2548.2 “If You Know You Know” or “History with an Eye to the Future”

The adage is true about being doomed to repeat history if we are not aware.  Thanks to a recent podcast hosted by Dr Ashley Boggan Dreff, our General Secretary of Archives and History, light has been shed on how paragraph 2548.2 in the Book of Discipline developed and how it has been used.  As one person said on the floor of the 1948 General Conference, “We all know what this is about,” even though the purpose was never specifically acknowledged. As “white flight” became a reality, this paragraph was added to deal with property where there was no longer a thriving “white” congregation.  Thoughts of revitalization and building diverse communities of faith may have been seeds in the hearts of some but were not a part of the collective hope at the time.  The only lens through which solutions were sought was the lens of segregation and a desire to maintain separation of races.

This paragraph authorized the United Methodist Church to be able to deed property to Pan-Methodist denominations or to other evangelical denominations.  In addition to the UMC, there are five other denominations within the Pan-Methodist Communion, all formed specifically for African Americans.  The largest of these is the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME).  While there may be elements of goodness in the motives, this goodness was also mixed with a complicity to sin.  Relational dynamics are still complicated in this way.  What can we learn and how might be grow in ways that glorify God?

Once again, the struggle is between inclusion and separation, only in a different context.  At issue is how we relate to certain persons who want to be a part of the church, who want to make a commitment to the values of the church and want to grow with other in the love of Christ and who might consider themselves a part of the LGBTQ+ community. On one side are those who believe we must approach matters of human sexuality with more humility and less judgment and, when it comes to marriage and relationships, focus on the virtues and values that are life-giving for all. Those calling for separation, want to draw much harder lines around traditional definitions of marriage, not only in terms of the values of faithfulness and love, but also in terms of gender and sexuality. Limiting relationship in this way is not seen as exclusion but as giving witness to what is truly good for all.

Concerning leadership, the lines are similar.  When discerning leadership, some want to focus on call and character, while others want provisions that could keep conversations about calling and character from ever being considered.  How a person looks and identifies is where the first line is drawn.   

Calls for separation come from those who cannot faithfully stay within a denomination that allows others to cross this line.  It is claimed that separation is needed so that all can practice faith in ways that are comfortable for them.  I can hear the line I heard often growing up, “They worship differently than we do.” 

To support the call for separation, some claim that this need for separation is about more than human sexuality.  It is popular to claim deep theological differences, often by highlighting extreme examples and then generalizing these examples to implicate the whole.  It is also interesting how extremes on the other side are ignored.  As we engage in this struggle at Annual Conference, we all need to be assured that there are not major attempts to change our core doctrine.  Doctrine is not what this is about. 

It is interesting how advocates of separation/division/schism have gravitated to this paragraph with such a morally complicated history.  This should give us all pause – first to reflect on what is right – and then to also notice the many other problems with using this paragraph.  Concerning the legislation built upon paragraph 2548.2 that we will likely see at Annual Conference: 1. The paragraph deals with transfer of property from one denomination to another. It does not create a process for congregations to disaffiliate.   2. The legislation binds the authority of the bishop, cabinet, and others listed in the paragraph.  Even if these parties agree, they cannot be bound to act in particular ways by legislation.  3.  The GMC as a denomination is not yet organized.  How can we approve a denomination before it exists and before we know if there will be any mutual recognition? We’ve heard representatives of the GMC say that they cannot enter into a communion agreement with the UMC until they have had a general conference that can make such a decision.  4.  The legislation will likely call for a simple majority vote as a possibility, relying on this paragraph that calls for a majority vote by both denominations (not local congregations).  The Judicial Council has already ruled that any disaffiliation must include approval by a 2/3 majority. (Decision 1379).  This is the standard for important decisions that have such effects on people.  One could point to the GMC Book of Doctrine and Discipline to see how this threshold is used for important decisions. In that book, the threshold of 3/4 is used for some decisions.

As United Methodist we live together under a trust clause that calls us into covenant together and is deeply rooted in our Wesleyan tradition and in scripture.   With this connection, each of us can go into any UMC and say, “I’m a part of this.” “This is my church.”  May we be careful and conservative about how we change this sense of trust and allow our churches to be transferred to another.   With this move we risk leaving whole communities without a United Methodist presence and perhaps without a congregation that represents the values we hold dear. Let us support those, in all congregations, who desire inclusion or are willing to live and worship together in a denomination that supports inclusion – the United Methodist Church. Let us all pause before we give this away.   What is this all really about? 

Reflections on January 6 (and mixing politics and religion)

Some might call me a church nerd, but when I hear the date, January 6, my first thought is Epiphany and the 12th day of Christmas. In our nation, however, this date has come to signify something very different. Today, as we open our newsfeeds or turn on the TV, we are not likely to hear much about epiphany or the magi and their gifts.  

With last year’s events on January 6th as a backdrop, the traditional gospel lesson for this day can be shocking.  It is highly political.  King Herod is a main character, and we know some things about him from history.  His top priority was to maintain power at all costs.  He expected complete loyalty and got rid of anyone seen as a threat. According to the story in Matthew 2, the magi or wise ones came to Herod looking for “the child who has been born king…” With all his power, Herod’s response is fear. “He was frightened.” As the story progresses this fear manifests in extreme violence, seen in the massacre of all children in and around Bethlehem. 

Interestingly, whether this massacre actually occurred is still debated.  History would suggest that this is a literary device to make a larger point.  At the same time, some also think that this part of the story may have been inspired by known accounts of Herod’s willingness to eliminate those who threatened his reign, including his own children.  Either way, it is worth reflecting on the way fear often leads to violence.  We are told that this fear pervaded “all Jerusalem.” We can imagine how this fear took different forms, with some buying into Herod’s desire to maintain power and others who feared the consequences of this desire.  It is also interesting how seeds of fear, when planted by skilled manipulators, can so easily lead many to believe lies and buy into the demonizing of others that then justifies our participation in violence – or at least the acceptance of it.  Is there another way?   

The wise ones went home by another way.  This is key to the story.  They did not get drawn into Herod’s deceptions.  Their encounter with Christ led them to follow a different light, a light that reveals God’s eternal and steadfast love for all. That can happen to us as well. Along this new way we learn how to live in this love, with patience, kindness, and humility, working together the bond of peace, a way beyond all partisan politics (Eph 4:1-3). Along this way, a higher understanding of power is revealed, and in this light our misguided fears are redeemed into hopes that are life-giving.  The key is to be willing to live by another way.

Every year we are all invited to take this yearly pilgrimage in worship through Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.  Being immersed in this liturgical journey has something to do with my first thought about this date, January 6.  I count it as a blessing to be able to frame all that surrounds this day through this lens. On this day of epiphany, I commend this yearly pilgrimage to you, where you will have the opportunity to view every day through the light of God’s love as revealed to us in Jesus Christ our Lord.  It is never too late to join the journey. May your Epiphany be blessed!

GMC Shock and Awe

Connected In Christ

Google GMC and you get a car company. Spell it out and you get the Board of Global Ministries of the UMC. And yet, it is easy to find information about the new denomination called the Global Methodist Church. There are many remarkable, even shocking, things about this proposal. Here are a few personal observations.

To start with, the word “homosexual” is not used anywhere, nor is the word “incompatible,” even though this has been at the center of the struggle for years. I applaud this positive and progressive move. No one should be defined by a “single story” of their lives, especially with a word that was listed as a psychological disorder when originally put into the Book of Discipline and is still misused in some translations of scripture to connote abusive, promiscuous, and hedonistic behaviors. All agree that such behaviors are incompatible with Christian teachings and not to…

View original post 835 more words

GMC Shock and Awe

Google GMC and you get a car company. Spell it out and you get the Board of Global Ministries of the UMC. And yet, it is easy to find information about the new denomination called the Global Methodist Church.  There are many remarkable, even shocking, things about this proposal. Here are a few personal observations.

To start with, the word “homosexual” is not used anywhere, nor is the word “incompatible,” even though this has been at the center of the struggle for years.  I applaud this positive and progressive move. No one should be defined by a “single story” of their lives, especially with a word that was listed as a psychological disorder when originally put into the Book of Discipline and is still misused in some translations of scripture to connote abusive, promiscuous, and hedonistic behaviors.  All agree that such behaviors are incompatible with Christian teachings and not to be “practiced.”  The irony here is that the UMC could be left with the baggage of this language.  

In this struggle, we now read this from the GMC: “We believe that human sexuality is a gift of God that is to be affirmed as it is exercised within the legal and spiritual covenant of a loving and monogamous marriage between one man and one woman.”  This statement begs questions like, can human sexuality not be affirmed in any other way?  What about a kiss on a date? Is human sexuality not expressed through the way we present and see ourselves?  And with these high ideals of legal, spiritual, loving, and monogamous, why is divorce not mentioned anywhere?

The very next statement reads, “We are saddened by all expressions of sexual behavior that do not recognize the sacred worth of each individual or that seek to exploit, abuse, objectify, or degrade others, or that represent less than God’s intentional design for His children.” This statement starts so well, but then ends with code-words that lump a lot of faithful people into this list of truly harmful behaviors, as those in need healing because of “brokenness in their sexual lives.”  This is “saddening.”  

In a similar vein there is an explicit call to inclusiveness.  Again, it starts well, inviting openness and acceptance of many. And then it comes to gender with an explicit definition that leaves no room for anything other than a strict binary understanding. Gender is defined “by a person’s immutable biological traits identified by or before birth.”   Many would use the term “sex” in this way, with gender referring to self-identity, and how one fits into expected roles within a particular culture.  This statement, however, draws a hard line, alienating and singling out some who do not “fit.” 

And then it goes further. While all may “participate in the spiritual life of the Church…inclusiveness means the freedom for the total involvement of all persons who meet the requirements of our Book of Doctrine and Discipline in the membership and leadership of the Church at any level and in every place.” Suddenly it becomes very exclusive! I wonder who can stand up to this scrutiny and who gets to be the judge! In terms of policies, the move to a congregational system of selecting leaders might also delude commitments to inclusiveness at other levels as well – for women and minorities. (There are lots of policy implications to consider around this – term limits, trust clause, no guaranteed appointments, etc.).

In terms of doctrine, the similarities with the United Methodist Book of Discipline are hard to miss. There are certainly not enough differences to warrant schism.  One big difference is the inclusion of creeds more directly into doctrine.  This is a shift since John Wesley removed the creeds from statements on doctrine and put the Apostle’s Creed into the official liturgy.  In the UMC, we are to be formed and transformed as we affirm the creeds together in regular worship.  Is there danger in separating them from this context and using them to enforce “right belief” independent from worship?  It seems to me that such questions could bring us into conversation rather than pull us apart.

In the UMC, the Social Principles are not law. They are intended to be instructive and persuasive, while “acknowledging differences in applying our faith in different cultural contexts as we live out the gospel.”  In the GNC, the statements of “Social Witness” do seem to be enforced at a stronger level.  Yet, once again we see a softening.  In earlier drafts, the “Social Witness” represented a “clear and unified voice,” with direct implications for policy.  In the latest version, it now reads, “As a global church, our Social Witness represents a consensus vision transcending cultures…It is a summons to prayerfully consider how to “do good” and “do not harm…” It almost sounds United Methodist! 

Don’t get me wrong, there is much in place to make change difficult, including a threshold of a three-quarters vote to change the social witness.  And there is talk of strengthening stances at a convening conference.  That seems to be part of the strategy. But, as the saying goes, “life finds a way.” We might add, “Love finds a way.” Our living God finds a way.  As a new denomination is being proposed, they seem to be leaving room for change, perhaps struggling with how to be a global church built around one perspective or “party,” and recognizing the overtones of colonialism in this attempt. Perhaps God is getting in, through the cracks, and revealing the harm that is inflicted when a party forgets that it is “part” of a larger whole and tries to become a whole unto itself.  All of this leads me to wonder, what is this really about?  And, can the UMC be a church where all are welcomed and honored and where our willingness to engage in hard and holy conversation is a part of our witness to the world?

Better Questions? (Reflections on our Financial Crisis and the Recent Webinar for Delegates)

Over the weekend, our delegation attended the webinar for all U.S. delegates to the GC/JC Conferences.  Here are some personal observations and lots of questions…  

The Zoom gathering started well.  We were invited to reimagine our future and to discern how we can best live into our commitments and values.  From there we moved to our primary agenda, which was to deal with a looming financial crisis, and specifically the episcopal fund (the fund used to support our bishops and provide them with resources to lead the church). We also considered how this fund impacts many other dimensions of our shared ministry.

With many graphs and statistics, we were shown that what we are doing is unsustainable.  The list of reasons is long and includes demographic shifts (ie.,aging membership), a pandemic, and theological tensions.  As one bishop put it – in a wonderfully understated way – “while we can’t predict the future, it seems unlikely that this will improve.”  

Concerning the Episcopal Fund, all recommendations called for a reduction in the number of bishops.  The recommendation from our own Jurisdictional Episcopal Committee called for a reduction of two bishops in our Jurisdiction.  This would result in Arkansas and Louisiana becoming one episcopal area (meaning that we would share a bishop).  Several other options were given, with all of them revolving around the question of “how many” positions should be eliminated. To further magnify the crisis, these proposals were called “interim” moves, suggesting that more reductions would be needed in the future.

This led me to ask this question in the Q and A: “Given the need to reimagine the future, and deal with a reality that is unsustainable, could we consider a reduction in compensation for bishops, aligning salaries to values of justice, equity, servant leadership, etc?  And as a witness.” 

There were many similar questions, and this idea became a major point of conversation.  In my breakout room, for example, we wondered if these recommendations were not a “bandaid” reaction. We discussed the need to view this need through a theological lens rather than solely as an economic problem. What if we started with our calling to cultivate social structures that are consistent with the gospel and focused on the kind of witness we are called to give the world?

In the larger Q andA times, there were some attempts to answer the question.  At one point it was said that this approach was not considered because GCFA sets salaries and that such a recommendation was beyond the authority of those involved in making these recommendations.  At another point, it was said that the possibility of reducing salaries was considered, but it was decided to revisit this if the collection rate of apportionments fell to 65%.  In these responses, it did seem that economic paradigms continued to overwhelm any theological considerations. I admit that continuing this discussion is “opening a can of worms.” Perhaps that explains our hesitation to explore the issues.

Is it time for this proverbial “can” to be opened?  Irrespective of how many bishops are needed, (and I am not necessarily arguing for more) what kind of leadership do we need and how should we pay for it? How could we use this crisis to cultivate more just, equitable, and loving systems – and not just for bishops?  If the General Conference cannot do this, could a system be developed where pastoral leaders could voluntarily enter into a covenant together?  What might this look like?  

For one more thought. Some wondered, during this gathering, why we were putting so much energy into this when there were bigger concerns.  As I heard, it was like pouring energy into policy issues – like how to report online attendance – when a struggle for the survival of the denomination is at hand (It was also noted that we see this dynamic as a nation as well). So, this leads to one more set of questions for me: How might we align this financial crisis to our hope to create a church that truly makes room for all?  How might we put this concern into the larger context and use it to bring health to the whole body?  How might we turn this crisis into an opportunity for increased faithfulness and fruitfulness?  May this be our aim.  

Caught Sleeping (as we wait for General Conference)

Here are some quick responses if you ever get caught sleeping on the job. “They told me this might happen after I gave blood this morning.” Or, “I wasn’t sleeping; I was meditating on our mission statement and envisioning new possibilities for implementation.”  Or my favorite, “In Jesus name, Amen.”

After devoting attention elsewhere in the midst of a pandemic, I have recently been reawakened by renewed conversations about the future of the UMC.  I’ve also discovered that some have been wide awake all along.  This week, I watched a presentation by Tom Lambrecht, from the WCA, that was very similar to a presentation given in Arkansas last year.  In this one, however, there were more details about the start of a new denomination, with or without the approval of the next General Conference, and included strategies to invite whole annual conferences to join.  Can you imagine that coming up at Annual Conference? 

The narrative is alarming – and wakeup worthy.  In this narrative, matters of sexuality are only the “presenting issue.” The real issue is that too many no longer see the bible as God’s self-revelation but see it as “a record of human encounters with God,” as “helpful but not authoritative.” With each step, we are warned against those who see the quadrilateral as “four equal sources of authority.” We hear of those who do not want to limit marriage to two people, ignoring the fact that the plan mentioned uses the word monogamy repeatedly. Adam Hamilton is misrepresented as an example of one who “knows good Christians who are gay” and thus “elevates experience over scripture.”  The conclusion is this: the faithful simply cannot stay in a church where so many “discount biblical teaching in favor of human experience and give priority to cultural values over scripture.”

As I listened, I wondered who was being talked about. The people I know, who are being lumped into this category, would agree that scripture is primary and authoritative.  Their convictions are deeply rooted in scripture, believing that faithfulness calls us to move beyond proof-texting and invites us to follow the method of interpretation that Jesus used when he summarized all the law and the prophets through the lens of love.  It is attention to scripture that motivates a desire to make room for all, including those with traditional, centrist, and progressive perspectives.  It is a deeply rooted faith in Jesus Christ that leads many to seek unity in love rather than uniformity by law.  And in the light of the “presenting issue,” and the harmful rhetoric around it, many feel an explicit need to affirm our LGBTQ+ siblings and to honor the gifts they bring. In this light, there is a need to promote a sexual ethic rooted in the life-giving values of the gospel rather than judging people by how they personally identify themselves.

To characterize these commitments as giving priority to cultural values over scripture is unfair and hurtful.   At best, this characterization involves the fallacy of hasty generalization or the taking of an isolated or extreme example and using it to cover others; at worst it is an intentional lie to vilify and mislead!  Of course, if schism is the goal then looking for good in the other is probably not a good idea.  With this goal, we may not want to start with common ground.

Friends, the alarm is going off. At one of these meetings in Arkansas, available on the WCA Facebook page, a pastor said that the most important vote of our lifetime is coming, that small churches will be the key to success, and that funds are available to help pay expenses to help delegates get to Annual Conference when the time comes.  Do we need to wake up?  Do we need to resume the work of cultivating a different narrative? The option may be waking up and finding ourselves in a new denomination. 

Prayer March 2020 – Lord in Your Mercy

Like many pastors, I received a formal invitation from Franklin Graham to attend the Prayer March 2020 in Washington DC, held in conjunction with an event called “The Return,” led by Rabbi Jonathan Cahn. Rabbi Cahn leads a ministry called “Hope of the World – An End-Time Ministry for An End-Time World.”   In Conway, our mayor is leading the local version of this March.  I took these invitations to heart and researched the materials.  I will not be attending in-person but will be praying.  

1. In D.C., the prayer march will start at the Lincoln Memorial with a call to humble ourselves in repentance, ask for forgiveness, and pray for the healing of our land.  These are worthy prayers. In the promotional materials, however, it does seem as if those leading the prayers have a very specific outcome already in mind, so I wonder where humility and repentance fit.  Is this call only for others?  So often, in my experience, true healing starts at the edges, beyond the centers of comfort and power, and often clash with those who think they have it all figured out.  Often healing comes with the piercing of hearts to see the need for justice, mercy, and deep redemption.  Are we open to that?

2. Next, the Prayer March will stop at the WWII Memorial to pray for our military, the police…and for the security and peace of the nation.  Again, these are worthy prayers!  My prayer, at this point, will include both thanksgiving for those work to keep us safe and the courage to truly hear those who do not feel safe when they see bias endowed with power to do harm with the protection of the law.  We do need to seek divine wisdom around this – and honor all who are so engaged.

3. The next stop is the Washington Monument with prayers for the salvation of the lost, the strengthening of families, solutions to the coronavirus pandemic, and an end to abortion.  In the promotional materials, Franklin Graham and Rabbi Cahn both acknowledge that abortion is what the upcoming election is all about.  Graham called this a greater sin than the holocaust.  In prayer, I do struggle here. A big part of my struggle comes from the fact that I do not know anyone who is pro-abortion.  At the same time, there are many faithful souls who feel called to compassion for those who are in circumstance where they feel like this choice must be made.  I also struggle with telling others what they can or cannot do with their own bodies in this regard, beyond spiritual counsel. I struggle with the relationship between the termination of pregnancy and poverty, illness, abuse, and fear.  In such struggles, I believe God meets us with grace, forgiveness, and redemption.  During our prayer around this issue, I feel compelled to add a host of concerns around the matter of respect for life – health care, education, equality, disparities of wealth and resources, etc.  There are many issues!  Holy Spirit come, transform our hearts, and give us courage to lift up one another up in love. 

4. At this point, on the map, the group in D.C will turn towards the White House and pray for the President, Vice President, and the executive branch.  I do wonder if the prayers here will include calls to humility, repentance, and wisdom to bring healing and unity, or if they will center around hopes for strength and resolve.  I’ll stop with that for now.

5. At the National Museum of African American History and Culture, there will be prayers for compassion and kindness towards one another, respect and reconciliation between races, and healing in communities torn by violence and injustice.  Such prayers are so needed! For perspective, (as I have shared before), it was at this Museum that the whole notion of race as a social construct – to justify the slavery and oppression of others for economic gain – came to light for me.  The concept of multiple “races,” rather than one diverse human race, came after the crime – as a way to justify it. Today there are obvious systems that perpetual this deeply imbedded perspective and cultivate the fear around it.  In the light of recent events, it is not enough to say, “I’m not racist.” We need the courage and wisdom to be anti-racist.  That’s will be a part of my prayer.

6. At the National Archives the focus will be on religious freedom.  This phrase is often used as a code word to stir up fear. As we pray, I hope that the deeper biblical understanding of religious freedom will be affirmed.  We are to use our freedom “not as a pretext for evil,” but to “honor everyone” (I Peter 2:16-17) and “love and serve one another” (Gal 5:13-15). We are to “outdo one another in showing honor,” to “practice hospitality,” and “live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12).  In Christ, we have been set free for this kind of witness!  I cannot find any biblical justification for promoting bigotry and discrimination in the public arena, or for hiding fear and hatred behind the cross of Christ.  That’s not true freedom.  In this light, I do pray for religious freedom to come to the hearts of all. 

7.  As the march ends at the Capital and Supreme Court, I will trust that God is at work, bringing healing, and giving answers that transform and surprise. In this light, I believe that our collective tensions are struggles just might be signs that God is at work, rather than signs that we have turned away from God? I want to open my heart to that possibility.  Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.

Communion and Social Distancing (Crossing the Virtual Line?)

pic- bible and communionOur Bishop and Appointive Cabinet have given permission to practice alternative forms of Holy Communion where we “extend the table” through the distribution of pre-packaged elements or inviting participates to provide their own elements during a “live” gathering via Facebook or Zoom.  I am thankful for these guidelines as we all seek to do ministry in new and creative ways.  The guidelines given, however, focus more on logistics than on theology, which has led me to some needed reflection.  Not “can we”, but should we practice online communion during this time of social distancing?  How might this distort our understanding of the sacrament or cause unintended consequences?

To get into these questions, I started with the exercise of giving an “elevator speech” for how we understand holy communion. Here’s what I might say: “We believe that Holy Communion is a sacrament, which means that as we do what Jesus invites us to do, God is present and promises to act. Our communion together becomes an outward and visible channel of God’s grace in our lives, where we are incorporated into the story of salvation, fed with holy food, and connected together in peace and love.  This is not “magic” or “hocus pocus (a phrase possibly derived from the Latin where it is said that the bread becomes the body of Christ).  It is, however, a mystery. Communion is an opportunity for us to participate in the mystery of God who, through Christ and the Holy Spirit, comes into our lives in real, tangible, and incarnate ways.  We need more of this mystery in our lives!”

“When Jesus said ‘do this,’ he meant more than taking the elements; rather, he meant the whole experience – of gathering in real time, sharing in a blessing that includes an account of how God’s comes to save and the words that Jesus said over the bread and cup, followed by an invocation of the Holy Spirit to be present in our receiving and sharing. Next, the one who is duly called and ordained to administer the sacrament in keeping with the Apostolic Tradition, breaks the bread to be shared. In often open hands, each participate receives a portion of the larger loaf, shared from a common table that extends, from a spiritual perspective, beyond time and space into heaven itself.  In Holy Communion we become a part of something so much bigger than ourselves.  As we “do this” the healing, strengthening, and transforming love of Christ is given so that we might be the body of Christ in the world.  And finally, Christ is the host of this event; therefore, we do not judge who can come.  All who long for this love, who want to come and receive, and who desire to live in peace with others, are invited.”

Yes, that may be a little long for an elevator ride.  But if this summary has theological merit, then the question remains – not can we, but should we engage in online communion?  For my initial thoughts, I would give a cautious and qualified “yes.” I would say every effort needs to be made to keep it in “real time.” The notion of the incarnate presence of God is inherent in the nature of our understanding of the sacraments. It is about real, tangible, incarnate grace given in real time and space.  Facebook Live, for example, could work, but it would need to be clear that any views after the event should not to be used as communion.   Zoom might be a better medium, with its face to face feature in real time. Both of these options provide for the corporate nature of the sacrament – to some extent.

These virtual mediums also allow for the elements to be consecrated by one who is duly ordained to administer the sacraments. This is important as a way to honor the Apostolic Tradition – the passing on the faith of the Apostle and maintaining the traditions of the larger church, bringing the blessings of the church, beyond time and space, into our time and space and into our lives. As an Elder in the Church, I can’t just make stuff up.  While I am also called to be creative and adapt, I must do so in this larger context and in respect to the liturgy that has been given to me.  That’s what an elder is to do.  It is our job to struggle with such questions and work towards this balance.

With that said, Maundy Thursday is approaching.  To honor the mandate for social distancing, I will likely lead my congregation in some form of virtual communion. Our current plan is to do a Facebook Live Devotion early in the day, which will include an invitation to one of several Zoom gatherings for holy communion, asking people to provide their own bread and juice, while mentioning that both elements are not required.  We believe Zoom will provide us with a “real time” and “in-person” experience, needed to maintain the integrity of the sacrament.   At the same time, I will trust that God’s grace is big enough to overcome many shortcomings – which is a part of our understanding of sacraments.  Ultimately it is something that God does for us, and often in spite of us.  I invite your thoughts and wisdom.

Christology and Inclusion (in response to recent calls for schism among us)

Last week I was at a gathering for general conference delegates, held at an event sponsored by the Reconciling Ministries Network. I’ve been in several gatherings like this to prepare for General Conference and heard many different perspectives.  At this gathering, Bishop Karen Oliveto preached a sermon using, as her text, the story of Jesus and the woman at the well.  She offered up a very high Christology, pointing out how Jesus revealed to this marginalized person that he was the Messiah, the Christ. She called Jesus also our everlasting God. In the context of listening to calls for schism within our Conference because of “low Christology,” my radar was up, and I was pleased to hear this affirmation of Christ.

At this gathering, I heard many testimonies of people whose lives have been transformed by the living Christ, people who are so attracted to the message of Jesus that we are willing to stay in a church even in the face of harm, wanting to give witness to Christ’s steadfast and eternal love for all. I heard from people who want to be in a church where they can be held accountable for growth in faithfulness and the virtues of love.  It was made so clear that this movement was not about pushing some secular agenda.  This movement is made up of committed United Methodist Christians wanting a church that makes room for all, reads the whole of scripture without selective literalism to justify exclusion, and practices true Wesleyan holiness.  Many of these siblings remain committed to our beloved church because of Jesus Christ in their lives, certainly not to fight against him.

This experience serves as a backdrop for how I want to respond to recent calls to schism from colleagues in our conference.  To justify the call to intentionally bring division to the Body of Christ, we are being invited to look beyond differences of opinion on matters of human sexuality and towards the claim that the United Methodist Church is increasingly becoming “unitarian” in our theology, where we deny both the divinity of Christ and the primacy of scripture.  I do not believe that this projected narrative is based in any reality.  Furthermore, it is alarming to see our Living Lord and Savior being used in this way to justify division within the body of Christ.

In one sermon, the evidence of this heresy included a search of church websites where no information about Christ could be found on the home page, or beyond.  This example was shocking to me since the home page of the congregation lifted up as a model had no mention of Christ, or the congregation’s mission statement, on its home page. At the time that I looked, such statements could be found in subsequent pages, but this would be the case for many.  Is it fair to judge the Christological witness of others because of poor website management?  If there was a mass movement to disavow creeds in worship, or not baptize in the name of the Trinity, then I would consider joining in this response, but that is simply not my experience.   I would even say it is a false witness.

Other “evidence” revolved around statements from two bishop, one of them not United Methodist, who have probably not been quoted by a United Methodist pastor in 20 years – and even back then, it would have been rare.  In some quick research on one of them, I found that this bishop did not deny the resurrection, but questioned whether the resurrection involved a resuscitation of the physical body. I suspect he used standard scriptures to share this perspective – the way the risen Christ was able to transcend time and space in the gospel accounts and the Apostle Paul’s affirmation that we are raised with a new spiritual body.  Out of a high view of the whole of scripture, it is possible to engage in theological reflection around such topics, as we open ourselves to the mysterious, sovereign, uncontrollable nature of a God who will not be boxed in by our limited perspectives. Scriptures support that. Today, such theological explorations are common even in the most conservative of circles for those who dig deep into the Word.  Schism will not move the church away from this kind of theological exploration.

In this call to “split,” a quote was used from Bishop Oliveto.  It was lifted out of context from an online devotion dealing with a very challenging passage of scripture from the lectionary that week — Matthew 15:21-28. In this passage Jesus encounters a gentile woman asking for healing for her daughter and is likened to a dog.  With her push back, Jesus seems to change and takes time to bring healing to her family.  In her devotion, Bishop Oliveto clearly named Jesus as our “wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting one, and prince of peace.”  She framed her struggles through this text with a very high Christology, but here dealt with humanness of Christ, the one “who did not count equality with God a thing to be exploited but emptied himself…”- and came all the way into our humanity.  In this humanness he gives us an example of how we might need to be transformed.  While one might argue with the interpretation, this one reference, from one of many bishops, does not seem to be adequate grounds to incite division of the body.

As we move towards General Conference, I want to be a part of the strong movement that believes in both inclusion and in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.  In this movement, these two commitments go together, and by putting them together God is truly glorified. To separate these two commitments and try to paint those who want inclusion as those who practice a low Christology is, in my opinion, a false characterization that is harmful and divisive to the body of Christ.  Frankly it hurt!

Please know that I share this witness out of a sincere hope for reconciliation and for peace among us.  I truly believe that is what God wants from us and for us. In this light, you are invited to choose reconciliation over schism. Please prayerfully reflect on which one of these choices truly glorifies Christ.

(Up next – I was asked “What would Wesley have to say about this?” I’ll try to address that)

Episcopacy and the Protocol (Reflections from the SCJ Gathering for Delegations)

Here are a couple of reflections from the South Central Jurisdiction gathering last week. It all started with interviews of six (and only six) episcopal candidates, with each candidate rotating through conference delegations. Each candidate brought gifts and graces that inspired and cultivated hope among us. In terms of gender and ethnic representation, this group was much more diverse than in the past. None of them would identify as I might – as an older, anglo, straight male. Four were women and two of the women were African American. I believe the Holy Spirit is involved in this movement. In times such as these, we need leaders who have more direct experiences on the other side of privilege. Honoring the leadership gifts of those who stay committed to the body through deep struggles, and through experiences of biased harm, will help us all learn how to love more fully and give witness to God’s calling upon the whole church.

A good portion of the second afternoon was spent on “the Protocol.” It started with Bishop Harvey sharing the story of how she broke down after GC2019 was over. Walking away for the arena, she turned to her husband and asked, “Did today really happen?” Her heart-felt emotion in this confession touched me deeply, knowing that she was presiding at the end of the conference, and knowing her commitment to a higher unity and to making room for all, including traditionalists. That was the promise of the One Church Plan. “Did today really happen?” This led her, and many others, to reimagining possibilities and a renewed commitment to stop harm and cultivate holy inclusiveness. (And these are my words building upon her story).

After this, Bishop Schnase asked this question (and I am paraphrasing from memory): “In your heart of hearts, and after GC2019, do you believe that our mission will be best served with one church that is in perpetual conflict over matters of human sexuality or with two churches where people can live into visions that they believe are of God concerning these matters?” In a room of bishops, with much pain, they all answered “two.” From here, he asked us to give the protocol “room to breathe.” He said, very directly, that now is not the time for any of us to support new plans that serve only our own self-interest. With these words, an audible gasp echoed through the room.

While I remain committed to “unity of spirit” I will heed the call to give the Protocol “room to breathe.” I also see merit in giving each other “room to breathe” in a spirit of “grace and reconciliation,” to use language from the Protocol. I will, however, predict that this “room” will not free any of us from the tension. Within minutes of any separation, God will continue to bring transformation to human hearts, different interpretations and insight into the scripture will touch hearts, and the struggle will continue. I am confident that God will see to that.

In this presentation, I appreciated the tone and the way pain and grief were honored. I appreciated the call to work together, even through our hurt and anger, with humility, patience, and grace — or in Methodist-speak, holiness. (My take on what was said). In every conversation that I am in, with people around the country, of all persuasions, that is the spirit. Even when there are outlying voices that blame and malign others, the vast majority of us know that this does not speak to our better selves. Projecting this narrative that we are all blaming and maligning only cultivates fear and division. As leaders, we have the opportunity to call all to a higher way of relating, as opposed to using our influence to build protection for our own side and opinion.

We are two months from General Conference 2020. Please pray! May we all be led to transformation of heart – starting with the one we see in the mirror. May our prayers lead to a conference that will glorify God.

%d bloggers like this: