Schism rips my church

As of May 1, the United Methodist Church is officially in schism.

Actually, the church has been far from united for a long time. Just how fragmented it is will take some time to learn.

May 1 was the official start date of the Global Methodist Church, the dream of a break-away segment of the church.

Over the next couple of years, individual churches, and perhaps even whole annual conferences, will align either with the GMC or remain with the UMC.

The GMC will be the “traditional” church – that is, the body of believers who are staunchly opposed to homosexuality. The UMC will continue to be the big tent church, welcoming all people of varying persuasions. So some tension over homosexuality will remain.

Apart, the two churches will be considerably weaker than they were together. But at least they may not be ripping into each other all the time.

Dissidents within the UMC have spent many years looking for a decisive dividing issue. They finally settled on homosexuality. They claim it’s a matter of scriptural integrity. They say progressives have a weak doctrine of biblical authority. Progressives say no, it’s a matter of biblical interpretation, not biblical authority.

I say it goes back to the Civil War. It’s a matter of Confederate culture versus Union culture. Morality and questions of biblical authority or interpretation are secondary. They’re just fancy window dressing. The real issue is that in the Confederacy, you just don’t do unseemly things like that. (Or if you do, you sure don’t talk about it.)

The schism represents a win for the Institute for Religion and Democracy. It calls itself a conservative group fighting for scriptural integrity. I consider it a right-wing hate group working to destroy all semblance of faithful Christianity in America.

IRD operatives will be hanging around the UMC trying to break it apart even more. These folks need to be outed and encouraged to spread their evil virus elsewhere.

If you want more even-handed commentary on these issues, I suggest you check out the blog of David Livingston, pastor of Old Mission UMC in Fairway. He’s done an especially good job of reviewing the proposed Book of Discipline of the GMC. Read him at http://revliv1.blogspot.com/.

I will not mourn the loss of the schism’s leaders. I will mourn the spiritual well-being of the many good people they have lied to and manipulated, and the authentic witness of Christ that has been diminished by this vile episode in church history.

Everywhere censors

While right-wingers loudly whine about liberal “cancel culture,” they are the ones primarily engaged in it.

One recent example is the inclusion of a child’s board book on a list of books that one group wants banned from libraries in Florida.

The book is Everywhere Babies, by Susan Meyers, illustrated by Marla Frazee.

It shows babies doing what babies do: walking, crawling, sleeping, making noise; and being carried, fed, dressed, rocked and so on. Pretty normal stuff.

Ah, but the book banners have discovered some allegedly pornographic influences here, babies being “groomed” for future deviancy.

One illustration shows two men sitting together at a playground watching their children play. They could be friends, neighbors, brothers – or married to each other. (Adding to the potential offense, one might be white, the other black.)

Oh, and there’s also an illustration that includes a detail of two men walking, one with a hand on the other’s shoulder. And one in which two women are collapsed together near a baby cradle, where the baby finally appears to have gone asleep.

Yup, these folks sure do know pornography when they see it.

Friends, can we bring a little sanity to this discussion?

Word of the potential banning has now made the book a best seller. Good.

In fact, I bought a copy for my new grandson. We hope his big brother reads it to him when he’s ready for board books.

It would be an example of him being groomed for real life.

Not the pretend life of the immoral morality police. But real life, where there are everywhere babies.

Giving up Lent for Lent

“This year I’m giving up Lent for Lent.”

It sounds like a comedian’s joke, but I’ve heard it said by real ministers of the gospel (and not just by sneering “evangelicals” who don’t practice Lent anyway but want to score imaginary points against those who do).

Lent is supposed to be a time of self-reflection and spiritual renewal in the days before we pass through the horrors of Holy Week and celebrate the joy of Resurrection Sunday.

There’s nothing wrong with giving up something we enjoy (such as chocolate) during Lent. Self-denial is about learning the proper place of things that are good but not essential. We deny ourselves the joy of some good so that we can discover what is not only good but essential.

We can take it too far, of course, and focus on what we’re giving up rather than on what we’re gaining from the experience. And sometimes the whole exercise just feels like it’s too much to endure.

As we stagger out of our pandemic shelters and vaguely wonder if we can go maskless in this situation or that, Lent feels more like a weight holding us down than something that will raise us up. Would it be wrong to give it up this year?

This is the first spring in 30 years that I have not been in some sort of pastoral role during Lent. I don’t have to worry about worship planning or sermon preparation or most any kind of spiritual leadership. I am responsible for my own Lenten journey alone. No others will look to my example.

So my Lent has been disorganized, scattershot, probably not nearly as fruitful as it could have been. After having my forehead marked on Ash Wednesday, I have observed no special spiritual exercises – nothing beyond my ordinary habits of prayer, devotional reading and a bit of study if a question comes up.

I have done, basically, what I suspect most lay people in the church do every Lent. Maybe it’s enough for them. This year, I think it’s enough for me.

After only nine months of retirement from pastoral ministry, Linda and I are still struggling to get back into the habit of Sunday morning worship. We have ties to many churches, we want to renew relationships with people in them all, and getting around to them all takes time.

We also have a new grandson three hours or so away (and the remnants of a nasty cold he passed on the last time we visited; kid germs are toxic to adults). Some mornings, it’s just hard to get to church.

(Note to pastors: If you don’t understand how hard it is for many people to get out of bed on Sunday morning, your lack of understanding could be crippling your ministry.)

We’ll eventually get back into the habit of regular public worship. Next year, maybe I’ll observe a “proper” Lent, whatever that may be. This year I’m content to give up Lent for Lent.

Self-denial during Lent is about giving up something valuable to gain a better appreciation of something essential. Lent itself is valuable but not essential. Heartfelt worship and devotion to God are essential. I’m content to give up Lent now if that leads me toward greater worship and devotion.

May God bless your Lenten journey and fill your heart with joy on Easter!

Church + state = disaster

If you are still unsure about the wisdom of entwining church and state, you should look at Russia.

It is good that the Russian Orthodox Church has rebounded after years of oppression under Communist leadership. It is bad that the church has now climbed into bed with a different authoritarian government.

Patriarch Krill (Cyrill) is a longtime ally of “Vlad the Impaler” Putin. A short time ago Krill gave the church’s blessing to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

Brutal military tactics featuring atrocities against civilians, a vicious program of destruction that leaves nothing worthwhile standing – not to mention a totally baseless and fictional rationale for the attack itself: Krill blesses it all.

He shares with Putin a love of “traditional values,” Russian style, and a hatred of all things from the morally degraded West, especially anything related to that gravest of all possible sins, homosexuality.

Maybe that’s why so many “evangelicals” in America proclaim their love for Putin. He hates some of the same things they do, and “evangelicals” typically go ga-ga over authoritarian types like Putin, who loves to strip off his shirt to show off his hairless, manly chest.

There are 260 Orthodox Christians in the world, perhaps 100 million of them Russian Orthodox. Ukraine has about 30 million Orthodox believers of various stripes, including an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church that Krill considers apostate.

But Ukraine is central to Russian nationalist mythology and now Russian Orthodox religious mythology, too, so it appears Putin and Krill are intent on destroying Ukraine in order to save it.

Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, has called for the Russian Orthodox Church to be expelled from the World Council of Churches. That seems no more likely than Russia being expelled from the United Nations Security Council, which exists mostly to keep the world’s biggest nations from blowing us all up.

It is sickening to see a major Christian figure drop all pretense of “just war” theology and not only defend but encourage a clearly unjust war. Such is our world today, as it always has been and will be until Christ returns again. This is what happens – always – when church and state become intertwined. State wins. Church turns idolatrous. Witness for Christ is forever stained.

Vlad the Impaler reborn

The real Count Dracula was a far cry from the campy figure we know from the movies.

Vladimir Dracula was a vicious ruler of Romania in the 15th century. He was known as Vlad the Impaler.

The latest reincarnation of Vlad the Impaler is Vlad Putin. He seeks to restore Russia to its former “glory” by crushing all opposition to his dreams of empire, especially people who have shown an appreciation of democracy.

Ukraine is in his sights because it seeks to be independent of his despotic rule. The democratic impulse there must be ruthlessly crushed, lest others think they can get away with even thinking about self rule.

Ukrainians are putting up a valiant fight against overwhelming odds. Their heroism is inspiring. The targeting of civilian populations and other war crimes committed by Russian forces are sickening.

Also sickening is the support Putin is getting from Trump the Traitor and his mindless minions.

If it is true that democracy is on the ropes today, it is because of Trump’s relentless assaults on truth and lawful rule, and the support he gets from most quarters in the GOP.

Trump is one of Putin’s boldest enablers. You wonder whether Putin has something really damaging to hold over him, or whether Trump is so totally self-absorbed that he cares nothing at all about others, or whether he is simply dumber than a brick.

Or maybe all of the above.

Trump the Traitor and Vlad the Impaler are evil twins. Pray that neither achieve their dreams of domination.

Reconstructing your faith

Deconstruction is a hot topic these days. So-called evangelicals are hotly against it, of course, because what people are deconstructing is the phony-baloney pop religion evangelicals pass off as genuine Christianity.

Deconstruction is the process of examining your faith critically to determine if it still makes sense to you, and if it doesn’t to wonder why, and to seek something better to replace it.

To those who have been attending churches where you are expected to check your brain at the door and blindly follow whatever the local cult leader tells you, this process almost inevitably leads to destruction. That’s why so many evangelical leaders are so solidly against it. They have nothing to gain by it, and a lot to lose.

So much for Anselm’s notion that Christianity is “faith seeking understanding.” To so many evangelicals, it’s more like “faith avoiding understanding.”

And, having been nourished so long on watery skim milk of evangelicalism rather than the nourishing solid food of the genuine gospel, many who follow the process of deconstruction end up in destruction.

That is, they renounce Christianity entirely, or they retire to a languid “spiritual but not religious” passivity.

However, true deconstruction should lead to reconstruction. It should lead to reformation.

It’s often been described as a three-step process: orientation, disorientation, reorientation. Other terms are sometimes used, but the process is the same.

Orientation is where you start. You know where you are. You know what you believe. Until one day, you realize that you don’t. You don’t recognize your faith anymore. You don’t recognize yourself anymore.

You are now officially in disorientation. It’s a tough place to be in, but it still holds promise. It’s time to start examining things. Time to see where you really stand. Time to discern what you really believe. Time to learn whom you really trust.

And if the one you trust is not Jesus, you may be stuck in disorientation more or less forever. If you discover that you really don’t trust wholly in Jesus, you may end up in destruction, or what 1 Timothy 1:19 describes as spiritual shipwreck.

But if you can discover that you really do trust wholly in Jesus, and not in some cobbled-together fundamentalist construct of him, then you are on the road to reorientation. You are on the Way to learning how to follow Jesus and live the exciting life he promises.

Some have described this as a “second naivete.” You trust in Jesus more than ever before, but now you have a firm foundation for your trust. You trust the person, not some doctrine. You have worked your way through all the complications of discerning the truth about God and life, and you have landed on the other shore with a simple but unshakable trust in God through Christ.

That’s what deconstruction should be all about. Evangelicals oppose it for the same reason that they oppose any form of doubt. Doubt properly pursued leads to understanding. Deconstruction properly pursued leads to understanding, to profound trust in God, to the eternal life that Jesus promised we could enjoy starting right now if only we trust in him.

Socrates said the unexamined life was not worth living. Jesus said the truth will set you free. You’ll find the truth in Jesus, but you may have to examine your life to find him.

Apartheid is coming

Republican cancel culture (the original and only real kind) now targets books – specifically books that might be read by impressionable young readers, specifically any book that in any way challenges the rule of white supremacy and hints that people of color may have any legitimate role in society above that of servant or slave.

Maus, which concerns the Holocaust, is one of the latest targets. It concerns Jews, whom Republicans are more careful to delegitimize lest they lose votes in key elections.

But, as the recent episode with Whoopi Goldberg shows, race is a societal construct. It is only as real as the ruling society requires that it be. Just as the Nazis created the notion of a Jewish “race,” and set out to exterminate it, now Republicans are working to construct another “race,” and to make sure members of this group are never allowed in any position of power.

The key piece of this strategy is denying members of that “race” access to the ballot box. In Republican-led state after state, laws have been passed to make sure that fewer and fewer Black voters are allowed to vote, either through ballot restrictions or gerrymandering.

Some observers connect this to Trump’s lies about losing the 2020 election. Republicans are obsessed with “election security.” But in the Republican playbook, a “secure election” is one in which certain people cannot vote.

Trump is just the smokescreen. This is a strategy planned long ago. And its goal is apartheid.

It has long been known that “white” people soon will be in a minority in this country, compared with people of color. What will happen to whites when they are in the minority rather than the majority?

Nothing will happen – if laws can be passed now to make sure that the new majority cannot have any influence on public policy. Nothing will happen to whites if they make sure that no matter how small a minority they become, they are always still in power because of laws they passed now, while they are still a narrow majority.

So in the next five to ten years, we will see more and more attempts by Republicans to restrict Black voters especially, but also Hispanic voters and others deemed unacceptable – Democrats, say.

Republicans will never be so brazen (that is, honest) as to pass a law that says Democrats cannot vote. But they will gerrymander and otherwise rig all future elections so that Democrats can never be in the majority anywhere, and therefore that the Republican program of erecting an apartheid society can be enacted.

You scoff. Scoff now, while scoffing is still legal. Read Maus now, while it’s still legal. A day of reckoning is coming, unless Americans of integrity arise and stop the GOP plan to make a new Amerika, an apartheid state.

Go, Gu!

Eileen Gu has taken a lot of abuse for deciding to ski for China, where her mother was born, rather than the United States, where she and her family live, in the 2022 Winter Olympics.

To my knowledge she has never publicly explained why she decided not to ski for the U.S. But no explanation would satisfy her critics.

Most of what I have seen about her on social media is hateful and obscene. You might consider these folks the usual pack of idiots, except that the pack seems to keep getting larger and louder, and that in itself is a troubling development.

Gu doesn’t represent China any more than she represents the U.S. She represents herself, in some ways a product of both cultures. She is trying to stand above all the usual political nonsense we slap over what is supposed to be a showcase of athletic performance. So she stands for what the Olympics are supposed to stand for, not what we have made of it.

Here is one thing she has said in her defense:

“I’m not trying to keep anyone happy. I’m an 18-year-old girl trying to live my best life. I know that I have a good heart and know that my reasons are for the common interest and greater good.

“No matter what I say, if people don’t have a good heart, they won’t believe me because they can’t empathize with people who do have a good heart. So in that sense, I feel as though it’s a lot easier to block out the hate now.

“If people don’t believe me and people don’t like me, that’s their loss. And also, they’re never going to know what it feels like to win the Olympics.”

What a brave and insightful young woman!

There’s a huge hunk of truth in what she says. People who don’t have a good heart are never going to understand people who do have a good heart. They’re always going to hate because they always hate what they can’t understand – and truth be known, they don’t seem to understand much, or try to, so they hate much.

Hate is always folly, even when it fails to multiply. If you are a follower of Jesus, you don’t hate. If you do hate, you’re not a follower of Jesus. You follow another master. Simple as that.

All that is an elaborate way of saying: Go, Gu!

Don’t talk about it

Shortly after a police officer was convicted of murdering George Floyd, there was talk of the dawning of racial reckoning in the United States.

This event, it was said, would open new avenues for honest conversation about how racism and its corrosive effects throughout our society might be approached, confronted and eventually eradicated.

I saw this as a dim hope. We have had many such opportunities in recent years, and none of them has moved us close to a fruitful discussion. All our opportunities have evaporated almost as soon as they were glimpsed.

Nothing has changed. The Republican party has seen to that. Its campaign against “Critical Race Theory” will doom all efforts to talk about racism, white supremacy, white nationalism and other subjects that some white people will find offensive.

CRT started as an obscure academic exercise examining social, cultural and legal issues relating to race and racism. It may have been taught in law school or other advanced studies. It was never taught in American high schools or elementary schools. And it never will be.

Because the GOP has found a way to turn CRT into a political weapon. Mainly by spinning wild stories about it, most of them approximately 97.5% untrue. And Republican-dominated state legislatures are falling over themselves passing laws to outlaw the teaching of it.

What this means is that whenever a teacher starts a discussion about race, a white student is going to freak out and parents are going to shout “Critical Race Theory!” and the teacher is going to get fired. It won’t take long before everybody gets the point.

In the United States, you cannot have a discussion about race. It is illegal.

That’s only the start, of course. But if you can shut down this discussion, think about what other things you can make sure nobody talks about. Way to go, GOP.

Epiphanies

The outdoor lights, the many-pointed Moravian star and the lighted Nativity trio came down yesterday, January 5, the last day of the Christmas season. We kept the tree up for Twelfth Night but are removing the decorations and putting it all away today, on Epiphany.

It’s nice to get the living room back to normal, but not having the tree in the front window always feels like a loss just the same.

Some people try to put up their tree on the first day of Advent, but that’s so close to Thanksgiving that it never happens for us. This year I think it went up on December 6. That happens to be Saint Nicholas Day. A few days ago I read that many families set up their tree on that day in the old saint’s honor.

I like that custom: from December 6 to January 6, Saint Nicholas Day to Epiphany. Maybe we’ll keep it intentionally come December 2022.

Linda and I have had an artificial tree for most of our marriage. It took us a surprisingly long time to figure out that having a live tree in the house might explain why she always had allergy problems in December and early January. When we got an artificial tree, the allergies mostly disappeared.

Trekking out to the tree farm, picking the “perfect” tree, lashing it to the top of the car and hauling it home always seemed like a meaningful ritual – until we didn’t do it anymore. Digging the tree out of storage in the attic or garage just isn’t the same, but I have to come to prefer this new routine. The result is still gorgeous, and I like the simplicity of the act.

Come December 6, we’ll do it all over again, but with a renewed sense of purpose. Happy day, Nicholas! The season of miracles is upon us again.

*  *   *  *   *

An epiphany is a sudden revelation. So on this Epiphany we must not fail to take note of the one-year anniversary of events in Washington. That’s when Donald Trump attempted a coup by subverting the elections, and hundreds of Trumpistas stormed the Capitol building, causing several deaths, national trauma, and millions of dollars in damage.

Trumpistas and other purveyors of the Big Lie still insist is what all a harmless frolic. History will record otherwise, unless the Trumpistas triumph and the last shreds of the American democratic experiment are buried in propogranda and hate. Pray that it is not so.

Remember this day for the insurrection that failed, and also pray for the souls of those who bury their faces in darkness and insist on living a lie.

*  *   *  *   *

May the season of miracles continue!