I look at those lights and feel the cold breeze when the door opens and closes. I hear the voices of relatives now long passed, the warm greetings of grandparents with their brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and cousins, whose memory I cherish in the deep recesses of my mind. For that moment, I feel the Christmas spirit, but it is like a candle that comes to life when I gaze on those lights and then flickers out when I look away.

Some years we miss Christmas because of our confusion about its source. Christmas is not found in what we receive, but in what we offer. It is experienced when we respond to its prodding to act. We are imbued with its spirit when we offer love to others: the warmth of friendship, a helping hand, the kind greeting to a stranger, acts of generosity or the quiet prayer for the well-being of another. Songs and customs will come and go, but the essence of Christmas will never change. It is found in the message of the angels:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

10 And the angel said unto them, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”

We might ask what would have happened if those shepherds had not come with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph and the babe lying in a manger? What would have been missed, and how did their lives change because of what they saw that night? Here they found the ultimate act of generosity, not the first gift of Christmas, but the gift that is Christmas. The shepherds could have sat in their dark, cold, field, keeping a wary eye out for lurking danger and speaking as every generation speaks, “of what the world has come to.” That night they undertook a great act of faith, to go and see what had come into the world. The angels told them that the beauty of God had come into the ugliness of the world. A great light had pierced the darkness. In the birth of the Christ-child, love gained a foothold in a world’s despair and hopelessness. God was present, to teach and restore us, to bring us grace, redemption and joy. Because they saw what the angels described, the shepherds,

                              made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.

Everyone who heard the shepherds’ words wondered at what they said. People thought it too good to be true. They thought it unrealistic, the stuff of fantasy or perhaps the disjointed rantings of the intoxicated. But not the shepherds. The shepherds had experienced the hope of Christmas, a hope that lasts not just for a night, or the following day, but the hope that can form your life and the way you live each week, month and year. It is the hope that having received the gift of the Christ, we will offer all that we have gained. We will allow Christmas to clothe us, as Paul said, with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. It is the longing that Christmas will encourage us to bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven us, so we also must forgive. It is the joy that Christmas, above all, might enable us to put on the love of God, which binds everything together in perfect harmony and allows the peace of Christ to rule our hearts

This is why I thank God for Christmas. How I wish this moment would last all the year. Christmas calls something out in us, a desire to make the world a better place, and to be better people in the world. It asks us to think about how we can encourage one another, lighten the load of another, be a better friend, spouse, parent and child. Let there be decorations, music and laughter. May every home carry the aroma of food that is enjoyed in the present, but which reminds us of every good Christmas we have ever enjoyed in the past. May you see the shimmer of lights on a tree and the sparkle in the eye of a child.

I hope all these things remind you of the joy the shepherds experienced that first Christmas. More than anything, I hope you will hear the faint, but still resonate sound of the multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

We need Christmas. We need to stand in the warmth of its community with billions of people around the world who celebrate the incarnation of God. Together we celebrate the light that shines in even the darkest corners and most difficult moments of this earth. When hope seems to be lost, when goodness seems to be fading, we embrace Christmas, we keep Christmas, with its abiding love and unfailing hope. Like the shepherds, we celebrate Christmas not only for ourselves, but for every person who can hear its message and experience the love it offers.

And so, may we be like the shepherds as we go to our homes, to our gatherings and into our world in the weeks ahead. May we return glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

Wesley Heritage Tour Back to the Future

I have been in England for a John Wesley Heritage Tour recently. It is a great way to gain perspective on the current conversation in the United Methodist Church and the possibility of future division. The over 200-year history of the Methodist movement is based on careful attention to its mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ and the desire to reach the lost, serve the poor and bring “scriptural holiness” to the land. It is also rife with times of personal and corporate disagreement and division. Division has often led to new periods of renewal or the emergence of once-dormant leadership and spiritual gifts akin to the talents buried by the fearful servant in Jesus’ parable. It is also true that division often leads to the dying off of branches of the church, like the fig tree that Jesus cursed when it bore no fruit. Division can also be a bright and promising road that leads to a dead end, making one wonder what good works might have been produced if only there would have been continued unity and forbearance in times of disagreement.

It is yet to be seen what our current conversation will produce in the future for United Methodists. Nothing is certain. But I am left with the observation that the only Methodists who did any lasting good were those who remained committed to the basics to which they commonly agreed. Their best was found when they shared their faith in Christ and served the least, the last and the lost. Change came when they engaged in the rigor of discipleship through the study of the scripture and the honesty that comes when we place our lives in the trust and encouragement of mutual accountability. What a powerful thing these early Methodists did when they gathered in small classes to ask penetrating questions about their Christian journey. They longed to know Christ, to be made holy in this lifetime, so that they could enjoy an even deeper joy that comes with the experience of God’s love and mercy. They trusted each other sincerely, believing that if they were honest about their sins and temperaments, they would not be thrown out, but their demons might be cast out.

They desired to share the new life they discovered with their friends and neighbors, not for the sake of a long roster, but to set people free from the hardships that inevitably accompany sin. They understood that living without Christ meant being constrained by sin and self, just as living a life under the Lordship of Christ brought both order and the significance found when you live out God’s purposes for your life. As their love of Christ grew, they began to care about issues around them. They worked to end the hardship of illiterate children working in homes and factories and the horrors of slavery. They invited the poor to join them, hoping people whose poverty arose from dysfunctional habits, or addiction to alcohol or drugs, or who simply had no idea how to live a well-designed life for themselves or their family, could find transformation in Christ. They began to organize themselves, offer their time and treasure and take a stand on matters that conflicted with Jesus’ description of the kingdom of God.

The times of greatest vitality came when they embraced discomfort. They risked their reputation in the broader society to do that which was often counter to their intuition about how to exercise their faith and religion. For John Wesley, it was the moment he decided to become “vile” by stooping to preach in an open field to the most common of people – poor laborers and coal miners – rather than pining to preach in the proper pulpits of the Anglican church which had ordained him. Methodists became vital when they set aside the social constructs of being church people and became “enthusiasts” whose vigorous sermons and willingness to share their faith across class, race and gender crossed the line of ecclesial decorum. They were not seen as respectable by their colleagues in the church because they spoke too loudly and dared to exhibit emotion commiserate with the sorrow of the confession of one’s sins or the joy innate to the embrace of the deep love of God. In this space of personal perplexity, they did what was counter-intuitive. They reached people unlike themselves. They were guided by the Holy Spirit into spaces of their society and world they never dreamed of going. Here they became of great use to God. They satisfied the calling of Christ to share the good news of the mercy of God and new life found in Jesus Christ. They set aside the comforts of reputation and the nagging desire to be favorably known, or the blessed peace of being unknown, so that they could relieve suffering and make the joy of Christ alive for others.

If unity comes, let it be a unity that leads to such commitment to bless the world with the love, mercy and justice of Christ broadly and consistently. And if division comes, let all parties go in ways of vitality and grace. The worst thing that can happen is that we will muddle along and ignore the lessons of the most vital spaces in the history of our movement, do church mildly and offer the world nothing more than respectable company that requires no change, makes no sacrifice and sees no transformation of ourselves or the world around us. The best we have to offer is the ministry which the early Methodists did so well, the blessing and the hope the world still needs today.

People with joined hands as a team
People with joined hands as a team

After the Thoughts and Prayers

Their faces have been before us. Since the most recent school shooting in America, the faces of the students, teachers, administrators and parents related to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, have been everywhere. Only days after the tragic loss of life, as injured survivors lie in hospital rooms hoping to fully recover, the voices of the Parkland community have spoken up. They give voice to their loss, trauma and pain. They want change. They want answers. They want this to not happen again.

A recent Washington Post article demonstrates that this community is just one in a long line of those traumatized by school shootings that have left about 250 teachers and students dead since 2000. If we would add in the number of shooting victims in public places such as theatres and nightclubs, the map in the Post article that shows the locations of these incidents would be even more crowded.

It is now customary for Christians and others who have no words to respond to the latest shooting to simply say that our “thoughts and prayers” are with the victims. In reply, others criticize such a statement, and they have a valid point. Wishes of “thoughts and prayers” can sound hollow, especially to those who do not pray regularly, because it sounds like we are asking God to do what we are unwilling to attempt. Prayer, for Christians, is not about tasking God with our problems or asking God to do our will. Prayer is a means for God to speak to us, to influence our thoughts, call us to action and conform our often-stubborn will to the intentions of the Kingdom of Heaven. The question before prayerful Christians is not, “Will you pray?” Not to pray or pause in silence related to the loss and horror of these shootings would be rather remarkable. The question of prayer is, “What will our prayers call us to do?” When the answer Christians offer through compassionate words void of accompanying action is “nothing,” we seem superficial at best and impotent at worst. It is hard for non-believers to hear us talk about the power of God in our lives when our responses to critical issues of our society are ineffectual. I can’t imagine that the Almighty thinks much better of it than they do.

Some speak of what needs to be done as though these shootings are a simple matter, as if we could do one thing well and then all would be well in our schools. The depth and consistency of this problem does not lend itself to simple solutions. This is not addition or subtraction. This is multi-variable calculus. We might begin by considering what factors are at work to prevent the next teenager from killing and terrorizing their classmates. Some factors that lead to school safety, in no particular order, may include:

A = Caring adults who build dependable and loving relationships with students

B = Access to mental health services for those at risk

C = School security

D = Diminished access to weapons

E = Education in values

F = Diminished exposure to violence through video games and media

G = Family cohesion

H = Bullying and abuse prevention

The equation below is not my attempt to solve the problem. It is not the solution, which would vary greatly depending on community context. My hope is to simply illustrate that any solution will require attention to a variety of variables and important factors to reach the goal of safe schools in America. For example:

School Safety = A(E + H) + C(D) + (B + F) + G

Depending on the context of the school, we might create programs and protocols that would allow us to multiply some of these factors by larger numbers than others. What seems odd this week, in light of the faces and voices from Parkland, are the number of political leaders in our country who encourage us to separate gun access from school security, or who put a zero in front of the desire to limit access to military grade weapons even to those under age 21 or those with a difficult mental health history.

School Safety = A(E + H) + C + (0 x D) + (B + F) + G

It seems unlikely that the current level of access to military grade weaponry and large capacity ammunition clips will diminish these shootings. The desire to remove access to weapons as a factor in school safety by political leaders is apparently not rooted in evidence-based practices that other countries have used to dramatically reduce school shootings. It seems more connected to the influence of gun lobbies who support their campaigns and threaten to back new candidates who will do their bidding if the current politicians dare change their stance on these matters. Nothing teaches us that money talks, or that money can purchase silence and inactivity in political leaders, like their inaction after the shootings of the past 18 years.

People always get nervous when a pastor questions a politician, but when I was ordained they made me promise to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I have spent far too long embracing the first part of that commission while fearing the outcomes of the second. You may understand the feeling. In the last week, I have been reminded of the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “Hear this, you foolish and senseless people, who have eyes but do not see, who have ears but do not hear.” (Jeremiah 5:21 NIV) Jesus used a similar phrase when he was frustrated with his closest disciples, “Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember?” (Mark 8:18) I wonder what Jeremiah and Jesus would say to people of faith in America right now? We simply must see these faces from Parkland, Florida. We must hear these voices and not turn away from them through inactivity as we have so many other school shooting victims.

Here is the good news: our prayers can lead us to action, and will if they are sincere and open to the Holy Spirit. There are many things Christians are doing and many things we can focus on related to school safety factors:

  • Offer campaign support to courageous politicians of any party who are willing to simply reason together about the factors that contribute to school safety, including access to weapons. I prayed about this issue the other day and ended up writing my representative in Congress. I shared my concerns in ways that I hoped were reasonable and polite. I offered to give her money to help backfill the donations gun lobbies gave her at the last election.
  • Give time to organizations and events in our church and community where we get to know kids, build authentic relationships, look out for kids on the margin and encourage behavior that builds others up rather than tearing others down.
  • Become advocates for mental health services and share our experience so that those who suffer in this way are helped rather than marginalized.

Parents focus on these safety factors when they secure gun safes, teach values, set boundaries on exposure to screen violence and care not only for their kids but their friends as well. Adults who volunteer in sports leagues, church groups and a variety of other settings where students are encouraged to develop and mature deserve our gratitude. And most importantly, teachers and school administrators and employees who dedicate their lives to the education and safety of our children deserve all the support and gratitude we can give them.

You can choose to work on any one of these issues or several. Followers of Jesus simply must do something or risk the witness of the church which has addressed numerous worthy causes after receiving its marching orders in time properly devoted to thought and prayer.

Thoughts from Berlin

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

Micah 6:8

I returned last week from Berlin, Germany, where history is everywhere. You don’t have to be a scholar to know that Germany has a bit of a history issue, having initiated two world wars and a horrifying genocide. Many countries with that kind of baggage might try to bury it deep and pray it would not be mentioned in polite company. Instead, Germans have surfaced their history in the hope of not repeating it.

I took a tour of the downtown area that started at the majestic Brandenburg Gate, then moved a short distance to the plainly titled “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.” Nazi genocide claimed an estimated 6,000,000 Jews, as well as gypsies, homosexuals and adults and children with disabilities across Europe and Russia. The Holocaust Memorial, which tells this story, covers about a city block. Large concrete blocks are set in rows. The sizes vary so that the further you go, the deeper you sink into the exhibit. These blocks feel like they are towering over you at the center, and lean at odd angles, making you wonder if you will be crushed if the wind blows too hard. You don’t see the memorial as much as you are swallowed by it. A museum underneath the exhibit gives an overview of the whole gruesome story and shares the words of the dead as well as survivors.

Our tour continued a few hundred meters from this exhibit in a gravel parking lot. There is nothing here but a few trees, some weeds and cars. An unadorned sign explains that underneath the gravel is Hitler’s bunker, where he and Eva Braun were married and sealed their vows with a suicide pact as Nazi Germany collapsed around them. The Russian army attempted to destroy the bombproof bunker. Unfortunately, they used bombs, which is when they discovered the meaning of the word “bombproof” and the phrase “German engineering.” Fearing that current and future Nazis would turn the bunker into a shrine, Germany covered it with dirt and gravel and today unceremoniously parks cars on it. It is the least conspicuous space of historical significance I have ever seen.

A few blocks further, our tour guide showed us remnants of the Berlin wall, the location of Checkpoint Charlie and buildings used by the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) to create fear in their citizens so they would stop attempting to escape to west Berlin. When a country uses the word “escape” in place of “emigrate,” you know you have problems. The next day I was able to see a rebuilt section of the Berlin wall, complete with guard tower and the displayed remains of the Church of Reconciliation, which was destroyed by the GDR because it was both in the path of the wall and was a place where people worshipped God. There is a large park and a museum there with exhibits about this divided chapter in the life of the country and its the totalitarian regime. Everywhere the displays are in multiple languages. Germans make every attempt to let the world know what happened here.

I was in Berlin for meetings. Walking to that location, a friend pointed out the brass markers placed in the sidewalk outside of homes where Jewish citizens were taken and placed in concentration camps. Their names and details of their deaths, including the names of concentration camps where they were incarcerated and finally murdered, are listed. These plaques are very personal. I could quickly imagine the violence and confusion of the Gestapo raiding these homes and tearing families apart. Once you see one of these markers, your eye is drawn to them everywhere you go. We saw them not just in Berlin, but in Wittenberg as well.

The choice to increase the volume and interpretation of historical markers provides Germans a great deal of moral clarity. Genocide is bad. Victims should be remembered. Leaders who used power this way are acknowledged, but never lionized. Totalitarian rule and all its trappings are recognized but not romanticized or fictionalized. These markers are not just about individuals, but the acts of the German nation. They contain a message for today’s citizens: we did these terrible things. Your parents and grandparents committed these injustices and atrocities. Don’t forget these shattered lives. Don’t ever do this again.

There is a lot of talk about history where I live these days. Some want to remove Confederate memorials while others fear the loss of history. I like history. I grew up in Virginia reading about the strategic acumen of people like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. A perspective was nurtured in books and art that showed these men to be strong, courageous, resourceful and smarter than those they fought. I’ve been to the burial sites of Lee and Jackson and understand how attached white people can be to such statues and memorials. I also know how sanitized the history of the Confederacy is at such locations. Regularly ignored is the actual writing of people like Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens, who clearly stated that they were going to war to preserve slavery; or the implications of the Supreme Court “Dred Scott Decision” that ruled black people (slave and free) had no citizenship rights of any kind. Instead, we often hear that the Civil War was fought over vaguely generalized issues like “state’s rights” or an “unfair tariff.” Never mind that the root of these disagreements was about who was profiting from the “right” to own a human being from Africa as chattel. Such issues, to my experience, are seldom found near the statues of the heroes of the south.

 I agree with those who want more history rather than less. Think of the improvement that more interpretation could provide. There is no need to vilify these men. Just say things plainly. Explain their context. Let their own words speak for them. Confederate leaders fought for the right to own enslaved humans. Many, perhaps most of the Confederate officers, came from families who at some point owned human beings from Africa. We can still say that General Lee was a military genius. Had he accepted the first commission offered to him by the nation that educated him at West Point and to whose loyalty he had pledged his life, the war would have probably lasted all of six months. When he rode to Richmond to join a rebellion waged for the right to perpetuate an economic system based on the injustice of slavery, where black humans lost everything so that white humans could gain tremendous wealth that would be passed down for generations to their offspring, our nation was torn apart. It is estimated that more than 700,000 people died due to the Civil War and more than 1,000,000 were wounded. Lee understood the impact of his decision and seemed to mourn it. So should we. Let us also recall how General Lee told his men to go home when the war was over. He told young men to get an education. He did not join guerilla movements or white supremacy groups. He had seen enough terror in war. That might be a good piece of history to recall to our children before they grow up and carry Confederate flags and torches down the lawn at the University of Virginia.

Rather than just add clarity to the monuments that exist, I suggest we add new ones. Let’s put brass markers in the sidewalks and parking lots where slaves were bought and sold, where women were raped by their masters and where their children were stripped from their arms to be sold again, or where black citizens were publicly lynched by crowds of whites for decades after the civil war ended. We could be as thorough with our history as the Germans are with theirs. Let’s put markers across the south, and in every state in the north where black people were denied citizenship rights; where slave ships were built and crewed; and where the financing was provided to purchase slaves. That way white people can mutually recall our ancestral complicity in this injustice and brutality rather than blaming some for a brutal and unjust economic system perpetuated for generations by most. It will be difficult, because the vast majority of these slaves, after working every day of their lives to care for and generate wealth for white people, were valued so little that they died without the dignity of anyone remembering their names, marking their graves or sharing their stories. Even if we put blank markers in the ground, it would require us to stop for a moment and remember the value of these souls. I need these stumbling stones to remind myself of my context, my advantage as a white man whose family has been in the United States for more than 200 years. I do not know if any of my ancestors owned other humans. I do know that the economic system that slavery perpetuated was broadly and directly of benefit to my people.

Have no fear that our founding fathers will diminish in their stature with this new desire for historical context, as some have suggested. On the grounds of Mt. Vernon, George Washington is honored. He was a great general and statesman. We all know that. But we should also know the story told in the garden at Mt. Vernon that honors the lives of more than 300 slaves who lived in shanties and worked Washington’s plantation to generate wealth for the approximately 10 white members of the family who lived in the big house. This history, these lives and this national story must be remembered. Only when we pass through this garden can we pause to consider that Washington at least had the civility to free his slaves upon Martha’s death. As a Christian, I would like to know how long our first President pondered that decision. Did his reading of the scripture inspire it? Was it a conviction of his faith that made him take this step? It makes me consider what social injustice properly brings me self-reproach today, and what I might do to correct it in my lifetime rather than on my deathbed.

I agree with those who say we should not remove Confederate history. If anything, we need more of it, accurately told, and a new level of moral clarity from it. As a person who is white, I need to be reminded of the ways the muscle of slavery in our past still animates our national body today. This past to present link is what I saw in Germany.

When a society has such transparency, people know who to honor. I recall walking through the city of Jerusalem, talking with the guide who was explaining the centuries of its checkered past. He paused next to a cemetery and said, “You know, Oskar Schindler is buried over there.” “From the movie Schindler’s List?”, I asked. I did not want to miss the opportunity to see the resting place of a man who risked his life and spent his fortune keeping his Jewish employees from the death camps of the holocaust. When we came to Schindler’s grave, we saw that pebbles had been carefully placed on it, just like at the end of the movie. The guide said so many people stop to do this, it has to be cleared weekly. It was decades since his death, but people were still stopping there to honor this German industrialist and Nazi Party member who had the moral clarity to buy Jewish lives from corrupt Nazi officials and arrange for their transit to safety. Schindler was far from perfect, but in the critical moment he did the right thing and saved generations of Jewish lineages that flourish today. We can handle the both/and of the whole truth. People don’t need perfect heroes. But we do need to see clearly heroes who do the right thing at the right time, when everything is at stake.

I recall walking through another cemetery with a guide a few years later. Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia includes the graves of many who fought for the Confederacy, including an unusual pyramid shrine to Confederate soldiers who died at Gettysburg. The guide pointed out the tombs and markers of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and famous confederate generals J.E.B. Stuart and George Pickett. I was astonished to find pebbles laid upon these markers, something that I could only interpret as a sign of respect and appreciation for their service to the cause of a rebellion whose primary aim was to uphold slavery and tear apart our nation. I do not think we need to bulldoze the cemetery. But I do think we need to ask what vision of history is motivating people to lay those stones on those markers.

There is a tragic downside to the lack of moral clarity when the past is displayed but poorly interpreted in our country. When people are given all the facts, they can honor what is good and right. When none are provided, people will end up offering oblation to a sanitized and romanticized version of their past. In this case, it is probably the fictional ideal of the Old South, where slaves were well treated and were considered members of the extended family by their white masters. If I were to suggest that Adolf Hitler was doing Jewish people a favor, you would call me an idiot or a fool. Please do not suggest the same when I say that something is deeply wrong with our understanding of our national history when white people lay pebbles or stand in appreciation and honor at the markers of Confederate leaders. The problem is not too many historical markers, but too little information attached to them. We are not telling the whole truth. We aren’t getting down to brass tacks or bare facts.

Flying home from Germany, I wondered how Germans got to the point of this much honesty and this much humility. This is important to me as a Christian and as a pastor, because these are key virtues found in Jesus’ teaching in the Bible. The groundwork of transformation is honesty and repentance. Jesus never gave anyone new birth who could not acknowledge the sins of their old life. Germany seems to have experienced everyone’s pain so deeply that it is compelled to share the whole story with every future generation in the hope that this history will never, ever, repeat itself again.

If it is more history that you want, let me say, I’m with you. What a difference it would make if that was really the longing of white people in the United States of America. The more the better. But we must tell the unabridged account. Let’s remind ourselves of the terror of history that people who looked just like me brought to the lives of people of color generations ago, and still do today, so that a real transformation might take place.

Why Not Open Meetings?

The Commission on a Way Forward (CWF) met recently in Chicago in closed meetings that some described as “secret.” Secret is a powerful word. It evokes surreptitious deals made in smoke-filled rooms. The meeting was held at the Wespath building, and they are pretty focused on health and longevity, so smoke-filled was out. I understand the concern. No one wants to be associated with a lack of transparency. As a member of the commission, I have been thinking about when it is appropriate to be in a closed meeting and when a meeting should be open. Most meetings in the United Methodist Church (UMC) are open, other than staff-parish meetings in the local church. This is to say that when sensitive matters are discussed, like salary or job performance, we all understand why it is best to close the door and talk in a discreet space. The hope is that committee members will be more candid, thoughtful and creative in their dialogue. On the other hand, it is important for people to have access and information related to any process connected to church governance.

The CWF works with a series of very complicated issues. We talk about how to live together given our varied views on same-sex marriage and ordination of gay and lesbian people (the Book of Discipline only mentions the LG portion of “LGBTQ”). The work is multicultural. The UMC is an international denomination that has members in the United States, Asia, Africa and both western and eastern Europe. We are to offer a proposal that will allow for as much unity as possible while still offering some level of resolution to our long and sometimes rancorous discussion on these matters during a time when some, for the sake of conscience, have defied the mandates of our governing documents. You can see why the question of open meetings has a purpose. Reporters could share how deliberations are going. An open gallery could enable visitors to share their thoughts and add to the material the CWF has requested from numerous caucus groups, boards, agencies and church members.

And yet, I am sure of one thing: the closed meetings of the CWF have built trust amongst its members, dramatically advanced its work and enabled us to have open and forthright conversation. Members can consider a number of perspectives and proposals without feeling the need to spend too much energy guarding turf for the sake of an audience.

As I thought through these issues, it occurred to me that the commission is different from any church meeting I have ever attended. Commission members are doing the work of diplomacy. Members are from four continents. They are traditional and progressive, male and female, gay and straight; they represent multiple cultures and viewpoints. There are bishops, laity and clergy. While we try not to work in a representative fashion, we understand that we will offer a plan that could impact a broad array of constituents in several cultures and countries.

When the metaphor of diplomacy came to mind, I turned to a friend at Floris UMC who enjoyed a career in the State Department and has been interested in the work of the CWF. It occurred to me that our work may remind him of his own. After we had talked, I asked him to share some thoughts about diplomacy and closed meetings together in an email. Here is a portion of that correspondence:

“Let me offer a perspective on the operations of this unique commission. In many respects, it is a diplomatic exercise in the best sense of the word. My experience as a Career Ambassador in the United States Foreign Service gave me the opportunity to work with Presidents and Secretaries of States of both political parties on very important diplomatic questions. Our negotiating partners were people of good will, but they came different countries and cultures and often held policy views very different from our own. Naturally, living in a democracy, it was important for us to be transparent with the American people about our objectives and the processes we pursued to achieve them. At the same time, we needed to maintain the trust of our negotiating partners.

To be specific, we knew we could accomplish nothing without creating an atmosphere of trust with officials who started out with views different, sometimes radically different, from our own. We could not establish and sustain the trust necessary to reach understandings and agreements if we conducted talks and negotiations, especially exploratory talks, in a fish bowl. When we were striving fully to understand the views of other officials, it often was important to ask questions and test ideas. We could not do that if they and we knew that outside partisans in the debate would instantly and vehemently subject us to vicious criticism for not being sufficiently strident and uncompromising in articulating his or her own position. We all admired President Woodrow Wilson and his admirable ideals, but no responsible diplomat today believes that “open covenants, openly arrived at” means that CNN should broadcast live the proceedings in all negotiations, that transcripts of preliminary talks be published immediately in the New York Times or that anyone who wishes should be able simply to drop by and listen to the deliberations.

Rather, if the goal is to negotiate peace on difficult conflicts, diplomatic experience suggests other techniques should be used to enhance transparency and obtain input from interested parties. For example, it is good for the interested public to have opportunities to submit views at the beginning and throughout the process. It is important to provide informative but general and high-level updates, to explain the types of issues under discussion and, at least directionally, the possible compromises that are under consideration.”

The CWF is in a process that will move from closed meetings to a fully available report. It is to offer a proposal to the Council of Bishops that will eventually be considered by the delegates of the called General Conference in 2019. A more extensive update of our work is now available. Take a look at that update, and you will see what we are learning, observing and discussing. The commission will offer more updates in the months ahead. When a plan is eventually submitted to the Council of Bishops and then shared with General Conference delegates, the UMC will have a very open conversation about its merits as well as concerns it may evoke.

When Someone You Love Is Dying

Recently I talked with a number of people who are taking care of loved ones who are dying. Being with someone you love while they die is difficult work. It can be both emotionally draining and physically exhausting, especially if you are the primary caregiver. I don’t think it matters if the person is elderly and frail, so that death is not unexpected, or if they are younger and struggling with an illness that will take their life in an earlier season. If you love this person, it is a lot to process. Different people in this situation are asking me a similar question: what should I be doing right now?

My reply is to ask people to consider three questions:

What do you need to do?

There is a lot to do when someone is dying. You have to talk to professionals. Doctors can help you understand if your loved one needs nursing care or hospice care and whether your loved one needs to be in a care facility or with you and some nursing support at home. Equipment may need to be rented. Arrangements will have to be made. It will be an initial flurry of activity. Many of these services will necessitate long conversations with insurance companies to understand benefits and what is possible.

A lawyer can help you with all those documents people meant to create but postponed. We tend to put off things related to the topic of death as long as we can. While many people have a Will, an Advanced Medical Directive and Power of Attorney documents, more do not. A recent Gallop poll states that only 44% of us have a Will.

A funeral home director can help with funeral planning. The main questions you might want to ask your loved one is whether they would like to be placed in a coffin or cremated, and where they would like to be interred.

A pastor can help you think about a funeral. I have found this to be the basis for a conversation that is memorable and important. When people talk about their funeral, they begin to express the values that they hold. They talk about texts from the bible they want read or hymns and songs they want to be a part of the service. They often know exactly whom they want to speak about their life. When you ask them why they made these choices, you often hear some of the sweetest memories of their life. And sometimes, they simply say, you take care of it. If that happens, the pastor can help you so that the task does not seem overwhelming.

I know these are not fun questions or tasks. But they are important. We all die. We have to talk about these matters so we don’t spend time later wondering if we did the right thing for those we love. There is much more to do, but that list is a good start.

What do you need to say?

Here is the problem with death: it is rather permanent. If you have something to say, now is the time. No one wants to sheepishly begin a conversation in heaven with “when you were dying and we spent all that time together what I meant to say was…”  

Let me add one caveat. It is probably not the time to do a review of past conflicts or unresolved family issues. If they are not resolved by now, it is probably best to find a good counselor after the funeral and think it through on your own. Time with someone who is dying can be very sacred. Often dying takes days or weeks rather than hours. During that time, if you have some word of appreciation, some memory you want to share, or a simple “I love you,” this is when you do it. I am surprised sometimes at what people don’t say to each other that they later say they wish they had said. There is this line in the movie, “On Golden Pond” where Jane Fonda’s character complains to her mother that she always hoped she and her father (played by Henry Fonda) would have these great conversations, but never did. She realizes that her father’s health is beginning to fail. Katharine Hepburn says something like, “Your father is 80 years old. If you don’t have these wonderful conversations now, when exactly do you think you are going to have them?”

One way to figure out what you need to say is to sit down with a paper and pen and take some notes. Jot down phrases, topics, memories and things that feel a bit urgent and begin to organize your thoughts.

If you are a Christian, this is a time to ask your loved one what they believe about God and the afterlife. I am not advocating some form of coercive conversion. I am suggesting that people who are dying are often pretty focused on what comes next, and if they have not spent much time thinking about eternity, it often has their attention now. You can be a resource to them. Your faith can be a blessing to them if it is communicated lovingly and respectfully. Curiosity is typically the door that will open this exchange. When I ask someone what they believe about God and the afterlife, I may hear that they have a lot of beliefs that I did not know they carried. They may turn the question around and ask me what I believe and why I believe it. The conversations that follow are of great depth and importance, times when I can talk about my relationship with Jesus and assurance of salvation. It is helpful if you know some basic scriptures that might assist you; John 14, Psalm 23, Revelation 21 and many others will help you offer assurance and comfort. I find that people, some who are not even Christians, find comfort and hope in such scriptures when they are facing the ultimate questions of life and death. The key is gentleness in tone and delivery. You are sharing your faith, not closing a deal.

What do you need to pray?

There is a lot of sitting in silence when someone is dying. Your loved one may be medicated or simply exhausted. It will feel terribly inefficient if you normally live a fast-paced and full life. People are often willing to be patient and wait, understanding that moments when very sick people are communicative are unpredictable. So you sit and you wait. This is one of the reasons that being with people who are dying feels so sacred. There are few times in your life that you are at rest in silence. Here you can pray. There are all sorts of prayers that need to be said when someone you love is dying.

Thanksgiving – I hope you can start here with integrity. I hope this person has been a blessing to you, one of God’s channels of grace into your life. Offer your thanks to God for favorite memories; times they supported you, the joy of holidays spent with them. Hold them in love and give thanks. Make a list of how they blessed your life and offer it up to God.

Forgiveness – Sometimes we have to start with forgiveness for all that a person was not. The father who did not protect you, the mother who did not nurture you, the brother who drank himself to an early grave, the spouse whose love was never what they pledged are all examples of people we will have to forgive. People can be terribly disappointing. We are an imperfect lot. We are both more than others expected and not all they hoped we would be. If you cannot forgive the person who is dying, try a first step: just release them. Release them of the harm they did or the disappointment you carry. Ask God to release you of the bitterness you may feel for the harm they did or the good they failed to do. When you pray this way, you will untether yourself from the hardship that has defined this relationship for too long. It is not forgiveness, but a first step in that journey.

Intercession – Pray for their pain or their suffering to end. Or pray that the friend or family member they are hoping to see takes time to visit. Pray for your ability to accept their death, or for their ability to know God’s comfort in their death. You are there with them. You know their needs and their desires. Ask God to meet them.

Finally, when you are with people who are dying, know that it is odd when you don’t talk about death and dying. If you are a Christian, it is time to talk about the power of Christ’s resurrection and the promise of heaven. Remember this one thing: we are all going to die. Our ability to talk about death as a normal part of life creates the climate that allows the best care for the dying to be offered.

Talking About LGBTQ Inclusion in the UMC

About a year ago I shared a presentation about the dynamics present in the General Conference of the United Methodist Church related to the questions of whether the church should offer marriage rites to homosexual couples and whether ordination should be available to self-avowed, practicing homosexual persons. I wrote this presentation up, added the slides and included it in this blog. In the year since, many people have asked me for the slides but have been disappointed that the presentation was not available in video form.  This video is offered to those of you who want to see it or share it with others. Feel free to show it to groups or share the link with others who would find it of interest.

I just watched the video and realized that I have made a technical error. Over time, Lesbian and Gay inclusion (LG) has become LGBT (Bi-sexual and Transgender) inclusion. More recently this acronym has included Queer persons (LGBTQ). You will sometimes see it listed as LGBTQ+. Working on the Commission on the Way Forward, gay members have encouraged us to say, “issues of LGBTQ inclusion” rather than “issues of human sexuality.” We have adopted this practice. I use this language in the video because it has become my habit. However, I realize that it is technically incorrect when speaking about the United Methodist Book of Discipline, which only addresses inclusion of self-avowed, practicing homosexual persons in marriage rites and ordination. I apologize for any misunderstanding this may create and I am grateful for the grace you offer me in this area. I also trust that the good readers of this occasional blog are more than capable of doing the translation.

I also want to emphasize that the four zones I present here are offered only for the purpose of conversation about inclusion in marriage and ordination. Just because you are a progressive or traditionalist on these issues does not mean you will be predictably that way on all social issues. We are intelligent people and no one likes to be put in an ideological box. Finally, this schema is applied only to United Methodists in the United States. At the end of the presentation I talk about United Methodists who live in Africa and Asia as well.

The Rhythm of Life

Years ago there was a movie titled “White Men Can’t Jump.” I went to church in Bo, Sierra Leone today and thought of a sequel: “White Men Can’t Clap Either.” The music was beautiful. Six part harmony that gave new life to old hymns and blew the roof off the church with dynamic African praise choruses.

Picture me, a white man of calm church heritage with a few scattered friends from America in a full sanctuary of Sierra Leoneans who can sing and clap and dance out a rhythm that brings energy to their worship. Energy does not do this justice. Think dynamism. Vitality. Oomph. Even some zing. I have to tell you, church is rarely this powerful where I grew up. As every song changes, the congregation enters into a new rhythm, and I can barely keep up. Okay, I can’t keep up. I am embarrassing. The bandleader at the church I serve once told me that as the lead pastor I had to join the band when they sang and clapped to be a good example to the congregation. I looked at her and said, “Sing or clap? I doubt you’ll get both.”

Musical people do not understand my limited ability. You talk about it like it is arithmetic. I experience it as calculus. In Sierra Leone it is quantum physics. Every time the rhythm changes, I try to adjust. I stare at the clapping hands around me, and I’m still offbeat. It is just so humbling, because not only can they sing and clap, this congregation sings alternatively in English, Krio and Mende. I am English-only, standing there counting in my head 1-2-3, 1-2-3, only to realize everyone else is clapping 1-2, pause, 3-4-5, pause, 1-2, pause, 3-4-5. If they had taken me to the hospital next door and asked me to perform an appendectomy, the patient would have a better shot at success than that song.

In the midst of all my effort, I began to feel like the Lord was trying to tell me something. Truth is that I have a rhythm problem in my spiritual life as well. God gave the universe a rhythm. The seasons come and go. The earth rotates every 24 hours. It revolves about every 365 days. There is to be a pattern to our lives as well. Created in God’s image, we are to have a rhythm of joy, peace, love, kindness, respect, gentleness and self-control. There are days and seasons when I get out of tempo there too. Angry when I should be gentle. Quiet when I should speak against injustice. Unforgiving when I could demonstrate love. Ungrateful when I could experience joy.

There is a flow of God’s Spirit that requires us to surrender and just let ourselves be absorbed by its cadences. You know that moment when you are in the flow of God’s will. Love is a joy. Gratitude overflows. Compassion comes naturally. Peace passes all understanding. When I am in that space, I am in full community with God and those around me. When I am not, I am a guy working very, very hard to get it right who is still offbeat and out of synch with others. I create confusion where others bring harmony.

I laughed at myself, standing in church, celebrating the occasional moment of cohesion I enjoyed with the musical savants who surrounded me. I don’t get it wrong all the time, but there is plenty of room for humility and no need to keep track of my neighbor’s efforts. As the voices sang, hands clapped and people gently danced in their pews, I was humbled, and thanked God for such patience in the efforts of divine grace shown to an offbeat guy like me.

What Church is When It’s Church

I know I have written about this before, but I went to church last night, and I got to sit in a pew. It was the first Ash Wednesday service I have not led in 30 years. Pastors go to worship the way chefs go to dinner. You feel called to what you do, but your role can get in the way of your experience. Go to someone else’s restaurant and rather than just enjoy the meal, you find yourself considering the menu, noticing the decor, wondering why the fish has so many chives or the broccoli is so stiff. But not last night. It helped that it was Ash Wednesday, when Christians remember their mortality and need for God’s grace. It is a powerful thing for someone to make the sign of the cross on your forehead and tell you up close to “Repent, and believe in the gospel.” That will deliver you from a critical spirit.

I was reminded why I like church. I think church is a lovely thing. My friend Meredith said that one time, and I keep thinking on that phrase. She is right. You sit on a pew with people you don’t know but who share something you believe in deeply, even when some days you feel a little odd for believing at all. You can go to a city that is not your own and still your people are there in church. Last night at Atlanta First UMC there were all kinds of people. A variety of races, young and old, housed and homeless, all sat on pews together. Pews are wonderful. No defined space on a pew. People can sit far away or right next to you. Not much boundary to a pew. All God’s children just sit there together. Pews are good church furniture.

The service was led well by a young man who was the liturgist. He was warm and confident, his welcome kind and his prayer sincere. The choir sang songs I have known my whole life. Their singing was comfort food after a long day. Rev. Jasmine Smothers absolutely brought it when she preached. She was insightful and convicting. She told me to get my act together but reminded me that God was pursuing me, coming my way with both forgiveness and expectation for my life. She told me that I needed the season of Lent. She did not let me off the hook. I was reminded of how good it is to put yourself in a position where the Lord can speak to you through a diligent servant.

If you live in Atlanta, you should go hear Rev. Smothers preach. It is worth it just to be in her presence. I watched her place ashes on the foreheads of her parishioners. Her face absolutely lit up as she spoke to them and embraced them. The older I get, the more I find such moments emotional. As a pastor you often know the backstory people carry with them into church. So when you serve them communion or put ashes on their forehead, and you think how much grace they need or how much grace they have been given—when you know the burdens they carry or the service they have rendered—it makes you love God and love them more than you ever expected. It makes you grateful that God loves you too. Because you know that you are as much in need of grace as anyone in that line. That is the divine encounter you can have in church.

When I watched Rev. Smothers, there was such a look of love on her face for her people. It made me think about the goodness of being church together, that the love of Christ can reside in our hearts to such a depth that imperfect people can love imperfect people instead of judging and condemning them. It kind of broke me up. Even as I write this I find that emotion returning. There are just so few places in our society where people are valued for being children of God, where they are loved because we can see the divine handprint on their being. That was what I saw as those ashes were placed on forehead after forehead. That’s what church is when it’s church.

The service closed with an old familiar hymn. The smell of the sanctuary at Atlanta First UMC was identical to the one I attended as a child. The sense of smell can take you back a ways. As the hymn played I could hear the voice of my mother singing next to me in that old sanctuary of my boyhood. “Take my life and let it be, consecrated, Lord to thee…”

That building where I first went to church was demolished over 40 years ago, but before it was torn down, the church managed to write that song on my heart. That is the kind of remarkable thing that can happen in church.

The Failure that Fear Brings

We had a sermon series at Floris UMC recently called “Deeper Conversations.” The big idea was that if we learned about other religions we would be more likely to love our neighbors in our diverse community and we would learn a lot about our own beliefs. The communication I received over the past four weeks from church members has been nothing but positive. Which is why I was sad on Sunday afternoon when I pulled into the church driveway and saw that the sign advertising the series, which had symbols of four major world religions, had been slashed. I was grateful that the vandal waited until after the last sermon to deface our sign but was disturbed nonetheless.

There is a lot of fear in America today. More than I have seen in the general population in my lifetime. I was pleased to see that Bishop Bruce Ough, the president of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, was one of 2,000 religious leaders who signed the petition by the Interfaith Immigration Coalition related to recent immigration bans resulting from an executive order by the president. United Methodists have a long-standing relationship with Church World Service and other organizations that work to resettle refugees dating back to the 1950s. This is not new territory for us. Groups in this coalition believe that “the U.S. Refugee Resettlement program has been and should remain open to those of all nationalities and religions who face persecution on account of the reasons enumerated under U.S. law.” Our church has offered support to Christians, but it has also assisted people of goodwill who passed through the nation’s rigorous screening programs from other faith traditions, including Muslims and Hindus. This has proved beneficial to the United States in many ways. Just ask the immigrants around you who work in engineering, computer science, medicine and many other vocations in our community. These are people who are loyal to our country, pay their taxes and support the religious freedom found in their new home.

But now we are being told that we cannot be too careful. In the midst of a global refugee crisis, we are told that the good work of the defense and intelligence community that routinely screens refugees admitted into our borders is simply not good enough. Rather than continue to be open to the resettlement of Middle Eastern refugees and allow Muslim visa holders to travel freely as they do business in the U.S. or visit family members, we have to shut down our borders. In the process of shutting down our borders, the executive order effectively shuts down a great deal of goodwill with key allies around the globe and hope to people who are languishing in the despair of a life in which refugees, on average, spend 17 years in resettlement camps before making the next move. It is despair that breeds radicalization, not religion as it is commonly practiced by the vast majority of Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus.

Christians who are citizens of the United States would do well to recall their own history. Go see “Hidden Figures.” Go see it now before it leaves the theaters. It is based on the true and inspiring story of a team of African-American women who provided NASA with the mathematical data used to launch our country’s first space missions. Three of these women, Katherine Goble Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, were simply remarkable in their determination, ability and desire to see the nation succeed in space exploration. The movie also details the way the culture of NASA had to change in order to allow the gifts of these women to be expressed. The segregated bathrooms and water fountains and accompanying attitudes about race found everywhere in the United States in the early 1960s were also found in their workplace. There is a very satisfying scene in which Al Harrison, the head of the Space Task Group, rips the “colored only” sign off the women’s room with a sledgehammer after discovering that his best mathematician, Katherine Goble, had been walking a half mile simply to use the restroom each day. It is a shame that integration could not come so easily in the rest of our country.

I have thought about that scene in the time since I saw the movie. What would motivate a white man in 1961 to take the risk to integrate his workplace to more fully include African-American women? I think the answer is this: Harrison was desperate for success. He had seven astronauts who all hoped to be the first to orbit the earth. He knew how to send them up. He had no idea how to bring them back down. The Soviets were winning the Space Race and time was short. He had a math problem and realized that he needed everyone he could find who could help figure out how to accomplish that mission. Leave no genius behind, and don’t let the old arguments get in the way.

The argument against including Goble and the other female African-American NASA employees was focused on themes of fear, trust and safety. Could African Americans truly be trusted to contribute to the space program? Could a woman really be trusted in a high security clearance environment? So often we tell ourselves that people are not worth the risk. We can never be too cautious. But Harrison was simply too motivated by a desire for success to buy into fear. He invited Goble to the meeting. He opened up the workplace. Together, NASA figured out the math that got a man to space and back.

Our nation’s history is full of the failure that fear inevitably brings. Black soldiers who would have fought bravely for the Union in the Civil War for years were relegated to noncombat roles in the army because of the prevailing assumption that they could not be trusted with a gun. The fear was that they would not have courage in battle or might turn on white regiments fighting nearby. The bravery of the African-American 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment in the assault of Fort Wagner in 1863 helped the nation understand what remarkable soldiers such regiments could be in the war effort. President Roosevelt, by executive order, interred U.S. citizens of Japanese descent during World War II. They were taken from their homes and businesses and were forced to sit unproductively in camps for fear that they would collaborate with the enemy. Years later President Carter commissioned an investigation that determined that the fear was unjustified and racist. President Reagan signed legislation that included both an apology and the payment of reparations to survivors.

I am pleased that Bishop Ough signed the recent petition and placed the name of the United Methodist Church clearly against racism and fear. Given our rigorous screening standards, I believe that it is possible for America to remain a harbor of hope for those who seek refuge on our shores. I am saddened that that such an idea today seems to sound as crazy to many in our country as putting a man on the moon did in 1961.

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