Wesley on Human Sexuality – Part Two

It was a modest project – to look directly at Wesley’s notes on the passages that are often used and to see what he had to say.  I was not expecting to find some of the things I did. With all the attention the previous post received, I want to look again, in light of some of the comments, and ask if my conclusion needs to be modified.

Concerning Wesley’s notes on Romans 1:26-27, much more can be said. Wesley speaks of three degrees of ungodliness – uncleanliness (v.24), being given up to vile affections (vs.25-27) and the vilest abominations (vs.28-31).   The word “abominations” is reserved for his long list that includes envy, deceit, covetousness, gossip, and fornication, which Wesley specifically used as a blanket term for all “pornia.”  Under the second category of “vile affections,” Wesley’s illustration is the “heathen Romans…and none more than the emperors themselves.”  As a point of interest, he also speaks of “American heathens,” in the note on v.31.  Under this category, Wesley speaks of idolatry being “punished with unnatural lust.” The only other time “lust” is mentioned in his commentary on Romans is in the note on 7:7 where it is specifically defined as “evil desires.”  Once again, we can conclude that Wesley wants to point us beyond sexuality only. 

Referring to Wesley’s note on I Cor 6:9-10, I can state it even more emphatically. Wesley wants us to think beyond sex!  He struggles with the word translated as “effeminate” or “soft.”  He gives this definition – those “who live in an easy, indolent way; taking up no cross, enduring no hardship.” At the same time, he does address the type of person that people would have had in mind. He asks, “How is this? These good-natured, harmless people are ranked with idolaters and sodomites!  Wesley has trouble with this group being on the list – whoever he had in mind.  I included more commentary in the previous post, making sure I didn’t make too much of this or impose too much of a 21st century perspective.  With statements like this, I do wonder how this matter can rise to the level of schism.

Referring to Wesley’s note on I Timothy 1:8-11, Wesley gives no commentary on the word “sodomite.” Here I did have to look in other places.  There are a handful of mentions in the Notes. When he elaborates beyond an assumed definition, he points us beyond sexuality.  He equates this word to idol worship (2 Kings 23:2), to corrupt principles and practices of government (Deut 32:32), and all things abominable (Rev 21:8).  In addition to this, he elaborates on the sin of Sodom in his note on Ezekiel 16:47, mentioned in the earlier post.  It is clear that sodomy is not good. It is also clear that we cannot project the sin onto a particular group of people.  Wesley wants us all to understand our complicity and involvement in sin as a step into a life-giving relationship with God.

I spent a lot of time on Wesley’s commentary on Matthew 19 in the previous post.  In the notes of this chapter, and in other notes mentioned, Wesley does have some thought-provoking things to say about eunuchs, including that we cannot always take the term literally.  In the context of current discussions, his words are remarkable – as seen in the previous post.

To conclude, I want to state my previous and modest conclusion with more fervor. ”Wesley’s willingness to struggle with these texts gives us permission to do so as well.” To state it another way, there is much room in Wesley for other perspectives. An honoring of perspectives is woven into Wesley’s larger corpus of teachings.  To paraphrase Wesley’s own words, a Methodist is not distinguished by this or that opinion or scheme of religion.  All of that is “quite wide of the point.”  I love that line! Methodists are to be distinguished by the love of God in our hearts.

Yes, there is room in Wesley.  The question is – is there room in the church? For you? For me? For us together in communion? I say “yes,” with Wesley among our guides.

Dividing the Family Inheritance (thoughts on the lectionary and disaffiliation votes this week)

The gospel lesson from the lectionary this week is ominous, given that votes to disaffiliate begin this week among us.  In Luke 12:13-21, we read where someone wants Jesus to go tell his brother to divide the family inheritance between them.  Jesus refuses and makes it clear that this is not kingdom work. Jesus then takes the opportunity to tell a parable where successful persons focus on building bigger and bigger barns for themselves, with no thought of others, and in the process risk their own souls. 

The analogy does not work exactly because those seeking disaffiliation are not talking about dividing the inheritance in a fair way but rather want to take it all. As one pastor has said, and I paraphrase, “This is a huge deal.”  For only (x dollars) we can “own the whole block and control our own destiny.”

It is easy to see why one who has this desire would think this is a good deal. On the other hand, this is not a good deal for those who believe that faithfulness is about something more than controlling our own destiny. This is not a good deal for those who honor our connectional covenant together and believe that congregations hold property in trust for the larger church. These congregations would not have beloved pastors without the commitment of the larger church to confirm callings, provide training, and develop systems for appointment, support, and shared mission. These congregations are who they are because of a shared commitment to the apostolic faith that has been passed down through many faithful souls.

It is not a good deal for those who believe that the Holy Spirit is at work among us, keeping us aligned in God’s love as a whole, even as some stand on the prophetic edges that make others uncomfortable.  That is a constant dynamic in the church.  To use isolated examples of a few who stand at the edges as a reason for schism only works if it is believed that the new church will never have people inspired by new thoughts and new insights for how to invite all into lives of faithfulness and love.  It works only if the Holy Spirit will no longer be in this work at the edges, even as the Holy Spirit also works among those who feel called to hold fast to views found on the inside.

Perhaps we cannot read too much into it, but it is interesting that this scripture from the lectionary popped up for this week.  Perhaps the Holy Spirit will use this – as the Holy Spirit does and often through the scriptures– to transform hearts.  Perhaps the better way through this tension is to figure out how to share the inheritance that we have all been given and to do so in a way where all are honored.  That would be kingdom work!  

Wesley on Human Sexuality (and his commentary on often cited verses)

Certain passages keep coming up in our conversations about human sexuality and the future (and possible division) of the church.  Since Wesley’s notes on the New Testament are a part of our doctrine, it might be good to know what he has to say.

One verse from Matthew 19 is often quoted to make a point about marriage. In this passage, Jesus speaks of marriage between one man and one woman, and how the two become “one flesh.” In context, this is an answer to a question about divorce.  The law of Moses gave “men” permission to dismiss a wife for most any cause. Jesus says that this is because of our hardness of heart and calls “men” to a higher standard, with some arguing that this call was given to provide more protection for the wellbeing of women. While Jesus honors this form of marriage in his illustration, the point of his answer, as Wesley says, is not about marriage; it is to speak against two things: polygamy and divorce.

And then things get very interesting. Even after lifting up this high standard, Jesus makes it clear that he is not giving a new law to be enforced. He tells us that not everyone can accept this, but only those who are given the ability to accept it.  Jesus shifts the conversation to those who are not called to marriage in this traditional sense. In this context, he speaks of eunuchs – some who are born this way, some who are made this way, and some who choose this way to glorify God.  The term “eunuch” was used in the ancient world as a euphemism for those who we might call “gay” today. Wesley does not make this connection directly but does tell us that we cannot always take this term literally.  He speaks of those who are eunuchs “by natural constitution, without their choice: to others by violence, against their choice; and to others by grace with their choice.” This is remarkable language, with much to ponder. (Also see notes on Acts 8:27, I Cor 7:7, and Dan 1:3). 

Jesus ends this challenging passage by saying, “Let anyone accept this who can.”  It is with this word that Jesus offers his teaching on marriage, divorce, and the honoring of those who do not, or cannot, enter into a “traditional” marriage.  These are all complex matters that call for much grace.

Next, we turn to verses within the first chapter of Roman that are often cited (Romans 1: 26-27). Wesley points out that this passage is about “abominable idolatries,” where people exchange the truth of God for a lie and worship the creature rather than the creator. The illustration is used of men and women exchanging what is natural for them for what is unnatural for them. From our perspective today, we might say that this is not healthy for any of us.  Whatever else we might say, the illustration is not the point or purpose of the passage.  It is about idolatry that leads to “the vilest abominations.” Wesley lists these abominations in his commentary – Injustice, Unmercifulness, Maliciousness (“a temper that delights in hurting others.”). Whispering (to “defame others.”) and Backbiting (speaking “against others behind their backs.”).  

In terms of sexuality, Wesley puts “fornication” on his list. The Greek word is “pornia” which can be defined as any sexual expression which objectifies self or others. As Wesley says, it is a term that “covers every species of uncleanliness.” By this understanding, this term includes much more than our common definition. In his notes on this passage as a whole, Wesley emphasizes the point that Paul is trying to make.  If we judge others, we only condemn ourselves (Romans 2:1).  This passage is about so much more than what we like to focus upon.   

Next, there are two other passages in Paul’s letters that are often cited, I Corinthians 6:9-10 and I Timothy 1:8-11.  In both of these passages we find a list of vices that do not represent the kingdom.  More specifically, we see a list of certain types of people who “will not inherit the kingdom of God” – as if they deserve it apart from God’s amazing grace. The lists include idolaters, fornicators, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, drunkards, revilers, robbers, murderers, slave traders, liars, perjurers, and all that is contrary to sound teaching.  

The word translated as “male prostitute” in the NRSV, literally means “soft.” In Wesley’s bible it was translated as “effeminate.” This same word is used in the gospels to compare the “soft” or “luxurious” clothing worn by those in royal palaces with the clothes worn by John the Baptist (Mt 11:8; Lk 7:25).  In reference to sex, there is a history of this word being used to describe the passive partner, the effeminate (which was seen as a vice by many). In his notes, Wesley describes those “who live in an easy, indolent way; taking up no cross, enduring no hardship.” It is clear that Wesley saw this in a broader way. In other contexts, Wesley uses this same word in a positive light. He calls for a “softening of the heart” and for a “soft and yielding spirit.”  In his commentary of the phrase “Love is kind,” he describes “kindness” with the word “soft.” He also says that peacemakers are those who “quiet turbulent passions” and “soften the minds of contending parties.”  Being “soft” can be a good thing.

As a part of his commentary, Wesley does allude to the common use of this word to describe a particular kind of person. He asks, “How is this? These good-natured, harmless people are ranked with idolaters and sodomites!”  Whoever he has in mind, he struggles with them being on this list. To make sense of this he speculates that we must all guard against sins thought to be the least in order to secure ourselves from the greatest sins. With all of this, it is clear that Wesley sees this notion of “being soft” is a broader context, beyond sex alone, and he also calls us all to look in the mirror. 

The next word on this list is even more challenging. Translated as “sodomites” in Wesley’s day, it is a combination of two words, one meaning “male” and the other meaning “bed.” While very rare in ancient literature, it is mostly seen as a reference to abuse and exploitation of another. In some contemporary translations, it is used to denote the active partner in a same-sex (male) intercourse. In the history of translation, it has also been associated with pedophiles or abuse of boys or children (This is how Luther, for example, translated it).  There is evidence that Wesley defined this word in ways that move beyond sex. In Wesley’s notes on Ezekiel 16:49, 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 was the source of their fall. 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).  In other words, when we see this word, we cannot only think of “those people.”  On this whole, this term is used in the context of exploitive, abusive, neglectful, selfish, and harmful behavior, often seen in the context of sexual relationships.

In the last century, this word was sometimes translated with the term “homosexual.”  It is worth noting that this 20th century term was used to denote an official mental disorder.  It was often used to suggest practices that we would all consider “incompatible with Christian teachings.”  The American Psychiatric Association did not fully remove this classification and these associations until 1987.  Because of these associations, we have been asked to stop using this term. It is hurtful and undermines the hopes for a life of faithfulness and love found in many who might be labeled in this way.

According to Wesley, we are to interpret all scripture, especially challenging scriptures, through the grand truths that run through the whole, using passages that “take hold of our conscience.” (See note on Romans 12:6 and Sermons “On Charity and “On Laying the Foundation”).  Jesus himself used this method when he gave us the great commandment to love and called this the summary of all the law and the prophets. Wesley calls this love the “chief of all graces” and the “royal law.”  In addition to the Great Commandment, Wesley also turned to passages like I Corinthians 13 and I John 4 to serve as a lens through which to interpret the whole and be able to “rejoice in the truth.”  These passages express the “grand truths that run through the whole.”  

It is worth noting the connection between love and truth. Biblically speaking, truth is that which reveals God’s love and makes it known. The word itself means “to reveal” or “uncover.” Truth is not rooted in the law. In fact, sometimes the law covers up the truth.  Jesus himself dealt with this. Truth is revealed by love that is patient and kind and does not insist on its own way (I Cor 13:4-7). It is this love that invites all of us to struggle with our own perspectives and prejudices and to be transformed, from one degree to another, into the likeness of Christ. By the practice of this love, truth is made known through us. That is the Wesleyan way.   

 In my mind, Wesley’s willingness to struggle with these texts gives us permission to do so as well. His commentary opens the way for us to acknowledge that we do not fully understand matters of sexual orientation and identity and thus can approach such matters with less judgment and more compassion.  At the same time, we can affirm a strong sexual ethic rooted in the values that are life-giving for all – faithfulness, commitment, and all virtues summed up with the word “love.”  We can focus on these biblical values for all, rather than setting some aside by a different standard.  In this light, it is worth noting that Wesley consistently defined holiness with the virtues of patience, kindness, and humility.  May we all aspire to this kind of holiness and to the call to love one another well.

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.

%d bloggers like this: