The Walking Dead. . . and Divided

Earlier today, the United Methodist Judicial Council upheld several parts of the controversial “traditional” plan adopted at their conference in February 2019.

It also struck down several other parts of the plan, but that is likely only to be a road bump on the way to a final church split.

It is widely expected that the final rupture (that’s almost a pun) will come next year, when denominational representatives meet in a regularly-scheduled general conference.

When last rites finally are pronounced over the denomination, it is likely that scores, if not hundreds or thousands, of progressive and moderate churches will leave to form a new denomination.

Between now and then, leaders of the respective factions—progressive, moderate and conservative—will meet internally to plan their strategy. Following that, it is likely that a set of leaders representing each faction will meet to see if they can reach an amicable divorce, which is a polite way of saying “agree upon a church schism.”

A church schism, or split, is not an unusual path in either Protestantism or Methodism, notwithstanding Jesus’ great prayer in the John’s gospel that the church be unified. As he says in John 17:11, “Holy Father, protect them. . . so that they may be one as we are one.”

Well, so much for spiritual integrity, even though all sides of the Methodist mess claim that scripture is on their side.

In truth, though, the Christian church has never been “one.” Instead, it has always been a lively, messy, prickly, argumentative conglomerate of people and churches with largely similar beliefs on major issues, who will then divide like angry amoebas over lesser matters.

For example, most Christians throughout history would agree that Jesus is Lord. However, Christians have killed each other over other issues, such as whether infant baptism is scripturally sound or whether Jesus’ blood and body is physically present in the communion elements.

Today’s dividing issue is LGBTQ equality. Thus, if you believe a man can love a man or a woman can love a woman, and that God is okay with that and maybe even celebrates it, well, many Christians believe you to be a heretic, damn you!

And, a good number are willing to persecute you or discriminate against you for that belief (see “evangelical” in your dictionary).

Similar to the global church, United Methodists seem to agree that Jesus is Lord, but they break down bigly over LGBTQ issues, which even the most fervent, fire-breathing conservative agrees is mentioned or alluded to in only a handful of the Bible’s over 31,000 verses.

Of course, the American Methodist church has split over civil rights issues before. Prior to the Civil War, it divided into northern and southern churches over the issue of slavery, and did not reunite until 1939.

Meanwhile, today’s conservatives pooh-pooh any suggestion that they are making the same mistake as their southern forebears, who insisted that some people are entitled to more civil rights than others.

That is hard to maintain when they are, indeed, insisting that some people are entitled to more civil rights than others, but there you go. . .

In their defense, humans have never been much for consistency, but are quite adept at denial.

Unfortunately, the handwriting seems to be on the wall for people who love the United Methodist church and had some hope that the church would stay united despite differences. They will need to find grace in their grief as the denomination hurdles toward division and death.

Fortunately, irrespective of our views on these issues, we can learn from the resurrection verses in Matthew: Jesus is alive and going ahead of us.

Our task is to follow him faithfully and prayerfully as best we can, even in hard and fractious times.

Burning Christians Illuminate Administration’s Immorality

Donald Trump can end his “Rip Families Apart” policy by calling his Attorney General and ordering him to stop.

There are at least two reasons he will not do this.

First, he likes the results. Dislike, if not hatred, of “other” people, especially those of a different skin color, seem to be embedded deep within his bones.

Second, he finds the children and their parents useful to him in a devilish sort of way. They are living and breathing human bargaining chips he can use both in his ongoing War Against Immigration and his drive to fund the border wall.

Jesus, while taking a child into his arms, once said, “Whoever receives one child like this in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me does not receive Me, but Him who sent Me.” (Mark 9:36-37)

Unfortunately, instead of receiving children in any way remotely resembling Jesus’ desire, or in any other humane and moral manner, our nation’s leadership has embarked on another course.

They receive children in the name of a man who would do them harm and leave them at his mercy.

The result is that Trump has chosen to show “zero tolerance” to immigrant families appearing at the border even to present legitimate claims of asylum.

This means that our country rejects valid asylum claims that it has heretofore accepted. It also means that families are separated, with parents being jailed for subsequent prosecution and children being imprisoned for indefinite periods of time.

The latter results in our government taking children into custody and stashing them in an abandoned and now overcrowded Walmart facility located deep in South Texas.

While this facility is now licensed by the state of Texas, it is only approved to hold about 1100 people. Unfortunately, it now houses almost 1500 children ranging in age from 10-17. In addition, at least thirteen citations have been presented against the facility for inadequate conditions or services.

Meanwhile, as they move into federal jails and detention centers, these children and their parents join DACA recipients in an obscenely unjust pocket of Trump-imposed hell– pawns in his unholy, immoral fight against immigration.

Stunningly, Trump repeatedly brays out the lie that his “Rip Families Apart” policy actually is caused by a pre-existing law passed by Democrats, and that he can do nothing about it until the law is changed.

Rubbish. It is Trump’s policy designed to hurt people.

As such, these families not only are they bargaining chips but are also people the Orange One hurts in the hope that their misery will deter others from seeking asylum.

Shockingly, Attorney General Sessions looks on all of this and claims that it is part of God’s plan designed to bring law and order to the United States.

He even cites verses from Romans 13 to support his contention. In those verses, the Apostle Paul exhorts early Christians to submit peacefully to taxes imposed by the Roman Emperor Nero.

It is odd that Sessions uses this verses. However, he is likely unaware that some of the same Christians whom Paul counseled to honor the Roman government were destined to later become human torches illuminating the Roman night. They had been publicly dipped into tar and set ablaze pursuant to governmental policies set by Nero to discourage the practice of Christianity.

So much for that government’s “law and order” and lack of morality.

We are left to fight against those of our own.

Evangelicals Struggle with Self-Identity

The National Association of Evangelicals issued a statement yesterday aimed at clarifying widespread misunderstanding of evangelical beliefs and practices.

Their longing for clarity arose out of the fact that a growing number of people consider “evangelicals” to be a political grouping rather than a religious one.

The NEA  statement is clear about how they see themselves, “We identify ourselves by our spiritual convictions in the authority of the Bible, salvation through Jesus Christ alone and living out our faith in everyday life, especially sharing the good news of Jesus with others.”

Unfortunately, the NEA is deluding itself if it thinks such statements are meaningful.

No matter whether it is fair or unfair, the vast majority of Americans do not know evangelicals by their spiritual convictions or actions. They do not see evangelicals doing the work of Jesus. They do not see evangelicals worshipping at church, leading foreign missions, feeding the hungry, etc.

Jerry Falwell, Jr. welcomes President Trump to Liberty University.

Instead, they know evangelicals primarily through their well-publicized association with President Trump and the Republican party.

They hear that white evangelicals are the most stable part of the Republican base. They read headlines about 80% white evangelical support of Trump. They see photographs of evangelical leaders clustered around Trump in the Oval Office. They hear about leading evangelical figures giving full-throated support to Trump.

Not surprisingly, they believe what they see and hear—that Trump trumps Jesus and politics trumps faith in the hearts and minds of most white evangelicals.

Evangelical claims of faith are not enough to overcome the overwhelming media coverage—much of it coming from evangelical sources—to the contrary.

God knows, even if evangelicals don’t, that this confusion about evangelical identity was foreseeable and predictable.

Jesus certainly lived his life differently. He did not seek standing with the prevailing powers of the day, he confronted them. He did not seek his own base of power, he gave his life for others. He did not subordinate the gospel to other purposes, he lived it. His priorities were clear and his identity remains clear thousands of years later.

However, white evangelicals chose not to follow Jesus’ path. Instead, they intentionally embarked on a path to gain political power and use it. They have followed that path for decades and show no changes of changing.

They formed the Moral Majority in the 1970’s with the avowed purpose of profoundly impacting public policy. They have given their time, work and money to this effort.

At first, their work resulted in most white evangelicals supporting Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential election. Over the years, however, their movement slowly became more identified with Republican policies and the Republican party. By the 2016 presidential election, white evangelicalism was seen by most, even themselves, as being fused with rock-ribbed Republicanism.

And, they got what they wanted. They got political power. They got their Supreme Court nominee. They have the president’s ear and consider him to be their savior, at least in a political sense.

In the process, they have become who many people consider them to be—Republicans seeking and using political power and wanting even more.

White evangelicals should recognize that they have reaped what they have sowed. Any group or organization that lashes itself so completely to the policies, positions and practices of another group or organization loses its original identity. It literally becomes something else.

The NEA and their members may want to insist on their high-minded faith and devotion to Jesus, but no one will pay attention.

Instead of touting things that will be ignored, they might undergo a long needed self-assessment. Perhaps then, they return to the starting point of many Christian journeys  and become like the tax collector Jesus describes in a parable. In Luke 18, Jesus explains that the tax collector went to the Temple, beat his breast and prayed, “God have mercy on me, a sinner.”

After telling the parable, Jesus said that this man “went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

One thing we Christians always can use is a bit more humility before God and humankind and a bit less lust for power, however alluring it may be.

 

Children’s Health Plan and the Axe that Looms

The White House/Administration/Trump continue to be careen on their helter-skelter, immoral course.

Their latest outrage is an attempt to cut the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which was renewed for a six-year period earlier this year.

Known more widely as CHIP, this program provides health coverage to nearly 9 million children in low-income families in all 50 states.

It is widely-recognized as successful. It turns out that, just as predicted, children’s health improves with access to medical care.

In addition to its medical and policy successes, CHIP also saves the country money by reducing expenditures on other health care programs, particularly Medicaid. CHIP does this because of the better medical outcomes that result from treating children earlier and in a doctor’s office as opposed to later and in an emergency room.

Nonetheless, it is under threat of the knife.

Indeed, it is on the chopping block to the tune of a $7 billion reduction because of the ballooning budget deficit that the administration is salivating to reduce.

It matters not to the White House that the deficit results primarily from its ill-advised 2017 corporate tax cuts. Those will remain as is, although there are rumors of some wanting additional reductions.

One might wonder why children should go without medical care while the country injects more cash into already-profitable companies, but that is just the way the United States rolls– or, careens– today.

One does hope that our white evangelical brothers and sisters (Where are you Franklin? Jerry, Jr? Rev. Jeffrees? Mr. Perkins?) will use their new-found political muscle to prevent this reduction.

Unfortunately, their political agenda may be too crowded with issues other than the just treatment of children.

 

Donald Trump– Man of Prayer?

Today’s media attention is again riveted on the bright, shiny object of the past few days—the James Comey interview and the tornadic reaction to it from Trump and friends.

However, it was another interview this weekend which caught my attention, the few minutes that Fox and Friends spent with the Rev. Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son and evangelical extraordinaire.

Of course, the Fox hosts did not seem interested in anything particularly religious, except for Graham’s views on the president.

Graham rose to the occasion in an almost Hannity-like fashion with the observation, “this president understands the power of prayer.”

He also stated, “I appreciate that we have a president who understands prayer and solicits prayer.”  

His words had barely left his mouth when Twitter reactions began popping up.

Hollywood Director Judd Apatow tweeted, “I don’t care what your politics are — @FranklinGraham is either a fool or works for the devil. There is no way he believes Trump believes in God and the power of prayer. Nobody on Earth truly believes that.”

Christian voices also weighed in.

Rev. Dr. Chuck Currie, Jr., a United Church of Christ pastor wrote, “Seems to me that @FranklinGraham sold his soul to @realDonaldTrump.

Thomas S. Kidd, who teaches history at Baylor University, added, “Because on Fox ‘evangelical’ Christianity means nominal Christianity employed for political ends.”**

Meanwhile, about the time Graham was opining on Trump’s religiosity, the Big Man Himself was undercutting that argument by throwing a Tweetstorm about Comey with the usual type of character assassination which we hope would stop.

However, at least two other comments Graham made gives never-Trump Christians food for thought.

First, he observed that we need to pray for Trump.

Second, he said, “Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, the fact is that Donald Trump is the president of the United States. And if he does well, makes good decisions, it benefits all of us as a nation, regardless of our background … We need him to succeed at home, and we need him to succeed abroad. It’s not about winning or losing, it’s about succeeding for all Americans.”

I served at a conservative United Methodist church in rural Texas during Obama’s presidency.

While my prayers for Obama did not stir great controversy in the church, at least two people expressed their displeasure.

Likely, at some progressive Christians would say the same about prayers for Trump.

Christians who place party and politics over God to be at work in a person’s private or professional life need to reassess that position.

The thought of “Donald Trump—Man of Prayer” strikes me as ludicrous given his apparently unrepentant lifestyle.

However, we all can pray for him to become one.

** My favorite comment was from former “New York Times” opinion columnist Clyde Haberman who tweeted, “Donald Trump is to piety what Stormy Daniels is to chastity.”

 

 

 

Take It Back, God, Take It Back!

Wayne La Pierre, of NRA fame, and our sitting president are among those claiming that God bestows upon all people the right to own firearms. Even the simplest of web searches will reveal scores of Christians making the same argument.

Of course, it is relatively easy to make absurd claims and claim Biblical support. Indeed, over the years many have claimed that the Bible authorizes misogyny, mass slaughter, genocide, polygamy, slavery, public stoning for certain offenses (Kids, careful what you say to your parents!) and any number of other noxious acts.

Let us not stretch the absurdity to include biblical authorization of firearms. It is not there.

It is likely, however, that people such as Mr. La Pierre have an ulterior motive for their claim—that there is a “divine” law that will override any attempt to regulate the purchase or possession of certain weapons. After all goes the reasoning, if God is for it then who can be against it?

Nonetheless, the present right for Americans to possess firearms is controlled not by the Bible, but by the Supreme Court decision in Washington, D.C. vs. Heller, a 2008 case.

The 5-4 majority in that case created constitutional right under the Second Amendment for citizens to own firearms for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense and hunting.

The opinion, authored by Justice Scalia, also noted that the “right” is not unlimited and that it is not a right for a person to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for any purpose whatsoever.

In other words, he noted that this “right” can be regulated.

That is the fight we are having—whether additional regulations should be adopted to restrict the sale or possession of certain weapons.

Let’s not drag God into the American carnage that is related to firearms.

I suspect that God is appalled enough already.

 

America’s Sacrificial Lambs: Our Children

Child sacrifices are one of the more gruesome practices of humankind. Genesis 22 describes a chilling scene of one that almost happened.

God tells Abraham to sacrifice his young son, Isaac. Abraham dutifully begins to obey, no questions asked and no emotion shown.

Instead, he soon packs what is needed for the task and leaves for Mt. Moriah with Isaac and two servants. It was there that Isaac would die.

When they arrive, Abraham tells the servants to wait while he and his son find a place to “worship.” He and Isaac then leave for a short hike to find God’s preferred site. Ironically, Abraham gives Isaac the wood to carry while he takes the knife and “fire.”

When they arrive at the appointed site, Abraham builds an altar, puts wood on it, binds Isaac and places him the wood. He then lifts his knife to kill him, to sacrifice his son on altar to God.

There is no indication what Isaac and Abraham were thinking and feeling as the events unfolded. Instead, it played out rather matter-of-factly—like another day, another sacrifice to make. Ho-hum.

So it seems to go in our country. Another day, another sacrifice to make. Or like yesterday, seventeen sacrifices.

Child sacrifice was common in ancient cultures. Today, we think of it as a primitive, barbaric act, something too horrific to imagine.

Unfortunately, we routinely do it as a culture. We are the primitives. We are the barbarians. We are the ones who sacrifice our children. We are the ones with blood on our hands.

We sacrifice them on altars made not of wood but of political power and zealotry. Our gods are the NRA and a particular interpretation of the 2nd Amendment.

God stayed the hand of Abraham that day, but our country does not seem to have the ability to take any meaningful steps to stay the hands of mass murderers, even in our public schools.

Admittedly, there are laws against murder and there are some restrictions on the sale of firearms.

But, there have been twenty-five fatal school shootings since Columbine. There have been over 150 mass shootings (defined as shootings where four or more have been killed by a lone shooter) since Charles Whitman climbed the University of Texas Tower on August 1, 1966 to gun down twenty-five people.

In the last twenty-four hours, the governor of Florida, attorney general of the United States and president of the United States have made statements deploring the act and vowing to end school shootings.

But, the fact is that our governments have done . . . nothing.

And, our body politic has done . . . nothing.

And, more die.

Christians believe that sin is endemic to human beings. Our task as our culture is to seek ways to curb this particular manifestation of sin.

Unfortunately, that requires a national effort and a political effort that includes both political courage and citizen revolt against these murders. To date, all these elements have been missing.

If you are one who cares, then by all means pray for the victims, witnesses and their families. Pray for the law enforcement officers and other first responders who had to see and wade through the carnage. Pray for doctors, nurses and health care personnel who cared for those who were brought in for treatment. Pray for the shooter and his family.

Then, phone, write or email your legislators at all levels of government. Give money to candidates who will change the status quo. Write letters to the editor. Rage on social media. Do anything you can to reduce the carnage.