A Special Time with Two Friends

One of my favorite memories as a bishop was a retreat with the extended cabinet in Mississippi. I invited two special friends and natives of Mississippi who have courageously championed justice and inclusion for at least six decades.

We spent two days engaged in conversation with Will Campbell (here) and Tex Sample (here)! They shared their experiences growing up in Mississippi and their own struggle to counter prejudice, racism, and exclusion. What a memorable experience!

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With disarming wit, intriguing stories, and prophetic insight, Tex and Will invited us to confront our own racism and exclusion and to expand our circle of justice and hospitality.

I first met Tex in the 1980s when we served on the General Board of Church and Society. We have been friends for more than thirty years; and I treasure his continuing support, guidance, and inspiration.

Tex is equally at home swapping stories with “hard living” folks in a local hangout, delivering lectures at top universities, and organizing local communities to challenge city hall. He has spent his life on the frontlines and in the trenches in the struggle against injustice and exclusion in both church and society.

Will Campbell and I met in prison! I had read his Brother to a Dragon Fly. Now, here he was sitting across from a condemned man awaiting execution! He lived what he preached. His circle of compassion and concern was wide enough to include Klansmen and leaders of the civil rights movement, a convicted murderer and a United Methodist pastor.

During my years as bishop in Nashville and Mississippi, Will would show up unexpectedly at an event or call on the phone. Every encounter left me laughing and inspired. I always felt that I had been visited by one of God’s choice prophets and angels! Though he died June 3, 2013, he continues to inspire and challenge me to broaden my circle of hospitality and deepen my commitment to justice.

I give thanks for holy friendships that challenge my prejudices, widen my circle of compassion, and call forth courage to seek justice for ALL people. Special thanks today for Tex Sample and the late Will Campbell!

(I am indebted to John Moore for this photo taken at the retreat.)

 

He Hasn’t Stopped Ministering!

It was one of those times. Linda was experiencing inexplicable distress. I couldn’t reach inside her world and calm her restlessness.

Our neighbors and friends, Dale and Norma Sessions, stopped by as they do almost daily. Dale is in middle stage Alzheimer’s disease.

He has lost most of his once extensive vocabulary. He lives entirely in the present moment and his retention fades almost instantly.

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Suddenly Dale went to Linda’s bedside. He touched her on the shoulder and softly said, “You’re good! Yes, you’re good.”

She clasped his outstretched finger and held on tightly!

Though Linda’s distress continued, Norma and I sensed the preciousness of the moment.

Here a person with significant cognitive degeneration had empathy for another with severe impairment. Dale reached for Linda and spoke a word of affirmation, “You’re good!”

I don’t know what either Dale or Linda were thinking. But in that fleeting moment, there was a tender connection, a simple affirmation, an experience of solidarity, a shared compassion.

Dale’s embedded pastoral sensitivities and practices remain. He greets almost everyone with a smile and “Hey! Hey! Hey!” and “You’re good!”

Yes, people with dementia have gifts! They are more than objects of ministry! They minister!

 

 

 

 

Is Only Unborn Life Sacred?

This week Alabama enacted a law against all abortions. Other state legislatures have enacted strict restrictions with the goal of criminalizing all abortions. My home state of  Tennessee is among them.

Thursday evening Alabama and Tennessee intentionally, with premeditation, strapped two men to a gurney, injected poison into their restrained bodies and watched them die.

Michael Samra’s last words were a prayer to Jesus and Don Johnson sang a hymn as he drew his final breath.

Both men had been convicted of murder. They had cruelly taken the lives of others and inflected terrible grief on their loved ones.

Advocates for the criminalization of abortions defend “the sacredness of the unborn” and the “sanctity of life.”

State-sanctioned killings (‘capital punishment’ is a convenient euphemism) are done in the name of “justice” and compassion for victims.

Protecting and affirming the sacredness and sanctity of life and practicing justice and compassion are core values in civil society and the Christian faith.

But much of the rhetoric and action around abortion and the death penalty exposes a deep, deadly hypocrisy and inconsistency.

Some argue that anti-abortion is protecting “innocent lives” while state executions is justice delivered to the guilty and that comparing the two is a false equivalency.

But are only unborn lives “sacred”? Does birth end human sacredness? Does guilt, even of murder, nullify the sanctity of human life!

According to my understanding of God as creator, redeemer, and sustainer and the universality of God’s prevenient  grace, ALL life is sacred!

Although the image of God is distorted in ALL  of us, God continues to claim us as beloved sons and daughters, with inherent worth and dignity, unborn and born!

Furthermore, justice from a biblical perspective is assuring that ALL have access to God’s abundance and to the resources necessary to flourish as God’s beloved children.

Therefore, I hope the state and national political leaders will be diligent in assuring that those who have been born will have access to medical care, adequate housing, quality education, and loving community.

And, I pray that we will not create more victims of violence by killing those who have killed and calling it “justice” and “compassion.”

Having been present with families of sons who were executed by the state, I know that grief is only compounded and injustice multiplied.

Let’s cease the hypocrisy by practicing justice and compassion for ALL, the unborn and already born!

And let us demand that our politicians stop reducing “sanctity of life” and “justice for victims” to campaign slogans while enacting policies that wound and kill the most vulnerable among us — those the Scriptures call “the orphans, widows, and strangers (immigrants)” and “the least of these”!

 

The Challenge of Easter: Living the Resurrection

Easter is more than a one-day celebration! Easter is a way of being in the world, an orientation toward life!

The challenge is living the resurrection in a world hellbent on crucifixion, addicted to evil, filled with suffering, and  threatened by death.

Believing in the resurrection is difficult for some. Stories of the empty tomb and a Risen Christ defy logic and rational explanation. Cognition is swallowed up mystery.

I am no longer interested in arguing the factuality and historicity of the empty tomb. I’m intellectually content to live with the mystery of the Easter declaration, “Christ is Risen! Christ is Risen, indeed!”

I’m more interested in living Easter than “believing” it! In reality, only in living resurrection is it believed. Instead of “seeing is believing” it is “living is believing.”

I live daily with people whose capacity to cognitively believe Easter has been erased; yet, I see the truth of Easter in them every day. The Risen Christ shows up regularly in a fleeting smile, slight squeeze of the hand, momentary twinkle in the eye, and an unspoken invitation to enter their world and bear their burdens.

Here’s the bottom line for me: God acted decisively, convincingly, mysteriously, and timelessly in Jesus the Christ to conquer all forms of evil and death itself! In the death of Jesus, God took on the principalities and powers of this world AND GOD WON!

My primary concern is living the resurrection!

Here is what living resurrection means to me:

  • Loving unconditionally amid hatred, bigotry, and exclusion
  • Forgiving when the impulse for vengeance dominates
  • Working for justice in a world of oppression and exploitation
  • Entering solidarity with the vulnerable, powerless, and voiceless
  • Building bridges of understanding and opportunity rather than walls of separation
  • Practicing generosity amid economic uncertainty
  • Living with integrity and honesty in the midst of corruption and dishonesty
  • Putting the common good above personal advantage
  • Treating everyone as a beloved child of God, made in the divine image
  • Facing suffering and death with courage born of hope
  • Living NOW in the light of God’s coming reign in Jesus Christ

Yes, living the resurrection is the great challenge of Easter. But the good news is this: The Resurrected One has already won the decisive victory!

The One whose resurrection Easter celebrates is with us as we live toward a resurrection future!

 

 

 

 

 

Good Friday: The Clash of Two Worlds

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We rightly interpret Jesus’ death as God’s response to our personal suffering, sin, and death. We truly were “there when they crucified my Lord.” His messages from the cross speak powerfully and redemptively to our individual needs.

But the cross has implications far broader than the forgiveness of our personal sins and solidarity with our suffering and death.

The crucifixion of Jesus by government officials and religious establishment is clearly a political act! The coercive and destructive politics of Herod the Roman ruler and Caiaphas the high priest and the reconciling and redemptive politics of Jesus collided on that fateful day we call “Good Friday.”

It is the clash of two worlds, two kingdoms, two forms of power!

On the one hand is the world of political and religious corruption, deception, coercion, exploitation, and violence. It is the exercise of power for personal gain  at the expense of justice, compassion, integrity, and the common good.

It is the world of deception, manipulation, bigotry, us-against-them, fear mongering, exclusion, win-at-all-cost, betrayal, and death.

In the leadership forefront of that world are Herod, Pilate, Caiahpas, Judas, and the mob shouting “Crucify him crucify him.”

On the other hand, the world embodied by Jesus is one of resolute integrity in the pursuit of God’s reign. It is the world of unrelenting compassion, uncompromising justice,  untiring generosity ,  all-embracing love, and  boundless mercy.

It is the world of kindness, honesty, humility, hospitality, empowerment of the weak and vulnerable, faithfulness, and abundant life.

Those worlds clashed dramatically, cataclysmically, and cosmically on a hillside appropriately named Golgatha, “skull.” Here the empire’s politics of violence opposed God’s politics of peace! The power of cruelty and hatred contested with the power of love and forgiveness.

When Jesus mumbled, “It is finished,” and his bleeding head bowed in death, it appeared that the politics of hatred and violence had won! The world grew eerily dark! It was as though the light of God’s loving presence had been extinguished.

Evidence abounds which indicates the world of Herod, Pilate, Caiaphas, and Judas won! Political corruption and abuse of power at the highest  echelons of our government threaten the fabric of democracy and common life.

The earth is awash with instruments of violence and war. Bigotry, exclusion, exploitation, and division continue their stranglehold on nations and religions. Injustices of poverty and economic disparity go unabated.

Compassion, justice, generoisty, kindness, forgiveness, integrity, integrity–these seem hidden from much of public and private life, sealed in the tomb of despair.

Indeed, the gloomy world of  Good Friday’s evil surrounds us! We are tempted to hide behind our closed doors, or acquiesce to the prevailing corruption and cruelty, or retaliate with our own vengeance and hatred, or give up in despair.

But hold on! Keep vigilant!  Sunday is coming! Easter is on the way! God’s final word is yet to be spoken!  A new world is about to dawn!

 

 

Political Collusion and Jesus’ Crucifixion

The question of collusion as a means of gaining and exercising political power has figured prominently in public discourse for the last two years. Ironically, interest is at a flash point during our Holy Week.

Maybe that is appropriate! After all, the execution of Jesus resulted from deliberate collusion between the Roman empire and organized religion.

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and his cleansing of the Temple threatened the prevailing governmental and religious powers epitomized by Caiaphas the high priest and Herod the Roman ruler of the region.

Throughout that fateful week the conflicts multiplied and plots to silence Jesus intensified. Controversies over authority, paying taxes, what laws have priority, the future of the temple, and reading the signs of the times dominated the interactions between Jesus his opponents.

It was the religious leaders who led the opposition to Jesus and conspired with Herod and his loyalists to silence him.

Gaining and protecting privilege often results in corrosive compromise, devious conspiracies, and deadly collusions.

Since at least as early as Constantine (272 – 337 AD), the rulers of the church and the state have colluded to gain and protect their privilege at the expense of justice and the common good.

Herod and Caiaphas have descendants in every generation, including our own. Proximity to power is addictive! It has been the downfall of many!

Some of history’s most dastardly events have resulted from the collusion and compromise between religious and imperial power. The Crusades, the holocaust, slavery, genocide in Rwanda come immediately to mind.

More subtle forms of collusion  between religion and empire are taking place before our eyes. We may even be participants either by our silence or outright support. I name a few:

  • Subordinating the Sermon on the Mount to the  platform of a political party
  • Prioritizing political partisanship over justice and the common good
  • Protecting the privileges of the already privileged at the expense of the poor
  • Accepting  as normative dishonesty, crudeness, and corruption by elected officials
  • Using legislation to enforce discrimination against people of a different race, ethinicity, sexual identity, religion, or economic status
  • Acquiescing to governmental policies that clearly fail to “defend the orphans, widows, and sojourners”

Jesus confronted the collusive forces of religion and empire with a different motivation than self-protective privilege and personal gain. His vision stretched beyond the confines of institutional religion and national dominance.

Jesus’ eyes were firmly fixed on God’s reign of boundless compassion, relentless justice, uncompromising integrity, and resolute hope.

With humble courage,steadfast devotion, impeccable integrity, and self-emptying love Jesus counters the corrosive powers conspiring against him.

It cost him his life! But we know the rest of the story!

 

 

 

Jesus Enters Church Politics

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Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday set the stage for a showdown between God’s reign and the prevailing  principalities and powers. His subsequent acts and teachings challenged the dominant politics of the first as well as the twenty-first century.

According to the synoptic Gospels, Jesus made his way to the temple on the day after he entered Jerusalem. If his first day in the Holy City contrasted with popular images of imperial power, his visit to the temple challenged religion’s definition and exercise of power.

The temple was more than an impressive building. It was sacred space, set apart as a place to meet God, offer sacrifices to the Holy One, and share in God’s presence and promises.

It was also a center of commercial activity as foreign money was exchanged and animals were sold for sacrificing.

There were clearly defined boundaries and controlled access to the holy of holies. Gentiles were welcome, but they were relegated to the outer courts. And, they were dependent upon the merchants and those who ran the currency exchange for their participation in the temple.

In other words, the temple operated on the market logic of economic exchange at least as it pertained to the Gentiles. Access to full participation in the temple’s holy space and ritual practices was significantly limited by ethnicity, economics, and the discretion of the leaders of the temple.

Jesus angrily and forcefully challenged the prevailing temple politics of exclusion and exploitation.  He overturned the instruments of commerce and with whips of cord cleared the temple of the enforcers and exploiters.

Quoting from the prophet Isaiah, Jesus declared: ” Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations’? But you have made it a den of robbers” (Mark 11:17).

Temple leaders were robbing people of more than money. They were robbing ‘the other’ of full participation in God’s holy space and presence.

The place of prayer, means of connecting people to God, was being dominated by the politics of exploitation and exclusion.

Any relevance for the church in today’s world? How much do our congregations reflect the politics of exclusion, exploitation, and the market logic of exchange?

Who are “the others” who are relegated to the periphery of participation in God’s presence and promise? Is the church really open to ALL nations?

How much of the contemporary church’s life reflects the market values of statistical growth and “what’s in it for me”?

What about those of us in leadership?  Do we engage in the politics of exclusion or the politics of hospitality, the politics of control or the politics of the compassion, the politics of personal career advancement or the politics of the common good?

The plot to kill Jesus grew after he chased the exploiters and enforcers from the temple. Religious operatives and political leaders began their collusion to be rid of the one who practiced a different politics–the politics of compassion, justice, and hospitality.

Yes, Jesus enters church politics! He challenges our politics of exclusion, exploitation, and reducing God to a commodity available for a price.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Holy Week Is About the Politics of Jesus

Palm-sunday-clip-art-free-clipart-imagesMake no mistake about it: Every act of Jesus during what we call Holy Week was political!

Failure to admit that is to reduce Jesus to a meager promoter of an other-worldly personal piety with little relevance to the real world.

The week began with a carefully planned protest march into Jerusalem,  the center of political, economic, and religious power.

It is as though Jesus is throwing down the gauntlet in Washington, D.C., Wall Street, and the Vatican (or the location of our denominational headquarters).

Politics is about power, its definition and use, who wields it and toward what ends. Politics has to do with who has access to resources, what serves the common good, and how change is effected.

Jesus challenges all prevailing images of power of his time and ours. The images of Holy Week, therefore, call us to evaluate our own politics. The challenge crosses partisan political and religious loyalties, just as it did in Jesus’ time–Herodians, Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Essenes.

The contrasting images are dramatically presented in Jesus’ march into Jerusalem. He is riding on a humble beast of burden, not a prancing war stallion. No tanks or missiles and parading armed soldiers!

His entourage consists of the poor, women and children, the outcastes, the working people waving palm branches, not the prominent and prestigious flaunting their privilege.

We would do well to put aside our defensiveness, partisanship, and privilege and honestly evaluate our politics, our understanding of power and the common good, in the light of Jesus’ actions during this fateful week.

I’ll offer my own observations and confessions and invite you to do the same.

 

 

A Wesleyan Ethic of Speech

This is a thoughtful, much needed word from Wesleyan scholar/historian and friend, Ted Campbell, who teaches at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. God grant me the grace, patience, wisdom, and discipline to practice “A Wesleyan Ethic of Speech.”

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GCFA at Historic St George's UMC – Version 2

I grew up in a southern US culture that used euphemistic expressions like “God bless your little heart” to mean… Well, I can’t say what that really meant while discussing a Wesleyan ethic of speech. But I promise you that what it meant wasn’t always nice.

There’s a lot in the Bible, a lot in the words of Jesus, and a lot in Wesleyan and Methodist culture about what comes out of our mouths. The world would be a better place if we could pay more attention to the words we generate with our mouths and our keypads. But not just the world outside of our churches: in a time of Methodist rancor and division, this historic culture of carefully guarded speech (and writing) is as needed as ever.

Jesus recognized a world awash in verbal vomit. In fact, that’s just about exactly how he described it:

“… it…

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What I Wish I Had Known about Sex

“What is something you wish you had known about pastoral care and sex/sexuality/gender identity when you were in seminary or before ministry began?

That was a question the panel moderator raised at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, Wednesday, March 27. I continue to ponder my response.

I attended seminary 1962 to 1965.  I don’t recall a single discussion about sexual identity and orientation during those three years. The “sexual revolution” had not reached our campus.

The hot button issues were racial integration, poverty, and the Vietnam war. Those were on the cutting edge of Biblical/theological/ethical inquiry and at the top of the justice agenda.

We grappled with what the Bible says about race, slavery, economics, and war; but the passages referring to “homosexuality” received no exegetical analysis.

Matters of sexual identity, orientation, and expression were physically, emotionally, and morally settled and unambiguous.

There were only two prevailing truths about sexual identity: (1) There are males and females! (2) You don’t “do it” until you’re married! It’s that simple!

Any deviation from that binary description was considered “abnormal.” The American Psychiatric Association still listed homosexuality as a “disorder,” not removing it from the list until 1973.

During my thirty-two years as a local church pastor, people who didn’t fit into that dualistic, simplistic mold of sexuality largely remained hidden; or we operated by the principle of “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

So I answered the moderator’s question this way: “I wish I had known the complexities involved in sexual identity and orientation. Since I didn’t, I have been complicit in hurting people who don’t fit into the binary description.”

I failed as a pastor to provide safe spaces for LGBTQ+ sisters and brothers to openly accept their full identity as beloved children of God, made in the divine image. And, I failed to challenge the prejudices and injustices directed toward them under the guise of being faithful to the Bible.

Scientific understanding and biblical interpretation regarding sexuality have greatly advanced over the last half century. We are learning that the binary understanding of sexuality is as antiquated as the notion of a flat earth.

And, using the Bible to justify discrimination against LGBTQIA people is as flawed as using Scripture to exclude women or divorced people from church leadership.

I have much to yet to learn about the complexities of sexual identity and orientation! I’m still having trouble fully comprehending the realities behind the letters L G B T Q I A.

Thankfully, people who live the complexities of sexual identity are opening my eyes and helping me receive their marvelous gifts.

I am convinced that God is working in, among, and through LGBTQIA colleagues to bring to reality God’s dream of a redeemed and reconciled humanity.

I regret that it has taken me so long to welcome, affirm, and support their gifts.