Cross Roads

crossroadsThe final scene of the excellent movie “Castaway” shows the star, Tom Hanks, in a barren landscape at the intersection of two deserted country roads.  Hanks plays a FedEx pilot who is the sole survivor of a crash in the Pacific.  He manages to stay alive on an island with no companionship except a volleyball he names Wilson.  When he miraculously is rescued and returns to his former home after several years he discovers that it is sometimes true that you can never go home again.  His wife having buried a symbolic empty casket after giving up hope of his survival has remarried and moved on with her life, leaving Hanks more adrift on land than he was at sea.

Then years behind schedule Hanks delivers the lone package that survived the crash to a rural address where a beautiful artist lives.  Leaving her home he comes to the aforementioned crossroads, and the film ends leaving the question hanging as to which way he will turn.

That metaphor came to my mind as 2019 began 12 days ago, perhaps because our nation and world seem to be a crossroads where the future shape and even survival of our planet depends on choices we as world citizens must make about climate change, international relations, our use of technology for better or worse, etc.  Perhaps the cross-roads image is even more vivid for me because the church denomination I’ve given 50 years of service to is coming up fast on an intersection in Indianapolis in less than a month.  A church conference will be held in February that will determine if the United Methodist Church survives and if so in what form.

Personally my 73rd New Year’s means I have accumulated many memories of different turning points and roads not taken in my own life. Professionally 2019 will mark the 50th anniversary of my ordination as a United Methodist pastor.  I made huge decisions to accept the responsibilities of ordination, and in those 50 years since I’ve made thousands of personal and professional decisions that brought me to where I am today.  Yes, there are many of those decisions for which I’d like to have do overs, but like the Hanks character I know I can’t go back and make a different choices as to which way to turn in my life.

But the past is prelude to my next chapter.  I can learn from the choices I made in the past to inform decisions I will make in the future.  The kinds of crossroads I will face in my 70’s and beyond are certainly different than those I encountered earlier in my life, but as long as I draw breath I will make decisions about how to live each day of my life and what goals or bucket list items I choose to pursue.  In retirement I actually face more decisions every day since my daily routine is not predetermined by job responsibilities.  There’s both freedom and anxiety in that situation.  It requires more energy to make so many decisions at a time in life when energy is at a premium.

Twice in this New Year I have seen something early in the morning on our bedroom floor that I have never noticed before.  I’m sure it must have been there before, but I am not a morning person and admit I am even less observant when I first roll out of bed than the rest of the day.  What I’ve noticed is that the light that slides out from under our bathroom door intersects with a white edge on our carpet to form a beautiful cross.  I’m still wondering why it is just now that I’ve recognized that symbol, but what it has helped me realize is that so many of the decisions that have determined my course in life revolve around the cross.

I was born into the church, baptized as an infant and taken regularly to church my entire childhood.  That decision for my early life in the shadow of the cross was made for me, as was one of the most significant turns in my life course when I was 11 years old.  Until that point in my life we had attended a small rural Congregational church in the community my father grew up in 5 miles from our home.  But when I was nearing my 11th birthday my parents made the decision to find a church in the town where we lived.  They wanted me and my sisters to go to church with the kids in our school and for me they wanted a good Boy Scout troop.  It so happened the Methodist church had the best Boy Scout troop in town, and as they say “the rest is history.”

Because of the sacrifice my parents made in giving up the congregation and friends they loved my life went down a totally different path than it would have otherwise.  My life for the next 7 years revolved around that church and that scout troop.  My values were shaped by the Sunday School teachers, youth group leaders, and scout leaders who went down that road with me.  All of my friends and most of the girls I dated were part of that congregation, and when I answered the call to ministry I chose to attend a liberal United Methodist seminary that transformed my faith and purpose not only for ministry but for my life.  As a United Methodist I was active in the leadership of the Wesley Foundation student ministry in college, lived in an intentional covenant community/rooming house sponsored by that ministry; and it was also on one of my first visits to the Wesley Foundaiton that I met my first wife who is the mother of my children, grandmother to my grandkids, and still a dear friend and colleague in ministry.

All because of a choice made for me to attend First Methodist Church.  And now 62 years later that denomination, which became the United Methodist Church in 1968, is facing a momentous decision about the acceptance or rejection of LGBTQ persons as full and equal sisters and brothers.  Which road our General Conference will choose to follow next month will have far-reaching consequences for this large denomination of Christians and will create a crossroads that will require many people, including me, to make difficult personal decisions about our own relationship to the church.  My prayer is that the Holy Spirit will empower faithful and courageous choices inspired by the one who chose to take the road to Jerusalem and face the cross waiting for him there.

I/We can do worse at the cross roads of 2019 than pondering the meaning of these words written for the 1905 Methodist Hymnal by Frank M. North:

“Where cross the crowded ways of life,  Where sound the cries of race and clan

Above the noise of selfish strife, We hear your voice, O Son of Man.”

 

John Wesley for the Supreme Court

John_Wesley_by_George_Romney
It is a sad but expected reality that Justice Scalia’s vacant seat on the Supreme Court has become a political hot potato while it is still warm from his long years of influential service. My appreciation for Scalia has grown immensely since his death as I have read moving stories about his friendships and respect that bridged ideological divides with Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Elena Kagan. Such bipartisanship is an endangered species in our polarized world and needs to be recognized and celebrated. I must confess that I was guilty of stereotyping Justice Scalia based on his conservative and often controversial legal opinions, and I vow to relearn yet again the danger of such narrow thinking.
(Follow this link to read Ginsburg’s tribute to her friend and legal rival: http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2016/02/14/read_justice_ruth_bader_ginsburg_s_touching_statement_on_scalia.html, and http://www.cnn.com/2016/02/14/opinions/david-axelrod-surprise-request-from-justice-scalia/ for Scalia’s respect for Justice Kagan.)

Having said that, this unexpected vacancy on the court creates a valuable opportunity in this election year for all of us to learn and grow in our understanding of the importance of the court and the different philosophies represented in the selection process that have tremendous impact on the direction our nation will go moving forward.

I don’t know much about the judges who have been mentioned to fill this vacancy thus far, but it occurred to me that we United Methodists have a great candidate in one of the founders of our denomination, John Wesley. As you can see from his picture he has the wardrobe for the job. The problem of course is that Wesley is not available since he died over 300 years ago. But I would still like to propose that Wesley’s thinking can shed some valuable light on the selection process.

Wesley developed a very useful paradigm for making ethical decisions. Wesley’s quadrilateral, as it is known, lists four sources of input that should be consulted when making ethical decisions: Scripture, Experience, Reason, and Tradition. The balanced model Wesley provides honors the importance of all four components while realizing that they are all created by fallible humans and therefore can be found to be in need of correction by the other three legs of the quadrilateral.

Making ethical decisions with fewer than all four components of the quadrilateral is like sitting at a table that has one leg shorter than the others, and therefore wobbles like a teeter totter every time anyone leans on it.
There are many examples of complex ethical dilemmas that we postmodern 21st century citizens must come to grips with. Laws and traditions that worked in previous generations may no longer be viable when new knowledge provided by reason and experience is factored into the equation. Examples include biomedical decisions, the viability of military force to solve differences in a nuclear age, and attitudes toward people with a different sexual orientation. (I wrote about some of these issues in more detail in a July 22. 2014 post, “Tradition: Only Part of the Formula.”)

“Originalism” or “Textualism” are the labels used to describe Justice Scalia’s approach to the legal system and the Constitution. I am certainly no legal scholar, but my understanding of that philosophy is that it strives to interpret legal questions according to the original intent of the framers of the Constitution. That approach is loaded with biblical and theological implications, and Wesley’s quadrilateral speaks directly to the need to in both law and theology to keep learning and growing in our understanding of justice in the rapidly changing world we live in.

My problem with Originalism is that it seems to argue that a group of wealthy white men who accepted slavery and denied equal rights to women should have the final word on how to live in a democracy today. That’s like trying to live by Levitcal law in the 21st century. The framers of the constitution were men of tremendous vision and courage, but limited as we all are by our cultural and historical context they knew nothing about Aids, Zika, climate change, AR-15’s, black holes and gravitational waves, globalization, or nuclear annihilation, just to name a few. But like Wesley the authors of the Constitution did have the wisdom to know that the laws of the land must be flexible in the face of changing revelations about human nature and the natural order. Realizing the need for reason and experience to make mid-course corrections they made provisions for amending the constitution and did so immediately with the addition of the Bill of Rights.

With the same wisdom Wesley’s inclusion of reason, experience and tradition as necessary qualities for interpreting the Scriptures recognizes the on-going process of revelation. As the United Church of Christ reminds us, “God is still speaking.” Jesus did the same thing when he said repeatedly “You have heard it said…but I say to you…” (Matthew 5:21-48). Without the constant deepening of our understanding of God’s creation and God’s will as both our scientific and theological wisdom increases we would still live in a flat earth society with a vengeful, fearsome God and would celebrate the Sabbath on Saturday.

Does that mean reason and experience represent a straight line of upward progress toward a perfect just and peaceful world? Obviously not. We cannot escape our human fallibility in matters of faith or of law. There is no perfect candidate for the Supreme Court or any other office, but seeking persons who balance respect for our foundational documents, be they Scripture or Constitution, with the value of applying our God-given ability to reason and learn from our experience and past traditions would be my litmus test in the selection proces