Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Escape from Luling

On my way to camp at Garner State Park, I got trapped in Luling for an hour. For those of you unfamiliar with this quaint but smelly (something to do with perpetually leaking natural gas pipes) little town just north of I-10, closer to San Antonio than to Houston, it is home to some of the best BBQ in Texas. I had timed my trip to arrive in Luling around 12:30 to miss the lunch rush at City Market. I was a bit later than I intended because I spent too long at the Duluth Trading Company location in Katy.

The stop was to return a couple of jackets I had ordered online for Allen and me for Christmas that turned out to be too large (as in wrap-around-twice-and-still-have-room too large). I should have been in and out in 10 minutes or less, and would have been if the siren song sale sign hadn’t lured me onto the clearance rocks, I mean racks. At least I spent less than the credit for the returned items.

So, it was almost 1 o’clock by the time I reached downtown Luling, found a place to park with my trailer, and almost skipped the two blocks to City Market, where I headed straight to the cutting counter at the back and ordered a pound of moist brisket (an incalculable number of points on my diet) to go. I pulled a hot, thick, fatty slice out of the greasy butcher paper on the way back to my truck and gobbled it down, licking my fingers to get it all and wiping what was left on the seat of my pants.

As I pulled away from the curb, I intended to retrace my route back to the interstate (which was ridiculously out of the way, but I didn’t know that at the time, which is the first indicator of the chain of unintended consequences I was unwittingly setting in motion), but Google Maps—my truck doesn’t have built-in navigation on a nice screen in the dashboard, so I use my phone, which I can’t look at while I drive—had other ideas. The creepy, uncanny valley voice began rattling off directions using local street names that meant nothing to me:

In 800 feet turn left on Oak Street.

“What the hell do I want with Oak Street,” I asked the voice., but recalling the times I have suffered from ignoring Google Maps, I decided to turn. As I put my foot on the brake, I caught a glimpse of Oak Street going by. “No problem, I thought, GM will tell me to turn on the next street.”

In 500 feet, turn right Elm Street.

But before I could change lanes (I’m pulling a travel trailer, remember), Elm Street was in the rearview mirror. By now I knew that Google Maps and/or my phone was having one of its periodic nervous breakdowns, the manifesting symptom of which is advising turns too late for me to avail myself of its advice. But I’ve played this game before, so I suspected it was trying to get me to turn around an go the other way. Nearing the interstate, I could see why. Westbound traffic was at a virtual standstill as two lanes were merging into one. Pulling off onto the shoulder, I gave GM enough time to calculate its next move and me enough time to make that move safely. Three dirt roads later I was once again heading into downtown Luling.

When I got there, I was instructed to “turn left on Texas 80 South,” which I assumed would take me back to I-10. Congratulating myself on being open-minded enough to let GM guide me around the slowdown, I did as directed and before long saw the interstate ahead. However, the single lane of creeping traffic was still there. “Well, at least I’m further along than I would have been,” I reasoned and prepared to turn right, in keeping with the computerized directions I was receiving. But, unbeknownst to Google Maps, the entrance ramp was blocked by barricades, behind which sat a police cruiser with its lights on.

Not knowing what else to do, I pulled over as far to the right as I could on the bridge going over I-10, parked, and got out to ask the police officer for help. He seemed a bit annoyed and rather brusquely informed me that I was blocking a lane of traffic on the bridge. Telling him I thought I was on the shoulder didn’t help, but I persisted.

“I’m not from around here, and I’m trying to go west. How do I do so?”

Taking me for an idiot, he pointed out what he thought was obvious:

“There are two ramps. This one goes west, the other goes east. Take the eastbound ramp, go to the first exit, get off, make a U-turn, and get back on going west.”

I wanted to tell him I had already been at that ramp and didn’t get on because I wanted to avoid all this backup, but not as much as I wanted to get off that bridge before he gave me a ticket, so I did as he suggested. Going east I got more and more frustrated, and determined not to sit in that line of westbound traffic even if I had to cancel my camping trip and head back home. I took the exit, but instead of making the U-turn, I headed back toward downtown Luling. If you’re keeping count, this makes three.

Thinking back to the design of the Texas highway system, I knew that US 90 parallels I-10, more or less, so I reasoned I should be able to go west on US 90 until I could catch another road and go back south to I-10 beyond the slowdown. Trusting GM one last time, I entered my destination, tapped the screen, and watched a calculated route appear that looked like (I’ll come back to this point in a minute) what I had in mind. So, off I went. And guess what. It took me back to the same closed westbound ramp again. Luckily, I realized what was happening before my police buddy saw me, turned around and went back to Downtown Luling (#4).

What I needed was a map. A big, paper, never-folds-back-the-same-way-twice map. But I didn’t have one. And they certainly don’t give them away at gas stations anymore. Brick and mortar bookstores have them, but I was in Luling. So, I did what I should have done much earlier. I parked, got out my reading glasses, and did the finger-and-thumb-spread thing to zoom in on my tiny little phone screen until my feeble eyes could see exactly how to get to US 90, which I then did, and stayed on till it linked back up with I-10 at Seguin. It wasn’t totally smooth sailing all the way to Garner, but at least I had effected my escape from Luling and lost only about an hour.

After my incarceration, I became philosophical—not in the Boethian sense of resigning myself to my misfortune, but rather in the sense of parsing it for timeless truths, or at least relevant life lessons with writing about. And what I concluded is that cartography is the key.

Paper maps are designed for spatial thinking, because we use them to navigate across space. They show us where things are in relation to each other and how to get from one to the other. A map plainly shows the exit I took to go to Luling is actually quite a bit southeast (i.e. below and to the right) of town, meaning I traveled northwest when I left I-10. But this road gradually curves as it approaches downtown, so I ended up traveling west. Therefore, the left turn onto Texas 80 South sent me due south back to the interstate and the closed entrance ramp, about two miles west of my original exit. When my police buddy sent me back to the east on I-10, that completed the third leg of a giant triangle, bringing me back to where I had started.

I have a pretty good mental map in my head (especially for someone with aphantasia), so I knew roughly what I had done, but not as clearly as a paper map would have shown me in a single intuitive glance. With a paper map, I certainly wouldn’t have ended up back at the closed ramp a second time, and I would have known immediately that finding US 90 W was the only way out.

That’s the problem with Google Maps. Like all things digital, it’s based on linear thinking. It gives a series of steps to follow, one after the other, but never shows us the big picture so we can use our own judgment.

In 800 feet turn left on Oak Street.
In 500 feet, turn right Elm Street.

But, if one piece of information on which it has based its recommended route is incorrect (e.g. the closed ramp onto westbound I-10), you can end up going in circles—or triangles. And it never apologizes for the grief it causes.

So, it turns out cartography isn’t really the key. Thinking is. Obviously, there are times when linear thinking is useful, but not when it is the only mode in which we operate. Some parts of life are simple and orderly and can be completed successfully by dutifully following step-by-step instructions. But most are not. Most of life requires the agility and subtlety of spatial thinking. Life is messy, full of closed ramps and condescending coppers. 

But there is also moist brisket. 

And clearance racks at Duluth Trading Company. 

And heart-breakingly beautiful late January days at Garner State Park.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

No Need to "Go Global"

This is a response I wrote to a friend with whom I differ on just about everything related to the UMC's special called GC2019. She asked me if Matthew 28:19 isn't the final word on the question of a global UMC.

I certainly believe Jesus wanted his followers to spread the gospel message across the world, and I believe the Church (i.e. the Body of Christ, made up of all communities of believers) has done and continues to do just that. But I do not believe this spreading of the gospel is the same as denominational expansion.

Denominations have rules and policies and hierarchical structures that actually stand in the way of successfully carrying out Jesus' commission. Being a single, legally bound denomination in every corner of the world means that faithful members somewhere will have rules and practices imposed on them that may be appropriate for some parts of the world, but not for theirs. And this imposing of rules and practices from another part of the world hampers their effectiveness in carrying out what Jesus told us to do.

I would love to see strong, vital, faithful, but independent Methodist denominations spread across the world, who are allowed to carry out their missions and ministries in the ways they see fit: as many different African Methodist denominations as are needed (because not all Africans are alike!), Korean Methodists, Japanese Methodists, British Methodists, German Methodists, South American (see comments about Africa above) Methodists, etc, and of course USA Methodists. These various denominations can be united in mission and spirit, but there is no need to be joined together into a single, legally bound, corporate entity. This leads only to imposed UNIFORMITY, which I truly believe is a broken, distorted version of the UNITY already promised to us as parts of the Body of Christ.

The push to become a global church was driven by several different motivations, but I think one of the most powerful ones was also a sinful one: PRIDE. After generations of numerical decline (I suspect we would have quite different views on the causes of this decline), it gave the UMC a chance to brag about a very large membership again. And it is surely no accident that those most in favor of "going global" also share a basic theological perspective with the millions of new members that would come in and vote for delegates to General Conference, guaranteeing a continued (if slim) majority of delegates to pass conservative rules and policies opposed by 47% of total delegates and 2/3 of American delegates.

With the help of African delegates, American UMs are being forced to carry out mission and ministry under circumstances the great majority of them oppose.

Surely, this is NOT what Jesus meant by "Go into all the world."

I think the Holy Spirit is making amazing things happen in Africa, and I celebrate that! But, I also think the HS is working a great, new work here in the US, and I celebrate that miracle as well. But the HS isn't doing the same thing in both places. That's where I think WCA, Good News, Confessing Movement, etc have gotten it totally wrong. They see what's happening in Africa and in other places around the world and lament, "Why can't that happen here in America?" And they seem to think the only way to make it happen is by cracking down on rules (calling it "orthodoxy" because that sounds better) and ejecting those who don't agree, those who aren't doctrinally pure.

But the work I see the HS doing in America is a work of prophetic justice, not some old-fashioned evangelical revival. There are LGBTQ+ United Methodist Christians of great faith making a powerful witness in the face of religious and political persecution by evangelicals (mostly but not exclusively trump supporters, btw) right here in America, in a way that is totally opposed to what we Americans say we stand for. But instead of standing and fighting alongside them for justice (about which the Bible has MUCH MORE to say than it does about human sexuality), the UMC just voted once more, by the slimmest of margins made possible only because we are now a "global" church (at least in name), to tell these brave, faithful folk they aren't good enough to be fully part of us.

The UMC will be lucky indeed if God doesn't curse us for joining in this oppression of the weak and marginalized instead of hearing their cries! That is, after all, what is promised in scripture.

So, THAT's why I say "a global UMC was a bad idea."

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

When Will We Ever Learn?

I’ve made these two statements so many times now, and I believe they ring so true, these have become my most common mantras whenever I can’t avoid thinking about the fate of the UMC:

(1) The Church cannot make faithful, effective decisions by voting governed by majority rule

We have bought into this procedural method hook, line, and sinker because we have been culturally immersed in it all our lives, but it is totally antithetical to the Spirit that indwells the Church. Any substantive decisions on which a consensus cannot be reached (or at the very least a super-majority agree) should not be made.

(2) The drive to make the UMC a legislatively linked global institution was a mistake.

Whether it was a naively idealistic but misguided dream of a single worldwide Wesleyan Church as a counterpart to Roman Catholicism, or a calculated, cynical power play driven by the sinful human desire to win and thereby gain control over others, I fear it may well be our death rather than our redemption. Autonomous regional churches, free to organize themselves for mission and ministry according to their distinct cultural contexts, but connected through a re-envisioned World Methodist Council could have accomplished all the good aims of globalization, while avoiding the fatal dismemberment of the denomination, accelerated by the sinful aims of globalization.

I fear it may be too late for the UMC, the denomination that introduced me to God’s love in Christ 48 years ago (at a Lay Witness Movement at St. Matthew’s UMC on N. Shepherd in Houston), baptized me, helped educate me, married me, baptized my children, to which I dedicated 38 years of my life in ordained ministry, and which is now breaking my heart.

But I hope and pray that whatever survives . . . or rises from the ashes of our prideful self-immolation . . . will learn from this tragedy and avoid these two fundamental mistakes in the future.

I won't pretend to know if Jesus gives a rat's ass about the institutional future of the UMC, but I'm guessing he stays pretty sad/pissed about the way we've been treating each other in the name of "orthodoxy." 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

A Day By Any Other Name

Black Friday. Small Business Saturday. Cyber Monday. Giving Tuesday. What special cause or group or event or feeling are we observing tomorrow?
I didn't do any shopping on Thursday night or Friday, and I didn't make it out to patronize any small businesses on Saturday (though I try to when I can), but I did order some things online yesterday, so I guess I was part of the record-breaking Cyber Monday of 2014.
And don't get me wrong. I'm certainly not opposed to giving. It's a wonderful thing. But do we really need a special day, complete with hashtags and unSELFIES, to encourage/persuade/remind ourselves to do it?
Then there's Digital Learning Day, World Spay Day, Earth Day (not to be confused with Earth Hour, which is sometime in March), World Turtle Day, Global Tiger Day, World Elephant Day, World Rhino Day, and International Mountain Day, and one of my personal favorites, International Talk Like a Pirate Day, just to mention a few.
Sure, we had Hump Day for years before the GEICO Camel came along and made it a thing, and TGIF before it was a restaurant chain, but at least those made sense in the context of a Monday-Friday work week. Now there's "Throwback Thursday" and "Flashback Friday." And did you know there's even a website that helps you keep track of them all. It's tagline is, "Register now...and never miss a day." What a godsend. Otherwise, I would never have known that today is also "Fritters Day" and tomorrow is (1) Roof Over Your Head Day, (2) Make a Gift Day, and (3) Disability Day.
I wonder why some days get more traffic than others. September 22 is 8 different special days! And that doesn't even count having been Big Granny's (my wife's paternal grandmother) birthday.
Do we really gain anything by this kind of compartmentalization of our lives? This periodic programmatic placing of priority for just a moment before moving on to the next square on the calendar? Does it have any lasting effect? Does it change any hearts or minds? Does it make life better for us or for others?
Jesus said, "Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today." Maybe he was talking about figuring out who I can give some fritters to, so I can cross today off my calendar with one stone.....if you'll pardon my mixed metaphor.

Does Jesus give a rat's ass about how I spend my days? I certainly hope so. What about giving? I'm sure he does. Fritters? Maybe not so much.


Monday, January 6, 2014

The Anti-Yo-yo Theory of the Resurrection

In the hands of a skilled operator and when functioning properly, a yo-yo goes smoothly up and down. When thrown down, it unwinds until it reaches the end of its string, then returns to the thrower’s hand by rewinding its string around the spindle in the opposite direction. In the fancier models, a loop in the string and a smooth metal spindle allow the yo-yo to spin freely when reaches the end, an effect called “sleeping.” But, after sleeping for a while, the yo-yo springs back up to the thrower’s hand, because that’s what yo-yos are designed to do. If it didn't do this, something would be wrong.

Many Christians have the idea that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead after his crucifixion works like a yo-yo. When he dies on the cross, Jesus is like that yo-yo when it is thrown down. He “sleeps” in the tomb for a while, then pops right back up again, because that’s how it was designed to happen. In fact, if Jesus hadn't risen from the dead, something would have been wrong. These Christians believe that Jesus died knowing that, after a short delay, he would be resurrected...knowing that it was designed to happen that way, that guaranteed resurrection was part of the deal he made in surrendering his will to God’s will in Gethsemane. Sure, he will go down into the tomb, but after “sleeping” for a while, he will spring—yo-yo-like—back up to life.

But this understanding lessens the reality of Jesus’ death. If the Word really did become flesh so that God could dwell among us, if God entered into our world in a unique and miraculous way in Jesus, and became like us, then his death must also be like our death. All life must cease, and decay and dissolution must begin, with only the hope of new life. Resurrection cannot be automatic. It cannot be guaranteed.
Picture the yo-yo once more. But this time, imagine that the string breaks. When it is thrown down, rather than spinning at the end of the string and then rising again to the thrower’s hand, the yo-yo crashes to the floor, cracks in several places, then rolls under the sofa to be lost in the dust and darkness and never used again. That’s what death is like. When we die, we are dead. Everything that makes us who we are is gone, and we return to the elemental material from which we were made—the dust of the earth. So that must also be what Jesus’ death was like. When his lifeless body was taken down from the cross and hurriedly laid in a borrowed tomb, he was gone. He wasn't just “sleeping” for a few days, waiting to spring back up from the grave.

Dr. Farley Snell, former Chaplain at Southwestern University and one of the great influences on my life, had those of us who helped with chapel services make Lenten banners one year. He made one based on Acts 2:23-24. It read “This Jesus you crucified and killed., but God raised him up again.” We teased Farley about making a punctuation error in his design, but he explained it to us in this way: “My punctuation may be wrong, but my theology is right. The powers that arrested and crucified Jesus thought they put an end to him and his troubling teaching. They killed him and placed a period after it to signal that end. But God turned that period into a comma and kept going.”

Jesus was dead, but God was unwilling to let him stay dead. So, God raised him from the dead. The resurrection was an intentional re-creative act on God’s part that turned death back into life again. It wasn't something that happened automatically. That’s why this is called the “anti-yo-yo theory of the resurrection.” Apart from God’s special, intentional act, Jesus would have remained dead. But instead, Jesus is the first-fruits of those who will be raised from the dead. When we die, we will also be dead. Our string will break, our yo-yo will crash to the floor, crack and several places, and roll away into darkness and dust. But for each of us, God will perform an intentional re-creative act and turn our death back into life again, so that we can live with God forever.

I don't know about you, but this way of looking at it makes both the miracle of the Resurrection and our hope of eternal life much more meaningful. I think Jesus would definitely "give a rat's ass about" that!


Thursday, May 30, 2013

I thought this little commentary I created on the new ethical standards adopted at annual conference this year might be a little too edgy for public distribution...or even for the more limited exposure of Facebook. But if you find your way here to my blog, with its uber offensive name, then you will probably take this in the spirit in which it is intended.


Wednesday, October 12, 2011

“In whom we live and move and have our being”

What would happen if we were to take this phrase seriously? Not literally, but as something more than figurative. What if God is the medium in which we exist?

Maybe Earth’s atmosphere is a good analogy, but rather than molecules of the various life-sustaining gases in which we are immersed from the moment of our birth, God is the “spiritual” atmosphere of the Creation. It can't be simply a linguistic coincidence that so many ancient languages used the same word for spirit, breath, and wind. If we move beyond the experiential aspects suggested by these linked terms to the theological, it isn't a great leap to imagine that the universe (and everything in it) is permeated by God’s presence. But that presence is attenuated, stretched so thin that it is not readily apparent. It’s more of a residue, an echo just before it fades to inaudible, an after-image on the retina just before it vanishes—real, but greatly diminished.

How would we account for such a state of affairs? One way would be to suppose that everything we think of as the physical universe now exists in a space that once was part of God. God intentionally withdrew God's Being from this space so that the Creation could come into existence in the first place as something separate from God’s own existence.

“The Earth is filled with the glory of the Lord,” says the Psalmist. Evidently, even God’s greatly reduced, filtered, and attenuated presence is enough to dazzle us mere mortals. But it is not enough to overwhelm us and trump our wills. Not enough to dictate the course of events in our lives, our world, or our universe. And this according to God’s plan.

God’s presence in Creation takes the form of love, which, though it is the greatest force in Creation, makes its power known in weakness. God loves us enough to give us freedom—and not just us, but the whole Creation as well. Since we are all made of the same basic building blocks, we all partake of the same energy, and we all exist in the same “atmosphere” of God’s presence, from the tiniest newborn baby to galactic super clusters, and everything in between, we are all connected and all cherished by our Creator.
Only the most amazing and awesome God would choose to create in this way!

And since Jesus was also part of it all, from the outset, I'm pretty sure he gives a rat's ass about it.