The Foundation of Methodism (A timely paraphrase of Wesley’s sermon “On Laying the Foundation”

IMG_1851 (2)_LIHere is a paraphrase of the sermon John Wesley preached as the foundation was laid for a new chapel in London in 1778. It gives a powerful and timely summary of what methodism is all about. I visited Wesley Chapel in London last week and was moved, once again, by John Wesley’s consistent call to a higher unity within the church. Often the church has fallen short of this calling, but Wesley never gave up on the vision.  What might we learn from this commitment?

Number 23:23 –  “See what God has done!”

At the risk of appearing ostentatious or being called an enthusiast who confuses the Holy Spirit with their own ego, I want to give an account of the rise of Methodism from my personal perspective.

I start 1725, when a young student at Oxford was very much affected by Kempis’s “Christian Pattern,” and Bishop Taylor’s “Rules of Holy Living and Dying.” He was inspired to live by these rules and let them guide him. In time, others joined in this desire. Together we read scripture, prayed, and provoked one another to engage in good works. On this journey, we were orthodox in every way, firmly committed to the creeds and to the doctrines of the Church, as contained in the Articles and Homilies. The regularity of our gatherings led others to call us names. “Methodist” was at the top of the list.  It was an allusion to physicians who once flourished in Rome and, for us, was used as a term of derision and ridicule. In time, we embraced the term. But in the moment, we have no conception that this would become a movement.

The next key turn came in 1735 when my brother Charles, Mr. Ingham, and I were led to travel to the new colony of Georgia. Our purpose was to preach to the natives, but we found ourselves primarily attending to the spiritual needs of colonists in Savannah and modeling methodism for them.  While there, I was totally committed to the Church and to orthodoxy.  I even turned away a Lutheran pastor because he was not “episcopally ordained” and called on him to be “re-baptized” into the true church. Thankfully I have been delivered from this misguided zeal, where people are turned away from God so that we can feel good about our own faithfulness.

I returned to England in 1738, content to study in Oxford and bury myself in “beloved obscurity.”  But then God awakened my soul.  Along with others, I began to preach what some called an “unfashionable doctrine.” And yet, people came! Many were “cut to the heart.” Some came to me in tears inquiring what was needed to be saved.  I asked them to meet with me, and, without plan or design, the Methodist society was born. These societies, as renewal groups within the church, became places where people could help one another “work out their own salvation.”

That’s how Methodism began. But what is this movement about? What is methodism? We need to be continually reminded. Methodism is not a new religion. In fact, at its heart, it is nothing other than the religion of the primitive church, the religion of the Bible, and, I am confident, the religion of the Church of England.  It is the true religion rooted in love – the love that first comes to us from God, and so fills our hearts that we are then empowered to love others.

This love is the great medicine of life, the never-failing remedy for all the evils of a disordered world.  Wherever this love reigns, virtue and true happiness come; there is humility, gentleness, patience, peace beyond human understanding, and joy unspeakable. This is the religion of the Bible, as no one can deny who reads it with any attention.  Jesus declares this love to be the fulfillment of all the law and the prophets. It is at the heart of all we call “true religion.”

And yes, this love is at the heart of our Church. It is found in the liturgies and homilies. It is found in our prayers, so beautifully summed up in that one comprehensive petition that is said so often: “Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, O God, and worthily magnify your holy name.” As long as we hold to this love we can faithfully address all extraneous issues and varying perspectives within the larger church. Our diversity of perspectives keeps us humble and trusting in the real presence of the Holy Spirit to sort it all out. This sorting is not our work, but God’s work. In God’s love there is room for all, and together, and only together, are we able to practice the virtues of true holiness and grow in the grace of true religion.

In our beloved Church, many have been called, in this time, to preach repentance to sinners. Thousands have come to hear this word.   Many have been deeply convinced of their sins, their evil tempers, their inability to help themselves, and of the ineffectiveness of their outward religious practices. The love of God has filled their hearts and they have been led to love others with this same holy love.  God has called us to give witness to this work. May nothing else distract us.

This love that we preach must be free from enthusiasm – that zeal for our own opinions about things beyond the core of faith. Often in renewal movements, this misguided zeal finds its way into the body.  May this not happen among us. We do not put our stress on anything, as necessary for salvation, other than what is plainly contained in the word of God.  And of all things contained within the scriptures, we assess them in relationship to what Jesus calls the sum of it all – love of God and of our neighbor as a part of ourselves. (This is the chief among the “master-texts” by which we evaluate all revelatory claims, even those in scripture).

Likewise, this love must be free of bigotry. We refrain from all party zeal where our own opinions and allegiances to particular branches within the church cloud the call to unity and to bearing one another in love. We contend for nothing circumstantial as if it were essential to a relationship with God.  We do not seek to build “our” church by relying on violence and division.  We rely on no method other than reason and persuasion, while giving witness to the virtues of holiness – patience, kindness, and humility – and believing that the Holy Spirit really is at work.

No doubt, there have been other revivals that have led to division and polarization in the church. We have seen this among the Presbyterians, the Independents, the Anabaptists, and the Quakers. And after this separation they did little good except to their own little body. Bigotry grew between parties. And as a result of this lack of a higher sense of unity, the hope of general reform suffered.

And yes, there have been Methodist (so-called) who have gone this way as well, with Whitefield and Ingham among them. But, I want to be clear, this move toward division is a move away from the vision of methodism. When true to our calling, we will never form a separate sect but, in principle, always stay connected together within the Church.  When societies leave the church, our observation is that they swiftly crumble into nothing, having been uprooted from the good soil and nourishment of the larger community and from being a part of something bigger than themselves and their opinions about what is right. When we are planted in this rich soil of the larger faith, we are then able to bear good fruit – fruit that will last.

Therefore, whoever you are, I invite you to examine your own heart before God, rather than to occupy your time in judging others. Are you rooted in the love of God? Does your heart glow with gratitude to the God who loves you and gave his Son so that you “might not perish but have eternal life?” Are you bearing the fruit of this love? If so, then let us come together and magnify the Lord by establishing peace and good-will among us.   IF YOUR HEART IS AS MY HEART, GIVE ME YOUR HAND. Let us unite together in our desire for the restoration of the image of God in every soul.  Let us all give ourselves, not to contention, but to love and to good works; always remembering those deep words, (as God engraves them on our hearts!) “God is love; and those who dwell in love, dwell in God, and God in them.”  Amen.

Michael Roberts

 

Conference Resolutions and Unintended Consequences

IMG_4576Resolutions often bring hurt and harm. The process taps into deep emotions and strong convictions.  While sometimes necessary to move us forward, the process is also designed to divide. To build upon Bishop Saenz sermon at Annual Conference, this process pushes us into the perspective of disciples behind locked doors, motivated by fear, suspicions, and a need to fix things on our own. In this place it is hard to notice the living Christ in our midst saying “peace.”

After resolutions this year, I have heard colleagues express deep hurt.  I know how that feels and ask forgiveness where I have caused it.  For a personal example, I remember the time when my daughter, as a youth “member,” gave an impassioned speech against a resolution and then was accosted with both physical and verbal aggression.  She literally had to run away in fear.  And, I have noticed people express being hurt, in some cases, by people who express being hurt, in other cases. That’s the power of resolutions.

Much is being said about the hurt that came from the resolution affirming women in ministry.  In hindsight, I believe we need to reflect on this process that can so easily be used to inflict harm, often as an unintended consequence.  It is clear to me that there were intentions of good-will in the presenting of this resolution.  In conversations, the presenters called it an olive branch, a show of support, especially after the tension, and suspicions, around the amendments last year.  I believe we need to honor this effort and give thanks to them.

At the same time, I believe we owe deep gratitude to some of the women who countered this resolution.  While, in hindsight, there may have been other ways to handle it, some chose to excuse themselves from the bar of the conference (not leave the conference) and abstain from the vote.  This was an appropriate political response to a political offering. It was not breaking covenant. It was an action that made us all aware of a need for healing. It may have also saved us from a deeper discomfort. By their nature, resolutions invite opposition.  If it had gotten to that point, someone could have argued that much of the Christian world does not support this and offered a biblical rationale.  Women in ministry would have become an issue to be justified and defend – once again. This resolution was asking women to vote on their own legitimacy – once again.  I can certainly see why this was a problem, and why many felt like they had to come up with a response in the moment (and there was no time for much advanced planning). Again, we owe them our gratitude and continued conversation, not accusations and reprimands.

I have been shocked by the backlash. In most circumstances around resolutions, we fight and move on – sometimes even go out to dinner together. Why did this “fight” lead to such discomfort among us? What do we fear about the deep emotions and strong convictions expressed in this one? It reminds me of father-figures in my life telling girls to “calm down” while telling boys to “get tougher.”  Perhaps the problem for some is that these women didn’t just politely go along. Oh, if we could come together and laugh at the irony and learn from it.

Yes, hindsight is 20/20. In hindsight, I believe that a statement of affirmation would have been appropriate, rather than calling for a vote. In hindsight, I wish some would recognize this, even if they don’t like the way the others handled it. I hope we can all try again in some other form than a resolution.  Together may we give thanks for the treasures of forgiveness and grace held within this “earthened vessel” called the church, full of fallible and flawed beings who are the reason for these treasures and who have the power to make them real.

The Sad Defense of Divorce and Schism (A part of the series, Wesley and the Way Forward)

IMG_4576It is interesting to me that divorce figures so prominently in our debate on the way forward.  In our Annual Conference, for example, one pastor wrote a beautiful reflection on how his own divorce led to a change of heart. This sparked a defense of divorce by others, arguing that we have permission to be gracious to the divorced and remarried, but there is no biblical justification to extend this same permission for same-sex unions, for one example.

It is true that our statement on divorce in the Book of Discipline is redemptive and gracious. In my mind, this makes it very relevant to our current debate. In this statement, divorce is described as a “regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness.”  Implied is the need to address the “brokenness” before we embrace the “alternative.”  If we do not engage the “regrettable,” in “grief over the devastating consequences,” we are likely to become indifferent to both divorce and remarriage. We will come to see it as an “acceptable” alternative. We will minimize the devastation and block out the pain. I have seen this happen among us. Even pastoral leaders can be divorced and remarried multiple times and it is a non-issue among us – at least in public discussions.

I wonder if our indifference to divorce and remarriage plays a role in the permission some feel to call for divorce or schism in the church.  It is even argued that we might be able to love one another better if we would go our separate ways. Perhaps this alternative, and our impatience with difference perspectives among us, will glorify God. That seems to be the claim.

In this call for divorce or schism, we also hear a lot of blaming. It is so tempting to project the cause of brokenness onto others. I love the way Wesley so eloquently described the extent of our brokenness in his sermon, “The Mystery of Iniquity.”  Building upon the Apostle Paul he says, “No one is righteous, not one.” And in this same sermon he says that the “grand objection of the infidels against Christianity” is how Christians themselves live and claim their own righteousness.  Not acknowledging our own brokenness contributes so much to the brokenness in the world.   For Wesley, in this sermon, our first calling is to watch and pray.  It is not to defend God and try to fix others on our terms.  It is God alone who transforms, and we all need to be more focused on our own need for transformation than we do on others.  In this sermon, Wesley gives this beautiful vision of a God who “will arise and maintain his own cause and the whole creation shall then be delivered from both moral and natural corruption. Sin shall be no more.  Holiness and happiness will cover creation, and the whole race of humankind shall know, love, and serve God, and reign with God forever and ever!” This is what is in store for us! What if we all did more confessing of our own brokenness, rather than trying to fix others, and together put our trust in God to bring this vision to fruition for all – even in ways beyond our human understanding?  That would lead to much healing.

From a biblical and wesleyan perspective, marriage itself is an acknowledgment of brokenness.  It is a part of our collective brokenness. In heaven, when all brokenness is healed, marriage will not be needed.  Marriage, as we have seen in the series, is an institution meant to bring healing.  Its primary purpose, beyond reproduction, is to help us grow in the virtues of holiness – humility, patience, kindness, and love. What if we found a way to honor all who want to make commitments, practice faithfulness, and bear the fruit if this holiness? What if we all were so focused on our own need of healing that we really didn’t have much time to point our finger at others. What if, instead, we worked at finding ways to honor one another?

In a culture of divorce and division, schism and polarization, why would we accommodate to this culture?  Are we not called to give witness to a higher vision? Is it not worth seeking the “mediation” called for in the BOD’s statement on divorce and to pour our energy into how we might stay united in love? I wonder.

More On Marriage (an addendum in the series, Wesley and the Way Forward)

IMG_4576From the previous post on marriage, divorce, and singleness, my radar has been up, and I have noticed some things. First, I noticed an AT&T commercial targeting people “moving out of the friend-zone and moving in together.”  Right after this, I saw an ad for Chevrolet touting an SUV to help couples “move in together.”   I am sure the marketers did their research and chose these words carefully.  The word marriage was not used.

The institution of marriage has evolved and changed for centuries.  We see this in the bible as well. The Declaration of Intention in our liturgy, for example, is rooted in a time when most marriages where arranged.  Likewise, we no longer use the word “obey.” It has not been long since women were seen as subjects of their husbands.  Now, it seems that many have no use for the institution at all. People are waiting longer to get married. Traditional ceremonies no longer make sense to many.  I’ve talked to young-adults who are hesitant to get married in a church believing that some of their friends would not be welcomed (at least that’s the perception). They don’t want to get married in the church because they care about others and love them.  That is interesting to me.

All of this leads me back to the purpose of marriage as outlined by Wesley.  Beyond “repairing the species,” as he called it, the purpose of marriage is to “further holiness.”  In other words, marriage is an institution where we can cultivate the virtues of holiness – patience, gentleness, humility, self-control, peace, and joy. That’s what make marriage good for individuals and for society as a whole.  It “tempers” us.

Most assuredly, in our current debate, the church cannot adopt an “anything goes” position.  The One-Church option has been depicted in this way, but it is not fair in my opinion. Rather, this plan provides the opportunity for us to come to the table together and work to establish a strong sexual ethic for all — rooted in monogamy, faithfulness, commitment even when personal sacrifice is required, and a desire to grow in the virtues of holiness.  Such a conversation would require the humility to say we don’t fully understand sexual identity, but we can agree on the values and practices needed for faithfulness and fruitfulness.

Listen to the culture around us.  It is marked by division, divorce, polarization, building up by putting down, claiming our own righteousness, seeking the easy way, and “moving in together” without any steadfast commitments.  Why are we accommodating to the culture?  Are we not called to a higher unity rooted in humility, faithfulness, kindness, commitment, and love?

We can do better.  I invite you to bring people together and have this discussion.  Can we develop a strong sexual ethic for all?  What would be on your list of virtues needed?  If we are truly seeking a way forward, it seems to me that this would be a conversation worth having.

Next up – The Sad Defense of Divorce and Schism (an addendum in the series, Wesley and the Way Forward)

A Higher Unity: Why I Support the One-Church Plan

IMG_4576I WANT TO SUPPORT OUR EPISCOPAL LEADERSHIP  

After prayerful deliberation, our bishops have voted overwhelmingly to share the work done by the Way Forward Commission on three different plans and to recommend the One-Church Plan.  In the last few days I have heard some strong criticism of this recommendation, including characterizations that our Bishops were motivated by pride, ignorance, contempt, and willful disrespect of others.  I do not believe such attacks are helpful.  I believe that working for unity is a primary charge for our episcopal leaders, and I thus want to honor them for their sincere and prayerful efforts.  I also want to open my heart to the possibility that the Holy Spirit is involved in this proposal.

I WANT A CHURCH THAT OFFERS A PLACE TO ALL

At our impasse, I seek a plan that respects those who approach this issue wanting to uphold traditional views of family and marriage, and that allows us to acknowledge the scriptural support for this perspective.  At the same time, I seek a plan that has empathy for those who struggle, often in deeply personal and painful ways, and have come to understand that they do not fit within the traditional definition of “normal,” and yet they love God, want to live in community within the congregation, and want to have relationships where they can make commitments, practice faithfulness, and grow in the virtues of faith.  The challenge for those on the ‘progressive side’ is to respect those who value traditional views of family and marriage, and in a spirit of humility and love, to not support any position where this perspective was deemed unacceptable. The challenge to those on the more ‘traditional’ side is to acknowledge that there is room for faithful and biblical interpretations that would open the way for inclusion in the church for those who claim a part of their identity with the letters LGBTQ, and at the same time, want to make commitments that will lead them into increasing faithfulness and fruitfulness to God.  In support of this plan, there are those on both sides who are willing to find unity in a higher calling and deeper biblical values.  Personally, in the hope of truly honoring these positions, I would want to include a discussion about using alternative terms for marriage, such as unions.  The One-Church Plan would allow for such conversations.

I WANT TO WORK TOWARDS A SEXUAL ETHIC WORTHY OF SHARING AND PROCLAIMING

While I support the notion of unity not uniformity, faithfulness does demand some agreement and a unified vision. It cannot be “anything goes.”  If we are willing to do the work, I believe we could find much agreement for a strong sexual ethic rooted in support for monogamy, faithfulness, commitment even when sacrifice is required, not using others as objects for our pleasure but seeing them as persons worthy of honor, and heavy doses of grace and forgiveness.  Concerning marriage, Wesley focused on the purpose of this institution.  The first purpose is to “repair the species,” or reproduction.  The second is to “further holiness.”  Marriage is intended to tame, rather than enflame, our passions.  When Wesley defines holiness he almost always uses the virtues of patience, humility, gentleness, and above all, love.  What if we worked together to promote relationships where these values could grow?  The One Church Plan makes this challenging and potentially fruitful conversation possible.

I WANT TO PROMOTE UNITY AT A HIGHER LEVEL

In this struggle, much is made about one side accommodating to culture or to the “prevailing winds of doctrine,” as Paul says in Ephesians 4.  With this critique, I believe we all need to notice the board in our own eye.  Such accommodating to the world could be described in terms of divisiveness, polarization, blaming others, name-calling, an us-them mentality, building up by putting down, seeing lies as truth, and claiming righteousness for ourselves. We see a lot of this kind of accommodating and our witness suffers greatly.  In Ephesians 4, Paul calls us to unity at a higher level – into one church with one Lord who is above all, in all, and through all.  In this passage, we are called to grow up in every way into Christ, to be equipped for the work of ministry through a variety of gifts, and to build up the whole body in love.  Paul starts this passage by begging us to do this by living a certain way – with humility, patience, gentleness, bearing one another in love, and eager to maintain the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.  Such virtues would not be necessary if there were not always going to be different perspectives among us.  On many things, we will not agree, but we can always learn how to practice this kind of faithfulness with one another.  The hope is that our multitude of perspectives will be “joined and knit together” in love.  That glorifies God.

I WANT TO PROMOTE A HIGH VIEW OF SCRIPTURE

I believe the scriptures reveal the inspired word of God.  I believe the scriptures come to life as people engage them in relationship and sacred conversation.  We often do not get clear and easy answers but must struggle with the tensions, ambiguities, and different perspectives within the scriptures themselves.  This is an honest assessment, beyond the catch phrases used to stir emotions. Faithfulness moves us beyond proof-texting and using scripture to affirm our prejudices and opinions.  While this deserves more explanation, I believe we are called to continuously engage in a “hermeneutic of struggle” – building upon the meaning of the name “Israel” – where we honor the whole, notice the context, explore the history, and see God’s intended message, not necessarily in the words but through them in community and as we seek to be faithful in our time and place. I believe we must look to “master text” to guide us and help us interpret scripture – text like the summary of all the law and the prophets offered by Jesus.  In this light, I would say that there are faithful interpretations of scripture on the issues at hand that do not agree.  This truth beckons us to sit at the table together and struggle through, as we learn how to love one another.  It is not the easy way, but it is God’s calling upon us.  I believe that the saints of heaven rejoice when we commit to this holy work of opening the bible together and discerning God’s higher calling upon us.

I WANT TO BE ON THE ‘RIGHT SIDE OF HISTORY’ AND THE ‘RIGHT SIDE OF ETERNITY’

Another popular buzz-phrase in this tension is “right side of history” vs. “right side of heaven.”  I do not believe these are mutually exclusive.  I believe in the incarnation and in the Holy Spirit and thus believe that God is involved in history and in our lives. So, as a Christian, I do want to be on the right side of history.  I also believe “pleasing God” involves “pleasing” others, at the deepest level of their souls. These are not mutually exclusive.  We are called to cultivate communities and relationships where we can come to know Christ and Christ’s love, not on our terms, but where each can grow in their relationship with God – often requiring us to be humble enough to refrain from judgment and opening our own souls to how God is at work in ways that we don’t understand.   That leads to transformation and to our hearts expanding with God’s love.  The One-Church Plan gives us the best possibility of working incarnationally and to be attentive to the Holy Spirit at work in all of us to unite us and our many gifts as a witness to a world in need.

I WANT TO CONTEND FOR GRACE AND TRUTH

This phrase is often used to suggest that some want grace without truth. I do not know anyone who makes this case, so I’m not sure it is a fair characterization.  From the scriptures we can make a case that truth runs deeper than rules, external conditions, or hard lines in the sands.  Truth is “revealed” or “disclosed” (which is what the Greek work literally means) in actions that are life-giving and bear good fruit.  When we talk about truth, we can talk about behavior as true or deceptive. John Wesley says that the essence of holiness is truth and love united together.  To paraphrase, he says that the truth of God’s love is first planted in our hearts and then this truth is revealed through our “humble, gentle, patient love for all.”  Biblical truth is about what God does for us and wants for us. This truth then transforms the way we treat one another.  At one point, Wesley used Nathanael as an example of this holiness – as one who does not operate with guile, cunning, deceit, or selfish desire.  Conversely, he is an example of one who is honest, transparent, open, or in a word, true. At one point in the Gospel of John, Jesus calls the evil one “the father of lies.”  Evil and deception go together.  Lies destroy and divide. Truth unites and brings life to relationships.  In this sense, truth is revealed as we find ways to love even those with whom we disagree.  This is hard, if not impossible, without the Holy Spirit.  The One-Church Plan gives us the opportunity to grow in grace and truth.

I WANT TO PROMOTE WESLEYAN HOLINESS  

It has been said that this is a debate between competing views of holiness.  This is puzzling to me because Wesley offers such clarity about what holiness is and is not. In defining holiness, Wesley consistently uses the virtues of humility, patience, and gentleness, and lists the opposite of holiness with words like pride and haughtiness, passion, judgment of others, and zeal for our own righteousness.  Holiness is not found in anything “external to the heart” (an important phrase) but in what God plants in our hearts through the Holy Spirit. In describing holiness, we can imagine a series of concentric circles. At the core is the truth of God’s love which fills the “whole heart,” and “reigns without rival.”  In the next circle, “nearest the throne,” are all holy tempers “comprised in the mind of Christ” – patience, gentleness, humility, faithfulness, temperance, to name a few. In the next circle are “works of mercy,” and then, one step out, are “works of piety.”  After we have attended to these levels, we move outward in mission to “effectually provoke” one another to love, to the holy virtues, to good works, and to unity as the body of Christ.  Holiness, for Wesley, is faith working for love.  God’s love comes first and then we are able to give our lives to growing in this love and sharing this love in the world. I believe the One-Church Plan offers us the best opportunity, at this point, to embrace this understanding of holiness.  We need each other, in our diversity of faithful perspectives, to practice holiness of heart and life.  By focusing on the judgment of things “external to the heart,” and by dividing the church into “us and them,” we nullify true holiness.

I WANT US TO CLAIM THE VIRTUE OF PATIENCE

“We’ve been patient long enough.”  “It is time to make a decision.”  These statements echo throughout our denomination.  Yet, into this kind of environment, John Wesley lifts up the word “patience.”  If we are to truly find a way forward, it may be very important that we let this virtue get through to our anxious hearts. Wesley makes it clear that patience is so much more than “waiting.”  It is certainly more than fear-ridden fretfulness, where we bury our heads in the sand, hoping a problem will go away.  Patience is a “gracious temper,” a fruit of the Holy Spirit. Patience holds the “middle way,” he says, staying between the extremes. Even as we advocate for opinions and positions, Christians behave in the middle, staying connected to all with respect, humility, and compassion.  Standing on the solid rock of God’s love, we avoid “impatience with contradictions,” to use a phrase from Wesley.  We honor diversity of opinion as those who see in a “mirror dimly.”  We listen and learn. We can embrace our differences as opportunity to learn how to love more fully and truly glorify God.  In this way Wesley characterizes patience as the “manifestation of the perfect love of God.”  This is our witness to the world.  The One-Church Plan provides us the opportunity to continue in holy patience, a practice that will be needed as long as we are bound to the world.

I WANT PASTORS WHOSE CALL HAS BEEN CONFIRMED BY THE CHURCH

Concerning ordination, there is nothing in this plan to keep Conferences from setting standards beyond the standards set by the Discipline.  The plan allows us to trust the Holy Spirit and the process.  Personally, I believe the first priority is to discern God’s calling and signs of fruitfulness in ministry. Secondly, I would not want to ordain someone who made their own sexuality an agenda or their personal lives the focus on their ministry.  Pastors submit their personal lives to a higher calling.  Thirdly, issues of appointability are not new. Boards of Ordained Ministry, Bishops and Cabinets already deal with this at many levels – divorce, multiple-marriages, violations of covenant and repentance, and to be totally honest, questions still arise about ethnicity, gender, language, theological orientation, and basic supply and demand with the Conference. The messiness of relationships and ordination is already there.  May the Holy Spirit be involved and may hearts be open to what God can do through those who have the treasure of God’s grace within these flawed, fragile, and finite “earthen vessels,” to use a phrase from the Apostle Paul.

FINALLY, I WANT TO SAY THAT I MAY BE WRONG

It is very possible that some or all of this perspective is flawed.  Behind it is a desire to err on the side of grace, even as I hope God will do the same for me.  It may be that some actions are just wrong, even in the context of a desire to grow in faithfulness and fruitfulness. Maybe we should draw hard lines in the sand and make such judgments.  Or, maybe that is wrong and leads to much harm.  The plan proposed by our Bishops, as I see it, gives the possibility for all of us to embrace the gift of humility, where we can continue to share communion with one another, and to invite the Holy Spirit to work through us as we engage in the on-going struggle to live faithfully and fruitfully, all to the glory of God.   That’s my hope as I invite others to give support as we develop this together – hopefully for years to come.

Wesley on Marriage, Divorce, and Singleness (Part four in a series on Wesley and the Way Forward)

IMG_4576The term “human sexuality” is often used to characterize the debate before us.  This strikes me as a bit disingenuous.  It seems that we are so focused on one dimension of human sexuality, that we actually neglect our calling to be pastoral and prophetic in many dimensions of human sexuality — marriage, divorce, singleness, equality, roles, expectations, abuse, exploitation, and words in the lists in scripture like fornication and adultery.  I want to explore Wesley’s guidance on some of these issues as they relate to our big debate — specifically looking at the purpose of marriage, the reasons for prohibitions on divorce, and the call to singleness.

First marriage.  What is the purpose of marriage?  In Wesley’s commentary on the scriptures, he gives two purposes.  In the context of Jesus’ teaching in Luke 20, Wesley speaks of the need for marriage because we are subject to “the law of mortality,” and “the species is in need of continuous repair.”  Thus, the first purpose of marriage is reproduction or the “repairing” of the species.

The second reason for marriage is found in Wesley’s commentary on I Thess 4:4, and moves us to think about social and spiritual “repairing.”  Wesley says, “marriage is not designed to inflame, but to conquer, natural desires.”  Marriage is given to “further holiness.”  In other words, marriage is an institution where we can cultivate the virtues of holiness – patience, gentleness, humility, self-control, peace, and joy. To bear these fruits, much attention and intentionality is needed.

While Wesley does not comment on it, there is another reason for marriage in the scriptures. The Apostle Paul says that we should marry if we cannot control ourselves. He says that it is better to marry than to “burn with lust” (I Cor 7:8-9).   Being consumed with passion, where we begin to see others as objects for our pleasure, is not good for the soul or society. (A biblical word for this is “pornia,” usually translated as “fornication.” Wesley uses this term in a much broader, and more inclusive, way than we see elsewhere).

These “reasons” call for several thoughtful and serious questions. How is marriage good for souls and for society as a whole?  Is it possible that other types of unions, beyond traditional views of marriage, could foster true holiness as described by Wesley?  What if the church promoted a strong ethic of monogamy, commitment, faithfulness, and intentional growth in the virtues of faith for all?  Given the moral choice, is it better to be in a relationship where this is possible, or to be told that “burning in lust” is the only option from the church?  Is it possible to reserve the term marriage for traditional purposes, and to still bless other kinds of unions?

What about divorce?  Relying on scripture, Wesley holds the church to a high standard, and “ministers” to a higher standard.  He makes it clear that the prohibitions apply equally to women and to men and speaks against the law that allowed men to write a divorce decree “on any trifling occasion.”  He speaks strongly against the notion of “putting away” a wife to pursuit other desires.  He makes no exceptions accept for adultery.  He speaks of marriage as one man and one woman, and the two becoming “one flesh.” Every time this is mentioned, Wesley makes the connection with the church’s stance against polygamy and divorce.  Such unions of commitment and faithfulness help society guard against these two ills.  From Wesley’s perspective, that is the value behind promoting strong commitment.

As a pastor, I must acknowledge that I have supported many people through divorces.  I have sought the grace to discern circumstances in individual cases, to offer forgiveness, and to affirm the possiblity for new beginnings. I have also tried to be responsive to the fact that divorce often leaves others hurt and broken. My experience is that it is never one sided.  With that said, I feel that the church has become lax on this issue.  There is little stigma.  Even pastors can be divorced and remarried multiple times, with no explanation needed, and continue to serve in leadership.  Often, we even celebrate it.

If we err on the side of grace in divorce, it begs the question:  Could we give this same grace to others seeking to live in faithful, covenant relationships and to grow in God’s love? Why would we withhold that from them and turn them away from the church?

Singleness? In the scriptures singleness is seen as a gift given from God.  With this understanding, the question becomes: can singleness then be imposed on people as an expectation of the church?  Wesley provides some commentary on Matthew 19:12 where, in the context of teaching on marriage, Jesus speaks of eunuchs who choose singleness.  Jesus says that some eunuchs are made this way, some are born this way, and some choose this way. Wesley points out that it is not for everyone, but “only for those few who are able to receive the gift.”  In his commentary on I Cor 7:7 he joins with Paul in wishing that all unmarried “men” would “remain eunuchs for the kingdom,” but acknowledges that all are not gifted in this way.  Throughout history the word “eunuch” has been used as a euphemism for those we might call “gay” today.  Wesley hints at this himself in his commentary on Acts 10:27 and Daniel 1:3 by telling us that we cannot always take the term “eunuch” literally.  There was a time when eunuchs – understood literally or as a euphemism – were put into the same category as gentiles and foreigners.  They were not admitted to worship or into the congregation.  In the New Testament we see this barrier broken.  It begs the question, are there any implications of this issue for our current debate?

Do these understanding of marriage, divorce, and singleness inform our current debate? One way to make some connection is to note the progression in the scriptures towards a more restrictive view of sexuality, especially in matters of monogamy, divorce, and abuse.  This progression comes out of a growing need to protect women and children and provide a secure environment for them.  Is it possible for us to apply this principle to the debate before us? Could we promote a healthy sexual ethic that applies to all, rather than expecting some to live by a higher standard while becoming more lax with others – with divorce for example?  Could we move towards acceptance of people, while at the same time, promote a more restrictive sexual ethic -promoting monogamy, commitment, and faithfulness, with lots of forgiveness and grace as well?  Could that be a part of our way forward?

Wesley and the Sin of Sodom (Part Three in the Series, Wesley and the Way Forward)

IMG_4576In this series, the next word from Wesley is “sodomy.”  Wesley uses this word in several places. While we often associate this word with sexual sin, and even homosexual practice, Wesley takes a much broader and more biblical view.  In Wesley’s commentary, he uses this word to describe abusive and harmful actions against others.  Wesley also uses the word “assault” to describe this sin.  At another point, Wesley expands the meaning by highlighting what is said about the sin of Sodom in Ezekiel 16:49.  In Wesley’s notes, he says that the sin of Sodom was “fullness of bread,” “excess in eating and drinking,” and Sodom’s refusal “to help strangers.”  Arrogance, gluttony, and laziness in helping the poor were the source of Sodom’s fall. That’s straight from the Bible!   In another place, Israel is compared to Sodom for their wickedness. This wickedness is defined as failure to seek justice for the oppressed, the orphan, and the widow (Note on Isaiah 1:9-17).  Following the message of the prophets, Wesley wants to remind us that “Their doings were abominable, but thine have been worse.” (Note on Ezekiel 16:47).   This broad and biblical view of the word gives us all cause to look in the mirror rather than project sin onto others.

In the list of sins found in I Corinthians 6, the original Greek word in question is “arsenkoitos.”  It is translated as “sodomy” by Wesley. (We also see this in the NRSV). There are no known previous usages of this word, so it is assumed by many that Paul coined the term.  The word is a combination of two words meaning “male” and “bed,” probably used with sexual overtones. Since there is no literary context for this word, it has been translated and interpreted in many ways. It has been used for men who use others as prostitutes or who use their strength (masculinity) to exploit others. It has also been defined as masturbation, pervert, abusers of boy or children, and with general words like “abominations.”  In the last century it has been translated with the word “homosexual,” thus associating this word with behaviors listed above. With this association, it is understandable why the word “homosexual” has become offensive to many, and is no longer used as a description of one’s identity.  By associating this term with abusive and exploitive behavior, it is “incompatible” with Christian teachings.

In more recent years some translations have combined this word with the previous word to describe the passive and active male (not female) partners in a same-sex relationship.  This move is problematic in many ways.  It veers from the original meaning of the words. It covers up the biblical and historical precedence for using this word to describe abusive and harmful behavior. It also removes the possibility of such a relationship being moral and life-giving. It makes it possible to use this passage against Christians seeking to live faithfully and to grow in the virtues of Christ through their relationship, perhaps with more commitment than those making the accusations. Is this biblical? Is it right? Is our judgment, and the call to accountability, in the proper place?

In any responsible reading of scripture, this word cannot be used to project sin only on to others or seen only in terms of sexuality.  Wesley would not approve.  When confronted with lists like in I Corinthians 6, the first calling is to self-examination. This list, for example, includes “fornicators.” Wesley uses this word to cover “every kind of [sexual] uncleaniness” and the harm that comes from it. The Greek word is “pornia.” It is sex when another is objectified or used, or when one allows themselves to be objectified or used, thus causing harm. I wonder if this would not be a better cause for us. This list also includes “drunkards.” At one point, Wesley speaks of being “drunk with the blood of the saints” believing we can judge others. The list is long, but the point is clear.  When we are “washed” and “sanctified” in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of God, we behave differently.  We learn to live in love.

To avoid the labeling that makes it so easy for us to project sin onto others, I like the paraphrase of these verses found in “The Message.” It reads, “Those who use and abuse each other, use and abuse sex, use and abuse the earth and everything in it, don’t qualify as citizens in God’s kingdom. A number of you know from experience what I’m talking about, for not so long ago you were on that list. Since then, you’ve been cleaned up and given a fresh start by Jesus, our Master, our Messiah, and by our God present in us, the Spirit.”  Praise be to God.