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)

Resisting Harmful Lifestyles

IMG_4576I’ve recently read a post from a Conference WCA group that offered a real and honest perspective, worthy of attention. The post called for resistance to the harm caused by the #resistharm movement, claiming that the “liberal theology” behind this movement is “causing untold harm to hundreds of thousands of wonderful people around the world…by promoting a lifestyle that rebels against the known will of God,” a God who does not “bless unholy or unrepentant people.” As a supporter of #resistharm, I would like to enter into conversation with this perspective.

While I don’t presume to speak for all, I can confidently use the plural when I say that we are not here to promote some secular agenda. As a church, we ask different questions: “How do we respond faithfully to anyone who desires to live as a follower of Christ and grow in relationships of faithfulness and love?”  Many of us are asking, “Is it faithful to assess certain people based solely on the way they identify rather than on their character and calling, faithfulness and fruitfulness?”  “Do we welcome some by saying they need to change in ways that we don’t ask others to change?” “Is it possible to develop a serious sexual ethic based not on identity, but on the virtues to which we are all called – monogamy, faithfulness, forgiveness and grace?  “Rather than judging some as ‘incompatible,’ would it not be more faithful to focus on forms of sexual immorality that objectify others for personal pleasure and cause so much harm in the world?” In short, how do we promote true holiness? We believe that the Holy Spirit is involved in this kind of questioning and is calling us to honor the struggle and to learn how to love one another in the midst of so many diverse expressions of faithfulness and fruitfulness. We believe that this process of struggling and learning is a lifestyle that truly glorifies God. I would even call it traditional – and certainly deeply rooted in Scripture.

With this desire to cultivate lifestyles of faithfulness, we do use the language of LGBTQ, with some adding A and I and +. This language seems to cause much holy discomfort. Why this language? We use the language as a way to express our hope that the church to be a safe place for people to engage in personal and spiritual discernment and find themselves welcomed into a lifestyle of glorifying God through Christ our Lord.  We use the language to acknowledge that suppression of this kind of discernment is not healthy and is in fact harmful. The letters themselves are fluid and are there to help people discern who they are as uniquely blessed children of God.  For example, I can embrace the letter “A,” as an “ally,” wanting to stand with those who are being harmed. This is one way this letter is used. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, I am working on changing my understand of the term “Queer,” and learning to honor those who use this word to acknowledge that they are “different” and stand outside the sphere of what is deemed culturally normal, often without being a direct reference to sexuality. Some might say that this is the calling of the whole church.

Using this language as a tool for discernment is very different from using it to label others and assess their status in the larger community. That’s what we want to overcome. We long for the day when we get beyond labeling some siblings in Christ with letters, and colors, and references to gender, in ways that hold some to a different standard, outside the inner circle of those who are privileged and who do NOT feel the pressure to qualify and justify themselves in this way. Faithfulness demands that we resist this particular kind of “evil, injustice, and oppression.”

For one more clarification, I do not accept that “liberal theology” is to blame. I see “liberal” as another charged word used to characterize others as one-dimensional and thus lacking in life-giving truth. As sinful and limited creatures, we need more from each other than that.  While seeing through a mirror dimly, and in great need of the perspective of others, my theology is rooted in Christ, in Scripture, in the Creeds, in Wesley, and with a heart that wants to promote holiness defined, with Wesley, by the virtues of humility, patience, and kindness. Through my theological lens, I do not believe it is right to use God and the holy Scriptures as cover to protect our own privilege and conceal our own prejudices.  If I ever do that (and I do have blind spots that would make it possible), I hope others in the body of Christ will call me to repentance.

Oh, how I wish we could take the opportunity we are being given to share a positive witness to the world based on all the things in which we could find agreement, liberally sharing the love of Christ and the high and holy calling that we all have been given: to bear one another with a love that is humble, patient, and kind, seeking unity of spirit in the bond of peace (Eph 4:1-3).  I believe with all my heart that such a lifestyle would glorify God and be a much better witness to the world.

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.