Thursday, January 9, 2020

The Methodists' coming punishment of God

I wrote this with non-UMC readers in mind, so I do not dwell on the minutiae of the recently-released "Protocol" document. Besides, this is long enough without that.

Just after New Year’s Day there was national and regional news coverage announcing, “United Methodist Church Announces Proposal to Split Over Gay Marriage” (NPR), or similar headlines.

Why did this become suddenly worthy of such large-scale coverage? That the church has been wrestling with homosexuality since at least 1972 is no secret. Accurate headlines would read, "United Methodist Church leaders agree to catch up to fact that the UMC is already splitting over gay rights."

The UMC is the America’s second-largest Protestant denomination with about 7.5 million US members, and about that many around the world, with the largest foreign numbers in Africa.

The massive coverage of the latest split proposal, called “Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation,” does not really break much new ground. There were already a few breakup plans proposed and on the table several months ago.

So, what is the situation now, what comes next, and what after that?

“Status quo” is Latin for “the mess we’re in” 

In fact, nothing has been decided and no actual actions have been taken to split the UMC. That a split is nearly certain to come before this summer is not much in doubt. But what the details will be no one can predict.

The UMC’s only body that can determine policy denomination-wide is the General Conference. Presided over by bishops, who can speak to issues but may not vote, the GC convenes once per four years and does not exist in between. It will convene again on May 5. The “gay issue” will certainly be the priority matter. Voting delegates come from the church’s conferences, which is what the UMC calls dioceses. The number of delegates is fixed; how many come from each conference is based on their membership number. Delegates per conference must be both laity and clergy.

So, what will the fight be about?

The present canon law of the UMC, called the Book of Disciplinesays this:
• ¶ 304.3: The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church. View full statement.

• ¶ 341.6: Ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions shall not be conducted by our ministers and shall not be conducted in our churches.
This has been the policy for many years. However, a special, called General Conference in February 2019 added mandatory penalties for violations and prohibited giving …
… United Methodist funds to any gay caucus or group, or otherwise use such funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality or violate the expressed commitment of The UMC "not to reject or condemn lesbian and gay members and friends."
That GC also adopted means by which churches that could not abide by these provisions could withdraw from the UMC while retaining possession of their real estate and buildings. Some did, but not many.

Instead, the vast majority of progressives remained in the UMC to continue the fight. This caused two major consequences:
  1. Traditionalists rebelled against the never-ending infighting and started to leave the UMC individually, causing a significant decline in attendance and collections. This was amplified by the relatively smaller number of progressive Methodists who made the same choice. Progressive churches (in aggregate) sharply dropped paying their apportionments (denominational dues) in protest. Only two months after the special GC, The Hill reported, "Liberal Methodist churches withholding dues after denomination vote to ban LGBT-inclusive practices." Presently, the denomination and its congregations are financially tenuous.
  2. While traditionalists patted themselves on the back for winning, progressives redoubled to orient on the election of delegates to this May’s GC. As a result, it is generally acknowledged that the majority of American delegates elected are clearly progressive.
Long before the “Protocol” was released on Jan. 3, clergy from one end of the spectrum to the other had concluded that some sort of split of the UMC was not merely inevitable, it was desirable.

That the new changes to the Discipline formally provided for churches to withdraw was simply dismissed by UM progressives. They were determined that the UMC itself would become fully progressive, not some church splintered from it. That determination has not lessened.

The near horizon

True, the Protocol is not even on the agenda for this May’s General Conference, although there are ways it can be added. Even so, that it was released by the COB in an obviously pre-planned, coordinated national media campaign for maximum coverage, compels pulpit pastors like me to understand a sobering fact: We may not be interested in the Protocol, but the Protocol is very interested in us.

Dale M. Coulter, associate professor of historical theology at Regent University, observed in First Things, that
... the Protocol does not allow local churches or conferences to remain neutral any longer. In its current configuration, the Protocol requires that a choice be made—even if that choice is not to vote and thus remain in the post-separation UMC after the dust settles. The fight will now be taken to the local level.
The Protocol simply torpedoes whatever remained of the center. The center, or what was left of it, now no longer exists. When the president of the Council of Bishops is a Protocol signatory and its first appearance is on the COB's web site, the idea that there remains sort of centrist path is shredded. It is reasonable to assume that this is the outcome preferred by a clear majority, perhaps all, of the UM's bishops. On the date of this post the UM News Service announced that members of the team that developed the Protocol "will be interviewed in a live-streamed panel discussion on Monday, Jan. 13" for an hour at 9.30 a.m. EST on No other proposal for General Conference on this or any other topic has received such genuflection, which IMO speaks volumes.

So even if some bishops think there should still be a middle way, their peers have shut them down. (Remember, though, that the Council of Bishops formally endorsed a centrist plan for the UMC at the February 2019 special General Conference, and it was promptly rejected by both left and right.)

Pastors' shepherding of congregations through the coming schism will be challenging, to say the least. Each pastor will have to choose a side while still pastoring all the people of the church, and the people will be choosing their sides, too. Most congregations' members will not be unified with one another. I have known, for example, members who hold the traditionalist position but who also have homosexual close family members. For them, the issue is very personal. And that puts ministers right here:

The reason is that congregants will fall into three basic groups of response:
  1. Those who will leave the church because the pastor chose the "wrong" position,
  2. Those who will leave the church because the pastor would not announce his/her position,
  3. And those who feel so deeply rooted that they are not going to leave their church no matter what, or who simply want this whole issue to just go away - at least until a very progressive or very traditionalist pastor takes the pulpit in their church. Then, to borrow Robert Heinlein's metaphor, they will hoist the Jolly Roger.
Which is to say, we ministers (but not only us) are being presented with a Star Trek Kobayashi Maru no-win scenario, for which this Forbes article is useful in understanding in trying to maintain ethical leadership. It explains, among other things,
A crucial feature of good ethical decision-making in the real world is understanding the limits of your powers. You try to make choices that bring lots of good consequences and minimal bad ones, that fulfill your obligations to everyone to whom you have obligations (including yourself) — but you’re doing it in a complicated world where you must make your choices on the basis of imperfect information, and where other people are doing things that may impose constraints on your options. Ethics cannot require us to be omniscient or omnipotent. This means that sometimes even the most creative and optimistic ethical decision-maker has to face a situation where none of the available choices or outcomes are very good.
Even allowing for all that, the Protocol's basic premise that traditionalists and progressives must divorce one another is hardly disputed within the UMC. The Protocol likely will be added to the handful of "split up" proposals already on the General Conference's agenda. For sure, no one expects “the mess we’re in” to continue post-GC.

A safe assumption is that at least two Methodist denominations will arise from this May's GC. One will be progressive/liberal and the other orthodox/traditionalist/conservative. What the actual names will be who knows, but theologically and ideologically that’s how they will be. There could be other denominations, too.

It must be recognized that individual churches will get to choose. If My Town UMC's conference votes to be in the progressive church but MTUMC's members are mostly traditionalist, then MTUMC's members will be able to vote to join another denomination. But they will still lose some members when they do. Likewise if a progressive congregation votes to leave a traditionalist conference. Not all the sheep will follow. Shrinkage, probably dramatic at that, is inevitable.

And then what? There will be no Promised Land for either faction.

Both or all new denominations will be significantly down-funded from now. Staffs at the denominational, conference, and local-church level will diminish and there will be significant downward pressure on salaries from top to bottom. That means that most pastors and staff who can retire will do so and those who cannot yet retire but have other options will take them. The already-over bureaucratic structure of today's UMC will not collapse, exactly, but it will shrink a lot.

Even assuming there is an amicable split, or at least not an angry one, the coming few years will not be unicorns and rainbows for either progressives of traditionalists. I think both denominations will have many difficulties getting organized (which is to be expected) but also fights over their respective purity codes will erupt also. That is, what is it that marks one as a True Traditionalist or a True Progressive? Neither side can answer that right now because any answer given now is mainly influenced by the "mess we're in" and not what will pertain then.

Both denominations will find themselves bickering about a whole host of matters other than homosexuality, which as a topic will be off the table anyway. This will further cause church members to vote with their feet, accelerating the decline of Methodism in America. The Baptists or the MCC , however, will probably be very grateful. And then there was this posted by a friend I have known since before the internet:
Went to a Catholic funeral. At the supper I mentioned how beautiful their church was.
The answer was, "Beautiful yes, but it takes a lot of money for upkeep. We couldn't afford it if it were not for all the Protestants that are converting."
That will continue.

Where do we find God here?

I hope for a far finer future than I envision. But as a very senior leader observed in my prior career, "Hope is not a method and wishes are not plans." In our history since our founding in the Christmas Conference of 1784, there have been quite a number of splits. The only one approaching the scale of what is coming this year was a full-scale  schism in 1844 over slavery. But slavery was ended and the two denominations finally reunited. The coming schism will be permanent. After all, homosexuality is not going to simply be ended like slavery was.

I know that God never withdraws his grace and guidance. Jesus' resurrection never becomes less efficacious. But I also remember this:

And we will get it good and hard.

If you think I am overstating all of this I only reply, wait and see. Because you ain't seen nothing yet.

The outcome will be like this, only it will not be funny.

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Friday, January 3, 2020

A formal plan for schism of the UMC

Today from the United Methodist Council of Bishops. I have pasted it in its entirely. 

United Methodist Traditionalists, Centrists, Progressives & Bishops sign agreement aimed at separation

Members of the Mediation Team.
January 3, 2020

(Washington, D.C.) - A diverse group of representatives from United Methodist advocacy groups with contrasting views and bishops from around the world has collaborated on a proposed agreement for the separation of The United Methodist Church (UMC) that has the unanimous support of all the parties involved.

The agreement, the Protocol of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation, was achieved on December 17, 2019, and announced today.

The action comes amid heightened tensions in the church over conflicting views related to human sexuality after the 2019 Special Session of the General Conference failed to resolve differences among church members.

Legislation to implement the Protocol statement — an eight-page document detailing the terms of a split of the 13+ million-member denomination — is expected to come before the United Methodist General Conference for a vote at their legislative meeting in Minneapolis, Minn. in May 2020.

The 16-member group came together as an outgrowth of a consultation initiated by bishops from Central Conferences located outside the United States.  The parties sought assistance from prominent attorney Kenneth Feinberg, who specializes in mediation and alternative dispute resolution. Feinberg, who served as Special Master of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund and administrator of the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster Victim Compensation Fund, along with a number of other complex matters, agreed to provide his services pro bono.

Meeting over several months, the unofficial group reached an agreement by signatories associated with all of the constituencies within the UMC for a mutually supported pathway for separation, bridging differences among other plans to be considered by the General Conference.  “The undersigned propose restructuring The United Methodist Church by separation as the best means to resolve our differences, allowing each part of the Church to remain true to its theological understanding, while recognizing the dignity, equality, integrity, and respect of every person,” says the Protocol Statement.

The document’s signers include representatives from Europe, Africa, the Philippines, and the United States, and include persons representing UMCNext; Mainstream UMC; Uniting Methodists; The Confessing Movement; Good News; The Institute on Religion & Democracy; the Wesleyan Covenant Association; Affirmation; Methodist Federation for Social Action; Reconciling Ministries Network; and the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus; as well as bishops from the United States and across the world.  The representatives have pledged to work together to support the proposal and develop legislation to implement it.

The Protocol anticipates the formation of a new traditionalist Methodist denomination. Once formed, the new church would receive $25 million over the next four years and give up further claim to the UMC’s assets. An additional $2 million would be allocated for potential additional new Methodist denominations which may emerge from the UMC. Acknowledging the historical role of the Methodist movement in systematic racial violence, exploitation and discrimination, the Protocol would allocate $39 million to ensure there is no disruption in supporting ministries for communities historically marginalized by racism.

Under the Protocol, conferences and local congregations could vote to separate from The United Methodist Church to affiliate with new Methodist denominations created under the agreement within a certain time frame.  Churches wishing to stay within the UMC would not be required to conduct a vote. Provisions exist for entities that choose to separate to retain their assets and liabilities. All current clergy and lay employees would keep their pensions regardless of the Methodist denomination with which they affiliate.

Under the Protocol, all administrative or judicial processes addressing restrictions in The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist related to self-avowed practicing homosexuals or same-sex weddings, as well as actions to close churches, would be held in abeyance until the separation is completed.  The Protocol also references a plan which calls for a special general conference of the post-separation United Methodist Church. The purpose of the Special Session would be to create regional conferences, remove the current prohibitions against LGBTQ persons, and to repeal the Traditional Plan.
Speaking on behalf of the group, Bishop John Yambasu (Sierra Leone) stated, “All of us are servants of the church and realize that we are not the primary decision makers on these matters.  Instead, we humbly offer to the delegates of the 2020 General Conference the work which we have accomplished in the hopes that it will help heal the harms and conflicts within the body of Christ and free us to be more effective witnesses to God’s Kingdom.”

The signatories to the Protocol have provided a FAQ document  to provide additional information about the agreement. Comments and questions may be directed to the signatories at

A livestream event will take place on Monday, January 13, to provide further clarity and explanations of the plan by members of the Mediation Team. 
This statement is being released by the Council of Bishops Office on behalf of the Mediation Team members.
Members of the Mediation Team

  • Bishop Christian Alsted (, Nordic-Baltic Episcopal Area
  • Rev. Thomas Berlin (, representing UMCNext, Mainstream UMC, Uniting Methodists
  • Bishop Thomas J. Bickerton (, New York Episcopal Area
  • Rev. Keith Boyette (, representing The Confessing Movement, Good News, IRD/UM Action, and the Wesleyan Covenant Association
  • Bishop Kenneth H. Carter (, Florida Episcopal Area
  • Rev. Junius Dotson (, representing UMCNext, Mainstream UMC, United Methodists
  • Bishop LaTrelle Easterling (, Washington Episcopal Area
  • Rev. Egmedio “Jun” Equila, Jr. (, Philippines Central Conference
  • Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey (, Louisiana Episcopal Area
  • Bishop Rodolfo Rudy Juan (, Davao Episcopal Area, Philippines
  • Janet Lawrence (, representing Affirmation, Methodist Federation for Social Action, and Reconciling Ministries Network
  • Rev. David Meredith (, representing Affirmation, Methodist Federation for Social Action, and Reconciling Ministries Network, member of UM Queer Clergy Caucus
  • Patricia Miller (, representing The Confessing Movement, Good News, IRD/UM Action, and the Wesleyan Covenant Association
  • Dr. Randall Miller (, representing Affirmation, Methodist Federation for Social Action, and Reconciling Ministries Network
  • Bishop Gregory Vaughn Palmer (, Ohio West Episcopal Area
  • Bishop John K. Yambasu (, Sierra Leone Episcopal Area

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Facts are not important, politics is

This was posted by a very liberal long-time friend and fellow cleric of mine.

 I commented thus:
The Holy Family were never refugees. They did not move to Egypt illegally. They moved from Roman-controlled Judea to Roman-controlled Egypt. It was literally like if you moved from Tennessee to Kentucky.
Why did the Holy Family need to move to Egypt in a hurry? The answer is one word: government. Yet to my friend and others of his leanings, government is always the solution, never the problem.

But the facts don't matter when political hit jobs can be done even on pretense.

Update: In response to another minister's query (who is a friend and not just on FB), I wrote this:

Both Judea and Egypt were occupied and governed by Rome; of course you know this. Just as the Romans changed the name of the formerly independent country of Judah to Judea, they changed the name of Egypt to Aegyptus. But the key point is not really that they changed the name, but that they had the power (by force of arms, to be sure) to do so.

To say that Egypt and Judea were "countries" under Roman rule is about as accurate as saying that Kazakhstan was a country under Stalin. Maybe it was once, and wanted to be again, but in 1948 it was not. It was a Soviet province and nothing more.

Likewise Judea and Aegyptus. The Holy Family changed province of residence but it did not change who governed them.

Now, whether the Holy Family were refugees. Yes, Matthew is clear that they made the trek to Aegyptus because of Herod's lethal plans. But again, while they changed provincial government, there was no political difference, just as if someone moved from Virginia to North Carolina.

Which are states I use on purpose because, as I am sure you know, Virginia's Gov. Northam has publicly stated that he will call out the National Guard to enforce the state's new, draconian gun laws - laws that have caused 90 percent of the state's county commissions to declare that they will prohibit any local law officers to enforce or assist state authorities in enforcing.

Which is to say, Gov. Northam is in fact directly threatening to use actual soldiers to kill people who have committed no offense against the peace or safety of anyone at all or even can be remotely considered such a threat.

Think that cannot happen? In November of last year, Maryland police shot to death a 61-year-old man in his own home who had committed no crime but for whom a court had issued a "red flag" order.

IMO, Gov. Northam is today's Herod. So when (not if, btw) some Virginia 2nd Amendment advocates decide to leave potentially-fatal Virginia to live in North Carolina, will they be refugees? If not, why would the Holy Family have that status?

Tomorrow in my sermon I will quote the Rev. Joy Carol Wallis thus,
Herod represents the dark side of the gospel. He reminds us that Jesus didn't enter a world of sparkly Christmas cards or warm spiritual sentiment. Jesus enters a world of real pain, of serious dysfunction, a world of brokenness and political oppression.
So far, so good. Agree 100 percent. But then:
Jesus was born an outcast, a homeless person, a refugee, and finally he becomes a victim to the powers that be. Jesus is the perfect savior for outcasts, refugees, and nobodies.
I will omit the italicized part because it is simply incorrect.
  • Jesus was not, in fact, born “born an outcast." He was born a Jew in a nearly-totally Jewish land to a solidly ordinary and righteous family.
  • He was not "a homeless person" because his parents owned a home in Nazareth. If a Nashville woman gave birth to a child in Knoxville, would that make the baby homeless?
  • And as I have said, he was never "a refugee” at all, much less born one in his father’s ancestral town.
  • That “Jesus is the perfect savior for outcasts, refugees, and nobodies” is true, but then, he is also the perfect savior for absolutely everyone else.

Monday, December 9, 2019

10 Tough Questions


The 10th point is the toughest one:

10. Remember, the ‘wicked problem’ of the denomination far transcends sexuality 
This last point is not framed as a question because of its truth there is no question. No matter what the GC decides, decline and irrelevance will continue to accelerate unless larger issues are named and tamed. Examples are trust deficits, miscommunication, theological conflicts/contradictions, ineffective organization, inefficient structures, disjointed training and education of clergy or establishing coherent ministry career paths. Organizations facing a wicked problem either tend to ‘fail into collaboration’ among competing stakeholders…or they just fail (see above). Nurturing trust and affirming the claim of conscience for all parties sets the stage not for failure but new birth.
The author earlier posted an essay with a full explanation of what a wicked problem is, as distinguished from a simple problem or a complex one (click here). But briefly, a wicked problem is that which all parties agree exists but do not agree on how to describe it, nor on what a solution can be, nor even on how to implement a resolution or know when it has been accomplished.

I have elsewhere explained that one such wicked problem, which I think underlies all those listed just above, is Pournelle's Law, formulated by the late, great science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle. It is:

And no, I do not have a solution to it.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

An Advent reflection

Grace and peace to all!

I subscribe to a daily newsletter by a Canadian minister, the Rev. Carey Nieuwhof. He is one of only two or three such writers that I know who are always worthy of reading because the majority of his writing applies in some way to my ministry. He does not write merely for other pastors, but also for the people of churches. I do recommend taking a look at his site,

Recently, his email included this nugget:

One of the most difficult things to do is self-challenge what we know. As someone once remarked, it is not what we do not know that is often the problem, it is that so much of what we think we know is not so. The balance between retaining what have tested and found enduring, and discarding what serves us well no longer—well, that can be tough.

Just imagine what the first followers of Jesus had to discard and adopt. Start with Peter, whom Jesus told to stop fishing for fish and start fishing for people. Or much earlier, the shepherds, who had to face that the Messiah was born in the humblest of settings to undistinguished parents. Or Mary, that she was being asked to face possible social disaster in being pregnant with a child that her fiancé could not say was his. And Joseph, who is described as a honorable man who elected to do what in his day was a dishonorable thing, marrying Mary anyway.

The story of Jesus’ nativity and ministry is one of turning over tables, both literally in the Temple confronting the money changers, but also figuratively, for bringing people to confront that so much of what they knew simply was not so:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven" -- Matthew 5.43-45
If we are truly blessed, we are seriously disturbed this Advent by the implications of Jesus’ coming and nativity. May the Holy Spirit lead us to think more deeply about what we think we know and what it means for the way we live and more importantly, why we live.

The gifts of Advent and Christmas are twofold, at least:

  • First, that “unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
  • Second, that in celebrating that Christ is born, we can embrace that we are born anew. May we discern the renewing revelation of God through our worship and giving this season!

Thursday, October 31, 2019

The last best hope for America

I came across this post from 2017 by accident and am re-dating it to today. Today was the day that the US House of Representatives voted along strictly party lines to proceed with impeachment proceedings against the president. I make no comment here as to the merits or not of the proceedings. But as much as my colleague's words rang true two years ago, how much more compelling are they today.

From July 2017:
From former district superintendent in the Memphis Conference of the United Methodist Church, Sky McCracken:
In my opinion, the most powerful force in Christianity - if it wants to be - is a local church who decides to be a community of faith and discipleship in the manner of Jesus for its neighborhood, instead of a chapel for members who like things "just the way they are." No law, no entity, no politician has any power against such a force. Regardless of the happenings, fear mongering, and media hype of the last few weeks, they pale against the total history of God's presence with His people - which has always been unrelenting and ever-pursuing. I'll quote Bill Hybels:
"For eight years...I went to Washington, D.C., every month to meet in the foremost centers of power with some of the highest elected officials in our country. What I discovered was not how powerful those people are, but how limited their power really is. All they can actually do is rearrange the yard markers on the playing field of life. They can't change a human heart. They can't heal a wounded soul. They can't turn hatred into love. They can't bring about repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, peace. They can't get to the core problem....I believe that only one power exists on this sorry planet that can do that. It's the power of the love of Jesus Christ, the love that conquers sin and wipes out shame and heals wounds and reconciles enemies and patches broken dreams and ultimately changes the world, one life at a time. And what grips my heart is the knowledge that the radical message of that transforming love has been given to the church. That means that in a very real way the future of the world rests in the hands of local congregations like yours and mine." - In his book, Courageous Leadership.
There is no political solution to the severe dysfunctions of America today because our national illness is not really political. It is spiritual. There will not be a better America until there are better Americans. That is the task for the Church today: to bring more and more people into the fullness of reconciliation to God through Christ so that we can be reconciled to one another. Absent that, our congregations are just religious clubs. 

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

The ground beneath our feet

The United Methodist Church is committing denominational hari-kiri, which will be nearly completed before the end of May, 2020. Recently, a long-term friend and law-enforcement officer posted an article from "The End of Law Enforcement, " written by a 20-plus year active LE officer and a trainer of LE officers around the country.

He says that this is the state of law enforcement today:

1. Retirement eligible officers are retiring even though they have many years of useful service ahead of them.

2. Mid-career officers are miserably trying to make it to retirement and are "are trying to get off the streets, afraid of the next 'viral' video showing them doing nothing wrong but ruining their reputation and ability to work forever." Some are leaving LE anyway.

3. Less than 10-year officers "have now realized that they work in the only profession that can ruin you for doing nothing wrong. They have stopped working. Some call it the 'Ferguson Effect' but they just call it trying to save their [hind ends]. It’s not worth staying and the majority are looking to leave."

I responded thus:

There is a French phrase from maritime history that was adopted by some other nations' services that is usually, though inaccurately, translated as, "every man for himself." The French is, "Sauve qui peut," and don't ask me how to pronounce it.

It was the command given when a vessel's captain decided the ship was lost and was going to sink no matter what. So he would order, "May he save himself, whoever can" (literal translation) or basically, "Stop trying to save the ship and save yourselves."

ISTM that is what this writer has concluded about the profession of law enforcement.

Regarding the UMC, I had a conversation recently with a senior staffer of one the UMC's general councils. It became clear to me that sauve qui peut has already been adopted by large numbers of our laity. Both attendance and giving have plummeted at UM churches across the nation, including mine. The laity who have left because of all the intra-church fighting over the homosexuality question have absolutely abandoned ship and are not going to return.

I can only wonder how many serving clergy will decide the same between now and the end of General Conference in May 2020. Will we see a parallel with what is going on in law enforcement? Will we see retirement-eligible ministers with several more years of possible service just hang it up now? Will mid-career pastors try simply to hang on until retirement and younger ones make (covert) plans to move to another denomination or profession?

Update, Dec. 10: I attended a Mon-Wed. GCFA conference last month with pastors from across the nation present, although the majority from the southeast and eastern seaboard. Here is my takeaway summary:

Basically, retirement-eligible pastors are doing so, even if they have years left to 72. I met some who are younger than I who are retiring in 2020, including two who pastor mega-churches (neither in my conference).

Several ministers from about age 50 openly told me that when they hit 62, they're gone. Very few were there much younger than that, but if I was 44 rather than 64, I almost certainly would be covertly making contingency plans.

And the denomination is going broke. Giving across America is way down. Way. Down. This is not going to be reversed and will, if anything, accelerate. At current trend, the GCFA's episcopal fund will be at zero dollars by the end of 2024. 

One minister told me that giving is down so much in his present appointment (not only because of people leaving a strife-torn denomination, also several major donors died) that his church can no longer afford his compensation. But he wonders what the point in a new appointment will be if it will probably run out of money also within a year. May as well retire, right?

BTW, even apart from people voting on the "issue" with their feet and checkbooks, the UMC will still be in accelerated rate of decline due to increasing deaths of an aging laity and our inability (and frankly, denominational unwillingness) to evangelize, especially evangelize unconnected to politics.

Just as law enforcement, the UMC still has many strengths and still is doing great work. But we are more and more resembling Centralia, Penn. Our foundation and "solid rock" on which we stand is being destroyed from underneath us.

Centralia was a coal-mining town where the mine shafts caught fire in 1962 and 
the town was destroyed from underneath. The fire is still burning. Estimates are that 
it will burn at least 250 more years.

The ground burning beneath our feet applies to much more than the UMC or law enforcement. I would be hard-challenged to find any national-level institution not affected by this threat.

Wesley said that when we are on fire for Christ people will come for miles around to watch us burn. The UMC is on fire, all right. But decide for yourself for what we are burning.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Kurds, Turkey, Syria - and US forces

Link to article

I worked with Petraeus when we were both at the Pentagon. He was a major then, promoted to Lt. Col. not long after I came to know him. I respect him immensely. He and US Marine Gen. James Mattis were the key, essential players in redirecting US strategy in Iraq away from the disastrous Rumsfeld model. I have never met Mattis, but have nothing but greatest respect for him. Marines I have known who worked with him are in awe, and that says a lot. 

So when Petraeus and Mattis both sharply disagree with the administration's decision, I have no choice but to pay attention. 

But having said that, I would say their view is very solidly an establishment one. S
enior military officers prosper very well. They gain their rank and status not only because of the military skills, but their political skills as well. They retire as comfortable members of the country's political class and often wind up with lucrative corporate consultancies and defense-related boards. I have seen this play out with three- and four-star generals I worked for. I do not blame them, actually, but we need to understand that they are far too invested in the status quo to try to change it. It what got them their rank and positions in the first place. Their incentives to change it are exactly zero. (This also applies to senior diplomatic personnel.) 

I wrote a long essay in 2008 on why the US should exit NATO, but of course, with both the outgoing Bush and incoming Obama administrations, there was so much Old Guardism at work that there was (and is) no chance. Petraeus and Mattis (and I, for that matter) were raised militarily and strategically with a Cold War, organizational mind-think that has not significantly subsided. They still think that what G. Washington warned against, "entangling alliances," should be normative and are simply the way things get done. 

Fifteen years ago Petraeus and Mattis and some others were the Young Turks. Now they are the Old Guard. And that should temper how we assess what they say. 

None of this is to say that all will turn out well today. In fact, it would be insane to say so. I mean, point to one time in the last several hundred years that things have worked out well in the Middle East! 

But it is also a real error to assume that had a mere 50 US troops been left in place, that everything would now be unicorns and rainbows. Turkey did not ask our permission to incur. They simply announced they were doing it. Turkey did not ask Trump to withdraw the troops; Trump just got them the heck out of the way. It would be nice for Petraeus and others to say how they would have responded to Turkey's announcement that it was coming, instead of just clutching their pearls in protest. They know better because they many times had to think through questions such those as I pose later in this essay. They know how to do it, but now they do not need to do it because the media will smile kindly upon them if they don't. And that is the problem.

My take: 

There is no solution to the problem of the Kurds. The Kurds have been screwed, they are being screwed, and they will continue to be screwed, because only Iraq, Turkey, and Syria (and Iran, as if) can resolve the issue and all of them see the Kurds as tools to be used for their own purposes against the others. No Western nation can possibly have any effective role - not the USA, not Britain, not NATO, not nobody.

The Kurdish PKK is Turkey's main target. The PKK, Partiya KarkerĂȘn Kurdistan, is a Marxist faction that has been launching cross-border raids into Turkey since 1984 - as have other Kurdish factions. The PKK is classified as a terrorist organization by the Turks -- and by the US, the European Union, NATO, and even Japan.

Anyone who is denouncing the withdrawal of a few dozen US troops from the affected area of Turkish operations, insisting they should not have been withdrawn, should first answer one basic question:
If you were president, would you have ordered US troops to stay in place and resist the Turkish incursion by force of arms? 

Then proceed to these:
  • If you would have given that order:
    • What is your strategic goal?
    • How many US troops are you are willing to have killed to attain that goal? 
    • Once US troops are killed, what would be your response? 
    • How many Turks are you willing to kill to attain the strategic goal? 
    • Would you escalate the violence if the Turks do not withdraw? If so, would you restrict US combat strikes to only the incursion area, or would you strike Turkish forces still inside Turkey proper? For either answer, explain why.
    • How will you ensure the safety of thousands of US Air Force personnel, aircraft, special weapons, and family members at the Turkish air base at Incirlik, Turkey? There are also large numbers British and Spanish military personnel there. 
    • Would you ask for a congressional authorization of use of military force against Turkey? 
      • If yes, are you really willing to go to war with a decades-long, US-ally member of NATO? 
      • If not, why not? Would you wage war against Turkey anyway?
  • If you would not have given that order:
    • What is your strategic goal?
    • Why would you leave the troops in place rather than withdraw them, if they are not to fight?
    • What would you have done specifically different from what the administration has done, and why?
Anyone who will not address those topics before slamming the administration is not thinking about this seriously at all. And yes, that includes congressional members of both parties and, I regret, many of my ministry colleagues who have posted about this topic.

Finally, here is a pretty well-balanced article that explains why Trump did not sell out the Kurds while also pointing out that Erdogan is pretty much a thug himself. (But we knew that.)

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Four ways the UMC may split

The deadline for submitting resolutions and other action items for consideration to next May's General Conference was Sept. 18. This is not a UM site, but the summary of the proposals for the schism of the denomination seem to be fair summaries. As of the time I am posting this, I have not finished the article, but I did want to "park" the link.

See alsoGC2020: Nine Plans and What to Think about Them

See also:

Rev. Shane Bishop: Know What You are Going to Do! (my advice to #UMC pastors and churches)

The real issue splitting the UMC is not homosexuality, it is the destruction of trust on all sides.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Esther - a dramatic telling

Youth Sunday Esther Skit
Sept. 15, 2019

We begin by each character outlining who she is, in the order in which they first appear in the book.

Ahasuerus (A-ha-SWER-us)
My name is Ahasuerus. I am the great king of an eastern empire, where many Jews live. My word is literally law. But I am not a very admirable character. As the story opens, I am hosting an enormous drinking party in the capital city of Susa. I decide I want my queen, named Vashti, to come in, wearing her crown, and parade herself in front of the party-goers so they may see how beautiful she is.
But Vashti refused. My court nobles were aghast. They said that from now on wives everywhere would disobey their husbands. So I removed her royal title and exiled her for life.
That tells you a lot about me, doesn’t it? I ordered the people of Susa to get drunk, I tried to humiliate my queen, and then I threw her away like yesterday’s news.
This tells you a lot about the danger of the world in which the Jews live. I am the Law, but I hold grudges and am prone to anger. So my law is the same way. My law brings no assurance of stability or justice to those under its mandates. My law is not fair, not reasoned, not impartial. But of course, neither am I.  I am a man with no center. There is nothing I stand for. I personify a Gentile society for the Jews: unpredictable, dangerous, and potentially lethal, all wrapped up in me.
Mordecai (MOR-deh-kye)
My name is Mordecai. I am introduced as a “Jew in the citadel,” of the tribe of Benjamin. I am the guardian of my orphaned cousin, Esther. I am the only character whose Jewish identity is emphasized. In the story, I am a Jew who stands for all Jews.
I am neither stupid nor a fool. I learned of a plot to kill Ahasuerus and told Esther, who had become the new queen. She told the king. So, I saved the king’s life but I also made Esther a real player with the king and court. Already queen, then she became the king’s protector.
Later I learned of Haman’s plot to kill all the Jews, so I asked Esther again to go to Ahasuerus. Her credibility would make it difficult for the king to fail to extend the golden scepter when she approached uninvited.
I value loyalty and constancy of purpose. But I am very private. I do not reveal my inner thoughts. Everyone was mystified why I would never bow to Haman, even at risk of my own life. But no matter: my character is one of total loyalty to the Jews and I represent what the ideal Jew should be living outside Israel.

My name is Esther. I am Mordecai’s cousin. It is true that I was acclaimed as a very beautiful woman, which was the main reason the king selected me to replace Queen Vashti. I contrast with her. Vashti refused to come when the king called, I went to the king without being summoned. Vashti was exiled, I am favored. Vashti was rebellious against the king, but I was humble before him – well, at least at first.
I am a complex character in the story. I start off as an ideal woman of that time, obedient to my providers. Even when I was drafted into the king’s harem I hardly reacted. When I was told to go Ahasuerus, I simply followed instructions. I did and said nothing on my own. I was like a pawn, never taking control of my life, always being acted upon.
However, when I learned that only I could go to the king to beg him not to allow all us Jews to be killed, my passive obedience and submissive nature dramatically changed. I was no longer merely a pretty young thing who was always obedient. I became truly Queen Esther, a strong leader of the Jewish community and in fact, the real royal authority of the whole empire. I became assertive, politically active, and full of self-confidence. By the end of the story, I am one who commands and is obeyed. My beauty, it turned out, was matched by my brains.

My name is Haman. I am the “bad guy” of the story. I am the source of everything that Mordecai and Esther must defend against. I am a harsh, murderous enemy of the Jews. All my energies are directed against Mordecai and the rest of the Jews in Persia.
I am furious that Mordecai never bows to me. I want him to die. I embody power without conscience, and I have no tolerance for the Jews’ obstinate devotion to their God. But in the story, I am not just the symbol of evil. I am a buffoon, a court fool whose every scheme backfires. I have a pompous faith in my derivative authority. Not even my wife really believes in me.
I am a small-minded man who is somehow the prime minister of the whole empire. I have wealth and an exalted position, but they mean nothing to me whenever I see that Jew Mordecai. Hence, I am irrational evil personified.

 The Skit

Scene 1 – Haman and Ahasuerus
HAMAN: O mighty king, I beg you to hear me! There is a terrible thing going on! Your throne itself is at risk!
AHASUERUS: Wait, let me finish this glass of wine. First things first, you know! Now, what is this terrible threat?
HAMAN: There are certain people scattered among the people of your kingdom. They are called Jews. They follow their own law and they do not keep the king’s laws.
AHASUERUS: That is serious! It must not be tolerated!
HAMAN: Exactly, O great king! As usual, you go straight to the point.
AHASUERUS: What do you suggest? Should we just remind them who’s in charge here?
HAMAN: Well, yes, great king. I counsel a permanent solution. You should issue a decree for their destruction.
AHASUERUS: That will be expensive!
HAMAN: I will pay a million dollars to cover it.
AHASUERUS: Wow! Sounds like a good deal! Here, you take my ring with my official seal and issue whatever order you wish.
HAMAN: I will have the order written in every language of the empire. I will seal it with your ring and send copies to all the king’s provinces, giving orders to destroy, to kill, and to annihilate all Jews, young and old, women and children, in one day, the thirteenth day of the month of Adar. Then O Great King, you and I will sit down to drink!
AHASUERUS: I am looking forward to that!
Scene 2 – Mordecai and Esther. Mordecai is pacing back and forth, very upset. Esther enters.
ESTHER: Mordecai, dear cousin, what upsets you so?
MORDECAI: Here! Read this edict from your husband, the king! Sealed with his ring! He hands a document to Esther, who takes it and looks it over.
ESTHER: I never knew about this! How could such an order be given? We Jews have never rebelled against the king!
MORDECAI: It must be Haman’s doing! He hates all of us. The king is an empty suit and would never think of this on his own. But he will sign anything that Haman places before him.
ESTHER: What do you want me to do? I cannot go to the king unless he sends for me. Anyone who enters his court uninvited is simply executed unless the king extends his golden scepter. And the king has not sent for me for a month!
MORDECAI: The king does not know you are Jewish. He saw you only as a beautiful woman who struck his fancy. But do you think that will save you? If you enter his court uninvited, he may order you executed. But if you do not enter, you will still die on the thirteenth day of the month of Adar along with all us other Jews! Even if deliverance of the Jews comes from someone else, you and your father’s family will still perish.
ESTHER: I did not think of it like that. Still, I am helpless in the court of the great king!
MORDECAI: But Esther, listen. There is no one but you! Who knows? Perhaps the real reason you have been made queen is for just such a time as this.
Esther paces back and forth for a moment, then:
ESTHER: Here are my orders. Go, gather all the Jews in Susa, and hold a fast on my behalf. Neither eat nor drink for three days, night or day. I and my maids will also fast. After that I will go to the king, though it is against the law; and if I am executed, well then, I am executed.
MORDECAI: Yes, Esther, it shall be done as you say. I will do all that you command!

Closing, all four characters
AHASUERUS: Esther did come to see me uninvited. Of course, I held out the golden scepter to welcome her. It never occurred to me to withhold it.
ESTHER: But I did not tell him then to withdraw his order to kill the Jews. Instead, I invited him and Haman to a banquet, which they eagerly accepted.
HAMAN: I was flattered to be included at a private dinner with only the king and his queen. That meant that I was a very important person! I was happy! But later when I saw that Jew Mordecai at the gate, the queen’s invitation turned sour. I decided to build an enormous gallows and hang Mordecai on it.
MORDECAI: It did not help that the king wanted to honor me for saving his life and so ordered Haman personally to lead a procession in my honor through the city, announcing I was favored by the king.
ESTHER: As we reclined at the banquet, I begged the king to spare my life and the lives of my people. I told him that I and my people were to be annihilated.
AHASUERUS: I was stunned! I demanded of Esther, “Who has presumed to do this?” She pointed at Haman and said sharply, “Adversary, enemy, Haman!” 
HAMAN: I knew I was in big trouble. The king left the room. To beg for mercy, I fell onto the couch where Esther reclined. At that moment the king came back.
AHASUERUS: I was already furious that Haman had included my queen in his plot, but when I saw him climbing onto her couch, my rage was unbounded. “You assault my queen as I stand here?” I shouted. “Even in my own house?” I turned to my servants and told them, “Hang him on the same gallows he has had built!” And they did.
ESTHER: My king later awarded me all of Haman’s property, including his servants. I begged him to write an order that the Jews could defend themselves on the day in the month of Adar. And it was done. I also ordered that all Haman’s ten sons be hanged as well.
MORDECAI: The king made me prime minister of the empire. When the day in Adar came, my power was so great that all the governors and officials supported the Jews, who destroyed all their enemies that day.
ESTHER: I decreed among all the Jews that their deliverance would be celebrated for all generations to come as the Feast of Purim, and it was done. Now you know my story.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Ban on driving while using cell phone - just a cash cow?

Last July 1, a law went into effect here in Tennessee that makes it illegal for anyone driving a car to hold a cellular phone in his or her hand. Reports the Knoxville News Sentinel,
The Tennessee law banning hand-held cell phones went into effect July 1. Drivers can eat, drink, converse, sing, look at roadside sights, talk to their kids in the back seat, and it’s all perfectly legal. Pick up a cell phone, however, and you’re a distracted-driving lawbreaker. Law enforcement and first responders, however, are exempt from the safety measure that the legislature and governor determined is required for Tennessee drivers.
The Sentinel is not a fan of the law, mainly because such bans, in effect in some other states for many years, have not once been shown to affect the accident rate at all. They cite a number of such studies.

But it does roll cash into county and state coffers.
At $50 per ticket, the Tennessee Highway Patrol’s cell phone ban enforcement netted, it would appear, a minimum of $21,200 for the 424 tickets the THP wrote in July, Knox News reported. Tickets increase up to $200 depending on the situation.
And yet . . .

Yes, the ban here in Tennessee is really just another way to tax people. OTOH, the worst accident scene I ever got called by the sheriff's dept. to go work was directly caused by a young woman driving on a two-lane state highway in Franklin, Tenn. It was before smart phones were invented. She was trying to punch a number into her cell phone and wandered into the other lane. An oncoming 18-wheeler swerved to miss her, bounced back onto the road and went head on into a Chevy pickup behind the woman's car. 

The impact was so violent that it completely separated the truck's body from its frame, knocking the truck body 20 or more feet away from the frame assembly, which was solely occupied by the driver, married only three weeks, on his way home from work. He had been ripped into three separate pieces. The 18-wheeler's driver was injured.

The woman phone caller was wholly uninjured but when I spoke with her she was not very coherent. She was still holding the phone in her hand, up next to her head, though of course there was no call connected, and basically just walking in a small circle at the rear of her car.

A highway patrol trooper told me that in his 26 years in the THP, this was the most violent accident he had seen. After seeing the truck driver's remains, I could see why. Before the medical examiner's team went to retrieve the remains, I held a time of prayer and Holy Communion for them (I always took my Communion kit responding to sheriff's department calls).

So I cannot argue with Tennessee's law.